Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Fat Acceptance and Domestic Violence

There is a pervasive way of thinking in our culture today that seeks to undermine women's fight for empowerment. Women are being attacked at every opportunity by messages designed to make them feel bad about themselves, in hopes that these women will then buy what the messenger is selling. At the Media Awareness Network, this problem is defined quite clearly:

Why are standards of beauty being imposed on women, the majority of whom are naturally larger and more mature than any of the models? The roots, some analysts say, are economic. By presenting an ideal difficult to achieve and maintain, the cosmetic and diet product industries are assured of growth and profits. And it’s no accident that youth is increasingly promoted, along with thinness, as an essential criterion of beauty. If not all women need to lose weight, for sure they’re all aging, says the Quebec Action Network for Women’s Health in its 2001 report Changements sociaux en faveur de la diversit√© des images corporelles.
While this kind of shaming is a popular advertising tactic in general, it is most often directed towards women.

The American research group Anorexia Nervosa & Related Eating Disorders, Inc. says that one out of every four college-aged women uses unhealthy methods of weight control—including fasting, skipping meals, excessive exercise, laxative abuse, and self-induced vomiting. Researchers report that women’s magazines have ten and one-half times more ads and articles promoting weight loss than men’s magazines do, and over three-quarters of the covers of women’s magazines include at least one message about how to change a woman’s bodily appearance—by diet, exercise or cosmetic surgery.

Television and movies reinforce the importance of a thin body as a measure of a woman’s worth. Canadian researcher Gregory Fouts reports that over three-quarters of the female characters in TV situation comedies are underweight, and only one in twenty are above average in size. Heavier actresses tend to receive negative comments from male characters about their bodies ("How about wearing a sack?"), and 80 per cent of these negative comments are followed by canned audience laughter.
Thus, the message that is largely received by women and girls from magazines, television, and film is that not only is something inherently wrong with their bodies, but that these "flaws" also constitute a personal moral failing which renders them deserving of any humiliation that comes their way.

In and of itself, there is nothing linguistically harmful about the word "fat". It is a generic descriptor much like tall, short, blond, brunette, etc. The reason that "fat" is such a loaded term is that our culture has framed fatness as practically a crime against humanity, especially if the owner of the fat is female. We're taught from a very early age that fat is not a simple descriptive term, because fat is culturally synonymous with lazy, unpleasant, stupid, unlovable, etc. This correlation is made not only by many thin people, but often by fat people who firmly believe they deserve the disrespect being thrown at them.

But what does body size and weight have to do with domestic violence?

Sandra Kiume on Psych Central wrote a letter to the editor detailing an event she witnessed where a man on the street demanded that a woman he knew follow him and called her fat along with a few other insults. Kiume's response deftly illustrates why body image is a subject central to the fight against domestic violence.
First, she wasn’t fat. But all mean kids and abusers know that the easiest way to hurt a young woman’s self-esteem is to attack her body image, especially with that cruel three-letter “f” word. It’s verbal abuse in our thin-obsessed culture. The other two words he called her are just more obviously abusive.

Verbal abuse is just as damaging as physical or sexual violence–the American Psychological Association classifies all three as wartime torture methods. In their daily wars women come to view themselves as worthless and powerless and internalize the loathing. They may develop serious medical problems like depression, anorexia/bulimia, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, substance abuse and more, all while afraid to leave the abuser. A woman is ten times more likely to be murdered by her abuser in the six months after she leaves him. Those threats are dead serious, and they’re a means of control that answer the common and naive question, “Why doesn’t she just leave him?”(Emphasis Added)
Fortunately, there is a movement that those of us in the fight against domestic violence can look to, to promote women's ability to feel comfortable and worthy in their own skin. Providing information about the inaccuracy of the obesity crisis and other weight-related scientific findings, shining a light on medical abuse, debunking of stereotypes about fat people, and creating a safe community for women to celebrate their bodies are just a few of the things the Fat Acceptance movement has to offer.

