The Incredible Scam of Dieting
The ways fat activism helps us all
Content Note: This essay contains descriptions of restrictive dieting, weight loss, and mentions of disordered eating.
I first became disappointed with the number on my bathroom scale when I was 11 years old.
I remember because each year prior to that I had been proud, of being a good, obedient eater and of being a strong, growing girl. It was at 11 years old that I learned to hate my body. I felt like I had been lied to all of my childhood. I was always obedient and people pleasing and this seemed like a particularly cruel joke. At 11 I learned that I’d been doing it all wrong, and eating less, and being smaller, was what I should have been striving for, but no one told me.
I remember because from the ages of 11 to 13, I joined a swim team and my father said to me it would be good for weight loss.
I was very disappointed when, that summer, I had in fact gained 13 pounds, just as I added inches to my height. I was so disappointed that I had been able to excel, to please my parents in every area of my life except this.
Not only was this mentality a source of anxiety and great mental anguish for my entire adolescent and early adult years, I realize today how it was also profoundly unhealthy and in fact counterproductive. Restrictive dieting in particular has been shown to actually cause weight gain in the long term, because such a diet cannot be maintained. My attitude towards food went from simple and intuitive, to fearful and negative, to disordered. I feel like I am still, now, today, trying to work my way out of disordered behaviors.
Exercise was not much different. When I was growing up it was first and foremost a punishment. I played on a soccer team as a recreational sport. I was a pretty mediocre player. The coach was of the yelling variety, and this actually didn’t bother me very much, even when I was constantly singled out. Rather, it was the girls on the team, who were almost all white, very cliquey, and incredibly mean. I played on that team for a solid 5 years and I never once thought to beg my parents to let me quit or choose a different sport I might like more. I had always been a people pleaser. Exercise was never focused on how much I improved, how much stronger I felt or how much faster or farther I could run. It only mattered if it helped me to lose weight, which it never did in the long term.
I felt the worst about my mental and physical health when I had lost the most weight. It was in college in the summer of 2016, and I had been starving myself and only drinking green juice most mornings. I was facing a lot of issues with my family, who, for the most part, complimented me on my weight loss. This is probably the time in my life when I was closest to, or had, an undiagnosed eating disorder. To be very clear, I later regained this weight during the school year, which I want to note as I used to read accounts like this and take them as instructions instead of warnings.
A lot of women have mothers who were excessively hard on them about their bodies or weight loss. For me, it was my father. A lot of other writers on this issue are gentle with their parents on this subject, despite their own deeply negative experiences as children. It is because we are all trapped in this toxic culture of thinness, our parents and relatives included. They are just as paranoid and discontent with their bodies, and as much older people, there’s the possibility they will never be freed from that, where I am in the process of trying to free myself now. But specifically, the way my father constantly questioned the bodies of the women around him, women in particular, felt relentless and embarrassing once I gained enough distance to really see it. Yet it is what the men around him also did.
I wish I could say that this toxic culture of thinness is uniquely American, and some parts of it certainly are. But unfortunately East Asia and East Africa have their fair share of it too. My heart bleeds for other Ethiopian daughters who went through the same things that I did, and I heard many of their similar stories in our friendly conversations. In China, women are supposed to be small and thin and petite — and pale, like porcelain dolls, all of which I am not now and never was.
What I want people to understand most is that, regardless of whatever they think about America’s “obesity crisis”, our current culture around wellness and weight loss is horribly broken, incredibly harmful, and built on top of bad science or no science at all. I learned all of this, really internalized it and understood it, through a better understanding of fat activism and engaging with fat activists. “Body positivity” is an empty shell, a watered-down version that makes thin people feel better about their cellulite. It is a cardboard prop compared to the rich intellectual reasoning and core human values of fat activism. It was fat activism that helped me find my way toward accepting my body and healing myself, not body positivity. And I don’t claim to be fat — not because I’m thinking with a dysmorphic mindset, but because in many ways (such as which clothes I’m able to buy, how I move through society) I just don’t share as many of the same experiences, at least in America. I am also not that marginalized by way of size. This another gift I discovered through fat activism. I look in the mirror and simply see myself as I am, no fatter no thinner, no more and no less. I accept that “fat” is not a bad thing or a bad word, or the full picture of a person’s health and well being. I embrace that it can actually be synonymous with well-being, beauty, and strength.
The way that queer theory asks us to question all of our beliefs about sexuality and presentation, so too is fat activism beneficial to everyone. We all benefit from being released from these rigid prisons of diet culture, and from judging our health using only size. That is why I have come to embrace it, as someone who still has a lot of thin privilege, though of course size privilege is a spectrum.
I thought a lot about how to write this piece, because it could easily become something else — a litany of facts, a list of different papers and podcast episodes and all of that. I will still include a few of these, but I want to emphasize three main things.
- The first is that fat people, “obese” people, “overweight” people are all human beings deserving of respect and love and belonging, and it should not matter what other people think. I mean specifically that what another person thinks of your weight should not affect your job, the healthcare you receive, or your ability to care for yourself. Human beings all deserve life’s basic necessities like clothing and shelter and yes, food. After all, that would all be incredibly counter productive even if the goal was “weight loss”. I recall a ridiculous article a while back (or was it a tweet?) of a journalist upset by plus-size Nike mannequins on display…which, what are all these fat people supposed to exercise in, then, to lose weight?
