Fat-Shaming Is Never Okay!
Back in May, women’s athleticwear company Oiselle started a campaign encouraging women to embrace their bodies, no matter what their shape. This brought back a memory for company founder and CEO, Sally Bergesen. She posted it on Twitter: “‘Keep eating like that and you’re going to be a butterball’,” quoting a male relative, when she was 12.
She then invited women to share their own stories of body commentary, cutting and kind, using the hashtag #TheySaid. A torrent of responses ensued. “‘You have such a pretty face. It’s a pity you’re so fat. No man will ever marry you.’ – My mother”. “‘You’re so skinny; what could you possibly be upset about?’ – girls at my school”. “‘When we’re done having kids, we’ll nip that, tuck that, and lift those.’ – my ex-husband on the last day he ever saw me unclothed”.
I read these with a kind of rueful horror. While I completely understood how terrible this all was, I wasn’t surprised. I live in this world, too. I have daughters. I have lived with and loved women. And I have, like everybody else – including many women themselves – judged them on how close their bodies came to an impossible ideal. But I’m also aware that we men are not immune to imposed standards of physique, either. In the privacy of their bathrooms, people of both sexes stare at mirrors and contemplate where they have fallen short – or more often, exceeded the allowable margins. I wondered: what is being said to men about our bodies, and who is speaking?
Mostly, it’s not other men. Many #TheySaid responses cited things said by other women, because in our culture, women constantly conduct what academic literature calls ‘fat talk’, in which they critique their weight, physique, diet, present failures and future hopes. Men: not so much. As Northwestern University, US, psychology professor Renee Engeln once put it: “Men talk about body dissatisfaction when they’re eating and when they’re at the gym. Women talk about body dissatisfaction when they’re talking.”
But that doesn’t mean men aren’t listening, mostly to the megaphone of culture. Women have always been compared to different physical ideals, varying by culture and era, from Peter Paul Rubens’ plump ladies to Twiggy’s bony ’60s style to Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman, an eternally shifting array of standards similar only in their unattainability. For men, though, it’s only been in the last 30 years that a cultural bodily ideal has become fantastical. In 1934’s It Happened One Night, Clark Gable takes off his shirt to reveal a distinctly untoned, slightly hairy chest – and far from ending his career, that image was so sexually charged that men all over America allegedly stopped buying undershirts. Fast forward to the 2017 movie Baywatch, in which Zac Efron, playing a ‘former Olympic swimmer’, has muscular arms, bulging pecs, and ripped abs – yet looks scrawny next to his co-star, Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. Today, Clark Gable would be playing the lead’s nerdy best friend.
While women are told they must be thin – with a growing emphasis on muscle tone and athleticism – for men, body anxiety is far more focused on muscularity and size, and it starts early. One study of male action figures shows that their plastic physiques have pumped up over the last 35 years. My 1970s Spider-Man Halloween costume was a plastic face mask and smock; today it’s a fibrefill-padded torso with built-in abs and bulging biceps.
For men, even if fat isn’t the mark of shame it is for women, it still says lazy, goofy, the comic relief rather than the hero. Even pudgy movie stars – Seth Rogen, Jonah Hill – eventually appear in gossip rags showing off new, lean bodies. If the old mark of success was a Wall Street belly filling out a R50 000 suit; now it’s the Silicon Valley flat stomach riding a R50 000 carbon-fibre bike. To be a fat man is to be seen as, essentially, unserious.
It is a terrible thing to be shamed, by the culture or your partner or your parent or yourself, because your body does not fit some preposterous ideal. But for some of us, whatever dark reason we began our journey, we got to a bright place – be it a mountain top, or the finishing chute of a marathon. To this day, I still hear an internal voice telling me I should be bigger, stronger, leaner. I’m resigned to never being able to shut it up. But at the same time, I’m a lot healthier and happier than when I first responded to that pressure by starting to run 35 years ago. Would I be happier still had I never felt the urge, however insidious, to try to remake myself in the pursuit of an impossible ideal?
I put it to Bergesen: would she rather have never heard those comments, if that meant she never would have achieved what she has? “If body shaming was the only way I would find and love running, then yeah, I would take the lumps,” she responded. “But I don’t believe they’re cause and effect. For me, the bigger draw to running was the ability to get healthy and recover from substance abuse, particularly alcohol.”
In fact, she said, internalised body dysmorphia – an obsession with perceived imperfections – hindered her in her decision to start running and re-assert control over her life. She came to realise that running would benefit her, for good and real reasons; but to get there, she had to put aside false ones.
So my presumed bargain is, in fact, no bargain at all. The purpose of running is not to become like anyone else – an actor, a Greek statue – but to become a healthier, stronger, and happier version of yourself. To tell anyone – men or women or yourself – anything else will not help them get there. In fact, it will hold them back; because to ask the impossible of anyone, most especially yourself, is to guarantee failure.