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.
I am four years old. I am taking ballet class. I have to get up early on Saturday morning to go to ballet class at Karen Sachs’ Dance Academy. I hate waking up early and I hate wearing itchy tights, but I love ballet class. I feel graceful and powerful when I dance, even if I can’t yet touch my head to my outstretched knees like the other girls in my class because my belly gets in the way. I love my pink ballet slippers and my pink ballet bag with my name monogrammed on the side. I have fun, and move joyfully.
And something else keeps me going. I want to be the fairy princess.
At the end of each class, our teacher plays a soothing classical song that puts us all to sleep. We have to pretend to be asleep until the fairy princess – a girl from the class who gets to wear a plastic crown and special tutu – taps us on the head with her sequined wand in the shape of a star. When the fairy princess taps you on the head with her wand, you wake up and are free to go home.
I desperately want to be the fairy princess, but I am never chosen. I get up every Saturday morning, tired but full of hope that today is the day, but I never get to be the fairy princess.
One day, I pluck up the courage to ask my teacher if I can be the fairy princess next week after being sent home by someone who has been the fairy princess twice. (I keep count.) “We’ll see!” she says, not looking me in the eye.
Next week was not my week. I never got to be the fairy princess.
I am six years old. My stepfather’s mother gave me $50. I am not sure why I was given this money, but I keep it in my ballerina jewelry box with all of my plastic clip-on earrings and Tinkerbell nail polish. One Saturday, a friend a few houses down tells me that the ice cream truck is on our block and will soon be on our street. I run in to ask my mom for some money, but she tells me I can’t have any.
I remember what’s in my jewelry box. I grab the $50 and go out to meet the ice cream truck.
I buy a Good Humor ice cream cone and so much candy. I am overwhelmed, because I have never had this much money for the ice cream truck before. I buy all of the candies I’ve wanted to try. Fistfuls of Fireballs, jawbreakers, Ka-Blooey candies that turn your whole mouth blue and stain anything that touches them, candy buttons, candy necklaces. I give some of the candy I’ve purchased to my friends and take the rest up to my bedroom and hide it in the toy box in my closet with my Barbies because it occurs to me that I have done something wrong. I sense that I was not supposed to buy candy, definitely not with that money, and definitely not a stash so huge to keep me flush with candy for several months.
My mom finds the candy. She is upset with me. She is so much more mad than I expected her to be; I get in trouble. I feel ashamed. She takes my candy. I cry at the injustice of it all (it was my money!) and also out of shame. I am not sure why I feel so ashamed of myself.
She takes my candy and gives it to my siblings.
I am seven years old, and my favorite outfit is a neon green tunic with ruffles at the bottom, with a pair of lacy white bicycle shorts. The tunic hits me mid-thigh and the bicycle shorts go just above my knee. I wear this outfit with several pairs of big slouchy socks and my light-up L.A. Gears. I wear my hair in a half-ponytail with a colorful scrunchy. I feel so fashionable in this outfit. The lace makes me feel sophisticated. It’s something I could see Clarissa Darling wearing on “Clarissa Explains It All,” which is my favorite TV show.
My mom told me I couldn’t wear the outfit anymore. She said another grown-up said something to her. The tunic is too short, she said, and the lace bicycle shorts are too revealing. She makes me get rid of the outfit.
I never get to wear it again.
I am eight years old and at the pediatrician’s office. I hate going for my check-up. They make me strip down to my underwear in front of my mother and the doctor weighs me, pokes me and examines my body. It is embarrassing and I dread it every year.
This year, my mom and the doctor discuss my weight. They talk about me like I am not even in the room with them. My mom tells the doctor that I keep gaining weight and she is worried. The doctor confirms that I have gained a lot of weight and asks questions about what I am eating, what sports I play, if I eat too much. My mother says I sneak food. I hate this appointment. Why doesn’t anyone ask me any questions? Do they not see I’m sitting right here, in my underwear? My cheeks flush red and my eyes well with tears.
I refuse to strip down to my underwear for future appointments. I doggedly insist on wearing a t-shirt for all exams. My doctor is baffled. My mom says I am just “sensitive about my weight.”
