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Whether short, tall, fat or thin – every person is born different and is beautiful in a unique way. This is a good thing, too, says Stephanie Linke, Senior Assistant in Region North Europe, who advocates for more “body acceptance” – i.e. learning to accept and appreciate one’s own body no matter what it looks like. Ever since she can remember, the 34-year-old has been what is classified as “overweight”. In the following interview, the mother of two tells us how she has developed a relaxed relationship with her body despite massive external pressures, which faux pas one should avoid around overweight people and what advice she would give to people who are struggling with accepting their body as it is.
Stephanie, you get right to the point and describe yourself as, in your words, “fat”. Your courage is truly admirable! You seem at peace with yourself and your body. Has that always been the case?
Thank you! But don’t you think it’s actually amazing that I have to be courageous – or at least be perceived as such – to describe a physical trait? If someone says “I’m thin”, nobody would ever say “How brave!” We should simply let the word “fat” be an adjective again that can be used in a completely non-judgemental way. But, to answer your question: No, that definitely wasn’t always the case! The first diet that I can remember being on was in third grade. It was triggered by an incident during which I choked on food and couldn’t breathe – that situation scared me so much I stopped eating properly. That kick-started everything and from then on, it was a constant battle fought over calories and kilograms. It wasn’t until my first pregnancy, in 2017, that I started to think a lot about the issue of “body positivity” – or what I prefer to call “body acceptance” – and to thereby also change my attitude about myself. The thing that nudged me to do so was very simple: A little person was about to be born and placed in my care. And I wanted to show this little one that our value as a person has absolutely nothing to do with our body’s shape.
Have you ever been bullied because of your weight?
Unfortunately, I think the more appropriate question is: “Which overweight person hasn’t been bullied?” In other words: Yes, I was, and the first memory of this really seared itself into my brain. It happened on the very first day of grade school. My grandmother had sewn me a dress, and I was extremely proud of it. But my strongest memories are the comments that I received about my body in that dress. Just imagine that. I was only five years old! Unfortunately, bullying others for being overweight is very commonplace and widely accepted in our society. Especially with doctors, fat people have to be prepared for some rough times. Following their attitude, you would think that even your broken arm can definitely only be blamed on the fact that you are overweight. I now have my most important doctors who really look at me holistically as a person and not just at my weight. And I am very grateful for that!
In the fashion world, thin bodies were long considered the absolute ideal of beauty. Fortunately, “body positivity” – meaning finding your body beautiful as it is – is more than just a passing trend.
That’s correct, and thinness continues to be the ultimate ideal for a lot of people. Maybe we should take a look at paintings from long ago, as things were quite different back then! I am really grateful for the body positivity trend – or BoPo, for short – but I prefer to focus on “body acceptance” for a number of reasons. The fact is that, these days, body positivity is unfortunately often becoming a toxic story on social media. According to this mindset, if you don’t love your body unconditionally, you are doing it all wrong. If you aren’t the “right” kind of fat, then you’re out, too. Are you daring to try to lose some weight? How scandalous! And that is so counterproductive. The step towards acceptance is the more important milestone – and one that can bring so much inner peace. If we acknowledge that there are simply an infinite number of different bodies and that all of them – yes, including your own body! – deserve exactly the same amount of respect, we will have gained so much!
How did you find a way to accept yourself as beautiful – even with a few too many kilograms?
I have mainly achieved this acceptance by reading articles, social media posts and books on the subject. And, most importantly, I have made my social media sources more diverse and joined BoPo communities! It’s a huge help to connect with other people who are overweight, to see other people whose bodies are shaped like mine and who live their lives with pride – dressing loudly and colourfully, not hiding, and accepting themselves as they are. It’s so inspiring! I can really only strongly recommend it, and I have now moved past the acceptance stage to the finding-myself-beautiful stage :-).
Biases against overweight people are still a dominant feature of our society. Which biases have you been confronted with over the years, and how have you dealt with them?
I would say that the biases I’ve encountered are unfortunately the “standard” ones. Fat people are unhealthy, fat people are physically lazy and unathletic (picking teams at school is absolute hell for fat kids!!), fat people only eat crappy food. There are an incredible number of biases against overweight people – but I luckily haven’t had to fight against all of them myself. The fact is that fat does not equal unhealthy or sick, and skinny does not equal healthy. These are really dangerous generalisations and do not consider mental health at all – even though it is just as important and should be given the same space in these discussions as physical health.
I think everyone knows someone in their circle of friends or acquaintances who is fat. What are the classic faux pas that should best be avoided when doing things with overweight people or in everyday life?
When planning joint activities, it’s great if everyone thinks about whether the activities are also suitable for the fat people in the group. For example, if it’s about going out to eat together, you should think about whether there will be chairs that a fat person can fit in, too. If it’s about going to amusement parks, you need to ask yourself if there will be any rides at all that are suitable for fat people. And if it’s about going shopping together, you should ask yourself if there are any places that the fat person in the group can try anything on at all. There are endless examples of things that are an issue in everyday life – and it’s fantastic when people put some thought into these issues before everyone finds themselves in potentially uncomfortable situations. I should add that I personally have grown rather relaxed about these things with time, and now I simply ask for it if there’s something I need. A lot of people don’t do that because they are ashamed to do so. So, if you can do a bit of thinking and arranging in advance, it’s really incredibly worth it – and people will definitely be extremely grateful that you have! And then there’s one more classic faux pas: When you are out and about with people who are noticeably fatter, avoid saying things like “I can’t do that! I’m too fat!” or “I’m so fat and ugly!”. After all, what message is that going to send to the other person?
What is your advice to anyone who is unhappy with their body?
Don’t be too hard on yourself. Make an effort to interact and spend time with people who can relate. Read books on body acceptance and positivity. Take advantage of the very positive impact that social media are having on this issue. And take some time to reflect and to think about all the things that your body does for you, no matter what it looks like. Your body bears you through life, through the very good times and the very bad times. And, for that, it deserves all the respect in the world! And, last but not least, if there’s anyone here at Hapag who wants to connect, please know that I’m here – and happy to talk to you!