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Tell Me I’m Fat: Compelling Stories About Weight

By Rebecca Johnson

Portrait of beautiful large womanThere’s something important and inspiring happening in our society. I believe we are gradually moving away from the counterproductive and harmful weight-centric approach to health. As the science supporting a weight-neutral approach to health emerges and circulates, as more health professionals become disillusioned with old tactics that just don’t work, and as more people recognize the insanity of the diet-culture, the possibility of a positive paradigm shift seems great.

Although I’m usually optimistic about this movement, I occasionally question my own perception. Is this really happening or am I naively overestimating the progress we’re making with weight-neutrality simply because I’m immersed in this work daily? Even if we do successfully lead this shift in the health and wellness professions, can we change the prevailing messages of society as a whole? What will it take to shift the thinking of the general public?

Today, I’m feeling more optimistic than ever about the increasing acceptance of the weight-neutral movement because I just listened to a thought-provoking episode of a podcast called This American Life (also aired on NPR). If you haven’t heard of it, This American Life is a radio show and podcast with an audience of more than two million listeners that tells a set of stories on a particular theme, usually about human nature. To my surprise and delight, this week’s episode explored the question “Should we think about weight differently than we do?” It was the most compelling compilation of personal stories I’ve ever heard that support the need to change the way we think and talk about weight, health, and well-being.

If you’re interested in weight-neutrality, I’d highly recommend you check out this podcast episode, which you can stream or download for free.

Here’s the cliff notes version with a few of my favorite excerpts:

Act One: Tell Me I’m Fat

Lindy West, author of the book Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, talks about her experiences living in a larger body. She notes that her preference is to call herself “fat” rather than “overweight” because the implied message in the latter word is that there is a “correct weight” for everyone. With great humor and insight, she describes her journey “from a painfully shy childhood in which she tried, unsuccessfully, to hide her big body… to her struggle to convince herself, and then the world, that fat people have value…”

Learn-to-be-happy-nowAt one point, Lindy reads from her book and other articles she’s written to try to convey the harms of the current perspective on weight:

“I get that you think you’re actually helping people by contributing to the alp of shame that crushes every fat person every day of their lives … but you’re not helping. Shame doesn’t work. Diets don’t work. Fat people already are ashamed. It’s taken care of. No further manpower needed on the shame front.”

And then …

“Something lurched awake inside of me. A lifetime of being talked down to about nutrition, being kept secret by men I was dating, being both invisible and too visible finally foamed up and spilled over. Rather than spending all my time counting almonds … why not try to figure out how to be happy … now?”

Act Two: Was it Worth It?

In Act Two, This American Life producer Elna Barker powerfully and painfully processes aloud her 130-pound medically supervised weight loss and its after-effects. She describes the significant difference in life experience as “Old Elna” (pre-weight loss) and “New Elna” (post-weight loss).

As you might expect in our fat-phobic culture, New Elna has an easier time finding a job and a romantic relationship. She discovers that people treat her with more kindness and respect. She is no longer subjected to unsolicited remarks about her body size or strangers telling her she should lose weight–which of course, she never should have had to face in the first place. This causes her to doubt the sincerity and integrity of people in general since the only thing that had changed was her appearance.

“New Elna” also experiences permanent and severe scarring from the surgery necessary to remove excess skin, a preoccupying fear of gaining the weight back, reliance on a drug to stay thin, and an inability to trust others, particularly men.

As she considers what her life would be like if she had redirected her weight loss efforts into cultivating self-worth and self-care regardless of size, she wonders if she made the right decision. Her conclusion might surprise you.

Act Three: The Language We Use

In Act Three, author Roxane Gay discusses how being black, female, and overweight have combined to position her “even lower on the totem pole of dignity.” There’s an interesting exchange between Roxane and the podcast host, Ira Glass, as you hear his surprise at the language used to describe people in very large bodies.

Later, as Roxane shares how deeply anxious she feels about being fat, she says “It’s sobering to realize how much of the past 25 years have been all about my body.”