I am 10 years old and we’re on vacation in Ocean City, Md. I need a new swimsuit because we discovered mine no longer fit. We go to one of the many stores that sells swimsuits and I am instantly drawn to a two-piece swimsuit; it’s black and the top has a splash of hot pink, neon green and florescent yellow flowers. These are all of my favorite colors, and I love it. I also think of how annoying it is to go to the bathroom with a wet one-piece on, and think it would be so much easier if I just had to pull down my bottoms. It seems like the best choice.
My mom tries to sway me toward boring one-pieces in subdued colors. “Wouldn’t this be more flattering?” she asks. But none of them have the bright neon flowers. They are all one color, like blue or black. The two-piece is clearly the better choice.
I try on the two-piece. I think it’s great. The top comes to just above my belly button. I come out of the dressing room. She frowns. She says, “You can see your stomach.” She furrows her brow further. “What if people at the pool make comments about your stomach?”
It has not occurred to me before that people might make fun of me for wearing this swimsuit. And I like it so much, I make my mother buy it for me, but her comment about people teasing me for my stomach is a bell I cannot unring. I wear a t-shirt into the pool, with my stomach and the neon swimsuit safely hidden away.
My brother and I are fighting. I hate fighting with him because he is older than me and always thinks of mean things to say more quickly. He makes fun of my “double-chin.”
I cry and slam into my bedroom. I look in the small mirror I’ve taped onto my wall, which is from an old jewelry box. (The one where I hid the $50.) I examine my face.
He’s right. I have a double-chin. I refuse to go down to dinner that night. I vow not to leave my room and not eat until I have lost enough weight to only have one chin.
I get hungry. I stare at my face and try to contort it so my chins are less noticeable. I find that if I hold my neck very straight and jut my lower-jaw out, my second-chin is less prominent.
I am 34 now. I still use this trick.
My brother has a friend over. It’s dinner time. I come downstairs and start to sit in my chair. It is an old, rickety dining room chair that has shifted every time I slam myself into it for years.
Today, the chair finally breaks when I sit on it knee-first.
My brother’s friend leaves, but when we are at the bus stop on Monday morning, he’s looking at me and whispering to another boy. They’re both laughing at me. He told everyone at school that I was so fat I broke my chair.
I’m on the softball team. I hate softball. I hate running, I hate dirt, I hate the heat and I find the game boring. I’m not friends with any of my teammates. I don’t think they want me on their team. We get our shirts for the year – mine is so tight and uncomfortable. It’s tight on my arms, it stretches across my belly so that you can see the outline of my belly button, and you can see the outline of my nipples. I do not want to wear it, and I cry and tell my mother that I want to stop going to softball.
“Why?” she asks. “I’ve already paid for you to do softball this season.” I tell her that the shirt is too tight. She says it was the largest one they offered. I tell her I want to quit, but she will not let me. “I’ll talk to the coach,” she says.
For the rest of the season, I wear a plain men’s t-shirt in our team’s color, yellow. (We were called The Yellow Jackets.) My shirt does not have my name or a number or anything printed on it. I don’t look like I’m part of the team. My teammates know that I’m wearing a different shirt because the team shirt they gave me didn’t fit me. I am miserable, and start refusing to run at practice. I don’t want to be there. I don’t want to be anywhere. I just want to disappear.
I am in fourth grade. I go to the nurse’s office a lot, because I get dizzy and my throat burns a lot in the morning. I get dizzy because I refuse to eat breakfast, and my mother makes me drink these chalky Instant Breakfast shakes. I refuse to eat breakfast because it makes my throat burn. I do not yet know that this is called acid reflux.
One day, the nurse comes in to talk to me. She is a woman in her 50s, with thin, graying curly hair. She wears white scrubs and her large hips struggle against her white pants. She is fat. She wants to talk about my weight. She tells me I should ask my mother about Weight Watchers. “But I don’t eat that much!” I protest. She tells me I have such a pretty face. “You would be so pretty if you just lost the weight!” I cry and she hugs me. I do not want her to hug me, and I do not want her to talk to me. I just want her to leave so I can lie down on the blue plastic cot.
