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Body Confidence: Or, Debi finally gets angry enough to blog. 
9th-Nov-2013 01:31 pm

Behind the cut are photos of a 32 year old woman, a UK size 16, with a BMI of 28, right in the middle of the ‘overweight’ category according to the NHS calculator. I have put these pictures behind a cut because some people might not want to look at a body of those dimensions, but also because I am going to accompany these pictures with talk about body image, health and dieting, which some people might find upsetting, or even outright triggering.


Okay, so.

Debenhams recently launched some mannequins for their stores that fit into their size 16 clothes. Because this is part of a governmental “Body Confidence” programme, the news made the LibDemVoice website, where the comment thread got, well, a little heated.

I know, I know, don’t read the comments.

The thing is, there are commenters on LDV who are very VERY concerned that these mannequins might lead people with bodies like the woman pictured into the dangerous mind set that their bodies are acceptable, even ‘desirable’ (direct quote), and therefore the mannequins might cause a real health risk for women.

Obviously, most of those commenters are going by male-identifying names.

Point 1: “For most women being size 16 constitutes being overweight and carries inherent health risks.”
Also: “‘[A]verage’ sized 16 women [are] at significant increased risk of heart disease, stroke, breast and liver cancers

I have not been able to find any studies correlating dress size to BMI – and BMI is currently being used to define ‘overweight’ so I’m going to run with it – but alright, I’ll allow that it’s probably hard to have a BMI of less than 25 and still fill out a 16 (the woman in the photo would have to lose over a stone to fall under that mark.) So lets go with the second half – being a size 16 and/or’overweight’ carries inherent health risks.

NB. This is not about obesity – BMIs over 30, for which the woman would have to gain nearly a stone to classify as obese. And then she’d probably also no longer be a size 16. This is specifically about being a size 16, or for the sake of argument, ‘overweight.’

BECAUSE this is about whether size 16 mannequins should be seen in shops, I’m not going to talk too much about the links, real or not, between obesity and health, let alone what happens at the higher end of that scale. Which saves me a lot of work, because nearly all the studies on BMI and health out there only talk about ‘obese’ people, and not ‘overweight. But a meta analysis published in January actually showed no increase in mortality risks for the overweight and even the lower end of the ‘obesity’ category.

Point 2: “[Size 16 is] associated with unhealthy lifestyles”

The woman in the photographs is 32. She is vegetarian and eats a diet that is rich in egg-protein and includes plenty of fruits and vegetables (She doesn’t actually count food types right now because fuck you, is why.) She has never smoked, and she is teetotal. She also exercises, literally, every day; her fitness regime includes weight training, yoga, pilates, treadmill running and roller derby. Admittedly, she runs a higher risk of a broken rib or limb bone than other women her age, but that is probably not due to her weight or dress size. So please feel free to tell her that her body proves she is living an ‘unhealthy lifestyle.’

[Except that these factors negate any impact BMI might have on mortality.]

Point 3 (Paraphrased for length) I had a good body image until a doctor told me to lose weight.

… and therefore women who are size 16 should never consider themselves acceptable?

Interesting to note that this anecdote doesn’t come associated with any actual health problems the commenter was suffering as a result of his weight. The only negative consequence was a doctor telling him to loose weight.

Now, I generally make a habit of trusting doctors to be experts in their field, and where their field is ‘general practice’ I trust them to be good generalists. However, being an expert in something doesn’t make you infallible, and I understand that doctors of medicine are as human as we doctors of philosophy, and just as susceptible to prevailing rhetorics such as ‘being overweight is going to kill you!’

Like when Andrew‘s GP dismissed his severe stress symptoms as ‘you’re just fat,’ or all the times women have had their iron deficiency anaemia ignored in favour of blaming their uterus. Insert your own anecdote here, I know you have one. Trust doctors to do their job, but remember that that job is mostly diagnostic/treatment, and that ‘you are overweight, and that MIGHT cause health problems is not diagnosing an actual health problem associated with your weight.

But that is beside the point. We have an anecdote (“I thought I was fine, but it turns out I’m overweight!”) being used to prop up the idea that women who are size 16 must not be allowed to see mannequins wearing clothes that will fit them, in case they allow themselves for a moment to think that this body size is acceptable.

This ties into:

Point 4: Are males not allowed a view on this?

