Why are we so obsessed with body size?

Content warning: eating disorders, body dysmorphia, fatphobia

Recently, an Oprah interview with Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen resurfaced online. The interview took place in 2004, shortly before Mary-Kate entered rehab for an eating disorder. Rumours of Mary-Kate’s illness were already circulating at the time of the interview and, whilst addressing those rumours, Oprah asked Mary-Kate: “What size are you, by the way?”

This might not seem like a big deal. A rude question, sure, but nothing to write home (or online) about. Yet Oprah’s question is a big deal, for a number of reasons.

Firstly, if you know anything about eating disorders, you know calling attention to a sufferer’s body size or shape is a big no-go. When you’re in the depths of an eating disorder — or even in recovery —, hearing any kind of comment about your body can be extremely difficult. I know this firsthand. As a teenager I developed anorexia; a side-effect of this mental illness is often extreme weight loss. Almost everyday I received unsolicited comments about my body: you’re so thin, eat a hamburger, you looked better before, I wish I looked like you, how did you lose all that weight? I have no idea what intentions the people making these comments had. All I know is that every time someone mentioned my body, even in a complimentary manner, it kicked off a storm of disordered thoughts. My body image was so skewed I couldn’t bear to think about how I looked. Other people’s comments were like gunpowder for an already blazing bonfire of self-hatred.

So, if there was even a suspicion that Mary-Kate had an eating disorder, Oprah should have known better than to draw attention to her clothes size. But that’s not the only reason Oprah’s comment is problematic. Her seemingly casual question speaks to a much larger issue in so many cultures today: our obsession with body size.

Photo: Daniel Hund

Take a look at any Instagram Explore page and you’ll probably find the following:

  1. Before and after transformation pics
  2. Gym selfies
  3. Detox tea ads
  4. Athletic wear ads
  5. “Healthy” meal swaps
  6. Keto diet tips
  7. Slim Celebrities Selling Things™
  8. “Flattering” fashion hacks
  9. Plastic surgery comparisons
  10. How-to vids on everything from removing cellulite to eliminating hip-dips

What do all of these things say about our culture? Collectively, we are obsessed with our body size and shape. And not just our own bodies, either — we’re obsessed with everyone else’s, too. Seemingly endless are the tabloid headlines about celebrities losing and gaining weight, the “what I eat in a day” YouTube videos, the TikTok “glow up” transformations. The popularity of this kind of content is alarming.

And it’s not just online, either. The obsession with body size permeates medical research and treatment, to the point where weight stigma is a perpetual problem in public health messaging. Too often, the focus is on BMI as a tell-all measure of underlying health. This has been the case even during the pandemic, where BMI has been touted a measure of COVID-19 death risk despite the fact BMI has relatively little use as an indicator of vulnerability.

These discourses around body size have all kinds of adverse effects. From the shaming and demonisation of people who are overweight, to the belief of so many people with eating disorders (and, unfortunately, medical professionals) that they are not “thin enough” to seek help, weight stigma is everywhere. Our obsession with body size is detrimental to our health in so many complex, overlapping ways, it seems obvious that something has to change, and soon.

Thankfully, there are lots of activists seeking thoughtful change. From the Health at Every Size movement to Beat’s campaign for more sensitive public health messaging, and from dieticians like Laura Thomas PhD to eating disorders survivors like Megan Jayne Crabbe, everyday our image-focussed culture is being challenged and critiqued. In the future, here’s hoping we create a culture where body size and shape matter less than what’s actually going on beneath the surface.

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