Confronting Fat Phobia

I don’t want my daughter to inherit what I used to call “food issues”. I now know those food issues are more honestly called Fat Phobia. Despite all the thinking and reading I have done about body acceptance/neutrality over the last five years or so, I’ve only started working to eradicate my deep, visceral fear of gaining weight and getting fat. 

I used to think I could side-step the fat phobia work by refocusing my mental energy on intuitive eating, or exercise for muscle tone, or by repeating a mantra with a clenched fake smile: “This is just how my body is, and that’s A-OK.” 

The Fake It Til You Make It approach hasn’t worked. It turns out, shame and fear aren’t very effective for transformation. Looking at the problem honestly is crucial, and I’ve avoided that step for decades. I recognize now, finally, that I don’t just fear becoming fat. I fear fat people. 

My fat phobia doesn’t just impact me and now my daughter. It bleeds into the world and stains my interactions and relationships with people of all sizes. The way I silently compare myself to other women. My envy of slim people. The fear that sizzles on my skin when I see a person with a large body.

This is the ugly root of diet culture, isn’t it? We’re not talking about this. I am certainly not admitting out loud to anyone that I’m afraid of fat – my own or anyone else’s. No, no, I’m concerned for my HEALTH, you see. I want to be HEALTHY. I want to live a long, disease free life. I don’t want to get diabetes or heart disease or cancer. The health anxiety is real, too. It’s all pureed together with my fat phobia, orthorexia, classism, racism, ableism, internalized sexism. All of it. 

In the last 10 years or so, two of my friends have confronted me about my fat phobia and how it has hurt them, and impacted our relationship. 

“It feels like you think that if you just talk enough crap about your own weight, or complain enough about your body, or talk enough about your diet to me, that your fat phobia will somehow rub off on me and I’ll start dieting and lose weight. That’s not how it works. And it sucks that you would think that.” 

Another friend said; “I do think you care about me, but it’s obvious that my body repulses you, and you pity me.”

Both of these comments occurred in context, not out of the blue. Neither friend just blurted out “You are an asshole and a bad friend”, though they would have been correct if they had. Both times, I sputtered for any kind of response. I admitted that they were right and apologized, and both times they offered me more grace than I deserved. Miraculously, I am still friends with these amazing humans. I’m humbled and thankful that they would confront me with the truth and give me an opportunity to repent and repair. But even with the fresh smack of being confronted with my own ugliness, I’m still working on my fat phobia ten years later. 

This is my continual, daily work. If I don’t tackle my fat phobia, I will reinforce society’s utter disdain for fat people to my daughter. 

This morning, I read an essay by Kimberly Dark called Taking the Shame Out of Fat Shaming. She describes an incident in which a 5 year old called her fat. Her reply:

“Hey, Taylor, did you just call me fat?” And he turned to me, with a little bit of fear on his face because, whoa, this isn’t how it’s supposed to go. I was also speaking at full volume, for the other diners to hear. “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being called fat, because it’s not bad to be fat. But you know what? Some people think that’s an insult word, so maybe you shouldn’t go calling someone fat. Better wait until you hear people call themselves fat. Then you know they’re OK with it, and then you can use that word too. Otherwise, you might hurt someone’s feelings. You’re not hurting my feelings, though. Fat is just one of the ways bodies can be. So what?”

It’s not bad to be fat. Fat is just one way bodies can be. So what?

I used to think that if I could just get out ahead of the judgement I was sure others were silently rendering against me and call myself fat, or to talk endlessly of dieting or my great intentions for weight loss, I could prevent other people from judging my body or the food on my plate. Beat them at their own game. “You don’t need to worry that I don’t know I’m fat. I know! I’m working on it! Of course, I hate being this way and will eat the requisite kale and run the prescribed miles to make amends.” I wasn’t taking the shame out of fat-shaming. I was fat-shaming myself.

