Three Peasant Women

Conflating Body Image and Health

It never fails. In the UK, Cosmopolitan can stir up a controversy simply by suggesting that people of all sizes can have good health. A provocative cover story did the trick. Piers Morgan is happy to participate and stir the pot. But in the end, this is not a story about obesity. In fact, conflating body image and health is simply a distraction. Obesity is not a disease of appearance. Mostly, it is a metabolic disease.

So it’s not helpful for healthcare professionals to join in on this faux controversy.

People Feeling Good About Their Bodies

Many of the tweeters – such as Morgan – don’t like the idea that people of all sizes can be proud of their bodies. The offending story is not about obesity. It is about 11 different journeys to personal health. Women of different sizes, coping with very different issues, describe how they have found ways to feel healthy. Along the way, they find people all too willing to try and regulate their body image, as Alex Light explains:

“People comment on my body every day. I’ve been told I’m overweight, promoting obesity and too chubby to be showing my body. At the beginning I found it hard, because it felt like my darkest fears were confirmed, but it has fast-tracked me to a thick skin.”

The Fake Controversy

Let’s be clear. Cosmopolitan was very strategic about stirring this controversy. The story is not about obesity. In fact, the word appears only once, and it’s only a passing mention. Nobody is debating that obesity is or is not a health risk in this article.

Throughout the article, though, Cosmopolitan has sprinkled cover images featuring these women of many sizes with a headline that says This Is Healthy! It’s the perfect bait for a controversy because, in a fat phobic culture, it is jolting. The culture conditions us to expect a single standard for body images in a fashion and lifestyle magazine.

So critics jump to the conclusion that Cosmopolitan is promoting obesity simply by telling us that women can pursue health in bodies of many different sizes. This is implicit weight bias at work. We should reject it. Negative feelings about one’s body image have serious implications for health.

Conflating body image with health is not helpful. One size does not fit all.

Click here for the story from Cosmopolitan and here for further perspective from Men’s Health.

Three Peasant Women, watercolor by Camille Pissarro / WikiArt

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January 10, 2021