A few months ago, I finally started following someone on Instagram that the Health at Every Size (HAES) and Intuitive Eating (IE) crowds had been recommending to me for as long as I could remember. At the same time, I followed another account that came highly recommended by a few fat activists I admire. Very quickly, I found myself confused.
I waited for content I was told was golden. I waited for posts railing against diet culture. I waited for the thoughts about fat activism and body liberation. I stuck around, hopeful. I watched their stories. I waited and waited. While I was waiting, again I saw fat activists recommending their accounts to their followers. Some of them were promoting books, and I saw fat people promote those, too. But the content never came.
What content did I find? Lots of selfies and videos of themselves. Sometimes in bikinis, sometimes eating food, sometimes out and about with their hip, thin and attractive friends who looked a lot like them. A fair amount of self-promotion. Some talk of sexuality and polyamory. Invitations to join their Patreon for more of their content. Troubling fixation on a fringe theory related to a pop star’s sexuality. Most of the content I saw related to body politics, fatphobia, Intuitive Eating, and health were re-posts from other people. One of these accounts posted a picture of themselves eating a single Pop Tart to a groundswell of support and applause. If asked directly for their opinions on fatphobia, they hedged and said, “I’m not the right person to ask about that.”
I started to wonder: Are these people advocating for me? Or are they marketing to me?
The Problem with Thinness and Intuitive Eating Brands
There’s an overlap between the seemingly disparate worlds of eating disorder recovery and fat activism. Both of these worlds generally agree that diet culture is destructive and Intuitive Eating can help us heal our relationships with food. But there’s a fundamental friction between these audiences: The eating disorder recovery crowd is typically full of thinner people who are deeply uncomfortable with fatness, while the fat activism community is striving to learn how to live in fat bodies, manage the fatphobia they experience, recover from eating disorders that are undiagnosed or even applauded by others, without treating their fatness as a temporary state. Both audiences are victims of fatphobia. But they are not victims in the same way.
Intuitive Eating brands want to straddle these two audiences. But the friction is still there. One of those audiences is deathly afraid of becoming like the other. How do you sell books and online courses and Patreon memberships to both of these groups of people?!
Simple: They say and repost the right things about weight and fatness and bodies. And then they placate the people who are frightened of becoming fat with images of their own thin bodies.
Even if someone trying to sell a book about Intuitive Eating would never ever say to a client or another person, “Intuitive Eating will not make you fat”… the fact remains that when their thin bodies are at the center of their brand, their bodies act as reassurance of that fact to the people who are looking for it.
I don’t think this is intentional, in all cases. But I do think this is why there is a surge of content and books about Intuitive Eating from people who have built their brand with pictures of themselves and their thin bodies. I don’t think these people are all bad, cynical people looking to make a quick buck.
But I do have some questions I want them to consider.
1. What would happen if your own thin body was not at the center of your brand?
My career is in digital marketing. So, as is befitting someone in that particular vocation, I am very fucking cynical. I know your tricks. I see what you’re doing there! Because I get paid to do this shit, and I have been getting paid to do this shit for a long time. So I know you will argue, “But engagement and reach on my posts is SO MUCH HIGHER when it’s a picture of myself! It’s not my fault, it’s the algorithm’s fault!”
But I want you to sit with that for a little while. Why do you think your selfies do better than your other posts? Oh, sure, there is a little bit of human psychology at play. People’s brains seek out human faces. Heck, if you want more engagement on your selfies, make sure your photo shows the left side of your face! But when your brand is about bodies, you should know better than to pretend you are helpless against an evil algorithm. You should know that you cannot apolitically bombard your audience with pictures of your thin face and body without it saying something, and you certainly cannot write and sell articles and books about bodies, diets, and thinness without taking accountability for what you put out into the world.
The photo I mentioned above? With the single Pop Tart? You could clearly see the author’s thin legs and feet in the picture, along with the Pop Tart. I’ve held a fair number of Pop Tarts in my time. (Die mad about it, trolls.) Tell me that framing the photo so we could see the Pop Tart and your skinny legs and your teeny tattooed feet was just a coincidence and I will tell you that you’re a goddamn liar because you I know how you had to contort yourself to get everything all in that one single shot.
