The Fantasy of Being Thin

A while back, Joy Nash provided us with this excellent quote of the day:

Obese patients are often encouraged to believe that weight loss is an appropriate way to combat depression, save a failing marriage, or increase the chance of career success. The irrationality of hopes pinned on weight loss is so striking that dieting might almost be likened to superstitious behavior…. Passing from childhood into adolescence, leaving home, marrying, starting a new job, having a baby, experiencing marital difficulties, adjusting to children leaving home, and growing old — all these life situations may become unexamined reasons to diet. In other instances, concerns over weight mask even more serious problems.”

-Wooley and Garner, from “Obesity treatment: the high cost of false hope,” published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, vol. 91, no. 10, 1991.

For the last few days, I’ve been thinking I wanted to blog on this subject but haven’t quite been able to pull my thoughts together. (Hence “help me find a dress” post.) Here goes nuthin’.

Once you’ve really started believing in fat acceptance — as opposed to thinking it sounds nice for other people, but you still need to lose X lbs. before you’ll be acceptable — it can be hard to remember how you thought about these issues before (just as it can be hard to imagine what it would really be like to accept your fat body before you’ve done it). I’ve written several times about how I spent ages in the cognitive dissonance phase, thinking it made perfect sense that the OBESITY CRISIS hype was way overblown, and even if it weren’t, dieting doesn’t work anyway — but still wanting to lose weight, still feeling like I, personally, needed to be a size 10, max, before I could really get started on my fat acceptance journey. The thing is, that memory is almost totally intellectual now; I don’t really recall what it felt like to believe those two contradictory things simultaneously.

But then, the other day, I got to thinking about a particular kind of resistance that shows up every single time anyone dares to say that dieting doesn’t work — the kind that comes from other fat people and amounts to, “DON’T YOU TAKE MY HOPE AWAY!” Those of us in the anti-dieting camp are frequently accused of demoralizing fat people, of sending a cruelly pessimistic message. I’ve never quite gotten my head around that one, since the message we’re sending is that you’re actually allowed to love your fat body instead of hating it, and you can take steps to substantially improve your health without fighting a losing battle with your weight. I’m pretty sure that message is both compassionate and optimistic, not to mention realistic. But there will always be people who hear it as, “I, Kate Harding, am personally condemning you to a lifetime of fatness! There’s no point in trying, fatty! You’re doomed! Mwahahaha!”

Yeah, that’s exactly what I’m saying. *headdesk*

And then I started thinking about what it was really like before I’d actually made peace with my body. And what it was really like was this: The Fantasy of Being Thin absolutely dominated my life — even after I’d gotten thin once, found myself just as depressive and scattered and frustrated as always, and then gained all the weight back because, you know, diets don’t work. The reality of being thin didn’t even sink in after all that, because The Fantasy of Being Thin was still far more familiar to me, still what I knew best. I’d spent years and years nurturing that fantasy, and only a couple years as an actual thin person. Reality didn’t have a chance.

We’ve talked a lot here about how being fat shouldn’t stop you from doing the things you’ve always believed you couldn’t do until you were thin. Put on a bathing suit and go waterskiing. Apply for that awesome job you’re just barely qualified for. Ask that hot guy out. Join a gym. Wear a gorgeous dress. All of those concrete things you’ve been putting off? Just fucking do them, now, because this IS your life, happening as we speak.

But exhortations like that don’t take into account magical thinking about thinness, which I suspect — and the quote above suggests — is really quite common. Because, you see, the Fantasy of Being Thin is not just about becoming small enough to be perceived as more acceptable. It is about becoming an entirely different person — one with far more courage, confidence, and luck than the fat you has. It’s not just, “When I’m thin, I’ll look good in a bathing suit”; it’s “When I’m thin, I will be the kind of person who struts down the beach in a bikini, making men weep.” See also:

  • When I’m thin, I’ll have no trouble finding a partner/reinvigorating my marriage.
  • When I’m thin, I’ll have the job I’ve always wanted.
  • When I’m thin, I won’t be depressed anymore.
  • When I’m thin, I’ll be an adventurous world traveler instead of being freaked out by any country where I don’t speak the language and/or the plumbing is questionable.
  • When I’m thin, I’ll become really outdoorsy.
  • When I’m thin, I’ll be more extroverted and charismatic, and thus have more friends than I know what to do with.

Et cetera, et cetera. Those are examples from my personal Fantasy of Being Thin, but I’m sure you’ve got your own. (Please do share in comments!)

