News & Politics

How I Reconciled My Diet With My Feminism

How can you be a fat-positive feminist who's trying to losing weight?

I am fat. I have been fat for a long time, and I have been more or less OK with it for a long time.

My attitude toward my fatness has largely been shaped by the feminist, fat-positive movement: I wasn't going to make myself miserable trying to force my body into the mainstream image of ideal female beauty, and I was instead going to work on being as healthy as I could be -- eating well, exercising, reducing stress, etc. -- at the weight that I already was.

But a few months ago, my bad knee started getting worse. I've had a bad knee for a long time (I blew it out doing the polka, and it's never been the same since); but as bad knees go, it wasn't that bad. I had to be careful getting in and out of cars; I had bad days when I had to rest it; I had to quit doing the polka. No big deal. I can live a rich, full life being careful getting in and out of cars and not doing the polka.

But a few months ago, it started getting worse. Like, having more trouble climbing hills and stairs.

That was not OK. I live in San Francisco. I need to be able to climb hills and stairs. And I know about knees. They don't get better.

I could see the writing on the wall: I knew that if I didn't take action, my mobility would just get worse and worse with time. I could easily lose more than just stairs and hills. I could lose dancing. Fucking. Long walks. Walking at all.

Short of surgery, there's really only one thing you can do for a bad knee that I wasn't already doing. And that's to lose weight.

How do you be a fat-positive feminist who's losing weight?

It's really hard not to feel like a traitor about this. When I reach a benchmark in my weight loss and get all excited and proud, or when someone compliments me on how good I look now and I get a little self-esteem-boosting thrill, it's hard not to feel like a traitor to my feminist roots, and to the fat women who fought so hard to liberate me from the rigid and narrow social constructs of female beauty.

And even apart from feeling like a traitor, there are about 80 million emotional traps along the way: traps that threaten to upend years of hard mental health work spent learning to love myself the way I am.

For starters: I know that weight loss typically fails 90 percent of the time. So far, this weight loss thing is working; but I've only been at it for a couple of months, and I know that in the long run, it could easily fail.

And if this fails, then I get to feel like ... well, like a failure. I get to be back at Square One, with my bad knee and everything -- but without the emotional supports I built up during my "Fuck You, Body Fascists" anti-dieting years.

But if I'm one of the 10 percent that succeeds ... well, then I feel like an idiot for having whined about it for so long, and for not having done this sooner. (I'm already feeling like that now. In a purely practical sense, this has been easier than I'd thought it would be, and so now I'm feeling like a jackass for having insisted all these years that it was all but impossible.)

And if I am successful, the last thing in the world I want to do is get all smug and judgmental about how easy it was and how if I can do it, anyone can.

If there's anything I hate, it's when people who've lost weight (or never gained it) get smug and judgmental about how if they can do it, anyone can. (I'm looking at you, Dan Savage.) That is a huge, ugly trap, and it's one I'm desperate to avoid.

Plus, it's so hard to let go of thinking that food and the appetite for it should be "natural." I mean, it's food. It's one of the oldest, deepest instincts we have. (Reproducing and escaping from predators also leap to mind.)

The fact that I can't just "eat naturally," the fact that I have to pay careful, conscious attention to everything I eat and when ... it's hard not to see that as a failure of character.

And as much as I want my weight loss to purely be about my health, the reality is that, now that I'm in the process, it's become more about my appearance than I'd like. I really don't want that: I find it politically troubling and emotionally toxic, and I think in the long run it'll undermine what I'm trying to do. But it's hard.

As much as I like to think of myself as a free-spirited, convention-defying rebel, the reality is I'm a social animal, and social animals care about what other animals think of them. And since I'm nonmonogamous, I have to be aware of the realities of the sexual economy ... and the reality of the sexual economy is that I'll almost certainly get more action and attention as I lose weight. I dearly wish I didn't care about that, but I do.

