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. 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.
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. Whether it’s overeating or starving oneself, the national pastime of abusing our bodies with food has to stop.