In light of that, it’s a lot easier to understand why some people freak out when you say no, really, your chances of losing weight permanently are virtually nil, so you’d be better off focusing on feeling good and enjoying your life as a fat person. To someone fully wrapped up in The Fantasy of Being Thin, that doesn’t just mean, “All the best evidence suggests you will be fat for the rest of your life, but that’s really not a terrible thing.” It means, “You will NEVER be the person you want to be! All the evidence suggests you will never find a satisfying relationship or get a promotion or make more friends or feel confident trying new things!”

So if that’s what you hear when I say, “Diets don’t work,” then yeah, I can see how that would be a major bummer.

Overcoming The Fantasy of Being Thin might be the hardest part of making it all the way into fat acceptance-land. And that might just be why I’d pushed that part of the process out of my memory: it fucking sucked. Because I didn’t just have to accept the size of my thighs; I had to accept who I am, rather than continuing to wait until I magically became the person I’d always imagined being. Ouch.

That is, of course, a pretty normal part of getting older. You start to realize that yeah, this actually is it, and although you can still try enough new things to keep anyone busy for two lifetimes, you’re pretty much stuck with a basic context. There are skills, experiences, and material things you will almost certainly never have, period. It’s a challenge for all of us to understand that accepting this fact of life does not necessarily mean cutting off options or giving up dreams, but simply — as in the proverbial story about the creation of the David — chipping away all that is not you. But for a fat person, it can be even harder, because so many fucking sources encourage us to believe that inside every one of us is “a thin person waiting to get out” — and that thin person is SO MUCH COOLER.

The reality is, I will never be the kind of person who thinks roughing it in Tibet sounds like a hoot; give me a decent hotel in London any day. I will probably never learn to waterski well, or snow ski at all, or do a back handspring. I can be outgoing and charismatic in small doses, but I will always then need time to recharge my batteries with the dogs and a good book; I’ll never be someone with a chock-full social calendar, because I would find that unbearably exhausting. (And no matter how well I’ve learned to fake it — and thus how much this surprises some people who know me — new social situations will most likely always intimidate the crap out of me.) I might learn to speak one foreign language fluently over the course of my life, but probably not five. I will never publish a novel until I finish writing one. I will always have to be aware of my natural tendency toward depression and might always have to medicate it. Smart money says I am never going to chuck city life to buy an alpaca farm or start a new career as a river guide. And my chances of marrying George Clooney are very, very slim.

None of that is because I’m fat. It’s because I’m me.

But when I was invested in The Fantasy of Being Thin, I really believed that changing this one “simple” (ha!) thing would unlock a whole new identity — this totally fabulous, free-spirited, try-anything-once kind of chick who was effortlessly a magnet for interesting people and experiences. And of course, the dark side of that is that being fat then became an excuse not to do much of anything, because it wouldn’t be the real me doing it, so what was the point? If I wouldn’t find the right guy until I was thin, why bother dating? If I wouldn’t have a breakthrough on the novel until I was thin, why bother writing? If I wouldn’t be the life of the party until I was thin, why bother trying to make new friends? If I wouldn’t feel like climbing a mountain until I was thin, why bother traveling at all?

Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

Accepting my fat really wasn’t the hard part. Accepting my personality — and my many limitations that have jack shit to do with my thighs — was. But oddly enough, once I started to do that, my life became about a zillion times more satisfying. I found the right guy, I took up yoga, I started taking my writing more seriously, I stopped apologizing for taking vacations in the U.S. and Canada instead of somewhere more exotic, etc. And lo and behold, things got a lot more fun around here. The thin person inside me finally got out — it just turned out she was actually a fat person. A reasonably attractive, semi-outgoing fat person who has an open mind and an active imagination but also happens to really like routine and familiarity and quiet time alone.

That was never who I expected to be — it was just always who I was.

So giving up dieting and accepting my body didn’t just mean admitting I would never be thin; it meant admitting I would never be a million things I might have been. (Which, I’m told, is a phenomenon sometimes known as “maturity.”) I am absolutely not one for settling — which is where the confusion about pessimism comes in, I think — but I am one for self-awareness and self-forgiveness. Meaning, there’s a big difference between saying you can’t be anything other than what you are right now, and you don’t have to be anything other than what you are right now. You will probably never be permanently thin, unless you are already, but other than that, the sky’s the limit. You can be anything or anyone you want to be, in theory.

The question is, who do you really want to be, and what are you going to do about it? (Okay, two questions.) The Fantasy of Being Thin is a really convenient excuse for not asking yourself those questions sincerely — and that’s exactly why it’s dangerous. It keeps you from being not only who you are, but who you actually could be, if you worked with what you’ve got. And that person trapped inside you really might be cooler than you are right now.

She’s just not thin.

