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Shifting Focus: From Body Image to Health Consciousness

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I was flabbergasted recently when it was reported that Lane Bryant, the plus-sized apparel company, encountered resistance from several news media outlets when trying to debut an ad campaign for a new lingerie collection. Apparently, some stations declined to air the ads during certain timeslots because of the size of the model, not the racy nature of the ad as claimed by the outlets. Lane Bryant cited examples of equally racy Victoria's Secret ads airing during the same time slots as proof of bias.

Research seems to side with Lane Bryant. Studies have consistently shown that the current standard of attractiveness portrayed on television and in magazines is thinner for women than for men, and that the recent standard for women portrayed in magazines and in movies is thinner than it was in the past. It's clear that the media serves as constant reinforcement of the stigma that plagues obese people in this country, especially women. The worst part about it is that this may in fact serve to detract from the more important and fundamental issue: health.

This week, the STOP Obesity Alliance housed at the George Washington University's Department of Health Policy has taken a step to steer the conversation to health status with the development of a Task Force on Women.

The Task Force, made up of a cross section of influential public and private-sector organizations, will work to elevate obesity and chronic disease issues among women in the national policy agenda. Our first meeting, which was attended almost entirely by women, quickly evolved into a discussion about the need to change the message about weight to focus on health rather than body image and on healthy habits rather than numbers on a scale.

This has never been more important than it is today. More and more research points to the ways in which a woman's weight affects the health of her family members -- especially her children. Maternal obesity increases the risk of obesity among children. Research also shows that mothers heavily influence their children's eating habits, physical activity levels, future risks of obesity and overall health status. (1,2)

Mothers commonly serve as gatekeepers for the food that enters the household. (3) As the U.S. Department of Labor states, "Working women are likely to be the primary decision maker for the family as well as the care giver when a family member falls ill. Therefore, women need adequate knowledge and tools to satisfy their multiple roles as decision makers and consumers of health care. (4)

We are mothers, wives, daughters, teachers, executives and, increasingly, "Chief Health Officers" for our families. And, according to recent statistics, two in three of us is also something else: overweight.

Unfortunately, that means that millions of women are at an increased risk for a myriad of obesity-related chronic diseases, including diabetes and hypertension. And on top of all that, being obese exacerbates other issues for women, from workplace discrimination to bias in the doctor's office.

We know that weight bias against obese women is higher than against obese men in a variety of areas. Even in health care settings, women face widespread weight-based stigmatization, which often leads them to delay or avoid seeking necessary preventive care.

We are continually bombarded with only ultra thin models and "protected" from images that are much closer to our own bodies. Because of this, it is hard for us to see how weight loss is about improving our health and not meeting an unrealistic ideal. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health's Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, a modest weight loss of 5-10 percent can significantly improve health.

What an important message we could send by encouraging this first, achievable step toward improving our health and celebrating this loss as a significant accomplishment, instead of using the attainment of an illusive media image as the measure of our success.

References:

  1. Lindsay, A.C., Sussner, K.M., Kim, J., & Gortmaker, S. (2006). The role of parents in preventing childhood obesity. The Future of Children, 16(1), 169-186.
  2. Whitaker, R.C., Wright, J.A., Pepe, M.S., Seidel, K.D., & Dietz, W.H. (1997). Predicting obesity in young adulthood from childhood and parental obesity. New England Journal of Medicine, 337(13), 869-873.
  3. Campbell, K.J., Crawford, D.A., Carver, A., Garnett, S.P., & Baur, L.A. (2007). Associations between the home food environment and obesity-promoting eating behaviors in adolescence. Obesity, 15(3), 719-730.
  4. Puhl, R.M., & Heuer, C.A. (2009). The stigma of obesity: A review and update. Obesity, 17(5), 941-964.

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