CW: Quotes and discussion of fat-phobic comments and advice on women’s faces, bodies, and hairstyles.
The internet is a twisty-turnyroad, with surprises around every blind corner. A friend’s mom was looking at Pinterest for crafting ideas, and what did she run into? A world of websites, all dedicated to hairstyle advice for women who are a) fat; b) over 50; or c) both.
Honestly, this is no surprise. Policing women’s bodies and appearance is a pastime that’s never gotten old. For those of us who are fat, the messaging takes on an increased urgency. Heaven forbid that we rock an outfit that’s form-fitting or sexy or athletic or avant-garde or cute. What would happen?
Ditto for older women. We must be advised on the manifold restrictions governing age-appropriate clothing (say such sites). Really, the effort and bandwidth devoted just to marketing specialized bathing suits for women over 50 is considerable. Sam blogged about one such scheme here.
But it’s not enough for the fat-phobic marketing monolith to invade our FB feeds, selling caftans, swimsuit skirts and capes, and long-sleeved tunics in muted colors. Oh, no. We can cover up to their satisfaction, but that still leaves our necks and faces on display. What to do?
Follow the advice of the hairstyle police! Here’s their general warning:
… there are some things you must consider when choosing a hairstyle if you are an overweight woman. The first thing is your facial features. You must consider your eyes, cheekbones, and shape of your face. Secondly, check on your neck... The last thing is your body size. If you are a little chubby, you must get something different from a woman with curves.
Note the urgency here– the word “must” appears three times. And, we are instructed in no uncertain terms to check on our necks. Okay, here goes:
I went ahead and checked my body size off-camera. Yep, I’ve got a body, and it has size; it takes up space and has mass. Physics experiment done! Now what?
Time to talk hairstyles for the fat and over-50. The following is super-helpful:
Since you most likely have a wide body, it’s best to choose extreme hair lengths. For example, if you want it short, make it shorter than the normal shoulder length. If you want it long, go for lengths that reach the mid-section or a few inches higher.
Hmmm. Sounds like my options for hair looks are twofold: Rapunzel or Pixie. They don’t provide any super-long-hair options, so we’re on our own there. Here’s what the fat-hairstyle police had to say about Pixie cuts:
When having a round face or some extra pounds, the goal is to create an illusion. Side-swept bangs will help you shape your face, and a pixie cut can be the best haircut for fat older women.
In a bold variation on the pixie, the fat-hair police suggest pink waves for folks with fat faces.
Updos, it seems, are an option for the fatter woman with hair. What a relief! Here’s the fat hair experts’ take on the beehive:
A beehive lookalike bun placed in the head’s midsection will make your face look slimmer and elongated. It will reveal your face and show that you still have sass even as a plus size girl.
Clearly, these people have no idea what they’re talking about. But fear not, FIFI readers– we are here to fill gaps where we find them. So, here are some hairstyle suggestions from me, a woman who is a) fat; b) over 50, and c) gray/silver-haired.
Suppose you want to wear your hair up? We got your options right here.
Finally, you may want to show off that luxurious hair in a more mysterious way.
Dear readers, how do you choose your hairstyles and colors? Do you think Rapunzel is a good hair role model in this day and age? Have you ever had a pixie? Is it your go-to look? And what about those pigtails? I’d love to hear from you.
CW: discussion of the ideas that friends’ body weights are an influence on a person and that having friends with higher body weights is less desirable (as mentioned by the NY Times), alongside criticism of those ideas.
The New York Times saw fit to print an article this week on using this phase of the pandemic to “rearrange your ‘friendscape'”, which in essence means a combo of culling, currying favor with, and ruthlessly categorizing your friends into the foreground, middle ground, and background of your life.
The idea of pandemic housecleaning isn’t new. I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten rid of unwanted books, DVDs, CDs, and ancient clothing over the past 14 months. I’ve even moved furniture around, reshuffled the art on my walls, and have freshened up with a few new purchases.
It never occurred to me to toss out, recycle to send to Goodwill any of my friends.
Of course not! Who would think this was a good idea? Well, a bunch of social scientists that the NY Times talked to did. Here are some of their thoughts:
Psychologists, sociologists and evolutionary anthropologists say it behooves us to take a more curatorial approach when it comes to our friends because who you hang out with determines who you are.
Hmmm. Who you are? You mean, I am destined to become exactly like my friends, including taking on their traits? This article seems to say yes:
Indeed, depressed friends make it more likely you’ll be depressed, obese friends make it more likely you’ll become obese, and friends who smoke or drink a lot make it more likely you’ll do the same. The reverse is also true: You will be more studious, kind and enterprising if you consort with studious, kind and enterprising people. That is not to say that you should abandon friends when they are having a hard time. But it’s a good idea to be mindful of who you are spending the majority of your time with — whether on- or off-line — because your friends’ prevailing moods, values and behaviors are likely to become your own.