Marilyn’s Law

Over at Big Fat Deal, they’re discussing a Gawker thread about “curvy” women that I really, really don’t recommend reading — but I couldn’t resist posting about one of Mo Pie’s observations on it:

Marilyn Monroe’s name is dropped. Maybe there should be a Monroe’s corollary to Godwin’s Law.

Oh, lord, YES THERE SHOULD. As an online discussion about fat women grows longer, the probability of a mention of Marilyn Monroe’s dress size approaches one.

Y’all. Seriously. I know Shapelings aren’t likely to pull the “Marilyn Monroe wore a size 16” argument, but for the benefit of the whole entire internet, I need to say this: STOP IT.

Continue reading

Reality vs. Relativism

Here’s some news that I know will come as a terrible shock to longtime readers: no one knows how to make fat people permanently thin. Or even less fat.

Dieting doesn’t work in the long term and often makes you fatter. WLS can kill you, in addition to other unpleasant side effects, and as with diets, there’s a good chance you’ll eventually gain it all back. “Lifestyle changes” are diets, even if you don’t like that word. Nobody sets out to lose weight temporarily, then end up fatter than ever within a few years. But that’s what happens to nearly everyone who makes a “lifestyle change” (without developing an eating disorder), because our bodies just aren’t interested in cooperating with our desire to be thin.

Despite all the billions of dollars that have been put into trying to figure this one out, still, no one knows how to make fat people permanently thin.

Wait, haven’t we covered this before? Why, yes. Yes, we have.

But in the latest fatosphere kerfuffle, I’ve seen lots of comments that essentially say one of two things:

  1. Not everyone who wants to lose weight wants to be thin! Not everyone’s doing it for vanity! People who have noble reasons for wanting to lose weight, or who only want to get less fat instead of thin shouldn’t be discouraged!
  2. Fat acceptance activists never want to acknowledge that some people are so fat it really does compromise their health! Some people need to lose weight, and dieting/WLS is right for them!

No. It just doesn’t work that way. Continue reading

Fat as a scapegoat

I’ve noticed a certain trend in the non-trollish dissenting viewpoints on fat acceptance. We all know how trolls operate — they’re wicked boring. It’s always “YOU are lazy and ugly” this and “YOU are destroying America” that. But the commenters I want to talk about are the ones who aren’t trolls, who aren’t lashing out, but who are still baffled and sometimes affronted by the idea of fat acceptance because it causes so much cognitive dissonance. These people tend to take on an “I” approach, rather than an attacking “you” approach, and their points frequently run something like this: I feel much better now than I did when I was fatter. I felt much better when I was thinner than I do now. I am fat and I know my body isn’t functioning properly because of it. If fat isn’t unhealthy, how do you explain the way I feel?

I would never tell somebody that they’re wrong about how their body feels or how it operates. Let’s get that out of the way right now. I don’t have the right to tell someone that they feel fine, any more than they have the right to tell me I don’t. But obviously I think we should discourage the scapegoating of fat as the main reason for people’s unwell feelings. For your consideration, I have a few other possible options.

One type of comment runs thus: I put on x number of pounds, and now my joints hurt. Well, sure — you have the muscle of a person x pounds lighter than you. It occurred to me yesterday at the gym, when I was doing quad presses, that I was hardly challenging myself by setting the machine to 110 pounds — as a 225-pound person, you could say that I lift that with each leg every goddamn day. Active fat people have to be strong enough to sling around a heavier body with ease. If you’re used to being lighter, it may take you time to adjust. The answer isn’t body negativity, starvation, and self-torture. It’s strength training, either concertedly or just by maintaining your activity level with your new body. Think of it as upping your weights.

Another type of comment goes I lost weight and now I feel better. This is pretty standard HAES. Many people seek to lose weight by eating vegetables where they would have eaten starches and sugars, or whole food instead of junk food. Many people take up an exercise program. These things won’t make you lose weight permanently, but they will make you feel awesome. The reverse is also true, and I say this as someone who just stupidly (for me) ate some sugar and had to skip the gym because of work constraints and now feels headachey and sluggish: the kind of habits that supposedly make you fat will genuinely make you logy. (Incidentally, this can turn into one bitch of a vicious cycle; when I skip the gym and feel sleepy, I always want to eat sugar or drink an enormous fancy coffee drink to counteract it, neither of which I can tolerate, which makes me even more tired and disinclined to go to the gym.) If you were x pounds and feeling like a sack of pudding, and now you’re x minus y pounds and ready to take over the world… are you sure it’s a matter of adipose tissue? Because it might have something more to do with nutrients and activity. (That’s good news, since it means you can keep the feeling when the weight comes back.) Basically, is it really about how your body is, or is it about what your body does?

