As our society marches on, new ideas about social conduct and diversity are being presented. There are plus size supermodels walking down the runway, and overweight celebrities on sitcoms presenting the notion that it is okay for fat people to be proud of who they are and how they present themselves.
However, there is intense scrutiny from those who oppose the idea of things like the body positivity movement. One of the biggest arguments is that it could excuse if not outright enable toxic and unhealthy behavior by making it appear fashionable to the public.
So, where do we draw the line? Is it a good idea to endorse the idea that it is okay to be overweight or obese and still be self-confident? Or does it lead to a societal approval for toxic behavior?
Sociological thinking in a Nutshell
Human beings are social creatures who take our cues from other groups of people. When we do this, we create a social norm that determine implicit and explicit guidance on what to think and believe, how to behave, and how to interact with others.
Since the arguments for or against the body positivity movement are based on polite interaction and morality, I am only going to define the implicit level of societal expectations.
Mores are the values that determine moral and ethical behavior that are more strongly enforced by society. If you are caught breaking a moral code of conduct, such as cheating on a spouse, you run the risk of being ostracized by your friends, family, and possibly your future dating pool. It won’t get you arrested but there are still severe consequences for that action.
Folkways are values that are not strongly enforced but are there to establish a code of conduct for casual social interactions such as: manners, customs, and politeness. If you break a folkway such as talking to a stranger in an elevator or not holding the door open for the person immediately behind you, the worst you can get is a comment from someone else pointing out how rude you are.
Folkways and Mores blend into one another and constantly shift depending on the period and location. For instance, if you were to speak in a foreign language in a city of diverse people, like Huntsville, Alabama, people are more likely to shrug it off. This is because they are already exposed to new people, languages and customs from people who travel to work at the Arsenal or for NASA.
If you were to do the same thing in a place like Cullman, Alabama, where most of the people there are used to others whose families lived there for generations, you are much more likely to arouse suspicion and mistrust. Unlike the people in Huntsville, Alabama, they are less likely to be exposed to foreign languages and other cultures. So they are more likely be offended by the sound of someone speaking around them in a way that they can’t understand, than they are to wave a confederate flag, which would leave the people of Huntsville, Alabama aghast.
But how does obesity gel in to the folkways and mores of modern American society? And why does the acceptance of the presence of a size 22 model feel threatening to the fabric of our country’s values and health?
Attitudes towards Obesity and its Results
Attitudes towards obesity in the distant past changed from society to society. In some cultures, it would be considered a sign of wealth. In others, it would not only be considered a health hazard, it is practically cited as a moral failure.
The common stereotype about obesity that is pervasive in the United States, from Huntsville, Alabama to Washington D.C.is that fatness is a byproduct of laziness. There is a common belief that obesity comes from a complete lack of self-control and can be fixed is someone changes their habits. This attitude is combined with the fundamental belief that if we give something enough shame and negative attention in a social setting, that we can discourage the behaviors that lead to the lack of control in the first place.
So, the logic would dictate that people would be less lazy if we tell fat people to get off the couch and push them to do better. And America does a really good job at telling people they should be ashamed of being fat. You would think that it would get results.
But it has led to no results in decreasing the obesity epidemic. In fact, it has only aided with increasing the obesity problem.
Why? Because the average American is not only ill-educated about what obesity is, but the constant negativity outright encourages bad behavior way more than body positivity ever can.
According to the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, “Research demonstrates that obese patients frequently feel stigmatized in health care settings. These patients are more likely to avoid routine preventive care, and when they do seek health services they may receive compromised care. When patients feel stigmatized, they are vulnerable to depression and low self-esteem, they are less likely to feel motivated to adopt lifestyle changes, and some may even turn to unhealthy eating patterns for solace.”
If we stop shaming people for being fat, does this mean that we should encourage people to stay fat and make bad choices? Of course not. Body positivity is about loving yourself where you are at and having the confidence to go about your day to day. When we stop treating obesity as a moral issue and start treating it like a genuine concern through public policy and education, people are going to get the help they need.
But until we stop holding onto the delusion that fatness is equated to moral failings and laziness, the epidemic is only going to continue to grow. They don’t need to be excused for not trying to make their lives better, but they do need to understand that it is okay to participate in all forms of society, including places like the fashion industry.