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If you live in the U.S. you are absolutely bombarded with the idea that being overweight is bad for your health. This repetition leaves one with the idea that being overweight is the same thing as being unhealthy, something that is simply not true. In fact, people of all weights can be either healthy or unhealthy; overweight people (defined by BMI) may actually have a lower risk of premature death than “normal” weight people. Being fat is simply not the same thing as being unhealthy.
The Health At Every Size (HAES) movement attempts to interrupt the conflation of health and thinness by arguing that, instead of using one’s girth as an indicator of one’s health, we should be focusing on eating/exercising habits and more direct health measures (like blood pressure and cholesterol).
A recent study offered the HAES movement some interesting ammunition in this battle. The study recruited almost 12,000 people of varying BMIs and followed them for 170 months as they adopted healthier habits. Their conclusion? “ Healthy lifestyle habits are associated with a significant decrease in mortality regardless of baseline body mass index.”
Take a look. The “hazard ratio” refers to the risk of dying early, with 1 being the baseline. The “habits” along the bottom count how many healthy habits a person reported. The shaded bars represent people of different BMIs from “healthy weight” (18.5-24.9) to “overweight” (25-29.9), to “obese” (over 30).
The three bars on the far left show the relative risk of premature death for people with zero healthy habits. It suggests that being overweight increases that risk, and being obese much more so. The three bars on the far right show the relative risk for people with four healthy habits; the differential risk among them is essentially zero; for people with healthy habits, then, being fatter is not correlated with an increased relative risk of premature death. For everyone else in between, we more-or-less see the expected reduction in mortality risk given those two poles.
This data doesn’t refute the idea that fat matters. In fact, it shows clearly that thinness is protective if people are doing absolutely nothing to enhance their health. It also suggests, though, that healthy habits can make all the difference. Overweight and obese people can have the same mortality risk as “normal” weight people; therefore, we should reject the idea that fat people are “killing themselves” with their extra pounds. It’s simply not true.
Stopping dieting is a lot like breaking up with an actual person. When you’ve dieted, your dreams of how your life will look are a lot like your dreams of what your life will look like with a particular person in it. For example, if you’re dating someone, you might be dreaming of going on a vacation with them. Similarly, if you’re dieting, your vacation dreams may involve imagining yourself at your goal weight.
Whether you’re breaking up with a person or diet, you have to acknowledge the fact that some of your dreams may not come true and you have to make room for new ones. I hope these five steps will help you in that process. This actually would be a good note to write to yourself.
Step 1: It’s Not You, It’s Your Diet
The old “it’s not you, it’s me” breakup line does not apply when it comes to you in your diet. If you lost weight with this diet only to gain it back or to endlessly plateau, you didn’t fail at your diet–your diet failed you. About 95% of dieters gain back all of the weight they lost (often plus more) within 3 to 5 years. So obviously, diets are total crap and they don’t deserve you. Plus, diets never treated you right anyway, which brings me to my next point.
Step 2: Remember The Bad Times
Just like with any breakup, it’s important to remember the bad times and not dwell on the good. If you keep remembering a particular day, perhaps early on in your diet, when you were feeling super attractive and someone commented on how skinny you looked and it made you feel good, you may find yourself back in a Weight Watchers meeting before you know it. But I challenge you to instead remember all the reasons why you broke up with your diet. And I have a feeling that you’ll have more reasons to break up than to stay together. Remember that day you weighed yourself after being so careful sticking to your diet all week and your weight went up and you felt like crap about yourself for days. Remember all the guilt and stress you felt any time you had to decide what to eat when you weren’t sure how the food fit into your diet. Remember that diets aren’t actually good for you at all. When you remember to focus on how stressful and difficult your relationship with your diet was, it’ll be easier to not get back together. But I will say this…
Step 3: You May Temporarily Get Back Together With Your Diet
Look, it happens. Change is hard. You may lose resolve and go back to that Weight Watchers meeting once or twice. You may stress out that you ate something fatty and the guilt washes over you. It happens. When it happens, it’s important to revert to step two, and remember the bad times. Sometimes I think this moment or two of getting back together with your diet is almost necessary to process – usually you start to remember right away all the things you hated about being on a diet. So if you get caught in this step, do not worry. Just revert to step two and your breakup will be official again in no time.
Step 4: There Are Other (Delicious) Fish in the Sea
Exploring the other fish in the sea can be a little scary in the beginning. It can be nerve-racking to go from a dieting paradigm, with all of its rules and structure, to a non-dieting paradigm where the only rules are dictated by you. To me, this is the perfect time to start exploring Health at Every Size, particularly the intuitive eating aspects of it. With Health at Every Size principles, you learn to connect with your body’s own signals in terms of hunger and fullness, and get to explore what foods are really best for your body and your needs. Explaining how this works is really beyond the scope of this post, but if you want to learn more about it and how to incorporate it into your life in an in-depth way, you should definitely check out The Big Beautiful Goddess Academy.
