A friend sent me this article by Lisa Respers France, a Senior Producer for CNN, a woman struggling with compulsive overeating and weight issues.
I should start by saying that in America, it is assumed that all fat women are struggling with their weight. There is no existing framework in America outside a small, much- reviled Fat Acceptance movement that allows for the possibility of a woman being fat and not trying to lose weight. The same is becoming true for men, although there is still a wide chasm between public expectations for male and female bodies.
Unlike the author, I do not mind being called fat — it’s an accurate description, and since I don’t ascribe any moral value to fat, it doesn’t trigger any self-hate or shame for me. Unlike the author, I do not prefer to be called “fluffy.” I love the word “zaftig,” which conveys a zest and juiciness that the word “fat,” in its plainness, does not evoke but “fat” is fine (Remember when Garp and his wife Helen in The World According To Garp named their son “Walt” — just Walt, not Walter — and John Irving described the word as the sound a beaver makes when thumping its tail on the ground? That’s how I feel when I hear “fat.” A nice, solid thwack of sound. I’m fat).
My friend who forwarded me the article assumed, as most people do, that as a fat woman, I would resonate with France’s narrative. I do not. I read France’s article with a weary sense of deja vu, in fact, mentally ticking off each generic trope found in the vast majority of narratives about fat women published in mainstream media, as each one appeared. They are, in no particular order:
The subject’s frustration with passive-aggressive messages about one’s looks and body given by friends (!). Hurt about male objectification that isn’t flattering enough (but the objectification itself is not a problem).
Dramatic moment in childhood when food becomes important, and eventually addicting.
Food is comforting, until it’s not, but at that point the fat person finds it impossible to stop overeating. Misery ensues.
Obligatory sad and tawdry detail about lonely binge eating (in this case, eating “squeeze cheese” and a box of Ritz crackers in bed following a break-up).
Realization that food is a replacement for a “hole inside” or “deep yearning” that is probably spiritual in nature.
Lightbulb moment while reading the latest, most popular self-help book for weight loss/compulsive overeating, subsequent tears and sense of breakthrough (see Geneen Roth, When Food Is Love or Women, Food And God for the most current lightbulb books on women and fat).
Insight that food is a substitute for self-love.
Mention of male figure who “loves me just as I am.” Usually a husband.
Vows to “get healthy,” with recognition that this “will be hard” but with the help of God/my husband/my personal trainer/friends, the subject will accomplish this “healing.”
What happens next, the vast majority of the time, is that the subject will commit to a new lifestyle, a healthier and portion-controlled food plan (you don’t say “diet” in these narratives), will achieve success, and will write a follow-up article showing photographs of their “new” body with accompanying quotes about how much better and happier they feel and how much their medical condition has improved.
What happens after that is that they will gain back all or most of the weight they lost (or all that they lost plus more), return to the same habits they had before their conversion experience, and start the cycle all over again, only this time finding a new, more honest narrative about how food and fat work for them. After having done more work to understand their own bodies, their own personal and very complicated reasons for eating (surprise, it wasn’t just self-loathing after all), they may re-embark on the quest for weight loss and freedom from compulsive eating and achieve something that looks like success for them. Unless they are Oprah, this subsequent, more unique set of insights about overeating will never be reported.
I have lived through the fat girl conversation narrative several times, but never with full commitment, as I never genuinely believed the script even as I was parroting it. I write this for all those who are also fat and who crave freedom from compulsive overeating but who chafe at the generic, unsatisfying and sexist “female emotional problem” script they are given by loving people who “just want to help” them “get healthier.”
I want to share some of my fat girl script for other women who may be reading this and feel the wonderful relief of being able to relate to a fat woman, as I so rarely feel I can relate to those whose stories are pulled into the headlines as Lisa Respers France’s was (and this is not to throw shade on Ms. France. It is simply to say that I do not relate to her story or the stories like it that dominate the conversations about obesity in America).
So, some of my Fat Girl Narrative:
I have always loved eating and experienced eating as a pleasure, except when it was something done in tense environments, like around my family dinner table. For more on that, we’ll all have to wait for my memoirs.
My mom is a great cook. I myself love cooking. It is a cherished hobby and one that I’m good at, unlike, say knitting or playing banjo or birdwatching, all of which I have given a good effort but never got passionate about. I love marketing, perusing recipes, reading food books, traveling to sample different cuisines, cooking for friends, and treating myself to restaurant meals as a reward. Even as I keep working to better manage my appetite and compulsive overeating, I intend to keep loving and enjoying food exactly as I have always done. I know that to deny myself results in a sense of anger, misery and deprivation.
I have never eaten food in bed or binged. I have eaten past satiation many times, but I have gained weight over the years due to steady, consistent overeating and mindful snacking. I have never cried while eating, or run from an upsetting situation to the ice cream stand, or ordered a pizza and devoured it following a break-up. Most of my appetite issues come from being tired and getting confused about hunger signals. I also eat badly when I get too busy to plan and prepare meals. I am not acquainted with any working person for whom this is not true.
