Dani Mathers — Playboy’s 2015 Playmate of the Year — is likely craving something unusual for a woman who delights in flirting with the camera.
There is irony — some would say karma — in that desire. Mathers, 29, was at an L.A. Fitness in California last week when she snapped a photo of a naked woman whose perfectly normal body she found offensive. She posted the photo on Snapchat with the message, “If I can’t unsee this then you can’t either.”
Mathers said she meant to send the photo (which didn’t disappear) to one friend only, as if that would have been OK. Aside from being cruel, the move is illegal under California law and she could be charged.
Mathers has been banned from the gym’s 800 locations, suspended from her radio gig and treated to a mauling on the internet.
Now it’s our turn to look in the mirror. To single out Mathers for “fat shaming” is absurd. Sure, she was last week’s highest profile offender. But unique? Hardly.
Type in “fat shaming” in a search engine and you’ll find plenty of examples of daily cruelties and micro-agressions that we all may be committing wittingly or unwittingly. Transgressions can be as simple as dissing our own bodies in front of our daughters or, as one man posted online, the “disgusted looks [I get] from other diners when I am at a restaurant eating anything at all.”
Celebrities are hardly immune. “Jesus. What happened to Kelly Clarkson? Did she eat all her back[up] singers?” tweeted British TV personality Katie Hopkins about the “American Idol” winner, who had given birth nine months earlier.
Comedian Nicole Arbour’s relentless fat-shaming YouTube video recently landed with a universal thud. And while Arbour’s channel was deleted for days, she insists that the shtick was satire and that she’s not backing down.
But the surest way to understand the prevalence of this societal problem is to ask friends or family members if they ever feel shamed about their weight, then hear them laugh or cry.
“What people feel that they can say online as anonymous ‘trolls’ has spilled over to what we’re saying to each other in everyday life,” said Elizabeth Audrey, a Minneapolis-based international swimsuit and fitness model and blogger.
“The internet is not short of opinions, but we’ve taken online life to real life, and that’s the scary part,” said Audrey, who began her career via Instagram and has endured her own share of traumatizing trolls. “Unfortunately, we don’t know what those boundaries are.”
If there’s any good to come of this, it’s that we use the Mathers mess as an honest launchpad for introspection and important conversations with people we care about, or should care more about.
At least Mathers had the insight in her contrite video apology to mull a poignant point. “I need to take some time to myself now to reflect on why I did this horrible thing,” she said.
In Mathers, I see a young woman who, while hardly suffering the humiliation and trauma of the woman she photographed, is not simply a villain. She likely grew up being fed a daily dose of “beauty is all that matters” until she actually believed it.
Katie Loth, a dietitian and assistant professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Family Medicine and Community Health, understands that argument.
“Dani Mathers is ultimately responsible for her illegal and wildly inappropriate choice to photograph and share a nude photo of another woman without consent,” said Loth, whose research focuses on social and environmental influences on healthy and disordered eating.
“At a higher level, though, I am interested in how society has helped to shape her thoughts and worldview. Dani Mathers’ success has been based primarily on how closely her looks align with what society considers to be ideal beauty. It isn’t hard to imagine why she might be in the habit of mentally judging other women.”
Loth noted that weight is a complicated issue, with many factors in play, including genetics, access to healthy foods or sufficient incomes to make those foods part of a regular diet.
She also noted that judgments, aside from being cruel, simply don’t work. People on the receiving end feel less motivated to change, not more.
“Research has shown, time and time again, that children and adults who experience weight stigma are vulnerable to a wide range of psychological and physical health consequences,” Loth said. Those consequences include being at a higher risk for eating disorders and being less likely to participate in healthy behaviors, such as going to the gym.
These individuals also face higher rates of depression and anxiety, and an increased risk for suicidal thoughts and behaviors.
More proof comes from Loth’s Project EAT (Eating and Activity Among Teens), a study that surveys Minnesota adolescents about their dietary and activity habits. Loth and colleagues gathered weight, height and self-reported body satisfaction data from 496 young participants in 1999, all of whom were overweight. They followed up 10 years later.
The study, published in 2015 in the Journal of Adolescent Health, found that overweight girls with the poorest self-image originally gained almost twice as much weight as overweight girls with a positive body image.
The key to success? Saying less about weight. “It’s not how you talk about it,” Loth said. “It’s about not talking about it. Bring healthy foods into your home and eat them with your child. Be active. Take weight out of the equation.”
Other studies confirm that it’s best to avoid talking numbers on a scale, criticizing our girls or ourselves, or restricting food. Instead, encourage them to make healthy choices and make those healthier choices readily available.
“It’s reasonable to become horrified and angry when reading about this particularly powerful instance of weight stigma,” Loth said of Mathers. “But I also challenge people to think about the number of times in a given day or week when they talk negatively about the way they look, or the way someone else looks. It can be challenging to even notice judgmental thoughts creeping in, because the practice is so pervasive.
“It is important to not limit our focus to Mathers and her actions; we also need to ask, ‘What do our own children and our own friends hear you saying about weight and bodies?’ ”