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In an image-conscious society, women are held to an impossible ideal

Criticism over weight turns into "fat-shaming," with destructive effects

CNN  — 

Showing a little flab? Enjoying the skin you’re in?

Good luck to you.

These days, any sign of body imperfection, particularly being overweight, will bring down the wrath of society – that is, the Internet. In recent weeks, comedian Amy Schumer, actor Wentworth Miller and model Iskra Lawrence have all faced digital scrutiny of their bodies – but whether you’re a celebrity or not, you may find yourself the victim of image-shaming.

Renee Engeln, a Northwestern psychology professor and the director of the university’s Body and Media Lab, notes that our image-heavy (pardon the pun) culture has brought out the critic in everybody.

We’ve always cared about appearance, particularly for women, she says, but technology has made the focus stronger than ever.

“It’s never been this intense, this relentless,” she said. “There have never been so many forums in which you can gaze at different images of women, evaluate them, comment on them (and) share them with your friends.”

And it’s not just celebrities anymore, she adds.

“There used to be a class of people who had to worry all the time about how they looked, because it was their job,” she said. “Now we don’t really have a front line between those people and everyone else.”

‘The F word’

Our media culture loves thin.

To look at movies, TV shows and photo spreads is to enter a world where there isn’t an extra ounce to be found. Women show off impossibly sleek dresses and revealing bikinis; men wear slim-fit shirts and boast washboard abs. Reality shows make a virtue of weight loss; tabloids sneer at celebrities who have “let themselves go.”

Want that to be you? Diets and exercise programs promise a healthier, fitter life in mere weeks – sometimes days.

Nobody wants “love handles” or “bingo wings” or the dreaded “belly pooch.”

Indeed, “fat” is the word that dare not speak its name: Large women are “plus-size” or “Rubenesque” or “zaftig”; large men shop at the “big and tall” store.

Author Jennifer Weiner called it “the F word,” “this dreaded, stinging word.”

And yet thin wasn’t always in, as fashion and branding expert Rachel Weingarten points out, noting the large bellies and hips of ancient fertility goddesses and the fleshy models of the Old Masters (including, of course, Peter Paul Rubens).

“If you think about it in terms of history, the point was that people who had meat on them, that means they could afford food,” she said. “That was a status symbol.”

Today, says Engeln, status has gone the other direction.

“In countries that have a lot of stuff, it’s not hard to gain weight. It’s hard to stay thin. So being thin becomes a mark of status, because it means you can afford the gym or all that healthy organic food, and you live somewhere where it’s safe to go out for a walk every night,” she said. “So thinness has really become a marker of status, and when things are associated with status, we want them.”

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Mom: Dillard's employee body-shamed my 13-year-old
01:37 - Source: KWCH

Tricks of technology

And we don’t want to be fat. The fat person is an easy target – even for children.

“Fat hatred has become so pervasive that it is part of the fabric of our language and interactions,” Robyn Silverman, author of “Good Girls Don’t Get Fat: How Weight Obsession is Messing Up Our Girls and How We Can Help Them Thrive Despite It,” said in 2012. “Fat and thin are no longer simply assessments of size or weight but rather of character. So you can imagine why adoption of these attitudes, diet talk and disordered behavior is happening earlier as well.”

All this comes as Americans are getting bigger. According to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the average adult American woman weighs 166 pounds. That’s up 25 pounds since 1960. (The average American man has gone from 166 to 196 in the same period.)

“An awful lot of us hate fat people, and the fatter we become, paradoxically, the more we hate them (us),” Richard Conniff wrote in a Men’s Health essay titled “I Hate Fat People.”