I see you glance at me over your magazine or phone at the gate. You cast your gaze downward when I meet it. “I hope I don’t get stuck next to her,” I imagine you thinking as you go back to scrolling through your social media feed. Maybe you tweet about me, the fat woman sitting across from you at the gate, whose hips can barely be contained by the generous seat. Maybe you text your thin friend, who will understand your anxiety about being seat next to me on the plane.
I wish I could tell you that I’m also terrified of being seated next to you. I’m afraid of how you’ll look at me, what you’ll say to me. I’m afraid that you might film me, film how my thighs struggle against the seat and invade your space, perhaps to laugh at me on social media or complain to the airline afterward. I steel myself for a confrontation that hasn’t happened yet. I scan the other people waiting at the gate; each thin person is a potential aggressor, someone who may be disgusted and enraged by sitting next to me. I try to shrink myself in my chair. It’s no use. My hips touch the arms of the chair, and there’s nothing I can do about it. I am grateful, however, that the seats at the gate are wide. The arms of the seat don’t dig into my hips; they just gently graze them. Since we are stuck at this gate for a few hours, I am thankful that this particular chair will not leave me with bruises on my hips. It’s happened many times before, and it’s a discomfort I have come to both expect and never question. I usually greet the discomfort with a weary sigh, but in this case, I was able to breathe a sigh of relief. This seat is comfortable. Usually, seats are not.
I return to my book and try to forget about you.
I snuggle into my husband, who is traveling with me. He is thin and conventionally attractive, but he doesn’t mind when I invade his space. I also see you glance at him, then back to me, your eyes darting to our wedding rings. I know what you’re thinking. “How does that work? How is he with her?” My husband doesn’t see this, but I do. He never sees it. He grabs my hand. He knows I don’t like to fly.
We take a selfie, because we’re on our honeymoon.
The act of being in the airport feels bold to me. It’s something I have been afraid of doing. I wish I could tell you how much thought and preparation went into this flight. I spent hours online researching the policies of the airline, taking comfort in knowing the possible outcomes if I do not fit into the seat, or if a passenger takes exception to my presence. I seek out opinions online — I am part of a group of fat travelers who share information about the aircrafts they’ve flown on, how big the seats and seatbelts are, what the “customer of size” policies are, how accommodating the airline is. The group has thousands and thousands of people just like me, who are terrified of people like you, of being dehumanized and humiliated. I try to find pictures of aircraft seats online. I try to find the exact seat size, arm rest to arm rest, so I can determine whether the pillowy expanse of my hips will fit within them. I know that the measure of whether I will be able to fly peacefully depends, in part, on that measurement.
In the end, the math that makes the most sense is upgrading to a first class ticket. We are not rich, but it is worth the added peace of mind.
I see your face when I stand up to board first. You scan me, trying to understand. I do not look rich; I’m wearing jeans, a hoodie, a t-shirt, beat up old Converse sneakers. “How is she boarding before me?!” you think to yourself. Your eyes turn, once again, to my husband. “That’s it,” you say to yourself. “He must be well-off.” You stop looking, satisfied. Because you assume that because of my size, I must also be lazy, underemployed, poor. But you jut out your jaw a little bit at the injustice of it all when you turn back to your phone. I feel you hovering close to the outskirts of the line, waiting to board, furious that I get to board before you.
In the first boarding group, a thin man in a suit pushes past me. He also cannot believe I am there, so has decided that he can push me out of the way. He has more of a right to be there than me. His carry-on is a laptop. He is very important.
My husband grabs my hand again, and kisses me on the cheek. He acts as a protective shield in situations like this. If he could fold me up into his luggage to transport me fully shielded from you and your gaze, your jutted jaw, your brief but unmistakable eye-rolls, he would. He just wants me to get there unscathed.
We board the plane, and I hang back, like I always do. There are many people here who are more important than me in this priority boarding group, so I let them board first. I don’t want to make a scene, or act too entitled. I know I am lucky to be here. I want you to know that I know I’m lucky, so I let everyone else board first. I am quiet, and smile at everyone who passes me. My smile is deferential, appeasing, a shield.
When we get to the plane, I find my seat. In first class, there are only two seats per row, thank god. The only person whose space I can infringe on is my husband’s space, and he doesn’t mind.
I get to my seat. The man in the suit with the carry-on laptop is in my seat. I wait for a moment, and then approach him. “I’m sorry,” I say, in my most polite voice. “I think you’re in my seat?” It is not a question, but I phrase it as such, so as not to seem too bold or accusatory. I am the master of non-intimidating uptalk.
He looks at his ticket. He’s already stowed away his laptop bag and opened his laptop. He says nothing, does not apologize, but collects his things and moves to his seat.
I ask my husband if he can put my carry-on in the overhead bin. I ask him to do this not because I am lazy, but because I worry about what will happen if in reaching up to stow away my bag, my shirt travels up an exposes a bit of back or tummy. I wear a camisole underneath my t-shirt to shield any eyes from my exposed flesh, in the event that it becomes a possibility, but I’m still nervous about it. I never know what will set you off, and I feel your eyes on me. So I’m not risking it.
I settle in, crack open my book. I’m sitting my the window because even though the window makes me feel anxious during the flight, it provides some degree of protection from other passengers.
I ask a flight attendant for a seatbelt extender. She grabs one and passes it to me discreetly, with a wink, like she were handing me something illicit or embarrassing. Her discretion is not necessary, but I am grateful for this act of kindness.
The rest of you board. I focus on my book, but I feel you pass me, one at a time, and look before you head to the other side of the curtain, to find your economy seat. Sometimes I catch a hint of befuddlement, sometimes resentment. “Who is she? How come she’s in first class?” The feeling of collective injustice is palpable as you all pass. I mentally challenge you not to look at me. You all do, anyway.
We take off. I did it, I got on the plane without any major incidents. I absorb myself in my book. The rest of the passengers forget about me.
I am offered drinks by the flight attendants, but I refuse, because I know there’s another hour left in the flight and I won’t fit into the tiny bathroom. I am thirsty, but say, “No thank you.” I have strategically planned my meals and fluids for this flight, and stopped eating and drinking several hours before we boarded. Every part of this trip has been strategically planned.
I wish you knew, I wish you could understand, how much planning goes into travel when you’re fat. It adds more layers to your trip than I think you can imagine. I am lucky, because I am white, able-bodied, and can hide behind my husband. If you are brown, disabled, trans, or otherwise visibly “different,” it adds even more layers. There are even more eyes on you, as you try to quietly get to your destination.
Consider Norma Rodgers’ experience. I wonder if the woman on the flight, loudly calling the large bodies she was seated between “pigs” and telling the flight attendant she “can’t breathe,” would have been so bold seated beside me. She was seated between two people who were fat, but also Black. I imagine this added to her distress. Not only was she flanked by people in large bodies who had the audacity to want to travel, she was flanked by two Black people in large bodies. I imagine it added to her rage, that the bodies touching hers had brown skin. She didn’t know or care that Norma Rodgers is a distinguished nursing professional. To the woman, her presence was an affront to her privileged status, her right to travel in comfort.
It’s a right fat people are rarely afforded. We don’t expect comfort. We plan, we strategize, we prepare for confrontations. Scenarios race through our heads. And someone should tell Pete Singer, a noted animal activist and fatphobe who considers obesity “an ethical issue” and vocal opinion-haver about fat people on airplanes, that we do pay more. We pay to upgrade to first class, as I did, so as not to infringe on other passengers’ right to not be bothered by us. We often pay for an extra seat, to place a barrier of space between us and other passengers, so they are not bothered by us. That doesn’t even get into the emotional and mental toll we pay when we travel. Or that everything costs us more, down to the clothes on our backs. We pay, and we pay dearly. Sometimes we cannot bear the cost, so we do not travel at all, instead opting to stay home, in an environment we can control, free from the prying eyes of strangers trying to determine how much our bodies cost them and impede their ability to be comfortable and unencumbered. Sometimes we bow out of attending destination weddings, work trips, vacations, funerals. All because your comfort is worth more than ours.
I wish I could tell you, and have you understand, how great my fear of you is. I have never traveled far. I live on the East Coast, and the farthest I’ve made it was New Mexico. I was there for work. Before the trip, I spent weeks fretting over the flight. Would I fit? What if I asked my employer if they could send me by train instead? How long would that take?
Once, at work, I was excited to go to a conference I had helped plan. But I worried. I looked up how much it would cost to upgrade to a first class ticket out of my own pocket, even though I knew I couldn’t afford it on a nonprofit salary. I was both relieved, and saddened, when I was told at the last minute that I would not be attending the conference after all. My boss cited “budget concerns,” but I knew the truth. The cost of me flying to the conference was not worth my labor at a table, handing out pamphlets, because they didn’t want me representing them anyway. The week my entire department was gone at the conference, I sat alone in my cubicle. My entire department went, except for me. Before the trip, after I was told I would not be attending, my inbox swelled with desperate requests for finding volunteers. They needed me, but they also didn’t want me. It was a lonely week.
I have never traveled internationally, because I fear being trapped on board a long flight with you. I have never traveled internationally because while I am privileged enough to be able to afford to upgrade to first class for a short flight, that may not be the case for an international flight. And I know it will be a long flight, and your odds of being angry and uncomfortable will increase, and that I am at risk of being a target for your anger.
The thing is, I don’t expect comfort. I want it, sure, but I deal with discomfort every day. I do not expect chairs that will be comfortable; I expect chairs that will be uncomfortable, and may even bruise me. But I have learned to minimize my discomfort, and pretend that I am fine, for your benefit. I have also learned to avoid situations where your comfort might be compromised by me, by having to be near me or see me, which is why I do not travel as much as I’d like.
The solution seems simple, to me. Provide a few seats on flights that are larger, where fat people can be seated, away from your thin body and your expectation of comfort. But not only do you insist on comfort, you also insist on not paying extra for that comfort, so airlines must shove as many seats as possible onto the plane so you can purchase your tickets for less. All of this is your doing, yet we bear the blame. We miss out on so much because of your entitlement. I would pay more for such a seat, even though I make a modest salary and it would require extra financial planning, but I can hear your protests already — “Why should fat people get special treatment or special seats? Why should I risk having my ticket’s price go up so the plane can add a few extra seats where one fat person can sit instead of two or three people like me?” There is no winning here.
What you want is for us to be weighed at the airport. Your thought is that we should be asked to pay more, and you should be asked to pay less, because you have been successful in your pursuit of thinness. “I eat salads,” you hiss at fat passengers like Norma. I also eat salads, and I’m sure Norma, being a nurse, does too. (I eat a lot of salads, because for fat people, all eating is performative.) But you eat salads, and you are thin, and you therefore deserve privileges the rest of us are not afforded. You can’t feel the congratulations all around you, the privileges you are already granted for your thinness and salad-eating, so you feel you deserve even more. You don’t even realize that we already pay more than you.
I know better than to ask much of you. I want to ask you for compassion, to remember that the fat person sitting next to you or near you on a flight is a human being. I want to ask you to remember that you don’t know us, or why we’re flying, and to consider the idea that maybe our sole purpose for being on that plane is not to make you uncomfortable or invade your space. I want to ask to you to please be kind. And consider that fat people have no desire to touch you or squish you or infringe on your space any more than you wish to be infringed upon. We don’t want to touch you any more than you want us touching you. We just want to get to our destination, and live our lives. That’s all.
I want to ask you these things, but I don’t dare. I have learned that asking things of you results in rage.
I hope you’ll do better, but the news cycle constantly reminds me that you will not. You refuse. You constantly disappoint.
I hope you will prove me wrong one day, and instead of eyeing me with suspicion and disdain, or pushing me out of the way, you’ll do what I do and simply smile at a fellow traveller.
This week, Weight Watchers CEO Mindy Grossman announced that the company was dropping weight — literally, they’re not Weight Watchers anymore. They’re WW. And they’re not a diet, you see. They’re about wellness. They even partnered with a mindfulness and medication app. Their new tagline is, “Wellness that works.”
Do they still offer weight loss through group meetings, Points-counting and public weigh-ins? Yes, of course they do. “We will always be the best at the science of eating as healthy as you can, period,” Grossman told Buzzfeed News. “If somebody needs and wants to, desires to lose weight, we have the best program in the world.”
I’ve tried a lot of diets. And I mean a lot. But the diet that I have tried more times than any other was Weight Watchers. I’ve joined Weight Watchers a total of five times. I lost (and regained) somewhere in the neighborhood of 70lbs on Weight Watchers (oh, excuse me, WW.) And I can say, without a doubt, that it is the diet that has wreaked the most havoc on my life.
The first time I tried Weight Watchers, a friend recommended I come with her.
My boyfriend had just dumped me, and I was in pain. The breakup had nothing to do with my weight, but in the nuclear winter of my first failed serious relationship, my focus turned to my body. I had been too much for my boyfriend. I was too needy, too demanding of his time, too attached, too emotional. I saw my body as a physical representation of my personal failings. I wanted to be smaller. I wanted to be less. I wanted to want less. A diet seemed like a great way to rid myself of the parts of me that were too much.
I also saw the breakup as an opportunity: my relationship had been long-distance. I spent my weeks working, and my weekend was spent traveling to visit my boyfriend. Released from that tether on my time and mental energy, I thought it was a perfect chance to devote myself to weight loss, like a monk devotes himself to prayer.
The ritual was soothing. I would wake up early on Saturday morning, shower, dress, and meet my friend for a weigh-in and Weight Watchers meeting. I’d shed my shoes, step on the scale, and a Weight Watchers employee would print out a little sticker with my weight. If the number was higher, the employee would look at me over the partition and silently hand me the booklet that tracked my progress. If the number was lower, I would be given a sticker, a smile and a friendly congratulations, and I’d proudly put the sticker in my booklet. Sometimes it was a star, like the ones teachers handed out in preschool. Sometimes it was a different sticker, that said “Good Job!” We’d then take our seats for the meeting.
The room was largely full of women, in their thirties and forties. Some were engaged in a lifetime battle with their weights; some had recently had given birth and were looking to lose their “baby weight.” In the meeting, the leader (who was a successful Weight Watchers member, not a registered dietician or doctor) would go over a topic — a game plan for the holidays, how to stay “on program” while eating at a restaurant, tips for “healthy swaps” for foods that are high in Points.
Then, the floor would be opened up to anything someone would want to share. Often, people would raise their hands and talk about victories. They fit into a smaller size pants, they went to a birthday party and successfully avoided cake and ice cream, they went out to eat with their husbands and asked the server not to bring a bread basket. Some would celebrate the weight they lost that week, some would lament having gained weight.
It was a supportive environment. It took up my time, which seemed endless after the breakup. I felt a sense of community, which I desired, because I had honestly never felt so desperate and alone in my life. And in losing the identity of Girlfriend, I found a new one: Weight Watcher.
Usually my friend’s husband would join us at Weight Watchers. We were friends, and I spent a lot of time with them after the breakup. After weighing in and sitting through the meeting, we’d all go out to lunch.
We always attended a Saturday morning meeting.
We called our lunch after the meeting “Faturday.”
We’d take turns choosing the restaurant. Sometimes it was Chinese, sometimes it was Mexican, sometimes it was pizza. These were good lunches — we’d talk, laugh, share things. But we were also bingeing.
We were the only people at our regular meetings who observed “Faturday,” but the practice was common. People weighed in, sat through the meeting, and then went apeshit at a restaurant or on whatever food they had been depriving themselves of all week.
