Comment: No excuses for "fat shaming"

Super-fit mum Maria Kang has sparked a Facebook fury by asking 'What's your excuse?'

You can't encourage someone to take care of their body by unconsciously telling them to hate it. We need to change the way we think about looks, writes Saman Shad.

Maria Kang probably had good intentions when she posted a photo of herself on Facebook wearing a skimpy outfit that showed off her very toned body, while posing next to her three young boys. But it wasn’t the image that provoked a response, but the question accompanying it - “What’s your excuse?” it simply asked. The implication was that despite being a mother to three young children, Maria was still able to find the time to make herself look like she just walked off the cover of a fitness magazine. So why couldn’t you? Why couldn’t everyone?

The response to her photo was swift. While some called her inspiring, many others were deeply critical of Maria. What she was doing, they said, was “fat-shaming” – singling out and bullying people who are overweight under the guise of wanting to help them. The photo has been shared almost 240,000 times on Facebook and has received world-wide attention. The photo resonates with us because it taps into a notion that has been deeply ingrained in us all by the media: being fat is bad and being thin is good. Nothing else matters.

Mothers especially have been the target of media campaigns that do little more than make them feel bad about their bodies post-birth. It doesn’t matter that you’ve carried and grown a child inside of you for nine months. You need to look like you did before you got pregnant in a matter of weeks.

The media fixation for highlighting how quickly celebrities get back into shape (without mentioning the personal trainers and nutritionists helping them behind the scenes) does little more than contribute to the pressure that new mums already find themselves under.

Then there are articles like this that openly proclaim “a baby can quickly sabotage a new mother’s well-laid plans for getting back to pre-pregnancy weight and shape.” Yes really – your baby, the reason you got pregnant in the first place, is little more than a hindrance in your path to fitness.

It’s not just new mothers who are under pressure to get in shape. Fat-shaming crosses all boundaries. Images of overweight children with slogans such as “Fat Kids become Fat Adults” under them were used by this ad campaign  targeting the rising rates of childhood obesity. Unwittingly perhaps, the campaign was hurting the very children it was trying to help. By publicising images of overweight children looking unhappy it was singling them out. This attitude is then carried out into playgrounds, where these kids are bullied and made to feel bad about the way they look.

With the rise of social media however, bullying is now no longer restricted to playgrounds and workplaces. It is ubiquitous. Fat-shaming is now very much part of this new form of bullying. It taps into feelings of insecurity and lack of self-worth felt by those unsatisfied with the way they look and vilifies them for it. It’s also helping fuel pro-ana websites – sites that encourage those suffering from anorexia to keep losing weight. These websites don’t see anorexia as a disease, rather as a way of life. Images like that of Maria Kang and thin celebrities are used by pro-ana sites as forms of “thinspiration” .  Enter the hashtag #thinspo into Twitter and you come up with numerous sad images and tweets from mostly female teenagers harking after bodies like this. Fat-shaming is doing little more than fuelling their disease.

No matter how well-meaning people like Maria Kang seem to be, the fact of the matter is that fat-shaming doesn’t work. It doesn’t inspire people to get into shape. Instead it creates a stigma and reinforces negative stereotypes around body image, which is far from motivational.

It is true that levels of obesity in our country are at an all-time high – with 63% of all Australians being overweight or obese and 67% performing little or no exercise. Clearly, a change needs to happen as rising rates of obesity are closely linked to rates of illness. That puts greater pressure on our medical resources. But fat-shaming isn’t the way to go.

We need to reinforce a healthy attitude to eating and exercise that doesn’t rely on making people feel bad about how they currently look. Such a change in attitude needs to occur from the ground up. It needs to happen in our schools and family homes. It needs to be done in an organic way that is more about creating good habits rather than unwittingly reinforcing bad ones.

But most importantly we need to change the way we think about looks. We all come in lots of shapes and sizes and there is beauty in each one of us. Positively recognising that is more important than conforming to societal demands of how we ought to look.

Saman Shad is a storyteller and playwright.

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