What Is Beauty? Part 1: Challenging “Fattitudes”

As a clinical psychologist who has specialized in the treatment of eating disorders and body image issues for many years, I was happy to hear that the Miss America pageant recently made the decision to drop the swimsuit competition. The “party line” was that the judges; change of heart was because they deemed it more important to judge contestants on “what make you you” rather than on appearance. However, the real trigger was an email scandal last December in which officials demeaned winners’ appearance, intelligence and sex lives.

So when I was asked recently to speak to a fifth grade class in West Hartford, Connecticut on the topic, “What is beauty?”, I jumped at the chance. The students composed a list of questions that their teacher sent me beforehand and I was impressed with their thoughtfulness.

Included questions on beauty were:

  • When do kids start paying attention to what other people think and judging people for their looks? What influences this change?
  • Our research is showing us that people are obsessed with their looks ($445 billion/year spent on beauty products worldwide). As kids, what can we do to make a difference?

I told them about my experiences wearing a fat suit to explore prejudices against people who are overweight, solely based on their physical appearance. in a television program on The Discovery Channel, I was filmed as a large woman interacting with a group of seven year olds while they were unaware that I was wearing a “fat suit”. I talked to these children about attitudes toward friends and acquaintances based on how they look and what they think about people with larger bodies.

We took a break and then I reappeared without the suit in my normal slender body. The children said that they thought that I looked much better and that it would have been difficult for them to be friends with a larger person because they would be embarrassed.

I told the fifth graders that when I give talks to kids while wearing the fat suit, they are more likely to be disrespectful and question my credibility as an expert on eating disorders.

Scorn for those in larger bodies is acquired from our culture in early childhood. When shown silhouette-type images of large people, preschoolers will describe those individuals by using disparaging words such as lazy, stupid or ugly. When asked to choose a friend from among someone who is fat, disabled, or disfigured, children typically pick the disabled or disfigured individual. Even children in larger bodies won’t select the fat child. When one such boy was asked why, he said, “Because he looks just like me.” Four-year-olds assume that a fat child would be less likely to do well in school, to be happy with the way he or she looks, or to get invited to parties. They rate a fat child as more likely to be naughty and as having fewer friends.

While males in larger bodies face some discrimination, females of all ages bear the brunt of this prejudice, primarily because of media messages about how important it is to be thin. The advertising industry targets women and girls to make them feel insecure about their appearance so that they will buy the product involved. In a study that I conducted with 500 female and 250 male undergraduates, the average weight of the females was 126 pounds. However, the average ideal weight of these young women (what they wanted to weigh), was 116 pounds, a 10 pound discrepancy reflecting what has been termed “normative discontent” among females with regard to their weight. Among the men, the average weight was 162 pounds and the average ideal weight was 163 pounds. Not only was there no difference between actual and desired weight, but a significant number of the males believed that they were too thin and were actively trying to “bulk up” and gain weight. Among the 500 females, only a handful believed that they were underweight.

So what can be done to mitigate against fat bias? We need to shift the paradigm away from the narrow perception that thinness is equated with health per se. The reality is that there are many factors involved in determining health and some people are biologically programmed to have larger bodies. Rather than focus on a weight based model that includes restrictive dieting, we need to endorse a health-based model with an emphasis on health-enhancing behaviors. Beginning in early childhood, education should include information about healthy living, eating and exercise, and the idea that we should feel good about ourselves just the way we are.

Also, children and adults need to become more savvy about media literacy, particularly how thinness and beauty is used to sell products. Very few people look like the people in magazines and advertisements. The recent decision by CVS to ban photo manipulation in its store-brand makeup marketing and promotional displays is definitely a move in the right direction.

Finally, we need to promote acceptance of different body types. The concept of diversity needs to include size and shape. We discuss race, religion, sexual orientation, age and physical disabilities to raise awareness about discrimination. It should no longer be fair game to discriminate when it comes to size and shape.

In Part 2 of this series, I will share the responses of the fifth graders to my talk. in Part 3, I will share my first hand experience of discrimination while wearing my fat suit on a national television show on the topic “Teenagers Desperate For Beauty”.


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