By Sarah Werthan Buttenwieser
Each of us probably has a hit parade of shame moments induced by societal expectations or aspirations. When a kid called me fat, my feelings were hurt—and I feared they were right. The time I wore white pants and then got my period, I wished I didn’t menstruate. The time someone called me grandma when I walked down the street with my youngest kid, I was comfortable enough in my skin and hair, thankfully, not to feel badly that I’d decided not to color my hair, despite the inevitability of this response to a graying mom.
As most women would agree, how we are perceived visually, our looks, are scrutinized from early on—and we garner big feelings about the scrutiny. Simultaneously, most, if not all of us, in some way participate in this phenomenon of scrutinizing. A few weeks ago, two things happened within about a day that ignited those shame and blame sensations. New guidelines declared childhood obesity (official term, not mine) something that merited more aggressive treatment than it previously had, and Madonna appeared at the Grammys, where her appearance became a cultural flashpoint for conversations about aging, feminism, subversiveness, beauty, and money.
The new medical guidelines deemed certain kids potentially eligible for weight loss medication at age twelve and for bariatric surgery at thirteen. These new guidelines obliterate any chance for nuance when considering that people have different body types, varying BMI measurements and that an extremely wide range of bodies could be considered capable and beautiful. Every word we use to describe bodies can trigger intense emotional response: obese, fat, skinny, voluptuous, androgynous, boyish, flabby, fit. If every descriptive is loaded—societally and emotionally—an honest conversation becomes difficult, if not impossible.
Acceptance can serve as a bulwark against shame and blame. This kind of shift opens us to view health more broadly and expansively. Whether categorized as disease or not, even “healthy” or not, it can be difficult to live in a fat-shaming culture, especially when many practitioners within the medical community view obesity to be the root cause for all health problems afflicting a person labelled obese and laud low body weight, often even if it’s not healthy for that person’s particular body.
Amongst the leading sources of depression and anxiety in adolescence at this time—fueled by filters—are eating disorders and body dysmorphia. Without the work to make real strides in decreasing stigma about all our bodies, a declaration of heaviness as disease is unlikely to help those being shamed in a fat-hating society.
Think about how acceptable it can be to complain about being seated next to a large person on a plane, or the cost, sometimes mandated by airlines, that at a certain weight, a person must purchase two seats instead of one. Roxanne Gay writes of shame-inducing experiences in her incredible memoir Hunger; Kiese Laymon, too, chronicles shame and size in his fantastic memoir, Heavy.
Personal as it feels, all issues around food access and security and the ability to participate in the actions considered essential for a healthy lifestyle land squarely within systemic constructs. When building blocks to public health are inaccessible, from lack of well care to cuts in physical education and the push to make organized sport participation come with high price tags, it’s clear that our collective health is not solely personal; we are all conspirators and victims of systems that do not work for all of us.
The new guidelines ignore that people with financial means will obtain these weight loss medications and schedule these surgeries long before people without the financial means to cover these high costs. Well-versed as we are in ways to promote healthy living, access is limited to everything from well-care to clean water and the chance to obtain real food. This is about public parks and playgrounds, trees in all parts of cities, not simply the wealthier ones. It’s about public transport and safety for pedestrians and cyclists. It’s about child and adolescent mental health, and about stopping the epidemic of gun violence. It’s so many things that could give us all a chance at sustainable lives, ones that feel good to live, regardless of body size or BMI.
Barely a day later, after Madonna’s Grammy appearance, immediate chatter began, all about her face. It was ridiculed. It was called subversive. It was seen as a sign that the beauty industrial complex won, that misogyny and ageism won. Madonna, being Madonna, spoke up. Madonna, being a savvy businessperson, not coincidentally has a line of beauty products she promotes. The conversation in the internet public square focused upon personal choice or lack thereof, and the pressure to be as youthful as possible in a society that turns its gaze from older women. So many reactions from one famous face! And so very few of them had anything to do with Madonna herself.
What I’m writing here, all this, seems to be the trite way to argue that our biggest issues have to do with discomfort. In talking about and owning our personal shame, in a willingness to support one another without so much judgment, we could accept that our shame—personally, societally—runs deep and is nuanced. There’s no simple answer to body image or aging; there’s no avoidance of feeling vulnerable as humans residing in bodies. There is a messiness where feelings meet policy, or trends, and there’s a need both to root into our personal reactions and be willing to think and act bigger if we want to break stigma and begin to alleviate shame from what happens to and in our bodies. Because we all have bodies. And we most certainly can work to love them better and love each other more—as we all are.
Sarah Buttenwieser is a writer and community organizer whose work has appeared in various anthologies, Washington Post, What’s Up Moms, Paste Magazine and many others.
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