When I read articles about overweight people finding a way to accept and love their bodies, I am not convinced. I don’t doubt that they face cruelty, discrimination, mockery. That’s horrible and it would be great it if stopped. But unfortunately, there are plenty of mean, and nasty people in the human race. They pick on some of us more than others. (But they do also have to live with themselves).
And just to be clear, I’m not interested in the ‘health’ argument – that an overweight person shouldn’t love their fat because their body is unhealthy: None of us know when our time is up and lots of us ‘abuse’ our body in some way. Or some live the most perfectly healthy life but don’t make it past 25. Yes, obesity is having some impact on the NHS, but so is smoking and drinking. And I will ruin my teeth by eating too much sugar… We all have our vices.
No, the reason I’m not convinced is firstly because, unless there is a medical cause, if you’re overweight, there’s something wrong. Being overweight indicates a form of suffering (term used lightly). Despite the rhetoric, if given a choice, no one would choose to be overweight. For whatever reason, an overweight person has developed a dependent relationship with food. These habits are entrenched, and the underlying ‘suffering’ can be well concealed, even to the person themselves.
I have overeating habits. I am probably too easily overwhelmed by life’s pressures. There are moments when I will eat to cope – perhaps at certain social occasions, or when I’m drained from working a long day. I am too often managing my desire to eat more (chocolate), and if I do give in, I don’t stop until I’m uncomfortable – until I’m forced to stop.
When I’m in the midst of this behaviour, I am rarely able to unpick it and find something else to make me feel better. The desire to gorge is too strong. The food will provide the desired outcome: distraction, comfort, helping me to get through. But the lack of control doesn’t feel nice. I really don’t feel good about myself and I am fearful about where this behaviour (dependency) might end. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying everyone’s the same, but there must be some similarity here.
The second reason I’m not convinced is because, while overweight people can have beautiful features, a large amount of weight on a person’s frame changes the way we perceive them.
A note on the term ‘beauty’: In this context, use of the word ‘beauty’ is unhelpful because, though not everyone realises it, it is people/personalities within bodies that we find attractive, not bodies per se. That’s why you can find a stunning partner but find them boring or resent them over time (see ‘Is being beautiful really so great?‘).
However, when someone is overweight, it’s as if they are hidden behind the weight – and the weight tells us that they need food so much that they eat it despite themselves. Our level of attraction to an overweight person can be limited somewhat because their body tells us something about who they are.
A good illustration of this is when you know someone who has lost a lot of weight. I knew someone and when I saw her after the weight loss, it was a surreal experience. I watched her movements, which were now different, and I kept thinking it was like she was a different person suddenly: I realised that I viewed her personality differently. To try to explain how, if I think really honestly, the best words I can think of (though they will sound bad), is that it’s like she was more admirable, and I could relate to her more. Some will say this is just an expression of my prejudice, but I am sharing it because I suspect this is a quite natural response – and not because we are disgusted by fat, but because of what that fat tells us about the person and the fact that the fat acts almost as a disguise, and conceals the person within.
I daresay it’s also a surreal experience for an overweight person to become thinner. They must notice people’s reactions, and wonder whether the weight-loss has fundamentally changed who they are. It probably makes them feel insecure because, inside, they were still the same person when they were overweight.
So how should overweight people perceive themselves?
By saying they love their bodies, overweight people have been sucked into the same myth as thinner folk: the idea that the body matters more than the person. We must all accept and love ourselves – but for who we are, not what our bodies look like. None of us will get anywhere trying to feel great because of superficial things. Beauty can offer a hedonistic thrill, but it won’t nourish the soul. We must endeavour to look at all bodies without the lens of perfection; without judgement; but just as the physical substance of the human race, lived out through the idiosyncrasies of the individual.
As for the reasons for being overweight, the suffering… We’ve all got our problems and struggles. Denying them won’t get us anywhere. Living our lives the best we can, and searching for calm and kindness, is a good way to live life whoever we are. And it might even lead us to overcoming some of those problems.