In case you're curious: So far, I've been successful. As of this writing, I've lost 20 pounds in 2 1/2 months. And in case you're curious, I don't have any great secret to my so-far success. Counting calories; keeping a food diary; regular exercise; patience.

Absurdly simple in theory. In practice, it's been a fucking minefield, especially at the beginning: crying fits in grocery store parking lots, heavy conversations with family and friends, planning that at times borders on obsessive compulsive, a painful and complicated emotional dance every time I have dinner with friends or eat out, and way more processing with my partner than I ever wanted to have to go through.

(And I don't even get to call this a success yet. Ninety percent of people who lose weight gain it back within a year; so until I've lost all the weight I want and have kept it off for a year, I don't get to relax and think of this as a win. And to some extent, I'll never get to completely relax: I'll probably have to do some form of calorie-counting and weight management for the rest of my life.)

But it is getting easier with time, as I get more used to my new eating habits. It's getting physically easier: for the first week or two, 1,800 calories a day just didn't make me feel full, and I was cranky on good days and despairing on bad ones. Now, 1,800 calories feels like plenty, as my body has adjusted its sense of how much food is enough. And it's gotten easier mentally as well, as I've found some strategies -- emotional, psychological, practical strategies -- that so far have helped. 

It has helped to remember that my appetites and instincts about food evolved about 100,000 years ago on the African savannah, in an environment of scarcity.

The taste for sweets and fats; the tendency to gorge when I'm hungry; the impulse to keep on eating even after I've had enough; the triggers that make me hungry when I see or smell food ... that's not weakness or moral failure. That's millions of years of evolution at work: evolution that hasn't had time to catch up with the modern American food landscape.

And as a rationalist and a skeptic, in the same way that I'm not going to let myself believe in deities just because evolution has wired my brain to see patterns and intentions even where none exist, I'm not going to let myself eat three brownies at a party just because evolution has wired my brain to think I might starve to death if I don't.

It has helped for me to think of this as a political issue. It helps to remember that the multinational food corporations have spent decades carefully studying the above-mentioned evolutionary food triggers so they can manipulate me into buying and eating way more food than is good for me.

It has helped to think of weight loss not as giving in to the mainstream cultural standards of female beauty but as sending a big "Fuck You" to the purveyors of quadruple-patty hamburgers and Chocolate Chip Pancakes & Sausage on a Stick.

It has helped for me to remember that my other "natural" impulses aren't so natural, either. It's worked for me to remember that as a nonmonogamist, I have to think carefully about who to have sex with and when; that as a city-dweller, I have to think consciously about whether I'm genuinely in danger or am just being paranoid (or conversely, whether I'm genuinely safe or am just being oblivious).

Food is no different. It's "natural" for humans to be rational animals and to think about our choices instead of just reacting.

Finally, more than anything else, it helps me to remember my knee. It helps to notice how much better my knee already feels now that I've lost the 20 pounds: to notice that I'm climbing stairs and hills again, with little or no problem. It helps to think of how much better my knee will feel when I lose another 20, and then another. It helps to pick up the 20 lb. dumbbells at the gym and think about how rough it would be on my knees to walk around carrying them all day... and how much better it would feel to set them down. It helps to think that I might even be able to do the polka again someday. And when I start thinking that this weight loss thing isn't that big a deal and I can have that ice cream if I want it, it helps to imagine my old age, and to think about whether I want to be spending it dancing, walking in the woods, exploring new cities, on my knees committing unspeakable sexual acts... or sitting on a sofa watching TV and waiting to die.

There's something my partner has said about this, something that's really stuck with me. She's pointed out that if I were diabetic or something, and I was told I had to change my eating habits in order to stay alive... I'd do it. I might gripe about it, but I'd manage, and I'd even find a way to enjoy it if I could.

Well, the reality isn't that far off. I have a choice between a good shot at a healthy, active, pleasurable middle and old age... and a long, steady decline into a vicious circle of inactivity and ill health. I am, as the old '80s T-shirts used to say, choosing life.

Read more of Greta Christina at her blog.