I have a strong opinion that those who point out problems have an obligation to offer solutions. Perhaps professional journalists can be exempted, but for anyone else – and that includes politicians, editorialists, bloggers, teachers and religious leaders – if you’re going to complain then also say what you think would make the situation better. Otherwise you’re not fully engaging the problem – you’re just whining.
On Tuesday I told my story of weight and fat and health and the pressure to have a body that conforms to unrealistic standards. I ended with series of questions – goals I think we need to address individually, as co-religionists, and as a society. I don’t have answers to those questions, but I want to engage them a little more fully and at least move the conversation in the right direction.
The mainstream standards of attractiveness have little to do with health. In general, poor health isn’t caused by fat. But the same things that make you fat – poor nutrition and inactivity – also make you unhealthy. So do the things that make you ultrathin – poor nutrition and smoking.
A lot of people make a lot of money convincing people they’re unhealthy and then selling weight loss programs. They attack the symptoms and not the cause; they have a few spectacular successes and many, many failures and they do very little to improve health. Different people have different body types and your body is supposed to have some fat on it. It is just as possible to be fat and fit as it is to be thin and out of shape.
If it’s not health, where do our standards of attractiveness come from? A portion comes from our evolutionary past – we size up potential mates with an eye toward good genes to pass on to our offspring. We also look for clues toward status and prestige.
In a Google+ post a couple weeks ago, the always-insightful Cara Schulz said “Fashion trends are dictated by the poor, not the rich.” Fashion (including standards of attractiveness) are created by the rich to differentiate themselves from the poor.
When poorer folks worked outside and needed every calorie, which meant they were thin and tan, it became fashionable for wealthy persons to be pale as possible and a bit plump. It was a way that richer folks could separate themselves from lower classes. Then in the 50’s that began to reverse as poorer classes worked inside and had greater access to increasingly cheap and shitty food. The tanning has curtailed due to skin cancer, but that didn’t happen until the 90’s. Now that 1/3 of Americans are overweight, being dangerously thin is fashionable.
Much of the prejudice against fat is because a disproportionate percentage of fat people are poor. I’m sure there are psychological factors as to why that is, but the bottom line is that while calories are cheap, good, fresh, nutritious food is not. It costs more money to buy and it takes more time to prepare. Exercise takes time and a safe location – if you live in a dangerous neighborhood “just go walk!” isn’t a practical suggestion.
We put being fat in the same category as living in a trailer, driving a rusted out car (or worse, having no car) or being unemployed. We know those conditions don’t make someone a bad person, but the Puritan idea that material success is a sign of virtue and God’s favor and that poverty is a sign of vice is still deeply engrained in our culture.
And regardless of the value judgments involved, none of us want to be poor and we don’t want people to look at us and think we’re poor. In order to remove the stigma of being fat, we have to decouple fat and poverty.
All of these value judgments are understandable, but understanding them doesn’t make them morally right or practically helpful. One of the purposes of religion is to help us make conscious decisions in alignment with our highest values. Our Pagan religion can help here.
A religion that acknowledges the Divine in everyone and that recognizes our common evolutionary roots should move us to reduce poverty in the first place. On an individual level we can contribute our time and money to shelters and food banks (meeting emergency needs) and to educational and mentoring programs (addressing long term needs). You’ve probably got other ideas that are just as helpful.
How to truly eliminate poverty is beyond the scope of this essay and apparently beyond the willpower of our deeply individualistic society.
Efforts to push the poor toward healthier foods have met with opposition from the political right and from the poor themselves. One helpful action would be to end government subsidies for large-scale agriculture and instead subsidize local farmers’ markets. This would raise the price of cheap calories and make fresh food more affordable.
On a personal level, those of us who are heavier than the mainstream society deems attractive can decouple fat and poverty by not dressing like we’re homeless. Do you really believe there is beauty in all body types? Then be beautiful! That doesn’t require an expensive wardrobe or the latest fashions. It just requires caring that you look as good as you can.
I know – I’m a guy, and it’s harder for women. I know – attractive clothes in larger sizes can be hard to find. I know – shopping at 5-9 209 is a lot easier than shopping at 5-8 300.
But I also know the temptation to say “it doesn’t matter – why bother?” and throw on some sweats. Which is fine if you’re relaxing at home. If you’re going out, it does matter – if not for yourself, then for all the other people who are trying to end the assumption that if you’re fat it’s because you’re poor or lazy or stupid or whatever.
The Divine is within us all – dress like it!
Paganism is a Nature religion and I frequently encourage people to get outside and walk. Our bodies are meant for movement. Not the repetitive motion of an assembly line but the varied movements of creatures who came down from the trees, who searched and scavenged for food, who made tools and pursued game across the plains. Walk, run, bike, swim. Lift weights, lift books, lift your kids. Some of us have conditions that limit our mobility, but we can all do something.
We also need to adjust our expectation for ourselves. Mainstream society tell us if we work hard enough and diet hard enough then we’ll be thin and everyone will love us. Even if we’re able to do that, unless we also have the right genes, we won’t lose weight. Or we’ll lose some weight, but not enough.
If we’re after the approval of the mainstream culture, it will never be enough.
We’re Pagans. We follow different gods and goddesses and we have different values. If we do the right things then good results will follow. Maybe not the results we had in mind, but good results nonetheless.
Eat healthy food. Exercise. Rest. Meditate. And remember to show the world that beauty comes in all sizes, including yours.
I’ll probably never weigh 160 and wear 33 pants again. I may never weigh 190 again. But I’ll be healthier and happier and in a better place to do the work I was put here to do.
|I don’t think they care what size I am|