News & Politics

Caught Between Fat and Thin: The Pounds Come Off, But the Label Stays

Being fat makes you see the world differently -- even when you aren't fat anymore.

I'm always going to be a fat woman. Don't get me wrong. At five foot three and 135 pounds, I am not, by any useful definition of the word, fat.

But I have been fat. I was fat for many, many years. And for years, I was an ardent advocate of the fat acceptance movement. I actively resisted the idea that there was any point whatsoever to losing weight. I believed that medical statistics on the health effects of obesity were exaggerated at best, part of the cultural conspiracy to make women hate their bodies at worst. I was convinced that I could be just as healthy at 200 pounds (and with the eating and exercise habits that kept me at 200 pounds) as I would be with less weight. And I was convinced that losing weight never, ever worked... or at least, that it worked so rarely it wasn't worth trying--if there was even any reason for trying.

It wasn't until my bad knee started getting worse that I saw the writing on the wall, and decided that, given a choice between losing mobility and losing weight, the weight would have to go.

You'd probably think that losing weight would make a person stop thinking of him or herself as fat. And you'd almost certainly think that making a concerted effort to notbe fat would make someone abandon the whole idea of fat acceptance. I thought all that myself once... and I was wrong.

I still see the world as a fat person. My perceptions of myself, and of society, and of how society views fatness and bodies and health, have been profoundly shaped by my years of being fat in ways that are never going to change. And while I have huge disagreements with the fat acceptance movement -- especially with its more extreme denialist edges -- I still think many of its ideas are important, and perceptive, and entirely fair. I am still very much shaped by FA, and I would like to think of myself as an ally of the movement, and even as a member of it.

It's just that some of its members don't feel the same way about me, or about other fat people who choose to lose weight.

The Thinnest Fat Woman in the World

My years as a fat woman -- and as a fat acceptance advocate -- have made me hyper-conscious of anti-fat hostility, contempt, and discrimination. When I hear mocking or insulting comments about fat people, I stand up for them. When I see rigid, internally contradictory, impossible- to-attain standards of physical beauty promoted in pop culture, I rant about it ad nauseum. When I hear about fat people being discriminated against in employment and medicine and so on, I get seriously ticked off. When folks call fat people "lazy slobs" and say that "as a society we should not look up to successful people who are fat. We should tell them we admire their acting or philanthropy, but look down on them for being lazy" (direct quotes from comments on my Facebook page, btw), I smack them down with every weapon in my rhetorical arsenal.

And I still take it really, really personally. I don't hear anti-fat bigotry the way I hear, say, racial bigotry, as something to be passionately opposed but that isn't aimed at me personally. I hear it as being about me. When someone in a comment thread here on AlterNet linked to an older photo of me and mocked me for being fat, I felt the shame and the sting and the anger... before I remembered, "Wait a minute. I'm not fat." And was left with only the anger. On behalf of myself... and every other woman who's ever had her ideas irrelevantly dismissed because of her personal appearance.

I sometimes feel like the thinnest fat woman in the world. (Well, probably not the thinnest... but you know what I mean.) Some people say that, inside every fat person, there's a thin person trying to get out. I feel the exact opposite. Inside this relatively lean body, there's a fat person nobody can see. People think they can stupid, bigoted, hurtful things about fat people to me, because they don't see me as one of them. They couldn't be more wrong. I am fat. Not in a body-dysmorphic way -- I don't look in the mirror and think I'm still fat -- but because this fat identity shaped me for years, and it will always be with me.

It's true that my feelings about fatness -- my own, and other people's -- have been changing since I've lost weight. The biggest change is that I now acknowledge the health problems associated with fatness: problems I was in deep denial about during my fat years. So I have some concerns about the health and well-being of the fat people in my life, in a way that I didn't before.

But I also see it as none of my freaking business.

I do think weight loss is both possible and worthwhile. But I also think that the cost-benefit analysis isn't the same for everyone. Weight loss was really freaking hard: it wasn't as hard as I'd initially thought it would be, and it got easier with time, but it still took some extremely hard work. And I had everything going for me: easy access to healthy food, money for things like healthy food and a gym membership, a health-conscious city to live in, a supportive partner who was going through the process with me. Not everyone has all that. And even people who do have all that still may not make the same cost-benefit analysis that I did.

