Losing the Religion of Thin: beginnings in becoming anti-fatphobic

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It’s been nine months since I stopped counting calories and macros for good, and I’m steeling myself to make it to a year. Disappointingly, despite successfully fighting the urge to wrap a measuring tape around my waist for all this time, I seem to keep in reserve in the back of my mind the possibility that I can diet again, if I need to—that is, if my body decides, against its best interests, to exceed itself, and if my habits, against my best interest, need to be brought under control. I can wrest this control back and make myself submit to a regimen which will, if I do it correctly and with enough focus, result in reduction of my weight and size. I’ve done it before and I can do it again, I remind myself, if I need to. If I get too fat. As if getting fatter is some sort of crime or sin, which it is not. As if being fat is contiguous with failure, which it is not. As if fat people are somehow to blame for some sort of shortcoming, which they are not. As if fat can’t be healthy, comfortable, normal, natural, and beautiful, which it can be and absolutely is. I find myself still considering dieting even though I have read the research that proves that diets don’t work and are injurious to health—physical, mental, and spiritual—and even though I truly desire the liberation of all bodies from the cruel regime of diet culture and the sneaking prejudice of fat-phobia (cruelties and prejudices that go hand in hand with racism, ablism, and heteronormativity). But making that final step to achieve a cognitive shift so that I actually believe that I don’t need to ever diet again is the hardest part of all.

I’m a forty-year-old, white, (mostly) female-identifying person. I’m educated. I don’t want to think of dieting as some sort of back-up plan, but somehow I still do. It wasn’t until this last year that I began to pay deep attention to the way my ingrained, internalized attitudes toward body, size, and shape play out in patterns of interactions with others that sometimes reinforce the harm of the thin ideal. It’s such a mind-twist to realize that even though I don’t want to be fat-phobic, my attitudes toward health might still harbor the prejudice of fat-phobia. It’s similar to the work of undoing white fragility in learning to be (more and more) anti-racist. I may want to be anti-racist, but unless I continue to confront my own white fragility (and this is a process that has no end—so get comfortable with being uncomfortable), I’m not going to get very far. As with racism, so it goes for fat-phobia too: I need to directly confront any attitude that conveys the message, whether explicit or implicit, that fat is somehow bad, lazy, immoral, or lacking in any way. I am what’s known as “straight-sized”, a person who, in general, benefits from “thin privilege” that results in social advantages, from being able to buy off-the-rack clothing without much trouble, to not having my health concerns overlooked or dismissed. I can’t heal the damage I have suffered from “the religion of thin” unless I work to undo the cultural and social prejudice that has not only harmed me but given me privilege. This is a messy intersection, and it’s all real. My experience in the world is not the same as a fat person’s. I have not had to endure the same violences. Fat-phobia harms everyone, and it harms fat people most of all[1]. I think what needs to be said out loud in the community of straight-sized people who want to work for body liberation is this: I can’t heal my own relationship with my body without addressing internalized fatphobia, which means learning about and committing to a social and political ethical stance. Body work is justice work.

***

“I know you don’t believe in diets, Claire,” says my best friend, a doctor; “but then there are the rest of us.” She had just declared that she was “staying away from sweets”, and I had asked her why. I stayed silent at her retort. Not wanting to believe in diets and actually not believing in diets are two different things. I am working to deprogram myself from an ideology so pervasive that its most harmful precepts have grown cheek and jowl together with beliefs about the good, the healthy, and the right. The way we blindly reinforce the ideology of thinness and diet culture within the medical system and “wellness industry” is like feeding a parasite we don’t know is draining our most precious resources before we can even taste them. My friend is a brilliant woman, and she knows and understands these things, but that does not simply translate into release from the shame and sadness of constantly believing your body is betraying you.