Step 5: One Day You’ll Barely Remember It’s Name
It’s been five years since my last diet, and I have to say, it does get better. All the stress and guilt I used to experience around food and my body are truly gone. Now I eat from a completely different place–one where my focus is on nourishment and what my body needs and desires, not some rules that somebody made up because it led to some temporary weight loss and sold a few books. It is a much happier place, I’m so glad I made that choice to break up with dieting forever.
When it comes to roles on television and in movies, fat actresses have few options. Instead of portraying diverse, multifaceted characters, they are usually relegated to either sassy fat sidekick or supportive fat best friend. Of course, as Marissa Audia-Raymo illustrates in her BUST Magazine article “The Fat Friend” (August/September Issue), these stereotypes ring true in real life as well.
On the feminist favorite, Gilmore Girls, the character of Sookie, played by Melissa McCarthy, is main character Lorelei’s best friend and confidante. While Sookie does have a somewhat well-developed personal life, she still fits the trope of supportive fat best friend, relegated to the background most of the time, never seeming to notice or care that Lorelei received all of the attention and praise. McCarthy now plays another supportive best friend, this time to Christina Applegate, on Samantha Who? Surely with McCarthy’s talent, she could hold up a show of her own—although the few times a fat woman has been the main character on a show, her weight has been a constant issue.
For example, on Less Than Perfect, Sara Rue, pre-significant weight loss, played main character Claude Casey, the newly-minted secretary to a mercurial news anchor. Rumors swirled that the show’s title was a reference to Rue’s weight, and her size was consistently a source of laughs on the show. Rue lost 30 pounds over the course of the show, which apparently still wasn’t enough to not be relegated to supportive best friend status in her next recurring role. Rue went on to play Penny Higgins, best friend to Lindsay Price’s Joanna Frankel on Eastwick. She recently lost another 50 pounds and has been tapped to host the CW’s Shedding for the Wedding, a reality show about 10 fat couples trapped in a house together vying to lose the most weight so they can have their wedding funded. Oh, and of course she’s now the spokesperson for Jenny Craig, a gig every formerly fat female celebrity is gifted with once they reach the magical world of thin.
Speaking of Less Than Perfect, Rue’s character had her own sidekick on the show, played by Sherri Shepherd—which brings us to our second fat woman trope, the sassy fat sidekick. This role is almost solely filled by women of color, specifically black women. If you’re a fat black woman on TV, it’s practically a requirement that you’d better be sassy and mouthy. Sherri Shepherd also has a recurring role on another feminist favorite, Tina Fey’s 30 Rock, which is problematic in its portrayal of pretty much all black characters, and Shepherd’s character—Tracy Jordan’s wife, Angie—is no exception. Angie is a Sapphire type if there ever was one, bossy and beyond “sassy;” constantly emasculating hapless Tracy. Ostensibly her character provides comic relief, but I just cringe every time she comes on the screen. I can’t even say she’s a “friend” to anyone on the show, but the neck-rolling mouthy fat black woman stereotype is in full effect.
Less stereotypical is the role played by comedian Retta on Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock’s fellow Thursday night NBC comedy. While her character Donna has few lines on the show other than making various faces and rolling her eyes, when she does talk it’s to say something—you guessed it—sassy. Again this is an example of fat women and specifically fat black women being used to provide comic relief. It’s as if Hollywood thinks every fat black woman is a storehouse of “oh no you di’nt” type dialogue. I will admit, I do get down like that on occasion, but I like to think I’m more nuanced in general. I suppose when white fat women are relegated to supportive best friends I can’t expect any more sensitivity paid to the depiction of fat black women, but seriously, these stereotypes are offensive.
Even the first Sex and the City movie got in on the act, casting a pre-weight loss Jennifer Hudson as Louise, Carrie Bradshaw’s “personal assistant”, who gives her a lot of “you go get yours, girl” advice delivered in that classic sassy black woman tone. I’m going to digress for a second to say that the scene in that movie where Carrie gifts Louise with that hideous Louis Vuitton bag and Louise gets all excited by it produced a ton of eye rolling on my part. That’s great that Carrie wanted to reward her fat black assistant with something that would fit, but did she have to give her the most fake-looking Louis Vuitton bag in the line? I guess she figured all black people like that kind of gaudy blinged out bullshit.
