The many shades of health
Everyday, you are exposed to body sculpting ads, tea toxes, diet information, “who wore it better” spreads, celebrity bikini reels, plastic surgery ad, influencer fad diet sponsorship, workout plans, songs obsessing with the body, products emulating it’s physical form, and so much more. It’s true, the human body is a masterful piece of art in all its forms. However, this relentless reminder of the body creates a hyper awareness of physical attributes. Boxed in by a cultural wave of speculation and scrutiny, one cannot help but feel they are being examined when simply existing, and that they should be trying to actively “correct” what they can when they can. But who’s in charge of showing you what the final product should be? Media.
Advertisements present you with an idea of what the ideal is, and perpetuates their ideal until the cultural standard has been set by public acceptance. The shape or look of your body determines aspects of your desirability, your happiness, your success. Thus, your body becomes you, and less of yours. Advertisements in particular target their ads regarding desirability and sex appeal largely to women. Consequently, women end up stuck in a constant cycle of not only sizing one another up, but feeling pressured to be "fixing" themselves constantly.
A woman walks into Target to browse one Saturday. The racks are separated by size, and many other women are on the prowl for a bargain. People are sliding past each other through the narrow aisles and draping their treasures over their straining arms. Our lady, let’s call her Debra, is scourging the racks as well, scanning over the items with an indifferent countenance, but something’s off.
You see, Debra has gained a bit of weight, enough to feel in the snugness of her jeans. It’s new and not altogether welcome; she’s not sure if she should be here buying new clothes for her fuller figure or going back home and using her old pants as collateral for dropping the numbers. She looks over at the S/M rack with a degree of shame. She locks eyes with a thin, gorgeous girl nonchalantly stacking clothes into an overloaded cart. The girl gives her a half-hearted, awkward smile and quickly goes back to browsing her options. Debra, suddenly feeling embarrassed to be in the L/XL section, decides that maybe she’ll try a pair of pants closer to her old size; she can still fit. Finally in the dressing room, the moment comes. She slides one foot through. Okay, good. So far so good. A second foot slides through. Yes! We’re practically there! She grabs them and starts pulling them up with all the ferocity of a child running after the last easter egg. It’s working! But suddenly they stop. Her thighs are thicker than they used to be and the pants have her bobbing like a penguin half way up her upper leg. She does the jumping jack trick, the on-the-floor tug-o-war, makes a sacrifice to the gods, but it’s no use. She no longer fits into this size. She no longer fits. She doesn’t make it. And what comes next?
For our friend Debra, who is now ostracized from the “okayed” individuals, she will be prone to feelings of worthlessness. If your self confidence is tied to something as fickle as weight or age, then it will change and fluctuate just as rapidly and unpredictably as those factors.
You, the reader, can probably well imagine the types of emotions running through her head because you’ve felt them to some degree as well. Shame, embarrassment, panic, sadness, confusion, inadequacy, anger, defensiveness, denial, and more. Why such a fierce resistance to gaining weight? The short answer is that it’s been an integral part of media marketing, cultural hierarchy, and social status since the surge of mass media to continually be shrinking. If brands only feature a body type that is outside of realistic expectations, then the subconscious assumptions is that they are an outlier. And as I mentioned before, everyone wants to stand out until they actually do, and then they want to know where they fit in. It’s a paradox of the human condition that makes life a little more complicated. Being an outsider of that “elite” group feels like losing at the game of life. The idea that you are your body is unfortunately still widely accepted, while your body is yours is a fresher key player.
In January of 2020, popular fitness guide Jillian Michaels regarding R&B singer Lizzo’s larger body.
“Why are we celebrating her body?” Jillian said on BuzzFeed News' AM to DM. “Why does it matter? That’s what I’m saying. Like why aren’t we celebrating her music? ‘Cause it isn’t gonna be awesome if she gets diabetes...I'm just being honest. I love her music, my kid loves her music, but there's never a moment when I'm like, ‘I'm so glad she's overweight.' Why do I even care? Why is it my job to care about her weight?"
Oof. I actually understand what she might have been trying to say, and see some degree of truth here. Why is it so important what an artist looks like, if it’s their music and accomplishments we should ideally be celebrating? For all the smoke and mirrors of stardom, who wants to be remembered for their body at the end of the day? Most people think they do, but are really seeking the connections that come from being seen soul to soul. It’s incredibly frustrating, particularly for women who have for centuries been discriminated against using their bodies, to have your ambitions and accomplishments eclipsed by obsessive talk of body shape. It’s a fair point to say that the narrative should be about Lizzo as an incredibly talented artist and performer, who happens to be plus size, rather than, “Lizzo is plus size! Oh, and she sings sometimes too.”
Jillian shot herself in the foot when she revealed her internalized fatphobia lens by assuming that Lizzo was out of shape, at risk for diabetes, or would die young based on her size. On the contrary, Lizzo posts her dance videos and daily food logs for all the world to see on her social media platforms. She is incredibly healthy. Her accusations are a prime example of how people use physical appearance to make assumptions about someone’s livelihood. Lizzo’s size has nothing to do with her ability to sing, her accomplishments, or even her physical health as far as the eye can tell.
The conversation around health and body image would have you believe that the look of your body determines your quality of life. In reality, health looks different on everyone, but the narrative that our culture says that health is washboard abs, a salad a day, and a slim figure. Take any cover of Women's Health magazine from 2000-2018 for proof.
I think health is a glowing smile, self awareness, good communication skills, healthy boundaries, rest, and a vigor for life.
What is health to you?