A few months ago I listened to one of those episodes of This American Life.
If you’re familiar with the podcast, you might know what I’m talking about. It was the kind of episode that makes you simultaneously want to laugh, cry, punch someone in the face, and hug your friends. The kind with a message that sticks in your brain and will likely change the way you view just about everything (thank you, NPR).
In it, Lindy West – whose new book I’m dying to read – describes her life as a fat girl and the steps she’s taken to own her identity in a world uncomfortable accepting her body as it is. She courageously says what many fat people wish we could have said all along: she’s here, she’s fat, and she’s done trying to change it.
“The way that we are taught to think about fatness is that fat is not a permanent state,” she says with a tone of playful disbelief. “You’re just a thin person who’s been failing consistently for your whole life.”
When I heard that, I laughed. And something clicked: she was absolutely right. For as long as I can remember, I’ve wanted to be thinner – not necessarily because I wanted to improve my health, but because I wanted my body to reflect normalcy; to be “correct,” and not a sign of ineptitude. I felt that the way my body looks – and honestly, has always looked – was a mistake I’m responsible for fixing. Neglecting to put forth extensive effort means I’m doing something wrong, that I’ll never be as valuable as those people in the weight-loss ads on TV.
And you know what? That’s garbage! It’s as garbage as saying my blue eyes are inferior and I need to do everything possible to turn them brown, or that my toes are too short so I better make a New Year’s resolution to lengthen them. It’s laughably ridiculous.
Because even if I lose fifty pounds, fatness and my body will always go hand in hand. I could train to run a marathon, go vegan, do any number of miserable things I’d probably hate, but I don’t think anything could change my wide-set shoulders, brawny biceps, chunky calves, or childbearing hips.
I’m finally learning that I’m a large person, I am female, and it’s totally okay to be both of those things. Taking up space is not something to be self-conscious about. My tummy is my business. I shouldn’t have to defend myself for weighing more than a BMI chart says I should.
I was born five weeks premature and still weighed nearly seven pounds, bigger than many full-term babies. Growing up, I was always the tallest, and usually the chunkiest kid in class. Sure, it was weird and alienating at times (every fat kid has their own set of baggage), but it’s who I am. It’s what my body is. There’s literally no sense in moralizing it one way or another.
And let me be clear: this isn’t about healthy eating and exercise. Those things are great, important, even necessary habits. They benefit mental health and physical well-being, both of which are things I strive for. There have been times in my life where those goals are somewhat attainable. There have been other times that they just weren’t going to happen. THAT IS OKAY, AND NOT A REFLECTION OF MY VALUE AS A PERSON.
Sure, we’d all be healthier if we ate more plants and less sugar, but it’s not my job to decide if someone is eating incorrect foods or not. I know enough thin people who live off of cheese and pop-tarts and enough fat people who do run marathons to understand the nuance of the so-called “obesity epidemic” in this country.
Why don’t we just start approaching weight pragmatically? If you eat fewer calories and spend more time on your feet, you’ll likely be thinner, because that’s how human physiology works. If your life is in a place where those things aren’t possible or you have more pressing matters to worry about, you’ll weigh more. That’s it. No need to moralize things. No need to assume every fat person you meet is lazy, stupid, or dirty. Unless you’re a diamond or a literal piece of meat, size does not reflect value.
I’ve had to tell myself that a lot lately. Since Thanksgiving weekend I’ve gained ten pounds. With the stress of finals and the following three weeks of lazing around at home eating Christmas treats, my body has responded by gaining back 10 of the 25 pounds I lost last semester due to my busy, on-my-feet, occasional meal-skipping lifestyle.
To that I say, so what? Soon I’ll be back to the real world and dropping weight again, but I shouldn’t feel anxiously inadequate until I reach my previous low. I don’t have time to worry about those things.
Starting in May I’ll be hiking 200 miles over the course of seven weeks, and likely a hundred more after that. It’s likely I’ll lose lots of weight. It will be marvelously fun, and I’m sure I’ll feel great. But guess what? I’m not expecting to keep up that kind of activity level once I’m back to the daily grind, writing papers and reading books and working a desk job. I might try and incorporate more healthy habits, and I hope I do, but the fact is, I’ll likely never stay as thin as I’m sure to be immediately post study-abroad. THAT IS OKAY.
