Since I published a post on the issue of flying on aeroplanes while fat in January, there has been a steady stream of essays flooding my inbox. It’s slowed a little bit, thankfully, since that first day when my inbox had literally hundreds of comment notifications overnight. But at least once every few days, I get an email notification about a new comment on that post. When I open it, it’s 4-5 paragraphs about why I am wrong, fat, disgusting, terrible, etc. Some have been even longer! Some are novellas about why I suck.
But listen! I don’t want you to waste your time! And I certainly don’t want you to waste mine anymore. So, here are a few things you should know.
I moderate comments. And that means I’m probably not going to publish yours. So, you can certainly invest 10-20 minutes of your life angrily typing an essay in response to a post of mine that inflamed your fatphobia all for the thrill of knowing that I will see it in my inbox, briefly skim it, and then block you and trash your comment. Or you can do something more worthwhile with your time and your anger, like eating a bowl of thumbtacks or taking a hammer to your own kneecaps.
I really, really don’t want to touch you on a plane. Why do you all seem to think I want to touch you? I really, sincerely, honestly do not want to touch you. Please don’t flatter yourselves! Do you think I want your gross germs? To feel your warm, greasy flesh stretched over your bones? To be close enough to smell your stench? NO, I DO NOT. You could have measles. You could have the flu. I don’t want to touch you. I have never wanted to touch you. I want bigger seats on airplanes so I do not have to run the risk of ever touching you. You’d think we could find some common ground here! Because we’re pretty much on the same page.
I do not have to publish your comment-essays. Would you believe that trolls have actually used the contact form on this website to contact me to ask what happened to their shitty fucking comments?! Oh, it’s happened. Multiple times. But, you know, blogs are free! So go get your own. I actually pay for a domain and an upgraded account, and I get to call the shots in this space. And the reason your comment “disappeared” was because I fucking trashed it and blocked you from leaving comments because you’re a piece of shit who made me waste 30 seconds of my life skimming your dumb comment and blocking you. I know it’s maddening when you spend time on a terrible comment and a mean fat lady blogger doesn’t publish it. But, seriously, why did you think I would? It’s funny, because most of the comments are ABSOLUTELY INDIGNANT at the suggestion that I have some right to their space on planes, which they pay for (!!!!), and then are ABSOLUTELY INDIGNANT about the fact that they were not allowed to invade my space, that I also pay for, with their bullshit.
I know that I amfat. That is literally the topic of this whole entire blog, but thanks for noticing and taking the time to tell me.
So, I hope this clears a few things up! I hope this saves you a little time, knowing that your comment-essay won’t even be published and will only be skimmed for a few seconds before I roll my eyes and trash it. I hope you won’t waste your time trying to DESTROY me in a comment so you can go back to your pals on your subReddit and get upvotes and pats on the back, because your comment will never see the light of day, and here I am! Not destroyed! Still fat! Still happy! Still blogging! Sorry you wasted your time!
I’m back to play your internet agony aunt with more reader questions!
But before we get down to it, I wanted to let you know what’s been going on. Shortly after I published my last post, “An Open Letter to People Who Feel Infringed on by Fat People on Airplanes,” WordPress featured my post. I didn’t realize it for awhile, but I woke up one morning to find that my inbox was BURSTING. On average, I get about 20 emails per day, and most of those emails are from HelloFresh trying to get me to come back. But I had HUNDREDS of emails. And many of them were supportive and kind and drove me to tears. But many of them were not.
Here’s the thing: I’m just an average person! I have a full-time job and a cat and a dog and a husband. I eat brunch and order pizza and watch lots of HGTV. I am a perfectly mundane, average person. I have never been a public figure. I’m a quiet person with a blog. And I’ve never really dealt with much internet hate. Sure, this blog gets a troll here and there. Sometimes I get a comment calling me a “fat bitch” and I roll my eyes and mark them as spam. But I have never ever been the recipient of so much trolling and hate.
It was confusing. It was alarming. It was, more than anything, exhausting. It was relentless, because my phone was constantly notifying me of new comments. Would it be a nice comment? Would it be someone writing an essay about why they do not want me to touch them on a plane? Would it be some concern-troll telling me that I should lose weight if I want to fly more comfortably? Would it just be another iteration of the “fat bitch” comment? SO MUCH ANXIETY! I tried to keep up, but I couldn’t.
And then I got the flu. It was bad. On Valentine’s Day, I threw up all over my husband and gave him the flu. We were both so sick my mother-in-law had to drive three hours to take care of us. If I had been a baby, I probably would have died. I was out of work and completely incapable of doing anything but drinking Gatorade and sleeping for a week. It took about a month for me to feel fully better.
So, that’s where I’ve been. But, hey, I also got a lot of new followers and some really lovely comments from the whole thing, I don’t have the flu anymore, so things are great! And if you’re new, HEY THERE.
Back to business! This week, we’re diving into size accessibility, how to look the part of Badass Fat Professional, and how to do fitness when your knees are fighting against you.
I have a question. I’m not sure if you’ve touched on this yet but how do you go to a concert or theater event if you know you probably won’t be able to fit in the seat? I’m shaped like a pear so most of my fat is on my butt, thighs, and hips. My husband bought me tickets to Shawn Mendes for later this summer and theater tickets in the spring. I am so excited to go to both but also dreading it. Since stopping dieting almost a year ago I’ve gained a lot of weight. I’m 6 foot tall and right around 330 pounds. While those aren’t benchmarks to compare and I don’t look at them as negative, I’m just giving you an idea of my size.
A few years ago, my husband and I went to a Paul McCartney concert. We shelled out big bucks for this concert, because I love Paul McCartney and The Beatles, and I wanted to be in the same room as a Beatle just once in my life. Sir Paul is 76. I mean, he’s healthy as a horse by all accounts, but who knows when another chance to be in the same room as a Beatle would present itself? I don’t know what Ringo is up to these days, so this was my chance and I took it. Tickets were selling out fast. I grabbed tickets for two of the last seats that were together (and priced under a million dollars.) I didn’t look at the seating chart, I just pounced on the tickets. This turned out to be a mistake.
The venue was in an arena. Our seats were nosebleed seats. I just barely fit into my tiny seat, which was in the middle of the row. And when I say I “fit,” I mean that I could just squish myself into it and I was in pain the whole entire night. I was supremely uncomfortable. And I would have just stood and rocked out, but these seats were so far back and the drop was so steep that my fear of heights just wouldn’t let me do it. So I sat, all night, in a very expensive seat that left me with bruises on my hips and thighs.
So, I learned my lesson. And I’ve gotten smarter. Here’s what I do now:
Research. You can actually find a surprising amount of information about venues online! Start by Googling. Check the venue’s website. You may even be able to find videos of the seats on YouTube. (Seriously!)
