The UK parliament report ‘Changing the Perfect Picture’ shares findings of research into the causes and consequences of ‘negative body image’.
Body image is their term, not mine. I don’t think it’s helpful. Well, it’s helpful if you want to stabilise the idea of personal pathology and not be seen as a feminist kill-joy. But helpful for disrupting individualism, healthism, ableism, neoliberalism, and derailing binary thinking? Not so much.
One recommendation is that the use of BMI-based healthcare is scrapped. An approach called ‘health at every size’ or HAES is proposed instead. (BMI stands for body mass index. It measures the relationship between our height and weight and generates a number. In BMI-based healthcare this number is wrongly used as an indicator of personal health.)
It is essential to use safe, effective metrics in healthcare. And BMI-based practice falls way way short of this. It is harmful. It cannot accommodate the health impact of trauma, oppression, surviving war, or make sense of epigenetics, for instance. It co-constitues fat stigma. You can read more here if you like.
BMI-based healthcare asks us all to uphold the neoliberal delusion that says there is no such thing as society. So yes, we need to understand what is wrong with BMI and work to put things right.
Meanwhile, let’s not be waylaid by this one useful observation about BMI. The report is a headf*ck. It talks about distal (at a distance) causes of ‘body image’ problems without naming the root cause of harm.
That’s like lamenting the gendered nature and high incidence of non-accidental death by drowning and burning in 17th century England without using the terms witch hunt or Christianity.
Like I say, a headf*ck.
The root cause of fat stigma, body image dissatisfaction, eating disorders and body shaming is white supremacy. Giving rise to other inter-linked causes of like domestic violence, trauma, displacement.
To prevent white supremacist oppression — and hence reduce human suffering and disease and reduce a sense of alienation from our own bodies — we can use a framing of health justice. A test of usefulness is to ask “how does this policy/practice/suggestion improve the life of fat Black women?” Who have other intersecting identities too, of course.
And the answer is this report doesn’t. Protecting and improving the life of fat Black women need us to collectively notice, name, and change white supremacy. That’s the route to health justice.
Talking about the causes of ‘body image’ dissatisfaction without naming white supremacy, or headlining trauma, is a win for white supremacy. Business as usual. This means the toxic mindset of BMI won’t disappear even if its use is banned, it will just re-emerge in disguise. Drowning instead of burning.
Why a fat Black woman? Because when her/their life improves, we are engaged in liberatory practice, a practice that is also earth-honouring. Caring seriously about the vitality and joy and pain and dreams and wisdom of fat Black women as an entry point to health justice tethers us to liberation, that’s why.
That’s how we tackle the actual causes of fat stigma and body dissatisfaction.
I don’t know how the report’s authors wanted the picture changed. I do know they have not managed to envision a world that prevents shame and thin supremacy, one that fosters healing, accountability, and collective wellbeing. However much they meant to unearth the root causes of body dissatisfaction they just buried them under another layer of spin. If this is HAES-aligned then another approach is needed.
To create a world not fuelled by shame and division we need to get serious about undoing white supremacy. We have to always act knowing Black Lives Matter.
At the moment the appeals to fairness and intersectionality are meaningless, tinsel. Derisive even, because the group has a heap of power and intellectual acumen and credentials that it is not using in the service of deep change. This is not allyship it is complicity and job security. It is white duplicity.
The point is that being sincere about social justice does not guarantee our scholarship will be liberatory.
In the UK we are schooled to not think about white supremacy as the underlying cause of suffering and health injustice. Being accountable means us taking our re-education seriously. What are our Black colleagues saying? Survivor activists? How about fat academics? As educators, how can we teach for liberation? Read what fat people have to say in The Routledge International Handbook of Fat Studies, just published.
If the report’s authors were to regroup from here — acknowledge the harm done by their white-washing, pick up the torches of critical rigour and repair — then they really might help us picture and enact radical social change.