“I lost five pounds!” my mother whispers conspiratorially, turning to me with an expectant smile. I know she wants validation, but I can’t even muster a “good for you”. I can’t bring myself to reinforce the self-abasement and anxious self-critique that has been my mother’s constant companion since I don’t remember when. She carries around “need to lose weight” like an albatross and a badge: she’s good for doing it, and she’s already guilty for having to. The odd and confusing mixture of “self-care” and punishment literally pains me. How did she learn this, and what have I learned from her? During the work week, my retired parents provide free child care for my five-year-old, and every day I wonder about the implicit lessons she is soaking up from media and casual conversation. I come get her one day and my mom and daughter are talking about making cookies. “Make sure you don’t eat too many, grandma,” chirrups my little one. “That’s right, sweetie,” says my mom approvingly. I know I need to say something, and soon, before the bodily distrust and unease settles itself into my daughter’s bones, and she starts to think of this disease as a friend. But how do we unwind ourselves from a way of thinking so familiar and seemingly comfortable that it feels like the way things are and should be? Getting someone who already thinks this way to believe they can live without dieting is like trying to convince someone they can breathe without air. We’re addicted to bodily self-control through weight loss like a substance that we so depend on that the withdrawals could kill us. Or so we believe.

***

I had an idyllic early childhood, the summers especially. Warm sunlight on fragrant tomato vines in the burgeoning backyard garden, dark loamy soil that smelt of rich goodness, squinting up at a deep blue sky, a scratchy tire swing on a hairy rope, grasshoppers tickling your palms, the satisfying thunk-thunk of wooden spoon in a pitcher full of some icy Kool-Aid. My barefoot mama making bread in the old farmhouse kitchen, the snap of a juicy green bean being prepared for dinner. I crawled around between wooden table legs in the warm shadows, exchanging stares with our dusty-whiskered black cat. I was selfishly unconcerned with my baby sister sitting in her highchair happily reducing a banana to mush, and I had no idea how perfect it all was: an early childhood remarkable only by virtue of the fact that it was unremarkable. I was so safe and happy it never occurred to me to think it could be otherwise. This childhood is the greatest gift I’ve been given in my life, because it laid a foundation of security and confidence in the world around me. And while I have experienced a fair share of shame, disappointment, rejection, exclusion, dysfunction, and some discrimination in my life, this foundation has enabled me to dig my toes deep into inner resources that have helped me return to steady. I love myself, and I believe in the essential goodness of being alive and being together. I have my parents to thank for that.

Real trust is something you don’t think about. At three or four years old, I didn’t think about whether or not to trust that my parents loved me, that I had a home, that I would be cared for, that I had enough to eat. We should celebrate those privileged selfishnesses of childhood, if we’ve been lucky enough to have them. Because of that foundation in security I was so lucky to have, it’s difficult for me to remember when I had my first experiences of questioning whether or not I could trust my own body, let alone whether or not I could control it. Like so many other unremarkable stories of growing up, it was a mixed stew of religion, culture, education, and family dynamics that eventually taught me the wayward awkwardness of my own flesh. These unspoken lessons were in the pale, oval, and thin face of the Virgin Mother, a willowy blue-eyed beauty, gazing beneficently at my little Catholic congregation, as well as in the visible ribs of a bony crucified Christ I also stared at every Sunday (no wonder Jesus needed the magical process of transubstantiation to feed us all, since there was so little of him to go around…). It was in the long rubbery legs of the one Barbie doll I was allowed to have, a gift from a grandfather who professed ignorance in the face of feminist protests from my mother. Nobody explained to me why she was both so beautiful and so bad; I just remember the sighs of giving in to a little girl’s demands for what every other little girl already had, and my father’s admonishment to keep her dressed—a lesson I never forgot. It was in the leotard and tights for my ballet lessons, and the angelically blonde child stars that dominated mid-80s sitcom programming: there was a way to be good, beautiful, liked, and accepted. There existed a magical formula of privilege, money, and genetics (i.e., white, rich, thin) that would unlock lifelong happiness and success. That was something I should want. That was something I should get. And if lack of privilege, money, or the right genes prevented access, then I should beg, borrow, steal, or cut my foot to fit the shoe, like Cinderella’s sister[2] with the glass slipper right in front of her, but maddeningly out of reach. Such were my tacit lessons in racism, sexism, and fat-phobia.

