Like many people, I have struggled with my body image. And like many people, those concerns were unfounded. At my ‘worst,’ I was just a bit chubby. Nonetheless, I considered myself to be overweight for a long time. Why? People called me fat and, quite frankly, it warped my self perception. This idea of ‘fatness’ became an obsession for me. For a long time, I refused to have photos taken of me. The idea of people sharing them, and laughing at my body, terrified me. I avoided looking at myself in the mirror, and I changed my posture in an attempt to hide my insecurities. At the same time, in the midst of this deep, abiding shame, I did nothing to help myself. I didn’t exercise and I didn’t change my diet because, mentally, I was defeated. I viewed my body as a point of shame, rather than a part of me; I was fat because I was weak, and I was weak because I was fat. I didn’t have the will to exercise—I didn’t think I could—nor did I see a point in eating better.
As puberty hit, that extra weight started to go away. These subtle changes in my physique got me to wonder, with time, if “maybe I’m not fat, actually.” Soon after, I started taking my health seriously. I would be purposeful about what I ate, and I would pay attention to how my body felt. As I became less alienated from my own body, I saw the point in improving my well-being. That attitude emerged over the span of months and years, and so I steadily learned how to care for my diet.
Later on, I became interested in working out. At first, my motivations were purely aesthetic. I wanted to be buff and, although I started enjoying exercise, I had trouble sticking to a routine. Without quick, obvious results, there wasn’t much to keep me in the gym. Aesthetics, as it turns out, are not a sound motivator—not for me, at least. Then, as I stopped worrying about my looks and my weight, and as I came to treat exercise as a form of stress-relief, I worked that much harder. Nowadays, as a person who is perfectly comfortable with their body, I can say that I’ve never been more devoted to exercise, or proper dieting, than I am right now. My mind is solely focused on feeling healthy and meeting my goals. If someone were to come and tell me that I ought to look some way, or I ought to eat some way, I doubt it would do me any good. In fact, I’m sure it would mess me up.
This is where I enter the “body positivity debate.” Every now and then, I’ll see a post on Yik Yak, or Duke Confessions, which essentially asks us “why shouldn’t we fat-shame people?” Their argument, as I understand it, is that body positivity condones unhealthy lifestyles and complacency, while fat-shaming will induce them to work harder. In a very facile way, their argument makes sense: we shouldn’t encourage people to be unhealthy, and people should be told to care for their bodies. However, body positivity does not entail treating all lifestyles as though they’re equally healthy. To me, at least, it’s about telling people that, regardless of the shape of their body, they are worthwhile human beings. It’s about disentangling one’s appearance from their value as a person and, in doing so, helping them to have a healthy relationship with their own body. Fat-shaming is the opposite, and it’s not an inducement to self-care.
I mean, it’s literally in the name: fat-shaming is designed to turn one’s body into a point of shame. Its victims are made to feel inadequate, and that is somehow meant to compel them into action. I’ve already described one obvious problem with that: if you’re told that your body is a sign of moral failure, that makes it hard to believe that you can change it. It creates a sense of helplessness, and allows you to sink deeper into whatever unhealthy habits you already have. Additionally, it leads to a situation where, unless you live up to whatever you consider an ‘ideal body,’ you feel like you’re failing. Imagine the anguish that must come with losing 20 or 30 pounds and still being told that you are weak, not trying hard enough, because you have 60 more to go. Imagine going to the gym for a month, finally being able to run a mile, and still being called a lazy slob.
In that way, fat shaming—this idea that we can bully people into losing weight—is blind and dumb. It treats anyone who isn’t already ‘perfect’ as though they’re defective, and it helps nobody. Of course, you do hear stories about people who got shamed into losing weight, but I do wonder if that’s really what happened. A lot of gym-rats who were once overweight, many of whom have had experiences with weight-based bullying, seem to genuinely love the process of working out. Looking at the things they say, I get the impression that they exercise to feel empowered—to break personal records and accomplish goals—rather than chasing a perfect body. Obviously, the body is nice, too; I know I like to think I’m growing muscle mass. However, something tells me that, for many of them, that’s not why they’re pushing for one more rep. More power to them, I think they’re doing well.
On the other hand, there are people who experience this shaming, attain a body that almost anyone would call ‘ideal,’ and continue to struggle with their image. Even ‘ideal’ people can have eating disorders, abuse steroids, or simply continue to be unhappy with themselves in spite of their accomplishments. To me, that is not a good outcome for fat-shaming. As someone who has dealt with these feelings of doubt, it’s not something that I would wish on anybody. They damage your quality of life and, taken to an extreme, can make you unhealthy in the opposite direction.
Hence, I will always be emphatically pro body-positivity. From what I’ve experienced, from what I’ve seen, respecting people and their bodies will encourage them to take care of themselves. On a personal level, it’s the foundation of a healthy relationship with health. And even if it may take years for that to manifest itself, it beats the alternative. So if we, as a society, are serious about helping people lose weight, we ought to treat people with respect and empathy; flies, honey, vinegar, and so on.
Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity sophomore. His column typically runs on alternate Wednesdays.
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Dan Reznichenko is a Trinity junior and an opinion managing editor of The Chronicle's 118th volume.