I never tell anyone about the nurse’s recommendation that I join Weight Watchers. When I get dizzy or my throat burns, I hide in the bathroom at school instead.
I am 23 and in love with a friend of mine. He often rides his bike to my house and sleeps in my bed. We fall asleep with my back against his front. He kisses me on the forehead. He says things like, “None of my friends have ever let me get this close before.” He tells me how smart and incredible I am. I am certain he likes me back, but we never do more than cuddle.
I write him an email. I tell him how I feel. He takes me out to Denny’s one night. He tells me he is attracted to me and he does like me a lot. “But I can’t date a fat girl,” he says casually. His words are lasers that sear through my skin and burn the most secret, hidden parts of me. “My friends would make fun of me.”
I am 25 and my first boyfriend just dumped me. I have decided that being thin and beautiful, at long last, is the best revenge. (And maybe he will want me back if I am smaller? He dumped me because I was too needy, too demanding of his time, too much. I think being smaller will help.) I am determined to shed the parts of me that are too lumpy, too unfeminine, too much.
I join Weight Watchers and purchase a membership at my local gym. I count my Points diligently, often eating less than the Points I am allotted. I spend hours at the gym a few times per week. My calves burn and my heart races and I am miserable. But I must keep going. One more mile. You’ll never get anyone to really love you if you don’t do 30 more minutes on the treadmill.
I’m at the doctor’s office for a sinus infection. Only a nurse practitioner could see me that day; I have never met her, but I need antibiotics or at least some industrial-strength decongestant so I can sleep. She is so thrown by the sight of my size 22 body that she insists I must lose weight. I am confused. I feel my cheeks burn like they did when I was younger and my mother and pediatrician talked about how much I ate, how I was too much.
She tells me that if I do not explore weight loss surgery, I will die. “But you took my blood pressure, and it was fine,” I insist, meekly. She said I might be fine now, but that won’t last forever. Soon enough, she says, I will have hypertension and diabetes and joint pain and have a heart attack or stroke. I may lose some toes. She has seen diabetic patients, did you know you might even lose your entire foot? I am not sure what to say. I have been dieting and exercising, and this is the smallest I have been in years. I do not have diabetes. This woman has no blood work on file for me. But I believe her, even as I hate her, because she has spoken my worst fears.
I go to a weight loss seminar at a local hospital, one of the leading ones for bariatric surgery.
A man speaks. He is in his 50s, still fat, but less fat. He has clearly shrunk. He wears a large, tent-like t-shirt and I can tell when he moves that his skin is hanging off of him in curtains, like wax on a melted candle. He shows us his dinner, a small sandwich on a King’s Hawaiian bun wrapped in foil. He tells us that he must drink protein shakes every day, and they don’t taste like McFlurries. He says he will be taking vitamins every day for the rest of his life. He is walking a fine line of trying to weed out the women (we are all women in this seminar) who aren’t serious while making sure we know the surgery is a positive, life-changing thing. He doesn’t sound happy, but insists he is. Because he’s finally losing weight.
A woman near me says she doesn’t think she can give up soda forever. I decide that everything I’ve heard is a fair price for being thin. I proceed, but the surgery center calls me a week later to let me know my insurance won’t cover anything. I am devastated.
I am working in a big city. I am 33. I have a good job, and I am doing well at it. Each day, I walk across the street to Whole Foods for a $16 salad. The city is full of thin, attractive, powerful people. The streets are clogged with important men in suits, walking and talking. We play a game of Chicken – they walk forward, on their phones, and pretend not to see me. They will bump into me if I do not move out of their way. Their path doesn’t waver. I dutifully moved out of the way for them at first. Then I test them. I don’t move. I keep walking. They almost bump into me. I force them to see me, and they are startled. They are inconvenienced and angry. But they’re not sure why they are angry, so they cast their gaze forward again, and keep walking.
I giggle internally and marvel at how the body that I have learned is so hard to miss, so big and obtrusive, could be so invisible to so many.
