The Trouble with Fat Suits

There has been a lot of talk about Netflix’s show Insatiable online lately, including a petition to stop it from airing. And it’s not hard to see why. Watch this train wreck for yourself:

The story is straight out of the 80s: Patty is a sad fatty who apparently has no identity outside of being sad and fat gets punched in the face by a grown man, has her jaw wired shut, loses weight, and becomes Hot™️. She then uses her newfound Hotness to exact revenge on the people who bullied her.

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The Teenage Transformation Movie is a trope as old as me. It appeals to teenagers because it’s simple wish fulfillment. Something happens, whether it’s discovering a magical amulet that helps your transform into the Most Popular Girl, or taking off your unflattering glasses to reveal the stunningly beautiful face that was there all along but everyone was weirdly blind to because teenagers are temporarily blinded by faces with spectacles or something, to being befriended by Alicia Silverstone who washes your hair and removes your flannel shirt and puts lipstick on your face. Then, hijinks ensue, lessons are learned, and the Transformed Teen learns that who they were all along was perfectly fine. (But they’ll keep the popularity and the hot boyfriend and the better clothes, of course.) Maybe it’s because I’ve seen so many of these movies, but I am not offended by the Teenage Transformation Movie. I find it lazy for a company like Netflix that has so many well-written, innovative shows. But I’m not offended by it.

What I am offended by is the use of fat suits. And using a thin actress and a hamfisted plot about Thinness As Revenge to teach a lesson about fatphobia and bullying.

So, let’s dig into what’s wrong with Insatiable. Despite the best efforts of people online, the whole series dropped on Netflix this weekend. I have no interest in it, so I don’t intend to watch it. Instead, I want to probe why shows like Insatiable are harmful, and why anytime someone suggests a fat suit is a good idea they should be promptly told to STFU, and why fat suits themselves are harmful.

The Fat Suit Itself

So, first, before we get into the metaphorical implications of the Fat Suit, let’s just take a moment to appreciate how utterly ridiculous this particular fat suit is.

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If you’re going to put a thin actress in a fat suit (and you shouldn’t, for reasons we’ll discuss), is it that hard to put her in a fat suit that isn’t ridiculous?! She doesn’t look like a fat person. She looks pregnant, maybe a little puffy? We live in a world with incredible special effects artists who can turn people into monsters, zombies, human-animal-hybrids, goblins, dragons, centaurs, creatures that do not even exist, and make them look more realistic and believable than an actor in a fat suit.

The issue with fat suits like this one (and Fat Monica and Fat Schmidt and Fat Gwyneth Paltrow…) is that their very appearance is played for laughs. It’s not meant to look realistic; it’s meant to be comical, clownish, ludicrous.

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Fat Monica. Isn’t she just HILARIOUS?!

These fat suits are how people view fat bodies.

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Fat Schmidt from “The New Girl”

Actors in fat suits are puffy, overstuffed. They waddle. They are stiff, their bodies don’t move naturally. They don’t look like people, really. They don’t move like people. They’re as unnatural as a computer-generated person in a movie alongside non-CG people.

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Gwyneth Paltrow in “Shallow Hal”

But unlike CG people added for special effects, or because the actor passed away but the show must go on, the fact that they don’t look right, don’t look fully human, is part of the point. Because, to people creating these stories, they aren’t real people.

The character only becomes real when they lose the weight and can live their lives free of their fat suit.

The Lie of Fat Suits

The real issue with fat suits is what they represent philosophically. There’s a pervasive belief that inside every fat person lives a thin person just waiting to come out, once the person sheds their fat. Weight loss companies have depicted this literally. Weight loss shake company Medifast even had a whole advertising campaign centered around “Conversations with Yourself,” where people talk to their fat selves post-weight loss.

Fat people who have lost weight are seen as entirely different people post-weight loss. They “come into their true selves” through weight loss. Oprah has even talked about the thin woman “inside of us” in Weight Watchers commercials.