Check out accessibility apps. Apps like AllGo and Ample aim to solve this problem by providing reviews from other fat folx who’ve been to a spot and can let you know whether it’s fat-friendly or not. These apps are pretty limited at this point (AllGo is in beta), so whether they’re helpful or not depends on where you’re located. But it’s worth giving it a shot! (Also, maybe leave a review after the concert to help these apps be more helpful.)
Check online reviews. While they’re not designed for this purpose, sometimes Yelp and Google reviews can provide information about size accessibility, sort of by accident in most cases. Scan the reviews to see if there’s any relevant information about the seating situation.
Crowdsource. If you’re part of any local fat-friendly groups online, ask the group! You can also just ask your friends: “Hey, has anyone been to this venue? What’s the seating situation like?” If the venue is in your town, you might be able to pick the brains of pals who have been there before. I know some people can feel awkward or embarrassed about this, but there’s no need to be. If anyone gives you guff or makes fun, eat them. CHOMP.
Check the seating chart before purchasing tickets. Okay, since your husband already purchased these tickets, this may not be helpful to you at this point. I’ve found that aisle seats are generally more comfortable for me, and I also prefer seats at the front of the section because they usually have much more leg room. I absolutely do not buy tickets without checking the seating chart and making sure the seats are where I want them.
Talk to the venue. This falls into the But It’s So Awkward! category, but it’s really not: You’re a paying customer. You have a question about their seats. So, they should provide answers, and they’re usually able to. You can email if you’re not comfortable calling. Just say, “Hi there, I have tickets to [CONCERT], and I’m wondering how big the seats are? Do the arm rests lift up? Is there a solid barrier between seats, or is there a space? Do you have accommodations for customers if the seats are too small? Any help you can provide is much appreciated!” You should be able to get your final answer this way. (And you may be surprised — some venues will happily put you in the accessible section with a chair if you’re not able to be comfortable in your seat.)
These things usually help me feel less anxious, because I know what I’m walking into. That said, if you get there and find that you don’t fit, what do you do?
Well, as a fellow married gal, I say: Invade your husband’s space. I do this all the time to my husband if seats are small, and he doesn’t mind. I mean, he married me, and routinely invades my space on the couch, so it’d be ridiculous for him to get huffy with me for spilling into his seat. And I figure, if I’m going to spill into someone’s seat, it might as well be the man who is legally bound to me instead of a stranger. I’d also recommend voicing your concerns about this to him. Having a partner who knows what you’re up against and how anxious you are about it can be a huge help in these situations, because you’ll be able to talk to him about what you’re feeling, and he can help you navigate the concert experience so it’s less stressful for you. (And if you’re reading and not going with a spouse or partner, the same thing applies to friends and family! Tell them what’s going on. In most cases, your people will step up and do what they can to help out.)
Then, I’d find an usher or ask to speak to an employee, if the seat is just too small or uncomfortable for you. They may be able to work something out so you can enjoy the show.
And the good news is that, at concerts, a lot of people just end up standing anyway. So, if you’re able to do so, just stand. Dance! Enjoy yourself! And, if the seats are really shitty and uncomfortable, I recommend writing an email or letter with feedback to the venue to let them know what your experience was. Sometimes businesses just don’t think of size accessibility, so it’s helpful when people give them feedback. Some venues don’t care. Some venues might go to their team and start working on plans to make their venue more accessible, or at least devise options for customers in bigger bodies.
The one thing you SHOULD NOT DO is regard a small seat as your own personal failing or beat yourself up about it. It’s not your body’s fault that a seat is too small; it’s the seat’s fault, and the business’ fault for not accommodating customers. And you’re not the only one: sometimes seats are just fucking small. At the Paul McCartney concert, my husband was uncomfortable too, and he’s not remotely fat. The seats were small, for everyone. They were not built for comfort, they were built for squeezing as many bodies as possible into the space. So, find out what you can before the concert to quell your anxiety, go in problem-solving mode (instead of oh-god-what-if-I-don’t-fit mode), and do your damndest to have a good time.
Hi Fluffy Kitten Party! I love your blog, especially your piece about diet culture in the office. I’m writing because I just got my first job in a “business professional” office, and I’m freaking out because I have nothing to wear. The women in my office are very stylish, and I just feel like a big messy lump. There don’t seem to be many options for plus-size office wear that suit my style and my budget. How do I go about building the wardrobe I need so I can fit in at my new job?
Congratulations on your new job!
I can relate: I worked in a big, huge office for years with a business professional dress code and fashionistas all around me. And we talk about weight discrimination preventing fat people from getting jobs a lot, but there’s often more subtle ways weight bias creeps in even after you’ve gotten the job. Part of office culture is fitting in and looking the part. But when your clothing options are slim, and super overpriced, it can be hard to compete with people who can find perfectly professional-looking clothes off the rack at any store in the mall. And when people generally perceive fat people as lazy, unintelligent, less competent, and sloppy, it’s something you’ve got to fight against at the office. You need to work harder and spend more just to get to the middle, where your thin counterparts start out.
Here’s how I survived:
Create your own uniform. This sounds awful, doesn’t it? But before I skipped the business professional workplace for somewhere that let me wear jeans every day, I had a uniform: gray or black pants, dressy top or sweater, cardigan, sensible flats. This made it a lot easier for me to build up a wardrobe, when I had an idea of what I needed on a daily basis. I started out with a few outfits, and added more pieces as I could.
Invest in a few staple pieces. So, on “What Not to Wear,” they talked a lot about “investment pieces.” These were usually striking, expensive pieces of clothing like a blazer, jacket, skirt, or pants. But we’re not talking about that here, because you’re on a budget, and let’s face it: plus-size clothing is often cheaply made and not meant to last more than six months. What I’m talking about here are a few pieces you can build your wardrobe around. My business professional wardrobe started with two pieces of dressy pants: a gray pair, and a black pair. I got them both on sale at Lane Bryant. I like pants, personally, because they’re nondescript. No one is paying close enough attention to your plain ass pair of black pants to notice, “Hey, didn’t you wear those on Monday?” But a skirt with a pattern or a dress? People may take notice. So, get a couple of dressy pieces of office-appropriate pants, and start there. Check what’s on clearance at Lane Bryant and Torrid — you may be able to get a few pairs of pants on clearance for a steal. I found that tops were something I could find more easily, and generally cost less, so I had some pants as staples and rotated tops and cardigans.
Work with what you’ve got. I was able to repurpose a bunch of stuff already in my wardrobe: I had cardigans and sweaters. Even the plainest of plain camisoles can be incorporated into a business professional outfit. (Cami + cardigan + aforementioned pants? DONE!) Take a look at what’s already in your closet and see what can be dressed up.
