Body positivity and the movement around it
I’ll try not to rely too heavily on personal stories and anecdotes, but permit me just one.
In an exam to attain a license to practice medicine in a foreign country, I was given a task to counsel a fat mock-patient on the dangers of obesity. In the given scenario, the patient – played by a shockingly skilled female actor – had had her elective surgery postponed due to high body weight, and had to be advised on how to lose weight.
As a doctor, I’ve dealt with this situation countless times in real life. As a doctor who is overweight himself, these counseling sessions are often drenched in irony that neither I nor the patient can easily ignore.
In the examination, I knew that from the moment I’d enter the cubicle to begin my 5-minute task, all three of us – the examiner, the mock-patient, and myself – would be saddled atop an elephant(s) in the room that we’d all be fighting hard not to acknowledge.
Nevertheless, ‘obesity’ is a problem that I have ample experience with; both as a trained doctor, and as a patient – speaking in a clinical sense, at least.
I politely introduced myself to the patient, explained the reason her surgery had been delayed, and commenced my counseling with the following words:
“I would like to discuss some ways we could optimise your chances of a successful surgery. I understand that the advice I may offer is generally easier given than received, and I certainly wouldn’t want to make you uncomfortable. But for the sake of your clinical well-being, this is a discussion worth having. May I proceed?”
The examiner leaned back in his chair, and chuckled lightly. He had caught on to my attempt to address the irony of a fat doctor advising a fat patient on weight loss. I had clarified to the patient the difference between her situation and mine: although we each had nearly the same body weight, she was the one scheduled for the surgery, not me. Furthermore, I’d apologetically acknowledged the propensity of weight loss advice, almost by its nature, to come off as condescending. And lastly, I’d emphasised the word “clinical”, to remind her that as a medical doctor, my only concern was her medical well-being. That is, I was solely interested in discussing her ‘obesity’, as a medical problem; not her ‘fatness’, as a social issue.
The mock-patient, who was obese in real life, appeared more appreciative of my counseling skills than my examiner, who may have wondered I wasn’t bombarding her straightaway with banal weight loss tips like “eat less” or “take longer walks”.
We attribute obesity to sheer laziness, indiscipline, and lack of will power. This simplification fits well in the neoliberal model that we’ve grown to revere: your misfortunes – whether poverty or ‘ugly’ body shape – are directly proportional to your lack of concern or knowledge on the subject. It’s can’t be that you’re trying and failing; you simply haven’t tried.
To provoke empathy, I’m forced to draw analogies that help translate the problem for non-obese people. One of the analogies I use, is as follows:
Imagine you’re a smoker. I, as a non-smoker, challenge you to one smoke-free month. Even though we’re both resisting cigarettes, you and I don’t get the same credit for will power. To me, not smoking comes naturally and effortlessly. To you, however, this may be a tremendous ordeal, and I could empathise with you for not being able to get through the month without a puff or two.
It’s granted that cigarette addiction and ‘food addiction’, don’t work precisely the same way. But that’s okay. That’s how analogies work. You’re not really a pot, and I’m not actually a kettle. The underlying point, is acknowledging the difficulty an obese person may be going through in losing weight; and understanding that failure in this regard isn’t necessarily evidence of a person’s lack of sincere effort.
This is where the body positivity movement comes in. ‘Fat acceptance’ doesn’t denote ignorance of the clinical problems of obesity, but its tolerance as a social phenomenon. It’s about reassuring people struggling with weight problems that it’s okay for them to stop hating themselves, quit laughing at themselves, and not wage a constant war against their own physical forms. It’s not about complacency or surrender.
Science has identified many innate and circumstantial factors not strictly within a person’s own control, that facilitate weight gain. Yes, a person may well be fat because he eats more, but why he feels the need to eat more may have to with something more than just an insufficiency of will power.
We generally don’t talk about neoliberalism as anything more than a politicoeconomic model; one of the popular manifestations of capitalism. But the mindset it promotes is well-known to affect the way we think about people in our social spheres. If you’re poor, it’s your own fault. If you’re uneducated, it’s your own fault. And of course, if you’re fat, it’s your own fault; and you must continue to hate yourself on a prayer that this self-loathing serves as an effective engine for change.
As always, reality is not obligated to simply itself into golden principles that people can easily remember. You’re allowed to recognise that you have failed to achieve the body shape you’ve wanted, and still permit yourself to look smilingly at the mirror, upon the reflection of a person who honestly tried.