And it’s harmful as hell.

It’s harmful to people who are fat. People starve themselves, spend all their disposable income, consent to dangerous, life-altering surgery in pursuit of the lie that a thin person is inside of them, just waiting for them to shed their fat suit so life can begin. People go to great, dangerous lengths for weight loss because they’ve been conditioned to believe that they can shed their fat bodies like a fat suit and magically find their true selves within. They starve themselves, cut themselves open, because they have been told that their current body is a prison that is not who they “truly” are.

The truth is that we don’t have any reliable way to make a fat person into a thin person. Weight can be lost through extreme means, but that weight is almost always regained. Bodies are hard-wired to return to their set point. Bodies don’t like significant changes in your weight; your body is designed to fight it. And, so, most people regain weight. Most weight loss, even after gastric surgery, is not sustainable. And, even worse, significant weight loss through extreme methods makes it even harder to keep the weight off.

It’s also harmful to fat people who have lost weight. In Insatiable, Fatty Patty has her jaw wired shut after being punched in the face by a homeless man. (Which is an offensive part of the story that has gotten much less attention — homeless people are far more likely to be victims of crime than to go around punching teenage girls in the face.) After a few months, she emerges thin, petite and toned. A Regulation Hottie™️! But, as most people who have lost significant amounts of weight can tell you, that is rarely what happens.

Fat people who lose significant amounts of weight are typically left with lots of excess skin. If you’ve ever watched “My 600 Pound Life” on TLC, you know that “skin surgery” is the second step in weight loss surgery, because losing weight isn’t enough. First, you have gastric bypass or a sleeve gastrectomy. Then, when you have lost weight, you schedule surgery to have your excess skin removed. Without skin surgery, the patients have painful sagging skin that is susceptible to infection. Many patients wear compression garments under their clothes just so they are able to go about their lives without pain. And the surgery itself is, well, barbaric. It’s painful. Elna Baker (who lost 110lbs through diet, exercise, and Phentermine) describes the aftermath of skin surgery in her This American Life segment, “It’s a Small World After All.” She is bed-ridden after one surgery (she had 4 surgeries total), with a band of flesh removed from her abdomen. She needs a friend’s help when the incision along her crotch splits one night in the bathroom, her skin splitting like the seam on her pants. She calls a friend, who has brought two Valiums — one for Elna, one for herself. Her friend has to help her pack her wounds “like she was putting the stuffing back into a teddy bear.” It’s harrowing. (And, just as a note, the segment could be triggering to some due to its discussion of weight loss.)

Fat bodies are not fat suits that can simply be taken off. They can be shrunk — but your body will not look like Debby Ryan’s or Courtney Cox’s or Gwyneth Paltrow’s after a few months. You’ll be stuck in an in-between place. You can look “thin” in clothes, but your body underneath will tell the tale of where your body has been. You can cut it apart and restitch it back together, but you will always carry the scars on your body.

Waiting for Life to Begin

Fat suits (and the narrative of shedding your fat skin to become your “true self”) contain an even bigger lie: that life can only begin once you are thin.

I believed this for years. I wasted years of my life laser-focused on weight loss so I could get the things I wanted. Love, success, happiness, freedom. Instead of spending my weekends out and having fun with friends, I went to Wegmans and shopped for produce. Instead of going out for drinks or simply enjoying my life after work, I forced myself to go to a gym and walk on a treadmill for an hour. Instead of enjoying food, I counted Points. I was convinced that when I “just lost the weight,” the world would open up to me. After all, that is what I’d been told all my life.

It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that it occurred to me that I could have those things without losing weight.

And, amazingly, I do have the things I wanted. And I’m fatter than I have ever been. In March, I was married to a wonderful, kind, funny man who loves me — as I am. I have a good career that I find creatively fulfilling and pays the bills, with money left over for dinners, clothes, vacations, concerts. I have a nice house in the country, with a cute dog and cranky old cat. I have friends, we host regular game nights at our house. Life is good. And I didn’t have to lose weight to get any of these things.

