Why the weight taboo?

August 9, 2012

In the 20th century, French writer and philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre summed up the difficulty to be yourself in society with very few words: “Hell is other people” – meaning that the rest of humanity acts as a deforming mirror, casting an image of us that is irremediably tainted.

A hundred years before that, Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American poet and philosopher, said something around the same lines: “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”.  Peer pressure, judgmental postures and the very humane tendency to shove your own insecurities in the face of your interlocutors – these are a few of the reasons why many struggle to stay true to themselves and feel pressured to become something they are not.

What Emerson says is widely true but there are many different kinds of cultural determinisms, and they tend to vary in nature and force over time. Even in today’s globalized world these phenomenas are more or less intense depending on your culture… and your gender!


Loaded subjects

According to the dictionnary, taboos are means society came up with to regulate human behavior. While some of them are unquestionable, like incest or pedophilia (which are prohibited), there are more or less wrongful taboos inherited from History.

The conditioning to internalize taboos starts at an early age: in western countries for example, you learn that weight is not quite like other topics when it comes to a grown up woman. Same goes for age. You shouldn’t ask them this kind of information. It’s a big no-no. But why are these numbers so scary? And why are they scarier for some persons?

First of all, we can’t totally escape judgment, as Jean-Paul Sartre analyzes. To have an opinion about ourselves we must use tools that have been provided by “the others”. It’s like your grades in school: you use them to assess how good you are doing, but they have no meaning if you are alone on Earth, with no other persons having grades. Still, that deep protean influence others have on us can be questioned.

When you ask “Why the weight taboo?”, the fear of potential misjudgment often arises as the main reason. The fear of offending someone combines with the fear of being laughed at and together they create a “nobody moves, nobody gets hurt” sentiment around weight and age questions. Taboos.


Focus on the weight taboo: an international perspective

In Japan it is all right to talk about weight, even in the workplace. This is far from being the case in the United States. A question seen as thoughtful in one part of the world can be experienced as an insult in another country. A variety of issues become explosive in certain regions: asking about someone’s wife’s wellbeing, discussing business over dinner, disclosing your income, etc.

Sometimes, for a particuliar topic, you can find both extrems. This is the case with the perception of weight-oriented questions in the USA and in China:

• In the USA, telling someone that he has put on some weight is not well-received at all. The person assumes it’s an offense considering the strong local pressure to stay “in shape”.

• In China the same sentence will be perceived as a praise. Culturally the Chinese are just acknowledging the persons’ good health, certified by the chubby cheeks or stout love handles they see.

• On the contrary, “You seem to have lost a few pounds” is a sought-after compliment in the US, while the Chinese might hear “You are unhealthy” or even “You are poor”!


The negative effect of taboos

Being able to talk openly about your weight – identifying a lack of exercise, an eating disorder or even a genetic predisposition to obesity – is the unavoidable first step to take before you can make informed choices and initiate the changes in eating habits that you wish for. Starting to talk about a problem is actually starting to deal with it.

But taboos are like leaden shrouds; walls of silence weighing on our shoulders, preventing us from making the right calls (or at least, making the calls that – deep inside – you really want).


Freeing yourself from a taboo

Yes, the truth hurts. Speaking out isn’t easy, specially when it comes to the unconfortable topic of overweight. But not addressing issues, not wanting to talk about it and being afraid to disclose your mass also lead to painful reality checks.


  • Talk freely

Free speech is liberating. And to state your beliefs and to unleash your words, you need to stop being afraid of what “the others” might say (this includes tactless doctors).

  • Unlearn

Another way to facilitate change is to unlearn bad intellectual short cuts. For example, when talking about getting healthier, we often have a tendency to overfocus on fat when we should think more about exercising: getting healthier doesn’t necessarly mean losing weight. Can you think of other bad short cuts like this one?

  • Snap out of it

Self-censorship is another key factor. Sometimes, knowing that “the others” judge you is not enough to find the motivation to free yourself from society’s current taboos. You have to want to break those chains. A clever comment found on the Internet even states, in a self-defense posture: “I’ll never understand why men are so hung up on statistics.” referring to the fact that woman are less likely to share their weight on social networks!

My life, my call… Sorry “Others”!

Integrating the aforementioned nuances can mean a lot, in particular for your motivation. Thinking slightly differently can help you maintain your will to change until you reach your goal. So question the weight taboo… Free yourself from unnecessary traditional peer pressures.

From a Withings’ point of view, sharing your weight on social networks could be a part of a “liberation plan”. Like a box-ticking move saying “I’m through with the guilt!”.

Free your mind and the rest will follow!

Do you feel the weight coming off your shoulders yet?

Susie Felber

Susie is a writer and producer who has worked in nearly every medium. As the daughter of a hard-working M.D., she's had a lifelong interest in health and is proud that she continues to lower her 5k time as she ages.
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