Health Vs. Society: On Weight and Beauty

Diving into Beth’s post a little, it’s hard to pinpoint the reason why folks may react the way that they did to her weight. The first thing that pops into my mind, is with sudden changes, any change, be it dress style (do you dress casual, formal?), dressing condition (do your clothes normally look old or new), skin tone (do you normally have clear or oily skin), etc, folks may recognize a sudden shift as scary to them, perhaps interpreting it as an indicator of sickness or crisis. This could cause an outpouring of concern from folks close to them.

From the view of weight as a health thing, with both sides of the spectrum being attributed to ill health, we could see some concern, though I would say a 30 pound gain on someone rather skinny is not probably a huge health concern, though it may categorically just bring them into the ‘overweight’ category, as used by doctors. Though, I think most doctors would be concerned about the rapid acquisition of the weight, not for weights’ sake, but as it may be indicative of an important health issue.

From the societal position though, and what we seem to view about weight, our views are skewed. If we look at what the typical weight charts employed by doctors are to average our height and weight, I would guess that the societal view, is not in line with these measurements and our own interpretation of them. And as individuals evaluating our own weight, it may be skewed even more, from our own tendency towards hypercritical weight evaluation, due to these society pressures and expectations bearing on us.

Why do we do it? Well, assume for an instance that no person would ever criticise your weight. Assume folks just didn’t have opinions about weight. Assume that all we are left with is images. As humans, we tend to base our presentation of self, in dress and aesthetic, on what we view as acceptable. And we deem this from the catalogue of images we have acquired. We then, depending on our desire, choose a place in this spectrum of acceptability to put ourselves. How high or low we wear our pants, how long our pants are, whether we wear pants at all or a dress, how high is the dress cut, what colour is acceptable where, etc. These images we acquire come from everything we view as recognizable of human beings. So we probably don’t watch cartoons and use those images as fodder for acceptability, but we definitely acquire it from movies, people we see around us, pictures in magazines, and any other source of images.

So if we’ve learned to recognize a certain medium of weight as an acceptable level of beauty, then based on the relative exposure to instances of beauty that offer another weight option, we will go with where the medium is. And in our current situation, this weight is very low. It’s been known that many of the models used in fashion magazines, if applied to the scale used by doctors, would be qualified as healthy ONLY IF THEY gained 30 pounds. Yet this is our reference of fashion, of beauty.

But it’s very much relative. For instance, I saw an image of a contorted foot, a practice used by cultures of shaping a foot into an odd pointed shape, by using a constricting shoe. I can’t remember the culture, but this was a point of pride for these folks. It was seen as beautiful. To me, it looks painful and debilitating. But to a specific culture, they had assigned a different meaning.

So with Beth’s situation, the reaction of Beth’s friends may have been from a variety of reason: 1) Just reacting to change, 2) Concern for health, or 3) A reaction to the normative weight. If three, Beth was subject to the meaning that this culture has assigned to weight, and what that means to beauty. The thing is, we can reassign these meanings, they are completely arbitrary, and based on exposure. But such discovery may not be comforting to a person feeling judged by such a meaning in this moment. But it does illustrate that, if we really judge beauty and weight as a calculation of all the images we have observed, and then cut a mean value, and aim for that, then if we have a media landscape that shows images of people more in healthy weights, as in weights that are healthy for their own bodies function, that we may begin to have our view of the ideal weight become something closer to that of our own, and in a sustainable and healthy fashion.

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