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Me and my husband.

I wish I had known that this was possible when I was younger.

I wish I hadn’t wasted so many years chasing the lie. I wish I had known the reality of dieting, which is that it is not successful for the vast majority of people. I wish I had known, before I went to weight loss surgery seminars and spent years wishing I had the money to afford it, how life-altering, dangerous, and painful it is. I wish I had known that my fat self was the real me, that I was fine as I was, and that I could have the things I want without losing weight. I mourn the time I wasted obsessing over my weight, being hungry, being sad about my body and my weight. I mourn the loss of my youth — because I started obsessing when I was 7 or 8 and realized I was fat. And, mostly, I wonder what I could have accomplished with that time if I had not been so focused on making myself thin.

Characters in fat suits are always a “before.” They exist to show Monica Gellar, Winston Schmidt, Fatty Patty from Insatiable before they become their true, thin selves. They show what life was like before the character’s life truly began. Before they were worthy, before they were loved, before they were desired, before they had confidence, before they found success. Before they were happy.

It’s not as if Insatiable is the only place this lie is told. It’s just another teen show with this message. Perhaps it’s more egregious than other shows. But teenagers, amazingly, watch “Friends.” They watch “The New Girl,” where the character Schmidt’s fat past is played for jokes. They see Weight Watchers and Slim Fast and Jenny Craig and fitness commercials on TV. They’re getting it from other sources. If Insatiable had not been released, it wouldn’t have meant that a generation would be saved from the lie.

But it’s part of the lie. And I desperately want to tell young girls watching this show because they love Debby Ryan that it’s a lie. I want to call out the lie. I want networks and companies who tell the lie to be taken to task for the damage they do.

Listening to Fat People

The other issue with fat suits is that companies, media networks, creators, actors, have been told repeatedly by fat people that fat suits are not okay.

They have been told eloquently, intelligently, passionately that they are harmful.

Yet Hollywood still persists.

“Yes, but our fat suit is different because we’re trying to draw attention to fat-shaming!”

No.

“Yes, but we’re trying to tell this story and we needed to use a fat suit because …”

No.

“But just let us explain …”

NO.

“Watch the show and reserve judgment until you’ve seen …”

ABSOLUTELY NOT.

This is the frustrating thing. Fat people have been clear about this: fat suits are problematic, offensive, dehumanizing. And Hollywood still insists on using them, because the story they are trying to tell is different, that they’re actually trying to teach people about the harm of fatphobia, that it’s just a joke … but they won’t listen to us. They won’t listen to the people who actually live in fat bodies, deal with the consequences of fatphobia, deal with derision and discrimination in their daily lives due to fatphobia, who are victims of the systemic oppression of fat people. And, as a result, every time a show or movie puts a character in a fat suit, they become part of that systemic oppression. They become part of the machinery that harms fat people and keeps them from living their lives.

All I am asking is this: please, just listen to us.

You cannot teach a lesson about fatphobia by engaging in it. (Just as, for instance, you cannot teach a lesson about racism by putting a white actor in blackface.) You cannot claim it’s just a joke, it’s not that serious, when the people living in the marginalized bodies you’re turning into a joke live with the consequences. You cannot tell us we’re taking it too seriously when people like us suffer, even die, because of institutionalized fatphobia.

Please, just listen to us. Just trust us on this one. Putting a thin actor in a fat suit is never okay.

Weight Loss as a Character Arc

Here’s the thing that Hollywood doesn’t seem to realize: fat people are just people.

We have lives outside of being fat. It’s incredible, I know, but we do.

All the things that happen to thin people in movies? Love, loss, grief, pain, joy, turmoil, revelation? They happen to us too. We have relationships. We have struggles that are unrelated to our weight. We have successes, setbacks, painful periods of transition. We have torrid love affairs and terrible breakups. We have epic love stories. We get married, have children. We have complex, difficult, joyful relationships with our families, friends and spouses. We overcome obstacles. We are triumphant. We have full, rich, complex lives.

