What does being ‘fit’ mean to you? Does it bring to mind images of tanned and toned bodies no larger than a size 4? Even with the #bodypositive movement, so many of us don’t associate different body types as being fit and healthy. Socially, we have formed such a strong connection between fitness and ‘skinny’ bodies that many of us don’t even consider that someone could, at the same time, be ‘fat’ and fit. This stigma is leaving many women and girls in a constant battle for the ‘perfect body’, and even worse, it’s readily being passed onto the next generation. Our children are being taught from a young age that your size is a reflection of your health. What can we do to stop the cycle? Change the conversation.
This week, I’d like to share a story. Recently, I was at a wedding where a belly dancer was brought in to perform for the guests. As she stepped onto the dance floor, many of us were in awe of her presence; she was beaming, dripping in brightly coloured silks and gold jewellery. For half an hour, she shook, shimmied and danced to song after song. No breaks. But, what seemed to strike many of us was her size. She was not what society would describe as small, and she carried more around the middle than most women would consider desirable.
I was not the only health professional at the wedding. During the performance, one of my fellow professionals turned to me with wide eyes and said, “I would have expected her to have a six pack.” I looked back at her inquisitively. She concluded that, “She just looks so strong” and I agreed. It was at this moment that I understood how prevalent this misconception is. So many of us don’t seem to believe that you can be ‘fat’ AND fit.
What struck me more than anything was the way in which my fellow healthcare professionals judged her. I was among very talented individuals, who are all amazing at what they do. They care deeply about their work and their patients. Even as I was surrounded by what should have been an incredibly accepting group, I was instead met with body prejudice; my colleagues were unable to disassociate the size of the woman from their assumption about her fitness. This beautiful, strong and inspiring woman was the embodiment of good health. She had us all beat on core strength and stamina, as she danced with grace and softness. Yet all we could focus on was her size.
Within the #bodypositive community, the belly dancer I saw perform wouldn’t be considered ‘fat’. Instead, she would be categorized as ‘full sized’ (and not ‘plus sized’). But by Hollywood’s standards, she was ‘fat’. She does not have the kind of body that we typically see in magazines, movies or commercials. Ultimately, she was far from what we consider the ‘ideal body.’
Here lies the challenge. The stigma we hold to those people who carry extra weight is so deeply engrained in our own minds and perspectives that we accept it as true. Fat becomes synonymous with lazy, unhealthy and undesirable. As a society, we become so stuck with these thoughts that many individuals are becoming hypersensitive. They believe that they carry extra weight (even though they are very ‘normal’) and are opting to avoid everyday activities because of their distorted body image. For some people, that means not participating in fitness related activities for fear of being seen, judged or even shamed. The judgement of their own bodies prevents them from being free to live their life. Even more disappointing is that this scenario is far from rare. The Dove report revealed that 80% of women and girls had cancelled important life events (like birthday parties, trying out for a team, family dinners and holidays) due to low body esteem.
Starting from a very young age, children look to their parents for love, guidance and support. They are in the process of forming their own perspective of the world, and along the way, they internalize the perspectives and ideals of the family. This is why it’s so important for us to change the conversation of food and the body at the beginning of the parenting journey. When mom and dad repeatedly speak about their eating habits, their diet, or their weight loss journey, children are taught that those are priorities in life. Instead of inadvertently contributing to disordered eating and a bad body image, we can focus on a healthy outlook on life. Our kids need to know that skinny doesn’t mean healthy, and fat doesn’t mean unhealthy.
The new conversation teaches us that parents who:
- Discuss healthy eating with their kids without the conversation being about weight, raise teenagers that are less likely to develop eating disorders or obesity [i]
- Don’t restrict foods, raise teenagers that are less likely to develop disordered eating [ii]
- Model healthy eating behaviours and lifestyle choices themselves, for the sake of health and not weight loss, raise kids who are more likely to live a healthy lifestyle [iii]
Instead of being fearful of fat, we need to focus on fun. Rather than dieting before a special event, why not stay active with your kids or your husband? For the next generation, we need to create an environment where children are not afraid of being teased, and where teenagers aren’t constantly comparing themselves to the countless ‘skinny’ celebrities. Just as it does with women, the stigma around fat is stopping our children from participating in the very activities that lead to health. You can’t tell a person’s health from their weight, and you can’t tell a person’s fitness from their size. Just like the belly dancer, we can be incredibly fit, while living in a large body. I encourage my Rebels to not only change their perspective, but change the conversation.
Until next time,
Live Life. Love Food. Be Free.
[dt_divider style=”thin” /]
[i] JAMA Pediatr. 2013 Aug 1;167(8):746-53. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2013.78
[ii] Int J Eat Disord. 2014 Apr;47(3):310-4. doi: 10.1002/eat.22189. Epub 2013 Sep 18.
[iii] Br J Nutr. 2008 Feb;99 Suppl 1:S22-5. doi: 10.1017/S0007114508892471.