Welcome to my diary, friend.
No, you won’t hear a peep about my sex life. You won’t be entering a catalogue of my weird, petty obsessions. You will, however, find something that might make you feel a lot better as you move through the world. My name is Virgie, and I’ve worked in body positivity as a plus-size woman for almost a decade, helping to educate people on the harmful long-term effects of weight-based discrimination and to recover from body shame. I’ve written books and essays, and I host a podcast and lecture all over the country on these topics.
As you may know without expert-me telling you, living in our diet-obsessed culture can be brutal if you’re fat (also if you’re not, but it’s way worse if you’re fat, a woman, and especially a BIPOC woman, as I am). The world (everyone from “experts” on TV to random Internet trolls) feels free to criticize my body, treat me like a tax liability, make presumptions about how I eat and live and refuse me medical care because of bias about my weight. But I learned many years ago that my body is not a problem and I am 100% done feeling sorry for taking up space.
Now that we’re better acquainted, back to my diary. At the request of Good Housekeeping, I documented two weeks worth of pro-diet or anti-fat messaging and moments I was made to feel like crap about my body, and I recorded how I dealt with them. Doing this work as long as I have been, I typically feel able to defend myself and even fight back. I’ve developed an arsenal of quirky comebacks, helpful hacks, rad reframes and a big bucketful of unapologetic vibes that I throw off wherever I go. With that in mind, please take anything from my metaphorical arsenal that you’d like for yourself. Plenty to go around!
Oh, and because I am an old millennial who loves 1993 Mario Brothers, I rewarded myself with mental “points” for doing things that support my mental health and self-esteem. I recommend trying this yourself.
Okay, ready to get all up in my business?
May 1, Hayes Valley, San Francisco, 3:45 p.m.
- DIET CULTURE BOMB: On my way to a celebratory post-vaccination pineapple-and-mezcal cocktail with my friend Bayley, I walked past a cute lingerie shop with headless mannequins with six-pack abs in the windows. Really?
- HOW IT LANDED: All I could hear in my head was this: “Sexy undies are only for people with bodies like that. We are a store that clearly doesn’t carry your size. Don’t you wish you were a decapitated buff mannequin?” I felt alienated, frustrated, un-sexy and that familiar sense of rejection from the lingerie (and fashion, generally) industry.
- HOW I RECOVERED: Post-drinkies, I walked past the shop again, but this time around my thought was, “You know what? I would look damn good in just about anything in that shop!” I looked right at those panties and said to myself/them, “It’s too bad you don’t come in my size because I would have rocked your goshdarn world, tiny panties. Your loss, panties. Your loss.” Ding. Point for Virgie.
- WHY IT HELPED: Talking back to diet culture — even only in your head — is an important tool. Every day we encounter thousands of tiny messages about how we should feel about our bodies. These messages mostly say the same thing: You’re not okay the way you are and you must make your body smaller smaller smaller. Rather than ignore the messaging, you can name it in your head (“I see you, diet culture!”) and practice defending yourself mentally. It’s a great first step to defending your body in other situations, like when your doctor or a coworker says something fatphobic.
May 5, at home, San Francisco, 9 a.m.
- DIET CULTURE BOMB: I put my headphones in to listen to The Listening Path, a book by creativity expert Julia Cameron. I was happily sitting snuggled into my fluffy robe in my little office with my cacti, my morning coffee and a muffin. I was genuinely excited. Who doesn’t love creativity? About 25 minutes into the audiobook, Cameron says, “I hate to say this, but making art is a little like dieting. One day you just have to start, and what you do that day is the beginning of success or failure.”
- HOW IT LANDED: I screamed internally and jumped out of my chair, anger-sipping my coffee. The book isn’t even remotely about dieting, yet the author just plopped it in there: Boom, here’s a triggering little non-sequitur nugget to remind me that, yes, even Julia Cameron expects me and everyone else to diet. Does she feel like people who don’t diet are incapable of creativity? What does she think about fat women like me?
- HOW I RECOVERED: Instead of swallowing my anger over this out-of-nowhere diet culture commercial, I decided to call my friend, Mia, who had a whole career boom after she stopped dieting. Like Mia, my own creativity actually blossomed after I stopped dieting. (Dieting takes up massive amounts of mental energy and it’s super difficult to do anything when you’re hungry all the time: there’s a reason that women feel they can’t stop dieting even if they hate it and it doesn’t work). Voicemail. Darn. On to Instagram Stories, where I shared what had happened, how I felt and had a couple of short, validating conversations via DM. One-hundred self-care points unlocked.
- WHY IT HELPED: Diet culture is so pervasive that even people we respect buy into it and don’t realize how harmful it is — especially for those of us recovering from years of fat-shaming or disordered eating. It’s empowering to connect with those who can relate and understand what’s so very wrong with it. We don’t always need to (or have time to) talk out our feelings, and even journaling can be helpful.
Same day, 11 a.m.
- DIET CULTURE BOMB: I walked down the block to the little free library to drop some books off. But when I opened it, ba-bam! I’m face-to-cover with The Thin Within: How to Eat and Live Like A Thin Person.
- HOW IT LANDED: I am a proud fat woman who knows there is no thin person secretly living inside of me, and I don’t wish there was because I don’t think thin people are better than me. Back in my “I need to change my body” days, this kind of book made me want to double down on my food restricting behavior. I thought what I was feeling back then was hope or maybe inspiration, but it was actually shame. Diet culture is not the best friend who gives it to you straight and isn’t afraid to administer a dose of tough love, as I used to think. It’s more like my old hairdresser who I thought was “edgy” but was actually just verbally abusive.
