Fit-shaming or fat-shaming… How about neither?

It’s no secret that a large part of the US population has a dysfunctional relationship with both food and exercise. Last year, the US was dethroned as the “Fattest Country in the World” (that title now goes to Mexico), but the need to lose weight is still deeply engrained in our collective psyche. We have an incredible variety of food available to us, but convenience and cost often skew people’s choices toward cheap, overprocessed food. Many people also outsource physical labor and then turn around and pay a gym or Pilates studio to help them burn calories.

"Of course that damn Nellie is getting more attention from Almanzo... She can afford a personal trainer and a private chef!

“Of course that damn Nellie Oleson is getting more attention from Almanzo… She can afford a personal trainer and private chef!”

I sometimes imagine what it would be like to give an 1860s farm family a glimpse of our modern lifestyle. I’m sure they would shake their head in amazement at our excess and foolishness.

The older I get, the more I realize the need for conscious exercise. And yes, I’m occasionally guilty of avoiding a free workout (shoveling snow, for example) in lieu of paying someone to make me sweat.

In my personal quest for better fitness, I’ve also purchased some gadgets that have a mechanism for monitoring weight loss and goals—namely a Wii Fit and a FitBit Flex wristband. As I was setting up both devices, they each required me to set a “weight goal.”

In a country obsessed with weight loss, this is an unpopular admission to make—but I don’t really need to lose weight. My weight bobs up and down within a 5 lb. range at any given point, but it’s all within a healthy BMI. Since I consider my optimal target weight to be on the lower end of that 5 lb. fluctuation, that’s the number I entered into each device. Living in a perpetually frozen state makes exercise inconvenient, so like many Minnesotans I put on a couple of pounds over the holidays and had been hovering at the upper end of my range for a few weeks. I wanted to drop a few pounds and return to my comfort zone.

The new year has been crazy-busy so far, so I had my youngest set up the Wii Fit in her vacated bedroom so it would be more convenient for me to work out. I also started wearing my Flex again to remind me that I needed to be conscious about making time for exercise. While I haven’t been terribly successful at that, the one benefit of my hectic schedule is the ability to cut calories without too much effort (because I’m much more likely to overeat when I’m bored than when I’m stressed).

Consequently, I recently stepped on my Wii Fit and elicited cheers from the little balance board guy: “You’ve reached your goal!” His excitement was short-lived, however, as he immediately ordered me to set a new goal. “Wait a minute,” I thought. “I don’t need a new goal…I’ve reached my target.” I wasn’t sure what to do next. I know there will be days that I creep above my optimal weight again—so I just wanted to leave my goal where it was so I could be reminded of where I needed to be. Unfortunately, this concept seemed completely foreign to my little avatar friend.

Likewise, I was logging my weight on my FitBit dashboard and the same thing happened. It congratulated me and immediately demanded I set a new goal.

FitBit tile

That neither of these devices seems to allow for simply maintaining one’s weight disturbs me because it discourages the concept of accepting one’s body as it is. There’s also a lot of debate in this country about what type of shape is acceptable for a woman. Those who advocate fitness are sometimes accused of “fat-shaming” and the backlash from some in the overweight camp is to demand that the media acknowledge what “real women” look like. I find the latter personally offensive—as if I’m somehow “fake” because I’m at a healthy weight?

Having two daughters with different genetic make-ups has underscored for me the need for a broader definition of “real.” One daughter is tall and willowy, the other is short and strong. The willowy one has bordered on anorexia before, has a pretty appalling diet and doesn’t place a high priority on exercise. When she comes home to visit, I check her weight to make sure she’s getting enough calories and eating something besides burgers and pizza. My other daughter has a very healthy diet, loves sports and is in great physical condition, so I don’t worry about her from a health standpoint at all. But in our house, the focus has always been on health and strength—not what size jeans one wears (in fact, I think they may wear the same size jeans, despite the fact that they have completely different builds). And you know what? They’re both gorgeous in their own unique way and they are both very real. Dove got this right in its Campaign for Real Beauty.

There are many factors that influence obesity: Large portions, unhealthy food, sedentary lifestyles… and there are other factors that can lead to obesity—some that a person can control (usually diet and exercise), but also some that a person can’t control (genetics, physical impairments that affect the ability to exercise, life situations that minimize free time for exercise—e.g., a sick child, demanding work schedule).

Knowing this, I don’t spend time judging others on the root cause of their current weight. As I’ve shown here, I’ve got my hands full trying to work on my own issues even if weight loss isn’t one of them. At the same time, there’s a fine line to walk between contentment and complacency. While self-acceptance is important, it’s not inherently bad to want to improve oneself—whether physically, intellectually or emotionally. That’s why I’m happy to live and let live…while encouraging others to achieve their personal goals, whatever they may be. After all, real women know we’re all in this together and consequently, we should try to lift each other up.

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