When Stigma Weighs Heavier Than The Skin Your In

Jen Davis has always documented the shame she felt about her fat body through photography. But even as she sheds weight, she doesn't seem happy. Why?

Jen Davis used her camera to document her life as a fat woman. Through the project Jen moved from being uncomfortable with her body and believing that her weight meant that the only way that she would ever be in bed with a man was for a photo project, to pictures of her post weight loss -- showing her becoming more body confident.

Though she was taking pictures of herself for all to see, she still felt “anxious riding the subway or eating a meal, aware of the potentially judging eyes of strangers,” and said “I realized that I didn’t want to wake up in this body at 40. I had to take control of my body for health reasons.”

Fat people are the subjects of near constant social stigma, and it’s not just the judging eyes of strangers. It’s people mooing at us from cars or commenting on our plates at restaurants. It’s my friend who had to go to three doctors to get treatment for a herniated disc because the first two said her sudden onset pain was due to her weight without even touching her. It’s the scapegoating of fat people for everything from healthcare to global warming despite clear evidence to the contrary.

The fact is that the stigma we experience may be causing the very problems that get blamed on our fat. Professor Peter Muennig from Columbia University found that the stress of stigma was correlated with the same diseases that are correlated with obesity, including high blood pressure and diabetes. He concluded “Obese persons experience a high degree of stress, and this stress plausibly explains a portion of the BMI-health association. Thus, the obesity epidemic may, in part, be driven by social constructs surrounding body image norms. “ In another experiment Muennig found that women who are concerned about their weight have more physical and mental illnesses than women who are fine with their weight -- regardless of their weight. People don’t take care of things that they hate, and that includes their bodies. We’ll never know how much stigma is hurting people of size until we stop stigmatizing them.

Jen now says "This is probably the first time my work doesn't feel super sad. It's lighter, but I'm still judging and wondering, 'Is this real or not? If I'm smaller, will I really be content?” This is a common concern among people who lose weight. Having been told repeatedly that being fat was the cause of all of their problems, people are often disappointed to find those problems waiting for them on the other end of the BMI scale, and our tendency to praise weight loss becomes part of a cycle of shame for the 95% of people who regain their weight within 5 years.

There’s no way to know if Jen will be in the 5% of people who are able to maintain their weightloss longterm, but one thing is for sure: we could pull ourselves out of this cycle by ending the weight bullying and body shaming and putting a focus on health for people of all sizes.

I recently had the opportunity to participate in The Adipositivity Project, which aims to promote size acceptance through a visual display of fat physicality.  It was an amazing and empowering experience that made me more committed to loving and taking care of my big beautiful body.

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