And the thing is that I don’t have some opposition to seeing thin people’s bodies. I have lots of thin friends! (Do you see what I did there?) But what I do have a problem with is juxtaposing a picture of a Pop Tart that emphasizes your thinness and using it to share a thought about how racism, classism and fatphobia are connected to food access.
So, tell me, is engagement on Instagram worth more to you than living by the principles you tell us you abide by? Is it worth considering that low engagement on posts that don’t feature your image may not be because of “shadowbanning” but because a large chunk of your audience follows you because of what you look like? (Also, you can tell if you’re shadowbanned by doing some testing with hashtags, and low engagement is not the only symptom. So, you can have low engagement and not be shadowbanned. And if you aren’t getting reported constantly, and are not using bots to artificially inflate your followers or toss out likes like they’re confetti, you’re probably not at risk of it anyway. “Shadowbanned” is not just a word for “less engagement than I would like.”)
And you know that part of the reason your audience enjoys seeing your photos is because you are thin, right? You have to know this. Because even if you never say it out loud, even if you never think it, the fact that you are talking about Intuitive Eating and Pop Tarts and cupcakes or whatever your brand is while thin pacifies a certain segment of your audience that is still utterly terrified of fatness. It reassures them. “I can give up dieting, and eat Pop Tarts, without getting fat.”
What would happen if you stopped putting your thinness at the center of your brand?!
And if you think, “Well, my brand would probably stall out and people wouldn’t be as interested in me,” what does that say about your brand? (Consider, for instance, that Your Fat Friend has been on Instagram for a short period of time and racked up almost 60,000 followers on her account… while remaining anonymous. Meaning that she has never once posted a selfie.)
2. Does recognizing your thin privilege sometimes mean turning down opportunities?
I want to make something very clear: I believe that everyone deserves to be compensated for their work. And I believe everyone has a right to make a living. But I’m going to ask thin people making money selling books, giving talks, and running courses about HAES, Intuitive Eating, and the destructiveness of dieting something that’s probably pretty uncomfortable consider.
Would you turn down an opportunity to speak about diet culture, fatphobia, and Intuitive Eating and recommend that the opportunity go to someone else? Would you say no if it meant possibly lifting up someone in a marginalized body? A fat person, a black or brown person, a chronically ill person, a disabled person?
Let’s say, for instance, that you are given an opportunity to write an article about advocating for yourself at the doctor’s office. Or the use of the word “fat.” Or weight loss surgery. Or the newest incarnation of “The Biggest Loser,” that cultural cockroach we cannot seem to kill. Are you the right person for that piece? Why are you being asked, specifically? Would it be more meaningful coming from someone who is immediately impacted by the issue at hand? What would happen if you sent a really nice response to the person offering you the job saying, “Thank you so much for the opportunity! I am not sure I am the right fit for this article, but I do know someone who would be the perfect author, let me put you in touch with them.”
The unfortunate truth is that thin people are hired more than fat people. We are treated worse by employers, when we manage to get the job, and earn less money. This isn’t isolated to a particular field of work. It’s everywhere, in every job. And that includes the fields of publishing, HAES and IE advocacy and work. So, to be a true advocate, to be someone actively working to dismantle the institutionalized, systemic discrimination that marginalized people face… does that mean saying no sometimes, and giving someone else an opportunity?
Because the fact is that some of these people I followed have been offered those types of articles and accepted them. I have read what they wrote. And I saw a lot of acknowledgement of the privileges they hold in society, a lot of words about how other people may be treated much worse, but they still wrote the piece. They took the money, they got the exposure, they wrote a piece about requesting not to be weighed at the doctor’s office from the perspective of a thin woman who does not suffer from any chronic illnesses or disabilities. They got paid to write about how to advocate for yourself at the doctor’s office, knowing that they have never had an illness or condition blamed solely on their weight, or left an appointment for a sinus infection with a referral to a bariatric surgery center, or simply been refused treatment until they lost weight, or faced a medical practitioner who was openly hesitant to touch them. They wrote the words acknowledging their privilege, but they still cashed in on their privilege.
