Scholar promotes body positivity through research

By SEBASTIAN KETTNER | March 1, 2018

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COURTESY OF SEBASTIAN KETTNER

Linda Bacon promoted positivity for a diverse range of body types.

The Counseling Center and Office of LGBTQ Life hosted Linda Bacon to deliver a talk on body image through the lens of social justice on Wednesday. This lecture took place during National Eating Disorder Awareness (NEDA) Week.

Bacon is an associate nutritionist at the University of California, Davis. She is best known for her research on weight and her advocacy for weight inclusivity. She spoke mostly about the issue of body image and the inferior treatment of the obese and overweight, comparing it to other appearance-related biases such as racism and transphobia.

“Think about the problem with telling larger people to lose weight to get the privileges they are missing... instead of being compassionate when they are discriminated against. That discrimination is like racism in action,” Bacon said.

Bacon also gave a personal account of her struggles with eating disorders and her gender identity. She spoke of her issues with her parents, such as how, as a young adult, she learned to play at being a girl to make her life easier. Then she pointed to a picture of herself in a dress in her late 20s.

“Do you see the size of those pupils? Do you know how much cocaine it took for me to fit into that dress?” she said.

Bacon explained that many of her early issues with her body image stemmed from confusion about her gender identity.

“I got censured by my parents. I learned to play at being a girl, and I learned to pass, so that life was easier for me,” she said.

Bacon also cited peer-reviewed studies that claimed environmental influences are a better judge of a person’s health than their weight or body mass index. She also said that our culture has lost the ability to look at the scientific validity of a subject, opting to act on emotion or preconception.

“What we are taught in our culture is very different from what the evidence shows. Ninety percent of dieters regain their weight, or they become heavier than when they began dieting,” she said. “But are people still dieting? They are.”

Although Bacon’s lecture largely focused on negative issues surrounding weight-inclusivity and transphobia, she said that there are also reasons to be optimistic.

“There is an incredible fat acceptance community where diversity in bodies [is] celebrated, and people aren’t viewed through the conventional lens of attractiveness,” Bacon said.

For senior Kyra Meko, Bacon’s lecture was particularly moving. Meko is recovering from an eating disorder, and she thought Bacon presented the issue of body image in an important way.

“The talk was empowering and paradigm-shifting. Recovering from an eating disorder can often feel really isolating, so to hear it framed as a social justice issue is incredibly powerful,” she wrote in an email to The News-Letter. “I appreciated her recognition that... body discrimination is inextricably intertwined with race, class, gender, orientation and ability among other things.”

Meko also appreciated Bacon’s discussion of the relationship between weight and physical health.

“So many of us hold the belief that being fat is unhealthy, so it was surprising and compelling to hear all of the data and facts supporting a stronger focus on social determinants of health instead of weight,” Meko wrote. “It was also really sad to hear how much body discrimination impacts medical practice.”

Senior Theo Kranidas thought that the talk was compelling. He said that many people don’t come at the issue of body image from both the academic and social perspective. 

“I thought it was helpful to have scientific information that counteracts the social interaction. It guides us in how to take that academic information and use it in everyday life,” he said.

Kranidas said the lecture forced him to confront biases that he didn’t know he had.

“It was important for me to look at things like the gender binary and acknowledge that I know what should be right. But I’m not to the point where I believe that I engage in society in a way that I do what we should be doing,” he said.

Senior Kelsey Harper enjoyed the fact that Bacon’s lecture took place during NEDA Week, citing the effect her research has had on the body-positivity community.

“The health at every size movement was essentially started by her. It’s broadening our idea of health and our idea of beauty, because we have such a narrow definition of that at this point,” Harper said.

For Harper, Bacon’s lecture helped her accept things she’d been having trouble confessing. The way Bacon integrated her own personal struggles bolstered this.

“I think it reinforced a lot of things that I’ve been trying to tell myself. Hearing it and believing it are two different things. And this really helped with the believing part of it,” Harper said. “By incorporating her own stories and her own emotions, it made the facts and the science more believable.”

Harper thought that the many-sided approach Bacon used in her lecture strengthened the argument for body-inclusivity. She said that the issues of body-acceptance, transphobia and racism are important on college campuses and that Bacon tied them all together smoothly.

“The talk did a good job of tying these issues under the umbrella of accepting yourself and accepting other people. Finding ways to mitigate that stigma and be successful in this society that can be toxic and isn’t accepting of everyone at this point,” Harper said.

Kranidas, however, finds it hard to imagine that obesity and weight-inclusivity will become socially accepted any time soon. However, he does find Bacon’s research compelling.

“I would be interested to see how this theory would be received by people not already open to the ideas that she is putting forth,” he said.

Meko found the turnout at the event disappointing, but she believes that the small turnout was because body issues are difficult for some to speak about. 

“I’m happy there was a space to talk about these issues on campus even if it wasn’t super well-attended, and I hope to carry what I heard on with me as I move through the world,” Meko wrote.

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