I am 34. I am at my highest weight ever. I am in the shower, running a loofah over my body, with its soft skin and curves. I look at my belly and frown. I think, Maybe I should join Weight Watchers again. I am getting married in 6 months – what if I keep gaining weight and my wedding dress doesn’t zip?! I think of everyone looking at me, being on display, being photographed. I panic. I think back at the body I had at 25.
I take an inventory of my life at the moment. I am getting married, to a man who loves me, belly and all. I have a good job. I can pay my bills on time, and just bought my dream car, a robin’s egg blue Volkswagen Beetle. I write for work – I am a professional writer, even if I mostly just write blogs for SEO. I have a house that I share with my future-husband, my cat, our newly adopted dog. All of these things happened, and I’m fat. I’m healthy. I realize that being thin was not required to achieve any of these things.
One night, I look through old pictures online of me and my friends when I was in my mid-20s. I feel pangs of sadness looking at them. I was so thin! My legs were so much smaller, and my stomach was so much flatter. I examine them closely. Even my feet were thinner. My face looked more like my face, how I picture myself in my head. I miss having a sharp, defined jawline. My face now is so soft, so squishy.
I stare at a photo of myself. I was so cute, and I didn’t even know it. I hated myself. I punished myself. I blamed all of my problems, from my string of crappy go-nowhere jobs to the poor treatment I received from the mean boys I fawned over to my inability to pay bills on time, on my body. I am overwhelmed with compassion and sadness for her. She was so sad, so unhappy.
I am filled with love for her, and for me. I realize that I never had a good sense of what my body looked like any way, and my body has withstood decades of blame for things it had nothing to do with. I realize I can’t see myself as I am, after so many years of shame, sadness, and blame. My body is a structure that has stood firm, through war, bombs, cities falling and being built around it. It is a beautiful, towering ruin, a symbol of strength through adversity. It has had every weapon ever invented used on it, and yet, it stands.
I wonder what I will think when I look back on photos of me in 10 years.
Last week, my dog Special Agent Dale Cooper, started obsessing over something under our shed in the back yard. He’d squeeze his big melon head under the shed with great interest, then scoot backward and bark defensively. He spotted something. There was something under our shed. Something alive. I thought, Please don’t let it be kittens, please don’t let it be kittens.
Guess what was under there? You guessed it. Kittens.
My life in feral cats
I work in nonprofit technology now. I sit behind a desk and manage projects and respond to emails and send GIFs on Slack. (I am very, very good at GIFs.) But before I moved into technology, I worked in animal sheltering. I fought my way from working as an animal caretaker at on shelter to doing admissions in another, better shelter and eventually moved all the way up to a big national nonprofit that helps all animals. I worked in the companion animals department, and spent a lot of time talking, thinking, writing and learning about feral cats and community cats. (There is a difference!) And I also used to feed several managed cat colonies.
So I was well-prepared to deal with these kittens. Given all the sheds and piles of leaves they could have been born into, it was a good thing they were born under my shed.
Kitty rescue plan
The kittens appeared to be about a week old, maybe a little older. Their mother had nested under our shed. They were well-fed and clean, so clearly their mama had been taking good care of them. My husband spotted her coming and going under the shed a few times. So they had a mom. But… she was feral. So that posed a problem.
Caring for young kittens
Here’s who is best able to take care of young kittens: their mother. Here’s who is not: anyone else, really.
Kittens who aren’t weaned need to be bottle-fed. Bottle-feeding is a ’round-the-clock sort of deal. Newborn kittens need to be fed every 2-3 hours, so for a litter of kittens, that means waking up throughout the night to feed them formula from a tiny bottle. Bottle-feeding kittens isn’t an intuitive thing — you can actually harm them if you don’t know what you’re doing. Kittens also can’t go to the bathroom on their own (because mom helps them out) so you need to stimulate them to urinate and have bowel movements. Very young kittens can’t regulate their body temperatures either, so you have to be careful to ensure that they’re warm. And you’re also mom, for all intents and purposes, so all of the bonding and nurturing and grooming is on you.
