“Are you on a diet, Natalie?” a female classmate sneered. We were surrounded by my 8th grade class at a graduation party.
“No,” I replied, my face hot with shame. I was wearing a new outfit and had gotten my hair done for the party. I hadn’t eaten all day; I thought I could go over to the food table and steal a few carrots without anybody noticing.
“Well, you sure need to go on one.” Everybody laughed, and I couldn’t do anything but stand in front of them and cry.
Since I was a kid, I’ve had a poor relationship with my body. I remember my ballet teacher Miss Barbie telling me I just didn’t have the right body for dance, and I was humiliated. When I was 8 years old, a family member once pointed out a large-bodied woman with absolute disgust and said, “Look at her. How can she live like that? You need to make sure you watch what you eat so you never have to look like that.”
My experiences are not unusual. Many of us are taught to see our bodies as something to fix or hate. A major component of my therapy practice with clients is focused on body shame and fear of being fat.
In July, I attended a workshop at the 2019 American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors and Therapists annual conference led by Isy Abraham-Raveson titled “Don’t Tell Me to Love My Body: Body Image and Fatphobia.” She kicked off the talk with the question, “Why do we dislike our bodies?” Responses included desirability politics, porn, capitalism, patriarchy, trauma, transphobia, the fashion industry, media, car brands, white supremacy and the wellness industry, to name just a few.
Her point: When we are told to “just love your body!” we are essentially being asked to “just” overcome entire systems of oppression. Clearly, we need a radical re-envisioning of body diversity that includes all body types and abilities. Perhaps it starts with keeping our mouths shut on other people’s physiques.
“When you’re overweight, your body becomes a matter of public record in many respects,” wrote Roxane Gay in her book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. “Your body is constantly and prominently on display. People project assumed narratives onto your body and are not at all interested in the truth of your body, whatever that truth might be. Fat, much like skin color, is something you cannot hide, no matter how dark the clothing you wear, or how diligently you avoid horizontal stripes.”
Many of our insecurities, particularly when it comes to relationships, can be revealed gradually, from emotional baggage to sexual preferences. But as Gay observed, one’s body is their most public feature, and one’s often fragile relationship with their flesh prison is constantly tested by feedback from others — more often than not, unsolicited feedback.
Fatphobia is clearly at work when someone is disparaged for their size, but it is also present in seemingly positive interactions. When larger women are asked, “How do you stay so confident?” the connotation is often, “How do you manage to love yourself, despite your figure?” Euphemisms for fatness, from “confident” to “curvy,” may be used with the best of intentions — but you should never presume that someone’s weight, like their gender or skin color, is something to overcome, rather than something that just is. (For more on this subject, listen to episode two of the podcast She’s All Fat, hosted by April K. Quioh and Sophia Carter-Kahn.)
“Wow! Have you lost weight?” is another barbed compliment. When we congratulate someone for changing their body, we’re making assumptions about their health and some of their most personal experiences. Weight loss, for instance, may be intentionally sought through diet and exercise, but it may also be the result of a medical condition, a grieving process, an eating disorder or a drug habit. When you’re unsure of the circumstances, it’s inappropriate, perhaps even degrading, to comment on someone’s body.
To put it simply, it’s just none of your business.
Such comments also reflect the false narrative that weight is directly correlated with health and happiness. Thin=good; fat=worse. This is the simplistic and toxic cultural narrative that makes the diet industry — today disguised within the “wellness movement” — so lucrative. It’s what also makes the oft-evangelized concept of body positivity so elusive in practice.
It can be hard to reconcile the “love the skin you’re in” messaging with the equally ubiquitous push for personal improvement—as if we were all working towards one ideal body. Many fatphobic narratives are veiled in positivity, from fitspiration to influencer endorsements of “health” supplements. (“You, too, can look like this!”) While it might sell athleisure gear and protein shakes, this constant prompting to improve yourself — to compare your body to another’s, even if it’s your past or future self — stigmatizes the body you’re in, and this can have deep psychological effects.
“Researchers who study stigma have found it often leads to depression and anxiety, as well as decreased access to employment, friendship, romantic opportunities and a sense that one is not welcome in the wider culture,” said Virgie Tovar, author of You Have the Right to Remain Fat.
Assumptions that overweight or obese people are inherently unhealthy, lazy or lack self-control are as reductive and dangerous as any stereotype, and they are rife in media. (Though 2001’s Shallow Hal, the most fatphobic film of all time, has largely been taken out with the cultural trash, the notorious fat suit donned by a thin actor is still found in current or recent shows like How I Met Your Mother, New Girl and Netflix’s Insatiable.)
Even the medical establishment can stigmatize and shame fat people. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve spoken with women of all shapes and sizes who report going to the doctor for a sore throat or routine physical, only to be told to lose weight. Even when this advice is medically helpful, it can overshadow more nuanced issues — and the framing of fat as failure, paired with the patronizing way the advice is often presented, can only contribute to a person’s mental health issues.
In 2011, Lindy West—whose autobiography went on to inspire the wonderful Hulu show Shrill — wrote a viral blog post for Seattle’s The Stranger entitled “Hello, I Am Fat.” It’s main purpose was to critique her friend and colleague Dan Savage’s condescending coverage of the obesity epidemic, but she also took the opportunity to declare she had fallen “in unconditional luuuuurve” with her 5-foot-9, 263-pound frame, after years of fruitless attempts at weight loss.
“This is my body,” West wrote. “It is MINE. I am not ashamed of it in any way. In fact, I love everything about it. Men find it attractive. Clothes look awesome on it. My brain rides around in it all day and comes up with funny jokes. Also, I don’t have to justify its awesomeness/attractiveness/healthiness/usefulness to anyone, because it is MINE. Not yours.”
What if there was no wrong body? What if we, to borrow phrasing from West’s article, fucked all that very much and took body analysis out of the conversation?
For that matter, what if food was just food, and it wasn’t good or bad? What if we could make choices based on listening to what our body needs?
Intuitive eating is based on nurturing your body. It is a compassionate approach that gives you permission to eat and honor your natural hunger. Our bodies are brilliant, but we learn to override our natural hunger “nudges” when we restrict what we are eating. We also learn to eat beyond hunger or ignore our bodies natural cues of hunger.
Sue Clarahan at Clarahan Consulting in Iowa City is one practitioner committed to educating and guiding folks to develop a positive relationship with food and their bodies. She has helped me and many others respect and understand ourselves with a sense of curiosity, compassion and acceptance. I might not love my body, but I sure as hell respect it a lot more with this approach.
Because what a waste of life and limb body shame can be. I remember hearing a story on NPR that said the number-one thing women in their last days of life said they regretted was how much they worried about their weight. In a piece for CNN, a woman with terminal cancer told writer and hospice chaplain Kerry Egan that, once she had accepted her illness, she developed a new reverence for her body.
“I’d never admit it to my husband and kids, but more than anything else, it’s my own body I’ll miss most of all,” the patient said. “This body that danced and ate and swam and had sex and made babies. It’s amazing to think about it. This body actually made my children. It carried me through this world.”
Natalie Benway LISW is a psychotherapist in private practice in Coralville. She has a certification in sexuality studies from the University of Iowa and is currently pursuing additional licensure with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 269.