I looked forward to Faturday every single week. On Sunday, I’d start imagining the meal we’d have, the possibilities. What would I have? Pasta? Pizza? Ice cream? Maybe a mocha Frappucino with lots of whipped cream? My weeks spent on Weight Watchers were spent fantasizing about the few hours, on the one day, when I could eat what I wanted.
Before my weekly weigh-in, I would fast. It started on Friday morning. I’d eat below my Points all day, and when the sun set on Friday, I’d stop eating. After 9pm, I wouldn’t even drink. This wasn’t uncommon. I don’t think anyone in the group ate before a weigh-in. A lot of them would bring bananas or granola bars to eat during the meeting, after they had weighed in.
I never even drank water before a weigh-in. I had been warned that a full bladder could cause me to weigh more. So, I woke up, stomach burbling, thirsty, and weighed in.
I’d take off my belt, wear light clothes, and a few times made the conscious decision not to wear socks because I was worried they would add weight to the scale.
It did not occur to me once that these tricks did not actually result in meaningful or significant weight loss, or even accurately measure how well I followed the program during the week. The scale was a numbers game. And when I finally reached my goal weight, I told myself, life could begin.
One week, I had spent all my extra cash on groceries. I went a little nuts at Wegmans, and bought a blender and a bunch of organic fresh fruit.
On Wednesday, I panicked. I realized I didn’t have enough money left over for my weekly membership fee, or for gas to get to work.
I called my mom and asked her to borrow money. I spent the money on my Weight Watchers membership fee.
My weight loss had plateaued. At first, on Weight Watchers, the weight basically fell off. I lost about 2 pounds per week, sometimes more. But then that stopped.
I was so lost and confused. I tracked every bite that went into my mouth. I never went over my daily allotted Points, not even once. Sometimes I even ate under my Points, and I hadn’t used my “weeklies,” the “extra” Points allotted for each week, to be used however I saw fit. I exercised, and earned Activity Points. But the scale wouldn’t budge.
I stayed after one meeting, dejected, and talked to the group leader. After awhile of going through my Points log, she noticed that I’d eaten under my Points. “Aha!” she said.
“Don’t eat under your Points, it’ll make your body think you’re starving. Eat your Points allowance each day, even if you’re not hungry.”
I bought a stalk of celery. I have never liked celery, but someone in a group meeting told me it was a great swap for when you wanted something crunchy, and it was zero Points. I had only ever eaten it with peanut butter, or cream cheese, but those were high-Point foods. I washed, cut up the celery, and forced myself to eat the entire thing.
Shortly after, I threw up.
I really, really hate celery.
I was secretly happy that I threw up, because it meant I could eat something else.
One morning, the last time I tried Weight Watchers, I was tired and struggling to wake up on a Saturday morning. I had a caffeine withdrawal headache. We were out of coffee so I grabbed one of the Red Bulls my husband (who was a patrol officer at the time, and worked graveyard shifts) kept in the fridge. I sat on the couch and drank it casually, thankful that my headache was slowly melting away as I sipped.
I didn’t think about the Points in the Red Bull, so after I was finished, I pulled out my Weight Watchers calculator.
It was 55 Points.
That was more than my daily Points allowance, and more than my daily Points allowance + my “weeklies.” I panicked. I started to cry. I hadn’t even eaten food yet. I imagined the Red Bull seeping into the cells in my thighs, my belly. I could almost feel it. Because I’d wasted so many Points on my careless energy-drink consumption, I couldn’t eat for the rest of the day.
And I didn’t. I drank water. My stomach rumbled and curdled. I felt dizzy and faint. But I didn’t eat.
Lesson learned, I thought.
One time, I got into an argument at a meeting with another member about Snap Pea Crisps.
She was insisting they counted as a vegetable.
I told her, no, they are basically potato chips. They look like peas, and they have some peas in them, but they are not vegetables. She’d been tracking them as “Point free.” I was aghast. She would not be swayed. They were vegetables.
I had gotten bored with the meetings at that point. They seemed to feel revelatory to people who had never considered nutrition before in their lives. People who had never thought about drinking water instead of soda. People who ate McDonald’s for dinner every night. I could tell them the Points in each can of soda, each snack, each vegetable. I knew the Points value of all my favorite foods without checking, I could tell them how many Points an orange was, how many Points a banana was, how many Points in a tablespoon of JIF peanut butter. And yet, I was still the fattest person at most of these meetings.
It seemed the more I knew the program inside and out, the more I understood “nutrition,” the less effective Weight Watchers was.
Once, in a meeting, the leader said, “Nothing tastes as good as being thin feels.”
This was a paid, Weight Watchers-trained representative.
I avoided social gatherings and eating out while on Weight Watchers. I worked for a nonprofit that always threw a killer holiday party, catered by Whole Foods. It was always delicious. There was an abundance of amazing vegan food, vegan cakes, vegan pies, the works. I looked forward to it … but when I was on Weight Watchers, I didn’t go. I was worried about being “tempted.” I was worried about not being able to calculate the Points. I had stressed out about the holiday party for weeks and then decided just not to go. I knew I had no self-control, and faced with a buffet of mashed potatoes and gravy, I knew I would destroy myself. People asked about me, where I was, if I was sick. I wasn’t sick. I was just avoiding eating.
I also panicked before eating out with my boyfriend (who is now my husband). We could only eat at restaurants that posted their menus, along with nutritional information, online. I would do copious research before we went out to eat — choosing a restaurant felt as high-stakes as choosing a new car. I would pre-plan my meal, know exactly what I would order. No improvisation was allowed. No cutesy stuff like sharing a dessert. It was serious business.
Birthday parties and family gatherings were a minefield. Often, I would pre-eat, and refuse food while there.
Weight Watchers sucked the joy out of so many opportunities to enjoy myself and connect. But my life and connections to people came second to losing weight.
I had stopped going to Weight Watchers with my friends years ago, but continued the tradition of “Faturday” on my own. When I lost weight on a Saturday weigh-in, I’d treat myself to lunch: a sub from Wawa, a milkshake and package of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, greasy Chinese food, a pizza.
Sometimes, the promise of being able to reward myself for weight loss with a binge on Saturday was all that kept me going during the week.
I hated my job, was living with family after moving out of an apartment with a terrible, emotionally abusive roommate, my boyfriend and I were struggling to move in together (he was in Connecticut and I was in Maryland; it seemed like we’d never close the distance), I was witnessing my grandmother’s health and mind deteriorate while living in her house. I had nothing in my life but Weight Watchers, and the hope that if I just followed the program, I would lose weight and everything would be better.
I had started doing Weight Watchers at home, using the app. They came a long way — I didn’t have to cart around my calculator, the giant Weight Watchers Point-bible, or my tracking booklet anymore.
One Saturday, after having spent the entire week patting myself on the back for being “good” and “working the program,” I stepped on the scale for my weekly weigh-in.
I was up 0.2lbs.
I sat in the bathroom and cried. I desperately went through my week’s meals in the app, looking for the reason. There was none, I followed the plan. And yet I gained weight. I chastised myself. You’re so fat, you’re so weak-willed, you can’t do anything right. I was frustrated with myself, with my body. No matter what I did, no matter how much I restricted, now matter how many tricks I tried to kick-start my weight loss, it never worked. I felt defective. The same pattern happened over and over again: I’d start Weight Watchers, lose as much as 7lbs in the first week, then my weight loss would slowly taper down until it stopped. And then I’d start gaining. It was maddening. It was devastating.
I decided that day to quit Weight Watchers, after scraping myself off the bathroom floor and taming the puffiness under my eyes from all the crying.
Less than a pound. I became unglued over 0.2lbs. That could have been a full bladder. That could have been a fart. That could have been a few extra almonds. It could have been the slightest bit of water retention. And I had flagellated myself over that small weight gain for an entire day. I cried. I questioned my own worth. Over 0.2lbs.
It hadn’t been the first time it had happened, the first time I cried over such a small amount of weight gain.
I decided I never wanted to do that to myself again. I decided I needed to be kinder to myself. And, most of all, I was tired of waging a war against my body. Neither of us ever seemed to win. We were both exhausted from the struggle. I just wanted to live my life. I just wanted to find peace. I had thought that Weight Watchers, and weight loss, was how I would find that peace. But instead, it left me crying on the bathroom floor of a 0.2lbs weight gain.
Today, I practice Intuitive Eating. But it’s been hard.
I didn’t know how to feed myself without rules to follow. I had a period of time after I stopped Weight Watchers where I spent lots of time online researching, in earnest, how other people eat. What do normal people have for breakfast? What do they cook? How do they decide, when they have so many options? I was in my thirties, and honestly had no idea how to feed myself without Weight Watchers telling me how to eat. I got a subscription to one of those meal-delivery kits and started learning how to cook, because the only things I knew how to make were Weight Watchers recipes, with low-fat substitutes, with weighed and measured ingredients.
For awhile, I ate whatever I wanted. It was a free-for-all. All the foods I had been craving for years, all the things I loved but hadn’t been allowed to eat, I ate. But it was still Weight Watchers controlling my diet. Instead of following the rules, I rebelled against them. I gained weight, and momentarily thought about rejoining Weight Watchers.
I had lost all sense of hunger and satiety as well. I legitimately could not tell that I was hungry until I was dizzy and wondering why I was so tired. And satiety or fullness — I didn’t know I was full until I was in pain. Weight Watchers was not about listening to your body, learning what was an appropriate amount of food, learning to eat when your body needed nourishment and stopping when it had been properly fed — it was about following the rules, gaming your body to lose weight. You ate your Points, even if you weren’t hungry, because failure to do so would mean gaining weight and losing the game. You refrained from eating even though you were hungry, because you had no more Points left, or needed to reserve your Points for something else. (So many days, I skipped breakfast and dinner because I knew I’d be eating out at night. Most days, I carefully calculated my meals so I could eat dessert, because that Skinny Cow ice cream sandwich was what kept me going all day.)
Life without Weight Watchers felt as bewildering as life without the boyfriend who had dumped me when I first started it. I didn’t know who I was, didn’t have an identity, didn’t know how to do basic things. I felt like I was starting over again. Weight Watcher had been a part of my adult life for, well, as long as I’d been an adult. I hardly knew how to function without it. And, like any bad boyfriend, sometimes I’d take a break. But I’d always go back to Weight Watchers, craving the rules, the “accountability,” the promise, the hope.
Sometimes I feel like I escaped a cult, and have been deprogramming myself for the last two years.
Make no mistake, I had issues with food and knowing how to eat before Weight Watchers. But Weight Watchers amplified them, and created new ones.
Today, I still know the Points value in a tablespoon of peanut butter, a peach, a granola bar, a container of yogurt. The math is innate in me. Weight Watchers made it second-nature.
I remember when Weight Watchers released their “Freestyle” program, which I have been around long enough to know that it is basically just a repackaged version of “Core,” which I tried 10 years ago. I followed unpaid Weight Watchers ambassadors on Instagram. Everyone was so happy that they no longer had to count things like corn and apples. Let’s let that sink in: People were happy because they could eat things like corn and apples without having to count them. People were ecstatic of guilt-free beans and lentils and sweet potatoes. It all felt so sad to me. These women’s diets were so restrictive that eating corn without having to track it was a reason for celebration.
I understand why Weight Watchers needed to rebrand — diets aren’t cool anymore, “lifestyle changes” and “ways of eating” and “wellness” are. They need to keep people coming to their meetings, buying their products, to survive. I get it. But Weight Watchers is not and has never been about “wellness.” I don’t care how many “self-care” tips they publish, or mindfulness apps they partner with, or photos of women running at sunset the use in their materials, or “non-scale victories” they celebrate, or foods they allow. It’s a diet, and it’s damaging.
How do I know? It damaged me. It caused me pain. I am still working to untangle the knot of food weirdness Weight Watchers tied into me, and it’s been years since I tracked a single Point.
Weight Watchers sold me a lie. The lie was that, by losing weight, I would become my true self, the thin woman within who was just waiting to come out. The lie was that I would finally be healthy and happy, if I just followed the program and kept going to meetings and kept tracking Points. It was a lie I wanted to hear — I wanted to believe that by just controlling what I ate, working a program, and putting my nose to the grindstone, I would find happiness. I would be thin, which was my lifelong dream. I’d feel comfortable in my skin, achieve my goals, and be successful. I wanted so badly to believe it was simple as just tracking Points and paying my membership fees and buying all the Laughing Cow cheese and rice cakes and Smart Ones in the grocery store. But self-actualization is much more complicated than that. Instead, the lie destroyed me, left me lost and weeping on the bathroom floor over an infinitesimal weight gain. Success in Weight Watchers requires submission. I choose myself over submission.
I also know now that diets don’t work. Weight Watchers does not work. It works for two people — out of a thousand. It is designed not to produce long-term, sustainable weight loss. How would they sustain their business if it actually worked? Like any business, they rely on repeat customers, like me. If it successfully made fat people thin, they would be out of business. I have spent thousands of dollars on Weight Watchers. I threw money trying to force my body to be at a weight that was less than it wanted to weigh; I starved it, dehydrated it, tried to manipulate and bully it, and it was resisting.
I have to work daily to repair my broken relationship with food, my weight, and my body. I am trying to begin seeing my body as a friend instead of a foe. I am choosing to take up space instead of shrink. I am learning not to apologize, not to make myself smaller, not to be ashamed of being loud and opinionated and fat and too much. I am working to recognize that “health” is a spectrum, not just a number on a scale, and mental health is part of it, so I must take care of mine, and work to be kind to myself. Weight Watchers was a key operative on my war against my body. And it has been for so many women, for so many generations. There is a trail of bodies, collateral damage in Weight Watchers’ war against women who are “too much.” Don’t let them lie to you — this is the exact same “calories in/calories out” diet that had your grandma eating fat-free cottage cheese and canned peaches for breakfast. It is not about wellness. It is about weight loss. Even if they go by “WW,” we all know what it stands for.
So, nice try, “WW,” but I see you. I know what you are. And I’m still working to undo the damage you did to me, and heal the pain you caused me. You’re not a “wellness” brand and never will be.
I sat with this for a minute. I thought about it. I closed Instagram. I wanted to comment, but I also wanted to think about why this post was so immediately troubling to me. I needed to gather my thoughts.
And here it is: this post minimizes the pain and oppression of fat people.
Oppression Leads to Depression
This seems like a fairly simple concept, but perhaps it needs to be explained more. Fat people are systemically oppressed. Oppression sucks. Oppression is painful. And systemic oppression results in higher rates of depression, across the board.
The area where this connection has been studied the most is in class oppression, or poverty. “About 31% of Americans in poverty say they have at some point been diagnosed with depression compared with 15.8% of those not in poverty,” says this Gallup report by Alyssa Brown. And, not too far from this line, we see the “o” word: “Impoverished Americans are also more likely to report asthma, diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart attacks — which are likely related to the higher level of obesity found for this group — 31.8% vs. 26% for adults not in poverty.”
This article from NPR also echoes the fact that people living in poverty experience depression at higher rates. “People who live in poverty appear to be at higher risk for mental illnesses. They also report lower levels of happiness,” writes Emily Sohn. While the link is more correlation than causation, the evidence is clear: people living in poverty are more likely to experience depression. More than the dreaded “obesity,” more than the much-touted epidemic of diabetes, poor people are more likely to be depressed. Experiencing poverty in childhood may even cause altered brain connectivity. Being oppressed is fucking stressful.
