Professor’s TED talk on body ideals warns against ‘conflation of appearance with health’

In September, UC Santa Cruz professor and medical anthropologist Nancy Chen was featured in a TED Salon talk called “The inaccurate link between body ideals and health,” that has since been viewed more than 780,000 times online.

TED producers approached Chen for her research expertise at the intersection of food and health. In her roughly nine minute talk, Chen focuses first on how ideals related to weight and body shape have varied across cultures and time. But, she notes, Western societies have more recently popularized depictions of models with very thin body types, and these ideals have since spread to many places around the world.

“Weight stigma or fat phobia and bias are increasingly found not only in the global north but also the global south,” Chen says in her talk. 

At the same time, obesity rates have increased globally. Chen argues that public health campaigns intended to address health issues associated with obesity must be careful to avoid reinforcing weight stigmas, otherwise, they are likely to backfire. 

“If we are concerned about health and wellbeing, then we need to go beyond body standards or ideals,” she explained in the video. “We need to consider how healthy bodies are based on what’s going on inside, rather than focusing on externalities.”

Chen also discussed how the body diversity movement has been challenging harmful ideals and promoting representation for a wide variety of body shapes and features as part of social diversity, equity, and inclusion. 

In reflecting on the popularity of her talk since its release, Chen said there’s clear public interest in approaches to health and image that do more to promote esteem and self-care. 

“I think the issues raised in the talk resonated with ongoing concerns for wellbeing and healing as we all move forward,” she said. “We can be better together if we focus on vitality.”