So why is this the only story that we ever tell about fat people? Stories centered on weight loss? The before and after? Why is losing weight the only way fat characters can discover themselves?

Why can’t we tell different stories?

Your Fat Friend has put together a list of alternative stories we could tell. AMC even started telling one of those stories this year with its show Dietland, which featured a fat actress in a lead role, and even created the first fat female antihero I can think of on primetime TV. This Is Us isn’t a perfect show, but Kate Pearson (played by actual fat actress Chrissy Metz) is becoming a fully realized, complex character — the show digs into her grief over the loss of her father, her contentious relationship with her mother, her codependent relationship with her twin brother, her resistance to opening up to love and fear of being hurt. Hulu is adapting Lindy West’s book Shrill starring Aidy Bryant.

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Chrissy Metz as Kate Pearson in “This Is Us”

You don’t even have to do it perfectly. Just try. Try to tell a different story. It’s so much more interesting than this tired tale.

It’s true, for most fat people, our weight is part of our lives. It’s something we struggle against, struggle to accept. We struggle to have doctors listen to us, to be hired and promoted, to be accepted, to be treated with dignity. It’s part of our lives. But it’s not the whole story. It’s not the whole story by far.

There are depths to be mined. And stories like Insatiable, well, they’re just lazy. It divides the world into fatties and beauty queens. It divides the world into victims and bullies. Most of us live in the gray. Most of us are somewhere in between. Just like thin people, we can be heroes, and we can be villains, and we can veer back and forth between the two. We can also be neither. We can fight, love, hate, triumph, take revenge, and live full lives.

Let’s start telling better, more realistic stories.

Dietland on AMC: A Review

I’ve been hearing about Dietland on AMC for months now. This mainly speaks to how large and powerful the “body positive” movement has become on social media: influencers have been promoting this show, starring Joy Nash of “A Fat Rant,” with genuine excitement about a show tackling the beauty myth with a real, actual fat lady in the lead so often and so fervently that I saw multiple Instagram posts about viewing parties. Not only was the show Relevant to Our Interests, it starred one of our own.

I haven’t actually read Dietland (sorry!) so I watched the first three episodes from the standpoint of someone who knows nothing of this story or how the plot ultimately progresses. I found it to be a creative, interesting, well-acted, hallucinatory and slightly disjointed ride. Rather than recapping the episodes, I’m going to dive into some of the characters, themes explored and moments on the show.

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Alisha “Plum” Kettle

Alisha Kettle, known as “Plum” because she is “lucious” and of course round, is a hidden woman. She works for a teen magazine called Daisy Chain, answering letters for the magazine’s Miranda Priestly-esque editor, Kitty (played by Juliana Margulies.) Plum works from home, so she’s not even a presence at her own office. When Kitty gives her an assignment to cover a plus-size fashion show at New York Fashion Week, she is told to watch it on Facebook Live, while one of Daisy Chain’s “regular girls” (read: thinner, more glamorous staffers) attends the show in person. The assignment is largely exciting to Plum because it means she’ll finally get a byline — and thereby get credit for her own writing, something she doesn’t get as Kitty’s ghostwriter. Plum wears an all-black wardrobe of shapeless sacks and hides behind a shaggy, banged bob. She is hidden, and goes to great lengths to keep herself as hidden as she possibly can.

Plum is trying to lose weight at a group called “Waist Watchers” so she can get weight loss surgery. (Her douchecanoe male surgeon tells her, annoyed, that she must lose additional weight to qualify for surgery and eat under 700 calories per day.) Like many people caught in the clutches of the diet industry, Plum has pinned her personal happiness on this surgery. She buys a red dress that she pulls out to remind herself of the possibilities that await her when she is, at long last, thin. She struggles to afford her appointments at the bariatric center, and doesn’t have the money for the follow-up cosmetic surgeries that will inevitably follow.

