A number of fatties in my life have recently lost weight. Not just a few pounds—hundreds of pounds, between them. These are dramatic changes in the size and shape of their bodies.
And it deeply impacts their politics, too. Some have retained their fat politics, becoming even more vocal as their bodies shrink. Others have brought body hate to a new level, drawing it into every conversation they have. “I have fifteen more pounds to lose, then I’m at my goal weight. Maybe then someone will date me.” “I’d like to go to lunch with you, but I have to wait another three hours before I can have my next 250 calories.”
They’re in a tough spot: they’re finding validation that they haven’t gotten in years (or ever). Their experiences of privilege and oppression are in flux. And, on top of all that, they’re learning how to work with the dramatic change that has taken place in their bodies. As a friend, I get that.
But as a fatty, it’s painful. They’re seeking a lot of emotional support, and some of them are trying to retain their fat-positive politics, even as the world is beginning to see them really differently. While those are genuine needs, it can be really tough to support them, when what they really need to work through is the conflicted feelings they’re experiencing about the privilege I don’t have. While getting a lot of new, strange attention to your body is a legitimate challenge to work through, when I hear that (as a turbo fatty who largely doesn’t get affirmation for my body), it can feel like a poor little rich girl problem.
That said, I do want to help and support them as friends, and I recognize that this is often an elephant in the room in fat acceptance spaces. So let’s talk: how can you lose weight and retain fat positive politics?
Be clear about your reasons.
If you feel like you’ve got unhealthy habits, change them. If you want to do something with your body that you can’t currently do, change that. If you want to eat more vegetables, move around more, or eat Cheetos, do it. Your choices are yours to make. The problem is, agency over your own body is not the focus of the majority of conversations around health, body shape, and size.
I’m not going to pretend like there aren’t serious social pressures associated with being fat, and that there isn’t relief in the thought of having a smaller body. Fat people experience lots of employment discrimination, street harassment, and even discriminatory treatment from medical providers. We’re subjected to social narratives that tell us that our weight determines whether or not we’re datable, fuckable, employable, intelligent, hygienic, or a valid person.
But if you’re losing weight to become more attractive, desirable or successful, or because of a non-specific “because health” reason, it’s important to know that you are actively contributing to narratives of fat hate and body policing. And while you’re escaping those narratives of fat oppression on an individual basis, if you’re using weight loss to increase your social value, you’re strengthening the framework that keeps other fatties trapped. Whether you intend it or not, you are contributing to the oppression of anyone whose body exists outside of body norms and ideals.
Plus, you’re setting a big, wily trap yourself. How much weight will you have to lose before you get a date or a proposal? What number on the scale will get you your dream job? How long will it take you to get there? And why do each of those things have to hinge on your weight? Isn’t your life, the one you’re living right now, worth more than that?
How to resist: Be clear about your reasons for losing weight, and give some deep thought to how and when those contribute to fatphobia. And gently push those around you who assume that their weight loss (or yours) will increase social worth. Push them to think about the (gendered, racialized, class-based) narratives that lead them to think the way they do. Expose the superstructure that so deeply influences those lines of thinking.
Know that your health is your business.
Your business. Not your friends’. Not fat strangers’. Not pundits’ or commentators’. Yours. That means that none of those people can tell you what’s best for your health. And it means that you can’t tell them what’s best for their health, either. Your personal health doesn’t reflect poorly or well on anyone else’s diet, mobility, agency, body size or body shape. In short, no one’s health is a topic for public consumption.
How to resist: Don’t accept the link between health and fat. Question people in your community when they feel license to openly discuss what they assume someone’s health needs to be.
Abandon the language of “good” and “bad” choices.
“I’m so bad, I just had a piece of chocolate cake! It was sinful!” “I’ll have the spinach salad. I’m trying to be good.” These remarks don’t mention anyone but the speaker, but they manage to pull everyone else in, with or without their consent. Comparative language paints a clear picture that ranks every possible decision (and person) in a values-based hierarchy. And you know what’s not fat positive? Contributing to narratives that obliquely malign others’ choices and bodies.
How to resist: If you don’t want to eat something, just say “no thank you.” If you would like to go to the gym instead of hanging out with friends, just say, “I have other plans.” Drawing out why you’re making a specific decision about food or exercise both seeks validation from those around you, and implicitly criticizes everyone else in the room. Strive to create spaces that don’t pathologize fatness, but accept it as a valid way for bodies to look and work.
Don’t project unrelated values or outcomes onto weight loss.
We’ve discussed the incredible social pressure that fat people live with every day, and the narratives that tell us we’re destined to be ugly, lonely, unsuccessful shut-ins. But no matter what social narratives tell you, those social outcomes aren’t a fait accompli.
Losing weight doesn’t make it more likely that people will date you, it just means that different people may find you attractive. It doesn’t mean that you will be seen as more valuable, it means that different people will see different kinds of value in you. And those are personal decisions you get to make. Do you want or need to spend time with people who heavily value your body size? Or do you have the latitude to define other attitudes that are important to you? Do you want to date someone for whom a very specific type of physical attraction is a priority, or are there other characteristics you’re looking for in a partner? Every one of those questions is valid, and there are no right or wrong answers. But it’s important to know that being fat or thin doesn’t make you a better or worse person. Losing weight just means that your body is slightly smaller & lighter than it used to be.
How to resist: A friend recently spent a week with the flu. When he went back to work, a coworker said, “you look really great! You lost some weight while you were out, didn’t you? It looks good on you!” My friend responded by saying, “I just spent the week throwing up—I wasn’t really going for a particular look." That’s a pretty damn good way to resist.
Don’t seek validation from fat people.
The "fat best friend” is a longstanding archetype. The story goes like this: your fat friend can absorb all of your concerns and troubles because, presumably, they have no life of their own. Family, friends, coworkers and even strangers readily expect that we can, will and should support all of their emotional needs without receiving support in return.
And it’s doubly true when it comes to talking through body image. People of all sizes expect to be able to commiserate with me about how hard it is to “resist temptation from food” and to “feel fat,” and therefore worthless, unattractive or unhappy. The problem is, I don’t feel that way, and being asked to support someone who does requires me to A) accept the premise they’re using, B) acknowledge that, by their thinking, I’m much “worse” and C) tell them that they look great, they’re not fat, and they’ll be fine. In short, seeking support from a fat person around your body image puts that fatty on the spot, and takes away their power to engage with their body on their own terms.
And truthfully? The whole dominant culture of the US is built to affirm thinness and weight loss. You can get that affirmation from just about every other person around. Why pursue that same affirmation from someone who’s not getting it themselves?
How to resist: Don’t accept comments about your thinness as compliments – challenge them. Create a network of non-fat people who you can talk to about body image. And when you’re seeking support from a fat person, ask yourself what support from that particular person will offer you that support from another (thinner) person wouldn’t.
Closing it out
The intersection of weight loss and fat politics is tough for everyone. It’s tough for fatties. It’s tough for people who are losing weight. It’s tough for people who are gaining weight. Cultures of weight loss and fat hate are designed to trap all of us, and they do. And for those of us who embrace fat positive politics, it can often feel easier and simpler to pretend that it’s not happening.
But here’s the thing. Staying fat positive doesn’t need to be wildly complex, adversarial, or difficult. It’s as simple as thinking through the impacts of your actions and, as Luchador puts it, not being a jerk.