And while the links between poverty and depression are much more well-studied, it’s reasonable to assume that societal, systemic oppression in general has an effect on the rates of depression and general happiness of the people experiencing it. Women and African-Americans are generally more likely to report being depressed. Why? In the interest of being scientific and whatnot, I won’t draw conclusions … but one can probably guess, right? According to the Huffington Post piece, African-American women are significantly more likely to report depression than white women. (They’re also far less likely to receive treatment.) Cry “correlation is not causation!” at me all you want, but here’s the fact: these women live in the intersection of several different forms of systemic oppression. No wonder they are depressed.
Poor Treatment of Fat People Affects Our Mental Health & Well-Being
As much as I like to beat the drum that you can be happy and thrive at any size, it’s important to remember: we live in a world that hates fat people, was not built to accommodate us, considers our bodies an “epidemic,” does not offer us representation, and is not concerned with out comfort or happiness. To be fat is to be at war with a world that so desperately wants you to not exist.
Fat bias starts early, from ages 9-11. And the human toll of this bias is real, even deadly. “Experiencing weight stigma has been linked to many negative emotional consequences, including depression, anxiety, body dissatisfaction, and, in some individuals, increased risk for suicidal ideation.” Fat children are taught to hate themselves at the same time other children are taught to hate fat people. This puts us at higher risk for depression, anxiety, and (duh) makes us fucking unhappy.
Weight and happiness are correlated. No, thinness is not a permanent solution to life’s fears and discontents. But thinness sure as hell makes nearly every aspect of life a lot easier.
And, to move away from statistics and studies for a moment, was I happier when I was thinner? Not really. I still struggled with depression and anxiety, two dark clouds that have hung over my head since childhood. Being thinner was not a cure for any of it. (Of course, I was still fat. Just a smaller fat.) But I’ve gained a lot of weight in the past five years. And I can tell you this: being thinner made life a lot easier in a lot of ways.
Thin Privilege in Health At Every Size (HAES) and Intuitive Eating (IE)
Linda Bacon has addressed this in her books, her social media, and summed it up nicely in this short Facebook post:
And the truth is that many of the people leading the charge for Health At Every Size and Intuitive Eating are able to lead because of their thin privilege.
This is it in a nutshell. People are able to get book deals, book speaking engagements, have a platform to advocate for fat bodies and Health At Every Size and Intuitive Eating because they are not fat. Often, when fat people try to advocate for themselves and their own bodies, it is simply dismissed as a desperate attempt to rationalize the moral failure of their fatness. Fat people who talk and write about Health At Every Size and Intuitive Eating and body kindness are assumed to have simply “given up.” Check your Instagram feed. What do the body positive accounts you follow look like? What do the Intuitive Eating experts whose books you buy look like?
Being visible, outspoken about weight bias and discrimination, and fat usually results in abuse. Ask Lindy West.Ask Tess Holliday. Ask ljeoma Oluo. Ask Roxane Gay. The world does not take fat people seriously, particularly not about their own experiences and bodies.
Increasingly, I’ve become frustrated with the lack of representation in HAES and Intuitive Eating communities. I am constantly marketed to: sign up for my emails, the smiling thin white woman posing whimsically with a cake insists. Sign up for my (expensive) online course on Intuitive Eating and body positivity. Buy my book, which is in pastel colors and has an attractive picture of the author’s thin, pretty, white face on the back, if not the cover.
But I do not, because these women do not look like me. They have not walked a mile in my size-26 jeans (which don’t even fit properly because jeans both in my size and properly fitting are a mathematical impossibility, apparently). What do they know about my experience? What can they teach me, when their experience is so removed from mine? How can they understand me, my body and my struggles?
Pushing a Health At Every Size & Intuitive Eating Agenda… The Right Way
I’m not saying these women have nothing of value to say. They do! I have read plenty of their blogs and their books and I support what they do. But in order to fully combat the diet industry’s hold on women, and to truly be an ally in the war against fat, one must first acknowledge the pain of being fat.
Dieting isn’t the answer to escaping the pain of fat oppression. Most importantly, it doesn’t fucking work, and can even make the struggle to be healthy and happy even harder. But, please, before you post things like this, listen to fat people.
For many fat people, the urge to lose weight is not about vanity or fitting into smaller pants or looking a certain way. It is about survival.
So many fat people long for thinness because they long for freedom.
You must understand this if you are to be an ally. If you want to sell me paid online courses and books and have me sign up for your emails, you must first understand this. You must check your thin privilege and be humble and listen and learn.
If I were thin, I would not fear going to the doctor to the extent that I do. I fear going to the doctor because I have gone to see a doctor about an upper respiratory infection and left with a recommendation to attend a weight loss surgery seminar. I fear not being listened to, being dismissed, labeled as “non-compliant,” blamed for my illness and symptoms. I need thin people and people working from a HAES framework to advocate for me, because I am not listened to, I do not have the same credibility they do. I need them to advocate for me, because my fat body damages my credibility, while their thin bodies bolster theirs.
If I were thin, I would not worry about being kept in invisible positions at my job because of my size. And this has happened to me — I once worked for an organization that would not pay for me to attend a conference that I had helped plan because they did not want someone of my size representing them at a booth. I would not have to worry about not receiving a job offer because of my size. I would not need to obsess over my appearance before job interview, knowing that because of my size, the people interviewing would likely already assume I was sloppy, disorganized, less capable, and less intelligent.
If I were thin, I would not hesitate to reach out for help with my depression and anxiety because I fear being prescribed exercise and sunshine and Weight Watchers as remedies instead of medication. This has also happened to me.
If I were thin, I could go to a restaurant with my husband without the flash of fear when the host is taking us to our table. Will they put me in a booth? Will the booth have a table that moves? Will I be able to easily navigate between tables? Will the chair support me? Will the chair have arms? Or will I have to request a table from a confused host? Or be forced to spend the meal squished into a seat that doesn’t fit me? I have left restaurants with bruises on my stomach from being seated in booths that are too small for me.
I mean, fuck thin privilege, let’s talk about chair privilege. Have you ever bought expensive tickets for a show at a nice theater, only to spend two or more hours squeezed into a seat too small for your body? Have you left a Paul McCartney concert with bruises on your hips because the chairs were too goddamn small? (Those tickets were $400, by the way.) Have you been forced to sit in an all-day conference and spent your lunch break nursing bruises on your legs from where they pressed into the metal arms of the chair? I have. Or, have you wanted to go see Harry Potter and the Cursed Child on Broadway desperately, but been scared to spend the money on a ticket because you have no idea what the chair situation is like and you’ll be spending a minimum of four hours with your butt in a seat that might actually physically hurt you? (If you can fill me in on the chair situation at the Lyric Theater, help a nerd out and leave a comment.)
The amount of mental energy I devote just to chairs on a weekly basis is astounding. Have you ever had to think about chairs? If you haven’t, please don’t try to tell me that being thin doesn’t make life easier. If I had back the amount of headspace simply devoted to chairs, I’d be able to rule to damn world. And, yes, something as simple as removing the chair calculations I must do in my head on a daily basis would make me so much happier.
If you want to be an ally, and sell me books, and get me on your email list so you can market to me, first try to understand. My reasons for struggling against diet culture, my reasons for being a chronic dieter who embraced HAES and IE, are totally different than yours. For me, life would be easier if I lost weight. I would be happier. I have chosen a more difficult path because I believe that body liberation and fat activism are more important. Choosing to tell diet culture to go fuck itself and live your best life without dieting is totally different when you’re making a conscious decision to live oppressed and fight against that oppression. It’s not just a decision to kick Weight Watchers to the curb for good and eat dessert without guilt, it’s a decision to live your life opposing the systems that oppress fat bodies.
It’s not about cake. It’s about fighting for liberation.
Being Fat and Happy is Totally Possible! But Harder
So, I am currently pretty happy. And I’m fat. But let me tell you: this was a hard road. I did not get here easily.
I am finally in a job where I make a decent living, can pay my bills, have health insurance, and am relatively financially secure. But it took a decade of being hideously underemployed to get here. It took a ridiculous amount of gumption. It took night classes, taking online courses to learn new skills that would make me a more attractive candidate, paying my dues in jobs where I was not paid appropriately or promoted but learned every single thing I could, and sheer fighting to get here. And truth be told, I should probably still be making more than I am. I should probably have a better title, and more authority. So, to some degree, I’m still underemployed. But at least I’m at a level of underemployment that is comfortable for me.
I’m happily married, and my husband is awesome. We have a house and two cute rescue pets together and things are pretty great. (Also, shoutout to my white, cis, straight privilege!) And I still sometimes struggle with fear of when my fit, not-fat husband introduces me to his work colleagues and friends who haven’t met me. What will they think? What will they say? Will the talk about me behind my back, wonder why he’s with me?
I also still struggle. I have days where I would give anything to be thinner. It’s not like there’s a promised land of total peace with your body. Until the world is kinder, more accommodating, more accepting of people with bodies like mine, I will continue to struggle.
And it’s not because of my weight, don’t misunderstand me. It’s because living in a world where you are oppressed is fucking hard.
So, people who make a living spreading the gospel of Intuitive Eating and Health At Every Size, I salute you. I also ask that you not minimize the pain and suffering of fat people, minimize or deny our oppression, and please periodically ask check your privilege and ask yourself, “What am I doing to end the oppression of fat people?”
A bowl of yogurt seems like a strange adversary, but yogurt and I have been at war for years.
I like yogurt. I really do! It’s sweet, fruity, you can put fun things in it like granola and blueberries and even chocolate chips, it doesn’t require preparation, and it’s a decently filling and convenient breakfast or snack. It’s versatile, too. If you’ve got a little extra time on a Sunday morning, you can get fancy and cut up fresh fruit and add a little honey and enjoy a nice big bowl of yogurt. You can also buy it pre-packaged and grab it as you’re running out the door to work.
But yogurt is one of those foods I ate constantly while I was dieting. So, we have a weird relationship.
When I was dieting, yogurt was one of those foods I classified as “good” and would use to replace “bad” foods I craved. If I was craving ice cream, instead I’d force myself to eat yogurt. Maybe I’d throw in a carefully measured tablespoon of chocolate chips or sprinkles if I really wanted to replicate the ice cream experience. But yogurt is not ice cream. It’s a very poor substitute for ice cream. Sometimes I’d want candy or something sweet. And I’d eat yogurt instead. And I don’t like Greek yogurt but forced myself to eat it because it has a higher protein content.
Over time, I began to really resent yogurt. Dieting had turned a food I had once genuinely enjoyed into a food I loathed, feared, felt anxious about. Yogurt had gone from just being food to being a symbol of how chronically unsatisfied I’d been when I was dieting. It no longer tasted good, because when I’d eat it, it was with the hope that it would taste like something else, like the food I really wanted.
And, for a very long time after I started dieting, I just didn’t eat it.
Usually, once a month, I’d try to make up with yogurt. I’d see it in the store, staring at me from the shelves, like an old friend I’d had a falling out with. I’d pick up some yogurt, bring it home, store it in the fridge, and never eat it. It would get pushed to the back of the fridge, and it would spoil. Then, I’d throw it out.
But we’ve begun to make up.
From Total Restriction to a Free-for-All
When I first embraced Intuitive Eating, it was scary and exhilarating. I ate with no restrictions. I ate all the foods I had deemed “bad,” I ate pizza every week, I bought donuts and potato chips and candy bars and kept full gallons of real ice cream in the freezer instead of Halo Top. I never, ever turned down dessert. I really swung from the chandeliers. I ate with wild, reckless abandon.
I honestly had to go through this period. It was a process of unlearning restriction.
I had been dieting for so long that I no longer knew how to feed myself without rules to follow, Points to count, macronutrients to consider, calories to plug into an app. And the love I had for certain foods, the “bad” foods, had turned into obsession. Ice cream was no longer just ice cream, it was a forbidden fruit, and my desire for it only increased when I didn’t allow myself to have it. Pizza was not just cheese and sauce on dough; it was a lover I fantasized about constantly, more desirable with every second we spent apart. I thought of little but food when I was dieting. I’d obsessively plan and track every single bite of food, and also find myself consumed with thoughts of the “bad” foods I had sworn off. My whole day, week, month and life revolved around food. I thought about food from the moment I woke up and it was the last thing I thought about before going to sleep.
This is what dieting does to the brain. If you’re not obsessive about certain foods and eating in general before you start dieting, you sure as hell will be when you’re in the thick of it.
This period of wild abandon did something important for me: it normalized food. Like exposure therapy, it allowed me to overcome my fears and obsessions about certain foods. I learned that I can eat pizza and nothing bad would happen. I learned that a candy bar would not kill me. I learned that eating a donut for breakfast did not ruin my day. And it did something else, too: it allowed the magical, mystical allure of the “bad” foods I’d been denying myself to fade away.
It took me by surprise, little by little. I’d find that a package of Oreos I’d bought had gone stale, because I hadn’t eaten them. I’d open a gallon of ice cream and realize it was freezer-burned because I hadn’t eaten it. I’d order a pizza on a Friday night, eat one slice, and be done with the pizza. My husband would suggest ordering subs and I’d realize I didn’t really want a greasy sub and fries. My husband would bring home peanut M&Ms from his trip to the gas station, because he knew I had a hard day and he wanted to cheer me up, and I would eat a few then hand the rest to him to finish.
This wasn’t like me at all.
I was confused about what was happening.
But, really, what was happening was normal. Because I had incorporated foods I’d once forbidden myself to eat into my normal, everyday life, they weren’t magical anymore. It was all just food. Pizza was just pizza. (And still delicious. But now just cheese and sauce on dough instead of Romeo to my Juliet.) Ice cream was just ice cream. (Also still delicious. But no longer a forbidden delight.)
It was weird. Largely because a lot of those foods I had once swooned over no longer held much joy for me. Eating a slice of pizza didn’t feel any different, emotionally, than eating a salad. And I started noticing that after one slice, it made me feel weighed down and heavy, creating a weight underneath my sternum. A big bowl of pasta was tasty, sure, but it also gave me acid reflux and created that same weight in torso. They no longer gave me a rush. I didn’t get the thrill of being “bad,” I didn’t get to experience the dopamine hit of eating something I’d been denying myself. I felt, well, rather neutral toward these foods I had once loved so much I literally fantasized about them and looked at pictures of them online when I was craving them.
I didn’t realize it, but I had eaten my way to the other side.
The Other Side
After I mourned the magic of pizza, I realized that I’d finally gotten to the place Intuitive Eating had aimed to get me: a healed relationship with food. I had achieved food neutrality. And I started to be able to hear what my body was telling me, after so many years of never being sure if I was hungry or full. I was getting reacquainted with the cues decades of dieting had robbed me of. I started feeling more in tune with what my body wanted, instead of what my head and diet culture were telling me.
When I started Intuitive Eating, I honestly hadn’t anticipated this. I thought: food with no restrictions! Think of all the things I can eat! I was dizzy with the possibilities. I wanted to make reservations at every restaurant I’d been wanting to try, eat everything I had been denying myself. And, sure, I wanted to heal my relationship with food, but mostly … I was fucking hungry. I wanted to eat. I wanted to eat whatever I wanted, for the first time in years. I wanted to live my life without food and my weight being the centerpiece of my existence.
I think that’s the lure that draws a lot of people frustrated with dieting, guilt, and shame into Intuitive Eating. Not improving their relationship with food, but just the promise of never needing to be hungry again and the possibility of not having weight loss be the predominant force in their lives.
I stumbled onto the actual point of Intuitive Eating more or less by total accident.
And I’ll be honest: I still have no fucking clue how to feed myself. Sometimes I still struggle with wanting to fall back on rules about how to eat, because human beings crave structure, and I crave it more than most. But I’m getting there.