And there were fat writers out there who would have loved the opportunity to write about those topics. They didn’t get it. Or, they wrote about it for free on their blogs. And the thing is that I’m not bitter about personally not getting those opportunities — as I said, I have a day job that pays quite well and I am fine, but there are plenty of writers in marginalized bodies who do not get opportunities because paid work in this small field is going to thin writers, thin speakers, thin advocates.
So, tell me, do you get to talk the talk about needing more diverse voices, if you don’t walk the walk? Do you get to take jobs writing and speaking about experiences you have not personally had and have that erased by writing an acknowledgement of your privilege? When was the last time you said no to an opportunity, and gave it to someone who is marginalized instead?
3. How are you challenging the thin people in your audience?
The presence of a thin body at the center of an IE or HAES brand is soothing to the thin people in the audience. Sometimes these brands can be gateways to fat activism; you start with Brene Brown or Isabel Foxen Duke and end up at Your Fat Friend, Sofie Hagen, Sonya Renee Taylor, Jes Baker. And that’s a good thing! But I want these gateway brands to think about how they can challenge their audiences more.
Insulating thin people who are terrified of fatness from images of fat people hurts fat people for the sake of protecting thin people.
Are you sharing work by fat writers? (And then, are you sharing it in your feed, or relegating it to your stories so you can get that sweet, sweet engagement?) Are you talking about fatphobia? Are you challenging yourself?
By continuing to create an online space, a brand, where thinness is centered, you are causing harm.
4. How are you talking to the fat people in your audience?
Here’s where I’m going to get a little personal. I have spent pretty much my whole entire life listening to thin women tell me how to eat. And you know what? I’m tired of it. I’m tired of nodding and going “uh huh” and pretending they are experts. In Weight Watchers, I paid good money to listen to thin women preach to me about the importance of saying no to a bread basket or drinking eight glasses of water per day, like it was going to somehow make my large body small. I’ve listened to them talk about Atkin’s, South Beach, keto, veganism (“I’ve never met a fat vegan!” a thin vegan said to me, a fat vegan), MyFitnessPal, portion control, how to trick yourself into eating more vegetables, and on and on forever until my eyes rolled so far back into my head I went blind for a few years.
I listened because, well, they were thin! They must have had access to some sort of secret, right? Some magical trick that kept them from getting fat? They had to know something I didn’t! Because, there I was, trying everything I could, and still fat. There must have been some missing element that would save me. Once I knew, I could break out of the fat body I felt sure was temporary.
But they didn’t have a secret. They had just… never been fat. The secret, as it was, boiled down to genetics, metabolism, and in many cases, growing up middle class without food insecurity. Well, shit. Realizing that there wasn’t a prophecy, or magical orb containing all the knowledge of thinness, or sacred task I could complete to be thin was a sad, sad day. That quest had been driving me for so long. I could lose about 20-30lbs, with daily obsession. But those 20-30lbs would creep back on. Realizing that my temporary fat body (that I had lived in all my life) might in fact be permanent broke my heart. I would have to learn to live in this body, while living in a world that hated it almost as much as I did.
Still, not only did other people think these people had the secret, the thin people themselves did too. “Well, I do _______ and I’ve been the same weight since high school!”
Thin IE and HAES practitioners, influencers, brands, and authors are still given that mystical authority. People listen to them. Can you imagine if the book “Just Eat It” was published by a fat person?! Or if my fat ass did promotional photos with a bunch of fucking donuts? (“Just Eat It” is a great book, by the way! But CAN YOU IMAGINE?! I mean, cupcakes and donuts are kind of my aesthetic, but I don’t know if I’d ever sit for a photo shoot where I was given desserts to pose with. Because, as a fat person, my response to that is abject terror at how I will be treated if people see those. And I’m already treated like I live my life in a dessert-and-Cheetos pit with a shovel to cram them all into my mouth, anyway. I’m already sure to show up on the ghastly FatLogic subreddit anytime I make a post. I get trolled constantly, even when I go months between posts. I’m not going to kick a hornet’s nest by posing with some donuts.)