(As a corollary to this one: It took me forEVER to figure out why I was always falling asleep in high school and college, basically blacking out even when I desperately wanted to stay awake. Not until this year did I go “oh, I guess I was constantly either not eating or binging on sugar when I thought nobody was looking.” Guess who DIDN’T feel better when she weighed less?)

Which brings me to the reversed version: I gained weight and now I feel worse. Obviously, this can just be due to the same factors — you probably can’t eat yourself particularly far above your setpoint, but if you’ve moved to the top of your range, it might be due to the same habits that can make you feel crummy (inactivity and empty foods). There are a lot more possibilities, though. Do you feel worse because you gained weight, or did you gain weight because you feel worse? A tough-to-spot illness like lupus or fibromyalgia can make you feel too tired and achey to get enough exercise. (Again, please remember that I’m talking about people of any size moving to the top of their natural size range — fatness does NOT necessarily mean inactivity, or vice versa!) Or did you start gaining weight and feeling worse at the same time? Food allergies could contribute, and blaming it all on fat could make you ignore them — or even overlook conditions like Cushing’s Syndrome. Do you feel worse physically, or physically/mentally? The two are incredibly interlinked, and a low opinion of yourself can drain you and make you feel awful; stress or depression could also make you gain weight and feel bad simultaneously. Finally, my favorite version of this comment is “I felt so much better ten years ago, when I was thin.” Folks, it’s called being ten years older. Could that be to blame?

Does this read like rationalization to you? Obviously, none of the above explanations are one-size-fits-all. And shit, I don’t know your body; maybe you genuinely feel worse when you have more adipose tissue, regardless of your habits or your health. But you do yourself an incredible disservice when you scapegoat all your creaks, aches, and yawns onto your fat. It’s a disservice the medical profession is all too happy to do for you, so you don’t need to do it yourself. Instead, give yourself a fighting chance by playing the good skeptic, like you would if you felt bad and weren’t fat, or felt bad in a way that you didn’t think could be explained by fat. Don’t sideline physical complaints because you assume they’re due to a moral failing — you wouldn’t do it for a sore throat, and you shouldn’t do it for fatigue or joint pain. If you feel bad, check in with yourself — are you taking care of your body as best you can? Are you giving yourself enough mental self-care? Did something trigger it? Should you get some tests? Does something need to be done? All of these need to be answered before the self-flagellation can begin.

It’s so easy for us to take the “fat is unhealthy” message as a mandate that if we are fat, we MUST be unhealthy — that we have a duty to feel unhealthy because we are fat. That’s not a manifest destiny you need to embrace. You deserve to feel as good as you can regardless of your size, and while not everyone can feel as good as everyone else, fat doesn’t have to be your primary explanation — or your easiest scapegoat.

Illustrated BMI Categories

Updated: Go here to see it! (Viewing it as a slideshow with the info turned on is particularly awesome, as Sweet Machine pointed out.) And go here to see a post about it.

Thanks to everyone who sent photos, and keep ’em comin’! Send a photo along with your height and weight to katesblog at gmail dot com.

Please note that because the point of the BMI project is to show how fucking insane the cut-offs are, I’m generally only using people at the very low end of their categories for that. One exception is the awesome Fat Girl on a Bike — and in a swimsuit! — Sarah, rockin’ the morbid obesity category. Action shots like that are most welcome (though I am trying to keep things worksafe, btw). Basically, anything that clearly busts a stereotype, beyond just “I’m fat AND pretty” — ’cause you’re ALL fat and pretty, except for the ones who aren’t fat — is what I’m looking for for that. (Oh, the other exception is the obesity category, because I stopped dividing it into 2 on the Flickr page, but I’m still including both ends of that category.)

For the Shapely Readers photostream, I want all shapes, sizes, and degrees of adherence to fat stereotypes! And because it’s been asked a couple times already, lurkers are totally welcome to contribute! If you read the blog, I want your photo!

Oh, and yes, men are absolutely welcome for both projects, too, and I’d love to see more people of color.

Huge thanks to Mindy, Laurie, Joy, Fillyjonk, and Sheana for agreeing to go first.

Oh, and hey, this ought to go without saying around here, but there will be NO criticism of any participant’s body in comments, for any reason.

Pants, meet fire extinguisher

In the spirit of two very different body acceptance moves — Isabelle Caro’s bold anti-anorexia campaign and Joy Nash’s Fat Rant — I have another challenge for you.

Stop lying about your weight.

