Like it or not, most of us make unfair or unwarranted assumptions about overweight people. There are stereotypes about obesity in our culture, and research has shown that people believe overweight and obese people are:
- Less intelligent
- Not successful
- Not likely to be in a relationship
We demonize the overweight, and when it comes to people who are morbidly overweight (weight in excess of 500 or 600 pounds), we view them as oddities.
There is a small world of people that maintain fantasies around very overweight people, and specifically how they eat. These fantasies and patterns are often regarded with distaste and concern. The dark side of this is that women who are on the receiving end of this fantasy often maintain the weight in the name of the positive attention received from “fans.” The weights being maintained (sometimes in excess of 400 pounds) are extremely dangerous and place the person at risk for a variety of health conditions. A variety of psychological explanations have been tendered for the people who want to watch people “overfeed” themselves, as well as for why people would maintain such dangerous weights.
We as a culture need to take a step back and wonder about the horror with which we regard this phenomenon of celebrating extreme obesity. We as a culture also sexualize and perhaps even “fetishize” excessive thinness. The standard of beauty promulgated in our culture is often depicted by young women whose weight is unhealthily low. We put them on billboards, on television, and also hold them up as a fantasy. But would we view men who fantasize about underweight lingerie models as “fetishists”?
So, what’s the difference? Anorexia nervosa has mortality rates higher than nearly any other mental illness. Obesity is a major contributor to severe health conditions that place a person at risk for an early death. In both cases, the eating behaviors can place the person at tremendous health risks. The only difference is what we as a culture hold up as attractive – and at the present time – it is underweight, not overweight.
Eating behaviors and standards of beauty are reinforced by other people. Women get praised for losing weight – so they keep losing weight (or obsess about it). Conversely, women who are extremely obese and get praised for that will maintain that weight as well.
If we as a culture want to address the epidemic of obesity and unhealthy relationships with food – then we need to fix the culture. We need to stop stigmatizing people who are overweight; we need to teach young women (and men) about healthy body image; we need to stop setting unrealistic standards of beauty; and we need to teach children to make healthy choices. We need to find respect – for each other and ourselves.
When I work with people who are significantly overweight, I am less concerned about how they eat and more concerned about how they view themselves and their health; I learn about their fears and their hopes. It’s less about calories and cardio and more about circumspection.
Whether it’s overeating or starving oneself, the national pastime of abusing our bodies with food has to stop.