Yes, I know. It sounds mean and absurd. Which I think it is. So does Roxane Gay, writer and columnist for the self-same newspaper. Here’s how she summed up the article:
What’s really going on here? For more than a decade, there have been studies looking at social networks and how to identify patterns in common among social groups. Nicholas Christakis and lots of others, through this social network analysis, argue that some traits like body weight, psychological states, and some eating and drinking habits are “socially contagious”, which means they spread through social connections. I wrote about this a decade ago with my friend Norah. Our views have shifted since then, I might add. The details are complicated and not obvious or always intuitive. For instance, same-sex mutual friend groups are more mutually influential than domestic partner or married partner groups.
How these traits spread is outside the purview of social network analysis. Other social scientists have posited views about localized behavioral norms (like eating, drinking and drug use practices), but these views are speculative, not predictive or diagnostic or useful for dispensing friendship triage advice.
In sum, though:
It’s not true that my being fat “helps make you fat” if we are mutual friends.
Being fat is a thing that some people are and some people aren’t. Talking about fatness as social contagion worry for people who are looking to assess their friendships is ill-considered and mean-spirited and not supported by evidence.
It’s also fat-phobic in the extreme, which makes it double-mean-spirited.
Ditto for depression. The last thing someone with depression needs is her friends avoiding or dumping her out of fear that they will catch it. That is wrong on all the levels. Like, even this level of wrong:
There’s more blah-blah about friendships in the article, but nothing that is a) worth mentioning; or b) offsets the horribleness of the above-mentioned messages.
So, what am I doing about my friendships as we emerge, many of us vaccinated?
I’m expressing my love and gratitude to those with whom I shared a supportive/supported network;
I’m reconnecting with those I lost touch with, or who lost touch with me, for reasons of PANDEMIC, y’all!
I’m enjoying some new connections made over the past year courtesy of zoom and social media;
I’m trying to pace myself in those activities of reconnection, and be understanding of those who are in a different stage of connection or reconnection or disconnection.
Life is hard, y’all. Life has been extra hard. Geez Louise– how about let’s just be friends with our friends as best we can? That’s what I have to say to the New York Times.
Readers, did you see this article? Where are you with respect to connecting and reconnecting with friends these days? I’d love to hear from you.
Diet culture. It’s not something I’ve thought about much lately. Indeed, it’s not something most of us think about much unless and until someone draws our attention to it (and even then, that drawing attention isn’t always welcome). It’s like that story about fish and water, memorably told by the brilliant, now deceased, writer David Foster Wallace in a 2005 commencement address entitled “This is water”:
“There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
What’s the moral of this little story? When you are immersed in something, when it’s all around you, you might not even be aware of it. But that’s the only respect in which water is to fish as diet culture is to us. Because unlike water, which is life-sustaining to fish, diet culture is harmful to us.
When I first saw the article in Good Housekeeping, “The Unbearable Weight of Diet Culture,” I was set to rant. I wanted to rant about diet culture itself. How normalized and oppressive it is. How it individualizes our weight loss failures when in fact “98% of diets fail.” Think on that: 98%! How it promotes the idea that there is something wrong with a body that is not thin or lean. How it demonizes certain foods and moralizes ways of eating (like, desserts are “sinful” and we give into temptation when we eat them). How it stigmatizes people on the basis of body size.
There is space for ranting about all these things and more. I even wanted to rant about how Good Housekeeping, a mainstream women’s magazine, gives us this informative and insightful article about diet culture, while also having a whole section of their website, called “Diet and Nutrition,” devoted to endorsing diet culture with articles like: “The Best Diets of 2021,” “How to Find the Best Diet for You,” “Why Can’t I Lose Weight?” and “What J-Lo Eats in a Day to Look So Good.” [I’m not linking to that content but it’s easy enough to find}
Instead of faulting them for the contradiction, I actually want to applaud them for including any sort of counternarrative at all. The editors are well aware that they are walking tightrope. The diet culture article starts with the following qualifying statement:
“Throughout 2021, Good Housekeeping will be exploring how we think about weight, the way we eat, and how we try to control or change our bodies in our quest to be happier and healthier. While GH also publishes weight loss content and endeavors to do so in a responsible, science-backed way, we think it’s important to present a broad perspective that allows for a fuller understanding of the complex thinking about health and body weight. Our goal here is not to tell you how to think, eat, or live — nor is to to pass judgment on how you choose to nourish your body — but rather to start a conversation about diet culture, its impact, and how we might challenge the messages we are given about what makes us attractive, successful, and healthy.“
Where better to start a conversation about diet culture than in the very magazines that women flock to when they are seeking “solutions” to their “struggles” with weight? And the first question someone might ask, like the fish swimming in water, is “what is diet culture?” The article opens with rough account: “it’s a set of beliefs that worships thinness and equates it with health and moral virtue, according to anti-diet dietitian, Christy Harrison, M.P.H., R.D., C.D.N., author of Anti-Dietand host of the Food Psych podcast.” It is, says the article, “the lens through which most of us in this country view beauty, health, and our own bodies.” As such, it colours our judgments about ourselves and others, moralizing some food choices as more virtuous than others, causing people to praise others’ weight loss or adherence to restrictive diet regimes, and giving credence to such scientifically vacuous notions as “detoxing” and “clean eating.”