There are a few reasons why size-16 mannequins in the womenswear department at Debenhams is a feminist issue – and therefore an issue which male commenters might want to think about before they voice their oh-so-important opinions about. The most obvious is that these are female-shaped mannequins used to display women’s clothing and therefore discussing whether they should be used or not is literally a discussion on women’s bodies. Not the bodies of women and men, not people’s bodies. Women’s bodies.

The people who turn a profit by telling us that we are fat and undesirable and unacceptable are men. Men like James Chambers (CEO of Weight Watchers) Paul Polman (CEO of Unilever, which produces Slimfast and many ‘low-fat’ foods) or Ian T Clark (CEO of Genentech, which produces the weight loss drug Xenical.) Beyond monetary profit, policing women’s bodies, telling us what is or isn’t acceptable for us to look like – because a mannequin, when you get down to it, is nothing more than a visual representation of what a woman looks like, however you dress your arguments about health – is just one of the many timeless ways in which the patriarchy has exerted its power over women. From childhood, women are told how to dress, what to put on our faces, how to behave, how to style our hair, what we are allowed to put in (or take out) of our genitalia or even what facial expression we are allowed to wear.

Women are subjected, constantly, every time we turn on the TV or look at the internet or venture into the world, to the reminder that our bodies are not our own, but belong to a society dominated by men, and that this society is going to exert its ownership of our bodies all the way from the laws imposed by Government down to what mannequins are displayed in shops. Yes, everyone participates in society, but to claim that every one is equally influential or equally affected by body image debates is ridiculous.

Incidentally, the best argument made in the whole comment thread is ‘gay men work in the fashion industry, therefore this isn’t about the patriarchy.’

“But there are idealised representations of men out there, too!” you say? I say, “You’re adorable.

Point 5: “[P]eople don’t exist in isolation, if they are ill, they use healthcare paid for by all of us, and that gives us and the state an interest in their health.”

Well, figures on mortality don’t help here, I guess, because a dead woman costs the NHS much much less than a living woman, whether she is a size 8 or a 16. And obviously, treatments that the NHS provides exclusively to people of a BMI of 40 or above doesn’t count against the body of a woman who is ‘overweight.’ So we’d need figures that women who wear a size 16 cost the NHS significantly more than women who are not. If the point is that the idea that size 16 mannequins might cost society through healthcosts, I’ll want to see:

- evidence that being ‘overweight’ or a size 16 causes significant cost to the NHS, excluding figures for obesity – related diseases, and clearly balanced against the cost of body dyphoria, including eating disorders and image-related anxiety and depression.
- evidence that the percentage of women who are a size 16 or who are ‘overweight’ according to BMI is actually affected (in either way) by the size of shop mannequins.

I tried Googling. Maybe you’d have better luck?


I’ll wait here.




The benefits of campaigns like BodyConfidence, or Health at Every Size or anything that fights back against the pressure on people (of all genders and all demographics) to conform to certain ideals – those benefits aren’t restricted to physical health. There’s more to a person’s health than their BMI. And if you are one of the commenters that I mentioned in this article, or even if you’re one of the readers I know and love, then I wish you health.

I hope you never have to skip lists like the following in case it triggers a traumatic incident.


I hope you never lie awake at night screaming at your stomach because you’re too hungry to sleep.
I hope you never damage your throat by deliberately removing the last food you ate.
I hope you never pass out from a combination of starving yourself and that corset you squeezed yourself into.
I hope you never miss out on vital surgery or healthcare because your doctor dismissed you with ‘you’re just fat.’
I hope you never have to turn doww an invitation to dinner with friends because you woulnd’t know how to record it in your food diary.
I hope society never collectively turns to you and says ‘I can tell everything I need to know about you by looking at you, and your existence is a burden to us all. I’m telling you this for your own good.’


Because I hope nothing but the best for you. But do stop telling me my body is unacceptable to you. It’s not there for your approval.

But, Debi, you might be saying, aren’t you taking this a little too personally?

Yes, it’s fucking personal.
Everything’s fucking personal.

This post can also be found at Thagomizer.net. Feel free to join in the conversation wherever you feel most comfortable.

9th-Nov-2013 07:49 pm (UTC)
There are some really fabulous studies coming out that suggest being so-called over-weight* can be protective. I presented one in my residency's journal club because it's totally ridiculous how lots of medical establishment teaches BMI = totally-and-always-connected-to-health-no-really!