Given the lack of visibility of fat women both of color and white in mass media today who aren’t actively trying to lose weight and selling a product (I see you, Kirstie Alley), I’m guessing we’re supposed to be grateful for any representation we can get, no matter how one-dimensional. But personally, I’d rather not see fat people at all than see the grating stereotype of the sassy fat woman and the sad stereotype of the supportive fat best friend. It’s been decades since a fat woman led a show without any mention of her weight—I’m talking about shows like the previously mentioned Roseanne and Gimme a Break. Our image-obsessed culture demands that its celebrities fit a certain mold and fat women, well, they break it. I want to see more Callies and Mirandas—in comedies as well as dramas. Fat people actually can be funny without playing off their weight. No, really, I’ve seen it. Hollywood needs to wake up and start realizing that.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about fat characters on television, both our lack of representation and the way we are represented when we do appear. If you didn’t read it, Tasha Fierce’s Size Matters column at Bitch featured a lot of great discussions of fat characters, with particular examinations of the intersections between size and race, the ways that framing shifts depending on racial identity.
Like other stock minorities, fat people on television usually have a limited number of options when it comes to representation. Generally, we are reminded that fat people are disgusting and sexually abhorrent and that they are obsessed with food. I can pretty much guarantee you that there will be a food-centric scene to make sure people get the memo about food and fat. Fat people are usually shoved into the fat best friend category. They may have sharp fashion, like Lauren on Glee, but they are not consulted about fashion, sexuality, or anything else. They have no lives beyond their fatness. They are there as props.
Fat men typically enjoy more leniency than fat women when it comes to their depiction in pop culture, a reminder of the dichotomy that exists in society at large. Fat men can be successful, fat men may even be allowed to have sex, fat men can possibly have characterisation beyond their obsession with food. Fat women, particularly fat women of colour and nonwhite women, are kept very firmly in a very specific box and you are not allowed to take them out and play with them.
Fat, itself, is shorthand for so many things. A symbol of greed, evil, gluttony, list. I am reminded of a Buffy villain, a demon so fat he cannot move and must be kept in a little tub of warm water and bathed continually to keep his skin from cracking. It’s a clear reference to immobilized humans, people who may need assistance with bathing, who have to apply powder to prevent rashes and sores. We are supposed to be repulsed by the demon’s very physicality; his evil, what it is he is doing, is secondary, really, because he’s so physically disgusting. Just as we are supposed to dehumanise fat people with mobility impairments by thinking of them solely as objects of abject horror, rather than actual people with lives and feelings.
I am reminded of the running joke on Wonderfalls involving a very fat character, viewed with horror and suspicion. Viewed, really, as less than human, which is often the way fat people are depicted in pop culture. Their fat is the sum total of their identities and you don’t need to know any more about them. Their very bodies are a running joke, symbols designed to act as a dogwhistle to viewers. Look at the pathetic fat lady who will never know love, the greedy Augustus Gloop slopping up chocolate and falling into the river of his own selfishness.
The way we think about fat in pop culture translates to the way we see it in the media. Fat characters are defined solely by their fat, and thus, when we see reports about fat and fat issues, they almost always feature the ubiquitous headless fatty. Why would you need to see a person’s face? The body, the fat body, the terrifying jiggling rolling smelly spongy soft squishy fat body, that is the topic of discussion. We are not talking about human beings but about an entity, FAT. People seem shocked by the idea that fat folks might resent only being depicted as amorphous headless figures.
Someone once told me that the headless fatty pictures get used because they can’t get permissions for whole body shots with a head. I find that hard to believe, when there are lots of full figure shots of fat people floating around, from Crystal Renn’s magazine spreads to the Adipositivity Project. I also find it hard to believe when I can trace media images to the stock photos used and lo and behold, it’s a full body shot that has been cropped.
What I do see is fear of fat bodies and a belief that they need to be kept firmly out of the public eye. What I do see is photographers being trained to ‘deemphasise’ certain features, like fat, in their subjects. Shoot at this angle. Crop judiciously. Use clever lighting. Don’t be afraid to airbrush. Fat professionals are often surprised by their headshots, the jacket covers on their books, the way they are framed and presented in the media when they are shown at all, with the photographer working as hard as possible to diminish their size, even in the case of people like fat activists.
‘They couldn’t get permission’ is code for ‘I can’t imagine being so disgustingly fat and I would be ashamed of it so they must feel awful, ergo, it must be impossible to find happy fat people who don’t mind having their whole bodies, with their faces, photographed.’ People learn this from the way the media talks about fat, they learn it from the way fat people are depicted in pop culture, they learn it from the way the people around them engage with fat and fat people, as a separate class of human beings who need to be handled with special care in case they explode, presumably rupturing oozing fat cells all over the place and contaminating people with their very fatness.
I’m creating an FAQ, so that I can direct common questions and comments to it, and not have to repeat myself a million times a day, and also to provide y’all with a database of information, facts, studies, and arguments should you ever need to argue with a fatphobe.
Anyway, please let me know what questions you’d like answered or topics addressed, especially if it’s an argument that’s used a lot or one that’s a bit tricky (I like a challenge).