There have been a number of recent headlines concerning issues of weight and obesity. Local TV anchor Jennifer Livingston from WKBT-TV in LaCrosse, Wisconsin made headlines when she called out a male viewer for criticizing her weight. And there have been stories published related to the backlash against Dove for their “Real Beauty” campaign. Apparently, people do not want to view “overweight” models on billboards. According to Chicago Sun Times columnist Richard Roeper, “I find these Dove ads a little unsettling. If I want to see plump gals baring too much skin, I’ll go to Taste of Chicago, OK? When we’re talking women in their underwear on billboards outside my living room windows, give me the fantasy babes, please. If that makes me sound superficial, shallow and sexist — well yes, I’m a man” (Women in Media and News). Yet what all of this criticism fails to address is the fact that most people have been taught to judge others on sight. What is considered right and wrong, attractive and unattractive, good and bad, has been so engrained in us by the society in which we live that we cannot stop the pre-judgments from forming in our minds. The first step toward changing any type of discrimination includes realizing that we have discriminatory thoughts and understanding that we have these thoughts because we have accepted our culture’s socially constructed norms.
Author and speaker Courtney Martin claims that “sizeism remains the only truly socially acceptable form of discrimination on the planet” (“Love Your Fat Self”). While I don’t completely agree with that statement–I think there are other forms of discrimination that might still be considered acceptable–I do believe we feel somewhat justified in our size discrimination. After all, obesity is a health matter, and we are showing our concern for the health of others when we criticize their weight. Apparently that was Kenneth Krause’s line of thinking when he criticized Jennifer Livington: “Obesity is one of the worst choices a person can make and one of the most dangerous habits to maintain. I leave you this note hoping that you’ll reconsider your responsibility as a local public personality to present and promote a healthy lifestyle” (thegrio.com). He went even further by accusing her of being a poor role model for girls. It is worth noting that obesity is not necessarily a choice; in Livington’s case, she has stated that she has a thyroid condition. Yet there was absolutely no way for Krause to know by looking at Livingston whether she was healthy or not. Livingston, in fact, is a triathlete and a runner (ABC news).
We hide behind the issue of health when what we really fear is size. According to blogger Lisa Ann Cockrel, “I wish Livingston had taken this opportunity to call out the hegemony of thin bodies that young people are presented with as visions of what it means to be successful. I attended a lecture last year during which cultural critic Naomi Wolf reported that daytime TV producers are not allowed to book guests who are larger than a size 10 because advertisers don’t like it. The average American woman is a size 14, and if you never see women who look like you succeeding, it keeps you buying what advertisers are selling—diets, cosmetics, plastic surgery, personal trainers” (Her.meneutics). This brings us back to the idea of real beauty being promoted by the Dove campaign. Not only are people uncomfortable seeing bodies of all sizes, because we have been taught that true beauty is a size zero, but we also have to question the company behind the campaign. As Cockrel states, advertisers are always trying to convince us that we need what they are selling. In this case, Dove is launching another firming lotion: “despite the company’s continued and commendable intent to expand notions of female beauty to include the non-skinny and non-white, Dove’s attempts are profoundly limited by a product line that comes with its own underlying philosophy: cellulite is unsightly, women’s natural aging process is shameful, and flabby thighs are flawed and must be fixed … oh, so conveniently by Dove’s newest lotion” (Women in Media and News).
The lesson here is to understand that beauty has been defined for us, and more importantly, to realize that we have a responsibility to recognize our own role in perpetuating the discrimination that results from adhering to this beauty myth.