That’s why it’s essential to keep litters of kittens with their moms. Bottle-feeding is a great way to save the lives of orphaned kittens. The volunteers who bottle-feed kittens for shelters and rescues are saints. But it’s a last resort. If they have a mom, they should remain with mom.
So we hatched a plan for the whole family.
It’s a trap!
Knowing that it was best to keep the litter with their mother, but also knowing that it’s critical to socialize the kittens while they’re young so they can grow up into spoiled house cats, we made a tentative plan. We’d grab the babies, trap mom, and keep the family in our garage.
Getting the babies was easy. We waited for mom to go out for the day, and simply picked them up from under the shed and put them in a carrier. Voila! Kitten rescue.
We acquired a humane trap (Havahart Easy Set) and used her kittens as bait. Here’s what that looked like.
We set the humane trap near her nest under our shed, then we took the carrier with the kittens inside and placed the front of the carrier at the back of the trap. Then we covered the whole set-up with blankets. The hope was that mom would come back to the nest, realize where her babies were, circle the trap, and realize the only way to get to her kittens was to go into the trap. The trap would snap its door behind her as soon as she stepped on the trigger to go check on her babies, and boom! Mom would be trapped.
She did eventually walk into the trap. It took about 8 hours. We had to watch closely, repeatedly go outside to ensure the kittens were warm and safe, but we finally got her just before sunset.
“Oh shit, now there’s a feral cat in my garage…”
My husband cleaned out the garage so the kittens and mom could safely live in there. (Which was no small task, he has a lot of tools and a giant 1970s Lincoln and assorted car parts strewn all over the garage.) We removed anything small that could post a risk, anything that could be knocked over by an outraged feral cat (which is a lot of things, really) and any toxic chemicals that were not sealed up tight.
To keep the kittens warm and contain them, we used what we had on hand: 3 plastic storage containers tipped on their sides, arranged in a semi-circle, with some warm blankets in them. We got the kittens set up, put out food and water and a litter box for mom, and then, very cautiously, released mom from the trap.
Climbing up the walls
Mom is feral. Not just scared of people. Not just shy. Feral. She wants nothing to do with people and does not want to be enclosed. She is basically a wild animal. So, when we opened the trap, we ran out of the door as quickly as we could.
Mom was climbing up the walls (impressive), doing backflips, jumping and running around frantically.
At that moment, we doubted whether we were doing the right thing. She was freaking out. I had expected her to do that, but the panicked response she had was startling. Would she ever calm down? Would she feed her kittens? Would her kittens be harmed by her flailing? How was I going to get to the kittens and give mom food and water if she behaved liked this the whole time?
I cried. My husband tried to calm me down. I worried we’d done the wrong thing.
Thank the heavens, mom calmed down in about an hour. First she hid, and then she climbed out of hiding to feed her kittens. Once I was able to visually confirm that the babies were being nursed, I was able to go to sleep.
A new routine
The timing of this kitten party was not ideal. My husband is currently attending a forensics school 2 hours away from where we live. It’s an 8-week program. He comes home on the weekends, but is away all week. So, that means that I’m home alone. Taking care of the house, our 2 pets, while working full-time, while fending off my anxiety about ghosts and house intruders. And now I had six more animals to worry about.
But it has been going well, so far. Mom is super feral so when I turn on the lights in the garage, she hides. That allows me to get into the garage, refresh her food and water, snuggle with her babies, and clean up. She watches me from behind some shelves. When I leave, she takes over tending to her kittens. We have an arrangement. It works for both of us.
And the babies! They’re precious. I mean.
They have a great mother — she does all the hard work. The kittens, all five of them, are healthy and clean. I’ve seen zero evidence of fleas. They’re doing wonderfully. They are too young to really have personalities of their own yet, but they’re getting there. Today they just started play-tussling with each other. They’re going to be just fine, and if all goes according to plan, these will be the five friendliest kittens in the world when I’m done with them.
The long-term plan
The great news is that I have tentative homes for each of the kittens. Once their sweet little faces went up on social media, it was a done deal. Once they’re weaned, I’ll separate them from mom and bring them inside, most likely in one of our spare bedrooms. They have their first kitten appointment with my veterinarian in a few weeks, and once they’re old enough and big enough, I’m getting them spayed and neutered before they go to their new homes.