Act Four: Weight as a Moral Issue

In the final segment of the podcast, Act Four, we get a peek into one of the first times having a larger body was blatantly (and wrongly) associated with a lack of morality. We also get a sense of the history of the weight loss movement starting in the 1970s, at which point the diet-culture was already ingrained. At that time, a well-known religious university began requiring students to achieve a certain level of physical fitness and be at, or under, a certain body weight in order to graduate. Those who did not meet weight criteria were suspended and asked to return to the university only when they had made the “necessary physical changes.”  One university instructor is voluntarily recorded as she confidently asks her students:

“Now, my goodness, how can anything like fat be good… and how can God have purpose in a person being fat?”

Can We Be Honest?

While these stories are difficult to listen to because they force us to acknowledge the human toll that weight stigma takes, I felt encouraged by this episode of This American Life because it represents yet another place where this conversation is taking place outside the health and wellness profession. The fact that we’re asking tough questions about this topic in mainstream entertainment feels important to me. In order to move the needle on weight bias, we need to be asking these tough questions, not just in our professional lives, but in our personal lives as well. We need to listen and pay attention to the stories of those who are negatively affected by the prevailing paradigm. We need to consider a different way to think and talk about weight and health. As a society, we need to do what Elna Barker did aloud in Act Two of this podcast: bravely assess our past choices and get honest about where they’ve left us.

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About the author

Rebecca Johnson is a leader in the health promotion industry with more than 20 years of experience in diverse roles. She is a licensed Am I Hungry? Mindful Eating Program Facilitator and Coach and advocates for the use of mindfulness-based and weight-neutral programs in the workplace. Rebecca also serves as a consultant for organizations ready to leverage the power of organizational development and employee wellbeing to create truly thriving cultures.

29 Comments

  1. Greetings Rebecca –

    Thank you for this post, and for all the work you do to bring the conversation about mindfulness and a weight-neutral approach to health into the workplace. I heard the “This American Life” podcast recently, and was similarly moved. As a fat woman – and I too prefer “fat” to the alternatives for the reasons Lindy West mentions – I have lived much of what these women describe, and I found it very inspiring (and surprising and delightful, as you said!) to hear it discussed so thoughtfully in mainstream media, as well as on this blog.

    My one disappointment: the photograph that heads up this post, with the quote from Lindy West above it (and the AmIHungry.com logo at the bottom). Not one of the women in this picture could reasonably be called “fat,” certainly not in the way that West, “old” Elna, or Roxane Gay are talking about. Which led me to a quick tour through the pages of the Am I Hungry website… and the discovery that very few of your photos show people who appear more than average weight (okay, maybe the “bariatric surgery” guy is a little chunky). To me, the lack of size-inclusiveness seriously undercuts your “weight-neutral” message. What conclusion is someone like me to draw about the underlying message? The possibilities:

    1) You can’t be fat and also eat mindfully (bad enough).

    2) You can’t eat mindfully and also be fat (worse).

    3) We say that this isn’t a diet or a weight-loss program, but for the purpose of selling books (seminars, retreats, etc) we actually do want people to think that using this approach will make you thin, like the people in our pictures (cynical and deceitful);

    4) Fat people can and do benefit from learning to eat mindfully, and this approach is indeed for people of all sizes who struggle with mindless eating, but fat people don’t look pretty in marketing photos so that’s why they’re not here – not even on the one post that actually addresses fat stigma (dreadful and hypocritical);

    4) We just never really considered it (thoughtless and disrespectful).

    So which is it?

    I exaggerate to make a point; I don’t really think you’re purposefully fat-shaming people to make money (at least mostly I don’t). But you should know that the lack of size diversity on your website could make it appear that way. I am an educated, money-spending health care professional who believes in the Am I Hungry approach… but I would hesitate to refer a fat patient to this site. And the photo of five thin-to-average weight women illustrating the “tell me I’m fat” post comes across as a slap to those of us who actually do inhabit bodies like those the post discusses, and it co-opts West’s words to do it. Fat shaming? As West would say: “fat people already are ashamed. It’s taken care of. No further manpower needed on the shame front.”

    Especially not from those who claim weight neutrality.