I have body and size dysmorphia! This, not lack of self-love, is at the core of my fatness and overeating. I have always been confused about my actual size. When I was a normal-sized girl and petite teen, I felt huge (and family and social dynamics contributed greatly to screwing me up that way). Decades later, as a woman with an enormous sense of life force, voracious appetite to live, speak, move, work and lead, I feel that my body is actually very small to contain the hugeness of the self it contains. I feel huge in my being, and being fat is somehow appropriate for that sense of enormity. I love Whitman’s lines,
“I AM HUGE! I CONTAIN MULTITUDES!”
Literally! I feel like such a big person! What other body size would suffice? Of course, all this weight is a lot to heft around, and now I hope to beat the clock on aging and resolve my deep-seated resistance to being small before my knees and hips and heart and pancreas start protesting in a serious and debilitating way. I know on a rational level that I could lose a lot of weight and not actually be “small.” My anxiety is totally irrational. Several years ago when I lost a noticeable amount of weight and ran into a director I knew, she said, frowning, “Don’t get all skinny!” She had spoken aloud my fear, and it hit home. Not everyone yearns to be thin. Some of us secretly wish we could be fat and not suffer any health consequences for it (I guess my secret is out). You do not typically hear this confession in any of the popular Fat Narratives these days.
My best friend is a doctor and understands this about me, and it is a huge, huge blessing to have her love and acceptance and support without any finger-wagging or projections about how I must not love myself enough. That has to be said. Everyone needs a Melissa in their lives.
I do not have a man in my life who loves me “just as I am.” I am sometimes really happy being single and sometimes lonely and wish for a partner. No different from any human of any size. I assume that I am lovable, period, even as I recognize that many men aren’t attracted to heavy women. That’s fine. I am not attracted to skinny men. Everyone gets to have their preferences. However, I think something is genuinely, pathologically wrong with men who express disgust for fat women, as is so common these days. Fat phobia/fat-hating comes from the same obsessive, deranged mentality as homophobia and I think we should consider both to be serious social diseases. I used to be very insecure about being fat and dating, but that has gone away. It only came about in the first place because I stupidly spent too many years in a romantic relationship with a man who didn’t love me as I am. That isn’t a fat problem; it’s a self-esteem problem all around. I would never make that mistake again.
It goes without saying that women-on-women fat phobia and fat shaming is also rampant and deranged. It is a symptom of internalized misogyny (“in my slim body is my power!”) and fat women need to call it out when they experience it.
I have read all of Geneen Roth’s books and highlighted a few good sentences but experienced very few “ah ha” moments from reading her work. Roth seems like a really nice, married white lady whose life goals and experiences are eminently relatable for a huge portion of the mainstream population of fat women in America, but not to me.
It interests me that no one to my knowledge has written about women, food and rage. Now, that’s a book I would buy! That’s a seminar I would go to!
I am a fiery person, and that fire makes me hungry. Physically hungry. It’s a chemical thing. All of my feeling, my intensity, can mislead me into thinking that my belly is empty and aching. Too much intense feeling, psychic openness to the world, and exhaustion are my hunger triggers. I think a lot of us are fat because our hunger and satiation signals are a mess. Geneen Roth’s work does address this, but she wraps her teaching about listening to the body in assumptions and (I think) projections about spiritual or emotional poverty that isn’t accurate for me, and I suspect, many others who would otherwise benefit from her guidance.
For me, a fiery, intense soul with a huge and voracious life force, food is calming, food is sensual and pleasurable and satisfying. Food is beautiful, food represents abundance and blessedness and God’s grace made manifest on the table. When I fill my belly with food, it is not “stuffing feelings” so much as trying to ground myself in something earthy and tangible. I can accomplish this sense of groundedness without overeating, but that takes a lot of intention and commitment.
I haven’t blogged here for a long time, and when I checked in tonight, I saw that I had received a bit of spam hate mail. Someone named “Pat” had taken the time to write to me via my “Bang Back” form, and had simply said, “Lose weight.”
In my public ministry on clergy and image, the most virulent hate mail I have received has not been objections to a religious leader encouraging “vanity,” but from fat phobic crazies telling me that I have no right to write about beauty and aesthetics because I’m fat. My size has never not been a main feature of negative attention directed at me for my work.
If there is any one thing I would most love to change about the common obesity narrative in this country, it is to ascribe moral superiority or moral value at all to our BMI. Losing weight and being fit are admirable accomplishments, but so are many, many admirable things one can accomplish in a fat body.
I wish Lisa Respers France the best of luck in achieving all her life goals. It just felt important to provide another perspective to counter all the similar Fat Narratives making the rounds these days.
Victoria Weinstein, size 20, 230 lbs. Not spiritually hungry. Have a deep and precious daily experience of the living God. Voracious about life in general. Enormous person in what still feels to me like a relatively small body. Never been told by a guy that he “doesn’t usually like my type.” If he did, I’d respond that I don’t like the “type” of guy who would say something like that, and walk out. Never feel less beautiful than thin friends. Want to help fat women inspect and reject fat narratives that pigeonhole us as “empty inside” or lacking in self-esteem.
A truly outlaw image! Look! A fat woman eating in public without shame! Bon appetit!