Landwhale by Jes Baker | Book Review

I’ve been following Jes Baker and her blog, The Militant Baker, for a few years now. She was one of the first “body positive” personalities I was exposed to. And, in a lot of ways, embodied a lot of the things I love and hate about the body positive movement.

At first, “activism via selfies” was eye-opening. I had simply not seen many fat bodies, despite living in one. Fat bodies in swimsuits, fat bodies in crop tops, fat bodies in dresses and overalls and shorts and looking fabulous at brunch. It was powerful for me. Fat women — not hating themselves?! What on earth?! Who knew such a thing was possible! But, as the body positive movement grew, it wore on me. The landscape was dominated by young, seemingly affluent white women who were on the smaller end of the size spectrum. As “BoPo” became more mainstream, sizes started to skew even smaller. And it no longer felt revolutionary. It felt … well, kind of empty. Lots of selfies and hashtags and body positive talk but very little activism.

I grew weary of it. It’s all well and good to tell people that they should love themselves. But sometimes that message can distract from the less Instagram-worthy reality of the oppressive systems that make loving yourself hard when you’re fat. To me, Jes Baker became sort of the poster girl for that.

Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls
Photo by The Militant Baker.

So, when Jes released Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls, I bought it. I enjoyed it, even. It was an easy, breezy read. But it was 101-level BoPo. Which is great! It’s an important book for women who have never even considered that they don’t have to lose weight to be happy. It’s a great introduction. But it didn’t shake my foundations.

Then, something funny happened on Jes Baker’s blog and Instagram. First, she gained a little bit of weight. She’s written about it; it was a little weird for her. Around the same time, her brand of activism started shifting. She wrote about “Lisa Frank BoPo” and it had me cheering. She was moving away from body positive and into body liberation. She was, it seemed, moving toward honest-to-god fat activism — which is where the body positive movement has its roots, but they’ve diverged pretty violently from one another as movements and communities. BoPo is about feeling good about yourself and challenging norms. Fat activism is about angrily dismantling the system that make things like BoPo necessary, the systems that make being visible and happy while fat seem rebellious.

So, she became more interesting to me. And when I heard she was publishing a new book, I pre-ordered it. I got it in the mail this week, and it did not disappoint. It is much more interesting than her first book.

Landwhale memoir Jes Baker the Militant Baker
Cover of Landwhale: On Turning Insults Into Nicknames, Why Body Image Is Hard, and How Diets Can Kiss My Ass by Jes Baker

On not actually being a fat kid

This is one of the first revelations in the book, and one that honestly surprised me. Jes Baker was not a fat kid. She writes about going through family photos to research this very book, expecting to see a fat blonde kid starting back at her from her mom’s photo albums, and was surprised to find that she wasn’t the fat kid she remembered.

She dives deep into her body dysmorphia, how it’s connected to her parents (particularly her father), her Mormon upbringing, poverty and food scarcity. The first part of the book is less about fat activism, and more about dissecting the influences that set her on the path to becoming a fat icon and activist.

Despite the heavy subject matter, she has an easy, conversational writing style that makes these parts of the book easy to digest and relatable. Which is a great trick of her writing because … I do not relate to this at all.

I was an Actual Fat Kid — and I didn’t realize it until I was pushing 8 or 9 and sharing clothes with my mom. I legitimately did not realize that I was fat, or that anything was wrong with my body, until people started telling me so. I did not realize that I was not allowed access to certain space and experiences, until I was denied those things because of my size. This part of the book taught me a lot — especially when it comes to why BoPo is so powerful for some. For Jes, it felt revolutionary to embrace her body when it was tangled up in so much pain, trauma and self-doubt. I had a hard time relating to BoPo because I never felt those things, until I was treated differently by the world. So, in sharing these difficult revelations (and nothing can be more difficult than realizing that your vision of who you were as a childhood was totally wrong), she helped me find empathy and understanding for a community to whom I often cannot relate.

