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Identity

Let's all take a pause before commenting on someone's weight, fictional character or not

Disney's short about a ballerina's triumph revealed an undercurrent of cruelty about obesity that needs to end.

obesity, weight, body image
Mark Production/Canva

People with obesity should be able to express joy and confidence without shame and criticism.

Folks, we need to talk.

Last week, I wrote an article about Disney’s new short, “Reflect,” which had been creating some buzz. The 2 1/2 minute film about a larger-than-average ballerina who triumphs over the mirror by dancing with joy and confidence is an ode to the body image struggle so many people face. It’s sweet, positive and inspiring.

But many people’s reactions to the film—or even just the idea of the film—were not.


Commentary has been mixed, as is often the case, but I’ve been stunned by the casual cruelty people throw around when it comes to weight. I’ve been writing on the internet for a long time and am fairly immune to trollish comments, but these comments feel different. These aren't trolls being outrageous to get a reaction; these are people voicing their genuine prejudices.

I’m a thin person and found it disheartening, but when I put myself into the shoes of an overweight/obese/larger-than-average person, the comments came off as utterly crushing.

First, there were a lot of sarcastic “Oh great, let’s glorify/celebrate obesity,” comments. Nothing in this film celebrated obesity. The only things being celebrated were the joy of expression through dance and a young woman finding she had power over her own insecurities. Celebrating those things through a large-bodied character is not glorifying obesity; it’s merely showing that people who don't fit the standard mold can express themselves joyfully and don’t have to be held back by insecurity. Those are objectively good messages.

Second, there were a surprising number of “fat people are just lazy” comments. Um, this film is literally depicting a fat person exercising. Like, she's dancing the whole time. The opposite of lazy. What more do people want?

Third, “We should focus on teaching kids to eat right and exercise instead of trying to make people feel good about being fat." Hmm. Helping people feel confident in their bodies, whatever shape or size they are, is not the same as making people "feel good about being fat." The logical corollary here is "people should feel bad about themselves if they are above a certain [totally arbitrary] size or weight or shape," which is ridiculous. Shame is counterproductive. More on that in a moment.

But in terms of education about eating well, how about we walk and chew gum at the same time? How about we encourage healthy living and make sure people know their worth isn't wrapped up in their weight? How about we recognize that there are plenty of thin people who eat crappy food and don’t exercise much and that weight is not always an indicator that someone doesn't eat well?

There are actually a lot of ands that we all need to internalize when it comes to bodies and fat. Obesity in general is associated with health problems and not all weight issues are due to not eating right or exercising enough and thin people can be just as unhealthy as obese people and fat people deserve support and compassion (or at least just be allowed to "be") and someone else's body size really is nobody else's business to comment on.

"But it's a character! It's not even a real person!" It doesn't matter.

Commenting critically or cruelly on a fictional character's body primarily does two things:

1) It reinforces common biases and stigmas surrounding people who are overweight, which is dangerous. Harvard University has shared research showing that bias against obesity can cause doctors to assume a patient's symptoms are due to weight and prevent them from investigating further, which can lead to missed diagnoses. Additionally, many doctors are not well-trained in what causes obesity or how to treat it, so patients who are overweight can be impacted by both bias and a lack of knowledge and understanding about their bodies.

(Side note: Obesity is not as simple as "calories in/calories out"—that's an antiquated myth according to Harvard obesity expert Dr. Fatima Cody Stanford. What you eat matters, of course, but it's just one piece of a large, multifaceted puzzle.)

2) It actually discourages people from losing weight. Cruelty is discouraging and judgments are demotivating. That's not just a guess—research backs that up. And real people who see themselves in the character you are mocking or criticizing will see themselves in your comment. If you genuinely care about other people's health and want to do something about obesity as a health issue, making gross assumptions and mean comments about fat people is 100% NOT the way to address it. It's counterproductive.

"But obesity is unhealthy!"So is negativity—literally. But negativity comes with the side effect of bringing down everyone else around you, which can impact their health as well, so which is worse?

Every obese person has surely heard it all before, so critical comments aren't telling them anything they don't already know. It's not kind, it's not helpful and it does far more harm than good.

Joy and confidence, on the other hand, are motivating. When people feel good about themselves, they are more likely to be successful in whatever endeavors they undertake, whether their goal is to create healthful habits or perfect a tricky dance move.

That's what makes the message of "Reflect" so powerful. And that's why complaints about a character with obesity being portrayed in a positive light completely miss the point. We all deserve the freedom to express ourselves with joy and confidence, no matter what shape or size body we are in.

This article originally appeared on 04.15.19


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