It’s also generated a billions of dollars industry where people seek a miracle. Why is it a miracle? Because, back to that alarming statistic: 98% of diets fail over time.
Here on the blog we have been critical of diet culture since the very start, while also being aware that we are immersed in it. We are critical of it because it is harmful, built on fat-phobia and self-loathing. From the GH article, here are some of the ways that it’s harmful (some already mentioned above):
It promotes discrimination by normalizing fat phobia and promoting as normal the attitude that being overweight (or weight gain at all) is a sign of failure.
It fuels a business designed to take your money.
It’s a set-up for feeling like a failure.
It distracts from larger social issues like walkable cities, wide availability of good quality foods, and other social inequities.
It normalizes disordered eating.
I would add a few of my own here:
It makes way for people to use restrictive food plans to “virtue signal” by posting about their strict adherence to the latest food fad (e.g. no carbs, no sugar, keto, paleo, “cleanses” and “detoxes,” blood type diet, mediterranean diet and all the diets from the 80s and 90s named after doctors — Scarsdale, Atkins — or fruits — banana, grapefruit — and then of course the diets promoted by celebrities like Suzanne Sommers, Oprah, Adele…). It is amazing how much applause is dished out when someone posts a photo of their brown rice and steamed kale bowl.
It infantalizes adults by encouraging the view that, left to our own devices, we will always make poor choices.
It saps the joy out of health and fitness activities because if those are your only goals, and if the healthy choices don’t lead to weight loss, they’re not worth doing. But they are worth doing. We can get fitter and healthier without getting thinner and lighter.
It creates obsession around food. Ever since the Minnesota starvation studies after World War II we have known that food deprivation generates food obsession.
It also makes it almost impossible to have a pure, mindful eating experience that is unmediated by thoughts of “is this a ‘good’ choice?” “Should I be eating this?” “Is this on my plan?”
The article offers a couple of ways to work your way out of diet culture. One of their suggestions is to consider intuitive eating, which is an approach designed to combat diet culture, challenge the food police, and let your hunger be your guide. I like that approach myself, but it doesn’t work for everyone. We have had some discussions of it over the years on the blog, as champions and detractors.
It also suggests becoming informed about Health at Every Size (HAES), “a movement that recognizes “that health outcomes are primarily driven by social, economic, and environmental factors,” not weight, to encourage the pursuit of health without a focus on weight loss.”
I’ll add to this my own suggestion, which is not to applaud people for their diets and weight loss, and not to talk to people about their weight or weight loss efforts. I know that a lot of people are very public about their desire to lose weight (that’s diet culture for you! Making it normal to talk about something that really is no one’s business and, if you think about it, most people don’t care much what you’re up to in that department unless they’re judging you). I’ve often heard people say that they only compliment or comment when they know that’s what their friend is actively attempting. That’s endorsing diet culture, and diet culture is harmful. So I don’t do it even if my friend would like me to notice and compliment their weight loss. I like and love my friends regardless of their size or their food choices.
That said, I also try my best not to “get into it” with people who don’t want to hear it. I don’t always succeed in this. I have friends lately who are all in the “sugar is evil” trend. I have been through that one myself, and it caused an uproar that resulted in talking me off that particular ledge (not in the most pleasant way, but I still feel grateful as I look back), so I know how easy it is to rationalize this or that plan to dump sugar. All this to say that I dipped my toe in the water of asking questions, which I thought were gentle questions, about a friend’s quest to stop eating sugar, and it turns out that I had to learn the “it’s none of my business” lesson again. I’m public about being an anti-diet feminist fitness blogger. Friends know where to find me if they want that perspective. I need to learn to leave it at that and put my thoughts into a blog post once in awhile. Hence this!
Even if Good Housekeeping is sending contradictory messages when they write articles about diet culture and its harms, on the one hand, and provide ample information to those who wish to partake in it, on the other hand, I like their 2021 commitment to raising awareness. If no one points it out, we’ll never know we’re swimming in it.
This post brings together two common themes here at Fit is a Feminist Issue.
Theme one is making our way through COVID winter. Winter isn’t easy for some of us at the best of times but this year hiding out indoors until it passes isn’t really an option. You can cozy it up, sure, hygge style, but you might be lonely. Possibly also depressed. Maybe both.
So along with hygge, people are recommending that we adopt the attitude of friluftsliv. Read about the latter concept here.
“Friluftsliv is a word used by Swedes, Danes and Norwegians. It translates literally as ‘fresh-air life’, and is all about embracing the great outdoors whatever the weather, being active, and immersing yourself in nature.
Scandinavians spend time outdoors no matter what season it is. For Kim Lindqvist, a volunteer with the Swedish Outdoor Association, Friluftsliv means “to be outdoors and in the air, and just enjoy it in nature. To listen to the leaves, or watch the clouds”.
Friluftsliv sounds like a good fit for the FIFI blog community. We like to spend time outdoors. We’re active. And we all want to enjoy the company of friends through the pandemic winter.