I am working with a local TNR group to get mom spayed after her kittens are weaned. She’ll be spayed, vaccinated, and ear-tipped and then put back outside. If she still comes around, I’ll feed her. She’s a known cat in the neighborhood. Apparently her name is Mrs. Jenkins. (Who knew she was married?!)
Doing the right thing
So, full disclosure, literally none of this was easy. I had big plans for the weekend, and none of them included putting a feral cat in my garage. Work and life have been stressful and this was not a welcome development. I was not looking to take on the responsibility of caring for a family of cats.
But once I knew they were there, I couldn’t not help them. That’s the thing about doing what’s right: it is never, ever easy or convenient.
Helping community cats
Community cats are a human-created problem. We domesticated cats to begin with. We made them dependent on us. And then we did not do right by them. We let them outside, without spaying and neutering them. We kept them as pets, and then dumped them outside when they were no longer wanted. Outside, they bred. They produced litters of kittens. And those kittens grew up and produced even more litters of kittens. And now feral cats live in practically every neighborhood, suburb and city in the United States. Some of them are feral, meaning they were never socialized with people, and some of them are friendly. (The term “community cat” refers to any unowned cat living outdoors, feral or friendly.)
We get annoyed when they urinate near our homes, because it stinks. We fight and point fingers at cats because they kill birds. We round them up and euthanize them. We even shoot or poison them … or worse. We consider them a menace and get irritated when they knock over a trash can in search of food. There are veterinarians and even nonprofits who advocate for the killing and eradication of community cats.
But none of this is the fault of the cats. It’s on us, folks. We did this.
I did not personally create the feral cat problem in our neighborhood. I’ve only been here a year! And my pets have always been spayed or neutered. But because this cat problem is a human being-created problem, and I am a human being, I feel an obligation to whatever I can do to help alleviate the suffering of outside cats.
Trap-neuter-return (or TNR) involves humanely trapping community cats, taking them to a clinic where they are spayed or neutered, vaccinated, sometimes tested for diseases like FIV and feline leukemia (depending on the clinic), and then released back outside once they’ve recovered. If you’ve ever seen a cat walking around outside with the tip of one of its ears missing, it means that cat has been through a TNR clinic. An “ear-tip” is the universal symbol of TNR.
Here’s the thing about TNR. It’s not perfect. It’s not an elegant solution that magically solves the world’s community cat problem. In order to be successful, it needs to be implemented by a municipality and then strategically executed to reduce the number of community cats over time. And we’re not there yet. Many communities still consider community cats to be pests, and treat them as such. People still bring feral cats to shelters, where they are euthanized because they’re not suitable for adoption. Animal control agencies still cling to trap-and-kill, which is expensive and ineffective. (Also? Mean!)
TNR is a harm reduction approach. It doesn’t necessarily solve the bigger problem, but it does reduce harm. It improves the quality of life of the cats, who aren’t breeding every heat cycle. It improves quality of life for communities too, because sterilized cats are less likely to cause disturbances and it prevents litters of kittens from being born. It addresses many public health concerns, because cats are vaccinated against rabies at TNR clinics. Managed colonies are fed, their health is monitored, and they’re less likely to do things like hunt for food in people’s trash cans.
TNR can only work if people are proactive. If you see community cats without ear-tips running around, contact a TNR group. Offer to learn how to trap and get involved. If you find kittens, try to find a solution that does not involve bringing them to a shelter or looking the other way.
I know that not everyone has the capacity to do what I’m doing. (I barely have the capacity to do what I’m doing, to be perfectly honest.) But by allowing myself to be inconvenienced and taking on the responsibility of helping these kittens and their mom, I’m making a difference. It doesn’t solve the problem of community cats. But it does prevent mom from giving birth to any additional litters, and it’s saving the five kittens from living outside like their mother (and producing kittens). And the people who adopt these kittens will have lifelong buddies.