So, I want you to think about this when you are talking about eating. How are you acknowledging your privilege here? Are you talking down to your audience? Are you talking at them? Are you willing to engage in dialogues with the fat people in your audience? (Some of the people I’ve referenced in this post are, some have closed down comments on their accounts so that only mutuals can contact them, meaning they can never be challenged.) Are you more willing to clap back at trolls who show up in the comments than you are to engage with fat people calling you on something you said or did that was hurtful to them, or didn’t take them into account? Are you blocking fat people who try to call you in? Do you delete comments you don’t like?
What is your reaction to fat people who might kick against something you post or an idea you have? How does it feel if they are critical of Intuitive Eating or HAES? Do you appeal to your own authority as an academic? Do you dismiss them?
5. Are you appropriating fat activism to build your brand?
There are a lot of people posting, writing, speaking and advocating for Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size. It’s amazing to see! But you know what’s not so amazing? Seeing ideas, thoughts and calls to action that originated in fat activist communities get co-opted to help thin women build their brand.
So, this can look a few different ways. One of them is publishing a book calling out diet culture for all the harm is causes… without paying due respects to the fat people who have been saying the same shit since the 1960s. Maybe it goes viral when a thin person says that health is not a moral imperative or that you are not alive just to eat and pay bills. But fat people have been saying this for a long, long time. So pay your respects. Cite them. Give them credit if they introduced you to an idea. Invite them onto your podcast. Interview them for the article you’re writing (or, even better, recommend that they write the article instead.)
The fact that so many books with a fat activism and anti-diet culture bent are not doing this tells me one thing: Y’all didn’t read those books. You weren’t part of the community that has been saying these things since time immemorial. You didn’t realize that the foundation of your whole entire book was something that a fat person wrote in a zine back in the day, or that a group of fat chicks on Livejournal have been talking about this since you were still in high school. And that’s a damn shame.
If you’re going to do this work, if you are going to take up the mantle of fighting diet culture and fatphobia, you need to do your homework before you cash your first check.
This also shows up in smaller, more insidious ways. For instance, when you share that image or post from a fat person on Instagram, ask yourself why. Are you doing it to boost your own engagement? Or to boost them? Are you asking people to join their Patreons, too? Or are you just promoting your own? When you’re using their words, are you reaching out to them? Are you supporting them publicly?
Shit, some of these people, these folks that keep getting recommended to me… I’m not even sure if they have any fat friends. They post pictures of their spouses and partners. They are thin. When they post pictures of their friends, they are thin, or at least not fat. Don’t think your fat audience doesn’t notice when you never appear with a fat person in your own feed. Or that you rarely ever recommend a book or an article by a fat author, unless it’s someone who also spends a lot of time promoting your projects and account. I’m not suggesting that you need to pepper your feed with some token fats or divorce your partner and marry someone fat for cred. (Seriously, do not do that.) I’m just suggesting that you should think about whether you have a right to make a living on the back of a fat audience, if you cannot deign to be friends with people who look like us. Do you have a right to write for us, to speak for us, to advocate for us, if we are not part of your lives as more than a vague abstract idea? Do you get to boost your engagement reposting our words, our thoughts, our pain, when you wouldn’t hang out with us and post stories and pictures of us on your Instagram?
This is what makes me feel like I’m not being advocated for, but marketed to. The requests are constant. Join my Patreon. Watch my YouTube video. Watch my TEDx talk. Turn on post notifications. Like, comment, and subscribe. Look at my new Instagram post. Read my article. But what are you doing for me, and people like me? I won’t be buying your books until you can stop trying to sell me things long enough to answer that question.