Accessorize! You know what almost always fits? Accessories. Adding some nice, dressy touches like a long necklace, a bracelet, some earrings, whatever floats your boat, can be a great way to dress up your work wear and add a little bit of your own style into a starter work wardrobe.
In terms of stores, I tended to shop at: Torrid (carries 12-30, though the higher up on the spectrum you are, the fewer options there are, especially in-store), Lane Bryant (carries up to 32, a little bit more on the spendy side but good for work stuff), Woman Within (carries sizes 12-42, great for basics), and Dress Barn Woman (carries sizes 14-24). I also lived in SWAK Designs (14-36) Pretty Camis for a period of time. Modcloth also has cute sweaters and cardigans and dressy tops (they go up to a 4x, which is about a 24). But don’t be afraid to check your local thrift shops, plus-size clothing exchanges in your area, and so on. If you’ve got a little more budget, Eloquii is a great place to find classy work-friendly attire.
I’m not really sure what size you are, but I’m answering from the perspective of a mid-fat, meaning I can find clothing in most plus-size stores. But infinifats (or, people above a size 30 or 32) are seriously underserved — if anyone has any hot tips on stores with workwear for sizes 30 and above, please let me know in the comments!
I am hoping you can help me out. I saw you mention having a bad knee and was wondering if you could recommend some gentle exercises for me? I am looking to up my physical activity level without injuring myself (I have a few chronic pain issues but my knees and ankles are the weakest joints in my body). I’m scared of gyms and people who make fitness their life, like trainers, because of the potential fat shaming so I’m not real sure where to go to get advice on it. Hopefully you can help me out!
Thanks so much,
Struggling in South Carolina
I’ll be honest here: I’m still figuring this part out for myself. I do have bad knees — and you probably know this all too well, but here’s what that means in terms of fitness. When I do something my knees disagree with, I will hear a startling crunch. And sometimes I’ll feel a sharp pain radiate from my problematic knee all the way up my groin. Sometimes strenuous exercise means I can’t walk without pain for the better part of a week. Sometimes I get crazy cramps that go from my knee all the way to my crotch that leave me screaming and seeing stars. So, exercise can be fraught for me.
Often, people misunderstand what people who live with injuries and bad joints and chronic pain mean when they say they have trouble exercising. It’s not often a problem that can be solved with exercise. You cannot plank and Jazzercise your way to the other side. It hurts. It can cause you harm. Lots of personal trainers don’t understand this, and just assume “you need to build up your endurance and strength!” and push you when your joints are screaming at you and your pain is through the roof, so I understand your trepidation with them. I’ve worked with those trainers, they suck.
First, I’d encourage you to see if physical therapy is something that’s covered by your insurance and doable for you, time-wise and financially. A physical therapist can help you find exercises that work for your chronic pain, knees and ankles.
But other than that, here’s what I recommend, and what I am doing (with varying degrees of success): Mentally separate “physical activity” with “gyms and working out and sweating and feeling terrible.” When you stop thinking of “physical activity” as something you do in a gym, you can find all sorts of opportunities to be more physically active.
One of my favorite physical activities is walking. Not power-walking, not jogging or running. Just walking. I have a dog. He’s really cute, and he likes to go on walks. So we walk. (And he pulls, so walking him is a full-body workout. My core is engaged.)
Sometimes I’ll take a break while he takes a deuce, or sniffs a really interesting patch of grass, and sometimes we take a break just because my knee hurts and I need it. I work from home three days a week, and when I do, I take a little break from my work and we go outside for a walk. Did you know that walking for just 30 minutes a day can be hugely beneficial to your health? (That article is not HAES-friendly, but few fitness articles are. I tried to find one, I promise!) Some days we walk more, some days we walk less, depending on how my knees are feeling that day. Some days, my husband does most of the walking if my knee is really bugging me. But walking is low-impact, free, does not require a gym membership or trainer, and can be great for your overall health and fitness.
I don’t just walk with my dog. If I’m having a good day, I’ll take a little walk on my lunch break at work, and walk to a cafe nearby. Sometimes, if it’s rainy and/or cold, I’ll walk on the treadmill I have in my house. (I know treadmills are expensive as hell — we got one for free from a family member who never used theirs.) To some people, walking on a treadmill is boring. For me, I find it relaxing. I have a little TV I can turn on while I walk, adjust the speed and incline as needed, and just zone out for a little bit.
Walking may be harder for you because of your ankles, but listen: I am not talking about fast-walking. Walk at a pace you are comfortable with. If you need to take a break, take one. If you need to stop, stop. If your knees and ankles are killing you one day, don’t walk beyond what is necessary to live your life. If a walking stick might help, use it. But fitness can honestly be as simple as, “Hey! It’s nice out, how about going for a walk?” (And make sure you have good shoes with arch and ankle support! Walking is painful in bad shoes.)
And I realize there’s privilege in this. I used to live in a neighborhood where walking outside wasn’t 100% safe. I’ve also lived in places where there were no sidewalks, where there were dangerous busy streets, or where I’d encounter street harassment pretty consistently. I often walked around on my lunch break at work, because it was an isolated campus with lots of pretty trees and paths (and a security guard). So, make it work, if you want to walk, and you can find a way to do it safely.
In the summer, I’ll jump at any opportunity to swim. Water is super awesome for people with joint problems to exercise in — in addition to being fun. I don’t have a gym with a pool nearby, just a neighbor with a pool. But don’t let swimsuit anxiety keep you from a community or gym pool! Look for water aerobics. Apparently there is even WATER ZUMBA. (Which sounds weird, but I also don’t understand what Zumba is.) People taking these classes usually have joint problems of their own, or are on the older side, so it’s not like walking onto Muscle Beach with a bunch of supermodels. You’ll be fine. No one will be staring at you in your swimsuit, promise.
Other people have recommended yoga to me more times than I can count. Personally, even the gentlest yoga does not feel gentle for me. It makes my knees crackle and pop and I don’t really enjoy it. But you could give chair yoga a try if it’s something that interests you! Amber Karnes is a body-positive yoga instructor with a chair yoga course available online, and you can find free videos on YouTube to see if it’s for you.
The important thing here is that you should focus on doing things that feel enjoyable and beneficial. If you hate something, you won’t do it. If you are miserable every second of Orange Theory, you will never go. You don’t need to push yourself. You don’t need to do anything that causes you pain. You can become more fit and more active in increments — it doesn’t need to be a big overhaul, or even a new dedication to one activity. It could mean that, this weekend, you go on a little walk with a friend at a local park. Next weekend, you go swimming. And the weekend after that, you try a chair yoga video on YouTube.
And it goes without saying that fitness and exercise are not requirements. If you’re not in a place where you can think about these things, don’t. If you are not up to it a particular day, week, or even month, it’s okay.