So, it’s not easy. I certainly didn’t envision myself doing this. But when the opportunity to help presented itself, I took it.
Because, at the end of the day, I don’t want to be the sort of person who can turn her back on six lives that I could have helped. I don’t want to add to the problem because I didn’t want to be inconvenienced. That’s how we ended up with this problem in the first place. I want to be one of the helpers.
Okay, first of all, bringing a feral cat into your house is not something you should do. Even bringing a cat into my garage was risky. It was stressful for me, and for the cat. (Mostly for the cat, I think. I cried but I did not do back flips in panic.) It can be super dangerous. So, unless you have lots of experience with feral cats, DO NOT DO WHAT I DID. Okay? Okay.
If you come across kittens or a feral cat in your neighborhood and want to help, call an expert! Email a TNR group, call your local animal shelter. Tell them your situation, and let them guide you through how you can best help.
I forgot my wedding ring; a friend had to rush back to our house to grab it before the ceremony started. The weather was cold and crisp that day in March, and the wind was blowing; a few guests couldn’t stand the cold and watched our ceremony from the heated reception area. I stumbled during our first dance. I almost knocked over a table scurrying to grab some food during cocktail hour, and then, knocked over a bucket of champagne on a stand when I hadn’t realized our wedding coordinator placed it behind my chair.
But it was perfect. I never thought I’d get married. I never thought I’d wear the white dress, or walk down an aisle, or find someone to commit to me for a lifetime. I had been made to believe that none of things were available to me because of my weight. But it happened, and it felt like an act of rebellion.
Greg and I met when I was in my mid-twenties, in 2008. I was underemployed, struggling to pay rent on a tiny room in someone else’s house, trying to be an adult for the first time during a recession. He was on a different path, but was also struggling. He had been studying to be an engineer and made it two years before realizing that, although he could do the math, he hated every minute of it. Neither of us knew what we were going to do with our lives, and we forged a tight Hansel-and-Gretel companionship, following breadcrumbs on a wayward quest to become adults.
Our relationship was different than any others I’d been in. When I was with him, I forgot about my weight. A lifetime of desperate dieting, restricting, counting Points, walking on the treadmill until my calves burned and my lungs gasped for air telling myself that if I didn’t keep going I would never be worthy of love, melted away when I was with him. He loved me. Not in spite of my weight, or pretending he didn’t see it, but embracing it. I was soft, he said adoringly. I hid my belly from him and he insisted it was cute, that he loved it. He made me feel like I didn’t have to hide myself or shrink, for the first time in my whole life. I felt comfortable. He loved me for exactly the person I was — moody, opinionated, generous, idealistic, self-doubting, smart, anxious. He didn’t pick and choose which parts to love. He loved all of me.
I had been loudly insisting that I was never going to get married since I was a teenager. Part of it was that I protested the patriarchal, heteronormative institution of marriage. But part of it was self-protection. Reject marriage before you have a chance to be rejected. That way, when I was a spinster, no one would feel sorry for me. It was a choice, not a tragedy.
I was preparing myself for a lifetime of solitude, because I had been taught that love and marriage was for thin people. And if I wanted to gain entry to the promised land, the price to pay was shrinking myself. I could never quite get there. My belly, my fat arms arms, my wide hips, held tight no matter how much I starved them. So I didn’t qualify. I hadn’t earned my way in, and never would.
So I rejected it outright. Marriage wasn’t for me, I said.
I inherited my grandmother’s engagement ring when she passed away. I kept it in its box on my vanity for years, convinced I would never be able to wear it. It was too small. It didn’t even fit on my pinky finger. I kept it there as a reminder of my grandmother. I’d open the box, admire the small gold ring with a few small diamonds in a vintage setting. I loved it, but I’d never wear it.
Greg and I had been living together for a year when I realized that perhaps I could get married after all. It hit me like a freight train: Why wasn’t I allowed to get married? I was in a relationship with a man who loved me, fiercely. We had an apartment, a cat, dishes, shared bills. Why couldn’t we get married? The thought hadn’t even occurred to me before.
