Will a “real woman” please stand up? In the age of Photoshop, plastic surgery and celebrity idolatry, it seems women are constantly debating what is considered a “real” woman. And, as I found out recently when I posted a picture of myself looking fit and healthy in workout clothes with my three sons (playfully asking the question “What’s your excuse?”), apparently I don’t count. My voice as an apparently nonreal woman counts so little, in fact, that Facebook recently banned me temporarily from the site — shutting down my account for almost three days for supposedly violating the site’s terms of service — after a number of users flagged a post of mine venting about the damaging culture of fat acceptance. After my post had garnered thousands of likes, comments and shares, these users apparently reported what I wrote as “hate speech.”
While I accept Facebook’s explanation that the post was pulled down automatically, as can happen when users flag content as offensive, it’s amazing to me that a company that hosts so much conversation and debate isn’t far more proactive about making sure that controversial views don’t get squelched on its network. It’s also amazing, frankly, that it took such a long time to get reinstated. Most disturbing, however, is that we now apparently live in a culture where other people deliberately try to — and feel entitled to — censor speech they dislike by labeling it hateful.
Have we really created a society so sensitive and weak that we cry “hate speech” whenever someone points out the fine line we’re walking as a nation by promoting a healthy body image above actual health? Has the growing movement promoting “fat acceptance” and even “fat pride” gone so far that now we need a countervailing movement promoting “fit pride”?
We may just. Apparently, in America today, the only “real” women are the overweight. And, of course, to some extent that’s true. Despite the media’s fixation on models and thin actresses, the majority of Americans do not reflect the extreme thinness promoted in ads, magazines and TV shows. America is overwhelmingly overweight. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over two-thirds of Americans above the age of 20 are overweight or obese. Roughly 18% of kids are obese and 30% are overweight, according to the CDC. Our obesity crisis accounts for 21% of our health care spending, according to a study in the Journal of Health Economics — roughly $190 billion a year. If we continue at our pace, by 2030 nearly half of Americans will be obese.
(MORE: The Fat-Acceptance Movement)
But we’re still prone to denial.
A study published recently in the journal Obstetrics & Gynecology found that 1 in 4 overweight women thinks she’s thin, an understandable misperception given that being overweight has become so common. We’ve encouraged acceptance of this new normal by literally making room for our heavier culture. Often termed “vanity sizing,” what was once a “size 14” 30 years ago is now a “size 8.” You will find fashions accommodating young girls with large midsections at any clothing store. Popular chain stores that don’t accommodate are criticized and find themselves the targets of campaigns by fat-acceptance advocates — as was the case for Abercrombie & Fitch earlier this year.
(MORE: How to Talk About Rebel Wilson’s Weight and Super Fun Night)
Overweight women are now standing up (often half-naked) in defiance, exclaiming: “I have a beautiful ‘curvy’ body” and “This is what a real woman looks like.” These campaigns send a message that being overweight is normal. Well, plenty of things are normal that shouldn’t be. It is normal to eat fast food. It is normal to play video games all day. It is normal to not exercise. It is normal to have a family member with diabetes. It is normal to gain more than the recommended 35 lb. (16 kg) during pregnancy.
Being overweight is now normal; being at a healthy weight is not. Does one’s body define how healthy someone is? Not always — but in most circumstances, yes. New research just out in the Annals of Internal Medicine casts serious doubt on those often touted studies saying you can be fit and fat; according to the study, as summarized by TIME, “metabolically healthy obese participants had a higher risk of dying earlier or having heart-related problems than those who were normal weight and also metabolically healthy.”
Constant campaigns promoting self-acceptance and embracing one’s curves are placing the psychological need for a positive body image ahead of health. When you normalize a problem you create complacency. After all, you can’t fix a problem if you don’t see a problem.
Sure, the majority of women in America are now overweight or obese, but does that make the women who are of healthy weight not as “real” as the women whose images are strewn around in body-acceptance campaigns?
Have we accepted this new normal to the point that being a healthy everyday individual shatters the self-images of overweight people who think it’s impossible to become fit without Photoshop, plastic surgery or a personal trainer?
(MORE: You Can’t Be Fit and Fat)
A new minority of healthy people are stepping out of the shadows and showing that you can be successful by following the Surgeon General’s guidelines: exercising daily, eating nutritious meals and gaining no more than the recommended pregnancy weight. We shouldn’t be condemned. Demonstrating possibilities in one’s personal health should not be defined as promoting bullying, fat shaming or gloating.
However, in this new normal, being healthy is shocking. We’ve become a trophy-for-each-kid kind of culture. We don’t want to applaud those who follow the rules, do their homework and achieve their personal goals. It’s easier to say someone is a bad parent or a bad person (as people said about me after I posted my picture) than it is to take personal responsibility for why you choose not to make health a priority.
When people shame healthy and fit individuals for perpetuating an “unattainable” body image, they’re also dismissing the real health benefits that fit bodies represent. After all, healthy people breed healthy children, and healthy children create a healthier future. Why shouldn’t that be celebrated?
So, let’s set the record straight. There’s the normal, overweight woman. There’s the photoshopped fake woman — and then there’s an array of real women.
I, Maria Kang, am a real woman — and I’ve stood up. It’s not hate speech to be fit and proud.
Kang is a freelance writer and founder of Fitness Without Borders. She blogs at MariaKang.com. The views expressed are solely her own.
MORE: The Art of Aggregation: Angelo Musco’s Bodyscapes