    • Thank you for your comment Christine. This is Michelle May and I will take responsibility for the choice of that photo; it seemed to work with the quote and I wasn’t sensitive enough about the blog post it was used on. As you correctly point out, Am I Hungry? is a weight-neutral company. We have a great deal of discussion about images for our projects because we serve people of ALL sizes. May I respectfully add a possible option 5? We have to purchase the rights to use images and you just wouldn’t believe how difficult it is to find images that don’t show fat people suffering with vegetables, overeating, or looking like they are in pain from exercise – all of which also send the completely wrong message. I wrote an article about this several years ago called Weight Stigma: Get the Picture: https://amihungry.com/weight-stigma-get-picture/. I know you weren’t able to scroll through every page on our website and may not follow us on Facebook or Twitter, but we do try hard to include a cross section of people who could benefit from mindful eating (for example, our new video on our home page https://amihungry.com/).

      However, based on your comment (and a similar comment on our Facebook page) we will work even harder to find images that represent size diversity. If you have any resources you can recommend for beautiful professional photography, we’d love suggestions. Thank you again.

      • Lisa says:

        This is really sad. It’s all an exercise to be politically correct. Accepting people for who they are and their worth has nothing to do with their weight. But to ball it all up in one and say being fat is healthy or acceptable is just pathetic. An attitude of giving up after years of struggle and just accepting it all. It is certainly easier to live that way. There is a difference in expecting everyone to be super model thin, and having someone be at their ideal weight, Yes there is an ideal weight and it is not one that includes a distorted body from excessive fat accumulation. This is just splitting hairs so we can say being fat should be accepted and can be even healthy. Separate the issues here. Self worth is independent of weight. A distorted body is not healthy . Let’s all give up then and just be fat and be fine with it. The epidemic of obesity is not acceptable nor should it be. There are healthy ways to address it and denial is not one of them.

        • Thank you for your comment Lisa. However, the evidence does not support your implication that bodies are automatically healthy or unhealthy based on weight. (We have published a series of webinars and fully referenced white papers summarizing the data for those who are interested in learning the evidence about weight and health, https://amihungry.com/powerful-conversations-to-lead-the-shift-from-weight-to-well-being/.) I would also disagree with your use of the term “distorted body” – I don’t even know what that means but it implies that somehow, a person who does not look like the media image of health and beauty is somehow wrong. And finally, just as we don’t have the right to judge others based on their size, judging someone based on their (presumed) health is no better. Bias and prejudice are harmful to people no matter what that bias and prejudice are based on.

  2. Rebecca says:

    Hello Christine,

    Thank you so much for the time and effort you put into posting a very thoughtful response.

    I authored this post and wanted to respond to you as well to let you know we appreciate you writing – and have very much heard your message.

    As Michelle noted in her response, we generally put a great deal of energy into ensuring we use imagery that is reflective of the natural diversity of shapes and sizes (as well as other forms of diversity) but we clearly missed the mark on this one. I can’t tell you how many hours we’ve spent looking for photos of larger people that send a positive message about their health and quality of life – often times without finding a single photo we can use! I view this as yet another representation of the misunderstanding and stigma that exists in our society.

    We will look for another photo that better represents this post (and may already have replaced it by the time you read this!) and continue the search for more positive, representative photos in general.

    Thanks again for letting us know how you feel.

  3. Dear Michelle and Rebecca,

    Thank you so much for your prompt and sensitive replies. You are absolutely right, I didn’t dig deeply enough into the website and didn’t see the article Michelle wrote on weight stigma, in which you noted (as you did in your reply to my comment) how very difficult it is to find appropriate, professionally-produced images including larger bodied people. I decided to try an online search of my own, and in between all the steaming garbage heaps of fat-shaming internet trash (deep breath)… I found only a few, a very few, size-positive images, mostly from sites where I already knew they would be. I now have a much better appreciation for the challenges you face, as well as a great deal of gratitude for your willingness to keep trying.

    And I appreciate you also for your acknowledgment of how important this is. I think my original comment illustrates how easily the lack of size diversity in imagery (much like a lack of race diversity, gender diversity etc.) can convey an unintended message of “not-welcome.” I am not normally so easily ruffled, and it’s rare for me to write comments to blog posts. So if I reacted this way… most likely others have too. And your messages are too beautiful and important for anyone to have this as a reason not to hear them.