Got questions? Send them to firstname.lastname@example.org!
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.
Since August, I’ve been working pretty much nonstop. And when I say nonstop, I mean that I’ve had several days where I have been online working for 24 hours or more. This has been a year where I’ve been stretching professionally, managing more than I ever have. And it’s good! But it’s also exhausting.
And in the midst of my work frenzy, I got the news that my maternal grandmother wasn’t doing well. She was basically a second mother to me throughout most of my life, stepping in as a surrogate parent and caretaker after my father died before my first birthday. I lived with her off-and-on in my teenage years and twenties; her home was always a safe place to land. And she’d hadn’t been doing well for awhile. She suffered from Alzheimer’s and had been living in a memory care facility for a few years. Her health was frail — she had COPD, was confined to a wheelchair after breaking her hip, and was light as a feather and refusing to eat. So, I knew it was coming, and on some level, I felt that I had grieved her loss for years. That’s how dementia works. You have a long time to get used to the idea of losing someone, because it slowly takes them from you.
But when she died, it hit me like a ton of bricks. I was stunned by the depth of my own grief. I spoke at her funeral; I said my goodbyes to her. And I had a whole three days to grieve before going right back into the chaos of work.
So, when my husband texted me to ask if I wanted to go to Orlando with him for a conference for a week, I nearly cried from excitement. This year has been a long, hard slog. I needed a damn break. And we decided to go to Walt Disney World after his conference, because I also needed a little escapism. And what the hell is Disney if not a magical escape from the real world?
Here’s something I haven’t told lots of people: for most of my adult life, I have wanted nothing more than to travel, but I have been so terrified of flying and not fitting into airplane seats and generally just not fitting places that it’s held me back. Reading about other fat people’s travel experiences has made me more willing to get out there and travel when the opportunity presents itself. Disney World isn’t exactly an amazing travelogue but I wanted to write this so that if you have an upcoming trip to Disney, or have always wanted to go to Disney, or just want to collect more data on traveling while fat, I want to help.
Preparing for Walt Disney World
I had never been to Walt Disney World as a kid. A lot of my friends went, but that was just never in the budget for my family. (And seeing how expensive it is? Holy hell, do I understand why.) My first real theme park experience was on my honeymoon, at Universal Studios in Orlando. And while I loved The Wizarding World of Harry Potter, it was also kind of a bummer of an experience.
Universal Studios really wasn’t built for people like me. I wear size 26 pants. I carry a lot of weight in my thighs, hips, and tummy. And, let me tell you, I could not fit on one single ride at The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. That was the whole reason we had chosen Universal Studios for our honeymoon, to see The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. I expected it, but when I walked into Diagon Alley and saw the test seat for Escape from Gringotts, I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll fit!” I did not fit in the test seat. I did not fit on any of the Harry Potter rides. I got on exactly one ride during my whole week at Universal Studios, which was the old Jurassic Park ride. I had fun, but it was also frustrating — the main centerpiece of The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is the ride through Hogwarts, and I paid the same ticket price as everyone else but couldn’t even enjoy it. Because I was not considered when it was built. I felt unwelcome. I felt like an afterthought.
So, after my disappointing experience at Universal, I was a little nervous about Disney World. I had read that Disney parks are generally much more accommodating than Universal, but I wanted to be prepared. I did not want to be taken off guard and end up crying at a busy theme park with people all around because I couldn’t fit on a ride.
I watched a lot of YouTube videos to get a feel for which rides were possibilities for me. Now, I am not much a fan of roller coasters and thrill rides. I have a mild fear of heights and a major fear of falling. There are tons of videos about Disney. This one is a good one:
There are also a ton of videos of the rides at Disney. These are basically walkthroughs that take you through the rides so you can get a feel for whether you’d be interested in a ride, which you can search for based on which parks you’re planning on visiting.
I felt pretty confident about Disney. I did my homework, and I had a short list of rides I wanted to try. I didn’t understand exactly how overwhelming Disney is before going, but if you’ve never been to Disney World before, Disney is fucking huge. So it’s worth doing your homework to figure out where you want to go and what you’d like to try.
The first park we tried was Magic Kingdom. We’d bought tickets for Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas Party. I was on the fence about whether to even go to Magic Kingdom, because it seemed like it was a little on the juvenile side, but oh man, am I glad I went.
Mickey’s Very Merry Christmas party was a ticketed event, so the park was closed to anyone who didn’t have a ticket. There was a large crowd, but far fewer people than there would be during the day. And, overall, this was one of my favorite experiences at Walt Disney World.
Mad Tea Party
I hadn’t specifically planned on riding the Mad Tea Party, but we stumbled across it while walking through the park. This is the famous spinning-teacup ride; it’s located in the Fantasyland area of Magic Kingdom. And I decided it was a good test run for the rides at Disney. There was hardly any line, so it wouldn’t be a huge deal if I didn’t fit.
I watched families with people of all sizes go on the ride with no issue. As I was getting in line, I asked the cast member managing the line, “Um, do you think I’ll fit?” She looked at me, a little surprised, and said, “Of course!”
And, lo, I fit! Inside the teacup is basically a curved bench seat, with a steering wheel attached to a pole in the middle, which is how you make the teacup spin. It was a little tight (again, I carry a lot of weight in my middle) but I fit comfortably and we were still able to spin our teacup without any issue. If I had been about 30lbs larger, or carried more weight in my stomach, I probably would have had an issue fitting comfortably.
Getting into and exiting the teacup is easy — there are no stairs to climb, the spinning platform is fully stopped when you’re getting on and off the ride. If you can step into a shower-tub combo, you can get into this ride.
I was feeling hopeful about Disney after this ride! It was quick and simple but fun and, honestly, I was just thrilled I could fit on a ride. I have been crammed inside booths at restaurants that were less comfortable that the teacup.
The Haunted Mansion
After we had dinner at Be Our Guest (the Beauty and the Beast-themed restaurant), we tried The Haunted Mansion because, incredibly, the wait was five minutes. We literally just walked right into it. (This was worth the price for the Christmas party alone.)
The ride starts with a “stretched room” (which is an elevator, but with a spooky story). The ride itself had a pod that will seat two adults or an adult and several children with room to spare. It’s got a bench seat with a lap bar, and that’s it. My husband is an average-sized guy and we were comfortable in our seat; the lap bar is pretty generous and I had no trouble getting it into place. If you need more space, width-wise, you could simply ride by yourself.
The only real challenge with Haunted Mansion is that the seats are on a moving belt, so the floor is moving while you’re trying to get situated. They don’t stop. And it actually moves fairly fast, and there’s not much to grab onto while you’re walking. So, if you have mobility issues, this could be a stumbling block for you.