Suzanne Sommers and her Thighmaster, and the TV aerobics classes against a seafoam green studio set (I still love me a good pair of leg warmers), health food from the co-op, and Richard Simmons with his disturbingly shiny shorts, and …Weight Watchers. I think Weight Watchers came into our home sometime in the early 90s, not too long after the birth of my youngest sibling. There was a three-ring notebook and a food scale on the counter, inscribed with a hot pink cursive font that somehow connoted both competition and success. Adorning the front of the fridge, right at adult eye-level where the mayonnaise jar might be, was a blue ribbon, much like the kind you could win at the county fair, that said “I lost 10 lbs!” in cheap, flaky gold paint. A contest was on. Who was winning? Who was competing? Was it me? Was I part of this race?

For many of us, perhaps healing is a process of learning to regain the trust in our own bodies—which means in our very selves—that we intuitively understood as children. I’m aware that this “return to paradise” trope has is problems; not everyone has memories of an idyllic childhood to return to. All I mean to suggest is that, as Lindo Bacon and others in the Health at Every Size (HAES) movement have been saying for years now, the trust that we can have in our own bodies is something that we don’t have to scrounge up out of nothing, but something we are already primed for. As a colleague recently reminded me, our bodies are “elegant things” fully capable of managing themselves, and it is when we intrude into our bodies’ natural processes that problems arise. Our bodies are not the problem; our bodies are the promise of integration and balance.

I believe that the very fact of our embodiedness is something that we can return to with trust[3]. Even if that body is a body in pain, and even, and maybe especially, when that body does not cooperate with our desires. The key is learning to desire myself. I am my body, for better or worse, and my body is me. But good old Cartesian dualism, that time-honored split between the body and the mind or “spirit” that is still so pervasive in this culture, makes us doubt that our bodies are anything more than meat-machines designed to steer our craniums around, and that consciousness is somehow independent of our biology (we’re seeing this fantasy playing out in biotech anti-aging research and the excitement around CRISPR for extending human life). But our lives and our persons are deeply entangled—molecularly, behaviorally—in our physical, material context. I can’t lift my consciousness whole-cloth from this context and expect it to live. My consciousness without my context would be like an organ without a body. An organ is the function it performs in intimate concert with the organism. That’s a humbling thought. It destroys the notion that my ego is sacred unto myself, instead implying that without the warp and woof of life’s grand tapestry, my little threads are pretty meaningless. Returning to my body with trust means letting go of ego in a pretty serious way.

So what does this have to do with weight loss and diet culture? When we constantly do battle with “gaining/losing weight”, we reinforce the notion that the body is a thing that needs to be disciplined by a more reasonable mind. There’s an underlying, tacit theology to this too: just as humanity is innately flawed and partial because marked by “original sin”, always looking for wholeness through union with a higher power who “forgives” these transgressions if we commit to a life of faith, so too is the body approached as already errant and deviant, and we can only “forgive” our own bodies for being so offensive by committing to a life of faithful discipline through diet and exercise. This is the contemporary, secular equivalent to more medieval practices of the mortification of the flesh. Michelle Lelwica argues in her 2011 book The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers Behind Women’s Obsession with Food and Weight that striving for a slender body serves a “religious” function, providing a set of ritual practices, dogmatic beliefs, and sacred iconography that give adherents a sense of purpose and belonging. This spiritual warfare is not only gendered; it’s racialized as well. It has always been the bodies and the lives of women, queer folks, and racial and ethnic minority that bear the brunt of these demands for conformity, forced to reduce themselves to fit the margins.  At these intersections, fat people are often the most marginalized of all. Living out this faith means a life of detachment and dissociation from the body, from life itself. To denigrate the body—especially the fat body—through this attitude of discipline and control means, very literally, the depersonalization of one’s very self. Depersonalization, in extreme states, can become a mental disorder wherein one feels distant and separate from one’s own body, as if you’re on the outside looking in.  People who engage in self-harm, have suicidal ideation, or attempt suicide very often report experiences of depersonalization. I believe that following the faith of diet culture that results in this detachment is a form of self-harm. Insidiously, it hides in things like health and self-care, masquerades as quasi-spirituality, and drains from the inside.

