Monday, February 8, 2010

Body image, obesity, and friendship in America

I believe this is my first "pickle" (how long can these horrible puns keep up?!), and possibly the first of some more serious blog posts on philosophy, theology, politics, etc. Not that I want the blog to lose some of its lighter tone, but I think some deeper posts might be interesting too.

So, this is a short exploratory essay on body image, obesity, and friendship in America. I'm not familiar with cultural perceptions outside of the US, but would certainly welcome international readers to chime in on the comments section.

This post starts out with a question: "As a friend/family member, if you notice that someone close to you is getting dangerously over-weight, should you talk to them about it, or let them be?"

Part of me wants to make sure that the person is aware of it, that they're not slowly gaining weight and not realizing just how much of a difference it is. Another part of me has been taught that it is a personal issue and one that, from a societal perspective, is fairly taboo to talk about (especially if your friend is a woman). But if you have a friend who smokes a lot, or drinks excessively, or is otherwise reckless with their lives, should you not try to help them? Why should obesity be any different?

Also, to be clear, I'm not talking about aesthetics here - I'm talking about real, dangerous, kills more people than cancer, obesity. Which brings me to my next point. Women in America are under incredible societal pressure to be absurdly thin. Between marketing and media, the Barbie-shape has been portrayed as an ideal for decades.

Even worse, if you go back and look at the "ideal body" of the 60s, Marilyn Monroe, she's a bit heavier than modern models. Her classic 36-24-36 numbers are too big for the British Association of Model Agents' current stated target of 34-24-34 (yes, taken from Wikipedia, but also cited within Wikipedia). So not only are we portraying thin women as ideal, it's getting even more severe with time.

This has lead to efforts to push acceptance of realistic body image among girls and women in America. Dove's Campaign for Real Beauty comes to mind as an initiative to help girls be happy with who they are. This is a fantastic idea and in no way am I challenging that such efforts are important and even necessary in our society.

But have we taken it too far? Being happy with yourself for confidence, self-esteem, and aesthetic reasons is great. But there is a clear point past which you are no longer healthy and you should be unhappy with your body - preferably in such a way as to motivate yourself to get into better shape. To tell someone who has a BMI of 35+ that they should find themselves beautiful and be happy with their body is no different than telling someone who smokes that yellow teeth and smokey breath are attractive qualities. You might be trying to make them feel better, but really are creating a poisonous thought process that will ultimately lead to an early death.

The problem is that it is a fine line to walk. You don't want every over-weight person hating themselves and being embarrassed to go in public. And some people genuinely can't lose the weight for medical reasons - though they are rare exceptions. The problem is one of moderation - we should be scorning the excessively thin and fat and helping everyone move towards a healthy, medium body weight.

Yet moderation is not a strength of our society, so we end up with things like Mo'Nique's F.A.T. (Fabulous and Thick) Chance - a reality TV show about a plus-size beauty pageant. While I understand that it's an attempt to promote positive body image, I think the idea of rewarding people for destroying their bodies is foolish and dangerous. One amateur reviewer (grobertson-2 from quipped of the show: "What's next, the Miss D.R.U.N.K. or Miss M.E.T.H. pageant?" While a bit extreme, I don't think s/he was far off.

So where does that leave us? Should a friend talk to a friend who is getting dangerously overweight? I myself have struggled with my own weight (despite screwing up my schedule and not exercising for a few months I'm still about 192, which is great that I've maintained weight, but I still have a way to go before I get out of the overweight BMI category), and yet outside of a few close family members (parents and wife), no one talks to me about it unless it's a complement about lost weight. Positive reinforcement is there and is important, but no one was challenging me when I was much more overweight (I've been as high as 215 or so) to try to lose some of it. And to be honest, I'm not sure that I would have taken such challenges well - but I'd like to think I would have respected the person for being willing to try.

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