A lot of what I’ve been doing is reacquainting myself with foods I had stopped eating when I was in the reckless abandon phase. Yogurt, for instance.
Last Sunday, I picked up a container of Stonyfield strawberry yogurt at Wegmans. I debated about whether to buy it. But I did. I bought some fresh blueberries, some of that fancy granola from the “organic” side of the store with a goddess lady on the label, some strawberries. And on Monday morning, I got up a little early, went into the kitchen, and made myself breakfast. I washed and sliced the strawberries, put a few handfuls of blueberries in the bowl, scooped out some of the hippie granola and spooned in the strawberry yogurt. And I sat down and ate it. You know what? It was delicious. It felt like a small present to myself, getting up a little earlier and taking a few moments to prepare a nice breakfast before sitting down at my computer to start working.
This was a meal I’d had before, in fact, it was one of my “go-to” meals when I was dieting. Only instead of just dumping the ingredients into a bowl based on how much I wanted, I’d carefully weight and measure every single thing that went into the bowl. I was stingy with the granola, because as I’d read and seen for myself plugging the nutritional content into my little Weight Watchers calculator, granola was one of those “seemingly healthy” foods that actually had a lot of fat and calories so it needed to be consumed in moderation. And I bought the low-fat yogurt, not the full fat yogurt, because higher fat content meant using up more Points. But the big difference was that I never really wanted this meal. I wanted other things, but settled for this meal, because it meant I’d get in my dairy for the day and my servings of fruit.
This time it was totally different, though. I wanted this meal, and I prepared it based on how hungry I was and how much I wanted of each ingredient. And I enjoyed it, because at that moment, it was exactly what I wanted.
Slowly, I have been adding new foods into my diet, even trying new ones. I even bought a fucking mango. This was new and exotic and I had to watch a YouTube video to learn how to slice it properly. I’ve been trying new fruits and new vegetables, things I had stayed away from when I was eating with reckless abandon. I am not trying them to substitute them for a candy bar or chips. I still eat candy bars and chips if I want them, because I know that a mango is a shitty substitute if what I want is a Snickers and baby carrots are not going to satisfy me if I what I want is a Dorito. I’m trying them because I am curious. Some things I have found I love, some things I’m neutral about.
But I’m noticing how they make me feel. Does this make me feel full? Does this trigger my acid reflux? Does it make me feel bloated and gassy? Do I like the texture, is it satisfying to chew? Do I feel energized after I eat it, or does it make me sluggish, or does it not have any noticeable effect on me at all?
The cool thing is, though, I don’t feel like a slave to any of this food. I don’t think about it beyond the thought it takes to realize I’m hungry, figure out what I want to eat, prepare it and consume it. My whole day doesn’t revolve around my food choices.
Grocery shopping gives me considerably less anxiety. (For awhile it was the bane of my existence — so many food choices in such a short period of time!) The last time I checked out at the grocery store, I giggled at the strange array of food on the belt as the cashier moved it forward. There was colorful fresh produce, frozen and canned vegetables, cookies, muffins, ice cream, vitamins, La Croix, Lara Bars, hippie granola, organic yogurt, chips. Before, my grocery shopping was black and white. It was either “healthy,” or it was “junk” food and “convenience” food. But now, on my belt, all these different “types” of food were present, integrated, equal.
Looking at the food being scanned, I realized: I did it. I’ve reached a place where all of these foods have a place in my life, all of them are just fine to eat, and they are all equal. I didn’t buy the produce to be “healthy,” I bought it because I wanted to eat those things and try new recipes with them. I didn’t buy the cookies because they called to me from the aisles like sirens, but because I knew that at some point, I’d want a cookie or two or three. And I didn’t buy the fresh fruit to make up for the cookies, I bought it because I wanted it.
It took me decades, but I’m finally here.
Letting Go of Diet Culture
Now, this is where this can get controversial in Intuitive Eating and Health at Every Size circles. It’s hard to write about this without being accused of food moralizing. And I get it: if you’re still in the process of unlearning restriction and moving away from dieting, you’ll probably want to scream, “BUT DORITOS AND SALADS AND ICE CREAM AND CAKE AND PIZZA AND FRUIT ARE ALL EQUAL!” I used to want to scream that at people too.
And I don’t want to make Intuitive Eating to be a sneaky weight loss tool. “Try Intuitive Eating and the cookies will no longer control you so you can lose weight!” No, it’s not that at all. I gained some weight when I stopped restricting, and I am pretty much that same weight. I’ll probably remain this weight for a long time, and stay in this range for the rest of my life.
But here’s the point: Doritos and salads and ice cream and cake and pizza and fruit are all equal. They are all foods. And they are “real” foods. None is more or less than the other, and all of them can have a place in people’s diets and lives, if they want them. But Doritos and salads and ice cream and cake and pizza and fruit are not equal in terms of how they make me feel.
Take salads. Salads are, in most people’s minds, “healthy.” But salads generally make me feel awful. Why? I don’t have a gallbladder and I have gastric issues and when I sit down and eat a big bowl of roughage, well, let’s just say it’s not pretty. Sometimes I crave them — sometimes I want nothing more than some bright, crunchy, green vegetables. But I know that eating a salad comes with consequences. Usually, those consequences involve spending an inordinate amount of time in the bathroom shortly after eating them.
And eggs. Eggs are “healthy,” right? And there’s little in the world that I love more than a nice runny egg. I find them downright sexy. A poached egg with hollandaise with a side of fried potatoes? Yes, please. But eggs make me feel terrible. Just last weekend, I went out to breakfast at a local diner with my husband. I ordered two over-easy eggs, a short stack of pancakes, hash browns, and toast. And I was sick all day. Like, lay-on-the-coach-and-moan sick. Those two over-easy eggs ruined my Sunday.
So, if I want a salad, I usually just eat a small portion and counter it with some more stomach-friendly items like grains or potatoes or bread. If I want an egg, I just don’t do it, because I know it will fuck up my day. And other foods have similar impact on me. Pasta is delicious, but makes me uncomfortably full and zaps me of energy, and if it’s in red sauce, I can expect some wicked acid reflux. I still eat it. It’s not “bad.” I’ve just had to learn how to incorporate it into my life in a way that works for me.
One thing I have now that I didn’t when I was dieting or when I was eating like a wrecking ball is the ability to evaluate food in a neutral way. And I’m starting to feel more balanced, physically. I know which foods make me feel like hell, and I am able to avoid them. (Surprise — some of those foods are ones I’d force myself to eat because they were diet-friendly.) I am able to consume more foods that make me feel good, physically, in a sense that is totally separate from how they make anyone else feel, my weight, my emotional connection to the food, that diet voice in my head (we’ll call her Susan). So, for the first time in maybe a decade, I am feeling good.
The Next Steps
I’m in a good place, food-wise. And now I’m moving into the area that’s even more psychologically loaded for me: movement.
I have a hard time with exercise. As a kid, exercise was punishment — it was something I was forced into because my mother and the adults around me were terrified of my weight. So movement, for me, is very much tied up in shame, guilt and anxiety around my weight. And so it went for me as an adult, exercising until I was exhausted and in pain, in pursuit of finally unlocking the achievement of being thin and finally being worthy. It took years of conditioning for that to develop, and it’s not an easy thing to turn around.
It’s scary for me, but I am dipping my toe in.
I have a home gym — which was really just because my in-laws wanted to unload some equipment they never used before a move. We have an elliptical machine, a treadmill and a stationary bike. I have used them a few times, but going to a room in my house and using a treadmill with a blank stare was awful. We have a little TV down there, but it’s not hooked up to anything, so working out meant using these machines in bored silence. Every fucked up experience I’ve had at the gym, the ache in my knees and back, the mixed feelings I have about exercise, were amplified in the silence and boredom. So our gym has mainly sat neglected.
My husband wanted to get back into the habit of working out more so he went out and bought a little DVD player for the gym, which also could log you into Netflix, Hulu and YouTube. He started working out to DVDs of Looney Tunes.
I finally decided to give it a try.
I turned on “The Great British Baking Show” (my moment of Zen) and hopped on the elliptical. I promised myself I’d stop if it was awful, or I got tired, or it felt too weird. But it didn’t. I used the elliptical (slowly, mind you) through the Signature Challenge, then took a little break during the Technical Challenge where my dog and I sat on the couch in the gym together, and then hopped onto the treadmill for the Showstopper Challenge. I was so wrapped up in the episode that I walked for 30 minutes and the show ended.
And after the workout, I noticed that my mood lifted. I had more energy. I went upstairs and did the dishes. I played with the dog. I had a lively chat with my husband when he got home. And the biggest impact was in my joints. They felt looser, lighter. I didn’t have as much pain.
I felt … good.
So I’m trying to balance exercising in a positive, enjoyable way for me (which usually involves watching whatever show I’m caught up in on Netflix) without going overboard and into punishment territory. If it hurts, I stop. If I’m not feeling it, I give myself permission to quit without guilt. If my husband suggests working out together, and I’m not into it, he knows not to push. I’m making notes about how it makes me feel physically and emotionally. It turns out that 30 minutes or so a few times a week makes a huge difference in my mood, my energy level, and the pain in my joints and legs. I am figuring out how to do this is a way that doesn’t set rules or expectations for myself.
It’s not easy, but I’m doing it. Figuring out and healing my relationship with movement is the next stop on this journey. So far, it’s feeling good.
I feel like I’m on the road to somewhere new and exciting, where I don’t have to feel like a disembodied brain, where my body and mind are finally connected the way they once were, where I can do things like eat yogurt and walk on a treadmill without being plunged into Dietland again. It’s liberating to just be able to feel my body moving without Susan ringing in my ear talking about my weight and being “good” and congratulating me for “making healthy changes.” I feel like I’m finally forging my own path, as a whole, integrated person, based on what’s best for my life and health and feels good for me.
Why I’m Sharing This
I struggled a lot with whether I should write about this. And here’s why I did.
A lot of people, when they start embracing Intuitive Eating and Health At Every Size, go through the phase where they eat with wild abandon. And it worries them. I want them to know that it’s part of the process. There is a point to it. It’s about normalizing food and getting to a place where everything has a place in your diet and your life.
I want people to know that, if you commit yourself to divorcing food and your body from diet culture, if you commit to interrogating your own thought patterns and conditioning about food and your body, if you dig deep and untangle all the ugly thoughts about yourself and food, if you do the work, you will eventually see rewards. And you’ll be a little closer to reintegrating your mind and body and be able to care for both at the same time. It’s not really a Promised Land; it’s just more work, but life and eating and exercise and how it feels to live in your body will get easier. I promise. Don’t give up.
This journey has been surprising to me in so many ways, and I am certain I’ll continue to be surprised. Surrender to the journey. You will question yourself, and feel doubt, and want to avoid going to those painful places in your mind and your body and your life and your history you don’t want to go, but do it. Surrender. It’s all part of the process.
It’s taken me over a year of learning about Intuitive Eating and Health At Every Size to get to a point where I’m really and truly starting to feel like I’m making progress. And I’m still actively working on it, still learning, still reading, still writing, still exploring. I may be on this road for the rest of my life. And that’s okay. So you will probably get frustrated with yourself along the way (I certainly did), but stick with it. We’ve been conditioned, by diet culture, and our culture of instant gratification in general, to look for quick wins and quick results. You won’t find those here. But what you may find, if you persevere, is peace with your body, your mind and your health. You may rediscover things you didn’t even know you lost. So, don’t get caught up in, Am I there yet? Am I doing it right? How about now? There’s no scale you’re being measured on, and you control your journey. There may not be an end point. The “wins” will probably be small, personal, and hard to describe to others. So don’t measure yourself against others, or think there’s a magic amount of time it’ll take. This journey, and the mile markers along the way, look different for everyone.
And I do want to add that I have a great deal of privilege. I am a white, married, straight cis lady in a double-income, middle class household with access to lots of different types of food, and a freaking home gym. I have my own home and a nice big kitchen to store food, cook and prepare meals in. I have a stable job, work from home and have pretty good health insurance. I am not Gwyneth Paltrow, but I know that a lot of what I’m writing about here is not accessible to others. So, don’t measure yourself and your journey against mine, because I am privileged as hell, and have several huge advantages that have allowed me the time, space, and money I’ve needed to figure some of this shit out. Like I said, everyone’s journey is different. Everyone has their own challenges. And this is just a record of my journey.
Dear readers, as much as I beat the drum of Health At Every Size (HAES), I have a confession to make: I am not what most would consider “healthy.”
A Cough, a Crash, a Tangled Cluster of Symptoms
Most mornings, upon waking up, I cough. I cough and cough and cough. I feel pressure under my ribcage and a film in my throat and I cough, cough, cough until I gag. After gagging for a bit, I usually vomit a bright yellow fluid into the sink, the neon color I came to know when when I had gallstones at 18. It’s bile. And this happens every single morning.
It’s been happening for years. And, I should assure you, I’ve been to the doctor about it many times. Doctors run blood tests. My results tell them that I have an elevated bilirubin count (an inherited condition called Gilbert’s syndrome, which is benign but means that when I am overtired or stressed, the white of my eyes take on an attractive yellow hue), that my Vitamins D and B-12 counts are low, and my thyroid is “borderline,” whatever that means. The doctors are flummoxed by my symptoms and tell me it’s probably just acid reflux. One doctor recommended that I eat a handful of almonds for breakfast to combat it.
I am still paying off an endoscopy done several years ago. My husband, then my boyfriend, came with me to the hospital and sat by my side as I came out of anesthesia. The gastroenterologist approached as I was waking up, and spoke to my husband, Greg. Greg asked him if they were able to see anything. He said, “Well, she’s got a hiatal hernia, but it’s mild, and there’s bile in her esophagus and stomach.” Greg asked if anything could be done. The gastroenterologist suggested weight loss surgery. “When you’re that heavy,” he said, motioning to me, still motionless on a gurney, “there’s nowhere for the bile to go. It’s like an overstuffed suitcase.” Greg sputtered a little, and asked, “I heard you talking to another patient with a hernia a few minutes ago about a treatment for her hernia, could you do that for her?” And the gastroenterologist replied that, no, he could not, I needed to lose weight. I started to softly sob on the gurney. The gastroenterologist came over, apparently startled that I was awake, and looked at me quizzically. He asked why I was crying. I wanted to tell him, “Because you just called me an overstuffed suitcase, you asshole,” but instead I just put my head down on the pillow and wept.
I looked at the photos of my esophagus and stomach taken during the endoscopy. And there it was: the neon fluid I’d been seeing in the sink every morning, pooled in my esophagus, my stomach. I was never offered any treatment for this situation beyond weight loss surgery. It was not supposed to be there, everyone agreed. But what could be done about it? The ball was in my overstuffed court.
And the bill? It came to thousands of dollars, because the anesthesiologist the hospital brought in to put me under for the procedure was out of network and my HMO didn’t cover his services, despite the fact that I spoke with the hospital three times before my procedure to ensure that all services were in-network. So, I am still paying for privilege of taking a day off work, dragging my husband to the hospital and having that endoscopy to be compared to “an overstuffed suitcase.”
And, still, the first thing I do every single morning is cough and vomit. It’s how I greet the day. I wish I could say it’s a morning ritual I enjoy that really sets a positive tone for my day, but alas, dear readers, it is not.
Another morning ritual is that I’ll stumble out of the bathroom, looking beaten and puffy. My sweet husband will softly ask, “Are you okay?” And I’ll rasp, “Yes, I’m fine, just feeling a little sick.” And he says “okay” but I can see the concern and sympathy on his handsome face. He’s thin and fit as a fiddle, but has health issues as well. This is one of the things that connects us; we understand each other, and understand what it’s like to suffer, then put on your pants and go to work like it never happened.