I completely agree that spending time outside is key to enjoying winter. I’ve been recommending winter biking, here and here. But the thing about friluftsliv is you’ve got to dress for it.
OK, on to the second theme that we talk about lots on the blog. Theme two is about finding gear that fits all bodies, in particular plus sized bodies. It’s not always easy. See our post about finding plus sized cycling and hiking gear.
It’s not a far away problem. It’s an issue for some of the fit feminists who blog here, me included. See Catherine’s post and my post about the challenge of finding winter coats that fit. We’re not even particularly large plus sized people, shopping in the L to XXL range. Also, we’re professors with reasonable salaries so we’ve got the option to buy new. It’s harder still if your income means you’re trying to find discount clothing or used gear.
This matters because of the message we send about which bodies belong outside in the winter. It’s symbolic and meaningful and all that. It’s also practical. Winter (in Canada at least) means we worry about frostbite and getting cold. Spending time outside–even just walking the dog–sometimes requires snow pants, parkas, hats, mitts, scarves, and good boots.
This year, more than ever, we’re all going to have get outside and spend time with friends and family during the winter. My kids are talking about winter camping in backyard so we can all spend Christmas holidays together!
So I was thinking about these themes–getting outside and enjoying Canadian pandemic winter–and the necessity of finding the right gear, when along came these guys Plus Snow.
“What she wants to see is more of the joy that her customers share when they can finally play in the snow with their kids.
Balon said she is looking for people to model the clothes she sells. She currently uses #curvystoke to raise awareness and celebrate people who wear plus sizes playing in the snow.”
What I didn’t expect when I shared the story on our Facebook page was thanks from Mon Balon herself,
“Omgosh you guys!!! Thanks so so much for sharing this article about my business and my launch in North America! It’s not a perfect model (you have to wait about 2 weeks to get your gear) yet but I do have lots of CHOICE and lots of measuring charts and our help and customer service is unparalleled (I think anyway!) Shop Your Shape is our brilliant feature which helps you find the perfect fit if you need it https://plussnow.com/shop-your-shape/“
I also didn’t expect the flurry of readers with their own issues finding plus sized snow gear. There were a lot of comments on that post.
One of the commentators was Richelle Olsen who owns outdoor wear she bought from Plus Snow.
Here’s Richelle modeling her gear.
I asked Richelle if I could share the photos and she said yes.
Here’s what else she had to say:
“I’m in Tasmania, an island off the south coast of Australia. I lead body positive adventure trips for Escaping Your Comfort Zone 2-3 times a year, and each time I go a few days early and just drive and see where I end up. This time I ended up in this prehistoric rainforest called the Tarkine, in the rain, camping amongst giants with no one else around.
I’m wearing the Raiski Fuchu R+ Women’s Longline jacket in size 22. I love it because it’s super long and covers my butt, its slightly stretchy and is reliably waterproof after days of constant rain in Tasmania. It’s from Plus Snow – Plus Sized Snow Gear 💚💚
Fun fact: The Tarkine Wilderness Area is one of the last undisturbed tracts of Gondwanan rainforest in the world, and one of the highest concentrations of Aboriginal archeology in the Southern Hemisphere. This place, which remains largely as it was when dinosaurs roamed the planet, is currently at the mercy of destructive logging and mining. There’s an amazing short film about this called “What if running could save a rainforest?” Featuring a good friend of mine, Nicole Anderson, who is a doctor, ultra runner and passionate rainforest protector”
Are you a plus sized snow loving person? Are you planning to get out this year? Where’d you buy your gear? What counts as essential for the snow loving activities you do?
FWIW, and in case you’re wondering, this is isn’t a promotional post. I didn’t know Richelle or Mon prior to sharing the story on our Facebook page.
CW: discussion of body shapes and body weight, primarily with respect to a recent study assessing those variations in relationship to mortality risk. Lots of critique, too– you can count on that.
I have wide hips, large thighs and a large butt. Always have, always will. Regardless of my age, height, weight, fitness, that’s what my physical outline has looked like. My sister has always had slimmer thighs and butt, carrying more weight in her midsection. We are both in our 50s now, heavier and both carrying more weight in our midsections. We’re both doing what we do, happy to hang out when one of us can travel to the other.
All this is to say: we have the bodies we have, in the shapes they are. And even though the internet will offer you plenty of opportunities to spend your hard-earned cash on pills, supplements, gadgets and programs to try to change your body shape, I recommend saving it. It’s a waste of money.
So why do people worry about their body shapes and want to change them? In addition to all the messaging we get about what the “perfect” body shape is, medical science warns us of the dangers supposedly hidden in those shapes.
A new study came out in the past 10 days, looking at associations between body shape and mortality risk. Naturally, the press was on the scene, ready to inform us in the most provocative ways they could think of. Here’s a sample of the (inaccurate) headlines:
What’s inaccurate about them? It’s not the case that having (or working to acquire) thick or chunky or wide hips and thighs will itself cause increased longevity; of course we know that. What these news outlets are saying is that people who carry their weight more centrally are at higher mortality risk than those who carry their weight less centrally. But is this true? Let’s see what the article is saying.
