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U.S. Obesity Crisis Deepens Amid Societal Pressure for Thinness

-Editorial

Americans are getting fatter: one-third of US residents are considered overweight by traditional Body Mass Index standards. And 2 out of 5 adults are obese. About 20 percent of children are overweight or obese. The rise in weight comes amid a culture mandating thinness, as new weight loss drugs promoted by celebrities and influencers claim anyone can be thin.

Speakers on this Ethnic Media Service media panel discussed the history of stigma surrounding fatness; the seeming demise of the body positivity movement and the push towards an anti-diet culture; the impact of new weight loss drugs; the role of social media in creating negative self-perception and unhealthy dieting behaviors among teens and young adults; and childhood obesity’s link to school bullying.

Dr. Susie Orbach, Psychoanalytic Psychotherapist, and author of “Fat is a Feminist Issue”, spoke about body image and societal expectations. 

Dr. Orbach’s exploration into the cultural pressures of slimness reveals a pervasive environment that not only stigmatizes weight but also manipulates female self-perception. “We were not an obese society then, but the stigma surrounding weight was palpable,” Dr. Orbach reflects. Despite significant strides in various sectors towards gender equality, the scrutiny of women’s bodies remained largely unaddressed during that era. 

“It seemed to me a way of linking the difficulties women were having with taking up space in the world,” Dr. Orbach explains. Her observations denote a visual culture obsessively pressing for smaller female forms — a trend that dangerously equates physical size with value and visibility in society.

Dr. Orbach suggested that these pressures were not merely about aesthetics but were deeply intertwined with how women felt and lived in their bodies. She points to a broader societal fear of fatness, “And I think what I was trying to say is that the idea of fat was a form of protection. It was, maybe I can define myself if I’m not the size that’s getting projected onto me.”

Over the years, Dr. Orbach notes a troubling escalation in body image issues, which she attributes to an increasingly fat-phobic culture. “There’s such a hatred of fat people now. The people who are not that physically are so scared of that, that they project onto other people that there’s something second class, not okay, greedy, awful about people.”

Highlighting a significant shift in her clinical practice, Dr. Orbach adds, “Now people of all sizes take for granted that they are going to have troubled bodies. They don’t think that they can change the situation.” This resignation points to a deeper, systemic issue where bodies are seen as projects rather than homes.

Dr. Gary Goldfield, Senior Scientist at the CHEO Research Institute with the Healthy Active Living & Obesity Research Group spoke about how in an era where social media platforms dominate our screens and lives, an alarming trend persists and grows—increased body dissatisfaction, particularly among youth. This global issue is not confined to any single region but is prevalent across cultures and continents, intensified by the digital age.

Researchers are now examining the invasive impact that social media has on body image and self-esteem. “The exposure to unrealistic ideals has become exponential, far exceeding the influence of traditional media outlets like TV and magazines,” Goldfield explained. With platforms like Instagram, Facebook, and TikTok using algorithms that push constant notifications and curated content, users—especially adolescents—are exposed to a relentless stream of photo-edited images portraying unattainable beauty standards.

The pressure exerted by ‘Big Tech companies, which often operate with minimal regulation, is likened by some experts to the historical influence of ‘Big Tobacco’. The addictive nature of social media platforms can rival physical food cravings, presenting a severe challenge to public health. “Our studies show that the urge to use social media is now stronger than the desire for highly palatable food,” Goldfield added.

Adolescence, a critical period for psychological development, sees an enhanced need for social validation and fear of rejection, making teenagers particularly vulnerable to these digital pressures. During this sensitive phase, the search for identity and self-worth often intersects with social media usage, leading to increased body dissatisfaction and, in severe cases, eating disorders.

In an eye-opening study, a significant correlation was found between the time spent on social media and body dissatisfaction among youth. To explore this further, researchers conducted an experimental study where they reduced the social media usage of participants aged 17 to 25 from approximately three hours a day to just one. “The intervention aimed to lessen their exposure to harmful content, and it was successful. Those in the intervention group showed improved body image and self-esteem compared to a control group who did not change their habits,” Goldfield said. 

Despite the clarity these findings provide, they also pose significant questions about the causal relationships between social media use and body dissatisfaction. While some youths may turn to social media to cope with their insecurities, the platforms themselves could also be exacerbating these issues.

Experts call for more stringent regulations on social media content and algorithms to protect young users from these pervasive influences. Moreover, education that fosters critical viewing skills is essential to help youths navigate social media healthily and resiliently.

Jasmyne Cannick, race, politics, and social issues commentator and an award-winning journalist spoke about the inherent cultural biases embedded within American definitions of overweight and calls for a broader, more inclusive understanding of beauty.

Cannick spoke about the challenges she faces in television and media, industries that often favor a narrow, conventional aesthetic. She reflects on comments about needing her TV show, countering them with the reality that her appearance does not fit the traditional mold of on-screen talent. “We like our anchors and our reporters to have a certain look,” she remarks, highlighting a barrier many face due to pervasive stereotypes.

Cannick also links her personal experiences to larger societal issues, including the rise of the anti-diet movement and its implications for body positivity and body neutrality. She draws connections between her struggles and public figures like Lizzo, who despite massive success, faces intense scrutiny and cyberbullying over her weight and appearance. Her commentary not only addresses her journey but also critiques how social media and public platforms amplify these pressures.

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