‘Feeling Fat’: Understanding Experiences of Body Size

Kate Whiston, University of Nottingham

Belly-2354_1920_(1)

Source: Wikimedia Commons

Last month, model Charli Howard spoke out about the “ridiculously, unobtainable beauty standards” in the modelling industry. The size 6 model, weighing 7.5 stone, was told by her agency she was “too fat”. To put this irrationality into context, the average female in the UK weighs 11 stone and is a size 14-16! Whilst the modelling industry promotes their deluded ideals of body size, more than 725,000 people in the UK are affected by eating disorders, the majority of whom are females aged 15-25. It’s not just the modelling industry, however; billboards, films, and magazines constantly bombard us with images of tall, slender, ‘perfect’ bodies. It is clear that body size is a serious concern; although two thirds of the UK’s population are allegedly overweight, almost just as many try dieting each year, and the majority of people, particularly females, are unhappy with the way they look.

Body size is not a new area of research in geography, but approaches to studying it are changing. Lloyd and Hopkins’ (2015) recent article in Area considers the ways in which geographers are approaching body size as an inherently geographical phenomenon. Formerly, qualitative methods have dominated this area of research, producing disembodied accounts that tried to quantify the body. Geographers have used rudimentary statistics such as BMI and waist-to-hip ratio in order to map obesity, but this has produced crude links between population statistics and demographic information. Such deterministic understandings of human health based on body size wrongly assume a separation between the mind and the body.

Qualitative approaches – such as interviews, focus groups, and diaries – on the other hand, reveal the lived realities of body size; the feelings, emotions, and embodied experiences of living with our bodies. Body size is, after all, experienced in multiple ways; emotionally, physically, economically, socially, privately, and publicly.

Lloyd and Hopkins (2015) argue that geographical studies of body size have often overlooked the role of emotions. The embodied subjectivities of people – the ways in which our bodies affect our identities – can only be understood by uncovering the private emotional experiences of body size, as well as its public performance. There is a difference between being overweight and feeling overweight; so many people are unhappy with their body size, weight, proportions, and appearance, regardless of whether they are physically ‘overweight’. The subjective, emotionally-loaded nature of the term ‘overweight’ means many people believe themselves to fit into this category even if they are perfectly healthy. This is an issue facing many people in the UK with eating disorders and those who hate the way they look. So pertinent is this problem, that earlier this year a petition with more than 26,000 signatures was successful in forcing Facebook to remove its ‘feeling fat’ emoji, protesters arguing “fat is not a feeling!”

A lot of how we experience our bodies is, as Lloyd and Hopkins (2015) claim, to do with societal norms and the stigma associated with being ‘overweight’. The cultural and social benefits associated with body size have become part of our everyday, and have been coined ‘thin privilege’; being a smaller size affords many benefits, such as being able to buy designer clothes, feeling comfortable in public places, or avoiding being bullied at school. The modelling industry in the UK is, without doubt, upholding worryingly distorted images of body size. In the modelling world, women’s ‘plus-size’ begins at UK size 10, which is at least one size smaller than the average woman, and is three sizes smaller than the smallest plus-size clothes sold in shops.

There is, however, some headway being made. MPs this September, led by Caroline Nokes, started to consider the need to ban super skinny models on British catwalks, following a petition, 30,000 signatures strong, to introduce health checks during London’s Fashion Week. The petition was started by Rosie Nelson, a size 8 model. Regular health checks would protect young models who, like Charli and Rosie, are undoubtedly pressured to attain unreasonably small body sizes.

Furthermore, in September this year, London hosted ‘Plus Size Fashion Week’, a celebration of women with curves. Such an event is a real step forward in trying to dispel the physical and emotional othering of plus-size women. An article in The Guardian told the ‘confessions of a plus sized model’, Olivia Campbell, a UK size 18-20 model. Speaking of how she had vastly improved in self-confidence, she wisely states; “you cannot determine a person’s health just by looking at them”. Whilst plus size modelling is growing in the UK, there is a lack of plus-size male models. We shouldn’t forget that, whilst a lot of media attention has focused on women, men also suffer from anxiety about the way they look.

Body size is, then, a contentious topic and a real-life concern. By turning to qualitative methods, geographers can contribute to understandings of the ways in which people experience body size. However, as Lloyd and Hopkins (2015) point out, the stigma associated with being ‘overweight’ means research on body size is fraught with methodological obstacles, most notably participant recruitment. Furthermore, the inherently emotional and subjective nature of body size, as well as the researcher’s own body size, can have significant impacts on research findings.

Our bodies – and our understandings of them – are mutable, changing over space and time, and dependent upon similarly fluid social norms. Body-shaming is all too common in today’s society. The sooner the stigma is removed, and the sooner the social, emotional, and physical othering of people based on their bodies is eradicated, the sooner we can start to improve our understanding of bodily experience.

books_iconLloyd, J. and Hopkins, P. (2015). “Using interviews to research body size: methodological and ethical considerations”, Area, 47(3):305-310.

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Howard C 2015 Size 6 model: ‘Why I told my agency to f*** off for calling me fat’ The Telegraph

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Sanghani Radhika 2015 Facebook removes its ‘feeling fat’ emoji after thousands complain The Telegraph

60-world2Elgot J 2015 Body image: MPs to consider ban on ultra-thin catwalk models The Guardian

60-world2Marriott H 2015 Plus size fashion week: confessions of a plus sized model The Guardian

60-world2Ferrier M 2015 Where are all the plus-size male models?  The Guardian

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