On Lizzo, body shaming, and racism: Nothing new but something’s gotta change.

This past Sunday, recording artist Lizzo took to social media to vent her frustration with online trolls who attacked her for her bodyweight. She tearfully recalled the attacks which she labelled fatphobic and racist. She endured abuse that started with her weight but quickly morphed into accusations of playing a Mammy, a trope that stresses a jovial subservience to white people.

“It’s fatphobic, it’s racist and it’s hurtful,” Lizzo said. “What I won’t accept is y’all doing this to Black women over and over and over again, especially us big Black girls. When we don’t fit into the box that you want to put us in, you just unleash hatred onto us. It’s not cool.”

The World Health Organization defines obesity as abnormal or excessive fat accumulation that presents a risk to health. A body mass index (BMI) over 30 is considered obese. Over 4 million people die each year as a result of being overweight or obese according to the global burden of disease.  Rates of overweight and obesity continue to grow in adults and children.

Being overweight or obesity presents major risk factors for a number of chronic diseases, such as heart disease and stroke, which are the leading causes of death worldwide. Being overweight can also lead to diabetes which in turn can lead to blindness or loss of limbs. Carrying excess weight can lead to musculoskeletal disorders including osteoarthritis. Moreover, certain cancers appear to be associated with obesity.

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But there’s more to it and an increasing number of studies are establishing that BMI alone is not an effective reflection of a person’s health. Unfortunately, obesity lends itself to using sight and physical appearance as a way of diagnosing a condition. In truth, a person’s weight is subject to a complex interplay of components including genetics, behavior, and environment.

Of course, the fatphobia directed at Lizzo has nothing to do with concerns for health. Let’s be honest here. It’s a stigmatization story in which she’s being objectified (because that’s the first step in the process) and then labelled. That she was subjected to derogatory comments about her weight is nothing new, unfortunately. There’s a long history of associating beauty (according to 21st century standards, skinniness) with goodness and ugliness (obesity) with badness. In terms of being overweight, it has also been viewed as an indicator of vice, whether it’s laziness (not making an effort) or gluttony (eating way too much). That said, being a waif hasn’t always been the symbol of beauty. Take a look back as recently (in historical terms) as the turn of the 20th century and you will see female forms different from today’s social media norm.

Sabrina Strings explored the correlation between race and weight in her book, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. According to Strings, today’s views on being overweight were shaped by historical biases rooted in race and racism. “Racial discourse was deployed by elite Europeans and white Americans to create social distinctions between themselves and so-called ‘greedy and fat racial others.’“ 

Stringer maintains that the triangular slave trade played a pivotal role in associating weight with race. When skin color stopped being a wholly determining factor differentiating between slaves, traders turned to other physical descriptions. As a result, black people were associated with excessive sensuality and excessive orality, aka overeating. This seeped into the colonial psyche, starting a long trend toward slenderness wherein being skinny was associated with whiteness and intelligence while fatness and blackness was associated with the opposite. Magazines played a central role in the internalization of the fat-skinny dichotomy as far back as colonial times and continues today. 

In Lizzo’s case, there are two levels of interalization taking place.

On one level, the person being shamed is being nombarded with an endless barrage of negative comments. In no uncertain terms, they are being told that they’ve done something wrong. The abuse Lizzo was subjected to confronts her with the condition of obesity, forcing her to accept and internalize a discourse that inevitably stigmatizes them. Her critics demand that she publicly acknowledge her “sin” and “offense” to their vision of aesthetics. They demand that she acknowledge that she is overweight and should feel ashamed of it.

Meanwhile, more insidiously, the “haters” who believe themselves so enlightened have become unwitting pawns for a powerful industry, social media zombies doing someone else’s bidding. According to Silva Araujo et al, “it is necessary to envisage the alarmism that crosses the epidemic conjuncture of obesity. In other words, this scenario has nurtured a powerful food-health-beauty industry that reinforces, as a result of its particular interests, the stigma of weight, potentializing the discrimination against overweight people (Yoshino, 2010).” Every time someone criticizes Lizzo purely for her weight is reinforces the stance that skinny is aesthetically preferable and puts money in corporate pockets. 

Today, heroin-chic cuts across cultures and researchers in countries like Spain, Brazil, Italy, and the United States are attempting to get a better understanding of why and how body shaming takes root in a society. By the looks of it, the situation will only worsen, thanks to the scourge of social media. Until people reconsider their views on weight and race, more incidents like the one that happened to Lizzo will continue to happen.

WORDS: Marc Landas

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