- HOW I RECOVERED: I pick it up and put it in my bag! I’m going to turn The Thin Within into a collage, where I will repurpose words I cut from the book’s pages into inspirational body acceptance quotes. (1,000 points!)
- WHY IT HELPS: Healing doesn’t always have to feel hard. It can be totally unexpected and (are you ready for this?) fun! We all have a creative side — why not put it to use in service of healing our body image? The possibilities are endless. Diet culture didn’t see that coming!
May 7, virtual lecture for undergraduates, 12 p.m.
- DIET CULTURE BOMB: I finished talking to the group about the valuable lessons of self-acceptance, led a meditation, and shared some historical information on the bogus origin story of the BMI. Then we got to the Q&A portion of the hour. After lots of good questions, I got the “but-what-about-health” one that someone always asks. But the way this student framed this familiar question shocked me: They asked, “How do I let go of diet culture and eat the things I want, but also not have a heart attack?” Here I am talking about self-compassion and body diversity and boom, we’re on heart attacks.
- HOW IT LANDED: My whole life, people have been talking about my own death to me. The polite version is, “You’ll just live longer if you lose the weight” or “I’m afraid for your health.” The brutal version, said to me in comments from trolls whenever I do anything online, is “I can’t wait to see you die.” The mention of a heart attack gave my own heart a little jolt.
That jolt was a stress response, my body reacting to a discriminatory belief about me, my lifespan, my body and the legitimacy of what I do for a living. Also, hello! I have to point out that having a chronic stress response (from, for instance, being reminded that other people think you’re going to die) is correlated with shortened life expectancy. I’m briefly concerned that the other students are having a similar reaction: Are their already-stressed-out-about-finals, little undergraduate hearts also beating a little faster?
- HOW I RECOVERED: I remind myself that this person is asking a question out of genuine curiosity — they’ve been given the same garbage-y tools I was given to understand these (at times) complex scientific theories about body weight as it relates to health and longevity. They’re not trying to hurt me or anyone else. They have no idea that they’ve equated what I’m advocating for — a life free from body shame and weight stigma — with violent death. I’m here to teach, and we all live in the same, fatphobic universe. So, I explain that diet culture — not its absence — is correlated with poorer physical and mental health outcomes.
Dieting is what leads to an increased likelihood of an eating disorder. Dieting is what is correlated with binging and weight cycling: both stressful experiences, the latter having been correlated with decreased heart health. I end by pointing out that our overall health is determined by a combination of social and individual determinants, with social determinants (such as our income, race or access to good care) comprising 70%, according to the CDC, and food comprising only a small percentage of the 30% of things we have more control over. I finish with a rhetorical question: “Why aren’t we as jazzed about shifting the 70% of social determinants that have a much bigger role in health as we are about pressuring people to eat salad?” (Progress to Level 100).
- WHY IT HELPED: Part of the reason people hire me is so that I can field these questions, which don’t have simple answers. In my personal life, though, I would not entertain this question, in the same way I wouldn’t expect a doctor friend to diagnose one of my moles in her off-time. Sometimes self-care doesn’t look like educating others. Sometimes the best self-care is having boundaries and being comfortable with saying “Everyone’s story is different, but I just know that diet culture wasn’t good for me personally.”
May 12, at home, 10 a.m.
- DIET CULTURE BOMB: Dear God, why did I open an email titled, “The Impact of Menopause on Plus-Size Women”? I was hoping to hear about how science has learned that love handles make menopause easier or how it turns out that my affection for cookies will be useful when I go through menopause. Instead the email laid out in a brutal bulleted listicle exactly how menopause itself is not only TERRIBLE, but is far worse if you’re fat.
- HOW IT LANDED: This list made me realize why they call those dots bullets. Messaging that uses science to fear-monger about natural processes of the body (e.g., menopause) are unethical, and I am skeptical of the methods used in science when that science only confirms bigoted attitudes.
- HOW I RECOVERED: I replied. I wrote, “Hi (name redacted), this information only confirms weight bias, deepens weight stigma and further pathologizes plus-size women and, frankly, menopausal women. I hope this company will course correct its messaging.” Maybe I’ll change just one person’s mind, I thought. Then, I blocked the email address and went about my day. (Extra life gained!)
- WHY IT MATTERS: After years and years of reading academic articles and essays on the subject of weight, I’ve learned that if there is no mention of the significant role that weight stigma plays in the health outcomes of plus-size women, typically the authors or researchers have come into the study with unexamined fat-negative bias.
Fat-negative bias massively impacts how researchers and scientists reach conclusions. For instance, if you go into a study presuming that a fat person is already always an unhealthy person (wrong!), you will conduct the study unconsciously seeking things that confirm your belief. This is called confirmation bias. Everyone’s got it. Yes, even very smart Ph.D.-having humans in lab coats! Further, this email suggested the general view on the normal cycles of an aging person with a uterus is a negative one. Not interested. Little known fact: different people (yes, even academics) have different opinions on what makes good science.
Thank you so much for reading my diary.
As you can see, there’s a lot of different ways to deal with diet culture messaging, and deciding you’d rather not deal at times, that’s okay too. I hope this gives you ideas — and permission — to face body shaming in a way that is authentic, generative and fun for you.
Give yourself permission to punch back, and trust your interpretation and your gut. I wish we lived in a culture that was designed to make you feel amazing about yourself, but right now we just don’t. So, don’t feel a single iota of guilt for building a toolkit that will help you live happily at whatever weight you are. Don’t forget to give yourself a little internal high-five (or cha-ching) because you, my dear, are fighting the good fight.
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