Can we really ‘tackle obesity’ in women when we’re taught to psychologically tackle ourselves? Taylor Glenn puts a compelling case for ‘No’.
As I read this BBC article about obesity being the chief threat to women’s health, I had three simultaneous thoughts.
One: “I probably shouldn’t be eating a cupcake as I read this.”
Two: “Hmmm, why did BBC lead with the obesity angle when the health report also addresses things like domestic violence, FGM and sexual health?” *cupcake chomp*
And three, I remembered something from my childhood, when I was perhaps 10.
One afternoon, a Fibre Trim ad came on and my mom and I watched it together. Fibre Trim was one of many diet pills being touted in 1980s USA (along with the more tragically named Ayds, which got pulled for, um, brand identity reasons).
The ad depicted two young girls speaking exotic French and sharing one of their mother’s secrets for a slim figure. Fortunately someone has uploaded it to YouTube so you can experience this retro delight for yourself:
Horrified, my mother faced me and delivered one of her most impactful talks. She said the ad was wrong, because it showed little girls caring about their mothers’ appearance, when really the love between mother and daughter had nothing to do with that, and little girls should never have to worry about weight or appearance at all. I felt exhilarated by her rage, and my little mind took note.
A few months later, I was nosing through her drawer (uh, sorry Mom, that was probably wrong too…) and there it was: a bottle of Fibre Trim.
My heart sank at the sight of the European secret to weight loss™. It was a dirty, capsulated secret hidden away with her socks and underwear. I was confused by her betrayal: why was she using this horrible product if it was so wrong?
In that pivotal moment I began to learn that weight loss was something women struggled with, and felt ashamed of, and it had to be achieved by all possible means.
And it was all about appearance.
I’m so glad these thoughts now seem antiquated and silly and nobody feels this way anymore! Silly 80s, we all grew up, The End.
“Truth is, we don’t live in a world where we can effectively address ‘female obesity’ without considering our collective cognitive dissonance around the issue of women and weight first.”
Years later when training to be a therapist, I’d learn what my mother was likely experiencing was cognitive dissonance, or the state of stress caused by holding contradictory beliefs.
On the one hand, she could see that ad for the manipulative and harmful pile of marketing excrement it was; on the other, she believed her body wasn’t good enough and that she needed to make it smaller to feel beautiful.
I’m not an expert on obesity, but like an unfortunate number of women, I am an expert on the way I’ve struggled with my own self-esteem around my body, how my sense of self-worth falters when I gain weight and how I feel anxiously powerful when I lose it.
I could write about how it’s all been fuelled by a heady mix of influences and experiences. How I now find myself determined to spare my daughter from the myriad negative messages around weight, but still sometimes beat myself up in front of her when I let my inner demons rage about how my outer body isn’t what it used to be. And how all this is all made the more unbearable because I see it for the bullshit that it is.
So the more I read the BBC piece, prompted by the annual report from Chief Medical Officer Dame Sally Davies, the more it seems like a car-crash of an article; but then isn’t that oddly appropriate for the topic? It’s suffering from its own journalistic version of cognitive dissonance.
We ride the rollercoaster from the crisis of female obesity and ol’ Dame Sally’s support of ‘sugar tax’, to almost throwaway (less clickbait?) bullet points of issues facing women, back to the idea that pregnant women should watch their weight “for the sake of their children and grandchildren,” (not themselves, though?) to my fave, the embarrassing “Taboo Issues” occurring below the waist (is that you, Queen Victoria?), and oh yeah, some mention of treating eating disorders, which you will probably need if you keep reading these types of articles.
“I began to learn that weight loss was something women struggled with, and felt ashamed of, and it had to be achieved by all possible means.”
Not convinced what a minefield leading with the obesity issue was? Just scan down a few inches into the Cellar of Accusatory Psychopaths, commonly known as the comments thread. Include those and it all reads like a science-backed equivalent of a fat-shaming card.
Obligatory Fact: obesity is a monumental health issue. More people (people, not just women) will die globally of obesity in the next years than of starvation for the first time in history. And notably, media influence notwithstanding, there are issues fuelling obesity which have nothing to do with women in particular, let alone their “personal choices”. Issues like corporate food industry giants who have fundamentally turned food from nourishment into an addictive product. But that’s another article for another Monsanto – oops, I mean month!
Truth is, we don’t live in a world where we can effectively address female obesity without considering our collective cognitive dissonance around the issue of women and weight first.
And that means looking at the fact that women are taught to treat the issue anywhere from self-critical to masochistic. No, we aren’t quite ready to just be told we have a health issue, Dame Sally and BBC. What we face is far more complicated than that.3229 Views
Taylor is an American comedian, writer, and former psychotherapist based in London. She has a two-year-old and a dead basil plant.