I know saying that is pointless, because I’ve been there, and I know it’s hardly a matter of just telling yourself to get over it and accept that this is what your body always does, what your body always will do if you keep dieting. But gosh, it would be so nice if you stopped.
A few months ago, I was on your show via Skype — as an average viewer, not a guest or an expert in anything — and we exchanged a little preliminary banter that was eventually cut from what aired. You said, “Kate, I understand you have a blog — tell us a little bit about it.” And I said, “I write about body image and self-acceptance.” That’s my stock answer for anyone who might not be prepared to hear the words “fat” and “acceptance” right next to each other. It’s a bit of a cop-out, frankly, but the fact is, no matter how proud I am of what I do here, I’m not always in a mood to explain or defend it. I don’t feel perfectly strong and righteous and ready for battle every day. That doesn’t mean I back down from my principles, it just means that sometimes — like when I’m freaking out because I’m on national TV, and Oprah just asked me a question, and the topic of the day is not anything fat-related — taking the path of least resistance is the best way to protect my own sanity. So that’s what I said to you.
Unfortunately, the sound was still buggy on the Skype connection at that point, so I could barely hear what you said back. It took me a moment to process your reply, during which time I was all, “Holy crap, Oprah just said something, and I don’t know what it was, and now I have to attempt to respond without sounding like an idiot.” But then, your words finally arranged themselves properly in my mind.
What you said was, “I’m still working on that.”
And what I said — because I was still panicky and felt like you’d been waiting a day and a half for a response from me already — was, “Well… uh… um… good luck!”
I beat myself up for that answer for days, until the show aired and I learned that that part was gone anyway. As soon as you turned away from the screen with my head on it and started the show, I started running through all the better answers I could have given you. “Well, have me back in May 2009, when my book comes out!” was one obvious response, but really, here’s what I would say if I had that moment to do over: “We all are.”
We are all still working on it. Even me, even people who have been waving the fat acceptance banner for decades longer than I have. We’re all still working on it, because the messages are relentless — the messages that tell us we should hate ourselves, starve ourselves, make dieting at least a part-time job (for our health!), the messages that tell us we will never be loved if we “let ourselves go,” the messages that tell us there is only one acceptable female body type, and you and I are both too fat for it, and you’re too black for it, and millions of women — the majority of us, actually — are too something (even too skinny) for it. Those messages never, ever let up, and rejecting them involves a conscious choice, every dingdang day. And some days, like I said, you don’t feel perfectly strong and righteous and ready for battle.
Some days, you feel like it would be so much easier to take on that old part-time job again — especially when you’ve done it so many times, for so many years, you could do it in your sleep. All you have to do is carve out three or four hours a day to exercise more vigorously, obsess about what you’re going to eat next, and prepare it; stop listening to your body and only pay attention to your food plan and workout schedule; cut out some hobbies and social time to make room for the job; recall all the tips and tricks for not eating at holiday gatherings, at restaurants, at your dear friends’ houses, at your own birthday party; retrain yourself to believe that salad dressing — let alone artisanal bacon, creme brulee, whatever — doesn’t taste good enough to warrant its negative effects on your job performance; talk constantly about what you’re not eating and how great it makes you feel, in hopes that some of your friends will join you at this lonely little workplace; and — most importantly — continue to believe with a religious fervor that your body is an ugly, hateful thing that must be punished and diminished. As long as you really believe that, the rest isn’t so hard to keep up, once you get used to it (again).
Some days, all that sounds a hell of a lot easier than resisting the messages — especially when you think of all the praise you’ll get once you’ve lost a noticeable amount of weight, or how good it will feel when you get to put on a smaller dress (though that feeling goes away quickly, as it must, or else you might lose your motivation to keep going). How proud and in control you’ll feel — again, for a few minutes at a time, for as long as it’s working. How much better people will treat you, as long as there’s less and less of you. I totally get that.
But I stopped giving in to it. And boy, I wish you would, too — because you’re way too smart to take that sucker bet yet again.
It kills me to hear you say things like, “”I can’t believe that after all these years, all the things I know how to do, I’m still talking about my weight. I look at my thinner self and think, `How did I let this happen again?'” Honey, you didn’t “let it” happen again. Your body made it happen again, because your body does not freakin’ want to be thin. And every time you quit the part-time job of dieting — or even just cut back your hours — your body goes, “Thank god!” and starts storing fat hand over fist. It happens to nearly all of us. I know you’re a woman who’s used to defying odds by quite a lot, but there is no shame in having a body that responds to dieting in exactly the same way as pretty much everyone else’s.
You say you’ve been eating too much and not exercising enough. Maybe that’s even true. But defining “too much” and “enough” is tricky business, and when you’re trying to do that in the context of shame and self-loathing, chances are, you’re going to come up with values that represent punishment, not healthy moderation. When I see you say things like, “I was so frustrated I started eating whatever I wanted — and that’s never good,” I just… Gah. Oprah, we’ve been over this. Grown women are allowed to eat whatever we want. More to the point, we are allowed to want, period. The fact that so many of us have come to believe “whatever we want” equals “never good” is heartbreaking and infuriating in equal measure.