    The only remedies I can think of offhand are things you’ve probably already thought of, and there are probably difficulties associated with each, but a couple of thoughts: feature a running slideshow of candid shots (with permission) of participants at Am I Hungry events? Re-run your previous article on the next Weight Stigma Awareness Day, and ask people to send in self-portraits showing how they love and appreciate their bodies (to be featured in a montage on a future blog post)? Arrange your own photo shoot using models of all sizes (and races and abilities) so you don’t have to rely entirely on what’s already out there?

    Anyway… I also wanted to tell you that last night, after my slog through the internet muck heap looking for images, I felt angry, outraged, discouraged, frustrated… and quite frankly, at another time in my life – like maybe even last week – this could have led to starting a monster binge in order to disconnect from those feelings. Instead I used some of my Am I Hungry? tools, and did some four-square breathing, a Body-Mind-Heart scan (or two), took a long hot shower… and then re-set my visual perspective by spending time looking at a couple of sites that do show, in a different context, beautiful images of larger and otherwise diverse bodies. This is a self-care practice for me – one I highly recommend to anyone who needs a counter to the stereotypical body-shaming images we all see every day. Thank you so much, Michelle, for teaching me not only mindful eating, but mindful self care. My heart opens to more each day.

    Christine

    PS: Here are three sites (and there are many others) that I can guarantee will be therapeutic for anyone who is hurting with body shame:

    http://www.voluptuart.com. Art and gifts for celebrating your body. Beautiful images (that you can own!) of body diversity.

    https://danceswithfat.wordpress.com. Find the gallery; shows video and photos of this gorgeous fat woman… dancing! Beautifully! Joyfully!

    http://www.adipositivity.com. Intended to “broaden definitions of physical beauty. Literally.” Note that this site contains nude images. If you’re new to adipositivity, you might want to start with this great article – with pictures, of course! – that recently appeared in Glamour magazine (now if that isn’t size diversity hitting the mainstream, I don’t know what is!):

    http://www.glamour.com/gallery/adipositivity-project-photos

    Finally… I made a Pinterest page with the results of my brief internet search for mainstream size-positive images. A lot of them came from Getty Images, which is where a lot of web designers get stock photos… so these images are out there (even if there aren’t many of them). Many of the others are from websites offering plus size workout wear.

    https://www.pinterest.com/ccofer0399/images-of-beautiful-larger-bodies/

    [Michelle and Rebecca: if it is against your site’s policy to reference other sites, please feel free to delete the entire PS].

  4. Thank you for giving us the opportunity to have this conversation. It has helped us refocus on this issue. We searched again on the image site we subscribe to and found a few more images for our files and will post a new one here tomorrow. We also intend to share our concerns with the image site – but it occurred to me that this might be a wonderful business opportunity for a photographer!

    We love your idea of reposting about this during Weight Stigma Awareness Week and will share these great links. Your Pinterest board is awesome!

    Maybe I should be less reluctant to ask our participants for permission to share the photos we take. It somehow feels like we are invading their privacy. What is most important to me is helping them heal their relationship with food – so I am SO glad that the strategies you learned from Am I Hungry? helped you through this!

  5. We have added another photo to the top of the post; I left the other one in for those who are curious about the image that started this discussion. We invite other thoughts and suggestions related to this topic!

  6. Aaaah, better! 🙂 I love it.

    It’s I who wish to thank you, Michelle and Rebecca, for your willingness to engage in the conversation with me! You both responded with such grace, kindness and rapid action to my comment that I’m now a little ashamed of the snottiness of parts of it. Count me as a fan!

    I totally agree that this would be a fantastic project for an enterprising photographer (and makes me wish I were one!). I’ll have to think if I know any…

    I hear you about wanting to protect the privacy of your participants. Maybe there’s some very gentle, no-pressure way to invite people to share their photos, or perhaps hold a special “mock” session during an event for the express purpose of taking pictures for the website and invite volunteers… but maybe anything like this would seem like an intrusion into their healing experience.