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The sad fat girl trope

Plum is, in many ways, the kind of fat character that people involved in body positive and fat acceptance communities loathe to see. She’s sad, she’s hopeless, she’s deferential, she silently suffers indignities like dumb boys in beanies catcalling her from a car and rude comments from custodians in the elevator at work.

When a cute ragamuffin college kid at the coffee shop she often works in takes an interest in her, she brushes it off, avoids his advances and seems to dismiss the idea that he could be interested in her. When a handsome detective hits on her, she dismisses him as a fat fetishist who will want to sleep with her in private but never own up to their relationship publicly. (Not exactly off-base, especially since he refers to her as “Chocolate Cake,” and we later find out he has a wife and kids.)

What makes Plum interesting is that she’s clearly got an empowerment arc … and she is the lead character in the show. Plum is the show’s center. Usually, the sad fat girl is relegated to the sidelines of movies and television. But Plum is not a sad sack friend of a more conventionally attractive romcom lead, or comic relief, or a tragic minor character. She’s the lead. The show is focused on her sadness, her issues with her weight, her oppression and ultimately her empowerment. In one scene, we literally enter Plum’s brain as she thinks back on a time before she realized she was fat, before she came to associate food and her body with shame. (It’s a small but gorgeous scene where we see Plum’s smiling, victorious, happy younger self.)

Like Kate Pearson on “This Is Us,” the Plum we meet at the beginning of the show is not exactly the role model the body positive community wants. (That would be Janice, the loud, proud fat woman who barges in late at a Waist Watchers meeting, declares herself a unicorn who gets plenty of dick, and storms out.) But Plum is a character with nuance, who has a lot of potential for growth. Like Kate, she’s starting off as something of a wet blanket — an empty vessel that others act upon. And, like Kate, she’s actively pursuing weight loss surgery. I’m cautiously optimistic to see where this goes, because while the body positive community often gripes at this sort of representation, it’s also where a lot of us start out, and where the Janices of the world began. So watching her transformation from a sad, weight loss-obsessed, hidden woman waiting for her life to start when she hits her goal weight to (I assume) an empowered, more Janice-like woman should be interesting. We see this kind of thing a lot in BoPo/FA circles, but it’s not something often portrayed outside of those very small media bubbles.

And Joy Nash is wonderful as Plum. (Sidenote: Did you know that Joy Nash also played Señorita Dido, the mysterious lady who hung out with The Giant under the Black Lodge and, like, manufactures the Glowing Laura Palmer Orb that gets sent to earth to take on Judy and Bob in “Twin Peaks?!” I, for one, was very excited by this.)

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Daisy Chain

So, I’ve read a few times that the Daisy Chain brand seems a little outdated, like in this piece on Jezebel. The implication is that, in an era where Teen Vogue publishes “woke” think pieces, we’re way past the era of the glossy beauty mag. But, really now … are we?! I think there’s a certain segment of women my age range (early to mid 30s) who simply don’t encounter this kind of beauty myth-mongering, but oh, it still exists, even if some companies are smart enough to package their beauty myths a little differently. Seventeen Magazine is still around, they just publish articles about #MeToo alongside their articles about prom dresses, make up and boys.

“Jennifer”

Throughout the first three episodes, there is an emerging plot line about a group called “Jennifer.” Several of the people Plum encounters, from Julia (the alternatively British and Southern woman working in the Daisy Chain beauty closet) to Leeta (the goth girl who stalks Plum through the first episode, who is Julia’s intern) to Verena (the author a book exposing the lies and abuses of the Baptist Weight Loss Plan, a group started by her parents), seems to be either recruiters, masterminds or mercenaries of Jennifer.