Radical self-love that spills out into the world and extends to all people in all bodies is the goal. (I haven’t yet read The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor, but it’s next on my list. Check out this excerpt from her book.) Radical self-love sounds amazing! Freedom and compassion! Yay! It is true for me, and maybe for you, that the judgement and fear we knit up into our own body image are thrown back into the world as judgement and fear of other people’s bodies. 

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This is the whole sticky bit of “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” If you don’t have a lot of love for yourself, do you have any love for your neighbor? We are showing our neighbors exactly as much love as we love ourselves, which is to say, not much. We don’t have enough compassion for our bodies to have compassion for anyone else’s. And hey, devoting loads of time and energy to worrying about how I look and what I eat or weigh is sucking up time and energy I could be devoting to literally anything else. 

Of course, I cannot find the quote now, but there’s a famous soundbite floating around out there that reminds us that diets are a tool of the patriarchy. “If we can just keep women obsessed with becoming smaller, they won’t have any time or energy left to overthrow the patriarchy!” There are dozens of essays on diet culture and capitalism, diet culture and the patriarchy, diet culture and racism. These aren’t new ideas, but they have taken some time to reorder my understanding of the world. For most of my life, the equation has been fat = bad, small = good. Even as I type that, I realize it is bullshit.   

And yet. 

I read it, I try to internalize it, and then the thorny vines of fear wrap around my ankles and drag me back down into a pit where I poke my love handles and twitch nervously as I stare down the date of my next routine colonoscopy (every three years for we, the high-risk group for colon cancer). And I think of my friends who have had really big improvements to their quality of life (not needing insulin for Type 2 Diabetes, big reduction in knee and back pain, greater mobility, lower blood pressure) from losing weight. I don’t have any of those conditions, but am constantly bombarded with the urgency to “maintain a healthy weight” to cure or prevent everything from snoring to dementia. 

So here I am, jackhammering away at my fat phobia in a world obsessed with size. A world where people make billions of dollars convincing us that the key to happiness and health is a small body. These days, I feel less fear and more conflict. I can confidently flip my middle finger to the Large Bodies are Bad and Harmful messaging (while trying to give grace to the messengers), but still break out into hives every time I fail to zip a favorite dress. 

If you are looking for answers or some secret sauce, I’m afraid I have neither. Thanks for processing this along with me. We can hold each other up with radical self-and-other love as the goal.

Sunday Comment Roundup

You Guyssssssssss!!

Your comments this week about my posts and Instagram questions have been SO GOOD. So good. I am so thankful for each of you. Your willingness to be open and vulnerable about our very personal and often fraught relationships with food and eating and diet culture has been motivating and humbling. I wanted to share some of the comments I received, anonymously, in case you see any of your own twisty, bunchy, scratchy eating-stuff (or calm and balanced approaches!) in any of these experiences.

Here is how some of you replied to my prompt about whether you remember your mom dieting as a kid, and if so, how food was talked about in your home growing up:

  • “I think I always wished they noticed something about me besides that I ate the food in front of me.”
  • “I remember relatives commenting how “the Smith* girls are always clean platers!” *not their real name.
  • “Portion control!”
  • “I don’t remember diet, but remember lots of unhappiness with how mom felt about how she looked. No shorts, no bathing suits.”
  • “We strived for balance in meals, not a lot of soda/packaged snacks; eating together as a family, having treats when out sometimes but later in life when the fat craze was happening, it was about eating more of those to replace other things (we know better now, but didn’t like the rest of America at the time).”
  • “My mom dieted. I specifically remember her using Slim Fast shakes and bars. She was also a dietician…”
  • “Mom once told me she felt accomplished if she went to bed hungry.”
  • “My family went through feast and famine. Grandma or the church would roll up w groceries.”
  • “She started Jazzercise at age 40 and really cut out sugar, fried foods, etc. I feel like she did it correctly!”
  • “I can’t even fit that can of worms in this box.”

I’ve also heard from several of you via calls and text messages with longer stories and examples of your childhood food life and how that has bubbled over into your adult eating habits. And a couple of you called me after my post about my doctor’s appointment to share your experiences with your doctor, or the experiences of a spouse or other family member.