- The second thing I wish all people who have never attempted to lose more than 20–40 pounds understood is that changing your body that much is an expensive, incredibly time consuming, incredibly narcissistic, herculean feat that is achieved by very few in the long term. It’s recently come to my attention that some people do not know what the framework “Health at Every Size” actually means. It is a treatment and public health framework made to encourage people in fat bodies to eat healthy, exercise, and take care of their bodies — including adequate, dignified medical care. This is precisely built on the knowledge that those interventions will not necessarily change your weight or size, but will still improve your health, such as your blood cholesterol levels and cardiovascular health. Not all people whose bodies you don’t like are people who never exercise and eat mostly fast food — that’s a reductionist stereotype and grossly oversimplified. We are built to resist famine. We are built to maintain homeostasis. Regardless of what you think of this “obesity epidemic”, you should first at least recognize that this is an incredible challenge — most especially for people who have had larger bodies most of their lives rather than some blip in time. Because…
- Third, humans have natural variation in their bodies. Human sizes, like all biological variations, exist on a bell curve, meaning there is a very wide range of possibilities but sure, most people will fall somewhere in the middle. We don’t actually know, right now, what weight or how much adipose tissue is unhealthy for whom, and especially, what actually is the far end of the bell curve. For some groups, a lower BMI threshold (an incredibly flawed system I will rant about another time) is correlated to health problems where other groups will be correlated at a higher BMI. Notice how I am choosing my words very carefully. No one has ever died of obesity. People die of diabetes, of heart disease, and a plethora of conditions that are correlated with obesity — and successful treatment of these is also dependent on medical care. It is still not well understood what the “threshold” is for size, weight, and adipose tissue is that contributes to these conditions except in a very general sense — in truth, it’s far more likely that there is a varying threshold for every person, because of this natural human variation. We see the same variation in height — it is partially genetic and partially influenced by lifestyle (during the growth and development of children). People are also getting taller on average as childhood malnourishment is less common, though that is not spoken of as an epidemic. In fact the most “obese” countries in the world are mostly Polynesian islands, where people have always had larger frames (think Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson). This is why I use the word “obese” and related terms in quotes, because it is a word that does not actually mean anything — it points to a very specific threshold of a BMI over 25. That threshold was adjusted down from a previously higher threshold by the World Health Organization in 1988. Overnight, millions of people became “obese” because of a metric adjustment. You can imagine how that contributed to the “obesity epidemic”.
I am surrounded by generally progressive people, and it seems like anti-fat bias is the one thing that many of them cannot wrap their heads around, not to mention fat activism. Some people are so close, I see it, like people who criticize American food systems or other systems, and agree that no one should be going after particular individuals without knowing anything about their lives, but who still think that fat activism is promoting something unhealthy.
To which I would respond, if you believe that systems in America are at fault for the “obesity epidemic”, then it stands to reason, entirely, that visibly fat people are the people who face the brunt of these faults. They are, obviously, the worst affected, most marginalized group by any of the systemic problems you would name. And I would recommend that no one should be in the business of telling a marginalized group how they should react to their marginalization. Yes, it has intersections, just like sexuality, gender, and race, and it does not mean anyone is immune to criticism — but thin people don’t really get to tell fat people how to feel about being discriminated against because of their size, or complain about their reaction to that marginalization, or assume they are misinformed, or decide for them how they should be fighting for justice.
I have tried many different times to write about this topic, and I always find it overwhelming. It took me years to see the light, to have a good understanding about this issue, and then, to heal myself. In the past, I read voraciously and watched endless youtube videos about weight loss transformations and how to lose weight. Then, I took that same vigor to reading about fat activism and all the flaws and false promises of diet culture. I read articles, papers, listened to hours and hours of podcast episodes (shoutout to Maintenance Phase), blog posts and columns, even TV shows (shoutout to Shrill). It feels very hard to articulate all those lessons in a single blog post — which is why my previous attempts have been messy rants.
I also cried into the shoulders of boyfriends who incredulously told me I was beautiful. That was loving, and kind — and in some ways a privilege. Some of them were genuinely confused (love y’all ❤) because it was simply that the communities they were from truly had different beauty standards or metrics for what was “too fat”. Frequently the conclusion was that I had just grown up around too many white people (not untrue). As I previously stated, size privilege has a spectrum: it depends how fat you are, how you’re fat, and where you’re fat (geographically and demographically). I shop plus sizes for pants, but can fit into straight sizes for shirts. I struggle to find clothing that fits in some other countries. I have actually never had a doctor specifically tell me to watch my weight and certainly never had a doctor say anything shocking or derogatory about my weight, so far. But I have had non-doctors, family and strangers, say such things (it’s not always clear whether this is simply a tool to put women ‘in their place’). Most of my body issues, like most women, come from my upbringing, my environment, family, and community. Then it became this horrible, internalized beast where I would weigh myself constantly and restrictively diet. I once went 4 days without eating. The fact that finally made it click for me and renounce this twisted wellness culture once and for all was really internalizing how dieting — at least a lot of the kind I was doing — actually causes weight gain. This being the breaking point itself feels twisted. I just realized it was a battle I would always lose.
Frankly, it was also a self-oriented journey. Probably if I was especially thin, I would never have even tried to understand — of course I would be nice about it on a surface level, but never deeply, truly the way I feel I can now. It made me realize the ways in which fat activism has been erased and shut down and ridiculed as not a real movement. I want to give it some of my voice, but I also don’t want to entirely center myself.
It might have been different if I were especially thin — but I like to think I am an empathetic person, and maybe if I had read a friend’s blog post like this one, I would have become more engaged, at least curious. This culture thrives in silence. I never talked to my close friends about my weight or eating issues in any real depth. Women are often shown doing a lot of diet talk — and do engage in it, a lot of the time, nitpicking their bodies or what they are eating. But it’s rare that women open up about their real, deep, difficult issues, how they really feel, about their dysmorphia and incredible, lonely pain. We might look at our friends’ latest crazy-sounding eating pattern and wonder, but never get too close, out of politeness, or fear. This isn’t a perfect, all-encompassing essay about fatness and discrimination or what the science actually says.
But I wanted to at least try to break the silence.