Overweight and McLovin’ it: Body issues in American women
As a child Ai La, now 25, was taught that she needed to be petite, thin, feminine and pale skinned – or she’d go unmarried. American culture taught her to be tall, lean, busty – or she’d go unseen. Instead, she chose to be strong and vivacious. She dominates life at a staggering 5-foot-2, with eyes that glow a golden brown and toned shoulders that peek through her top. Self-love is the key to how brightly she shines now. If it was up to the rest of the world, she would have succumbed to self-hate a long time ago.
La’s story is not uncommon in American society. From a young age, women and men are bombarded with images of what society expects their bodies to look like. This can lead to self-hate, perfectionism, eating disorders, obesity, bullying, and other harmful behaviors. The less frequent result is self-love.
America is known as the melting pot of the world. Growing up, La was raised by Vietnamese parents but surrounded by American culture outside of the home. La’s grandmother lived with her throughout her early childhood. La’s grandmother would often remind her that her chances of finding love were slim if she didn’t slim down.
“My mom would say I was chunky and didn’t look good, and my grandma had a great deal of it, saying things like ‘no one would want to marry you because you’ve got a bit of meat on you.’”
“My mom would say I was chunky and didn’t look good,” La said. “And my grandma had a great deal of it, saying things like ‘no one would want to marry you because you’ve got a bit of meat on you.’”
La’s parents often served her less food than her siblings as an attempt to fix what she saw as La’s weight issue. In the Vietnamese culture, La was deemed too big. La turned to her friends for guidance, sharing with them the things her family said. Her American friends didn’t see her as fat. When you see advertisements showing beautiful, idealistic bodies, it’s hard to feel confident in any culture – unless you fit that description.
A study conducted by Culture and Youth found that after just 3 minutes of looking at models, 70 percent of women felt depressed, guilty and shameful. According to SJ Insights, the average American looks at about 362 advertisements a day, most of which feature models. Those two statistics could account for some of the 12 million women in the U.S., as determined by Mental Health America, who experience clinical depression every year.
“I got it into my head, what my grandma said, that no one would love me,” La said.
By her junior year of high school, the pressure put on La by her family and by society became too much. She turned to drugs and alcohol. La remembers very little from that year.
“Once I got that negative mindset engraved in me, everything else just kind of did a domino effect,” La said.
This negative relationship with food causes many people to fall into unfortunate cycles with their eating habits. Heather Nichole, 24, is a mother of three. The Department of Children and Families (DCF) took her oldest when he was only two months old. Her husband of the time broke the child’s arm. It took Nichole months to get her son back.
In the time without her child, DCF required Nichole to stay in the city she was living, away from her family. Nichole struggled with this and soon found herself in an endless cycle of working, eating, drinking and sleeping. She had no friends, no family and no husband. She turned to food and alcohol for comfort.
“It was a miserable situation,” Nichole said. “I was drinking really heavy, I got pregnant again. I didn’t know I was pregnant. I found out when I had her in my mom’s bathroom.”
Nichole felt ashamed and tried to ignore her issues.
“I hid from everyone, and I hid from the mirror,” Nichole said. “I hid from myself because I knew I wasn’t going to like what I saw.”
So much of what people hide from is just a number on the scale, a reflection in the mirror, or the comments and actions of others.
Social media is the newest avenue for bombarding Americans with unrealistic body images. What the posts do not disclose is that those models underwent hours on end of make-up, photoshop and adjusted lighting.
According to a study from UCLA, most models have a Body Mass Index (BMI) of 16.83, weighing in as significantly “underweight.” According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the average woman in the U.S. has a BMI of 28.7, climbing well into the “overweight” category and bordering “obese.”
“BMI is a calculator that uses age, height, weight and gender,” Dr. Alisa Holland, M.D. at Internal Medicine, said. “Muscle mass is not involved. A BMI is typically used by studies and insurances to categorize people.”
As mentioned earlier, not many people fit into a “healthy” area on a BMI chart. But the chart doesn’t take into account the size of people’s heads, or the different body types, or as Dr. Holland mentioned, a person’s muscle mass. The guidelines for BMI only seem to make the concept of a “healthy weight” more complicated.
Pressure to be “picture perfect” surrounds the day-to-day life of so many people. Often the harshest comments come from people closest to you.
Farrah Daniels, 24, has felt pressure from her family and loved ones to change her body according to the expectations of American society. Daniels, a Haitian-American, was “underweight” and thin into her early adult years. Daniels remembers her Haitian family trying to persuade her to change her body.
Daniels recalls her aunt saying “men like meat, and no one’s going to marry a broomstick,” to Daniels at a wedding.
In the recent months, Daniels has started to accept her body type, regardless of the comments from her family. Nichole focuses her time and energy on being the best parent she can and teaching her children to love and respect themselves. La competes in bodybuilding competitions, breaking yet another cultural boundary and loving herself even more for it.
Love the body you have. And to hell with the one you don’t.
Correction: Ai La is 4-foot-11.