"Fat Acceptance" raises concerns among health care professionals

    For years, when it came to pop culture, only thin was in. But these days – Several new TV shows feature curvy protagonists dancing, dating, and being in charge. Some health care professionals worry things have swung too far in the other direction.

    For years, when it came to pop culture, only thin was in. But these days – Several new TV shows feature curvy protagonists dancing, dating, and being in charge. Health care professionals are glad to see fewer of the media images that fueled eating disorders. But they are worried that things have swung too far in the other direction: Some Americans who are overweight or obese now seem to think their weight is just fine.

    Listen:

    [audio:090811msweight.mp3]

    It’s called fat acceptance. American television is embracing a greater variety of body types – a trend that goes beyond the reality shows about weight loss. Fox recently premiered More to Love, its new version of The Bachelor, featuring a willing lineup of “BBWs” Big, Beautiful Women. Then there is “Drop Dead Diva” and “Dance your Ass off.”

    The latter is a favorite for Carla Hangley – who has felt uncomfortable in her round body every since she was a teenager. She says she enjoys seeing large people portrayed as sexy:

    Hangley: They show these very voluptuous women and men really dancing – pole dancing, fast dancing, and it’s just a very different way of looking at sensuality even beyond a person’s body size.

    Health care professionals are quick to say they are happy to see a diversity of body shapes in pop culture. But they are wondering how people’s perceptions of their own weight are changing.

    In comparing two national surveys completed ten years apart [the first group was surveyed in 1988-1994, and the second was surveyed in 1999-2004], researchers found that in the later survey, more people thought they were lighter than they are. Lead researcher Mary Burke says we tend to assess our own status by looking at others:

    Burke: So you look at people around you or maybe you hear news stories that now two thirds of Americans are now overweight or obese, and you think, oh I’m not doing so bad, overweight is now normal.

    Temple University gynecologist Marisa Rose saw similar results when she asked her clients to pick a silhouette shape that best matched their body type. Two thirds of women with weight issues picked a smaller size.

    Rose: Obese women often selected the overweight woman and the overweight woman often selected the normal weight woman.

    Rose worries that women who don’t see themselves as overweight are ignoring health risks such as heart disease or diabetes:

    Rose: They don’t recognize that they have these risks and will be less likely to address them.

    But even as round bodies have become more mainstream, many people feel that society’s acceptance of weight goes only skin deep – and disdain lurks — prejudice prevails:

    Wheeler: Oh, they are lazy, they are stupid, they don’t read, they don’t know that these foods aren’t good for them.

    Philadelphian Jennifer Wheeler has been struggling with weight issues since high school – and recently joined Weight Watchers. She says health is a motivator, but admits the way others see her, and what she sees in the mirror offers more incentive to stay on her diet:

    Wheeler: It’s vanity HAHAHA, well, it’s a little bit of both because I do know in my family there are health issues related to weight, diabetes, heart disease, but I also know that I feel better now mentally.

    Dr. Sharon Herring works with obese patients at Temple University Hospital. She tries to strike a balance between body acceptance and encouraging women to lose weight.

    She usually avoids setting numerical weight loss goals, and instead talks about making healthy choices. But if patients are concerned about the way they look, she’ll go with it:

    Herring: So if the patient says “My biggest motivation is fitting into size eight pair of pants, and that’s really their biggest motivation, we’ll go with that and we’ll set goals around fitting into that size 8 pair of pants again. But I think to start we always want people to realize that where they are , whether they are at a size 14 or a size 21, are that’s beautiful, too.

    Feeling beautiful is at the core of the issue for Carla Hangley. She carries extra weight, but has no health problems and is physically fit.

    In addition to exercising and eating properly, she is trying to learn to accept her body:

    Hangley: If I do that, and if I am loving myself, and I am loving my body, then I think that I will naturally just start to become smaller.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.