"What If I Just Don’t Want to Be Fat?"
Tough conversations with loved ones, tough conversations with ourselves, and finding kids' media that isn't anti-fat.
Disclaimer: You’re reading this column because you value my input as a journalist who reports on these issues and therefore has a lot of informed opinions. I’m not a healthcare provider and these responses are not meant to substitute for medical or therapeutic advice.
CW: As I discussed last week, a lot of what I do here is help people with thin privilege unpack our anti-fat biases. All of the questions today deal with explicit fatphobia, two of them reference weight loss, and the second question on this list contains a lot of deep biases. I’m answering it because she’s saying a lot of silent parts out loud and I think that’s worth unpacking. But if you’re not up for those types of discussions today, feel free to skip this one!
Q: I'm pretty close with both my mom and my sister. However, a common topic of conversation (in person and in our group chat) is, "look how much weight [this person we all know] has gained!" Almost any time my mom runs into someone I went to high school with, for example, she'll note what their body size is now. My mom and I (like virtually every human being on earth) have both gained quite a bit of weight since high school, so it feels especially odd to note. And my mom is deeply entrenched in diet culture, and is almost constantly engaged in some level of restriction. I never really know how to respond to this information. I'd love to have a response that would signal "I don't care about people's weight" but also "have some compassion for your changing body."
“I don’t care about people’s weight. How about we have some compassion for changing bodies?” is… maybe a perfect response? Can I write you a better one? Because you’re right. It’s odd to notice when adults no longer have their childhood bodies, which is what your mom is doing when she comments on someone’s post-high school weight gain. Especially because these are rarely positive or even neutral observations. When we engage in this kind of body talk, we’re always also comparing, judging, and grading someone’s success as a human by their size. This is stigmatizing, both to the people in question and to fat people more generally. And whether you’re fat or thin, it’s not a good conversation for you either. I’m curious how you would feel if your mom’s comments were about people’s race or gender identity. Would it feel easier to speak up because the right and wrong seems more clear-cut? The answer might be no, of course. It’s hard to tell people they are being racist or biased in other ways too! But I think these weight comments are especially hard to address because they make us feel so vulnerable, by triggering the incorrect but long-conditioned belief that our bodies are our fault.
So I think what you’re really asking here is: How do I have this hard conversation with someone I love? Because you’re worried about hurting her feelings, or making things uncomfortable—even though she is already making it uncomfortable. And maybe because you’re worried about what she really thinks of your body, or the potential for rejection if she were to understand that you are choosing to divest from diet culture, a deeply harmful system that she’s still wrapped up in.
It can help to start with compassion for her struggle. I’m not sure how old your mom is, but here’s why the grandparents are not okay. Her own experiences don’t justify her causing harm to others, but they may explain why it’s so difficult for her not to notice weight or engage in restriction. To that end: I’d focus more on the comments she makes about other people than her discussions of her own restriction. They are both harmful, of course, but it may feel more neutral to set a boundary around talking about bodies in general. You can toss in, “oh man, let’s not talk about people’s weight! Having a body is so hard!” the same way you might say “oh let’s not get into politics!” and then quickly move on to another topic.
Talking about her own eating habits, on the other hand, may feel more invasive or judgmental to her (even though, I know, she’s the one volunteering this information!). And, it’s not your problem to fix. But you can let her know that you’d be a safe person if she does ever want some support in letting go of the diet culture noise living rent-free in her head.
If she seems genuinely curious about why you’re opting out of weight talk, you can share more about articles you’ve read, podcasts you’ve listened to, or the questions you’re asking. Since you’re otherwise close, you might even be able to talk about your own experiences and how they’ve motivated you to stop dieting or be more weight-inclusive. Personal stories usually do the most to change people’s minds on controversial issues, especially when we can say, “I used to feel this way too…” But this kind of sharing is also the far more vulnerable way to engage. So don’t feel bad if you sometimes just let the anti-fat comment sail by. We can’t fight, let alone win, every battle. And you and your mom hopefully have many more years of group chats and conversations ahead of you. This can be something you chip away at slowly. We are, all of us, going to be working our way out of anti-fat bias (and every other kind of bias) for the rest of our lives.
Q: I’m a straight size woman in my 20s. I’ve been aware of HAES/anti diet culture/intuitive eating stuff for awhile and I’m really struggling with applying it to myself. Part of me honestly doesn’t see the need to, and I’m wondering if that’s such a bad thing.
I’m currently in the “normal” BMI category, though closer to overweight, and ideally I’d like to lose [REDACTED] pounds and maintain it, though I’m not overly concerned with that. I think the weight I’m at now is a pretty good one for me. A couple of years ago I weighed [REDACTED] pounds more than I do now —the biggest I’ve ever been—and I lost the weight gradually and have kept it off since, staying the same size.
When I was heavier, I didn’t like the way I looked or felt. My weight gain was the result of depression and using food to comfort myself. It was not a healthy coping skill by any means.
What if I just don’t want to be fat? What if I prefer the way I feel (physically) and look (aesthetically) when I’m on the slimmer side? What if intuitive eating and following my cravings for me looks like eating Wendy’s for lunch and Taco Bell for dinner, with lots of ice cream in between? That kind of food doesn’t make me feel good, it only provides momentary comfort. I don’t want to deprive myself, I want to have a balanced diet that’s mostly healthy with treats in moderation. And yes, for me some foods really are better than others when it comes to health, energy, etc.
I realize this is not the kind of question you usually answer, so feel free to ignore it. I’m just puzzling some of this stuff out for myself and found it helpful to write my thoughts out. Your newsletter has been really fascinating to me because in a way it’s so alien to the way I think, and I’m wondering if I need to change. But at the same time, I feel pretty happy and healthy and not obsessed with food or dieting. I appreciate the work you do even if I don’t always understand or agree with it. That’s all, thanks for reading.