Here is what we know so far about Jennifer: they are abducting men, forcing them to confess to their sins and crimes against women, and then presumably killing them and dropping their bodies on the unsuspecting public (either from a plane or a very tall building). They’re also responsible for a hack at Austin Media, the company that owns Daisy Chain. The hack has Kitty spooked, and she’s working with a detective (the one who called Plum “Chocolate Cake”) to find the source of the leak. Plum is a suspect, but all she’s done thus far is send a list of the people who emailed Kitty to a secure server at Julia’s request. Jennifer has claimed responsibility for killing a Terry Richardson-esque photographer named Mallick Ferguson.

Jennifer’s mercenaries stalk their prey in grotesque crone/witch masks.

We don’t know a whole lot about Jennifer yet, but they appear to be a group of female vigilantes under the command of Verena Baptist. It appears that Jennifer will be Plum’s catalyst for empowerment.

Verena Baptist and Calliope House

Verena Baptist is the daughter of the couple that created the Baptist Weight Loss Clinic. It’s one of the many methods Plum has used to try to lose weight over the years, and we learn with no details, it almost killed her. Leeta, when she was stalking Plum, correctly surmised that Plum was a former “Baptist” because she still follows the “commandments” of the Baptist plan when she eats. (For instance, always leave food on your plate, chewing a certain number of times, etc.) Verena wrote a book (Dietland — her book exists within the book Dietland by Sarai Walker, which the show is based on) exposing that the Baptist Weight Loss plan was a lie that ended with a botched stomach stapling and a car crash. She shut down all the clinics, and has turned into an anti-diet activist of sorts.

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Verena’s house is called Calliope House, and Plum ends up there at Leeta’s suggestion. Verena tells Plum the truth about the empire her family created, and ultimately offers Plum $20,000 for participating in “the new Baptist plan,” the first step of which is Plum getting off the antidepressant she has been taking for years, called Y. Verena says the money can be used for Plum’s weight loss surgery, if that’s what she wants, and hands her a check for $20,000, to be cashed at the end of the plan.

We’re lead to believe that Calliope House is base camp for Jennifer, and that Verena is at least involved, if not the leader of the vigilantes. I’m interested to see where this goes, because as of the third episode, the vigilante group offering all of the cathartic misandry and murder and mayhem seems … well, like a cult. Which is a weird direction for the feminist vengeance in a seemingly feminist series to go — female empowerment as a cult? It’s sort of a female Project Mayhem. It would be disappointing to learn that all of the non-Kitty female characters we’ve met so far, who are appearing to help Plum, are actually recruiting her for their cult. But I’m at least intrigued enough to see where they go.

The Jennifer plot seems a little ham-handed and about a subtle as a rack of lamb to the head in the #MeToo and Time’s Up era. I hope they add a little nuance in future episodes; it feels like they’re aiming for social commentary but the effect so far is removing a splinter with a chainsaw. This is the aspect of Dietland that’s grabbing the headlines, but so far, it is also the most disappointing and confusing part of the show.

That weird tiger sequence

In episode three, Plum is detoxing from Y and things get a little bananas. A tiger comes out of her television screen and we spend about 15 minutes with Plum and the tiger (who is the married detective low-key investigating Plum in a Zoobillee Zoo get-up) just … hanging out. Ordering food, cuddling, flirting. With, you know, a man dressed as a tiger that came out of her TV.

This sequence is, presumably, to represent Plum’s reawakening now that’s she off Y. She’s flirty and confident with the tiger and then later with the detective, whom she’s called and invited over. “My skin is so soft,” she says, rolling around in her bed with her belly on display. “And there’s so much of it! Wouldn’t you like to get lost in it?” The detective excuses himself to get her a glass of water and then copies the hard drive on her laptop when she passes out.

We also see that the “tiger” deleted all of Plum’s emails and, later on, that she made multiple phone calls while hallucinating, including to her best friend from the cafe, and apparently Kitty. A lot of things happening here that will probably become important, and while I appreciate what the show was going for, this sequence just missed the mark and distracted from the story. There is a way to do absurdity, and this was just… not it.