That’s it! There’s no time limit on this dare, no expiration. You might not find yourself in a position to lie about your weight any time soon, but I’m sure you have in the past. Whether it’s on a driver’s license, or while you’re caught in a gaggle of diet talkers, or if it’s just in your own head, stop rounding down. Stop fudging your clothing size. Stop thinking of yourself as the size you used to be. This body you live in? It’s you. It’s you today. It will not be the same for your whole life, and that’s fine. Part of fat acceptance is accepting who you are right now, this very moment. If you have never lied about your weight, or if you’ve already stopped: congratulations!

What happens when we lie about our bodies? Well, for one thing, people who tell the truth aren’t believed. As Meowser pointed out in comments last month, the headless fatties attached to obesity-scare articles are almost never the same size as the actual humans discussed inside:

I guess the pictorial rule is: When you’re writing about women who weigh 160 pounds, you illustrate the story with a woman who weighs 500 pounds. When you’re writing about 500-pound men, you illustrate with a man who weighs 200. But goddess forbid, in either case, you illustrate with the actual person you’re writing about. Because all fatasses are interchangeable after adjusting for gender.

No wonder trolls on FA blogs always imagine that anyone over 250 pounds must be confined to bed. Could you guess the weight of the person next to you in line at the supermarket? I’m betting you can’t, because we so rarely see honest representations of what body sizes look like.

I first saw Joy Nash’s Fat Rant video linked on a friend’s Livejournal. In the video, as you all no doubt remember (if not, go watch it again!), Joy states that she weighs 224 pounds. One of the first commenters on my friend’s LJ said something like, If she weighs 224, then she must be at least 6’2″. Well, Kate and I have met Joy Nash, and while she is lovely and charismatic and charming and, yes, tall, she is definitely not that tall. So why did this commenter assume she was a giantess? No doubt he’s never met a woman who admitted to weighing 224, so it seemed like an astounding number to him. In the world I like to call reality, he certainly knows someone who weighs 224 and is not 6’2″, but he probably thinks she weighs at least 50 pounds less.

Remember: the number is just a number. It has no intrinsic moral value. It doesn’t control you. It doesn’t say anything about your worth as a person; like the word “fat,” it’s just descriptive. So why lie?

There are a couple of good reasons to tell the truth. One is for yourself: if you stop thinking of yourself as someone who’s “temporarily” at your current weight or size, you’ll be taking the first step in the long march to non-disordered thinking about your body. If you stop lying to yourself, you can stop yearning for that mythical other you, and you can start enjoying the actual you. If you’ve had times in your life like that — when you genuinely didn’t think of yourself as a deviation from some normative you that could have been — you know that it feels awesome. That’s reason #1.

Reason #2 is for the rest of us. If we want to live in a community in which people are not vilified for the size and shape of their bodies, then we have to be part of creating that community. One way of doing that, as I know many readers have seen for themselves, is by speaking up when you see fatphobia in action. Another way is to deflate and correct unrealistic expectations that are imposed upon us — doing a scaled-down version of what Isabelle Caro has done in the anti-anorexia campaign: telling the truth when we expect to see lies.

Shapely Prose Lexicon: “Dieting” and “HAES”

Dieting is the deliberate pursuit of weight loss as a goal in and of itself.

HAES, Health at Every Size, is endeavoring to improve one’s health by means other than weight loss, but which may cause incidental, almost always temporary, weight loss. HAES is about working to make your body as healthy as possible, regardless of its size, hence the name.

The behaviors related to both might, in some cases, overlap, but the intent is not the same, and it makes all the difference.

The Elephant (So to Speak) in the Room

I’m still new enough to Fat Acceptance that I don’t know about all of the internecine conflicts within the movement, but there’s one you can hardly miss if you read a few different fat blogs: the pro-dieting (or at least dieting-neutral) crowd vs. the anti-dieting crowd.

So far, my position has been that personally, I am staunchly anti-dieting — and will swiftly stamp out any dieting propaganda on this blog — but I am not going to get into a fight with those who disagree. I’d rather focus on things we can agree on. Opening this can of worms would not be worth it.

Now, I’m starting to think that maybe it’s worth it. I’ve read enough conversations on enough different blogs lately to feel like I’m taking crazy pills: all over the fatosphere, I’m suddenly seeing diet talk. And I understand a lot better now where BStu was coming from when he wrote this post, back when I was just a baby fat blogger wondering why we can’t all get along. You know, in May. (Was I ever so young?)

