March 29, 2013 at 11:54 AM ET
Whether you never miss an episode of reality TV show "Kourtney & Kim Take Miami," or you’re blissfully unaware of the Kardashian clan, the tabloid fat-shaming of pregnant Kim Kardashian for her pregnancy weight gain actually matters to all of us.
Celebrity moms just can’t win. They’re either too skinny or too heavy. Tabloids piled on Kim Kardashian this week, with headlines like "Pregnant Kim's Nightmare" and "I can't stop eating!" Online critics juxtaposed a photo of Kim in a black and white dress with a photo of a killer whale. Seeing your weight gain documented in unflattering photos can’t be pleasant, even for a woman who has chosen to chase the limelight.
Experts say humiliating pregnant women for their weight gain hurts all of us in the long run. Regardless of what Kim, who is due in July, feels when she sees the harsh headlines, they perpetuate a society in which we judge people for their body mass index and fat-shame “real people” we see on a regular basis.
Rebecca Puhl, the director of research at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University, has been studying the negative effects of weight bias and stigma for over twelve years. Pregnancy, she reminds everyone, is a time when a woman’s body is supposed to look different. After all, a baby is growing inside her. But pregnant women are routinely stigmatized for deviating from a thin ideal.
As Puhl explains, the culture of fat-shaming doesn’t stop with celebrity moms or tabloid covers. Being constantly bombarded by these images has “real-life” consequences for many more folks than just the celebrity target of the day.
“It’s ridiculous, unfortunate, and potentially harmful, that women in our society are vulnerable to public shame if their pregnant bodies don’t look thin enough,” says Puhl, whose research has shown that when women are made to feel shamed about excess weight — whether in “real life,” by the media or both — their emotional and physical health can suffer, with a higher risk of depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, eating disorders and binge eating.
“Negative health implications are particularly concerning for a woman who is pregnant,” Puhl warns. A backlash is brewing. The Daily Beast’s Isabel Wilkenson called upon the press to lay off Kim:
“Like Jessica Simpson before her,” wrote Wilkenson, “we’re using Kardashian as some totem of self-hatred, fascinated with her weight gain as a way of feeling better or worse about ourselves.”
And there are other societal costs to making cruel, snap judgments based on a person’s body shape. In a study published last week, Puhl found that overweight physicians are vulnerable to weight bias from their patients. According to her research, adults reported trusting heavier physicians less, being less inclined to follow their medical advice, and more likely to switch doctors if their physician was overweight.
In other words, we may be discounting valuable professionals — or dismissing valuable advice — because someone's carrying a few extra pounds.
The culture of fat-shaming also affects our kids. Puhl published research in the journal Pediatrics this January that found 64 percent of teens reported being bullied because of their weight, and the risk of verbal teasing, cyber bullying, and physical aggression increased with a teen’s body weight.
Alison Khalaf, a Brooklyn mom due with her second baby in June, wonders if fat-shaming is just the first stage of mothers judging each other. Next, she says, comes the criticisms we level at other moms about whether they plan to breast-feed (and for how long), whether they work outside the home, what kind of child care they have, and so on.
But for the most part, Khalaf doesn’t pay much attention to magazine covers or how much celebrities gain during their pregnancy. “I like being pregnant,” she says, “Every kick is a reminder that I am creating a human being in my body.”
Kim, if you’re listening: Khalaf is right. You’re not fat. You’re pregnant.