The Body Image Revolution: How one image started the conversation

Something revolutionary happened this week. A woman posted a photograph of herself in her underwear on the Internet. Although there are thousands of pictures of women in their underwear on-line (and in magazines, catalogs, television, billboards, etc…), this picture was different. It was different because this woman is fat (not my word).

Stella Boonshoft is an 18 year-old student at New York University and she loves her body. She is proud of her body and she wanted to use her body as an agent of change. She struggled with hating her body for much of her life. She was bullied and tormented as a child and adolescent. And she learned to make peace with her body. So she posted a semi-nude picture of herself on her blog and opened a nation-wide conversation about body image, misconceptions about health, and acceptance. She is extraordinarily courageous.

Stella posted this picture of herself along with the caption:

WARNING: Picture might be considered obscene because subject is not thin. And we all know that only skinny people can show their stomachs and celebrate themselves. Well I’m not going to stand for that. This is my body. Not yours. MINE. Meaning the choices I make about it, are none of your f*cking business. Meaning my size, IS NONE OF YOUR F*CKING BUSINESS. If my big belly and fat arms and stretch marks and thick thighs offend you, then that’s okay. I’m not going to hide my body and my being to benefit your delicate sensitivities.

Our nation has been leading a crusade against fat people. Rather than encouraging people to love our bodies and care for ourselves in healthy and nurturing ways, we encourage fat-shaming- a phenomenon where we blame people for their nerve to inhabit fat bodies. If you are fat, you are told to deprive yourself in an attempt to manipulate your body to be thin by whatever measures necessary. Health is secondary to thinness. Now, many people will argue that you cannot be healthy if you are overweight. This is simply not true. More and more research is emerging showing that not all obese people are unhealthy and that being overweight (according to Body Mass Index [BMI] charts) may actually be protective in certain ways (this is called the “Obesity Paradox”). In addition, being thin by any means necessary has significant health risks as evidenced by people who struggle with (and too often die from) anorexia nervosa and bulimia nervosa. I believe that leading a healthy lifestyle, which integrates movement and a well-balanced diet of whole foods, is more predictive of an individual’s health than his or her BMI. Yet we stigmatize an entire group of people based on their body size under the pretense that this must mean that they are unhealthy. The stigmatization and bullying of fat people only leads to body-hatred and disordered eating behaviors. Think about it: if you hate your body, does this really motivate you to treat your body well? It usually results in the very antithesis- increased sickness and poor health. It was disheartening to read the comments on some of the blogs that featured the story about Stella Boonshoft. Although there were some supportive comments, the bullying and cruelty were hard to bear.

Fat-shaming simply does not work. If it worked, we would not be in the midst of an “obesity epidemic.” As a clinical psychologist, I work with patients of all different sizes (some considered underweight, average weight, overweight, or obese according to BMI) who struggle with accepting their bodies. For many people, how they feel about their body determines their mood and their daily activities. I hear from people who think that they are too fat to go to the movies, walk through the park, check out the new museum exhibition, exercise at the gym, or attend a party. People have stopped living their lives to the fullest because they feel that their fatness prevents them from being a productive member of society. They feel unacceptable, offensive, or less than because of their body size.  And feeling this way does not make them any thinner.

We need to learn to accept and love our bodies, to stop hiding and disengaging from life because our body weight isn’t considered “average.” From love-not hatred – comes nurturance and health.

by Alexis Conason, Psy.D