I also suffer from chronic gastric symptoms. Sometimes eating a single egg can incapacitate me for days, leaving me wondering if I should just move into the bathroom full-time. And sometimes, when I eat, I can feel my hernia, I can feel food getting trapped. It feels like I’m suffocating and I can’t swallow. Some days, as I talk to coworkers and clients and put on a happy face, my chest and throat are burning from reflux, my throat is painful and scratchy from my morning ritual, and I can feel acid sloshing around in my stomach, burning my stomach lining and lurching up my throat. But I’ve become a good actor, smiling through the pain, cracking jokes. I’m always very quick with the jokes. No one will ever know you are in pain if you’re smiling and cracking jokes.
Chronic illness is exhausting. Sometimes I want nothing more to put a name on this beast, this cluster of symptoms, because knowing a monster’s name gives you power over it. But instead it hangs nameless over my life like a thick, black, acrid cloud.
I do the best I can. Eating feels like Russian roulette. Will this cause cramping? Bloating? Nausea? Will I be able to keep it down? Will I have to spend the evening on the couch after I finish this meal? It’s a never-ending game. I almost never win.
The other issue is my knees. I was in a car accident 11 years ago. My yellow Chevy Cavalier collided with a horse trailer on the driver’s side, crushing my knee against the center console. The airbag went off in a loud “BANG!” that filled my crumpled little car with smoke. After it deflated, I opened my car door and intended to ask the driver of the horse trailer if the horses were okay. I took one step on my knee and it crumbled underneath me. I fell to the ground like I had been touched by God. I saw stars. The ambulance took me to the hospital and I had an x-ray done. They said it was just soft tissue damage and sent me home with a prescription for Tylenol with codeine and a pair of crutches. They said I should heal in a few weeks.
I was able to walk without crutches in a few weeks, right on schedule, but my knee was never the same. First it was my right knee that was the problem — it cracked and popped and hurt when I stretched it out or walked up a hill or stairs. Then, the other one started to ache and pop, from nursing my damaged right knee. And then, my whole alignment was thrown off, and my hips, ankles, and back started to get in on the circus of my “healed” injury.
When I wake up, my whole body aches. I limp to the bathroom for my morning ritual. I move like the undead at first, lurching and hobbling on limbs that are deteriorating. And I loosen up as the day goes on. The aches fade into the background, elevator music in my day. Always there, a dull, constant annoyance.
I have been to doctors about this, too. They usually look at me and ask me about weight loss surgery. “Have you considered it?” I wind up to pitch them the response I’ve formed in my head, about how dangerous the surgery is, about the lack of data on long-term mortality rates and misleading data about success, about my concern that it would only make my symptoms worse, about its permanence, about my fear of being cut to pieces, about my fear of the pain, about my fear that it will just add to my tangle of symptoms, but instead I just sigh and smile. “Yes, I’ve thought about it,” I say. I’m tired. “I’ve decided it’s not right for me at this time.”
Eating for Immortality
For most of my life, I have been terrified of death. And I dieted to fend it off. “Not today, good sir,” I’d say, eating my perfectly measured and weighed bowl of plain oatmeal. “I am eating healthy and you cannot touch me!”
I counted calories, counted Points, counted macronutrients like beads on a rosary. I dieted as a fevered prayer, hoping that it would slow my body’s decline.
And so much of our behavior toward food is an act of faith. Dieters split into sects: Intermittent fasters, carrying the flame of St. Catherine of Siena and other saints who fasted to be close to god. “Clean” eaters purge the body of sin by only eating the purest and most holy foods. Proponents of the ketogenic diet forgo sugar and carbohydrates, plunging their bodies into ketosis, which some experts theorize also gave fasting saints’ bodies and breath a “sweet” odor after they expired that was used as evidence of their sainthood and incorruptibility. And weight loss surgery is penance. A pound of flesh, a bit of stomach, for the offering. Weight Watchers gather in meetings often held in churches, tithing with membership fees.
And sects of dieters are evangelists. Dieters do not worship in silence. Oh no. Wade into the comments section of any article about keto or Whole30 and see how long it takes for someone to pull up a soapbox and evangelize. “Have you heard the good word about our Lord and Savior ketosis?”
But, eventually, I realized that death comes for us all. And death does not take your vitals and run a full panel of bloodwork beforehand. Death sneaks up and snatches you when you least expect it. Cancer, a car accident, a stroke, an aneurysm, a psycho killer with an automatic rifle. My mother, the picture of health, who worked out at the gym five times per week, found out she had not one but three aneurisms that could kill her. My mother, fit and trim, walked around with three ticking time bombs in her head. BOOM! It would be so fast, she wouldn’t even know what had hit her. She had her aneurisms repaired with small metal coils, and is well.
Others around me also had brushes with death. Two coworkers with cancer — one survived, one did not. Both were “healthy,” until they were not. My grandmother, whose consumption of Shaklee vitamins (which looked like precious stones, kept in a treasure box on her kitchen counter) could only be described as religious, who was always moving, always eating like a bird, is in a memory care facility because dementia has taken her mind from her. She developed osteoporosis. She fell, broke her pelvis, and has not walked since. She also was “healthy,” until she was not.
My faith was shaken to its core.
But, like any moment of revelation, it was freeing in so many ways. I surrendered to death. Death lurks around every corner, it’s true, but there is little I can to do fend him off or prevent him from finding me. Weighing my oatmeal and counting carrot sticks will not prevent death from taking me. Losing 2lbs per week on Weight Watchers will not prevent death from taking me. These small decisions (to eat a cookie or not to eat a cookie?) no longer held life or death consequences. I decided, “Life is short. Eat the cookie, if you want to eat the cookie.”
And I felt so free. But, also, my knees still ached and popped. I still threw up in the morning. I suffered from fatigue, headaches, stomach cramps, and all the ailments that had plagued me throughout my life.
Health Looks Different for Every Body
I wondered if I was a charlatan, preaching Health At Every Size, knowing full well that my body was full of creaks and aches and uncertainty. Sometimes I still wonder, on days when doing anything beyond sitting on the couch seems impossible.
But what I know is this: health is not a fixed state. It’s an ongoing journey. It’s a journey we’ll all be traveling our whole lives, until we die. We will aim to be healthy, until we cannot.
As babies, health is simply a matter of staying alive. Did you make it to toddlerhood? Congrats, you made it. Onto the next stop, childhood, where in addition to not dying, you have to grow. Got there? Cool, now you’re a teenager, and health is growing into an adult, awkwardly, painfully. And so on until health reverts back, in old age, to simply not dying.
As long as we are alive, health is achievable. But what health means is very subjective. We all have different jobs to do, and we’re all at different stops.
For me, health means a lot of different things, and sometimes it depends on the day. Sometimes, it’s managing to wake up in the morning and not feel nauseated. Sometimes, it’s making my way up a challenging flight of stairs with minimal cracking and popping from my knees. Other days, it’s going outside and taking my dog, Cooper, for a walk, and being able to trot alongside him as he sticks his snout up in the air to catch a scent on the breeze. For me, “healthy” means eating a meal I’ve lovingly prepared, without any discomfort afterward. Sometimes it’s remembering to eat at all. And sometimes it’s giving my poor, painful legs a rest, remembering to drink water and take my vitamins, stopping work at 5 p.m., and making an effort to get 7-8 hours of sleep.
Health may look very different for others. For some, being in peak health may mean being able to climb Mount Everest. (Although, surprise, you may die there. People die trying to summit Mount Everest every year.) For others, health may involve performing rituals with diet to ward off death. And for others, it may mean remembering to take their medications so they manage their mental illnesses. Health looks different for every body.
When we adjust our concept of health to take into account the whole person, the life they have lived, the hardships they have overcome, the crosses they bear, health becomes personal. It’s not a number on a scale, or visible abdominal muscles, or being able to complete a 5k. It’s just about being the best human that you can, with the cards you were dealt, with the life that you have, and the body you have.
Chronic Illness and Weight
Illness usually has to fit a narrative to be believed. Illnesses that are not easily understood by doctors are most likely to be chalked up to a failure of character, a failure of morality. Fatness (or the medicalized term, “obesity”) is seen as the ultimate failure of character. And illness that exists within a fat body, or any marginalized body, are less likely to be believed as genuine. Our illness has a meaning, a narrative, and it is all about our moral failings. Even if our illnesses take on lives of their own, wreaking havoc on our bodies, our lives, our relationships, they will always exist in the narrative framework of our fatness.
For some with chronic illness, it can be turned into a better narrative. For women who are thin, they can present themselves as they were before illness struck — beautiful, active, confident, ready to tackle the world. Their illness is a villain, striking them down, stealing their light, turning them from fair maiden into poor consumptive wretch. Porochista Khakpour’s memoir, “Sick,” gives visual representation to the beautiful consumptive narrative, featuring a photo of her, in bed, with a nasal cannula interrupting her thin, beautiful, doe-eyed face. Thin women may not be believed when they are sick. Women have suffered from multiple sclerosis, Lyme disease, chronic fatigue, endometriosis, PCOS, and fibromyalgia without being believed, told it’s “all in their heads.” But these woman are, for the most part, allowed to be ill. They are given the privilege of being able to fight to have their illnesses named, to write books and make movies about their illnesses, because they are not presumed to be at fault. They get to be the heroes of their stories.
For fat people with chronic illness, it’s different. We wear the assumed cause of our illness around on our bodies, where it’s visible to everyone. It can be hard, as a person living in a fat body, to even say, “I don’t feel well.” We dread the doctor, and avoid going, because we know that we will not have our pain addressed, only the apparent cause that swells up from our bones.
I am fat, and I am chronically ill. My pain, my illness, is something I carry around with me at all times. I do not have a name for my illness, because each time I get close to finding its name, I am asked if I’ve thought about weight loss surgery. Pay your pound of flesh, please. I am afraid to speak out loud about my illness, my pain, because those around me have already assumed the cause. But I don’t know the cause. I don’t know its name. And I have begun to make peace with the idea that I may never find out. I will carry it on my back until I die.
And sometimes, just to survive in this world in a fat body, I find that I must appease the peanut gallery. Yes, I eat fruits and vegetables, all the time. Yes, I have tried to lose weight. Yes, I have thought about weight loss surgery. Yes, I exercise. Yes, I understand how nutrition works. Yes, I have heard of this diet. Yes, I have tried.
Sometimes I think about paying the pound of flesh, just so I can be heard. I think, if I finally submit to weight loss surgery, the prescription for all of my ailments, I can finally say, “See? Still sick.” And perhaps then, someone will take action beyond prescribing almonds and weight loss.
This is why weight loss surgery is such a complicated issue to address. For many fat people, it’s not about vanity, or wanting to be thin. It’s about survival. It’s about gaining the privilege of being heard. It’s about being able to say, “I don’t feel good,” without having a chorus of people saying, “Of course you don’t feel good, you’re fat.” It’s about not being at fault for every ache, pain, and sickness.
I’ve decided it’s too much of a gamble for me. I live with the pain of being fat and ill each day, and it’s a burden I can bear. I can even bear it with a smile. Undergoing surgery, being cut to pieces, paying my pound of flesh, for the privilege of being seen and heard, is not a fair price to pay for me.
Proving Your Worth
What I lack is the beautiful “before” picture that demonstrates just how much my various symptoms have dragged me down. And my “after” picture isn’t so great either.
When I first learned about HAES, my goal was to prove that I can meet the universal standard of “healthy” — perfect bloodwork, perfect blood pressure, perfect cholesterol. I felt defensive. I wanted to run 5ks and do fat yoga and be one of those badass fat people breaking boundaries and busting stereotypes.
But what it took some time to realize was this: fat people are at a severe disadvantage when it comes to health because of the bias we encounter from the medical establishment. So, much like body positivity puts the onus on people in marginalized bodies to love themselves instead of putting pressure on the systems that marginalize and oppress their bodies, this approach to Health At Every Size can put the onus on fat people to be healthy without acknowledging that fat people face significant challenges to being “healthy” that have nothing to do with their weight and everything to do with bias and discrimination.
Medical professionals, doctors, nurses, are often hesitant to even touch fat people. Sometimes their disgust cannot be hidden under a veneer of professionalism. (Example: Recently I went to an urgent care clinic for a neck injury. The nurse’s assistant who took my vitals did not take my blood pressure and instead put a made-up number into my patient record. The doctor who saw me gave me a handout about hypertension. I was confused and told him my blood pressure was never taken. He made the nurse’s assistant come back in and take my BP; she fumbled with the Regular-size cuff, annoyed. I instructed her to get a thigh cuff. She looked confused and started to put the thigh cuff around my thigh. I informed her she should put the larger thigh cuff around my arm. Duh. She took my BP. It was normal. I had been diagnosed with hypertension in my patient record because this nurse’s assistant did not want to get close enough to take my BP.)
Fat people have their symptoms dismissed or overlooked because medical professionals cannot (or will not) see beyond their body size. Their weight becomes the catch-all diagnosis for every ailment under the sun. (Example: I went to see a nurse practitioner about a sinus infection and left with a recommendation for weight loss surgery. This is an absolutely true story.)
We fear going to the doctor, because we fear being treated poorly, having our symptoms dismissed, and not receiving competent, compassionate medical care due to our weight. Sometimes this means by the time we do see a doctor, our symptoms are worse than the were initially, and have become unbearable.
And sometimes our weight is a symptom. Sometimes we have lost weight, but are lauded by medical professionals for our good work instead of looking closer to see why a patient may have lost weight unintentionally. Sometimes we have gained weight, but are chided for our lack of self-control or poor diet or sedentary lifestyle instead of looking for other causes.
And this doesn’t even begin to cover the societal forces that put fat people at a disadvantage when it comes to our health. The fact that it can be harder for us to be hired, and when we are hired, we will probably be paid less. (Double that if you’re brown or a woman or disabled or trans or non-straight, and triple that if you’re all of the above.) This leads us to be more likely to encounter issues with insurance coverage (which is tied to employment in the U.S.) and more likely to live in poverty (which leads to problems with food affordability).
Good activists, like Ragen Chastain, and Dr. Linda Bacon, and Lindy West, and Jes Baker, know these things and fight to for us … the people who can’t run marathons because of illness or injury, the people who can’t access competent, compassionate healthcare, the people on the margins who simply want access to “health.” They fight for health to be intersectional.
The problem is that it can be hard for doctors and the general public to understand. And, well, it can be hard for us to understand. Other fat people are out there, running marathons, dancing, doing yoga … why can’t we? Are we bad fatties? We feel the need to defend ourselves. We feed into healthism. We strive to provide answers, to fend off questions about whether our bodies are worthy of being fought for, whether our asshole doctors are right and we really did bring this all on ourselves. We want to be good fatties, who can demonstrate that you really can be healthy at every size.
I don’t claim to know the answers. I’m working on making peace with Health At Every Size and living in a body that feels sick and tired more days than not. I’m working on how to exercise with a bad knee, bad back, and all my aches and pains. I’m working on how to eat for my health, and what my relationship to “health” even is, and how to define health for my own body and my own life. I’m working to divorce my worth from a fixed definition of “health.”
But I’m just admitting everything here, dear readers, because I want you to know that’s it’s okay not to have this stuff figured out. It’s okay to feel sick. It’s okay to be chronically ill, it’s not your fault. It’s okay to be in pain, or be tired. It’s okay to fight to have your pain and illness named, and it’s also okay to just do the best you can to live with it. It’s okay if you can’t run marathons or struggle to walk up a flight of stairs. It’s okay to be on a journey to find out what all of this shit means to you and your life.