You also say, apologetically, “I definitely wasn’t setting an example.” Well, you were, actually — just not the example you wanted to set. You’re not an ideal role model for either dieting or self-acceptance, but in terms of the latter, you are — forgive me if this comes off as harsh — an ideal object lesson. One of the Shapelings (hi, Rebecca!) who sent me a link to the Yahoo article this morning also offered her response to it:
I guess the main thought I had was, “Thank you, Oprah, for showing me that my struggle to give up dieting is the right struggle.” I have been fighting the diet demons this week, but reading this article was a nice shake-up. I don’t want to look back at my life at her age and see the same story and body hatred. It’s nice to see confirmation that I am doing the right thing for myself, despite the cacophany of voices telling me I’m not!
In that respect, to my mind, you’re setting a terrific example — you’re showing the world that no amount of money, or hard work, or discipline (whatever guilt you feel over easing out of that part-time job, come on, don’t even try to tell me that Oprah Winfrey lacks self-discipline and determination!) can make a stubbornly fat body remain thin for long. I just wish, for your sake as well as for the millions of women who look up to you, you could find a way to reframe your struggles with your weight, to practice and promote Health at Every Size, to believe that you are a beautiful woman — you so are! — who does not need to keep apologizing for what she eats or what dress size she wears. I wish you would choose to be the role model you’re perfectly suited to be, instead of trying to be one you’re not — and instead being an object lesson.
I’ll tell you a secret, Oprah — I also hit what you call “the dreaded 2-0-0″ this year. At least, I think I did. The last time I weighed myself was on a dog scale at the vet’s office, and I was about 185 lbs. I’m pretty sure I’ve gained about 15 since then. Why? Well, there are a zillion possible explanations and contributing factors, but the simplest one is this: My last diet ended in 2003, which you’ll note was 5 years ago. When I started that diet, I weighed about 190. The vast majority of people who deliberately lose weight gain it all back within 5 years, and a huge chunk of those gain an extra 10 lbs. or so, to boot. And I do seem to have plateaued at this weight after gaining steadily for quite a while, so… I could sit here and tell you how I went on Lexapro, and I started eating out more and resumed putting the dressing directly on my salads and slacked somewhat on exercise — in a nutshell, how I gave up dieting as a part-time job and relegated food and exercise back to the category of “things I think about, just not to the exclusion of having a life” — but the real reason for the weight gain is, I’m just not that special. I do not have magic powers that allow me to transcend my genetic predisposition to fatness, and I was not so much more committed or determined or desirous of thinness than everyone else who diets that I could somehow, through sheer will, overcome the massive odds against keeping it off for more than five years. I’m just not that special.
Neither are you, in that regard. We’re both plenty special in other ways — I mean, love you or hate you, I don’t think there’s anyone who would argue that you’re not an extraordinary woman — but just not that way. In that way, we’re both just normal fat women who dieted and gained it back and dieted and gained it back and dieted and gained it back, as normal fat women do. But here’s the difference between you and me, when it comes to that. You hit 200 and sent out a press release detailing your shame, embarrassment, and anger at yourself. I hit 200 and shrugged. Because it’s not any different than being 199, and not really any different from being 185, and when it comes down to it, not all that much different than being 115. I can’t shop at as many stores, I don’t get hit on quite as often (though I still do, as recently as Sunday night), some people aren’t as friendly to me, and some people are downright hateful in ways they wouldn’t have been when I was thin. But as trite as it may sound, this is the damned truth: I’m still the same person I was when I was thin — and when I was in-between, and the day before I cracked 200, and the day after. Cracking 300 or 400 or any other arbitrary number would not change who I am, either.
The weight regain did not make me bad or lazy or ugly or sick or stupid or broken. It just made me fatter.
That’s all that happened here. You got fatter. You’re still one of the most accomplished women on the planet. You’ve still got more money than god. You still give away a lot of that money and do real things that help real people. I know there are people around here who can’t stand you precisely because your refusal to stop believing you can and should be a thin person too often manifests as yet more heartbreaking, infuriating, wounding messages about how fat people are bad and thin people are good. But I can’t help admiring you anyway. And I can’t help feeling for you when I read about your shame, embarrassment, and anger at yourself. I know exactly how that goes — hence my last diet. I still get twinges of all those feelings and have to work my butt off to resist them. As I should have told you during that brief moment when we talked, we are all still working on it.
I admit I’m tempted to get angry at you for wasting your phenomenally powerful bullhorn on promoting body shame instead of telling other fat women that they’re not bad, undisciplined people. But I can’t, because I know just how loud and demanding those voices in your head are, the ones that say, “It doesn’t matter that you’re one of the most accomplished women on the planet, because you let yourself get fat again!” I know the pure, unfettered irrationality of that train of thought isn’t obvious when you’re in the grip of hating your body. The voices are too insistent.
So I guess all I have left to say to you is what I already told you in person: Good luck. I so hope that one of these days, you manage to make peace with your body. And man, when that day comes, I sure hope you go on the air and tell your millions of viewers you’ve discovered that not hating yourself is about a bazillion times more rewarding than mortifying yourself, literally and figuratively. That right there is what I know for sure.