In a recent meta-analysis (study of a lot of studies) a team of Iranian and Canadian researchers set out to identify and quantify mortality risk factors specifically related to body dimensions and ratios Waist circumference, waist-to-hip ratio are commonly studied measures for this type of research. In addition, this group studied thigh circumference, hip circumference, something called “body adiposity index” (roughly, a function of the ration of hip circumference to height) and another fancy biometric called “A body shape index”.
In case you’re still reading (one can hope), here’s what the researchers concluded:
Indices of central fatness … were positively and significantly associated with a higher all cause mortality risk.
Larger hip circumference and thigh circumference were associated with a lower risk.
The results suggest that measures of central adiposity could be used with body mass index as a supplementary approach to determine the risk of premature death.
What do I make of this? Well, glad you asked. Here are a few takeaways:
One thing: They definitely found lower mortality risk associated with larger hip circumference. But there’s more– look at this pair of graphs:
What’s interesting to me here is that the top graph, which controls for BMI and waist circumference, shows the risk dropping well below 1 (which is set as the standard, so less than 1 is better). But in addition, the bottom graph, which doesn’t control for BMI/waist circumference, still shows a dip in the mortality risk below 1 up to about 112 cm, and a very small increased risk up to 120 cm.
Why is this interesting? Because the second graph shows that people with larger hips have a lower relative mortality risk, even apart from body weight.
Another thing: Here’s another set of interesting-to-me graphs:
What we see here that caught my eye was how the waist-to-height ratio increase is fairly straightforwardly associated with increased mortality risk for men, but for women this is not so. As waist-to-height ratio increases, there is a dip in mortality risk for women before increased starting at around .52.
Which leads me to yet-another-thing: the researchers mention (which other researchers know but sadly, not reporters) that many of these associations disappear with age. That is, for people older than 60, these body dimension metrics and ratios don’t tell us much of anything about mortality risk.
Last thing: all through the text of this article, the authors either cite other studies or give results which suggest that body weight itself is not positively associated with increased mortality risk. They point out the need for studying different populations, including those who are healthy (vs. those with underlying medical conditions), smokers, ex-smokers, and never-smokers, and subcategories of those with men vs. women. What does this tell us?
Science is complicated.
So, does my life depend on my body shape? No.We have the shapes we do. Hundreds of features of both our bodies and the world our bodies inhabit influence how we live and how long that will be.
But I still kind of want this T shirt:
Readers: does this sort of body-shape research bother you? Do you ignore it? I’m curious about how these murky medical messages translate in the public. If you have any thoughts, I’d love to hear them.
I wasn’t going to blog about this because when I mentioned it on my FB timeline, more than one person commented something along the lines of “people have different senses of humour and we all need outlets in these difficult times.” But if there is one thing that I can’t stand, it’s “jokes” about self-isolation weight gain. Isolation / shelter-in-place weight gain (“the covid 19,” riffing off of the “freshman 15”) has become a hot topic, as people are confined to their homes, possibly moving less and eating more, routines thrown off. There are articles about how to prevent it (with the usual advice, like all the usual advice). There are even quarantine diets.
That’s all fat phobic, fat-shaming, perpetuating harmful diet culture, and triggering for people recovering or recovered from or in the throes of eating disorders. They buy into harmful social ideologies that vilify fat and weight gain.
Jokes and memes take it to another level. They take it seriously as a thing, even a thing to fear. And they make light at the same time. The “humourous” edge makes it more difficult to take issue.
If you don’t find them funny, you are dismissed yet again as a feminist killjoy. Sometimes reprimanded for wanting to deprive others of their sense of humour (the old “just scroll past” rejoinder).
This Allure article, “Can I Socially Distance Myself from These Terrible Jokes about Gaining Weight While in Quarantine?” does a great job of explaining the harm. The most obvious issue is that “gaining weight is framed as an inherently bad thing–an idea that steeped in fat phobia.” When we frame weight gain as a bad consequence of being in quarantine, self-isolation, or shelter-in-place, we add a further layer onto an already difficult situation that calls for kindness to ourselves, not judgment and self-flagellation.
That kind of thinking can drive people into diet mode, or trigger feelings of self-loathing that come up in chronic dieters or people with eating disorders. As if living in isolation during a global pandemic isn’t challenging enough, bringing with it all sorts of fears grounded in the rapid pace at which our lives have changed, coupled with uncertainty about what awaits us in the future, how long we are going to need to live this way, in this shrunken version of our previous lives.
We do not need another demon. We do not need to shame ourselves for wanting treats. And we do not need to shame ourselves for gaining weight. We are trying to survive an unprecedented global situation. Surely that is task enough right now?
I am well aware that people have different senses of humour. And that people need occasions to laugh in the midst of this pandemic. I am also well aware that some jokes perpetuate social harm. Racist and sexist jokes do that. And jokes about the covid 19 do too. They are fat phobic and shaming. I’m sure we can find other things to joke about and lift our spirits.
