Last week, Kanye West began trending on Twitter when photographs of him looking heavier than usual were posted online. In case you've forgotten, Kanye was hospitalized for exhaustion last November and he hasn't been as intensely in the public eye since his recovery began. But instead of congratulating him or focusing on the arguably more newsworthy fact that he was actually smiling in a photograph, commenters took to social media to talk about his weight.
Alongside the usual Reddit shit-talkers and the Twitter users flexing for retweets (yes, the ‘surrogate joke’ was made more than once), there were a series of speculative and invasive articles dissecting everything from the appearance of his body over the years (“The transformation from flab to fab is simply shocking!”) to the possible reasons for the gain. The latter article even dragged up his breakdown, arguing that the few extra pounds could be the side effect of mental health medication.
Other corners of the internet were quick to respond, pointing out the obvious fact that fat-shaming is unacceptable, particularly when the victim has publicly struggled with his mental health.
Still, this is a conversation which needs to go further than Kanye. We live in a society which sets up impossible beauty standards because brands need to make money. ‘Fit Tea’ is a good example – rich, ‘beautiful’ influencers and celebrities are being paid eye-watering amounts of money daily to sell a product which literally makes you shit out excess weight. This system can only survive if we are consistently told that thin is good and fat is bad, which is why the media subtly creates an illusion of an aesthetic ‘perfection’ which you, too, can buy into with enough cash and enough dedication.
This is a conversation we have about women fairly often, because a misogynistic desire to police the bodies of women is still a depressing but very real fact of our society. But what about men? What about the men like Kanye who are fat-shamed?
The first thing to point out is that men face pressure to be masculine. Nobody knows what the hell this means in real terms, because it changes so often that it’s hard to keep up. At one point, it was clearly deemed acceptable for Alexander the Great to conquer the entire world in a skirt, but now Louis Vuitton puts Jaden Smith in a skirt and the world’s media collectively loses its shit and calls him a radical gender-bending revolutionary. This shows just how controversial it has become to wear a skirt – things change.
One thing that links today’s Western standards of masculinity is muscle. Athletes, actors and other shiny, chiseled white guys are sold to us as the image of beauty we should all aspire to match, whether or not we use eating disorders, diet pills or steroids to get there. Another link is behavioral – men should be quiet about their emotions, because tears and feelings and stuff are, you know, ‘feminine’, and therefore deemed bad by default.
These expectations obviously come with repercussions, and there are plenty of statistics to prove it. Recent data shows that American men are way more likely to commit suicide than women, that the age of these victims is steadily decreasing and that plenty of them have never officially asked for help before taking their lives. Rates of depressive illness are higher amongst women, yet more men commit suicide. It’s difficult not to believe that part of this reluctance to talk can be traced to social attitudes: when we tell men to ‘man up’, we’re actively silencing them and probably exacerbating existing mental health issues in the process.
Insecurities and body image issues can contribute to mental health problems, which means that when we make shit puns about Kanye’s album titles in an effort to ‘roast’ him online, we’re actively worsening the problem.
Male body image issues are well-documented – it turns out that all that pressure to get ripped, drink raw eggs and exist on a diet which is 54878457 percent protein means that most of us desire more muscle, and we desire it quickly. Because going to the gym daily requires motivation, a tight routine and, ironically, the mental ability to actually get out of bed and face the day, men turn to steroids, similar drugs and eating disorders – in fact, 10 million men will experience an eating disorder at some point in their lives. Race and sexuality are also important factors to consider – there are countless factors which make mental health problems tougher on people of color and queer communities.
Aside from the obvious links to mental health, fat-shaming can also increase the risk of physical health problems. This sounds strange, right? After all, how many times have you seen someone justify fat-shaming with the excuse of ‘concern’? Well, weirdly enough, when you hurl abuse at a fat person for daring to be photographed at a restaurant, your words actually have the opposite effect. Studies show that most people react to fat-shaming by avoiding physical activity and comfort eating, making them more likely to experience health risks.
Hang on, but surely that can’t be right? What about all the diet and weight-loss shows that show muscle-bound trainers screaming at fat people until they break down in tears and magically shift 20 kilos in two weeks? Unsurprisingly, outside of these multi-million dollar shows, only 5 percent of crash dieters will ever keep the weight off, with 65 percent regaining it over the course of three years. It’s also worth pointing out that dieting encourages disordered ways of thinking about food. In a nutshell, it’s not mentally healthy to spend all day self-flagellating because you ate a Snickers at lunchtime, and following extreme diets which completely restrict food groups are actually encouraging and actively fostering unhealthy relationships with food. A little of what you like does you good.
We need to talk about fat-shaming, because it’s the one form of bullying which is still deemed weirdly justifiable to the point that even the President (granted, this is the same guy that “grabs women by the pussy”, but still) can get away with it. The correlation between medical health and outward appearance is nowhere near as linear as we think. Obesity carries health risks, but these are risks, not universal realities, whereas it’s obviously possible to be thin but unhealthy. Even if that weren’t the case – who cares? We make the bodies of other people our business for no reason other than to boost our own self-esteem, and it needs to stop.
The shittiest part of Kanye’s fat-shaming is that this is a man whose hospitalization opened the floodgates for lengthy, nuanced discussions of how mental health affects men – men of color in particular. A series of nasty events reminded us in pretty brutal fashion that our idols are human, and Kanye, because he is in the public eye, unwillingly became the poster child for this conversation.
What we do need to do is take Kanye out of the equation an look at why fat-shaming is still deemed acceptable when it’s done under the guise of humor. It may seem like a leap, but there’s undeniable proof that fat-shaming can either cause or exacerbate mental health issues and disordered relationships with food. This can lead to depression which, as statistics continue to show, men are reluctant to discuss, which is arguably due to social standards of masculinity. This lack of discussion means lack of treatment, which could explain the shocking rates of male suicide which are rarely mentioned in these conversations.
Fat-shaming is bullying, and those words have consequences. Whether we like it or not, these various conversations have a tangible link, meaning that one shit joke could act as the final nail in the casket of somebody that’s struggling severely but reluctant to say so.
People are people, whether they’re famous or not. When we see and join in with celebrities subjected to fat-shaming, it reinforces the idea that it’s an acceptable form of bullying and emboldens other people to do it to others online who might not have the money, resources or support network available to Kanye. When we condone the harassment or mockery of celebrities online, we send a message that it’s fine, and it isn’t. What’s more frustrating is that the answer to all of this is simple: just don’t be a dick. If Kanye wants to celebrate the news of an upcoming baby with a few donuts and a Bargain Bucket, let him. If anything, we should be rejoicing at the fact that he appears to be back in good health, and that we might finally get a follow-up to the undeniable masterpiece, The Life of Pablo.
Now here's every song on Kanye West’s Graduation ranked from worst to best.