The ride itself is a lot of fun — you basically just move through the mansion, and in terms of motion, it’s a very tame ride. It’s all about the effects, which are older, but still worlds ahead of anything I saw at Universal Studios.
Prince Charming Regal Carousel
We rode this in Fantasyland on our way out of the park. And, in terms of attractions, a carousel is not really that exciting. But, maybe it’s just me, there’s just something magical about a damn carousel. And this is a very nice one.
There’s lots of different heights to choose from on this carousel. Some of the horses are actually kind of huge, and depending on where the gears of the carousel are when it stops, you could end up having to get down from a fair height. I have arthritis in one of my knees, so I opted for one of the smaller horses toward the center of the carousel, mildly nervous about choosing one that was small. Would I break it? Would the horse just not move? Would I break the whole damn carousel and ruin the magic for everyone?
But nope. It held me just fine. It carousel-ed. It did not miss a beat.
Overall Impressions of Magic Kingdom
I’m really not a “Disney person.” I like plenty of Disney movies, sure. But I’ve never been super into Disney. And I wasn’t sure if Magic Kingdom was really for me. It’s definitely the most kid-centric park at Walt Disney World. But I’m so glad we went, because fucking hell, it’s actually is magical.
I mean look at this shit:
If you happen to go to Disney in December, the Christmas stuff is well worth the price of entry. Disney knows how to do Christmas, man. I am 35 and cynical and generally kind of grumpy. And I went to the Christmas parade and left REALLY STOKED about Santa Claus.
One important thing to note about Magic Kingdom: If you have mobility problems, getting into the park might be a little tricky. Magic Kingdom is not the biggest Disney park, and it was perfectly fine for me to walk, but getting into the park was kind of a thing. You’ve got to walk about a mile before you’re even in Magic Kingdom. We used a ride-sharing app to get from our hotel to the park, where there was a special drop-off lane about as close as you can get to the entrance. Then, you’ve got to walk to a security checkpoint where they go through any bags you have, and scan your park pass. And then you have to either board the monorail or get on the ferry to go to Magic Kingdom. (I recommend the ferry, though there is limited room to sit — so if you need to sit, you should ride the monorail. The monorail forces you to walk uphill to get on it, by the way.) And once you’re off, you’ve got to walk from your mode of transportation to another entrance.
For me, it was not prohibitive, but it was a lot of walking. There are motorized scooters available, but if memory serves, you rent them after the monorail or ferry, right at the proper entrance to the park. So you’ll have to walk a fair amount just to rent a scooter, or consider renting one from an outside company, should you need one. The park itself isn’t huge and is nicely walkable, but it could present some challenges to people with mobility issues or difficulty walking for long periods of time. There are some benches, but not a ton of places to sit and rest, and those might be in even shorter supply when the park is very busy.
The day we went to Hollywood Studios, it rained off and on. Of the three parks we visited at Walk Disney World (Magic Kingdom, Hollywood Studios, and Epcot), this was probably my least favorite. There was nothing wrong with it, it just felt a lot more like Universal Studios to me. There was less here I was interested in.
We rode one ride at Hollywood Studios: Alien Swirling Saucers in Toy Story Land.
Toy Story Land is the newest area of Hollywood Studios, and it’s smaller than I expected but really well-done. The attention to detail is amazing.
Alien Swirling Saucers
This is a short ride not unlike the Mad Tea Party ride: you sit in a space ship and are whipped around a track, although unlike the teacups, you have no ability to steer and it whips you around much faster. The wait was about 30 minutes for this ride, and it was fun!
It has bench seats that comfortably seat two adults. There’s no lap bar, but it does have a seatbelt you must fasten before the ride begins. The seatbelt is almost comically huge. It goes on for miles and miles. I was nervous about the seatbelt, but we could have strapped another fat person in our spaceship with us, because it was enormous. You tighten it, and you’re good to go. Listen: You will be able to fit on this ride.
Tower of Terror
Tower of Terror was the one ride I really wanted to go on. I love “The Twilight Zone.” And I like big drops. This is a ride with a big drop where you don’t have to go up a terrible incline and fear for your life in order to experience the drop. But, alas, we didn’t get to try Tower of Terror because the wait time was 2 hours + the whole day we were at Hollywood Studios.
But doesn’t it look pretty all lit up for Christmas?
A lot of experienced Disney folks told me about Fast Passes before I went on this trip. And I didn’t bother with it because I didn’t even know if I would fit on any of the rides. But, if you want to ride the Tower of Terror, get a Fast Pass. There are kiosks in the parks where you can reserve them, and you can also do it through the app. I missed the one thing I really, really wanted to do because I didn’t think about Fast Passes, so don’t be like me. Get Fast Passes for the rides you know want to try.
Since I didn’t ride it, I can’t say anything about riding it, but my understanding is that it has bench seating and a seatbelt. That’s it. If the other seatbelts I encountered at Disney are any indication, most people will be absolutely fine on this ride.
Epcot has Spaceship Earth, sure, but Epcot is not really about rides. It’s about eating. And drinking. And also buying things. (There are SO MANY THINGS to buy.)
If you’ve never been to Epcot, you basically walk in a loop “around the world.” (In Walt Disney World, “the world” is mostly European — France is huge, Russia does not exist, and all of Africa is represented in Morocco and vaguely African little outpost where you can buy Lion King merchandise.)
An Unexpected Ride at Epcot
So, at Hollywood Studios the day before, I rolled my ankle. I woke up the morning we went to Epcot, tried to stand up from the bed to use the bathroom, and screamed. My ankle was just… done. It was screaming at me and I could barely walk. But I’d been looking forward to Epcot, it was the park I was most excited to visit.
My husband and I talked about renting a motorized scooter. I hesitated, because I am stubborn and wanted to just tough it out (and I could walk, just not quickly or without pain), but my ankle was on fire and I didn’t want to miss out on Epcot. When I thought about the fact that we’d have to walk through the airport the following day, I decided to give my ankle a rest and rent a motorized scooter to zoom between countries.
Motorized Scooter Rental at Disney World
You can find the motorized scooter rental station at the front of most parks. (You can also rent wheelchairs.) They cost $50 for one day, with a $20 deposit they’ll refund when you return the scooter. (That’s $70 total.)
The weight limit on the Disney website says 450lbs, while the actual scooter itself said 500lbs. When you rent the scooter, you’re given a name tag for the front of the scooter, and a key. You can adjust the speed, and it actually goes pretty fast, though it struggles quite a bit on hills. You use hand controls to move; your right hand has a lever that makes it go forward, the left hand goes in reverse. There are no brakes. (This should be mentioned to all the kids and adults who tried to zip in front of me while I was on the scooter and were almost road kill.)