All we can do is our best, and support each other, and share what we learn. And practice compassion, always, not just with each other, but also ourselves. That last part is hard, but I’m getting there.
My mother read an earlier post of mine, “Memories of a Body.” We have never really talked about these issues before. It’s just too painful for both of us. After she read it, she told me, “I am so sad that I experienced the same issues with being an overweight child and because I didn’t want my daughter to go through the same experiences, the steps I took just made it worse.”
And I get it. I’m an adult now. I don’t have children, but I imagine it’s impossible to have a child and not feel a primal need to protect them from painful things you experienced in your childhood. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to look at this small creature you created moving through the world without projecting your own insecurities from your own childhood onto them. I understand that she was trying to protect me. The issue was that I had no context for it, because while she had experienced bullying and pain, I had not. And in trying to preemptively protect me from bullying, she ended up being the first person to teach me to distrust and feel ashamed of my body.
I don’t blame her or hold a grudge. Parents do the best they can with the tools they have. When my mother was parenting me, there was no guidebook for how to raise a fat child. The only thing she knew how to do was to teach me to protect myself by thinking about what people might tease me for, sign me up for sports, listen to the pediatricians telling her I should lose weight, and encourage me to eat less and move more. In my case, it was trying to fight city hall. I come from a family of large, stocky people. I was going to be fat no matter what she did.
So, since no guidebook was available for her, this is my attempt to help parents who are where she was — how do you raise a fat, healthy, happy child? I’m not a doctor or a psychologist. I’m just a fat kid who grew into a fat adult, and here’s what would have been helpful to me.
Just as a note, I often talk about my relationship with my mother as context here — that’s because my mother was my primary care provider. My father passed away when I was just a baby and my stepfather was not very engaged in my care and rearing. But everything here applies to mothers and fathers … and non-binary parents, too.
1. Teach them about body diversity.
One of the most harmful things we can teach our children is that there is a Default Human. Currently, the Default Human is male, white, able-bodied, straight, cis and thin. But we live in a wonderfully diverse world. Most children are exposed to people of different races, different religions, different abilities, different sexual orientations. And children can have questions about these differences, but are able to accept these differences stunningly well when they are explained to them in a neutral, accepting way. As a society, we have gotten much better at teaching children about the differences in humans, and that they are fine … but we rarely include weight diversity in these lessons.
Raise your children to understand that thin is not the default, but just one point on a vast spectrum of different sizes bodies can be. Some bodies are thin. Some bodies are fat. Some bodies are skinny. Some bodies are muscular and burly. Some bodies are fat in some places while being thin in others. And they are all good.
When your child asks, “Why is that person fat?” or “Why are you fat?” or even “Why am I fat?”, don’t tell them it’s mean to ask that question. Tell them that it’s just one way for a body to be. Explain to them that no two bodies are alike, and some bodies are bigger than others, just like some bodies are smaller than others. Teach them that no body has more value than another. Tell them all bodies are good bodies. Ask them, “Isn’t it amazing that there are so many different ways to be?”
One of the most painful things I experienced as a fat kid was the sheer helplessness I felt being in my body. Thin was the default. All the kids around me were thin. My siblings were thin. My mom was thin. I was not. I just moved further away from the default all the time. And it really and truly was not my fault; I was destined for chubbiness. Fatness is hard-coded into my DNA. And I was devastated when I realized that everything I was told about it being “baby fat” was a lie, that one day I would not magically shed my “baby fat” like a snake shedding its skin and find a thin body underneath. Instead the skin got thicker and more painful to carry around. I felt like my body failed me. But what would have happened if I was told that my body was good as it was? What if I had learned about body diversity as a child instead of my late twenties?
I may not have had to spend decades of my life agonizing over my body, chasing the dream of shedding my skin one day.
2. Teach them to trust their bodies and their hunger.
Or, rather, don’t teach them to distrust their bodies. Children are born with inherent body trust. They know, without trying, what their bodies want. Babies know when they are hungry, when they are ready to roll over and hold their own heads up and stand and walk for the first time. Distrust is taught.
It happens slowly. Sometimes, distrust is sown by unavoidable things, like when a child feels confident they can jump from a great height and instead ends up falling and hurting themselves. That kind of distrust, the kind that teaches caution, is useful. And sometimes distrust is sown by parents question things that a child inherently knows. For instance, when a parent questions whether their child is really hungry, or really needs a second helping or snack. That kind of distrust is poison. And fat children learn that distrust much more often and more harshly than thin children.
In fat children, this is the beginning of disconnecting mind from body. It’s how children develop fraught relationships with food and eating and internalize shame around food.
I’m 35 and I am still working on reestablishing the connection between my mind and body. By the time I was a teenager, I no longer felt the normal cues of hunger and fullness. I had my hunger interrogated as a child and learned to interrogate it myself. And soon I no longer had any sense if I was hungry or full. I turned to diets to teach me how to eat, because I no longer had a clue, and didn’t trust my own hunger and body. This pulled me further and further away from these natural cues I had lost.
Allow your children, even when that child lives in a fat body, to trust themselves.
3. Let them try different activities, and let them walk away from activities they don’t enjoy, without guilt or shame.
Joyful movement is an essential part of Health At Every Size (HAES) — moving not as punishment, or penance for being a certain size or eating a donut for breakfast, but because you genuinely enjoy it. And this is something children come by naturally, whether they’re riding their bikes, running around with their friends, swinging from jungle gyms at recess. Kids know how to move joyfully.
And it’s great to encourage kids’ interests in organized movement, like sports teams, dance or gymnastics classes, etc. But where it gets tricky, and where it can have a lifelong impact, is when they are not allowed to quit activities they don’t enjoy.
I get it: Youth sports? Expensive as hell. Dance class? By the time you buy the leotards, tights, ballet slippers, and pay tuition, it’s not just a class, it’s an investment. And then there’s the time commitment. Schlepping the kids around early on Saturday mornings to games, piling them into the car for softball practice on a weeknight after working a full day. At that point, you’re in as deep as your kids are. And when your kid says, “I don’t think I like soccer, I don’t want to do it anymore,” it can be hard not to remind them of all the time and money you’ve spent supporting their desire to play soccer.
It can also seem like a great time to teach them a lesson about commitment. It’s tempting to remind them not only of the costs that have already been sunk into a particular activity, but that they’re letting the team down. So, by quitting, they’re not only disappointing you, they’re disappointing their coach and their peers.
But here’s the thing. Childhood is a time of exploration. And when it comes to trying out new activities, well, they are probably going to find that they don’t like about half of what they try. That’s not their fault; it’s simply the nature of trying new things. But when it comes to exercise and movement in particular, the ramifications of either forcing children to finish out a season of a sport they tell their parents they don’t like or continue going to a class they don’t want to go to just because the tuition is already paid, can be long-lasting and severe. It can turn an innocent attempt to try something new into something that feels like punishment. And that, in turn, can make physical activity in general feel like a punishment.
For fat kids especially, a lot of different things can make them say they want to quit a team. A fat kid may feel left out, or ostracized by their teammates. Coaches may even treat fat kids differently, perpetually keeping them on the bench or placing them in positions where they are literally in the outfield, as far away from the action as possible. Softball, for me, was largely just standing bored in the outfield where no 9 year old could ever hit a ball, where people couldn’t even really see me, waiting for the game to be over while sweating in the hot sun. And at 9, I knew why I was out there. My coach had to give me something to do, to look like he was giving everyone an equal chance to play, so he gave me a position where I was least likely to encounter any game play — thereby ensuring that my fat, slow-running body would not ruin his team’s chances of getting to the playoffs. I knew that. I felt it deeply. And yet I still had to go, every week, every game, because we’d already paid for registration, bought me a glove and a bat and a uniform that didn’t fit. Because I’d made a commitment.
And here’s the effect it had on me, as it happened with not just softball, but soccer and basketball and dance class and even a youth bowling league: It made me view all organized physical exercise as punishment. I felt punished for being fat and on a team, and I felt punished for deciding I didn’t like it.
So here’s what parents of fat kids can do: Let your kids try new things. If they express an interest in soccer or tap dancing or karate, great! Find out why they want to try it, and sign ’em up. And if they enjoy it, awesome! But if they come to you and say they don’t want to go anymore, let them walk away. Certainly, ask questions, ask them why. But then just let them.
Consider any money invested in sports or dance class or martial arts or whatever lost at the moment of payment. Which, essentially, it is. You get nothing more out of it if they finish the season out than if they don’t. So, just as you should consider any money you lend to a friend or family member a gift and not expect repayment for the sake of maintaining that relationship, consider money spent on sports a loss the moment you lay it out. For the sake of your child’s happiness, continued interest in exploring movement that is joyful for them, and maintaining your child’s trust.
3b. Don’t continually sign your fat child up for sports to “help them be more active.”
This is the other part to the joyful movement piece of the equation. As a kid, I was signed up for a lot of sports. A few each year, if I’m remembering correctly. More often than not, this was not because I had asked to be signed up for a sports team or had any actual interest in the sport, but because my mom was trying to help me “be more active.” Which I correctly interpreted as “play sports so you can lose weight.” And that, frankly, was something my pediatrician and everyone my mother consulted about the “problem” of my weight recommended.
I was a very indoors-y kid. My interests were reading books, drawing pictures, playing with my Barbies, writing stories, watching Nickelodeon, unicorns, and being the best at Chinese jump rope. I was not athletic, nor did I have any interest in being athletic, much to the chagrin of my mother and pediatrician. So, year after year, season after season, I was signed up for sport after sport … and I usually asked to drop out before the season was over. (Which should not have been a surprise to anyone — I hadn’t wanted to participate in the first place.)
So this, in addition to never being allowed to leave a team without guilt or shame or just straight-up being forced to finish the season, made exercise feel like punishment. It totally killed joyful movement for me. It made me feel like exercise was the punishment I deserved for being fat, which was not my fault, which is not any kid’s fault, or even something one should be considered at fault for at all.
It’s fine to ask your fat child if they’re interested in trying out something new. Maybe they’ve been wanting to give soccer a try, and maybe they will love it. But don’t sign them up without asking them and listening to their answer. There are probably other activities that you’d both get more mileage out of — for instance, things they are actually interested in. Because one thing is certain: if you treat sports as a weight-loss tool, you are essentially guaranteeing that your fat child will not enjoy it. And you could damage their relationship with their body and movement in the long run.
4. Don’t restrict their diets, and don’t moralize food.
This is hard for parents of fat children: year after year, when they take their children to the pediatrician, they are told their child is too heavy. They are told their child’s weight is a problem. And usually the advice is not much different to the advice adults get: eat less and move more. (Can you hear me sighing through the text here? Because I’m loudly and dramatically sighing.)
But here’s what restriction does to people’s brains: it makes them hungry. And restriction can lead to bingeing for many people. It’s the old “don’t think of an elephant” trick, in diet form. And, in children, it can lead to all sorts of weird and disordered behavior around food.
Here’s what happened when my mother attempted to restrict my diet: I started hiding food. I started hoarding snacks in my room. I started sneaking into the kitchen at night and eating in secret. I became afraid of eating in front of people. I often ate two meals — the smaller “healthy” meal of “good” foods I ate in front of my mother, and the secret meal I ate later when I was still hungry and obsessing over the food I actually wanted to eat.
There’s a couple of things going on here. One, food restriction and binge eating are connected — we know this. Dietitians know this. Scientists know this. So, if you start restricting a kid’s food, you’re basically just guaranteeing one thing: your kid is going to be hungry as hell. And probably obsess over the things you’re not letting them eat. And you may find them eating the forbidden foods in secret, at friends’ houses, late at night and out of your view. Because that is just how the brain works when it is deprived of calories and, uh, when you tell it not to think of ice cream.
Second, kids really don’t have a context for this. I certainly didn’t! The instinct is to frame certain foods (“healthy” foods) as “good” and other types of foods (“junk” foods) as “bad.” But kids don’t understand what this mean. Adults usually have a very tenuous grasp on how to feed themselves properly; scientists can barely settle on what is “good” and “bad” for us from one minute to the next. (Who knew that fat, the scourge of nutritionists for decades, would be the next health food craze?! Or that coconut oil, the saturated fat that the American Heart Association has been warning us about since the 80s, would be something health nuts would be sautéing their greens in and slathering on their hair and faces?!) So kids really, really don’t have a grip on this stuff. When you restrict certain foods, and frame them as “good” and “bad,” it’s hard for kids to make heads or tails of. What it usually results in is a fear of food, and a feeling that their own natural desire for certain foods that are “bad” is in fact what’s “bad.” It creates guilt and shame around food.
Lastly, it creates a sense of food scarcity. Which can, in turn, lead to food hoarding and bingeing (which are both things I did as a kid when my mother tried to curtail my desire for sweets.) And can lead to a general sense of insecurity in a kid’s life.
Instead, offer kids an abundance of food. Make all kinds of food available to them. Encourage a love of food. Have them cook with you and develop positive memories of food while teaching them valuable skills that will help them throughout their lives. Add foods, don’t take them away. And be neutral about food. All food can be part of a healthy, well-lived life. Teach them that food is just food. Eating broccoli will not put halos around anyone’s heads, and eating ice cream or chocolate or greasy fast food is not “indulgent” or “bad” or “sinful” or “decadent.” It’s all just food. This doesn’t mean that if your kid wants ice cream for dinner every night, you should give them ice cream for dinner every night. You’re still ultimately in control of what your child eats. It just means not putting them on a diet, not assigning moral value to food, not wholly cutting out foods or types of foods. It’s not about adhering to all of your child’s food whims, it’s just striking a balance of providing thoughtful guidance about how to eat for nourishment and setting them up to have a positive relationship with food and their bodies.
Because what we know doesn’t work is restrictive diets for kids. It usually does nothing but fuck up their relationship with food and themselves and you as their parents and providers. And for fat kids, it can make them feel unfairly penalized — it basically uses deprivation as punishment for something that isn’t their fault — which can have life-long effects.
5. Work on your own fucked-up relationship with food and your body.
This is essential because, you know, little pitchers have big ears and all that. Your kids see you. They watch you. They notice the things you do. You’re their role model for how to be a person. So, if you’re struggling with your own shitty relationship with food and your body, they will absorb that. And, sooner or later, they will start to mirror that shit right back to you.
Neuroses about food and bodies tend to run in families. I can trace a straight line through my mother’s side of the family and see how certain neuroses were passed down from generation to generation. So, be the brave person to stop passing down this terrible, cursed family heirloom of food and body weirdness.
It’s not easy. But it’s essential for parents to model a positive relationship with food and their bodies. This means:
No food moralizing at the dinner table or anywhere
No talking shit about your own body or anyone else’s
No dieting (really — no dieting)
Learning about Health at Every Size (HAES)
No limiting your own experiences and enjoyment because of your body size (ex: not joining your kids in the pool or at the beach because you don’t want to be seen in a swimsuit)
And so on
And this is hard. It really and truly is. If you have a fraught relationship with food and your body, it’ll take some fake-it-to-make-it. It’ll take some soul-searching and maybe even some therapy. But it will be worth it, not just for your kid, but for you.