Waist Watchers and the Baptist Weight Loss Clinic

One of the greatest things to see on Dietland was how hard the show went after weight loss programs. No one has to guess twice at the real-life counterpart to Waist Watchers. And, as a former Weight Watchers member who is still untangling the messed up ideas about food, thinness and fatness that company programmed into me, it was so satisfying to see. Seeing the weigh-in and weight loss talk from a thin coach, the group of women (all women, it’s always women) bemoaning their weight and stalled weight loss attempts, even when they are thin. (“My husband doesn’t think so,” one sad thin woman in the meeting says.)

In a time when diets are being sold to the masses as “lifestyle changes” and “wellness programs,” it’s a good reminder of where these programs have their roots. Weight Watchers is all over the internet posting about wellness and health and showing smiling, diverse faces enjoying life, and it’s easy to forget that the actual program is one where they put you on a scale each week, measure your success, make you write down everything you eat, count Points, and mete out little stickers and tokens for losing weight. In meetings, people talk about food, their tortured relationship with potato chips, developing strategies to deal with the trauma of a basket of bread being brought to your table at a restaurant, the daily panic of having to make food choices … it’s all really very depressing and about as far away from “wellness” as one can possibly get.

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This is all something we logically know but we rarely ever get to see in action, unless you actually sign up for the program and attend a meeting. Seeing in starkly portrayed in Dietland was great fun — and as much as it was satire, it’s absolutely scary how close the portrayal is to reality.

Weight loss surgery

One of the show’s most nuanced moments comes at the end of episode three. After her tiger hallucination, Plum’s mom and best friend come banging on her door, worried about her. They’ve both been critical of her decision to have weight loss surgery. Naturally, they’re worried about their daughter and friend. The surgery is risky, they reason, and Plum is beautiful as she is. They accost her again, as a united front, about weight loss surgery and Plum finally stops brushing it off with a joke.

For Plum, weight loss surgery is not about being beautiful, it’s about survival and being able to live her life without the dense miasma of her weight hanging over her head. The interesting and unique thing Dietland does is show fatphobia as a form of violence. It’s not just a sad thing that happens, or treated as mere bullying. It exists alongside sexual assault as violence against women. (Of course men experience fatphobia too, but there is no doubt that fatphobia is most often incredibly gendered and tied into the policing of women’s bodies.) For Plum, weight loss surgery feels like a chance to be free of the violence she experiences on a daily basis, the slings and arrows she walks through every time she leaves her apartment. Being thin represents being free and seen.

“The world hates me for being like this,” she says. “Every day I walk around in this skin, people look at me like I have the plague. They act like I’m a stain. They stare and laugh and yell and worst of all, they tell me I have such a pretty face. And then they lecture me on how I can fix my body, because how I am is wrong.”

Weight loss, for Plum, is not about being thin and beautiful at all. It’s about her right to exist, and not feeling the need to defend it at every turn.

This is, of course, an incredibly unfair choice Plum (and other fat women) often have to make. Choosing between dehumanization, harassment, being passed over for opportunities, feeling less-than, being unable to access competent healthcare and life-altering, major surgery (that actually kills people) is not a choice anyone should have to make. Hopefully Dietland will eventually frame weight loss surgery, Waist Watchers and the Baptist Weight Loss Clinic as part of the violence that fat women experience. Dietland is utterly unique in how it portrays fatphobia and the experience of living in a fat body — it acknowledges that it’s impossible to just trust that you’re beautiful and worthy when the world hates you and wishes you didn’t exist. It’s not something self-esteem or a love affair or a makeover can fix, because it is systemic.

Dietland went there, and I’m excited to see where it goes from here. With Marti Noxon at the helm (from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” and the movie “To the Bone”), I think the show could get to a truly revolutionary place.

Landwhale by Jes Baker | Book Review

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On not actually being a fat kid

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

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

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

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

HAES and Donut Land

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loving yourself through the eyes of another

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weight loss surgery

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Bulletproof Fatty”

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

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

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

Get your copy of Landwhale here.