I’ll be honest here: Epcot is a lot of walking. I was so glad I rented that scooter because I would not have been able to enjoy Epcot without it. Disney is general is a ton of walking and, if you’re doing multiple parks in a row over the course of a few days, you may have aches and pains and muscle strains and your feet might just plain hurt. Don’t be afraid to rent a scooter if you’re in pain or need to take it easy.
What I did was used my scooter to get between the different countries. When I got to a new country, I simply parked the scooter and walked around the country. Epcot is a place where enjoying the whole park on a scooter is tricky; there are lots of alleys and narrow passages and shops you’ll have a hard time navigating on a scooter. So, accessibility in that regard is somewhat low — if you need to scoot everywhere, you’ll probably have a hard time with most of the restaurants and miss out on some of the awesome things there are to do there. But, if you’re able to walk short distances, or be on your feet for 15-20 minutes at a stretch, a scooter is a great option if you’ve got mobility issues or are just in pain (or have a rolled ankle.)
Walt Disney World Tips for Plus-Size People
Wear comfortable shoes
This is a common piece of advice, but seriously: WEAR COMFORTABLE SHOES. Nice, supportive, well-made shoes. You will be walking at Disney. A lot. It may feel, at times, like all you do is walk. The few moments you’re sitting down on a ride may feel like pure bliss because you will be on your feet so much. So good shoes are absolutely essential.
If you do get new shoes for Disney, I would recommend making sure you break them in well before your trip. The middle of Magic Kingdom is not a great place to realize your shoes pinch your toes, or to develop a blister on the back of your heel.
You will see people walking the park in flip-flops or ballet flats. I even saw a few women walking around in high heels. Don’t do this; you’ll fuck up your feet, and you will be sad.
Wear comfortable clothes
So, you may be tempted to get cute with your clothes here. Maybe you’re into Disneybounding. Cool! But I have no idea how people do Disney in dresses and skirts and nice clothes.
Wear loose-fitting, comfortable, lightweight clothes. I only packed jeans because I am stupid, and you know what? I thought about the leggings and yoga pants I own but did not pack every single day I was there. Because things that are mildly uncomfortable about your clothing when you’re at the office or having dinner are amplified at Disney. I actually got a blister on my inner thigh because the pair of jeans I wore one day had a crotch that was a hair too low and my thighs rubbed against the seam all day as I walked through the park. THAT IS A THING THAT HAPPENED.
Put your comfort before the Instagrammable shots of you outside of the magic castle, perfectly made-up and in a cute Disney-themed dress. Or, hell, pack that shit in a backpack, change into it in a bathroom, get the shot, and get back into your yoga pants as soon as possible. Think of what you’d wear to the gym, and plan on wearing that most of the day.
Carry a Backpack
I bought this little purple nylon backpack specifically for Disney and it was the best $20.99 I have ever spent. Fussing around with a purse or messenger bag is going to be annoying as hell at Disney. This little guy held my phone, my pass, my wallet, and most of my husband’s items, plus it had two side pockets for water bottles. Which brings me to…
Bring a Lightweight Water Bottle
We probably spent around $60 just in water at Disney. On average, a bottle of water is $6. I just didn’t think about this, and we paid for it, literally. Besides being more eco-friendly, it’s just more economical. Fill it up before you head out, and use the water fountains to refill throughout the day. (And Florida, even in December, is hot. So, if you’re heading to Disney in a warmer month, this is especially important.)
Buy This Thigh-Saving Miracle Cream
Florida is humid. Even in December, it was reasonably cool (the highest temperature while we were there was 80 degrees), but it was muggy. And you’re walking. (Have I mentioned that Disney is a lot of walking?) So you’ll probably get a little sweaty. And for some of us that means chafing. This Monistat Care Chafing Relief Power Gel is amazing and will prevent the chafe, wherever you may get it. I don’t do affiliate links or any advertising on my blog so I am telling you this simply because I love this stuff, and want to save you from chafing, because it is the worst.
Be Realistic About Your Fitness Level
Okay, if I haven’t been 100% clear about this, DISNEY WORLD REQUIRES A LOT OF WALKING. I thought I knew that before going, but I did not fully understand it until I walked three of the parks. It’s a lot. And if you’re like me, and work a sedentary desk job and walk on a treadmill a few times a week, you might struggle at Disney. Because, ONCE AGAIN, it is a fuckton of walking.
My phone records my steps (which I just haven’t taken the time to figure out how to stop it from doing that — I didn’t know Samsung Health was tracking my steps until one day out of the blue it notified me I’d hit a “fitness goal” I had never set.) This is what one day of Disney looked like for me:
There are a few ways to make the struggle a little less real if you’re not the sort of person to walk five miles in an average day:
Take frequent breaks. There’s not a ton of room to slow down and sit around at Disney (they want you moving, and buying things, of course) but don’t be afraid to just sit the fuck down and chill out if you need to. Find a curb. Find a step. Buy a soda and sit at a table at a restaurant with counter-service. Do what you’ve got to do. If you push yourself too hard, you’ll be miserable, and that is no way to vacation.
Plan for “off” days. If you’re staying in Orlando for a week, try to schedule some park-free days for yourself. Rest your feet. Go float in the pool. Lounge in your hotel bed. Relax. Give your poor feet a break. Three parks in three days was a lot for me, and I wish I’d been able to schedule a “break” day in between days 2 & 3. We had a couple of “break” days on our honeymoon at Universal and it made the trip itself and the parks so much more enjoyable.
Make a reservation at a park restaurant in the middle of the park. So, this was an intentional strategy of mine: Disney park restaurants are pretty much reservation-only. I checked out the maps and made reservations at restaurants toward the middle of the park. That way, we got there, saw half the park, did a fair bit of walking (with a goal — find the restaurant), and got time to sit down, rest and refuel before tackling the rest of the park. It was a nice little planned break that made the treks much easier.
Work up to it, if you’re so inclined. If you know you have a Disney trip coming up, you can spend the months or weeks beforehand building up your stamina. If you have a treadmill, walk on it a little more often. If you’re able to take a walk outside, do that as often as you can. Go to a local park and walk around for a few hours on a weekend. Plan a day in your nearest city walking around. It can be a real shock to your system to go from sitting at a desk eight hours a day to walking five miles in one day (which is what I did), so with a little planning and gumption, you can work up to being a little more fit for your Disney trip. This isn’t about weight loss, it’s just about getting your feet and body used to walking and standing for long stretches of time, because you will have to do that at Disney World. (As a bonus, you can also break in any new shoes you buy for the trip this way.)