You cannot possibly hope to raise a happy, confident fat kid if you are personally torn up about your own weight. You just can’t. You can’t make your kid believe that they are worthy, good, loved and enough at any size if you can’t believe it about yourself. You can’t save your kid from a lifetime of dieting and misery while you’re doing keto or Weight Watchers or Googling weight loss surgery to lose weight yourself. You can’t teach them to trust their bodies when you don’t trust your own. And you can’t instill in them the idea that all bodies are good bodies when you associate your body and your child’s fat body with pain, humiliation and torment.
6. Don’t try to protect your child from bullying by assuming the role of the bully.
I thought it just happened to me, but apparently it’s more of a universal experience to have your parents bring up things you could potentially be bullied for.
For me, it started when I was a chubby little kid who wanted to buy a bikini in my favorite colors. I didn’t care that it was a bikini; I just liked the colors. I also really hated having to pull down a wet one-piece to use the bathroom at the pool, and having just a bottom to contend with seemed grand. I tried on the bikini and my mother frowned at my round little kid belly poking out. She said, “What if kids at the pool make fun of your stomach?”
It had never occurred to me before. It was, honestly, the first time I had really considered my fat belly at all. And all it took was a quick disapproving glance and question to create 30-odd years of intense insecurity about my belly.
I get that this is hard. When you have kids, you’re seeing them through the eyes of all the schoolyard taunts you endured. So, letting them leave the house in the outfit they love but might get them teased, feels like sending a lamb to slaughter. But when you try to stop them, you assume the role of the bully. You are bullying your child to prevent them from being bullied.
And here’s why that’s wrong:
It lends validity to the theoretical bully’s taunts
It places the onus on your child to avoid bullying, rather than on other children not to be bullies
Your child legitimately might not get bullied or taunted at all, which means that you’ve crushed their confidence on the assumption that they will be teased
It can be the first time your child has ever considered that something about them is something they could be teased or bullied about, building new insecurities
It erodes their trust in you as their parent and protector
It chips away at their self-confidence
It teaches them to consider what others might think or say ahead of what they want and how they feel
It can make them feel hurt, ashamed, embarrassed and unsafe
And really I could just go on and on forever
This requires abandoning some control. Your child might get teased. They might come home in tears. Because other kids can be truly terrible, especially to fat kids. But you should be a safe harbor. You should be a place of acceptance, safety and love. And you can talk to them about bullying, how to deal with people who are mean to them, and you can reinforce that their body is their own, belongs to them, and it’s not okay for anyone to make fun of it. But you should never, ever imply that they were even remotely at fault, or that they are deserving of ill-treatment.
7. Be a fierce advocate for your child with doctors, schools, and other adults.
Fat kids are almost certain to have their weight singled out as a problem by multiple adults. But you, as their parent, need to be their fiercest advocate.
If your doctor is telling you that your child’s weight is a problem, here’s what you can do:
Insist, up front, that these conversations be had with you, without your child around to hear
Request that your child not be weighed
Talk to them about the Health at Every Size approach
Request that they provide you with evidence-based medicine, and provide scientifically sound information about their concerns and recommendations
If necessary, move to a pediatrician who focus less on your child’s weight
Don’t allow them to beat you down into thinking that a higher-weight child is medical crisis. Don’t allow them to convince you that you must make your child lose weight at any cost. Stand firm in your belief that all bodies are good bodies, and call them on fatphobia and bad information. Arm yourself with knowledge — Dr. Linda Bacon’s book Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight is a great place to start.
This applies to dealing with school as well. When I was a kid, we all got weighed every year in elementary school, and had to strip down for scoliosis test. A school nurse even approached me in the 4th grade without parental permission to recommend Weight Watchers. You are perfectly within your rights to tell a school that you do not give them permission to weight your child or evaluate their health based on their body size; you can tell them that you’ll address any potential health concerns privately with your child’s pediatrician.
Other adults, even ones who are “professionals,” have no right to undermine your intention to raise your child to believe they are good, worthy, valuable and loved at any size. You do not have to cotton to pediatricians or school nurses or administrators. Stand. Your. Ground.
8. Teach them about fatphobia, weight bias and why it’s wrong
Like many prejudices in the world, your child is sure to encounter fatphobia at some point in their lives, directly or indirectly. And, like racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia and other forms of discrimination and hate, it’s important to talk about it with your child and let them know that it’s wrong.
This can mean pausing a movie and talking about negative depictions of fat people. (I love Harry Potter, but woah nelly, the Dursleys would be a great entry point to talking about how fat people are often portrayed as villains.) This can mean calling out a friend or family member making fatphobic comments about other people’s bodies. This can be sitting down and having tough talks about discrimination your child personally experiences.
But it’s important to frame it as what it is: inexcusable, rooted in hatred and fear, and never okay.
9. Expose your child to positive representations of fat people (and limit exposure to negative ones)
When I was a kid, I loved to read. My bedroom was cluttered with books and I read above my grade level. I especially loved books about girls my age or slightly older — books by Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume. And my mom was more than happy to buy me all the books I cared to read. One time, she picked out a book for me as a surprise one day. It was called Nothing’s Fair in Fifth Grade. I must have been in third grade or so when I first read this book. Here’s the description on Scholastic’s website:
“In this award-winning, national bestseller, Elsie Edward is the new girl in fifth grade. Her new classmates dislike her because they find her disgusting. And Elsie even steals their lunch money. When Jenny, another fifth grade, befriends Elsie, she begins to feel more comfortable in school. And the other students begin appreciating Elsie’s good qualities. And while nothing seems to be fair in fifth grade, ‘some things are not as bad as they seem.'”
Why is Elsie disgusting? She’s fat. The story, told from Jenny’s point of view, is cruel toward Elsie. Her classmates ostracize her, and this bullying of a child is portrayed as an absolutely normal and logical response to being in the presence of a fat body. Her body, and just how disgusting it is, is written about in horrified detail. She is on a diet of clear broth and carrots, which the principal announces to the whole class — so they won’t feed her. She’s starving and steals her classmates’ lunch money to buy candy. Eventually, Jenny reluctantly befriends her, realizes that she’s sort of a human being, and Elsie makes some friends. At the end of the book, her transformation from vile human-shaped garbage bag of fat to actual human being is complete when she loses weight.
And I will never forget how it ends: One day, Elsie is quiet and staring at her feet a lot. Her friends wonder what’s wrong. She tells them that nothing is wrong, she is just amazed that she can finally see her feet.
Yes, seriously, this a is a real book. See?
I think my mom probably saw this book and thought I might be able to relate to it. I doubt it was given to me to teach me that if I lost weight, I would finally be able to make friends and not be tormented by my classmates. (I hope this is the case.) But, wow, this book stuck with me. The sheer disgust the author and the characters in the book have for Elsie was stunning to me. Because it was written from the point of view of a thin girl who was disgusted with Elsie, instead of Elsie herself, I was forced to think about all the things kids in my school must have thought about me.
But at the same time, Elsie was actually the only fat character in any book I had read. Which is sad to think about now, but at the time, at least I was able to see myself in Elsie. It wasn’t a very flattering or positive mirror, but it was representation … however problematic.
While things have gotten better since that horrific book was published in 1981, it’s still slim pickings when it comes to positive representations of fat people. But here are some resources:
Representation is important, so make sure your fat kid has access to media where they are represented. And while I’m not saying don’t let your kid read Harry Potter or ban WALL-E, it’s also important to have conversations with your kids about the representation of fat people in books and movies where fat means villainous, dishonest, lazy, bad, stupid or mean, as well as balancing these portrayals with positive ones.
10. Love and accept them for who they are
This should go without saying, but it can be hard for many parents to do in practice. Sometimes fat children can grow up feeling like nothing they do will make their parents prouder than losing weight. I still feel that way sometimes. So it’s important to commit to accepting, supporting and love your child no matter what … even if they remain fat their whole lives.
When you raise your fat child in an atmosphere of love and acceptance, they may grow into fat adults. But they will grow into confident, capable fat adults well-equipped to deal with a world that still has a million miles to go toward body liberation. And that, really, is the best any parent can do.
The inclusion of more bodies, voices and more careful discussion of “health” and “fitness” is awesome
The one piece that did give me pause is the publication of Self’s style guide. In the wake of all this awesome content, it was jarring to read their internal guide to talking about health, wellness and bodies. Some it is commendable (such as the commitment to showing more diverse bodies, using people’s preferred descriptors for their bodies, doing away with terms like “bikini body” and “tank top arms,” officially stepping away from food moralizing, etc.) but some of it was also questionable (such as the dogged insistence on covering weight loss, sticking to stigmatizing words like “overweight” and “obese” because “there are unfortunately no other terms that can accurately describe these specific medical conditions or health markers, as defined by body mass index, and used commonly in the scientific literature,” and the dogged insistence on using weight as a “health marker” throughout the entire piece). I appreciate the transparency, I honestly do. But so much in the style guide didn’t just give me pause – it made me do a full-on tires-screeching double-take.
To me, the sum of Self Magazine’s parts are greater than the whole. They can publish articles by Lindy West and put Tess Holliday on their cover, but they are still a “health and fitness brand.” Their ultimate goal is still to advertise to their audience, which is almost wholly women — this is just an attempt to include more women in their audience. And I get it! That’s how a media company survives. They rebrand, they adapt, they move where their audience is moving. But I still can’t escape the feeling that just as Weight Watchers has repackaged their diet as a “lifestyle change,” Self is merely repackaging their incessant focus on weight, exercise and women’s bodies as “body positive.” You know, for the clicks. For the likes. And I’m not sure that I’m here for it.
Self is still focusing on weight as a “health marker”
So, I work in marketing and write content for a living. I know that language is tough and writing editorial style guides is even tougher and requires the sort of digging into parlance that the average person who is not a word geek cannot imagine ever doing. But Self did that work with their new style guide, and they said so many of the right things in so many places, but still insist on referring to weight as a “health marker” throughout the document.
And this is the thing: if your style guide and philosophy does not allow that health AND fatness can coexist side-by-side, you’re not body positive and you’re not using a Health at Every Size (HAES) approach. If you’re not allowing that “health” and “weight” are not inextricably connected, you are not body positive or using a HAES approach. If you are using weight as a “health marker” instead of treating it as one of the many variables in appearance that creates the beautiful, diverse tableau of different human bodies we have in this world, you are not body positive and not using a HAES approach.
Sure, weight can be a “health marker” for some. If you lose a bunch of weight really quickly without really trying to, that can mean something is up. Same goes for gaining a bunch of weight really fast. Weight can be a symptom. But weight, in and of itself, is not a health marker because health is so much more complex than a number on a scale or having a body that falls in the “average” range for any attribute. (Imagine “height” being called a “health marker” as a catch-all term.) But health is not a yes or no box you can check off with a few markers, it’s a spectrum, and “health” looks different for every single human body of every size and shape. Being over a certain weight is not a tick against you on the “health” checklist because that checklist looks different for every body.
Reading this style guide, it looks like Self is maybe … 30% of the way there? But not quite there yet.
Self is still insisting on using stigmatizing terms
One of the parts of the style guide that got my hackles up was this:
A few points here:
The fat community has been clear about this for a very, very long time. The words “obese” and “overweight” pathologize us, stigmatize us, and imply that simply being the weight we are is a medical condition or disease.
The fat community has also been clear for a very, very long time that it prefers the word “fat” to “obese” or “overweight.”
Being obese or overweight are NOT “medical conditions.” They are simply different ways for bodies to be.
Self is using the Body Mass Index to defend their use of these terms when the BMI is bullshit. They could have asked Lindy West or Jes Baker about it when they were putting this issue together! They had so many great brains who could have told them why using an outdated, inaccurate statistical model to categorize people and pathologize body diversity is absolute bullshit.
Refusing to listen to activists and people actually living in fat bodies and defaulting to problematic “scientific” and “medical” language makes Self part of the problem.
Self used lots of nice, pretty words to sandwich this defense of something they clearly know is problematic, but despite the pretty bun, the meat of this statement is still rotten.
Self is sticking to and defending their practice of giving diet tips and talking about diets and weight loss
At first, when reading the issue and this style guide, I wanted to cheer them on and pump my fist. I really did. But it took a little bit of time for it to really hit me: Self is going to keep publishing content about diets and weight loss.
Again, this is phrased well for the HAES/BoPo audience. But the fact of the matter is that they are still going to publish content on weight loss, diets, body modification, and fitness challenges … with disclaimers. Is that progress? Is that revolutionary?
There is some progress here. We’re talking about a magazine that’s made its name on diet and exercise and “bikini body” content. And I get that there is an audience for it: diet culture is pervasive and a good chunk of Self’s readers expect this sort of content from them. They want to know about the latest diet trend, and learn about Whole30 and paleo and keto. They want to participate in a 30-day six-pack challenge. Because diet culture has their hooks in them. So, yeah, duh, there is a market for weight loss articles. Obviously. That’s why Weight Watchers is such a profitable enterprise and has over 3.2 million members.
But what if Self actually flipped the script? What if they 86’d the content about what to eat and how to work out and how to be and just focused on health generally? What if they came out and said, “Hey! Articles that focus on dieting and weight loss are part of the harmful diet culture and we will not be publishing them anymore.” What if they said, “We’re really going to dig into those cultural forces that make women want to lose weight, and why they seek out articles about weight loss and join weight loss programs, and we’re going to mine those systemic forces like access and affordability to healthy foods.” Or what if they even said, “We’re going to hire more fat and more diverse writers and editors and we’re going to elevate the voices of people living in bodies that are marginalized.”
Their content is, honestly, pretty diverse. Just on their homepage, I see articles related to how to pickle vegetables, how to store produce, how to stretch your hamstrings, how to help people with depression. These are good things that are not weight loss focused! So why can’t they just drop the content about weight loss entirely?!
Because until we’re in a place where “weight loss” and “wellness” are not indistinguishable from one another, we’re still just making progress in little baby steps.
This is their attempt to market to a new audience
I see what Self is doing here. They have identified that young women who are interested in body positivity and fat acceptance and feminism are an emerging market. They’re an audience that is active online and vocal in supporting brands they’ve identified as allies. This is their attempt to reach out to that market.
And so, in that respect, is this really any different than Weight Watchers rebranding as a “lifestyle change” instead of a diet? With Weight Watchers, the product is more or less unchanged in decades. (And that new flexible “Freestyle” plan they’re saying is so revolutionary? That was called “Core” a decade ago. They’re just recycling old iterations of the plan. I see you, Weight Watchers.)
The proof is the in the pudding, as they say.
If Self truly commits to a change in the way they discuss bodies and how they approach the issue of health and changes their product to adapt to the wants and needs of the emerging marketing they’re trying to rope in, then maybe they aren’t like Weight Watchers after all. But if it’s the same old magazine doling out weight loss tips and diet talk peppered with BoPo lingo, then we’ll know it wasn’t sincere. I am not seeing the sincerity in their style guide. I’m seeing language that attempts to speak to us, without actually hearing us. I’m seeing defenses of the same old same old with apologies and disclaimers built in. I’m seeing a lot of admissions that certain language and certain stories are problematic without commitments to just fucking stop doing it.
I want Self to surprise me, and prove that I was just being unnecessarily skeptical. I really do! I want them to realize that they don’t have to write about weight loss and diets at all and continue to publish work from awesome fat and fat-positive authors.
But, just reading through their style guide, I am not confident. But maybe they can get there, if their readers and the public pushes them out of their comfort zone.
I don’t want to let perfect be the enemy of good, and I can appreciate that there is some progress in the fact that a fitness brand is having this conversation internally and publicly at all. But I also don’t want to let sort of good to be enough. I want brands to go further and commit to not being part of the problem.
