Today I want to talk about an important concept that comes up with a lot of my clients around body image:
When I work with someone on body neutrality and confidence, part of my job is to help them figure out why it feels so important to lose weight, avoiding gaining weight, or change the way they look. The answer is typically complex, layered, and deeply unconscious, but seeking the answer points us in the right direction.
One answer that comes up all the time is a fear of “people thinking I’m lazy.” The logic tends to go: if I gain weight (or don’t lose weight), people will think I’m lazy.
This seems pretty self-explanatory until I ask why that matters, and the answers start to get really vague.
The general sense is that being lazy represents some kind of moral failing, a deep unconscionable character flaw, for which a person should feel shame.
And of course, we’re all taught that we can judge someone’s moral character based on the size and shape of their body. If you’re fat and out of shape, it’s because you’re lazy and bad. If you’re thin and fit, it’s because you’re disciplined, self-controlled, a hard worker, and morally righteous.
This is the crux, then.
Fatphobic messaging says we can tell if a person is lazy or disciplined, out-of-control or in-control, just by looking at them. Wanting to lose weight can sometimes be about virtue-signaling than: wanting people to know we’re good people.
It’s not true, of course. People in thin bodies aren’t necessarily any harder working, more disciplined, more “in control,” or morally superior to people in bigger bodies. (That’s a topic for another article, but check this to see why.)
But it’s powerfully programmed into our unconscious minds to interpret body shape/size as proof of a person’s character, value, and status.
And that’s the real issue.
More than the actual interpretation (that fat = bad and thin = good), I take issue with the importance we place upon virtue-signaling, with the credibility we give our habit of moral value-ranking and character judgment, and with our unconscious participation in upholding the puritan social castes this culture was built on.
I might be able to convince you that being fat isn’t proof of laziness (with science), but it would be far harder to convince you that laziness isn’t a character flaw, or that being lazy doesn’t mean someone is an immoral person less deserving of happiness, success, joy, social status, and confidence. Right?
But that’s the more important issue, because as long as you believe all those things about laziness, there is no way you’ll be comfortable in, or accepting of, a body which may be accidentally (even incorrectly) broadcasting to the world that you are lazy.
You feel me? But what even is laziness? What does it mean, and why is it so abhorrent?
The first definition I found on google for lazy was “unwilling to work or use energy.” This is interesting, because saving energy (by not spending it on non-essential tasks) is kind of the whole fundamental deal for all living organisms. On a cellular level, if this is the definition, then we’re all literally lazy. We wouldn’t survive otherwise.
But of course this isn’t quite the definition people intend. When using lazy as an insult, one tends to conjure up images of a slow, unproductive, feeble person who is sloppy, useless, and weak of willpower; a disgusting slug or spineless doormat who cannot or will not get themselves up to adequately participate in life.
The word, used this way, is so dripping in righteous contempt that the definition hardly even seems to apply to an actual human anymore.
Instead, it references some composite of humanoid images we’ve come across, of those who fit into a category coded deeply in our bones as “other,” people whose very existence offends our moral sensibility.
When scanning my brain for these images, I see flashes of entitled millenials playing video games in their parent’s basements, of people so fat they can’t get off the couch, and of welfare queens having babies to avoid working.
Terrified and ashamed of such people, we have no choice but to despise and protest their supposed existence. But these people don’t really exist. Not as individuals, anyway. Even if someone fit into these categories, they would still be a fully rounded and whole human, with a story, a family, a childhood, hopes and dreams, and hobbies. They would still be a person doing their best.
Nobody is truly as lazy as this imagery of morally corrupt laziness we seem to be fighting against.
It’s worth stating that our susceptibility to the fear-mongering about laziness is rooted in some old-school biblical shit. Sloth is a sin, idle hands do the devil’s work, etc. etc. etc. Being self-controlled and avoiding the devil’s temptations used to mean not mastubating or thinking impure thoughts. Now it means never skipping a gym session, or eating more than 1800 calories.
I think the puritanical Victorian-era English folks who founded this country would really approve of our obsession with dieting and exercise because it’s all about punishing yourself for being bad, attempting to purify, and committing yourself obsessively to hard work and self-control.
But it goes even deeper than that, because our historical obsession with moral righteousness is about upholding a social caste system. Identifying some people as lazy, weak, immoral slug-people allows us to maintain a sense of social status above them, to uphold our sense of superiority and social status positioning.
Condemning anything reminiscent of laziness is an act of upward social mobility. Having visible abs and a squat booty is the modern day version of marrying up– both offer you access to a higher social caste, more power and status, and more opportunities.
The desire to distance ourselves from laziness is part ego and part pragmatism. It can be used to replace a true sense of self-worth with a feeling of smug righteousness, and it can also be used for legitimate social climbing.
So what do we do about this?
I recommend acknowledging that we are all lazy. Beyond the living organism laziness I mentioned before, we all have every character trait inside of us. We all have the capacity for both good and evil, hard work and laziness, intelligence and stupidity, kindness and meanness, logic and emotion.
Trying to decide “which one you are” makes no sense, because you have the capacity for all of them, and undoubtedly display all of them at different times. The desire to figure this out is an attempt to understand where you fit into the social caste. But you’re not just one thing. Neither is anyone else.
Being human is much more complex, slippery, and interesting than that.
So I recommend giving up the chase. You are lazy and you are also disciplined. You are weak and you are also strong. You are controlled and you are also out of control. Life is about both; life is about all of it.
Luckily, none of those things is inherently bad, or means anything bad about you. Being lazy is just one healthy, normal, appropriate way to be sometimes. Just like being hard at work is just one healthy, normal, appropriate way to be sometimes.
The only reason you believe one is good while one is bad is that we needed a way to maintain a social caste system; needed a way to know which people were high status and which were low status, just by looking at them. We wanted social order, and a shot at upward mobility.
So we demonized half of the human experience, and upheld the other.
For many of my clients, dismantling fatphobia and moving toward body acceptance only becomes possible after unpacking their relationship to laziness, and to the whole concept of virtue-signaling and labeling ourselves according to morality-based castes altogether.
Otherwise, how on earth could someone give up obsessive exercise or dietary control, face their fear of gaining weight, or accept their bodies, knowing what it signals?
Curious as always to hear your thoughts, and happy christmas eve if you’re into that kind of thing.
PS I cannot believe this decade is nearly done.
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