More specifically, Kate Harding, in The Fantasy of Being Thin, thoroughly discusses the power of the myth that having a stereotypically perfect body is somehow attached to your ability to be a good or worthy person, and the fact that many times the hardest part of accepting your body is that it means accepting and appreciating all aspects of yourself.

But exhortations like that don’t take into account magical thinking about thinness, which I suspect — and the quote above suggests — is really quite common. Because, you see, the Fantasy of Being Thin is not just about becoming small enough to be perceived as more acceptable. It is about becoming an entirely different person – one with far more courage, confidence, and luck than the fat you has. It’s not just, “When I’m thin, I’ll look good in a bathing suit”; it’s “When I’m thin, I will be the kind of person who struts down the beach in a bikini, making men weep.” See also:

When I’m thin, I’ll have no trouble finding a partner/reinvigorating my marriage.
When I’m thin, I’ll have the job I’ve always wanted.
When I’m thin, I won’t be depressed anymore.
When I’m thin, I’ll be an adventurous world traveler instead of being freaked out by any country where I don’t speak the language and/or the plumbing is questionable.
When I’m thin, I’ll become really outdoorsy.
When I’m thin, I’ll be more extroverted and charismatic, and thus have more friends than I know what to do with.

Et cetera, et cetera. Those are examples from my personal Fantasy of Being Thin, but I’m sure you’ve got your own

....The thin person inside me finally got out — it just turned out she was actually a fat person. A reasonably attractive, semi-outgoing fat person who has an open mind and an active imagination but also happens to really like routine and familiarity and quiet time alone.

Embracing our bodies for what they do for us rather than punishing them into submission is a long process, but the benefits are well worth it. For a powerful introduction to celebrating yourself and living in the now, check out Joy Nash's Fat Rant Video below.


katecontinued said...

Wonderful post. I found this via Shakesville. I hope to link to this soon as this is an important connection you have tracked.

Renee said...

I loved that video. Yes women often fall prey to socially constructed ideals about what we are 'supposed" to look like often with disastrous results.

Russet Shadows said...

Absolute total bs. Women are not imposed upon by beauty mags -- women BUY beauty mags. Women are not killed by their abusive boyfriends and husbands; women refuse to acknowledge the threat and defend themselves. It's so old and so lame to hear this constant feminist nonsense about how "society" or the "world" or whatever is to blame, when in reality, it's women themselves that are to blame. As long as you let magazines and men push you around, you will continue to be exploited and abused. Figure it out.

Suzie said...

Russet, I looked at your profile with the Confederate flag. I say this as a fellow Southerner: We brought the war on ourselves. Southerners were not killed by Union soldiers; they did not have their homes and valuables appropriated or destroyed. They refused to acknowledge the extent of the Union threat, and they did not defend themselves sufficiently. I'm so sick of Southerners spouting nonsense about how others are to blame. Get over the war!

Barbara said...

This post RAWKS!!!

Daomadan said...

"Fortunately, there is a movement that those of us in the fight against domestic violence can look to, to promote women's ability to feel comfortable and worthy in their own skin."

But doesn't this again place the emphasis on the woman in an abusive situation and not on her abuser? Could you please expand on this point a bit? As a DV survivor, I am having a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that helping women feel good about themselves at any size (which is a powerful and positive thing!) will stop us from being abused.

Women's Resource Center said...

daomadan - You're absolutely right that low self esteem doesn't cause women to become victims. The blame for abuse should totally and completely reside with the abuser.

What we're arguing here is that we learn through the media that it’s perfectly ok to criticize women about their bodies and to make them feel bad about themselves as a means of making women do what you want. In most cases, what “they” want is for you purchase their product or their magazine filled with beauty advice. But the behavior that they are modeling teaches abusers that using shame and insults is an effective means of control.

An important part of the fat acceptance movement is challenging this type of abusive marketing and creating a movement of people who will speak against it. By communicating that it isn’t ok for advertisers to use insults and degradation to control behavior, we are hoping to create a cultural shift that makes it unacceptable for anyone to use insults and degradation to control someone’s behavior.