*worded such above because what does 'over-weight' even mean? Over what?
10th-Nov-2013 04:24 pm (UTC)
Yeah, the whole area is complicated and involves unpacking a lot - I even saw studies that didn't seem to account for age, and I'm pretty sure that people in their early twenties are lighter than people in their thirties and forties, and that's not the biggest factor in their health differences.

I just think that all the evidence seems to be so complicated and controversial, it becomes pretty clear that 'health' is really just being used as an excuse for body shaming.
10th-Nov-2013 07:58 pm (UTC)
Right. There's excellent evidence showing that overweight is protective for people entering the elderly age bracket. BMI is a horrible indicator of health.

I forgot to say this originally, by the way - great entry! It was really well written and I enjoyed reading.
9th-Nov-2013 10:24 pm (UTC)
Yes! What a total asskicker of a journal entry. Thank you for this! I'll definitely be bookmarking it so that I'll have it next time I need it, because I am sure I will.

Edited at 2013-11-09 22:25 (UTC)
10th-Nov-2013 12:27 am (UTC) -
Nice one.

I weigh way more than you. I actually don't know what I weigh; I found out recently registering for a doctor and was mildly surprised 'cause it was lighter than I expected but I think I immediately cast it from my memory, literally I do not remember what it said, but I still way more than you. I wear like a size 20 or something (I think I have a wardrobe of about four different trouser sizes so I have no idea what I _actually_ am and don't plan to find out), and I didn't really think about my health or fitness particularly hard until I snapped my achilles tendon (ceilidh dancing, just to be clear, not, like, at the shops or something) and spent months in a cast and realised that I wasn't going to be able to just push myself when I needed to and expect my body to perform (as it always did) any more, I was actually going to need to build up muscle again and restretch my healed tendon and do things properly or risk rerupture (1 in 20 chance for non-surgical patients).

So me and the wife (who's way thinner and fitter than me) get to the gym. And we make a pact that this is about attainment, not size, not weight. And man does it feel good just to be doing good things with our bodies and improving their ability and their strength and their tone and ignoring (nearly ignoring, almost ignoring) all the extra shit that goes along with it, and I feel so lucky that we can do that because we have each other to lean on to help us through.

So I'm registering with a health centre for the first time in like five years the other week, as mentioned, and the nurse is like, "So what's your physical activity like?"

"Gym three or four times a week," I say. And then, in case she thinks I'm lying or just turning up and looking at a bike and then going home, I blurt out, "40 minutes eliptical followed by a 10 minute 2k on the rower a couple of times a week, and a trip around the weight machines on other days." And she looks at me and is like "So you're very fit, then."

And I'm thinking, no, I'm really not. This is _easy_ stuff. I don't push that hard and I don't usually ache the next day, not unless I've been doing triple sets and really hammering it. I'm just trying to take it easy and keep myself ticking over, keep my engine running. _Anyone_ with a body that isn't damaged or malfunctioning in some way ought to be able to do that, surely. And it occurs to me that, of course, most people _don't_, but because they happen not to have bodies that pack on weight, no one would ever look twice at them and expect them to defend their fitness. But I do. In spite of the fact that I have about the best body image of any fat person I know.

So that's my thought for the evening.

(Caveat: We are trying to buy a house and I am dying of stress; I have not made it to the gym properly in weeks. But that is now and this was then and we'll get back soon, I swear!)

Edited at 2013-11-10 00:32 (UTC)
10th-Nov-2013 05:17 pm (UTC)
You are awesome, which I'm sure you know, but just to reiterate.

This made me think about how we think of ourselves in terms of 'fitness' rather than (as well as) terms of 'fatness.'

Before a few years ago I wouldn't have been able to do what you do at the gym, exactly through lack of fitness. Now, when I'm treadmill running a couple of miles every couple of days, I occasionally remember how much of a struggle it used to be to run a mile. And you're right: many (most) people don't do the amount of physical activity either of us does, regardless of their body size, and couldn't just do it tomorrow.

The other week I was talking about derby with my metal friends and they said "you always were the sporty one," with made me completely re-evaluate my self image. I always thought I was a couch potato trying to do sports, but it turns out there is no try.
10th-Nov-2013 03:41 am (UTC)
Very very well-put. Thank you for this post. I'm quite honestly disgusted with the level of body shaming that's been normalized in society.
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