Kailey says, “I was always trying to change the fact that I was a fat cyclist into being just a ‘regular’ cyclist,” the 27-year-old says on a recent afternoon. “Now, I spend my time loving myself and moving my body because I enjoy moving my body and not as a punishment to my body.”
Catherine wrote a blog post about Brittany Runs a Marathon without watching it. That was definitely the wiser choice. See her commentary here.
She writes, “So why I am writing about a movie I haven’t seen? Because I think the movie/advertising/fashion/fitness industries have (sort of) taken in the message that it’s not okay to blatantly fat-shame people or overtly identify lower body weights with fitness, success and happiness in life. Notice, I said “overtly” and “blatantly”.”
Catherine goes on to identify “some strong fitspo messages buried (not too deeply) in this film:
Health problems should first be addressed by losing weight
Weight loss is possible to achieve through physical activity
Weight loss makes physical activity possible and easier and better and more fun
Some deep-seated emotional problems will resolve through weight loss and physical activity”
So why did I end up watching it? I sometimes watch “bad” TV or fluffy shows while cleaning. Easy to follow rom-coms? Sign me up! I hadn’t seen the floor of my room in weeks. There were Christmas gifts I still hadn’t put away, clean laundry, bags of gym clothes, yoga mats etc all over the floor, the bed needed making, the socks needed sorting and so on. I needed something longer than a regular half hour show to deal with all of the mess. I needed a movie length thing at least. I thought I could handle the fat shaming and enjoy BRAM for its redeeming features. The trailer looked, as a friend put it, cute. The Guardian called it a fluffy feel good flick. It is not that. By the end, I did not feel good at all.
Friends, it was not mostly cute with a side of fat shaming, which I expected. Instead it was a dumpster fire of stereotypes and it was also super sex shaming. All of this was lumped into criticism of Brittany’s self-destructive lifestyle. At one point in the movie someone opines–in a line that was supposed to save the movie, “Brittany, it was never about the weight.” Instead, “weight” is just a stand in for all of Brittany’s problems. Before fat-Brittany is taking drugs and giving men blow jobs in night clubs and by the end of the movie, thin Brittany isn’t just thin. She’s also turning down casual sex. The friends-with-benefits/boyfriend proposes. There was way too much moralizing about sex and drugs. And I say that as someone who is no fan of drugs or alcohol and is often accused of moralizing in this area.
This happens because Brittany isn’t just a fat girl. She’s a fat girl with low self -esteem. She could have just gotten some self-esteem. But no, she gets thin and then gets self-esteem. She could have gotten self-esteem and demanded equal pleasure in the casual sex. She could have started using drugs and alcohol in a responsible manner. Instead, no. She gets self-esteem, says no to drugs, and holds out for a real relationship.
Not surprisingly, it doesn’t manage the weight-loss plot line well at all.
The Guardian reviewer writes, “The film struggles to square its protagonist’s weight loss with the pressure to present a body-positive position and ensure it doesn’t alienate the very female audience it courts. One minute it’s wryly poking fun at the expense and inaccessibility of gyms, the next it’s fetishistically cataloguing the shrinking number on Brittany’s scales. Indeed, as her body transforms, so does her life. She finds a new job, and supportive friends in her running club; men begin to notice her. Yet Brittany still battles with her body issues, unable to shed her identity as “a fat girl”. There’s a note of truth in Bell’s finely tuned performance as a character whose insecurities have calcified over the years, hardening her to genuine goodwill, which she frequently misreads as pity.”
For the record, fat Brittany is smaller than me. She starts out weighing 197 pounds. Her goal weight is 167. And we can track it because never in movie history has a person stepped on a scale so often.
(A blog reader pointed out a more charitable interpretation of why we see her stepping on the scale so often: “She steps on the scale a lot because she trades in her addictions to drugs and alcohol for an addiction to scale weight loss, which the movie portrays as an unhealthy obsession. What starts out as a good “oh look, I lost this many pounds now!” thing quickly escalates into a dangerous “go for a run, jump on the scale, dislike the number displayed, so go back out to run in the mistaken belief that it will make the number change” cycle. That’s why she steps on a scale so often. Because it’s NOT good that she does it.)
Forget the weight loss and the sex, even the running themes aren’t handled well. Friends tease Brittany when she first starts running because she isn’t a real runner. The longest she’s run is 5 km. Rather than tackling the “real runner” thing head on instead the film has Brittany run a marathon and become a real runner by the friend’s standards. Even her triumphant marathon finish is marred by Brittany’s continuing to run on her (spoiler alert) injured and possibly still stress fractured leg. We don’t know that but we do know she’s holding her leg and crying, running and not able to put much weight on it, and her first attempt to run the marathon was derailed by a stress fracture.
There is nothing to love here. Nothing cute or funny or feel good or fluffy.
