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.
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.
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.