If you’re in pain, don’t be afraid of asking for accommodation (or renting a scooter). I’m stubborn as hell and was determined to push myself at Disney, but my ankle had other plans. That scooter I rented at Epcot allowed me to enjoy the park and rest my ankle so it could heal and I’d be ready for the death march through the airport the following day. It was hard, and felt a little bit like admitting defeat, but it was so worth doing. If you’re in pain, take steps to make yourself more comfortable. If your feet or ankles or back are screaming at you, give them a rest. There’s no shame in it. And you’ll see LOTS of people using scooters at Disney, for all sorts of reasons, and if you need it and it will make your trip more enjoyable, don’t hesitate. Do what you have to do.
Size Accommodation at Walt Disney World
I was very pleasantly surprised at how accommodating the rides at Walt Disney World were. I was prepared to not fit on most rides but I comfortably fit on every ride I tried to go on. Disney is less about thrill rides and more about experiences, so the seats on rides are generally much less restrictive than places like Universal Studios that focus on fast-paced thrill rides and roller coasters.
I have gotten into lots of online discussions with people who claim that it’s just impossible to accommodate fat people on rides at theme parks… but Walt Disney World shows that isn’t true at all. They offer a variety of different kinds of rides, and they also have larger seats toward the back of many rides. The cast members are super helpful and kind if you ask about accommodation. The seatbelts I encountered went on for miles and miles. And what kills me is that many of the rides at Walt Disney World are fairly old — whereas Universal Studios has gotten feedback for years about making their rides more size-inclusive, and they say, “Oh sure, we’ll keep that in mind for future rides,” and yet The Wizarding World of Harry Potter is full of rides that aren’t built to accommodate fat people (or very tall people either, for that matter). Disney shows it’s possible to create rides that children and adults of all sizes can enjoy.
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.
I’m normally not the sort of person to get emotional about celebrity deaths. It’s not that I don’t care, I just have a limited reserve of emotional energy to expend on people I don’t know. But I woke up to the news that Anthony Bourdain died this morning in an apparent suicide. And this one hurts.
I probably wasn’t the intended audience for “No Reservations.” I was a young vegan working at an animal shelter when it premiered. I wasn’t much of a traveler or a rebel. But “No Reservations” struck a chord with me, and I was enthralled. In many ways, watching “No Reservations” was the first step in being free from my fear of food.
On “No Reservations,” he did a deep dive into the food and culture of a country or region. He ate at fine dining restaurants and on the street, and he did not elevate one over the other. He had equal reverence for the finest sushi in the world and the most humble street food. He saw art and beauty in all of it. He understood that both told a story – the story of the place where he was eating the food, the story of the person making it, and the story of how he and whomever he was eating with came to be eating that particular food at that particular spot.
When I discovered Anthony Bourdain, I was frankly terrified of food. I enjoyed food, but had learned that my enjoyment of food was inappropriate and too much. I joined Weight Watchers. I did not eat anything that did not have nutritional information printed on the package, or that could not be found in my little book of Points that I bought through Weight Watchers. (This was before apps allowed you to plug in any food and get the Points value. I had to carry around a book and little Weight Watchers Points calculator at all times.) I was also vegan, for ethical reasons. And I was struggling to afford to pay my bills. So, when I was eating, certain things were on my mind. How many calories are in this? How much fiber? How much fat? Does this have animal ingredients? Was this humanely and sustainably produced? Can I afford this? Will this throw off my day and/or week and prevent me for losing weight? Never did it occur to me to ask myself a simple question: Will I enjoy this?
I had internalized the idea that enjoying food was a shameful, secretive thing. I agonized over food. One time, I forced myself to eat five stalks of celery because it was a zero-Point food and I was hungry but had reached my daily Points limit and didn’t want to use my “weekly” Points and I nearly threw up because I absolutely hate raw celery. That is a picture of my relationship with food at that stage, in a nutshell. Pleasure was never part of the equation. The foods that gave me pleasure (big heaping plates of pasta, potatoes drenched in cheese, cakes and cookies and pastries, all the beautiful carbohydrates) were forbidden, and they were Bad for Me. They would make me gain weight, and losing weight was my only concern. I actively avoided pleasure. Each night, my dinner was a dry-as-hell Morningstar Farms black bean burger topped with carefully measured dollops of barbecue sauce or vegan mayonnaise on a thin, flavorless, low-carb bun. This was how I ate. I extracted zero pleasure from food. I was a food ascetic. I was devoted to austerity with food, because it was so dangerous. I feared that if I felt joy when eating, if I ate the thing I actually wanted to eat, it would be a slippery slope that surely ended with me hoovering Cheetos and ice cream in a fugue state.
Anthony Bourdain also agreed that food was dangerous, but he embraced it. In his first published piece for The New Yorker, Don’t Eat Before Reading This, he rhapsodized about the pleasures of butter, the visceral joy of blood squirting into his mouth when biting into a boudin noir at his own restaurant. He gleefully ripped apart the assumption many diners have that their expensive meals were all prepared by people in gloves. “By the time a three-star crew has finished carving and arranging your saddle of monkfish with dried cherries and wild-herb-infused nage into a Parthenon or a Space Needle,” he wrote, “it’s had dozens of sweaty fingers all over it.” To him, food was dangerous, risky, subversive. It was communal; food was meant to be handled — the type of diner who might clutch their pearls over the bread being recycled was not the type of diner he wanted to serve or eat with. Food was primal — it was meant to be touched, tasted, smelled, experienced.
This was also how I felt about food. But unlike Bourdain, I spent most of my time squashing my love of food as far down as it would go. I aimed to be one of those lithe, serene people who could eat a salad with no dressing for lunch (“because it doesn’t even need it!”) and be satisfied. In reading “Kitchen Confidential,” and watching “No Reservations,” I was able to reconnect with the part of myself that was hungry. For food, for travel, for life. Going with him on a culinary journey through an unknown land and find common ground in food made me realize that food is love. Food is pleasure, food is adventure, food is history, food is community. And food can also be rebellion.
Anthony Bourdain was the first chef I can remember who made both travel and fine dining feel accessible. Before him, there were two kinds of people. The Applebees folks and the French Laundry folks. Fine dining was a world where stuffy, classically-trained chefs served pristine, stuffy food to rich, stuffy people. But he really broke down the barriers between fine dining and food that “common people” ate. He presented the best, most acclaimed food in the world and street food you can get on a skewer from a truck with equal joy, enthusiasm and respect. There was no line for him between the foodies and the common folk; there was art and beauty to be found in both. On “No Reservations,” he frequently mentioned that he preferred humble hole-in-the-wall restaurants off the beaten path, inaccessible or unknown to tourists, because they allowed him to learn the story of a place he was visiting. How many people tried new foods because of him? How many people learned to cook because of him? I never would have dreamed of going to a nice restaurant years ago, but Anthony Bourdain taught me that I have just as much of a right to amazing food as the richest person in town. Food is for everyone, not just a select few. And, very often, there is sublime pleasure to be found in the most common of places, like Waffle House.
