I came across an Instagram image of an obese cat recently (not the image in this post). The accompanying caption referred to the cat as a ‘body positive icon’. And it made me stop and think about whether a cat can, or even should be, an icon of body positivity.
I have never felt qualified to comment on the body positivity movement. As someone who lives with thin, white, straight, (mostly) able bodied privilege, I have been reluctant to wade into the hornet’s nest of opinions the words ‘body positivity’ evoke on social media. Until I saw this.
If you haven’t come across the term ‘thin privilege’ before, it doesn’t necessarily mean I perceive myself or anyone else perceives me as thin. Among other criteria, it means I can go into most mainstream clothes shops and easily find clothes in my size, whether that’s a 10,12, 14, 16 etc. It means I don’t think twice about whether I will fit in an airline seat, and that I can eat whatever I want in public without fearing judgemental looks or comments from others about my size.
I believe I have always had a relatively healthy relationship with my body. I have never been on a diet. I recognised at an early age that exercise made my body and my brain feel good. So, it has always been part of my life. I am thankful my genes and environmental factors haven’t (so far) carried eating disorders or an unhealthy relationship with food with them. But I don’t wave these things around as the reasons for being the size I am. Because I don’t think it’s that simple.
The only part of my body I ever resent is my brain during a Bipolar episode. But I am too unwell to care when this illness lends me a different shape. Catatonic depression tends to strip the flesh off my frame, because I am too sick to eat. Mania burns a lot of energy but gives me an appetite for chocolate – so it can go either way. And then there are the medications. Some psychiatric medications are notorious for causing weight gain. I am fortunate not to have experienced any really challenging side effects on my current medication regime. I may be a little heavier than I’d be without taking medication. But I’d rather carry some extra weight but live with mostly stabilised Bipolar Disorder than be slimmer and debilitated by its symptoms more frequently.
As for my perception of other people’s bodies – I don’t care. It is the ultimate ‘body positive’ cliché, but it’s true: The least interesting thing to me about anyone I know or see or hear about is their appearance, including their weight. That said, I acknowledge I probably have as much unconscious bias as the next person with thin privilege, but I try to be aware of its existence.
As a parent of two children under fifteen I do my best to step through the prickly field of not saying or doing the thing that contributes to an adversarial relationship with their bodies. I don’t comment on the appearance of anyone’s body. I make them aware that so far they have been fortunate to inhabit able, generally healthy bodies. That if they look after their body with decent food and exercise and rest, it is more likely to help them do the things they love, like swimming and dancing. I show them that eating for health and pleasure don’t have to be mutually exclusive. They know about social media filters. I pull them up if I hear them use the word fat in a derogatory way and tell them it’s a neutral descriptor like ‘long’ or ‘blue’
So far so PC.
But back to whether the obese cat should be flying the flag for body positivity.
The small animal vet in me says No, it shouldn’t.
The body positivity movement is based on our perception of what human bodies look like. The cat in the image above doesn’t have an abstract perception of its size or other cats it sees. It is about how it feels and functions physically.
If this cat is not already experiencing diabetes, joint disease, hepatic lipidosis (a fatty liver), matted fur from an inability to groom itself, then it lives with an increased risk of these and other conditions. It also has a higher risk of anaesthetic complications if it needs surgery than a cat in the healthy weight range.
I am not qualified to comment on the effects of obesity on human health. So, I don’t. I also don’t mention the effects of obesity in cats to shame owners of overweight cats. In the course of my career I have found some cats set point weight is higher than ideal and almost impossible to reduce even with diligent care. These cats can still live a perfectly happy life, but they should not be presented as furry poster children for body positivity.
Their appearance should not be used to send any message about human bodies because one has nothing to do with the other.