I gave the ring to Greg. I told him he could give it back to me if he ever wanted to marry me. But if he didn’t, that was fine, too. The decision was his.
A year later, we owned a house together. We adopted a dog. We had even more dishes and bills and things we shared. On our ninth anniversary, on the Fourth of July, I thought he might propose. It had been nine years, after all. He had dropped a few hints. We had planned to see some fireworks, but they had been cancelled due to rain. 11 p.m. rolled around. It was close to midnight. I sat in our living room watching “The Twilight Zone” marathon on TV. Oh well, I thought. How silly of me to think it would happen. I sunk into the couch.
Then he walked downstairs, with a cupcake lit with candles and my grandmother’s ring in the frosting. He got down on one knee, and asked me if I would marry him.
We got married on March 25, 2018. It was a great wedding — family and friends traveled in from all over to see us get married. It was small, about 38 people, but it was exactly what we wanted. We kept the traditions that we important to us. Take what you need, and leave the rest. We walked down the aisle together. We danced to Elvis’ “Can’t Help Falling In Love,” a song Greg chose. He had tears in his eyes as we danced. We filled our playlist with songs we loved and hung out with our friends and ate brunch, drank mimosas, posed for photos and had a fantastic time.
I was fatter than I have ever been on my wedding day. My fat, tattooed arms were on full display in my cap sleeve dress. And I was so radically happy. I didn’t think of my weight once. It occurred to me how silly is was, to think that this happy event, this celebration of love, was not something I was allowed to want or experience.
Fat women are raised to believe that there are certain experiences that just aren’t for them. Simple things like wearing a swimsuit to the beach and enjoying the sun, sand and warm water. We decide we don’t like water anyway, and the sand is dirty and hard to walk in. We may grudgingly go out with a t-shirt or cover-up on, aware of how many eyes are there to see us. Enjoying a decadent meal at a restaurant, dipping our forks into a rich dessert. We’ll just have a salad, thanks. And we don’t get to have the full bridal experience. We get engaged quietly. We don’t get the dramatic proposal. As Lindy West wrote, “Thin girls get public proposals, like those dudes are winning a fucking prize.” Fat women get married in jeans or a nice pantsuit at the courthouse after we’ve already had a few kids with our partners. We become wives quietly, without any fanfare, without ever seeming to be a bride.
Fat women are constantly performing, trying to be the “good fatty.” No, we aren’t hungry. No, we don’t want to go swimming. We didn’t really want that raise or promotion anyway, it’s fine that we were passed over and our hard work taken for granted. No, we don’t want to find love or be treated like a prize or have someone write in the sky that they love us. We don’t want the attention. Living quietly is the price we pay for our fatness.
And that was why I had a wedding. I wore the dress, I was “announced” and everyone stood when I entered the room, I danced the first dance with everyone staring at me, I cut the cake (and ate plenty of it, without shame). I showed off the parts of my body I had always been most self-conscious about, my arms and my legs. I considered it a rebellion. I had silently accepted my fate as a spinster for so long, had been treated like a dirty little secret by so many guys, that not having a wedding was not an option for me. I was going to be looked at. I was going to be heard. Sure, weddings can be problematic in many ways. They are still steeped in patriarchal tradition. But for me, a fat woman who spends her days policing herself and her desires in so many way, it felt like a radical act. It’s easy to call wedding problematic when they’re still an option for you, when you’re allowed to want one.
We have been happy together for nearly a decade, and we are happily married now. Not much has changed. I can be on Greg’s health insurance now. We can have joint bank accounts. Our lives have gone back to normal. We sit on the couch and watch “Game of Thrones,” we eat dinner at our favorite restaurants (and always enjoy dessert), I cook and he does the dishes, we walk the dog and pet the cat. But being a fat bride taught me that it’s okay to want things, to ditch the “good fatty” performance, that I can do anything I want to do, up to and including wearing a pretty white dress and having a killer wedding. Life is too short to wonder whether you’re “allowed” to want something or do something. You and I can chip away at the barriers in the world that tell us fat people can’t do, wear, experience or want by just fucking doing it. Do it loudly, do it imperfectly, and do it the way you want.