Encouraging a positive body image is important for people of all sizes. Thank goodness we have gotten past the “Twiggy years” and idolizing the emaciated. But the current counter trend of celebrating obesity is equally insane and even more dangerous.

There is a big difference between discouraging body shaming and enabling poor eating and lifestyle habits in order to protect the overweight. It’s not helping them.

Every doctor and researcher knows that obesity is an added risk factor for every major illness haunting us…diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, arthritis not to mention that it’s one of the top risk factors for being hospitalized for and dying from COVID-19.  

According to the CDC over 50% of hospitalized COVID patients were obese and another 28% were considered overweight. Overlay this data with the report from the World Obesity Federation that “shows that in countries where less than half the adult population is classified as overweight, the likelihood of death from COVID-19 is a small fraction—around one tenth—of the level seen in countries where more than half the population is classified as overweight. Of the 2.5 million COVID-19 deaths reported by the end of February 2021, 2.2 million were in countries where more than half the population is classified as overweight.”

We are trying desperately to keep people safe from COVIDreducing risk of illness and giving people confidence to return to living their lives. So, with excess weight being one of the worst things that people can do to themselves with regard to COVID, it seems rather self-defeating to choose this time to celebrate and normalize obesity, yet corporations are doing it…

Cosmopolitan magazine, known for its focus on female beauty and sexuality, met with much criticism and comment when it’s February 2021 issue featured significantly obese women with cover copy that read: “This is HEALTHY. 11 women on why wellness doesn’t have to be one-size-fits-all.” The concept of individuals needing to choose what works best for their healthy lifestyle is absolutely true—different diets work for different people…workouts should be based on what the individual enjoys…and there’s an endless list of stress management options. But nowhere, in any of the literature, does it say that people who are 20-50 pounds overweight (as the cover models are) are considered healthy.

The article goes on to talk about something called “a body neutrality movement, which focuses on what your body can do rather than how it looks.” That sounds good. And yes, you should be comfortable and proud of who you are. But an obese body cannot do many things that a non-obese body can. I’ve heard many a sad tale of parents who were not able to play with their young children because they can’t get on the floor to play tickle…or can’t go horseback riding because they can’t get up on that horse…or live in pain due to arthritic knees or have premature knee replacement surgery because their original joints “wore out.”

Meanwhile, Athleta is proudly promoting their Lycra for all shapes and sizes up to 3X in what is being termed an “inclusivity push.” I totally understand that. Kudos to anyone of any size who wants to start moving and being active and I know that larger people have had frustrations finding workout wear, which then makes it a little more challenging to feel comfortable at the gym. I think, however, that there is a fine line that is being crossed in the Athleta promotion efforts. When I was in advertising early in my career, the basic principle of advertising is that it should be aspirational, portraying individuals and lives that viewers wanted to have or be—not a reflection of their current “gosh I wish it could be better” life. They already have that one. According to industry friends, many people bought many subscriptions to Bon Appétit or Food & Wine…but they didn’t cook the recipes. Nor do most normal people live in houses that are decorated like the ones in Architectural Digest. But that didn’t stop people from reading the magazines, or from now watching the many modern-day videos that show behind the scenes lifestyles of the elites of all types.

Yet, Athelta, is choosing to feature models both in its catalog and in-store mannequins who are not healthy-yet-large people. They are clearly unhealthy in their lack of muscle tone and in the amount of excess weight displayed. Yes, their clothes are now available for these body shapes…but Athleta is making no effort to show the possible results of an active lifestyle by showing larger yet fit people. Instead they are normalizing an unhealthy physique.

The Halo Top frozen treat company similarly celebrates an inactive and indulgent lifestyle with their “Stop Shoulding Yourself” campaign. One commercial for frozen fruit bars (which are indeed relatively low in calories and sugar) features an apple-shaped woman (apple shaped people who carry their weight in their midsection are more at risk of metabolic syndrome, heart disease, diabetes, and more vs. “pear-shaped” bodies) approximately 20 pounds overweight enjoying her Halo pop while floating in a pool with captions that include “I ‘should’ swim laps” and “I ‘should’ snack less.” Besides the disincentive to make healthy lifestyle choices Similarly, another commercial shows three “fleshy” guys on a beach snacking from Halo pints of ice cream while trim, muscular men strut their stuff along the beach and captions state they “‘should’ slim down” or “‘should’ do some cardio” I have written before about the dangers of “shoulding” on ourselves so I think that is a great message. What I don’t think is a great message is celebrating unhealthy bodies and lifestyles that place a positive spin on excess weight.

Overweight and obesity are ticking time bombs for a life of ill health, expensive medical costs and early death. It’s been reported that the average weight gain during COVID is 29 pounds per person! “Patriotic Americans” are imploring people to get their vaccines for the good of their neighbors and shaming those who have chosen thus far to forgo the shot. And yet, there is no similar effort being taken to encourage people to help themselves through some basic preventative measures that include losing weight. Rather, these companies and social movements are normalizing obesity in an effort to supposedly improve self-esteem. No one feels good when they can’t fully engage with their family and friends or when they live on a constant treadmill of health challenges.

No one should ever be shamed for their appearance—be it body size, body type, skin color or more. But just as we would never promote or normalize cigarette smoking, nor driving without seat belts or riding bicycles without helmets, because they’re dangerous, let’s not glamorize excess weight …it too is extremely dangerous.