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What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat

January 27, 2021

Aubrey Gordon’s new nonfiction book What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat escapes Fiona Bell’s criticism of her titular allusion only by the inclusion of the negative, suggesting that there are things we leave out from a discussion that’s been going on for a long time.

I didn’t find this suggestion to be a compelling reason to read Gordon’s book. Most of the new things Gordon has to say are based on the research of Christy Harrison (Anti-Diet) or on her own experience.

But Gordon does present a perspective that might jar a few people out of their complacency. She points out that “in 2016 a full 81 percent of test takers showed pro-thin, anti-fat bias. That’s four out of five of us” and points out that “acknowledging our biases is a matter of recognizing the social context that encourage them.” More than that, though, she shows that four out of five people will claim that they aren’t biased against fat people, that they would never show or act on their feelings: “we believe that they don’t influence our actions, and that we are able to remain clear-headed and objective, even when those judgments enter our minds. But again, the data points to something else. In nearly every facet of public life that’s been studied, fat people face immense bias and often overt discrimination.”

Gordon points out that “anti-fat bias exists in all of us. It exists in all of us because it exists in every corner of our culture: our institutions, media, and public policy. How could we avoid it? Ninety-seven million Americans diet, despite the $66 billion industry’s failure rate of up to 98 percent. The Biggest Loser was a smash hit for its twelve years on the air, reaching over seven million viewers at the height of its popularity. Magazines like Woman’s World reliable feature cover stories like ‘Lose 13 Lbs every 5 days on the World’s Hottest Diet’ alongside ‘Ring in 2019 with Munchies!’ And the United States has not poured endless federal and state dollars into public education campaigns aimed at regulating corporate food production, subsidizing nutritious foods, or ending poverty and economic instability—top predictors of individual health, according to the US Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. Instead, fat bodies themselves are targeted in the ‘war on obesity’ and the ‘childhood obesity epidemic.’ Anti-fatness is like air pollution. Some days we may see it; others, we may not. But it always surrounds us, and whether we mean to or not, we are always breathing it in.”

Her own experience is presented in terms of a call for those she calls “straight-sized,” meaning they wear a clothing size between 0 and 18, to be less judgmental about having to see fat bodies: “over time, my interests became defined by the negative space around them. My body wasn’t suitable for swimming, so I sang. It wasn’t acceptable for acting, so I wrote. Any physical activity in gyms or outdoors was met with outright mockery or pitying, condescending congratulations, so I stayed inside.”

What she says about eating disorders certainly rings true to my experience: “For thinner people, these disordered behaviors are cause for a caring kind of concern, immediate treatment, and lasting emotional support. But for fat people, they are cause for a cold kind of congratulations, a carrying out of our duty to become thin at any cost.”

And I’ve also experienced what happens when a straight-sized person is called out for such behavior. They “offer the same rote caveat, a hasty waiver, unsigned, disclaiming any injury caused: ‘I’m just concerned for your health.’ And just like that, all that judgment, all those assumptions, all that cruelty suddenly becomes a humanitarian mission. Concern for your health is yet another example of the superior nature of thin people. They look better because they are better, and they’re even generous enough to publicly shame you into being better too. It is the burden of thinness, saving so many poor, wretched fat-asses.”

I have not experienced a situation Gordon tells about with dramatic brevity, when a family member shows her advertisements for gastric bypass and lap band surgeries: “she pages through the pictures, watching my face for the happiness she’s sure will come. The relief she imagines when I learn that there is a way out of the body that I have—all it will take is $23,000 to cut that body open, truss its organs, and leave it to shrink itself.
But in this moment, I have already been gutted.”

Gordon’s most important point might be about feminism. “In order to acknowledge fatcalling and sexual violence targeting fat women, thin feminists would have to acknowledge that bodies like mine should not be publicly shamed. Thin feminists would need to return to the radical root that insists that no survivor of sexual violence deserved what befell them. None of us are asking for it—certainly not for daring to live in the only bodies we have.
But somehow, for many feminists, that feels too close to home. Acknowledging the pain of fat women would mean acknowledging their own complicity, often unthinking and unintentional. It would mean implicating their own bodies and sacrificing the privilege they feel certain they’ve earned.”

At the end of the book, Gordon sums up what people can do to improve the situations they usually don’t talk about:
End the legal, widespread practice of weight discrimination.
Realize the promise of healthcare for fat people.
Increase access to public spaces.
End anti-fat violence.
End the approval of weight-loss drugs with dangerous—even fatal—side effects.
Stand up for fat kids.

Of these, I might suggest you could start with making calls to regulate the lucrative diet industry, so that diet pill manufacturers and diet food purveyors “may only make claims that are based on repeated clinical trials conducted by independent, third-party researchers—not bankrolled by corporations invested in making sensational claims.”

16 Comments leave one →
  1. January 27, 2021 12:07 am

    Fat is a Feminist Issue said it all, years ago.

    I still have my copy, wrapped in plain brown paper. That about sums it all up.

    That, and the 98+% failure rate. It’s worse than politics.

    • January 27, 2021 10:53 am

      It’s true. I reread Fat is a Feminist Issue every 5-10 years. I have more than one copy because when my kids were little I kept a copy of both volumes in my bedside table, for a quick refresher.
      I am an example of the 98+% failure rate of lasting weight loss. Several times in my life I have lost more than fifty pounds, and in every case I gained it all back plus another fifteen pounds within the next 5-10 years.

