Jun 28

Fat Shaming, Fat Phobia: Three New Books

Several new books by women address the prevalent issues of fat shaming and fat phobia and the sometimes contradictory feelings and attitudes they engender.

I. Hunger

Roxane Gay self-describes as “super morbidly obese.” Her new book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, called “ferociously honest” by the LA Times, stands out for the connection she makes between being gang raped at 12 and her ensuing desire to build a body that would avert further assault.

As told to Terry Gross, NPR,  “I grew up in this world where fat phobia is pervasive. And I just thought, ‘Well, boys don’t like fat girls, so if I’m fat, they won’t want me and they won’t hurt me again.’ But more than that, I really wanted to just be bigger so that I could fight harder.”

But, as with most childhood defense mechanisms having origins in trauma, it no longer serves her so well.

I would definitely like to tear down this wall I’ve built around myself, because I don’t need it anymore. And I know that intellectually, and on good days, I know that emotionally. I don’t want to be thin, I want to be smaller, because I just do. I think it makes so many things easier just on a day-to-day basis, and also I have no small amount of vanity, so I just want to be able to find cuter clothes. Sometimes it’s really basic things that I would like for myself.

Not exactly at peace, Gay now states, “I’ve told my parents many times that I’m as over being raped as I’ll ever be. It’s 30 years later. It’s not fine, but I’ve dealt with it. I’ve gone to therapy, I have worked through those issues. But I don’t know if I’ll ever overcome the ways in which I was treated for daring to be fat” (Sarah Rose Etter, Vice).

To everyone’s detriment, media portrayals of large women are still sorely lacking, Gay points out. “I don’t think we have yet seen a movie where a fat woman was treated with dignity. All too often, she’s the funny woman, and her sexuality is jokey, like Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids. She was sexual, but it was part of a joke” (Janelle Okwodu, Vogue).

II. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud

The title goes right to the fat shaming words.

Melissa McCarthy is actually one of the featured subjects in Anne Helen Petersen‘s essay collection Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman. Megan Garber, The Atlantic: “…McCarthy embodies the conflicting messages American culture sends to fat people—and fat women, in particular: You’re contributing to a nationwide health epidemic, but also love yourself! Because you’re beautiful just as you are.”

III. This Is Just My Face

Another actress who’s received undue attention for her size is Gabourey Sidibe, whose new memoir is This Is Just My Face: Try Not to Stare. Incidentally, like McCarthy, Sidibe has recently chosen to shed weight but doesn’t want her body size to be the main thing she or others focus on.

A few notable quotes from the book:

…I thought that if I could just get the world to see me the way I saw myself, that my body wouldn’t be the thing you walked away thinking about.

It seems as though if I cured cancer and won a Nobel Prize someone would say, “Sure, cancer sucks and I’m glad there’s a cure, but her body is just disgusting. She needs to spend less time in the science lab and more time in the gym!”

My beauty doesn’t come from a mirror. Never has and never will.

May 16

Calling People Fat: A Trend That Reclaims the Word

Two new books are notable for their contribution to the discussion on whether food is an addiction and whether calling people fat is appropriate and/or helpful. Well, the first book is, anyway; the second doesn’t actually mean to be.

Morning Joe anchor Mika Brzezinski‘s book gets personal. In Obsessed: America’s Food Addiction–and My Own she owns up to her own significant struggles with eating and body image issues, hidden previously to the world because all we see is her thinness.

An excerpt from her Introduction:

This is the book I have been afraid to write . . . terrified actually. It deals with an issue that is radioactive for me. How I eat, diet, and look has tied me up in knots my entire life, and I know I am not alone. I have been held hostage by food since I was thirteen years old. My body started filling out more than the figures of other girls in my class, and that set off what has become a thirty-year battle with my body image. Food has been my enemy. My determination to be thin has led me to extremes, and I’ve done damage to my body and my mind in the process.

What “extremes” exactly? Nanci Hellmich, USA Today, lists the various issues: “For years, she has maintained a cycle of overeating, starving, binging, running. She has struggled with multiple eating disorders, including a brief bout with bulimia, binging and purging, and a type of exercise bulimia where she would gorge then run for 10 miles. And one psychologist said she had an unhealthy obsession with eating healthful foods, which some call orthorexia nervosa.”