And what does this have to do with battling fat-phobia? In the same way that my consciousness is nothing without my embodied experience, so is my individuality nothing without my social experience. In popular psychology, the idea that you have to start with yourself and “learn to love yourself first” or “fix yourself first” gets tossed around a lot. It’s true, to an extent, but it’s also a chicken-and-egg kind of circularity. There is no “first”, there is no linearity to the time that relates me to all that is other than myself. Instead, we need what philosopher Emmanuel Levinas calls “anarchy”—not only the disestablishment of hierarchies that institutionalize prejudice and violence, but the destruction of the assumption that my identity, my being, begins in myself. I begin in the Other. Which is to say that my beginning is beginningless, without foundation. The only substance I know is my response to the Other—my crying out for comfort, warmth, and food as an infant; my grasping for belonging throughout my life.  Levinas wrote, “When human existence interrupts and goes beyond its effort to be […]—there is a vocation of existing for the other stronger than the threat of death”[4]. When I am interrupted by ethical responsibility to others, I am called beyond my own effort to be a self. My vocation, my calling, is to be for something more than just myself. This is why any honest to goodness effort to heal my relationship with my own body will call me beyond myself to the work of social justice. My body isn’t just me; my body is the experiencing of my relational world. Because of my body, I am never alone.

A life lived in diet culture is damagingly lonely. Subscribing to losing weight as a lifestyle means living life in a state of wounded attachment with myself as well as the world around me. Research in attachment styles and patterns clearly shows that disruptions in attachment with caregivers in infancy can have a negative impact throughout one’s life. Fortunately, attachment styles can change, and while change is slow and effortful, people can recover from childhood traumas. But attachment styles can shift toward the negative as well. Even with the security of an idyllic childhood, later trauma events and/or the sedimentation of diffuse negative messaging about the self (such as the microaggressions that people of color, gender non-conforming folks, and fat people encounter daily) can result in ruptured attachment patterns with others, and with one’s self. The benefit of secure attachment is that the child gains the confidence and the trust necessary to leave the arms of its caregivers and learn to care for itself. In other words, with secure attachment, we are given the best shot at becoming good parents to ourselves, and eventually our own children. Healing internalized fat-phobia will not only heal my attachment with myself, but also allow me to be present to others in secure states of attachment as ally, friend, coworker, partner, and colleague.

In my mid-thirties, while working full-time as a research academic overseas (translation: I was already super stressed out), my partner and I suffered three miscarriages. These were brutal lessons in the fact life does not bow to our commands, and I battled the depression and sorrow by running as hard as I could in the opposite direction. I was damned if I was going to let my body fail me so horribly again. A hobbyish interest in strength training and body building became an obsession. After the third miscarriage I signed up for a kick-boxing gym; the swollen shins and bloody toes felt like a kind of penance, if not quite the redemption I was looking for. And I exerted control all right. I got ripped, but also unhealthily thin. Achieving thinness gave me a high that felt so good it almost made the hunger migraines worth it. At the height of my dysfunctional and disordered relationship with my own being, I was so detached from my own body that my brain was literally screaming out for food. But I had a six pack, and nothing and nobody could touch me. Even writing this now, I can feel the pull of that seductive elixir of achievement and elitism. If I just took on this talisman once more, it would protect me from all other pain. I wanted to believe that I achieved the unachievable in the exercise of self-control. But I couldn’t, and no one can, sustain the unsustainable. I no longer have a six pack (no surprises there), because our bodies expertly resist reduction; instead, we are primed for survival. That’s why dieting becomes a chronic “life-style” for so many. We bounce back and forth within a certain weight range, trying to make our bodies behave, and our beautiful, blessed bodies keep returning us to the size we are meant to be for optimum health. Our bodies themselves return us to the invitation to trust something other than our egos, our ideals, our ideologies.