And he did the same thing with travel. By presenting travel not as something the wealthy upper crust does, and not staying in luxury hotels, by going out into communities and meeting and eating with people, he made travel seem approachable too. You’d don’t need to be a millionaire to travel, and if you can’t afford a trip to Tokyo, there are delights just a bus or car ride away too. (He profiled my home town, Baltimore, in an episode of “No Reservations” about America’s “Rust Belt.”) How many people traveled because of him? How many adventures has he inspired?
Personally, a lot of people have influenced me on the path to finding peace with my body and with food. But a lot of it started with Anthony Bourdain. “No Reservations” was the first time I had seen, and understood, that hunger was not something to run away from. And that food was not the enemy but a source of comfort, adventure, pleasure, pain, controversy, individuality, love, community. We didn’t always agree — I was alternately vegan and vegetarian through most of my twenties and he was a vocal critic of people who opted out of animal consumption for ethical reasons — but he never shied away from the debate, and he showed during his career that he was willing to embrace growth publicly. For all the machismo and swagger of his persona, he was one of the first prominent men to embrace #MeToo and spoke out against toxic masculinity, in the culinary world, Hollywood and elsewhere.
I’m so sorry that he was in such a bad place. Sometimes the brightest among us are the ones who burn out the hardest. And the sensitivity that makes allows people to write and live with such creativity and passion can also be our downfall. I don’t know what he was struggling with, but I do know that mental illness is a fearsome beast that doesn’t back down just because you’ve got a successful career, awesome girlfriend and everything you’ve ever wanted. I wish he had gotten help.
Check on your friends or family members, even if they seem strong. Sometimes even strong people need help and are in crisis behind the scenes. And if you’re in crisis or feeling hopeless, reach out. Call or chat online with National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Tell someone. It’s hard (believe me, I know) but it’s so necessary. The world is losing too many people who have so much to offer.
Recently, I was going through old pictures of myself and pining for the body I used to have. I wrote Memories of a Body about the experience of going through those pictures, the feelings they evoked, and the memories I had tried to ignore. I saw a thinner body in pictures of myself in my 20s and projected so much onto it that I forgot the reality.
Today is my birthday. I am now 35.
On the left, I am 25 years old. It is 2008.
I live with my grandmother, in a tiny room with all of my possessions shoved into drawers that won’t close. I make $8.25 at an animal shelter. I work part time (on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays) because we’re in the middle of a recession and full-time work is simply not available to people like me, who are looking to build experience. I have no health insurance, so an upper respiratory infection could send me spiraling into financial ruin. I have a few bills, and I can never pay them on time. Sometimes I have to choose between paying my phone bill and buying groceries to get me through the week. I borrow a lot of money from my mother and grandmother. $20 here and there, just to get me through. I am also fresh off my first big heartbreak and convinced that I am unlovable and will be alone forever. (At 25! Good grief.)
But I have one thing: I diet. I scrape together the cash each week to attend Weight Watchers meetings, and delight at the number on the scale going down week after week. The lady weighing me in always gives me a gold star and sometimes stickers that say “Good job!” when I lose weight. It doesn’t occur to me to find this infantilizing and offensive. I hoard my gold stars like they are actual gold. I stick to my Points each and every day, cataloguing them in my little Weight Watchers notebook, and sometimes eat under my allotted Points because I have run out of food. I eat a lot of Smart Ones meals and Lean Cuisines. I don’t enjoy them, but they are cheap and I can’t afford much fresh food. I fast before each weigh-in so I will get my gold star for the week, and then binge afterward with friends, one of the few indulgences I allow myself. (We all go to meetings together on Saturday mornings. We call our post-weigh-in binge “Faturday.”)
I throw myself into Weight Watchers full-force because it is the only thing in my life I feel I can control. When I successfully lose a pound, I feel like a winner, only for a moment. I convince myself that if I just keep losing, if I get to my goal weight, I will break my losing streak. If I am thin, I will be able to get a better job, I will be able to buy nicer clothes to wear to work and to interviews. It’s an investment in my future, I think, to justify the expense of Weight Watchers, which I frankly cannot afford. And, most of all, I am lonely. If I am thin, men will be able to see me for who I am and not just see me as a fat girl. Losing weight is paramount to finding love, I think. And though my ex-boyfriend said he had no issue with my weight, I am certain, absolutely certain, that my weight had something to do with our break-up.
I really just wanted to be seen, and it’s funny how often we resort to shrinking ourselves in an effort to be seen.
Looking back at these photos, it’s easy for me to forget all of this. I scrupulously maintained an online presence that rarely alluded to my troubles. And I took picture after picture after picture until I got the right shot, the one that was flattering and cute and made me look like a MySpace princess. It took forever, and flipping through the photos, taken with a clunky digital point-and-shoot at impossible angles, I was filled with self-loathing. I’d cry over the pictures that showed my double-chin, round cheeks. I rarely ever took a photo of my full body, and all photos were intensively curated.
Now I’m 35. And I don’t give nearly as many fucks.
Sometimes I don’t realize how far I’ve come until I sit back and really think about that time in my life. I’ve bought a house, established a career, caught a husband, bought my dream car, assembled a menagerie of awesome pets I can spoil with the fancy food from the holistic pet store, and my husband and I regularly eat out at nice, upscale restaurants with our fat paychecks. If you had told 25 year old me that any of this would happen one day, and that none of these things was contingent on losing weight, I would have laughed at you. If you had told me that all of these things would happen and I would actually be fatter than ever (somewhat due to all the good times dining out with my husband), I would have flat-out not believed you.
Here’s to being older, wiser, richer and wider. Now, at 35, when I see people jumping on the latest diet trend or rejoining Weight Watchers for the fourth or fifth time, I want to shout: You don’t have to lose weight! Losing weight won’t actually make you better, or happier, or more successful, or more loved! You can have all of those things without counting Points! You can literally have your cake and eat it too!
This doesn’t mean fatphobia does not exist, or fat people don’t have challenges because of their weight, like getting hired, getting promoted, getting appropriate medical treatment and care, and getting raises. They absolutely do. But I feel like each person like me, who achieves their Optimal Level of Success™, without losing weight, can chip away at the things that hold us back. And we can fight the fight for other people by calling out fatphobia when we encounter it. We can fight for the people who aren’t strong enough to fight yet. And I have felt it happen, felt a shift in my interactions with people, when I push back on fatphobia, when I talk about size diversity and fat acceptance, when I talk about Health at Every Size. Slowly, we can shift things, and perhaps one day, people can get to the point I am at, at long last, at 35, without wandering through the desert of endless Weight Watchers meetings and books about dieting and self-loathing and false hope of being able to better your life through dieting.
That’s my hope, anyway. All I know is that I’m so thankful I got here.