How about we love our bodies for being our bodies? They change sometimes – for some of us, quite often. This is not something to freak out about. In fact, it’s something we should cherish. Our bodies, in so many ways, reflect the lives they live. That can be a truly beautiful thing if we let it be a beautiful thing and not a dark force rooted in horror and discomfort.
I would like to insist, if not shout from the rooftops, that we need to love our bodies even when they weigh more than we want them to. When they’re sick and keeping us from living the lives we wish we had. When they trip and fall, literally and figuratively. When they’re trapped in addiction, self-destruction, unimaginable anguish. Without body love, there’s no hope of getting past any of those mortal struggles. Believe me: it’s ridiculously hard, if not impossible, to value and care for something you despise.
After all, if you’ve been taught your whole life that your body marks your own failure, why on earth would you be motivated to change it? Why would you put in the effort to keep it healthy with wholesome meals and daily physical activity if you’re convinced that no matter what you do, it can never be enough?
When we eat salad, we should do it because we like eating salad, and it makes us feel good. When we forego donut number two, it shouldn’t be because we want to fit into a dress five sizes too small; it should be because we don’t want the sugar crash two hours later. When we go for a run, it should be because we love our bodies and the things that they can do, regardless of how much faster or stronger our neighbors might be.
If you’re exercising everyday because you hate your body, the habit won’t last. In that state, even losing a tremendous amount of weight can only result in temporary happiness – it will only be a matter of time until those lingering feelings of inadequacy return, either in response to nearly-inevitable weight regain or that always-inevitable plateau.
We need to stop this way of thinking! It’s time we cut ourselves a break. Not when we lose the weight. Not when we feel like we’ve met every one of our lifestyle goals. Now!
It’s time to stop whining about things we probably can’t change, and start treating ourselves the way we would treat our make-believe, skinny alter-egos. In making healthy lifestyle choices without setting an explicit goal of trimming down, we might accidentally lose weight. We might not. I’m telling you now, it really shouldn’t matter.
I know that there are times it feels like it matters. That employers are judgmental and most men find fat unattractive. That straight-size stores rarely carry anything larger than a 12. But next time you’re at a store without a single piece of clothing that fits, don’t get mad at yourself for failing to fit into the arbitrary mold the business has made for you; get mad at the fashion industry for being so narrow-minded, and spend your money elsewhere! Date where you can, and know that it’s their loss if they can’t accept the way you look. Exude the confidence of that imaginary, thin self, and never look back. BE THE CHANGE YOU WANT TO SEE IN THE WORLD.
And I get it. Learning to love something you’ve been taught to hate can be hard. Brussels sprouts come to mind. Personally, I love me some sprouts no matter how unpopular of a vegetable they are. I could hear a hundred “Brussels sprouts are gross” jokes on television or in magazines, and still love them with as much enthusiasm as I do now, because I decided years ago that they’re good, nutritious, tasty little cabbages that make my life objectively better.
The same goes for my body. I can watch TV shows that make fun of fat people (which, to be clear, I avoid like the plague), I can spend all day hearing about the hangups society has regarding female bodies. I could obsess over every offhand remark about large women I happen to hear in public spaces. I could give into that discomfort I’m supposedly meant to feel on several levels as part of my birthright. But I won’t.
I won’t let the fact that my body weighs more than most of my friends’ bodies get me down. I’ll stay away from influences that tell me my body is gross or unworthy of pleasure or love or acceptance. I’ll embrace my womanhood – my fat womanhood – like I embrace Brussels sprouts. I’ll choose to savor it, to doctor it up with bacon and balsamic vinegar, to roast it until its caramelized and delicious, to do everything I need to do to make it palatable, until I don’t even question my undying self-love; it will simply be another beautiful, amazing, worthwhile part of my being.
Because guess what, skinny alter-ego? You’re not real. It’s time I stop pretending that you are. This January, I choose both healthful living and body acceptance.
In the wise words of fat superhero Lindy West, “Why not try to figure out how to be happy now?”