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Fat Shaming, Low Body Esteem & Body Positivity

Body image and shame

Body image and its portrayal in society have long been a subject of discussion. Society and the media often encourage a culture of fat shaming and weight stigma, which has created devastating consequences. Body image plays a critical role in understanding the treatment of eating disorders, and we have to look at the effect of the media and societal pressures on people’s perceptions.

What is a negative body image?

Body image refers to someone’s thoughts and perceptions about their body. While a positive body image is a true perception of one’s physical appearance, a negative body image is an unrealistic view of how an individual sees their body. A negative body image can stir feelings of shame and anxiety, and lead to depression, isolation, low-self esteem, and an eating disorder.

According to the 2017 Dove Girls and Beauty Confidence Report, over half of of the girls in the world do not have high body esteem. Because they do not feel positive about the way they look 8 in 10 avoid social situations and extracurricular activities, and 7 in 10 restrict calories, putting themselves at risk for an eating disorder. Additionally, 69% of women and 65% of girls state that pressure from advertising and mass media pushes them to reach an unrealistic standard of beauty.

What is the Body Positivity Movement?

Reports like these have inspired a growing empowerment trend known as the body positivity movement. This movement quickly gained popularity on the internet and in mass media. The concept of body positivity evolved as a way to counteract feelings of poor body image in society at large. Generally, body positivity asserts that all bodies are good bodies. How people’s bodies physically appear should not determine their worth as a person. “In Western society, this idea fights against long-held valuations of physical appearance, primarily as portrayed (or conspicuously not portrayed) in the media. Body positivity proponents across social media, therefore, seek to make diverse body types more visible, partly as a reminder to rethink our cultural conceptions of what it means to be beautiful, and that such concepts are not fixed.”

For the past few years, companies have made changes that promote body positivity. Seventeen Magazine no longer airbrushes models, Women’s Health vowed to ban “drop two sizes” and “bikini body” from their cover language, and Miss Teen USA dropped their swimsuit competition as a commitment to celebrate women’s strength, confidence, and beauty. Dove, Aerie, and Lane Bryant are incorporating body positivity into their advertising campaigns. 

Is fat shaming entertainment?

While the Body Positivity Movement is creating change, a permanent societal change is unclear. According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), just over 80% of Americans watch television daily, with the average viewing lasting over three hours per day. On a typical day, individuals ages 8-18 years old spend 7.5 hours a day engaged in some form of media. These statistics prove that mass media significantly influences the value placed on body image. Numerous studies have linked the thin body ideal portrayed in mass media to negative body issues and disordered eating among women. Mass media also provides pressure for men to be more muscular, leading to increased body dissatisfaction. 

While some in the entertainment community are doing their part to promote more body positivity, others still send the wrong message. For example, controversy has swirled around the Netflix show Insatiablewhich begins its second season on October 11, 2019. Described as a dark comedy set in the Southern world of beauty pageants, the series follows the actions of a vengeful teenager who was called “Fatty Patty” by school bullies. However, this character loses a substantial amount of weight, after having her jaw wired shut, and then teams up with a disgraced pageant coach to seek revenge against the people who once tormented her. The show’s creator argues that the Netflix series draws from her own experiences dealing with bullies and an eating disorder while growing up in the suburbs. Critics have called the show “an offensive mess,” “almost unwatchable” and “obscenely cruel” for perceived fat shaming.

Actor Alyssa Milano, defended the series in 2018, arguing that the show is not engaging in fat-shaming behavior. “We are addressing (through comedy) the damage that occurs from fat shaming.” Milano explains that she hopes the show is a conversation starter since the series explores body images issues, rather than sweeping it “under the carpet.” Insatiable’s main star Debby Ryan agreed with Milano and argued that the subject matter is difficult, but hopes the show stirs conversation about fat shaming and low body esteem.

Critics of the show have not agreed with Ryan and Milano’s analysis. Originators of a petition to have the show canceled state that the central plot is not an isolated case, but part of a much larger problem every single woman has faced in her life. The Netflix series “perpetuates not only the toxicity of diet culture but the objectification of women’s bodies.”  Other critics have agreed with this analysis and have called the show dangerous. Behavioral health professionals have noted that society has made significant improvements in advancing the body positivity movement. However, fat-shaming and body weight stigmas are still a problem.

Does a negative body image contribute to an eating disorder?

A negative body image is not the only risk factor for an eating disorder but is prominent because of the high-value individual’s place on their physical appearance and weight to determine their self-worth. It can lead to disordered eating and dieting, which can set someone on a path for an eating disorder.  As a society, it is important that we continue to promote size diversity, body acceptance, and healthy body images. The key to becoming more positive about our bodies is to recognize and value our natural shape and learn to replace negative thoughts and feelings with positive ones.

At the Toledo Center for Eating Disorders, our professional staff understands the complexity and sensitivity surrounding these issues. Our primary goal is to offer compassionate, comprehensive treatment to males and females who are suffering from an eating disorder in multiple levels of care. Using a thorough clinical assessment, clinicians design a customized treatment program for each client that offers evidence-based therapeutic interventions that contribute to the overall health, wellness, and recovery. For more information on our program, please call our admissions team or complete our contact form.

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