HAES and Donut Land

The middle of her book hit me like a clap of thunder, particular the chapter entitled “HAES, Hot Mics, and Other Things I Learned the Hard Way.” Like Jes, I’ve embraced Health at Every Size (HAES) and Intuitive Eating (IE). Like Jes, I stopped dieting, which is something I have been doing since the first time my brother teased me for having a double-chin. And, like Jes, I gained weight. (Also, like Jes, Depo Provera and a desk job came into the picture.) I also went from the smaller end of the fat spectrum to the larger end. And it gave me some feelings.

I see the sentiments and the struggle Jes writes about in this chapter in a lot of people when they start HAES and IE. I went through them myself. There’s the ecstasy of no longer counting Points or calories or carbs, tossing your FitBit in the trash, not punishing yourself with exercise because you ate a cookie, freedom from the cycle of restriction and bingeing, having a doughnut for breakfast instead of a protein bar because who ever actually wants to eat a protein bar, they’re fucking gross. The space alone that is freed up in your mind and the extra time you gain in a day is astonishing when you stop dieting. When you push all of that shit out of the way, it feels liberating. And you get to eat ice cream if you want ice cream!

And then you gain weight. (Of course you gain weight! You’re not dieting! You’ve been dieting your whole life!) The doubt and shame creep in.

The wonderful thing about this chapter is that it serves as a reminder that this is part of the process. This is normal. Everyone goes through this when they ditch Weight Watchers and delete My Fitness Pal from their phones for good. It’s a pendulum, as Jes writes. You swing from Diet Land to Donut Land, propelled by diet culture in both directions. Finding yourself in the middle takes some time, effort, a lot of self-reflection, and some improvisation and experimentation.

HAES and IE are not diets. That’s kind of the point of them. They’re paths to healing your relationships with food and with your body. And it’s a fucking process. It can be hard, and it can feel devastating that even after you’ve read all the books and blogs and listened to all the podcasts and had all of the discussions, you’re still struggling to find peace with all of this shit. No one goes from walking on the treadmill telling themselves that no one will ever love them if they don’t finish three miles (something I have done, many times) to embracing joyful movement after reading some books. It takes a lot of time, patience with yourself, and learning to recognize when diet culture is flooding your thought processes. The real bummer of it all is that you’re going to be fighting this battle maybe forever. There may not be a promised land; there may just be a lifetime of process.

This is an important chapter. It’s something I don’t think I’ve seen written about, or even talked about much, anywhere else.

Loving yourself through the eyes of another

A lot of the latter half of the book is about her relationship with her fiancé, Andy. I loved reading about this. Because I’m a cheerleader for love (hi, I’m a newlywed!) and because something I rarely ever talk about is the role my now-husband played in my path to accepting myself.

It’s a little bit of a taboo, isn’t it? It’s all so heteronormative and anti-feminist. “I finally learned how to love myself when a man decided that I was worthy of love!” Ew, no. But for me, it’s reality. That was, in fact, the turning point for me in my life.

I spent most of my teenage years silently accepting that I was not worthy of love. (I wrote about that here.) In my twenties, I was convinced that the only way I could land and keep a boyfriend was hiding my true self (the difficult, opinionated, moody, complicated part of me) and becoming as accommodating as possible. One boyfriend I had repeatedly chose Dungeons & Dragons over me, even though I’d traveled from a different state to see him. And I was too scared to say, “Hey, can you stop treating me like an inconvenience and maybe forego D&D for one Sunday so we can hang out?” (And when I did find the strength to say that, he dumped me.) I had other men treat me like a dirty little secret. They were happy to spend all day quietly texting me and invite me over after dark but never introduced me to their friends or, you know, saw me in the light of day. (One guy even had a girlfriend while we was secretly seeing me. I had no clue I was the other woman, because I never met any of the people in his life. Whoops.) So, when I met Greg, who treated me like I was a goddamn princess, respected me, accepted me, and even thought all those body parts I was so desperate to hide were cute … the whole world opened up.

Sometimes, for some people, it really isn’t possible to fully love and accept yourself until you experience unconditional love and acceptance from another.

And that’s okay. It’s understandable. It’s common.