And one of you, after reading my post about my doctor’s appointment, texted me this:

“I’m glad she [my doctor] could show you God’s love for your body today.”

Which reduced me to a blubbering pile of sobs. Whooo-boy. There’s a lot to unpack there. (Thanks, decades of “our bodies are inherently sinful and our “fleshly desires” will pull us into all manner of disobedience” teaching). I’m not even going to touch that today, except to say that it has been a trip to think about all the ways growing up in conservative Protestant churches have shaped my body image and conception of food and eating. Book project?

THANK YOU, friends. I’m grateful for you. Let’s keep talking and thinking and unpacking, shall we?

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I want to leave Diet Culture for good. I also want “healthy food” to save me.

 This is an excerpt from the essay I wrote and workshopped in my writing class this summer. It is the foundation essay to the essay collection I hope to finish and publish.

I didn’t know my mother kept a diary. I discovered it in a stack of books perched on the crowded nightstand in the upstairs bedroom of her house. A bedroom she had not been able to reach for months, her body unable to summit the staircase. She had been living entirely on the first floor the year before she died, and she had been dead for over a year when I found the diary. My siblings and I had finally started to clean out the house that she and my dad had built together; sorting 30 years of life into Dumpster, Donate, Sell, Keep. 

My sister sat on the floor in front of a heap of wrinkled clothes she had pulled from mom’s dark brown carved-wood dresser. “I think this is mom’s diary. What should I do with it?” I handed my sister the purple hard-back, but she waved it away without looking up. “Don’t read that, Jill. It’s private.” I wordlessly tossed it onto the bed beside me and moved on to the rest of the stack. When my sister dragged a white garbage bag full of stained t-shirts and snagged hosiery to the dumpster, I lurched for the book and sat down on the floor with my back against her bed. The blood throbbed in my ears as I cracked open the spine and leafed through the entries. The daughter reading her mom’s diary, hands sweaty, expecting to find notes about her marriage or my dad’s illness and death, or my meddling grandparents, or me or my siblings. I expected her diary to look like mine – chronicles of heartbreaks and everything I couldn’t say out loud, with a few private joys woven in to hold it together. Waves of grief, guilt and curiosity trembled through me as I flipped through the pages. There were only twenty or so entries spanning over a decade. None were more than a paragraph long.

Please, God, help me lose some weight. I don’t want to be like this anymore.

Went to Weight Watchers tonight. It feels more doable this time. They’ve changed their program since the last time I tried.

Shortly after she completed her chemo she wrote: 

Well, the Lord works in mysterious ways. All those years asking God to help me lose weight. Looks like the chemo has finally helped with that! Be careful what you wish for.

Nearly every entry was about her weight or her body shame or a new diet she was trying. Prayers scribbled in exhausted script. “Please, God, help me have some self-control. Please, God, help me lose some weight.” My dear mom had suffered so much, and the only griefs spilled into her diary were sorrows over her weight and failed diets. My heart tore wide open and I gulped back a sob. The sharp sting of this breach of her privacy compelled me to run the book out to the rust-orange dumpster and hurl her secrets over the container’s wall into the tangle of broken lawn chairs and mouse-chewed craft supplies. I never told either of my siblings what I had read.

I never thought of my mom as “fat” when I was growing up. She was soft and mom-sized. She shopped for clothes in the plus section but seemed to me to be similar in size to many of her peer moms. She was always on a diet. Weight Watchers, Slim Fast, Bible-based diets, soup and Special K diets. She never really lost any weight. My dad made relentless commentary about what she cooked and ate. 

Do you really think you need seconds?

None of us really need dessert every night, you know.

Is that on your diet?

I saw the pain in her eyes even though she never retorted. “Probably not” she’d sigh. 