I’ve been working from home since January. And it has been absolute bliss. I wake up at 8:30 a.m., brew myself some coffee, toast a bagel, and sit down to start my day in yoga pants. Throughout the day, I can take short breaks to walk my dog, pet my cat, wash the dishes. I have even baked cookies while working. I can do laundry while I work. It’s incredible. Here is a picture of me, in my home office, in my comfy Princess Leia shirt, loving that WFH life.
I savor working from home so much because I have spent most of my career working in offices. Because I worked in the nonprofit sector, these offices have primarily been populated by women.
And I love women. I am a feminist. I support women, I want to see other women succeed, I admire the badass women I’ve met in my career. But, oh my god, an office full of women makes it nearly impossible to escape diet talk. I have worked in offices full of powerful, educated, brilliant women. And they all want to talk about their diets.
Diet culture is all around you. In the break room, at the vending machine, at the water cooler, at the coffee station, at happy hour, at a staff birthday lunch. It can feel overwhelming and oppressive. It can make you second-guess your lunch, or get a salad instead of a sub because you don’t want people to see you wolfing down a five dollar footlong at your desk, or cut off a tiny piece of a donut when someone brings in a box instead of grabbing a whole, intact donut because none of the other women took a whole donut and you don’t want to be the office fatty, even if you are in fact the office fatty. It can even infect your inbox — invitations to go for healthy walks during your lunch breaks, emails from HR about your “wellness program.” It’s basically inescapable.
I developed some solid techniques for navigating diet culture in the office over the years. (Though, full disclosure, there was a point where I was part of the problem back when I was doing Weight Watchers. Hey, we all have a past.) While I’m in a good place now (at home), I know a lot of women struggle with the office in particular when adopting Intuitive Eating (IE) and Health At Every Size (HAES), so here are my tips for staying sane at the office.
1. Don’t bring food to work unless it’s for yourself
This is a rule I’ve followed for years, and I initially adopted it for reasons totally unrelated to HAES or IE. When I was a fledgling young professional, I read the book Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office. And while it’s not a perfect book, one of the tips that stuck with me was about feeding your coworkers. Bringing food in for everyone sets a particular tone — namely, that you’re a mother or wife figure. And I’ve found that to be true. Back when I thought bringing bagels or donuts to the office was just a friendly gesture sure to impress my coworkers, it backfired on me. It made me the sort of employee that people asked to do admin tasks for them, even if they were technically my equals. It meant that people thought I’d clean out the fridge, even if it wasn’t my old lunch getting moldy in there. When people left their coffee mugs in the sink, I was one of the kitchen fairies that was expected to clean them. Printer low on toner? No worries, Linda will take care of it! Need a few reams of printer paper? Ask Linda. Oh, and while you’re down there, Linda, can you grab some other supplies I need? And can you distribute the mail? It seemed like such a small thing, but by feeding my coworkers, I had painted myself into a corner and got roped into serving my colleagues in so many other ways.
I stopped feeding people. I stopped bringing in donuts and bagels and getting cups of coffee for people when I was getting one for myself. I stopped keeping candy and snacks for others to enjoy at my desk. It felt weird at first. It felt rude. But, sure enough, the way people treated me started to shift as well.
And one major unintended benefit? Food became less and less a part of my life at the office. I had fewer conversations about food and diets. I eventually no longer knew who was doing Weight Watchers or keto or Whole30 or who was on an elimination diet. I never cared about that, but at long last I didn’t have to hear about it. Because I wasn’t feeding them and I was not eating with them. I was no longer creating moments where being face-to-face with food moralizing and diet talk and food guilt were highly probable.
It was such a simple change but it was stunningly effective. And if your knee-jerk reaction is that you’d never want to be the sort of employee who has a rule about never bringing in donuts or snacks for the office, ask yourself: Is it your job to feed your coworkers? I presume they’re all grown adults who are fully capable of feeding themselves. Feeding your coworkers is not your responsibility. You do not have to do it. And when you stop doing it, you’re a step closer to never having to hear about Susan’s diet ever again.
2. Call out fatphobic and body-shaming comments. Every single time.
I’m not going to lie: This one is uncomfortable at first. Sometimes it’s the Queen Bee of the office blathering on about how so-and-so shouldn’t be wearing that dress. Sometimes it’s your boss or HR talking about the “obesity epidemic.” And sometimes you might even overhear some fucked up, fatphobic comments in conversations you aren’t actively involved in. But it’s essential for people to speak up and shut it down in order to change an office culture.
You wouldn’t sit by idly while a colleague was making awful, homophobic remarks, would you? Or nod your head in agreement if your boss was on a racist tirade? Or if you overheard a nasty water cooler conversation about a trans coworker using the bathroom that matches their gender? I sure hope not. Discrimination and hate in the workplace shouldn’t be tolerated. And while weight discrimination in the workplace is still perfectly legal, that does not mean you have to sit down and shut up when you encounter it. You should call it out.
I am not saying you should get up and shout at someone making snide remarks about someone’s weight. Obviously, that could get you sent to HR. Approach and tone are everything. Here are a few techniques I have used successfully:
Pull the ol’ “this is inappropriate to discuss in the workplace” trick. Stated calmly and in a friendly tone, this shuts most conversations right the fuck down. Sure, you look like a party pooper, but you don’t want to attend a Fatphobic Jerkwad Party anyway, so who cares?
Look the offensive colleague dead in the eyes and ask, “Why would you think it’s okay to say something hurtful and fatphobic like that?” Or, “Why do you think it’s okay to discuss ______’s body?” Direct, to the point, and puts the onus back on the person being a jerk to explain their jerky behavior.
“That’s really mean and hurtful and I’m surprised to hear you say something like that about another person.” Works even if it’s not a surprise at all to learn your colleague is a dick.
“I’m really not interested in discussing other people’s bodies and weight because it’s none of our business and their bodies belong to them.”
You may want to start off with a softer approach at first, and work your way up to being blunt as a spoon. You may need to let idle conversations you overhear slide as you focus on dealing with fatphobia and body-shaming in conversations you’re actually involved in. It’s okay: no one becomes a badass body warrior all at once. And even the smallest interaction can stick in someone’s mind and make them rethink their loose lips about the large hips of a celebrity or coworker.
A real-world example of when I’ve had to employ some of these techniques: I used to work in a vegan workplace, and there was a gang of vegan gym bros running one of our departments. Ultimately, their explicit goal was to get more men to be vegan, and one of the ways they did this was tying it to physical fitness, and in turn, masculinity and virility. (I could write a novel about how much I hate this tactic, which seems to be growing in popularity.) One day, they brought a guy to our office who had written a book about being a vegan athlete. I decided not to go because I’m not an athlete and had other stuff to do and anticipated a lot of fatphobic bullshit. It was decidedly not my thing. And in the break room, on the day of this guy’s talk, a lady I barely knew stopped me while I was getting my coffee and asked me if I was going. “Nope!” I said cheerily. “I’m too busy and it’s not really my thing.” This lady’s eyes got very big with concern and she started to tell me why I should go, all but saying that my fat ass would drop dead if I did not attend this guy’s talk. So I called her on it. “Why are you trying to convince me to go?” She said it would be good for me. “Why?” Because it’s important to learn about veganism and nutrition. “Why do you think I don’t know anything about that?” She started to get the point. I delivered this in a friendly, direct tone that made it clear a) I was not going to stop interrogating her until she stopped interrogating me, b) I thought she was being inappropriate as hell, and c) I really wanted her to think about all the fucked up things she was implying here. Eventually we parted ways. She never pulled that shit with me again. Thank god.
At the end of the day, though, this technique is all about managing what you have to deal with at the office. Body-shamers gonna shame, and they may just find another captive audience who is less likely to clap back, but when you call someone out and put them on the spot, you can be certain of one thing: they are never, ever going to try to talk to you about that shit again.
3. Model a positive, healthy relationship with food
This one is a little more complicated, especially if you’re actively working on your relationship with food and adopting HAES. But it can actually be easier than you think, since you don’t need to be 100% there (who is?!) to model basic HAES and IE principles for others. And you will probably find that changing out how you talk about and behave around food in front of others changes how you feel about it internally as well. “Fake it ’til you make it” is sometimes a solid approach to adopting real transformational change in life.
These are the basic rules I try to apply to myself when dealing with food, eating, and other people:
It’s okay to be hungry. You can say when you’re hungry, and you can eat when you’re hungry.
It’s okay to not be hungry too. You don’t have to eat just because food is there and everyone else is eating. You can turn down a staff lunch or happy hour because you’re not hungry or don’t want to go. Even if it’s your boss’ birthday, you don’t need to eat cake if you don’t want to eat cake. You are in charge of your own decisions about food.
You can eat whatever you’re hungry for, without shame.
Do not apologize for:
Not being hungry
What you are eating
When you are eating
How you are eating
Why you are eating
Where you are eating (see: at your desk)
Food is neutral; do not refer to certain food as “good” and others as “bad.” A person is not being “good” for eating a salad or being “bad” for eating a cupcake. Or even three cupcakes. Just eat whatever the fuck you want and refrain from food moralizing.
Do not comment on what anyone else is eating (unless you’re asking them where they got it so you can get one of your own)
Do not engage in conversation about what you’re eating (unless you legitimately want to)
Do not engage in weird, disordered behavior around food
I feel like that last one needs some explanation. You may encounter some odd food situations that are not openly fatphobic but are still problematic. For example, one of my favorite bosses I have ever worked for had a stash of “emergency chocolate.” It was a jar of fun-size candy bars in a jar on her desk. Everyone was welcome to the “emergency chocolate,” should they find themselves in urgent need of chocolate for some reason. (Dementor attack? I’m not sure what a chocolate emergency entails, even now.) This was charming and kind, but also, sort of weird, right? The implication was that in a stressful moment, shoveling a Snickers bar into your mouth would help. Which, hey, it might! Food can bring comfort. A sugary candy bar can also provide enough of a boost to power through the post-lunch doldrums. But, to me, the stash of emergency chocolate represented a disordered groupthink about “junk food.” In case of emergency, break open emergency chocolate bar and eat your feelings. As if one should only eat a Snickers if they are experiencing emotional distress. There was all kinds of food weirdness in that emergency chocolate jar, man.
So my solution was just to refrain from engaging with it. I knew it was there, I knew what its purpose was, I knew it was something my lovely boss wanted to have on her desk and offer to colleagues. I did not judge anyone who went by to procure an emergency fun-size Twix. I just opted out of the whole thing.
And it is simply a fact that women mirror each other when it comes to food. If you’re out with a friend and you order a salad? She’ll probably order a salad too, even if she wants a great big bloody burger with fries. If you want dessert but everyone else is opting out because they’re full, you’ll probably skip dessert, or encourage other women to “be bad” with you. (I’ve done it. We all have.) So even though a lot of these things seem small, they matter. The most stunning thing I’ve noticed in my own life since adopting these rules for myself is how quick people are to mirror it back to me, especially women. Somehow, me having the courage to say, “Dude, I’m so hungry right now,” or grab a full bagel with regular cream cheese if I want one, seems to empower others to do whatever they want and not shy away from things like eating when they are hungry or eating whatever they want. It doesn’t seem like saying you’re hungry when you are hungry should be a radical act, but it is.
4. Never talk about anyone’s bodies in the workplace, including your own.
This is something that should go without saying, but in offices all over the world, people’s bodies are a hot topic. “Have you lost weight?” so often replaces “It’s been awhile since I’ve seen you and you look well!” People talk about other people’s bodies, their own bodies’, celebrity bodies, their family members’ bodies, bodies in general. And nothing positive ever comes from it. Horror stories about people complimenting the weight loss of a coworker who is battling a life-threatening illness are real, and they happen all the time.
So, don’t do it. Don’t engage in talk about bodies with your coworkers. Even if it comes up earnestly, with no ill intent. There are so many other things to talk about! Here is a list of things you could talk about that are not related to anyone else’s weight, appearance or body:
Game of Thrones
Your family, spouse, or friends
A fun thing you did this weekend
A funny cat video you saw online
How you don’t like Mondays
How you wish it was Friday
Yay, it’s Friday!
The list is endless, really.
And it doesn’t stop with other people’s bodies. Don’t talk about your own, either. Unless you’re telling someone you twisted your ankle, or have a cold, or are calling out sick and there is an actual tangible reason why you’re talking about it. If you want to avoid diet culture in the workplace, you’ll need to avoid engaging in it yourself. Don’t put yourself down, don’t put others down, don’t stand for other people putting themselves down, and don’t stand for people putting others down. You’re there to work, not talk about your own body or anyone else’s.
This is, again, about modeling behavior for others. Compliment people without bringing their weight or bodies into it. Find ways to bond, connect and have conversations with people in the workplace that do not involve food, bodies, or weight loss. Do your job, do it well, and opt out of diet talk at work.
The other thing here is to gently remind people that it’s not appropriate to discuss bodies in the workplace, a concept people are becoming more familiar with because of #MeToo-inspired conversations about sexual harassment in the workplace. Remind people that they don’t know what’s going on with another person when they’re complimenting their weight loss, or telling them that they look like they’ve lost a little weight. Remind people that other people’s bodies are not public property and not appropriate conversation fodder. Redirect them. Change the topic. Call out problematic shit when you see or hear it.
5. Don’t be afraid to guard your lunch break and time off the clock like a lion guarding her cub.
This can also be tricky to pull off as well, with office politics being what they are. But here’s a general rule I follow: I am at work during certain hours. During that time, I have an HR-mandated break, either 30 minutes or an hour. My break and any time where I am not expected to be in the office actively working are my fucking time.
That means I reserve the right to say no to a happy hour. That means I do not have to join coworkers for lunch, unless I want to. That means I do not have to attend an after-work dinner for a visiting remote colleague or someone’s birthday, unless I want to. None of these events are required.
For me, surviving an office environment rife with diet talk and food weirdness involved saying no to a lot of things. Sometimes I’m happy to go to a restaurant to celebrate a birthday after work, but sometimes, I’d rather stab myself in the eyeball with a fork than sit around a table with a bunch of ladies being weird about food. Attending food-centric work events outside of work hours was my nightmare. So, often, I just didn’t do it. This was for my own survival and sanity.
And, beyond just keeping me away from negative food situations, it was something I felt was important for my work/life balance. The office gets me 40+ hours per week. That’s the majority of my waking hours. (And that doesn’t even include the amount of time I would spend getting ready for work, commuting, and scheduling around work.) They get to be the master of my time for much of the week; during breaks, and after work, I briefly get to be the master before I go to bed. So, I can say no to demands on my time if I want to.
There’s no reason you need to tell your coworkers, “Look, I don’t want to go to your dumb happy hour because y’all are nuts about food and I will literally light myself on fire if I have to hear about keto one more time this week.” You can tell white lies. You have an appointment after work. You already have plans. You’re not feeling well. You’re just really tired. If you have pets, needing to get home to walk the dog or feed the cat are always solid excuses. It’s fine to lie because what you do with your life outside of the office is none of their business.You have the right to say no.
And to avoid looking like the office grump, you can get involved in non-food ways. If it’s someone’s birthday, or you’re celebrating a promotion, or you’re sending off a colleague who is leaving, take the lead in purchasing a card and getting it signed by your department. If you’re having a lunch to welcome a new employee, just stop by their desk and give them a warm in-person welcome. If it’s a team happy hour and you feel like you should go just for the sake of team spirit, just be a kind, thoughtful, creative and capable employee and member of the team and it probably won’t ever be held against you that you didn’t have beers with them one night.
Do you have any tips or techniques from combating fatphobia and diet culture in the workplace? Let me know! I’d love to hear what works for others!