CW: Discusses diets, food, BMI and commonly held misconceptions. If you like to believe everything you think is 100% correct, are prone to all-or-nothing thinking, or want your beliefs reinforced on all things health and fitness, you may not want to read this post.
I think I’ve reached the point that I need a pseudoscience trigger warning. I am finding myself angry to the point of nearly yelling whenever someone mentions their “love languages” like it’s anything more than a convenient construct. The other day, I wanted to ram into the minivan ahead of me on the freeway with their anti-vaxxer bumper sticker. If I have to listen to one more Republican politician espouse a conspiracy theory as if it were the truth, I might remove my car radio and throw it out the window.
I am a science teacher, and trained to think like a scientist. I believe in facts and research and data. And we live in a world in which science is discussed with such ignorance that the presence of a single study is enough to sway/reinforce the incorrect beliefs of people. No one discusses the preponderance of the data. No one is asking for the big picture data over time. And this lack of scientific literacy is hurting people.
I live in a city that doesn’t fluoridate its water because a majority of the voting public considers it unsafe. These voters aren’t thinking about the consequences for the uninsured and underinsured children who don’t receive regular dental care and benefit measurably from fluoride treatments. Instead, there’s a mindset that “impurities” or “chemicals” are “toxins” and therefore things we should all want to avoid. This is pseudoscience.
The debate about organic produce focuses on these fears of “toxins” as well, instead on the very real dangers of overproduction, potential lack of sustainability or concerns for workers’ rights. And don’t get me started on the fear of GMOs. I am concerned about GMOs, but not for any personal health reasons–rather, I don’t like the idea that we are reinforcing monocultures, cloned products with no biodiversity designed to be sprayed with levels of chemicals potentially unsafe from the workers doing the work and the communities that live downwind. On the other hand, if we can design GMO versions of staple foods that reduces environmental degradation while providing sufficient nourishment for the food insecure nations of the world, who am I to say they can’t have it? There is NO evidence that these products are dangerous to human health once they reach the dinner table, and yet that is the only discussion we are hearing. We can’t have a meaningful debate about the real costs and benefits of these products when we aren’t even agreeing upon the basic facts.
Want to get pissed off at some pseudoscience? Watch pretty much any of the food “documentaries” created since Supersize Me became a blockbuster. There you can learn the half-truths behind the values of juicing, eliminating sugar, paleo diets, vegan diets, Twinkie diets, McDonalds diets, and so much more. Look for the warning signs of pseudoscience as you go–are they using anecdotal data and individuals while avoiding comparing larger sample sizes? Do they ignore the facts that run counter to their arguments? Do they set up false dichotomies requiring an all-or-nothing comparison–the worst of the standard diet against the best/purest of the proposed diet? If so, consider this your pseudoscience trigger warning.
Health, diet and fitness culture is rife with this sort of pseudoscience. Every named diet ever formulated has some sort of “data” to argue that it is the best way to make you healthier, happier, and fitter. Every single one of them cherry-picks the data, jumps to conclusions outside the purview of the research, and uses logical fallacies like false dichotomies to “prove” their superiority. Their goal is to sell their books, products, and edible non-food meal replacement products, not to inform you. And every time a friend or family member of mine begins to starve themselves in a new way or to take outrageously expensive supplements, it pisses me off. I’m not angry at them, I’m angry at the liars shilling these products and false promises.
I’m angry at the diet and fitness industry for convincing so many people that it is exclusively their own fault for having a larger body and that the solutions are simple. I’m angry that people believe they need to go “on a diet” in order to live a healthier life in a body that more closely meets their needs. I’m angry at the lie that we should exercise to control our body size and the willful ignorance that avoids discussing the dozens of other actually good reasons for regular exercise, regardless of our body size. Commercials, paid spokespeople, and poorly written news reports that ignore this bigger picture really do deserve a pseudoscience trigger warning.
But of course, it is the nature of pseudoscience to not identify itself as such. It would lose some of its intended power if it had to remind you first that what they were about to say has limited evidence to support it.
But wouldn’t it be wonderful if these warnings existed? Imagine a world in which news broadcasters interviewing the latest fitness guru had to first announce, “Trigger warning, everything we’re about to say has limited or questionable data to support it.” What if dietary supplements came with a bold statement that said “we cannot prove that anything will happen when you take this pill, and maybe it will make things worse.” What if any time your friend/family member/colleague began to espouse how great it is to go Keto they found themselves first saying “there is absolutely no evidence that this is going to work for me long term, but I’m going to try it anyway.”
What if your doctor had to say, “Now, there’s mixed evidence that BMI has a causal relationship to other risk factors, it is only accurate as a measure of body fat percentage for about 60% of the population, and it’s commonly used to reinforce anti-fat stereotypes. Given all that, I’d like to discuss how much you weigh.”
Think of how much more empowered we would be if these warnings were expected and required. I am so sick and tired of hearing bullshit being espoused as fact. We live in an era in which genuine experts are distrusted and suspected of ulterior motives, in which confirmation bias is treated as an acceptable alternative to hard truths. People rely upon the news, doctors, experts and friends and family to help them sort through the data to make the best decisions for themselves and their health. We can’t make good decisions with bad data, and until we find another way to sort through the pseudoscience, I would appreciate a trigger warning.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found yelling at her car radio during long commutes, picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon.You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .
