For the past fifteen or twenty years, obesity has been a high profile issue in popular media, with the primary focus being health problems and associated medical costs. The underlying central question in popular obesity crisis rhetoric is, “Who is responsible?” and by extension, “Who should be held accountable for changing their behavior?” The predominant answer is that fat people are to blame.
What does it mean to be considered fat during a time when obesity is framed as a threat and fat people are the enemy? What is it like for teens negotiating a school culture that reinforces widespread beliefs about body size as a matter of personal responsibility while offering limited opportunity to exercise and an abundance of fattening junk foods? Adolescence is a time when we try on identities to figure out who we are and negotiate social status, friendships, and romantic relationships. This occurs in the midst of dramatic physiological change, when the body is a site of critical focus and anxiety. I wanted to understand how teens navigate those intensely appearance focused years within the context of a national obesity panic, and in a school environment that encourages youth to take charge of their health without supporting them in that endeavor. I spent nine months interviewing and observing teens at a high school in southern Arizona to explore these questions in depth.
I wondered if adolescents would be more accepting of themselves and their overweight peers as they increasingly encountered overweight and obese people in their daily lives, and as they engaged in the battle of the bulge. Initially, my instinct was that they would adapt to the reality of larger bodies rather than clinging to an increasingly unrealistic, media generated ideal. In fact the opposite was true. After talking to teens I was surprised by how invested they were in mainstream body image ideals. I found that teens had internalized popular media messages about body size and personal responsibility, which resulted in students feeling guilt and shame about their own bodies and teasing their overweight classmates. Students, regardless of their own body size, were relentless in their scrutiny and critique of their peers’ body fat. Teens who were targets of fat teasing felt bombarded day in and day out by mean comments, and they felt unable to escape the constant critique of their peers.
Given how pervasive fat teasing and gossip were, you might think I heard it all day long, but I didn’t. I learned that teens had become savvy at teasing their peers in ways that went unnoticed. Bullying awareness and prevention efforts were becoming more prevalent in schools. Students would get reprimanded for teasing if a teacher overheard the exchange, so they adapted by taking a more careful approach. One boy explained that he would see people walk next to a person and whisper in their ear, and then all of a sudden the person’s facial expression would turn sad. It got me thinking about the insidious nature of teasing and bullying and how difficult it is to regulate. I came to understand that teasing and bullying occur within larger social, political, and cultural contexts that enable and cultivate marginalizing norms and behaviors. The only way to shift these behaviors is to change cultural and institutional norms, which is a very complex process involving school leadership and staff, students and their families, and the local community. This has left me wondering how we can broaden the scope of inquiry to better understand the cultural and systemic aspects of teasing and bullying in a way that might inform and contribute to meaningful change at the institutional level.
Schools need to provide counter messages to media images promoting unrealistic body image ideals, support healthy lifestyle choices by offering healthy foods and plenty of opportunity to exercise during the school day, and teach respect for everyone, regardless of physical appearance or body size. Parents can also help by showing their children how to have a healthy, respectful relationship with their bodies. Parents sometimes unintentionally teach their children to worry about their body size and judge others for how their bodies look through everyday conversation. Parents, mentors, and anyone who works with youth need to be mindful of how to talk about body image, fat, and the way others look, realizing that when they casually comment to their spouse or friends that so-and-so has “really put on some weight” or “let themselves go,” they are normalizing this type of discourse; and when they obsess over their own body fat in front of youth they model that behavior and anxiety as normal. I think if most of us spent one day really tuned into our own body image commentary, we would be appalled at the consistently critical nature of what we say.
It is also important for parents to have a healthy relationship with food so their children know what that looks like in a concrete, day-to-day way. Creating a home space where parents and children practice cultivating positive relationships with their bodies and food provides at least one arena where this way of being is normalized. Popular media images that promote unattainable ideals coupled with toxic environments that inundate youth with unhealthy junk foods and encourage sedentary behavior are the unfortunate norm in our society. Parents can offer a counter message by creating a home space that provides healthy alternative ways of living. However, we must acknowledge that for most parents, this is easier said than done. Many parents work long hours and don’t have time to cook or may not even have access to healthy foods. Telling parents who face these kinds of challenges to be the change they want to see is not fair. The burden should not be on parents to single handedly go against a normative cultural grain that encourages us to hate our bodies and engage in unhealthy eating behaviors. Parents need the support of their schools and communities to be able to do the kinds of things recommended here.
Nicole Taylor is an anthropologist who explores contemporary social issues related to education and health through the analytic lens of language practices. Her research includes teasing and bullying in schools, childhood obesity, and body image concerns among youth. Dr. Taylor is an associate professor in the Department of Anthropology at her undergraduate alma mater, Texas State University. Prior to working at Texas State, she served as the director of Scholar Programs at the School for Advanced Research in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Dr. Taylor holds a bachelor and master degrees in English and a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Arizona, and is the author of the recently published work Schooled on Fat: What Teens Tell Us About Gender, Body Image, and Obesity, Routledge Press 2016. For further information, please visit http://innovativeethnographies.net/schooledonfat.