Gillette’s latest ad exposes everything that’s wrong with how we think about health

Anna O'Brien. Image via Gillette Venus.
Anna O'Brien. Image via Gillette Venus.

Earlier this week, Gillette Venus’s social media accounts shared a photo of Anna O’Brien, the woman known online as “Glitter and Lazers, frolicking in the ocean with the caption, “Go out there and slay the day.”

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Almost immediately, Venus came under fire for “promoting” and “glorifying obesity,” with the brand’s multiple social media channels overflowed with anti-fat hate speech. One scroll through Instagram and Twitter and I witnessed everything from debates about diabetes and heart disease, to requests for the company to delete the post.

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This latest “controversy” for Gillette follows closely on the heels of its commercial that sparked outrage for calling out toxic masculinity, with many branding the company “anti-male.” It just so happens to have occurred while I’m in the middle of building a series about the body positivity movement, and its impact of social media.

For the past month, I’ve spent countless hours researching and speaking to advocates and health experts about health, weight and weight-stigma. The process has been one of tremendous self-reflection and humility, as I realize that my own deep-seated biases and fatphobia, which I thought had been addressed and resolved, are still very much alive.

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One of the things that has stood out for me the most is the disservice of the medical field to pathologize weight, and declare a “war on obesity.”

Despite what we’ve been told through sound bites on television and eye-catching headlines, weight has very little to do with a person’s overall health. Seriously.

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Terms like “overweight” or “obese” ascribe to the mathematical equation of body mass index (BMI). The simple calculation only relies on a person’s weight and height as a determining factor of their health, and doesn’t take muscle into account. The reliability of BMI as an accurate indicator of health is a hot topic of debate for health professionals, but the damage has been done.

The lingo BMI provides has seeped into common vernacular, with people all-too quick to declare someone “obese” by glance. These terms have become defamatory, and reduce those who have larger bodies as subhuman. “Failures” who on the precipice of death who shouldn’t enjoy the ocean like O’Brien, let alone leave the house because they desperately need to be told to lose weight.

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I get it; it’s difficult to untangle weight from health. It was only through educating myself on the topic of body positivity and inclusivity that I learned that a person’s weight isn’t causation for the health risks we unfairly attribute to larger bodied people.

What about diabetes? What about morbid obesity? I can already hear the criticism now.

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According to a 2005 study, people considered overweight and moderately obese live as long, or longer than people considered to be a “normal” weight. What’s more, a separate study revealed over 25 per cent of Americans considered “normal” have one or more health indicators such as high blood sugar or cholesterol and elevated blood pressure that have been traditionally been linked to those deemed overweight.

Health is not entirely contingent on weight. Dr. Linda Bacon, the author of the book “Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight” wrote that a person’s overall health can be improved through modifying health behaviours regardless of a person losing weight.

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Genetics and behavioural habits such as exercise and socioeconomic status are far greater indicators of a person’s health risks.

It’s as irresponsible for those of us who are considered “normal” weight to believe that we are protected from diabetes and heart disease just because we fit into straight sizes of clothes as it is to assume with a larger body is plagued with illness.

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We think we know the truth because of the multi-billion dollar diet industry and diet culture, which picks and chooses which studies and experts to report to ensure financial gain and the incomplete knowledge of the medical field we are fed through media outlets. It’s far easier to raise alarm and issue an obesity epidemic than it is to explain the importance of intuitive eating and benefits of ending dieting altogether.

Weight and health are a far more complex topic than we could have imagined. It takes time to wrap our heads around the idea that what we think we know about health isn’t exactly true.

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After sharing the photo of O’Brien, the brand issued a tweet re-affirming their commitment to body inclusivity, writing, “Venus is committed to representing beautiful women of all shapes, sizes and skin types because ALL types of beautiful skin deserve to be shown. We love Anna because she lives out loud and loves her skin no matter how the ‘rules’ say she should display it.”

O’Brien has just as much right to wear a bathing suit, build a successful career, and be touted as a model by a brand like Venus. I’m still educating myself and working out my own issues with weight but here’s what I’ve learned so far: Weight doesn’t indicate health, and size doesn’t indicate worth.

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