Sometimes, when you see a repeated injustice, you get cynical or resigned and roll your eyes. And sometimes, you get teed off. I’m guessing you can guess which one I’m more predisposed to.
Sam shared this twitter story (here and here) from Jen Curran, who had elevated protein levels in her urine during her pregnancy, and she was told to “lose 40 pounds” and come back. Weeks, and a second opinion, later, she learned that she had blood cancer. Her regular doctor ignored what she was saying, and focused on her size instead (as she was pregnant, no less). This is not news.
And it pisses me off.
How is this STILL happening to larger bodied people? How is it that doctors are looking at our sizes, our weights, and our BMIs as if they are useful pieces of data unto themselves?! Do fatter people get cancer? Broken vertebrae? Appendicitis?
We are far past critical mass here–it is long past time for doctors to take a long hard look at their biases. Because make no mistake, that is exactly what this is. In their core, many doctors believe that fatness is of bigger importance to their patients’ health than almost any other factor. The proof of this supremacy is in their persistent focus on weight, above the narratives provided to them by the patients. Every fat person has a story about how their needs and concerns were ignored as their doctor asked them about trying to lose weight.
And this bias is causing life and death decisions to be made, and fatter people are dying.
As an example, people with more body fat are more likely to die after a cancer diagnosis. Is this because of something intrinsic about body fat, or is it because fat people go longer before they reach a diagnosis? Are doctors more reticent to be aggressive with treatments because they are distracted by the “elephant” in the room, possibly assuming that the fat person doesn’t do their part to take care of themselves? Obviously, doctors are not listening to their fat patients as openly–does that mean they miss critical complications until they are too difficult to treat? How much of the “fat is bad for you when you have cancer” conversation is colored by these unconfronted fat biases?
When I was a fat teenager, I dreaded going to the doctor. No conversation at the doctor did not also include a conversation about my weight. I had nearly disabling low back pain from carrying a heavy book bag for years, including on the couple miles walk home from school each day. Did they offer me exercises to strengthen my core muscles? No. I needed to lose weight.
Depression? Have you tried to lose weight? Irritable bowel syndrome? What have you done to try to lose weight? Broken bones in your hand after punching a kid in the hallway for calling you a “freak?” Well, you get the idea. I’m pretty sure my weight came up in that conversation, too.
And, I’m sorry to say it doesn’t get a ton better when you go from being a medically fat person to a merely, nearly fat person.
I changed doctors last year after a frustrating conversation along these lines. I am no longer medically “overweight,” but I am just barely so. Over about six years, I changed from a BMI of about 32 to about 24, just under the “normal” threshold. I have also reduced my health risk factors in innumerable ways–I eat more produce, less processed food, and less added sugar and salt. I do some kind of intentional exercise most days of the week. I don’t smoke or drink alcohol. I have been working hard on managing stress (still a work in progress), and I try to get enough quality sleep. I see a therapist regularly to help me manage my depression and trauma.
And when I went in to get a referral for a physical therapist, what did he say? “Your BMI is ok, it’s in the normal zone, but just barely. You might want to do some work to bring that down.” This had NOTHING to do with my current medical concerns. In fact, the opposite. As I have increased my activity levels over the years, underlying imbalances I’ve lived with for nearly two decades have become problematic. It may not have mattered that my muscles and nerves were out of whack when I wasn’t pushing them. But the more physically fit I’ve become, the more I’ve become aware of how my surgical history has permanently impacted how my body works. I was there to see him so I could continue to be physically active, something I’m sure he would recommend as a part of “fixing” my BMI to a lower end of “normal.”
I challenged him on this and reminded him that I was a weightlifter. That maybe some of the “extra” weight I was carrying might be muscle. He said most people overestimate how much that is a factor. I don’t disagree with him, but I kinda wanted him to lie down on the floor, so I could prove I could deadlift him up off of it.
But of course, my BMI in that moment, or any, wasn’t really relevant. BMI is a poor tool for estimating body fat. And body fat is a poor tool for estimating health. What we’re really seeing time and again, people like Jen and me, and so many others, is the biases of our doctors, who see fat and can’t see anything else.
Fat bias is a habit, and habits are hard to break. Doctors who are serious about improving the health of their patients need to begin the hard work of challenging their own assumptions in these moments. To stop themselves before they bring up their patient’s size and ask themselves, “If this patient were smaller and came to me with these concerns, what would I suggest to them?” Fat people know they’re fat. Most of them have tried, and failed repeatedly, to be less fat. Ask them what they are doing to take care of themselves. Ask them what they are hoping to get from the appointment. Ask them what they think is going on. And for goodness sake, treat them like people, not just bodies.
Marjorie Hundtoft is a middle school science and health teacher. She can be found picking up heavy things and putting them back down again in Portland, Oregon. You can now read her at Progressive-Strength.com .