My dad was dying, slowly, of Type 1 diabetes, which is the type that has nothing to do with how much you weigh or brought about by what you eat but is rather a ruthless genetic glitch. He had been managing the disease with a strictly sugar-free diet and daily insulin injections since he was five years old. He was also taking lithium for bi-polar disorder, which was still called Manic Depression in the 80s. His life depended upon careful label reading and strict sugar avoidance. He lived on meat, baked potatoes and Diet Coke. He occasionally indulged in strawberries or a swig of beer when his brothers were in town, but only if he was at home where he could check his blood sugar and stab another hit of insulin if needed. 

When I was 14, he was let go from his job as a computer systems analyst because he couldn’t physically sit at a desk all day or type. Diabetic neuropathy in his fingers made it impossible to feel the keys of his keyboard. He was eventually granted permanent disability and stayed home all day for the next nine years, propped up in his brown faux leather recliner at first, and eventually a home hospital bed. By the time I was 18, he had only five modes: sleeping, yelling, laughing, crying, or watching M.A.S.H.

His comments to mom were, I believe, rooted in love and concern for her but mixed with vanity, jealousy over an abandon with food he had never experienced, and full buy-in to patriarchal, capitalist norms about what a woman’s body is allowed to look like. He was a good man, addled by disease and mental illness. He was a good man, who policed my mother’s food intake and bemoaned her inability to return to her svelte pre-baby body.

I’ve gained fifteen pounds since my daughter was born five years ago. Fifteen new pounds since the round-the-clock breastfeeding of a struggling newborn and the bleary nineteen months of sleeplessness that followed as my babe woke every two hours to eat. I had to oblige her. “She’s right at the edge of falling off the growth curve” her pediatrician told me. “You can switch to formula if it’s too much for your body”. I did supplement with formula, but kept drawing her to my breast, over and over, throughout the long nights. The lactation consultant didn’t find anything amiss with my breastmilk, or her latch. “She’s just tiny. She can only hold so much at a time in that tiny tummy”. She all but refused to eat solids, so I felt compelled to keep going despite the crushing exhaustion. She needs it. She’s so small. And also, feeding a hungry human from your body burns a shit ton of calories. I felt free to eat almost anything I wanted. 

The medical establishment concludes that the “typical Western diet”, obesity, and low levels of exercise all increase your risk factor of developing colon cancer. I can’t “get” Type 1 diabetes, but because my dad had Type 1 and my grandmother had Type 2, I am at higher risk for Type 2, which is commonly believed to have a strong link to obesity and visceral fat that pads your organs around the waist. I’m predisposed to at least two lethal diseases whose trigger seems to have at least something to do with what you choose to eat. On the other hand, years of data shouted by the anti-diet, body positivity folks say that diets don’t work, almost always do more harm than good, and that weight has less of a correlation with health than the patriarchy wants you to believe. The conflicting science haunts every grocery list, every meal plan, every daily decision about what to put in my mouth. 

My new fifteen pounds snuck up on me over the last three years because I kept eating whatever I wanted even after I stopped breastfeeding. My husband doesn’t comment on my weight or what I choose to eat, but despair over the soft cushion of my middle keeps me awake at night. I read anti-diet-culture manifestos and try to buy into intuitive eating and body positivity. Every day, I hold up the genuine urgency of accepting my body and setting a better example for my daughter and weigh it against the deep, deep fear of succumbing to the colon cancer that took my 59 year old mother while I still desperately needed her, or the diabetes complications that ultimately took my dad at 51. I want to confidently stake my tent in the anti-diet and body positivity camp, but I never get there. The tangle of fear at my feet trips me. What if the medical establishment is right? What if the unbridled bloom of my belly triggers a deadly disease? What if my lack of self-control leaves my young daughter motherless? What if there is a limit to my husband’s solidarity with my self-acceptance? What if I, like my mother, just don’t want to look like this anymore? If I get a terrible disease that I could have prevented, all eyes will be on my waistline. I want to love my body, but I also want to control it.

I am the unbeliever who lies awake at night, worried that she might be wrong about hell.