The prevailing narrative is the you cannot fully love someone else without loving yourself. This isn’t true. I say this as a person in love with, and loved by, a person who still struggles to love himself. We both struggle together. We lift each other up. When one of us is having a hard time, the other swoops in and provides support so they don’t fall down the rabbit hole of their own thoughts. That’s what a good relationship is — finding someone who accepts all of you. Even the insecure and unstable parts that need constant reassurance.

This is another thing I haven’t seen written or talked about much. I enjoyed reading it, because Jes’ journey with Andy is so similar to my journey with Greg.

Weight loss surgery

One of the chapters of Landwhale that was somewhat disappointing to me was her chapter about weight loss surgery. (And also not fitting on the Harry Potter rides at Universal. GIRL, I HAVE BEEN THERE.) Her thesis is essentially that body autonomy trumps all … which I agree with. No one’s body belongs to anyone else. And they can do whatever they must to survive, including dieting, including weight loss surgery.

She touches briefly (in a footnote) on the way people seem to condemn women of color who’ve had weight loss surgery more harshly. Which, frankly, should have been more than a footnote. Because being fat is hard, but it’s even harder when you live in the intersection of so many other forms of oppression, like Gabourey Sidibe and Ashley Nell Tipton and Roxane Gay.

She also mentions that a friend of hers died from complications from weight loss surgery while she was recovering at home. Holy shit, back up for minute! That is horrifying. That gets a short mention. And I want to know so much more. I get that it is not her story to tell, but oh my god, that deserves a little more than a brief mention when you’re talking about weight loss surgery, right? The fact that PEOPLE DIE?!

Then things get weird. And I get what she was going for, but the story about her friend segues into, well, essentially blaming the body positive and fat acceptance communities for her friend’s death. Because she was ashamed and secretive about having it done, and afraid of the backlash from those who would feel it was a betrayal. Which is a valid concern, because there may be backlash, but let’s place the blame where it actually belongs: on the doctors who performed the surgery, on the culture that makes so many fat people feel like permanent, serious, life-altering surgery is necessary for their survival, on the hospital system that sent her home without ensuring that she had the support systems she needed in place as she recovered.

And that’s the thing. That is what people are opposed to. That is what people rage against. Not the person who decides it’s the right decision for them. The doctors and culture who convinced them it was the only way to go, and the society that finally opens up to people when they go to extreme measures to fit in. The world that is happier to cut pieces out of your body than make space for your body as it is.

And, sometimes, like with Ashley Nell Tipton, people get backlash because of how they behave after the surgery. Like giving interviews to People Magazine where they engage in healthism and negative talk about fat bodies. That backlash is justified, because that is betrayal, when you make a living with the support of a certain community and then slap them in the face when you have lost enough weight to no longer need them.

It’s a complicated topic, and I wish she’d dove a little deeper than she did.

“Bulletproof Fatty”

This is the chapter where Jes acknowledges the “Bulletproof Fatty” image and persona, and how she ended up playing that role, without really meaning to.

I found this chapter to be vulnerable and honest and a nice way to move past the old Jes, who preached the gospel of selfies, and the new Jes, who is an activist and still takes lots of selfies and recognizes their value but wants to do more.

Overall, this was a very good book, and I think a huge step forward for Jes Baker not just as an activist and fat, feminist voice but as a writer — it is legitimately well-written. It still has all of  the approachability and plainspoken pluck of her blog, but also dives deep on a lot of topics in a way I honestly haven’t seen her do before. It’s a great, thought-provoking read.

Get your copy of Landwhale here. 

 

3 thoughts on “Landwhale by Jes Baker | Book Review

  1. I loved your review and felt really sad when you felt like you had explain why love saved you. Love is what saves ALL of us and sometimes we need to be loved by others so we can learn to love ourselves. Isn’t that what good parents do for their children? Do we deserve less? How did we ever get the idea that we had to do everything along to make it be worthy of goodness? So your straight husband loved you and you healed just a little bit more. GOOD. EXCELLENT. We all need and deserve love, so go you!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you! And it mostly just seems a little anti-feminist, but you’re right, love is a powerful force in everyone’s lives – whether it’s the love of family, love of a spouse, love of friends, love of a community, or even the love of a pet. There’s no shame in being transformed by love. ❤

      Like

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