The Rotund already hit a lot of great points on this topic today. As she ably demonstrates, it is rather difficult to reconcile a deep belief in personal autonomy with a blanket anti-dieting stance. But in her comments, I just clarified the core of this issue for me:

I take the position that no one should pursue weight loss as a goal in and of itself. That is not the same as believing any individual who pursues weight loss is automatically stupid, misguided, or incapable of supporting some elements of fat acceptance. It is my political stance on the matter, not a reflection of my personal feelings about any given person’s choices. There are too many different people and too many different reasons for that choice for me to say I have a problem with people who diet. But I have a problem with the practice of dieting, in the abstract. Big one.

Put it this way: I also take the position that no one should vote for a Republican president. That’s because, in the abstract, I believe there are solid, logical, demonstrable reasons not to vote for a Republican president. But I had dinner the other night with someone who voted for fucking Bush, and we had fun. I have no personal opinion whatsoever on the vast majority of Republican voters, whom I don’t know and never will. I could probably have dinner with plenty of them, and I wouldn’t feel any pressing need to fight with every one of them about their choices, because this is (at least nominally) a democracy, and that’s how it works. People do what they think is best, and as long as it’s legal and not violent, I’ll support their right to do that. But in the abstract, based on the best information I have, I still believe voting Republican is a bad choice, and I have no problem saying so publicly. That’s where I come down on the issue, not on the individuals who do it.

And that’s exactly how I feel about dieting.

Still with me? Here’s where it gets controversial. I do not believe you can truly be a fat acceptance activist and support dieting any more than you can be a liberal activist and support Bush. I believe the two are simply irreconcilable.

Having thrown down that gauntlet, let me clarify a few things.

  1. Making changes in your eating and exercise habits with an eye to improving your health is not dieting. It is practicing Health at Every Size, which I advocate every chance I get.
  2. Making changes in your eating and exercise habits with an eye to losing weight is dieting. Even if you claim you’re doing it for your health. And yes, I think the distinction there is incredibly important,which I’ll elaborate on in a minute.
  3. There are some pro-dieting/dieting-neutral people whom I generally admire and who have done some really terrific, fat-positive things. But as long as they remain unwilling to take the position that the deliberate pursuit of weight loss is antithetical to fat acceptance, I cannot call them fat acceptance activists.

Here’s why.

1. Deliberately trying to lose weight is, by definition, not accepting your own fat.

I realize that at the individual level, this gets really murky. Hell, I mentioned in comments yesterday that I’m thinking of switching from Lexapro to a different antidepressant, because I’ve gained a lot of weight since I’ve been on it, and I’m now right on the border of going beyond what history has shown to be my natural weight range. Furthermore, frankly, my boobs are totally fucking out of control these days, and it makes both buying bras and doing some yoga poses a lot harder. I don’t believe those are good reasons to diet; I do think they’re good reasons to try another drug that might not have the same effect. So it has nothing to do with whether I think I can be attractive and healthy as a fat person, and everything to do with having gained like 25 or 30 lbs. in a relatively short amount of time, for no apparent reason other than medication, and with no sign of it slowing down; that’s not normal for my body, and if a different drug can bring the happy without forcing me to buy new clothes every few months (don’t get me wrong: I LOVE buying new clothes, just not being forced), then I want to try it. If a different drug can’t bring the happy, mind you, then I’ll start having bras custom made and figure out new yoga modifications and keep on buying new clothes, because I have no fear of being fat, and a huge fear of being depressed again.

But then, I realize I’m splitting hairs there. And I also realize people who make arguments like, “But I don’t want to be thin, I just want to lose a little weight for my health!” believe they’re splitting basically the same hairs. Like I said, it gets murky. But saying you want to lose just a little weight, or that you only want to lose weight for your health, ignores one of the principal points fat acceptance activists keep trying to make:

2. Diets don’t work.

Here’s where the “solid, logical, demonstrable reasons” I mentioned before come in. There is no good reason in the world to believe that dieting will make you any thinner in the long run. There is ample reason to believe dieting will, in fact, make you fatter in the long run. There is also ample reason to believe that eating a balanced diet and exercising are good for your health regardless of whether you lose weight. But there is still not one good reason to believe dieting will make you thinner.

So when I see people saying they just want to lose a little weight, or they’re just trying to lose weight for their health, or they’re just trying to lose weight for personal reasons, I think, well, fine. Whatever. Knock yourself out. But if you can’t grok that long-term deliberate weight loss is virtually impossible, you’re missing a really big point of the fat acceptance movement.

And if it’s really about your health, and you’ve read anything about Health at Every Size — which, if you’ve participated in the fat acceptance community for fifteen minutes, you have — why are you still including weight loss as a goal? The only logical conclusion is that you don’t actually accept your own fat, which is, fortunately or unfortunately, a key component of general fat acceptance.