  2. January 27, 2021 7:56 am

    Whew, this book sounds like it’s bang on the money. This is something that I’ve learned a lot about even just in the last few years and am thankful to all the folks who have talked about it so that I’ve been able to learn. I really hope we start seeing a change in attitudes in the next generation.

    • January 27, 2021 10:57 am

      Attitude starts with us. One of the things Gordon points out that I didn’t mention is that even the less fat look at fatter people with judgement. We all do it, and many of us aren’t aware of it. A good friend once gave me a book with a lot of fat-shaming in the plot, and when I carefully asked her why she’d given me the book, she said she thought I’d enjoy the setting. When I directly asked about the fat-shaming, she said she hadn’t noticed it. This is a woman who went on a doctor-supervised fast in her early twenties, lost about a hundred pounds, and has worked hard for the rest of her life not to gain it back.

  3. January 27, 2021 1:52 pm

    This sounds like a great book. I grew up with a mom who was always on a diet and to this day she still is. She loses 10 pounds, gains back 15, and up and down and on and on. And then all the things she doesn’t let herself eat. It has always made me so sad. About 10 years ago my sister decided she was going to get a lap band. Thankfully she was persuaded out of it. It’s all so crazy! I think you are right that the whole diet industry needs to be regulated. But we also need a cultural revolution, not just for the recognition of fat bias, but a sea change in the way we view bodies in general. I mean, a good many “straight-sized” people are absolutely not healthy but because of how they look, they get a pass. Change is slow, but it seems like with more and more books like this one that it is coming.

    • January 28, 2021 10:40 am

      I don’t know. If you read about orthorexia and the way we’ve all been taught that health equals virtue, it’s not clear to me that change is coming.
      I also grew up with a mom who was always on a diet, a whole family who used words like “sin” about eating a piece of cake. I don’t think any of those attitudes have changed; moms today say they’re working to eat in a “healthy” or “clean” way and those who restrict take it farther than just dessert. There are many good reasons to be vegan, as you know, but there are a significant number of women who try it because it’s a way to restrict their intake.

  4. January 27, 2021 4:55 pm

    How we talk to our kids about fatness matters too. I had an opportunity to do that the other night when my son wanted another ice cream (cup) from the freezer but said he wasn’t going to get one because he was “fat.” I said, #1) he isn’t fat and 2) even if he was he could still have another ice cream if he wanted, and fat people are just as worthy of food and of love as non-fat people, and 3) don’t let anyone tell you how much you should eat, judge by how your tummy feels and if you’re satisfied or not. If you are not satisfied by one cup, get another one. Then see how you feel after that. He got another one, and after that he was satisfied. I’m trying to get him to tune into his own body’s signals – basically intuitive eating. If only my parents had heard of that concept in the 1980s! But they did the best they could. I’m trying my best to break the cycle.

    • January 28, 2021 10:43 am

      So true. One of the things I feel good about as a mom is that I didn’t pass on disordered eating to my kids. One of the things I tried to avoid was food as a reward, and I knew I’d succeeded when they joked about their middle school honor roll assembly being a cookie-eating opportunity.

  5. January 30, 2021 12:58 pm

    I can’t remember if you’re a podcast person, but the author of this has a podcast that I’ve been enjoying called Maintenance Phase. They’ve talked about different diet and health crazes. The Snackwells episode was especially good for me because those were so popular when I food was shopping for myself as an adult for the first time, and I totally bought into the no-fat thing. I sometimes wonder if my eating habits as an adult would have been healthier/more balanced if I’d been able to avoid that messaging during those years and just bought and ate what felt right.

  6. January 31, 2021 6:04 am

    My heart hurts at how much baggage we have to unpack. This is an issue we’ve barely begun to confront, and it’s a tough one. Trying to go gently on myself and others.

    I just reread Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change, and was immediately hit by the portrayal of two kids with opposite eating disorders — overeating and refusing food — within an abusive family. That did not register at all when I read it years and years ago! Wondering what you thought of it, if you got around to reading it.

    • January 31, 2021 8:16 am

      The girl was very familiar. I was a fat kid with a skinny younger brother and was always hungry but not officially allowed to eat. I wondered how she got the money to eat hamburgers in a restaurant after school.
      Not sure I agree it was an abusive family. Certainly the father thought he had to be an authoritarian.

      • January 31, 2021 9:27 am

        Really? How could he be more abusive? There was no sign of physical abuse, that I recall, but he was definitely emotionally and psychologically abusive of both kids, and his wife was a weak enabler. It was quite sad to see, but fortunately both of them found a way to escape his authoritarian rule. And more power to them! I wished the book had had a second half, that would have been interesting.

        • January 31, 2021 1:44 pm

          I don’t know; I’m reluctant to label as many people as we do “abusive.” I think maybe it has to do with intent. Was he trying to hurt the kids, or was he struggling with his ideas of what patriarchal society demanded? The novel also calls attention to the fact that he was a black guy in what was still the Jim Crow era in many parts of the country, which complicated the issue of raising a son.

          • January 31, 2021 1:54 pm

            He was trying to give his children his idea of a good life, but he was not relating to them as people. Maybe he was not able to, based on his past experiences. It was sad. “Nobody’s family is going to change,” is sometimes something that has to be accepted. Emma decided to change herself, and I was glad of that.

  7. February 1, 2021 7:14 am

    I don’t read much nonfiction, so I think your summary of this book is enough for me, but after reading through the comments, too, I’ve just put holds on the new biography of Louise Fitzhugh and the book Nobody’s Family Is Going to Change, which I’ve never heard of or read.

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