Taryn Brumfit burst into the news a year or so ago. This is a woman who is a mother, was a body builder and is now a champion for positive body image with her movement and documentary ‘Embrace’. I love the idea she’s promoting. Being proud and happy who you are. Redefining what it means to be beautiful. Being a woman with wobbly bits who still gets her kit off if she wants to. I think it is absolutely wonderful to have a strong woman like Taryn shouting from the rooftops that it’s okay to be who you are. Not everyone can have rock hard abs. Not everyone wants them.
Positive body image is so important. I feel like as a society, we’re pretty hard on women (but also men) who don’t conform to what is sexy, what is beautiful. We fat shame people who deviate from this ideal, even a little. A woman who is otherwise slim (and probably healthy) but has a little bit of a belly that pokes out of her jeans may be met with a sort of disgust. Like she should ‘put it away’. Poor body image sets women in particular up for psychological harm. They’re less likely to take part in physical activity which is so important for health. Feeling bad about what we see in the media has even been offered up as a reason for eating disorders. I love that we are learning to be kind to ourselves and to one another.
There is a but coming. Obesity is probably the biggest, global health issue facing humans. Obesity is responsible for a huge amount of sickness the world over. Obesity is a problem that is running away from us and is very hard to reign in. So, the question is, how do we integrate a message of positive body image with a message of maintaining a healthy weight, a message that really drives home that obesity is just not good for you?
It is possible that you can be fit and overweight, but only if you also meet a certain few criteria. That is not being ‘centrally obese’ – also known as a beer belly. This is usually a marker of carrying too much pudding around your vital organs like liver, heart and gut. This kind of cushioning for your internal organs is really, really bad for your health. Aside from that, you also need to be free from diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol. That’s not forgetting some other diseases like osteoarthritis which can then go on to limit your ability to be fit because your knees just aren’t up to the task. I have seen plenty of people running in races, even half and full marathons who are beating me and quite a bit bigger too! For some people, you can be fit and healthy and also be overweight.
I’ve noticed an increase in people who are overweight or even obese having big social media followings. They are huge champions of the messages to change standards of beauty, promoting that stick thin people are not the only attractive people. I’m not going to make some sweeping statement that any of these people are unhealthy because I do not know what they do and if they are healthy or not. If they make a generation of young people feel a little more comfortable in their own skin, that is a positive. However, at what point do we say that positive body image must also take into account a person’s health and well being? And who says that? Someone, anyone, flicking through the pictures of a beautiful woman who is several sizes bigger than the average bikini model? A health expert? A doctor? I don’t think we do have the right as random people to call out any of these people on social media for their weight when in actual fact we know nothing about them.
So what we have here is a pretty one sided mathematical equation. Overweight is bad. Negative body image is bad. What do those two add up to? Do they go together? And if so,how? Honestly, I have no idea. But I do strongly believe in maintenance of a healthy body weight. Evidence shows us that a healthy weight is most conducive to health and well being. I strongly advocate physical activity. But I also strongly advocate positive body image. I just don’t know how to reconcile the two. And that’s why I’m writing this collection of thoughts on the topic – I just do not know how to approach it!
A person’s outward appearance (particularly one on social media) is not a reliable indicator of anything much. You cannot tell how healthy they are, what they eat, if they exercise or if they have disease. It will not tell you if they’re a nice person with a kind heart, if they’re mean or if they’re smart. It doesn’t tell you if they’re lazy or busy or relaxed or worried. I think that obesity is a major health problem that needs to be addressed. People need to move more and eat better, healthy foods. But stigmatising people as ‘fat’ and all the negative connotations that come with that (lazy, unintelligent, unmotivated) is not only just downright mean, it’s so counter-productive. Why would someone you just called fat and lazy want to go to a gym, or walk along the beach when they’ve just been told they’re not good enough to do it? Why would they choose vegetables over a burger when you just sneer at them – they might as well have the darn burger.
Positive body image should lead to one thing only – health. Physical and emotional. If we can have people of all shapes and sizes feeling good about themselves, enough to love themselves to be fit and healthy, then so be it. It is not the right of anyone to name-call. Positive body image should encourage us to be kinder to ourselves, each other and our health and wellbeing.