3. This is the biggie: We live in a pro-dieting culture, and it hurts people.

As The Rotund puts it, fat acceptance activists aren’t trying to eliminate dieting (though it might be nice) so much as “unprivilege” it. In this culture, wanting to lose weight is the norm for all but the already very thin, despite the evidence that diets don’t work and weight loss, in and of itself, does not improve health. The primacy of dieting is perpetuated by lies, distortions, bigotry, and bad science, with only the occasional dash of truth or logic dropped in, but it’s incredibly effective. And that contributes not only to eating disorders, body image problems, and health problems, but to a culture that, as a whole, agrees fat is always unacceptable. Which, last time I checked, is what fat acceptance activists are trying to change.

So I guess what I’m saying is, you can’t dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools. I mean, I don’t even necessarily believe in that axiom across the board, but when it comes to dieting, I sure do. I believe — based on science and logic — that there is no such thing as a “healthy” weight loss plan. I definitely believe there is no such thing as a “proven” weight loss plan. Most importantly, I believe that the myths of those things hurt people.

And I believe that the logical alternative to those myths is fat acceptance and Health at Every Size. I don’t believe the pursuit of deliberate weight loss can ever be folded into fat acceptance.

It’s not about judging people, or telling them what to do with their bodies, or trying to kick some people off of Team Fat. It’s about the reality of dieting as an abstract concept, as I see it, based on the best information I can find. It’s about the culture we live in, and the culture I want to live in. It’s about standing for something in particular, because I believe it’s right, not about condemning people who disagree with me.

I think dieting is bullshit. And I think it’s antithetical to fat acceptance.

There, I said it.

Devouring the World

Teppy wrote a great post yesterday about “demand feeding,” which is a really terrible name for “eating what you want when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full.”

That’s something I recommend frequently, as it’s a key component of the Health at Every Size strategy. The problem with it, as Teppy points out, is a whole lot of people don’t know when they’re hungry, what they feel like eating, or when they’re full. Ex-dieters, especially, are so used to categorizing foods as “good” and “bad,” and having specific foods and portions dictated to us, the thought of really eating whatever we want — as opposed to the diet version of “eating whatever you want,” which means allowing yourself one bite of ice cream SO YOU DON’T FEEL DEPRIVED (oy) — can be overwhelming and frankly frightening.

This rang a really big bell with me:

I’ve always had this fear, which has been encouraged and strengthened by the many diets I’ve been on, that if I ate what I actually wanted, then I would devour the WORLD. Well, I already wrote about this. But to really embrace demand feeding, I have to face that fear. I know, intellectually, that my fear is unfounded. I cannot possibly eat my own weight in Little Debbie oatmeal cream pies. I *know* it, but I still don’t *believe* it.

That’s an important point not only because many of us trying to learn what healthful eating really means have to overcome that fear, but because I think the same misconception drives a lot of fat hatred. I really think a whole lot of thin people who eat restrictively — whether in a diagnosably disordered way or merely an “I AM GOOD! I EAT CELERY!” way — believe deep down that they are just barely keeping a lid on their own desire to devour the world. And they assume all fat people have just failed to keep a lid on the same desire — so if we go unpunished for that, we’re getting away with a “crime” they believe they work very hard not to commit.

Teppy points out that the marketing schtick for so many diet programs boils down to, “You can eat what you want! You won’t feel deprived!” Of course that’s a complete load of crap — either you can “eat whatever you want” except for certain foods (Atkins, South Beach), or you can “eat whatever you want” in gerbil-sized, pre-packaged portions (Jenny Craig), or you can “eat whatever you want” and then spend an extra hour at the gym and not eat anything else for the rest of the day in order to stay on your plan (Weight Watchers). But regardless, “We will give you permission — in some limited way — to eat ‘bad’ foods!” is a tremendously effective marketing strategy.

And that’s because so many of us really believe somebody needs to give us permission; simply choosing to eat fatty, sugary food because you feel like it is absolutely not an option. And then somebody also needs to put a limit on that permission, so we won’t go and devour the world. In this culture, most of us never learn to trust our bodies when it comes to eating, and we certainly never learn to trust our desires. Choosing what to eat is a daily battle between good and evil.

I mean, think about it for two seconds. People are selling plans that allow you to “eat what you want,” to the tune of billions. That’s lunacy. Because I love you, I shall offer you the Kate Harding Lifetime Diet Plan — which permits you to eat whatever you want — absolutely free! It goes like this:

DAY 1:

Eat whatever you want. It’s your body. You’re allowed.


Repeat Day 1.