What is also important to us, since our Center works with survivors of domestic violence, rather than abusers, is helping women regain the self esteem that has often been eroded by the abusive partner. Because so many of the women we work with have internalized the insults thrown at them by their former partners and by the advertising industry, it is important for us in our work to examine how we can incorporate the ideas of being healthy and beautiful at any size. It won’t prevent the woman from experiencing abuse again, but it may help her be happier with herself and more likely to recover emotionally from what she has already experienced.

Daomadan said...

Thank you for the clarifications. I had a feeling that this was more in response to helping women after abuse, but sometimes my own experience with DV and emotional reactions cloud a proper reading.

Women's Resource Center said...

If you interpreted the post that way then I'm sure other people did as well. We appreciate that you asked for clarification!

Liz said...

What a wonderful post. As the mother of 3 girls, I'm only too keenly aware of the pressures girls feel to be thin, to be fashionable. I was recently flipping through a catalog -- Coldwater Creek, maybe -- and the jeans models were all tall and rail thin -- no waist. Needless to say, I, who am NOT thin -- was discouraged. I'm also not tall...

I've had a hard time coming to accept what I see in the mirror. I'm still a work in progress. But two women have written a call to arms on the topic: Embracing Your Big Fat A$$. Sounds harsh, maybe, but it's funny and more importantly, empowering. They even have a society of sorts: BFAB Society, aimed at turning a negative obsession into a celebration.

emgr said...

I have had the experience of going to the mall after pregnancy, with my beautiful new curves, and feeling pretty good about myself when I walked in. But after a few hours, I was finding myself inexplicably depressed and feeling ugly. It was definitely partly due to the unrealistic, homogenous images plastered all over stores. (I'm a normal to underweight woman who has done fashion modeling- if the images depress me then they really are out of whack.) So I agree- there is a problem with the way fashion is advertised. Body acceptance is a good thing, and I strive for it. However, when I hear "fat acceptance movement" I can't help but ask if that means accepting the bad health effects of being overweight? Don't we want women to be healthy and functional, not underweight OR obese?

Maybe I'm uneducated. Maybe "fat acceptance" really means "healthy weight that's been made to look fat by superskinny actresses acceptance." In that case, count me in. But if we're telling obese women to resign themselves to poor health effects, it doesn't make much sense to me and it doesn't seem good for women.

Women's Resource Center said...

emgr - I suggest that you read this post at Shapely Prose (adult language warning) called "Don't You Realize Fat is Unhealthy" which works to dispel a lot of the myths associated with weight loss and the health effects of being fat.

emgr said...

Thanks- I read the post and found it thought-provoking. I did agree with one thing- you can be unhealthy in a lot of ways- by eating too much or eating too little for your body type. I happen to have a body type that loses muscle quickly. The first way I know I need to exercise more is actually that I lose weight, not gain it. But I have other friends who have a body type where weight gain is the first sign of an unhealthy lifestyle. My weight or appearance, by themselves, don't define how healthy or beautiful I am. But if I know, based on my own body type, that my weight is telling me that I'm not treating my body well, I don't think I should just "accept" that and settle into inertia. I'm grateful for the people in my life who confronted my problem eating (or lack thereof, in my case) by telling me I was looking thinner than my healthiest self. I think accountability from people who love you is a good thing when it's done with love and respect.

My point is, there's no one-size fits all solution. Telling women to look a certain way to conform to anybody's "movement" is going to create problems. We should be telling women to know their bodies and strive for health and functionality.

Rachelgbd said...

"My point is, there's no one-size fits all solution. Telling women to look a certain way to conform to anybody's "movement" is going to create problems. We should be telling women to know their bodies and strive for health and functionality."

emgr, I think the name might just be throwing you off, but the definition of Fat Acceptance directly encompasses everything you've said above. It is also closely tied to the Health At Every Size philosophy/eating plan which I encourage you to Google.