Brzezinski made a deal with another journalist, her best friend Diane Smith. The latter, perceived as “fat” and unhealthy by Brzezinski—who told her so—would strive to lose a desired goal of 75 pounds; the former, perceived as “skinny” and unhealthy by Smith, would try to gain 10. And they would write this book about their experiences.

It doesn’t matter what size you are, they advise, your eating and emotional issues can be just as in need of tweaking as the next person’s, and people have food issues for all kinds of varying reasons.

While Smith is against shaming people by calling them “fat,” Brzezinski advocates talking even more about people being “fat.” Another part of her book’s Intro: “Remember the days when people whispered about cancer and called it ‘the big C,’ as if naming it bestowed power? Now we’re doing the same thing with weight problems. We need to stop the whispering, start talking louder, and use the F-word: fat.”

But let’s not forget that “fat” is not in fact a disease like cancer. Nor is “skinny” for that matter. The “cancer” is not fatness, it’s the eating, the emotional issues. Calling people fat and shaming them about their size is still a no-no in my opinion.

Meanwhile, popular comedian Jim Gaffigan‘s new book is Dad is Fat. Although about parenting his five young kids, being “fat” is clearly a theme for him. His standup routines also often focus on food and eating.

Jun 21

Fat Acceptance: Lesley Kinzel’s “Two Whole Cakes”

In a recent article on The Huffington Post, therapist Jean Fain introduces us to a new book by Lesley Kinzel entitled Two Whole Cakes: How to Stop Dieting and Learn to Love Your Body. Fain describes it as a book about fat acceptance and not only calls it “the first book on the subject that’s funny, fascinating and life-changing” but says that it—in addition to Kinzel’s blog—has been a major factor in positively influencing her own perceptions of the fat acceptance movement. States the book’s publisher:

…Lesley Kinzel tells stories, gives advice, and challenges stereotypes about being and feeling fat. Kinzel says no to diet fads and pills, shows by example how to stop hating your body, celebrates self-acceptance at any size, and urges you to finally accept the truth: your body is not a tragedy!

A review found on the blog Feministing:

Her book challenges popular opinion around fatness and obesity, including critiques of The Biggest Loser and Michelle Obama’s childhood obesity campaign. Without a doubt, Kinzel forces readers to unpack lifelong-held beliefs about self-identity, acceptance and, most importantly, the size of jeans you own or the number on the scale. This is an issue that plagues everyone universally– no matter where you lie on the size spectrum. Kinzel’s book is absolutely relatable to anyone that has ever felt insecure about their body or the way they look– so, pretty much everyone.

Hanne Blank, author of Big Big Love:

Two Whole Cakes is a vulnerable, funny, whip-smart, incendiary book that offers a delightfully readable way out of our culture’s unrealistic expectations of body size and appearance.

The fat acceptance movement is described by Fain as being “all about treating fat people with dignity and respect. Activists argue that the disrespect and discrimination that fat people face day in, day out is hazardous to their physical and mental health.” In an interview Fain conducted with Kinzel, the latter defines fat acceptance as “basically the idea that fat people should have the option not to hate themselves and their bodies. Not to say that everyone has to like it, but that people should feel as enabled to take a path of self-acceptance and contentment at the size they are.”

“Fat,” by the way, in the parlance of fat activists, is meant to be a relatively neutral word. It replaces such words as “overweight,” which carries more judgment.

One of the myths that fat activists face is that they disapprove of people trying to lose weight. On the contrary, Kinzel, for example, just wants people’s decisions, whatever they are, “to come from a place of self-love, and not self-loathing.” Similarly, as noted in a Time article, NAAFA (National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) doesn’t “encourage anyone to lead an unhealthy lifestyle but recognizes that for some people weight loss isn’t possible.”

Adds Katherine Bowers, writing for Women’s Health:

…(T)he fat-acceptance movement pushes another key point: Extra weight may not be ideal, but it sure beats dieting. Research shows extreme yo-yo dieting can, over time, slow metabolism and cause cardiac stress; it can even lead to long-term weight increases.

Just ask fat-acceptance activist Kate Harding, coauthor of Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body, who twice lost more than 20 percent of her weight only to regain it. It left her wondering, What if trying so hard not to be fat is actually a bigger health problem than being fat?