The problem with the Kate Harding Lifetime Diet Plan is exactly what Teppy talks about — figuring out what you’re hungry for and how hungry you are after a lifetime of being told you are always too hungry for the wrong foods. I still struggle with staying on my own plan, for exactly the reasons Teppy and her commenters describe. I have a major fear of deprivation when it comes to food, plus a whole lot of baggage about “good” and “bad” foods, so trying to listen to my body instead of the voices in my head involves a lot of conscious effort — which is exactly what you’re trying to drop by, you know, listening to your body.

But it does get easier all the time. Fillyjonk and I were talking yesterday about how, after being forbidden to eat sugared cereal as kids, we both made a beeline for the Lucky Charms in the college caf. But then we both got really fucking sick of Lucky Charms pretty quickly and realized we sincerely preferred Colon Blow. That was my first experience of learning that if I remove the prohibition on certain foods, I might just find out I don’t even want them. Or at least, I don’t want them every minute of every day, like I used to think I did.

Similarly, once I was out on my own, every time I’d go to a restaurant, I would end up ordering The Thing I Kind of Wanted that Came with Fries, even if what really sounded good to me was pasta or salad or even something that came with mashed potatoes, which I love. I got mashed potatoes at home when I was a kid. But fries? Were the rarest of treats, the whole goddamned point of going to a restaurant, if you asked me. And once my mother no longer controlled my food intake, I was on a mission to eat EVERY FRY IN THE GODDAMNED WORLD.

But you know what? I didn’t eat every fry in the goddamned world. And these days, I don’t have the same internal battle anymore — I order fries when I feel like it, and the Thing I Really Want That Doesn‘t Come with Fries when I feel like that — because I’ve now spent enough years eating at enough restaurants that I no longer feel as if there’s a worldwide fry shortage looming, and I need to act now!

So it makes a lot of sense that maybe the best way to stop feeling as if you’re going to devour the WORLD is to actually go ahead and try to devour the world. Because the first thing you’ll realize is that you can’t. And the next thing you’ll realize is that you don’t really want to. And once you get to that point, you might actually have a prayer of understanding your own internal hunger cues.

But for anyone who’s grown up in this culture, really — let alone those who have dieted, struggled with eating disorders, and/or been shamed for being fat their whole lives — taking that first step of “legalizing” all foods and eating without guilt, so you can actually pay attention to how your body feels when you eat, is incredibly fucking daunting. I’ve come a long way with that, but the conscious effort is still necessary, and the voices in my head are still there, trying their damnedest to drown out what my stomach is telling me.

Yesterday, I decided I really wanted an Italian sausage sandwich for lunch. I got one at Giordano’s, and of course it was HUGE. I ate about half of it and started to feel full to the point of sickness.

Then I ate a few more bites because this is really good and I’ve only eaten half and no one can see me and WHAT IF I NEVER HAVE ANOTHER ITALIAN SAUSAGE SANDWICH IN MY WHOLE LIFE?

And only after those extra deprivation-mode bites did I go, “Wait a minute. You are so full you FEEL SICK. Why are you HURTING YOURSELF over a goddamned sandwich? You can go to Giordano’s and get a dozen Italian sausage sandwiches any time you want! You can walk away from this particular one without necessarily diminishing your lifetime Italian sausage intake! You will not be thinking about the second half of this sandwich on your deathbed!”

That’s the kind of conscious intervention I’m talking about. It’s ludicrous, but it’s necessary.

So the bad news is, I ate myself sick yesterday. The good news is, a few years ago, I would have eaten that whole sandwich and a plate of fries before I even noticed I felt sick — and then let the resulting nausea serve as appropriate punishment for my gluttony. Then only eaten “good” food for two days to atone. Yesterday, I only ate myself a little sick, relatively speaking, and I wound up feeling proud of myself for stopping to ask the obvious question: Why are you hurting yourself over a goddamned sandwich?

And then, when I got hungry for dinner, what I really wanted was a big bowl of yogurt and berries, so that’s what I ate until I was full. I didn’t make that choice because it would balance out my earlier indiscretion; I made it because I opened the fridge and went, “I’ve got yogurt and berries! Hot damn!”

So sometimes it’s easy and sometimes it’s not. But the one thing I know for sure is that the more I eat what I want and just let it go, instead of moralizing about it — even if what I want is a gigantic Italian sausage sandwich or a plate of onion rings or a bag of Cheetos — the less I fear I am on the brink of devouring the WORLD. And the less I eat myself sick. And the more I eat nutrient-rich food because I crave it. And the more I can truly distinguish feelings of hunger from feelings of deprivation.

And the better I feel.