Perception Askew: the destructive byproducts of body image conformity

Yet the same media tell us over and over again that if our bodies don’t conform to those of the “skinny” models on the magazines or on Victoria’s Secret runways, we are considered fat or obese. Our culture is rooted in the belief that fat is bad and that only a limited range of body sizes are acceptable. From a young age, girls learn that there is only one mold to fit, and if they don’t fit, they will become outcasts.

The stigma that is put on weight and the idealization of body type within society is so great that it creates an increasing dissatisfaction with one’s body by the pressure to conform to this ideal. The American Heart Association states that for more than one in three of U.S. adults, dealing with the health and emotional effects of obesity is a daily struggle. And while it is recognized that a person’s emotional health is greatly affected by weight and how we perceive it, very little attention and research is directed to the effects of weight stigma.

While the effects on emotional health are recognized, the media continue to link obesity to laziness, self-indulgence, and being weak of will as a way to encourage people away from obesity and into better habits regarding diet and exercise. Rather, what is really happening is that that these media are stigmatizing weight with so many negative stereotypes that instead of promoting good health, they are bullying people into an unnatural image ideal.

Ironically, the emphasis on weight loss as a motivator toward healthier living, it can often induce the reverse outcome. A recent research studylooked at the effects of weight stigma on actual weight loss, and found that media messages that stigmatize obesity have the effects of increasing calorie intake on those people who perceived themselves as overweight. The study also discovered that the stigma related to weight may have negative psychological behavioral consequences for people of all shapes and sizes.

The media might be the most overt example of influencing women toward unrealistic body expectations, but they aren’t the only ones telling us that we are overweight or obese. Most health providers use the Body Mass Index Calculator (BMI), a tool that measures your fat based on your current height and weight. In my case, at 5 feet 4 inches and 146 pounds, I am considered overweight. Unlike most women, I have no trouble sharing my weight because I don’t want to fall prey to the weight stigma.

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But I try to purposefully and deliberately beat back these ostensibly irresistible forces. For although healthcare providers, the media, and society as a whole are telling me that I am overweight, I refuse to belittle myself for social expectations–my emotional and physiological health are far too important to make the sacrifice.