    Thank you again for the amazing work you do with Am I Hungry?. I’m absolutely inspired to learn more, and am so appreciating all the great resources and articles on your site as well as my well-marked copy of your book.

  7. I wish all discussions on social media could be as honest and respectful as this one was. Just another bit of reassurance for me that I am in the right place. Thank you all for your thoughtfulness, self-reflection, and compassion.

  8. Becky says:

    I want to applaud all member of this thread for their sensitive, thoughtful and respectful dialogue. I am impressed at the willingness of everyone involved to be honest and also to see the issue from the others’ perspective. Rare to find such respectful and important responses in an internet comments section. Bravo Michelle, Rebecca and Christine!

    • Thank you Becky. We can learn so much from one another!
      Michelle

    • Rebecca says:

      Thank you, Becky! One of the many advantages of mindfulness is that it allows space between trigger and response – in any situation, not just eating! In the case of this post, it would have been easy to mindlessly react in a defensive way, but that would have led to very little of value for anyone. Pausing to reflect on Christine’s original comment, see the truth in it, and be honest and transparent about our side of things turned out to be so much richer! Isn’t that always the way? 🙂 Thanks for your encouragement.

  9. Carmen says:

    The Canadian Obesity Network has a variety of professional photos that would serve your needs well if you are looking for an additional source of images.

  10. Dianne says:

    Who’s to say what “fat” means? Fat to some is not fat to others.. Physical appearance is over-rated!

  11. Monika says:

    I loved this dialogue: the podcast, image frustrations , the deeper conversation illustrated etc etc. I can see things from both angles. I appreciate the candor and transparency. Like Christine, I am a healthcare professional, in fact, dietitian. I have dedicated the past 20 years to figuring out this extremely complex issue for myself and my patients, and each time I think I might be a little wiser on how to address/ nutrition therapies, I realize I am not. so sure. Then I find Am I Hungry and then read the blogs , hear This American Life and it all feels so good and right. It really makes sense. Being fat/larger does not mean you are sitting around eating unhealthfully all day. I have interviewed enough patients to get it–it is very complex and not always calories in, calories out. I also have a great appreciation for what lengths ppl will go to to lose weight and how frustrating it can be, esp when they don’t see results. I know there has to be a better way for us health professionals to approach this subject. On the other hand, I have many years of working with kids that struggle with weight, every day I work with kids that now are pre diabetic, early signs of fatty liver disease, hypertension, precocious puberty etc. With these co-morbidities they now have more things to worry about at such a young age. But I think that changing our relationship with food, starting with parents learning to love themselves, may lead to helping kids learn how to better listen to their bodies (intuitive eating) and eat more for nourishment. It’s complex no doubt.But change is in the air. Thanks Dr May !

    • You are so right Monika! It is very complex and no one has all the answers. The beautiful thing about your comment is that it demonstrates that you are curious, open, and willing to consider this outside of the conventional approach. True to your experience, diets are not successful for the vast majority of people over the long run. Helping parents learn mindful eating for themselves so they can support their children in listening to their bodies is a great place to start!

  12. Wow! Impressive discussion.
    Folks, share this discussion on your social media outlets. It’s a great way to address two topics; 1) civility in disagreement, 2) weight stigma.
    Thanks to all. We are enlightened, bolstered and supported through this type of dialogue.
    Bravo!

  13. As discussed above, we have added a new post about this issue and have included a number of resources: Weight Stigma in Photography – https://amihungry.com/weight-stigma-in-photography/

  14. Irene says:

    I stopped listening to the conversation around weight some years ago as I realized, after years of losing and gaining it all back and more, that there is more to our bodies than anyone seem to realize. The formulas that was being touted as tools just didn’t work for me. Now as I age and become more aware of my body I realized all of its part are interconnected in ways even doctors don’t seem to realize. With the diagnoses of hypothyroidism, I had no idea what that meant. I now find good results from eating real foods, as fresh as possible and using fermented foods to aid in my digestion. I am still learning the fine art of treating my body like a whole unit rather than trying to cater to pieces of it. The body is so amazing that we may never know all of its abilities, but I feel, for me it is best to treat it with care so it may provide optimum ability for as long as possible.

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