Women of all sizes rejoiced when plus-size model Lizzie Miller appeared in Glamour revealing her less-than-taut stomach proudly, when Kelly Clarkson announced that she doesn’t have a problem with her weight, that the media does, and when German women's magazine Brigitte announced that they will only feature real women, no models. Bigger bodies are finally being celebrated in the media.
Meanwhile, in a recent Dutch study published in the Journal of Consumer Research, researchers found that self-esteem decreased for overweight women when they were shown photographs of both thin and plus-size models. However, underweight women found an increase in self-esteem when exposed to the same models. As more than half of the American population falls in the “overweight” category, what is the apparent body-acceptance movement helping, if it’s not helping our self-esteem? Expert Linda Bacon Ph.D., and author of Health at Every Size, talks to us about loving your body at every size, how to improve self-esteem and what needs to be done to change the current ideals of beauty, that thinner is better.
NSD: In the study, why do you think that photographs of models, plus-size and thin, lowered self-esteem in overweight women?
LB: The cultural message that thin is better is deeply ingrained and extends well beyond advertising and media. Media images tend to reinforce whatever your belief system already is. Many people don’t have good self-esteem in the first place. So when you don’t have good self-esteem, and you see these images, it’s going to reinforce that you’re not okay, because you can’t be what is portrayed as beautiful.
NSD: Wouldn’t you think that seeing a prevalence of women that look more like you help your self-esteem?
LB: While there has been increasing openness and portrayals of plus-size models, it isn’t yet enough to fully supplant the very strong cultural message that thinner is better. So while it’s helpful to view larger models, it’s still not enough to change our value system alone. I think there are two different issues here, body esteem and self esteem [the study did not measure body esteem]. Body-esteem is feeling good about your body, so it’s important that we do see different images of larger, beautiful bodies. And, a separate issue is self esteem, which is feeling better about ourselves for other reasons other than our physical bodies.
NSD: Is the body acceptance movement within the media enough to change the current ideals of beauty?
LB: I don’t think that alone it’s enough to change people, but it’s part of the process. I applaud the industry for expanding in this way and the wonderful models participating in this. On some level, it’s helpful. We need to do a lot of work in other realms.
NSD: What needs to be done to get rid of fat prejudice?
LB: The biggest thing we need to look to is the health care industry. For a long time, it has been promoting these myths: that you have to be thin to be healthy, that if you eat well and exercise right, you’re going to be thin, and the notion that fat bodies are representative of failing at good health habits—all these are myths. I think that we’ve got to throw out this concept that Body Mass Index (BMI) tells us anything meaningful about health. Doctors need to start having real dialogue with patients to find out about their health status. Instead of determining their health status by looking at a number on a BMI chart, they should be asking people what their health habits are. We need to support people in achieving good health and not use weight as a marker anymore.
Since it’s impossible to avoid media or advertisements, how can we work to improve our self-esteem?
LB: We’re not going to find the fashion industry really being representative of the diversity of body sizes. But, there is a behind-the-scenes fat-acceptance culture and you can find books and magazines that are devoted to people just enjoying and appreciating bodies across the sizes. I encourage people not to rely on conventional media and look to the alternative. We need to value the incredible traits that we have whether it's our compassion, caring nature, or our ability to love or affect people. We need to value these traits more so than the more superficial traits like physical beauty. It’s also important to surround yourself with people that love you and respect you and to demand that from people.
NSD: What are the biggest influences on one's body image?
LB: Along with media, I think we learn these things from our families. If we grow up in a household where our parents are constantly dieting, then we have to fight our bodies, thinking thinner is better. Our attitudes towards our bodies get started in the home and it gets reinforced in the outside culture.
NSD: While body diversity may not be improving self-esteem for heavier people at the moment, do you think that this is a step in the right direction?
LB: I’d like to believe that we’re headed in that direction, but I’m not confident. I think that there are two movements that are happening at once. As the size-acceptance movement is gaining momentum there is increasing interest in portraying a diversity of bodies and recognizing that people should be able to feel good about themselves regardless of their size. At the same time, I think that people that are trying to portray that thinner is better are digging their heels in even more and mounting more vicious campaigns. Both movements are just becoming more powerful.