So if some other fat person looks at the time and work and emotional effort that weight loss takes, and decides, "Nah, that isn't where I want to put my energy"... I think that's a reasonable decision. As long as they're making it with their eyes open -- as long as they understand the costs and risks of fatness, and decide that they're willing to accept them -- then I support them. To me, that's the essence of fat acceptance. Their body, their right to decide.

And in a totally freaky paradox, fat acceptance has actually helped me lose weight and keep it off. My years as an FA advocate have actually given me essential tools for weight management.

Here's what I mean. One of the hardest things about maintaining weight loss has been accepting the fact that my body is never, ever going to be perfect. It's never going to be the culture's ideal; it's not even going to be my own. Even though my weight and body fat percentage and so on are now well within a healthy medical range, there are still plenty of things I'd change about my body if I could wave a magic wand and make it happen.

That's been hard to accept. For years, I projected all my body anxiety onto my weight. If I was unhappy with how I looked or felt, I assumed it was because I was fat. Period. And when I was in process of losing weight, even though I was healthier and happier with my body than I'd been in years, I was still very focused on trying to change, to reach my goal weight, to make my body different. Now that my weight is where I want it... I have to accept this body. With my thin hair, my veiny hands, my droopy breasts, my funky loose skin from the weight loss, my chronic middle- aged- lady health problems. I have to accept this body, and live with it, and love it.

And my years in the fat acceptance movement have been helping me do that.

The idea that I can love my body the way it is? The idea that I can focus more on how my body feels and functions than how it looks? The understanding that the cultural ideal of physical beauty is not just insanely rigid and narrow, but internally contradictory and literally unattainable? The understanding that everybody, even fashion models and movie stars, is insecure about their bodies and their attractiveness... and that becoming more secure happens, not by hating our bodies and trying to change them, but by loving our bodies and learning to accept them? The idea that there are lots of different ways to be beautiful and desirable? The idea that confidence and joy make people way more attractive than any physical traits? The idea that I can make the body I have be as healthy and happy as possible, instead of trying to cram it into someone else's ideal? The idea that I should eat well and exercise, even if it doesn't make my body look exactly the way I want it to, because it will help my body feel the way I want it to? The wacky notion that a "good body" is one that gives me pleasure and does most of what I want it to do?

All of this comes from my years as a fat acceptance advocate. And I can apply it to how I feel about my body now, in ways that have nothing to do with my weight: my age, my skin, my hands, my short square frame. Heck, I can even apply it to my weight... which is totally healthy by medical standards, but is still seen as grossly fat by the standards of, say, TV actresses. Even though my weight is well within a healthy medical range, it's still not always easy being okay with it. And the ideas I learned from FA have been of invaluable help.

And I'm tremendously grateful for that. I am still very much shaped by the ideas of fat acceptance, and even though I'm not fat anymore, I would like to think of myself as an ally of the movement, and even as a member of it.

I just wish the movement felt the same way about me.

And about other fat people who choose to lose weight.

My Body, My Right To Decide

I am grateful for the FA movement. But I also have serious differences with it, and some serious anger. Among other things, I spent years buying into the hardcore FA line denying any connection between fatness and health problems. And this denialism gave me a years-long excuse to not try weight loss. I spent years ignoring the serious health problems my weight was creating for me... because I'd been persuaded by the FA movement that weight loss wouldn't make any difference to my health, and that I'd never succeed at it even if I tried. I wasted a lot of years being a lot less healthy than I could have been. I'm pretty ticked off about that.

But that's nothing compared to the anger I'm experiencing now that I've lost weight.