Deciding to let go of control has been extremely difficult, but I couldn’t go on living a divided life, especially as I began to see my attitudes mirrored in my daughter, and especially as I began to counsel others who have also been wounded by the pervasive and damaging ideology of diet culture and the religion of thinness. It is greatly disheartening, now working as a mental health professional, to see behavioral modalities that were developed to help people heal and cope twisted toward dieting and “lifestyle change” (these are the strategies behind not only the new version of Weight Watchers but also lifestyle apps like Noom[5] and other “no-diet diet” approaches to weight loss). The idea is that if you change your habits and behaviors you’ll achieve a better body, you’ll be happier. But “healthy habits” are doublespeak for that same division between unruly, bad body and disciplining, moral mind. It prevents the wound from healing. Dieting as a lifestyle is like living within an attachment wound, divorced from our very selves, and so from each other. Dieting as a lifestyle is a cry for nurturance, just as our starving bodies cry out for sustenance.

What would it be like to be released from the chains of fatphobia, so that when I look in the mirror I don’t judge myself and when I see other bodies it never enters my mind to judge them? What would it be like to drop the burden of an internal scale that always weighs myself and others against an impossible, harmful ideal? What would the freedom of full self-acceptance really be like? It would be a decolonization of the mind from the empire of prejudice.  It would truly mean loving others as myself; it would mean a meaningful life lived not only for myself, but for a community. Is that an impossible dream? I try to remind myself what I already know. In the glimmer of an early memory of childhood satisfaction and happiness, I knew what it was like to be innocent. I knew what it was like to trust myself and the world around me. I love myself, and I believe in the essential goodness of being alive and being together. I can lose this religion of thinness. It is work that falls squarely on my own shoulders, but I don’t do it alone. By listening and lifting up others in response to the call that shatters the shell of my own ego, I can break the chains of my own fragilities, link by link.

I extend gratitude to members of the Eating Disorders Training Network through Seattle Children’s Hospital, especially Dr. Cynthia Flynn, and others who have generously provided their perspective and feedback, especially Miriam Gnagy.

These essays, books, and websites have been the most helpful to me in beginning to understand anti-fatphobia:

Bacon, Lindo. 2008. Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth about Your Weight. Benbella Books. See also the HAES community at https://haescommunity.com/.

Gordon, Aubrey. Nov. 4, 2019.  “How to support your fat friends, as a straight size person.” Human Parts; Medium.com. https://humanparts.medium.com/what-i-appreciate-most-from-thinner-friends-2c1524ae09c9

Mollow, Anna. May 10, 2013. “Why Fat is a Queer and Feminist Issue.” Bitch magazine. “Micro/Macro”, issue #59. https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/sized-up-fat-feminist-queer-disability

Strings, Sabrina. 2019.  Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia. NYU Press. https://nyupress.org/9781479886753/fearing-the-black-body/

Taylor, Sonya Renee. The Body is Not an Apology. (book, workbook, website) https://thebodyisnotanapology.com/

…and many, many more. Engaging with others who are actively anti-fatphobia, asking about their experience, but not expecting to be taught, is an effective way to lift up others, especially if you are coming from a place of privilege.


[1] https://medium.com/elemental-by-medium/weight-stigma-is-a-dangerous-threat-to-health-8b8f524873fa

[2] In the older, un-Disnified versions of this tale, the sisters slice off heels and toes to fit the shoe, but the dripping blood gives their ruse away.

[3] Many of us struggle with disease, chronic symptoms, disability, pain. As a person who has been in good fairly health all my life (so far), I am open to the real possibility that I don’t quite understand the implications of what I’m saying here for people of disability or with extreme body dysmorphia. This is a place of continuing learning for me.

[4] Emmanuel Levinas (1998). Entre Nous: Thinking of the Other, Bloomsbury, p. xii.

[5] For a whip-smart critique of Noom and other “no-diet diets”, see “The Dieter’s Diet” by Virginia Sole-Smith at https://www.bustle.com/wellness/noom-weight-loss-app

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