When I first started blogging about my weight loss, I was met with a faceful of extremist denialism, concern trolling, and outright hostility from many FA advocates, in both blog comments and private emails. The health benefits of successful weight loss were denied. The extremist attitudes of many FA activists were denied. Connections between weight and health were denied, and medical researchers publicizing these connections were called "crusaders." I was told that all diets fail everyone. I was told that there was no way my weight loss would work in the long run; that I might succeed in losing the weight initially, but would almost certainly fail to keep it off over time. I was told that weight loss is never the right decision for anyone, and that there is no health problem that could appropriately be dealt with by weight loss. I was told that there are no serious health risks caused or exacerbated by being fat, and that health problems that appear to be caused by fatness are always really caused by something else. I was told that weight is entirely controlled by genetics, that eating/ exercise habits have absolutely nothing to do with it, and that weight management is therefore a complete waste of time. I was told that it was okay to incidentally lose weight as part of a "healthy at every size" eating and exercise plan, but that deliberate weight loss was horribly unhealthy... even if the "conscious weight loss" plan was identical to the "healthy at every size" plan in every way. I was told that even when weight loss is successful, the harm done by it -- physical, psychological, or both -- is terrible: so terrible that, in all cases, it completely outweighs the benefits.

And the specific health concern that inspired me to lose weight -- namely, a bad knee that was getting much worse, to the point where my mobility was becoming seriously impaired -- was met with a callous, trivializing dismissal that I still find shocking. Many FA advocates were passionately concerned about the quality of life I might lose if I counted calories or stopped eating chocolate bars every day. But when it came to the quality of life I might lose if I could no longer dance, climb hills, climb stairs, take long walks, walk at all? Eh. Whatever. I should try exercise or physical therapy or something. Oh, I'd tried those things already? Well, whatever. As long as I didn't try to lose weight. That was the important thing. For the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, whatever else I did, I should not try to lose weight. Essentially, when I started writing about weight loss, I was treated like a traitor. I was treated like a threat. Even though I made it clear that I wasn't advocating weight loss for everybody, the mere fact that I was choosing to lose weight myself was seen as undermining the principles of the movement. And I was told, in no uncertain terms, to knock it off. This didn't just piss me off. It baffled me. I'd always thought of the fat acceptance movement as essentially about empowerment and self-ownership. Our bodies, our right to decide. Apparently, not so much. Apparently, the decision to manage my health by losing weight was not really mine. Apparently, my body didn't belong to me. It belonged to the fat acceptance movement. Many of whom felt entirely comfortable telling me what I should and should not do with it.

And I'm not the only one. When I began to blog about my weight loss, I wasn't just met with toxic denialism from FA advocates. I was also met with a hugely positive response from readers who were dealing with the same stuff. Like me, a lot of my readers identified as fat-positive, but because of serious health concerns, they were now working on losing weight... and were trying to reconcile their fat-positivity with their weight loss. And a number of these readers had dealt with the same hostile, concern-trolling, denialist reaction from the FA movement. They felt the movement had made an important and valuable difference in their lives, they felt a connection with it that they wanted to maintain... and yet they felt like they'd been abandoned by it, even pushed out of it. Margo put it best in her email to me: "The body / fat positive communities don't seem to have any place for me, even though these are communities I've sought out, identified with and gained a lot from over the years. Firstly, I've done the unthinkable and dropped my body fat percentage intentionally, and secondly, the scientist in me just can't deal with the faith-like basis for some of the debates on health, weight and weight loss anymore. I just wish there was a place to talk about the intersection of these issues with feminism without feeling that I'm a FA and feminism drop-out."

What kind of feminism is this? I thought.

What kind of movement claims to be about empowerment... but disavows people for making their own choices about their bodies? What kind of movement claims to be about self-ownership... but abandons people who deviate from the movement's norm? What kind of movement claims to be about self-esteem... but treats people like traitors for loving their bodies and wanting to take care of them the best way they know how?

I still think there is a hugely important place in our society for a fat acceptance movement. I think we need a movement that advocates for treating people with dignity, equality, and respect, regardless of their size; a movement that resists the impossible cultural ideals of beauty; a movement that encourages fat people to love themselves and take care of themselves, regardless of whether they lose weight; a movement that speaks out for fat people's right to make their own choices about their bodies and their health.

But it needs to accept that not everyone is going to make the same choices. If the fat acceptance movement is going to advocate for fat people who don't choose to lose weight, it needs to be every bit as supportive of fat people who do.

Our bodies.

Our right to decide.

Period.

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