With summer comes the annual dreaded fat-phobic pressure to achieve the “beach body,” and this year, amidst fears of the “quarantine-15,” people are feeling more insecure than ever. In the U.S., 60% of people have reported undesired weight gain or loss since the pandemic. All this time spent cocooned in shapeless loungewear, it’s been easy to ignore our bodies—now, the idea of baring our skin doesn’t come so easily.
The season may have changed but my breezy dresses are collecting dust behind the sweats at the front of my wardrobe. Getting dressed every day is an exercise in dissociation—how successfully can I ignore my body, so as to avoid an emotional breakdown that might derail my day?
With the exception of general low self-esteem in my teen years, I’ve never, in my life, felt so insecure about my body. I’ve grown accustomed to the loud roommate of self-criticism that lives in my head, but I’m not used to it being so concerned with my body every time I’m in public; every time I encounter a lingering stare or unsolicited comment. I’ve had moments, in the past, when I’ve been insecure about the extra bit of flab here and there, but the concern has always been about occupying too much space. I’ve never been ashamed of being too thin.
My instinct, as usual, is to find support in the voices of others, in writing. But finding stories from skinny people on being underweight is like finding a needle in the haystack. Instead, I’m immersing myself in the endless writing on the challenges of being overweight.
Ironically, I find myself relating to the experiences of fat people—of being physically uncomfortable in public; not understood by doctors; frustrated that my diet changes aren’t achieving the results I want. While the overweight body is the opposite end of the spectrum, I relate to the feelings of shame, of wanting to hide. We’re both policed for our size.
“I deny myself bright colors in my clothing choices, sticking to a uniform of denim and dark shirts even though I have a far more diverse wardrobe. I deny myself gentler kinds of affection—to touch or be kindly touched—as if that is a pleasure a body like mine does not deserve.” - Roxane Gay
Now, I want to be clear, fatphobia is a systemic issue; a form of weight-based oppression that can have real life-or-death consequences for people living in fat bodies. Skinny-shaming doesn’t compare. Anytime I receive unwanted commentary on my weight, I immediately remind myself that my thinness, even if it’s unhealthy, gives me the privilege to pass in society in a way that a fat person can’t.
But in doing so, I’ve dismissed my own insecurities. This is the first time I’ve publicly shared how much I despise my body right now. I’ve been too ashamed. How dare I complain about being too skinny in a culture that prizes thinness. But does it really? All it takes is a couple pounds before that lingering stare of longing at the woman with the trim body becomes a blaring stare of disgust at the body of a woman who is too skinny. It’s a thin line (excuse the pun), between looking “fit” and “sick.”
In the same way the fat body is looked at with disgust for presumed indulgence, the skinny body is looked at with disgust for presumed deprivation—the two extremes that define our culture: restriction and abundance; work and rest. We have a love-hate relationship with the skinny body; we love the pursuit but resent the masochism involved to achieve it. We both want it and are repulsed by it.
I do, genuinely, despise my shape right now. But the weight of self-loathing I’m carrying goes deeper than wishing I had an ass. I’m ashamed that my body is not a physical manifestation of my morals: my belief that everybody—regardless of size, race, gender and ability—deserves to unapologetically claim space. When I look in the mirror, I resent that people might look at me and assume I’m fat-phobic.
The body positive movement has us like to think we embrace all shapes and sizes, without honouring how we’ve internalized fat-phobia. This gap, between our ideals and desires, only leaves us feeling guilty, what Sonya Renee Taylor calls “meta-shame”— “Our presumed failure at attaining some body-love nirvana becomes just another source of shame.”
Can a fat woman be body positive if she’s actively trying to lose weight? We’re attracted to the idea of loving ourselves but because we don’t—and the “Body Shame Profit Complex” means there’s an entire industry waiting to profit off our insecurity—we fall prey to diet culture, again and again.
I have no doubt there are body-positive, straight-sized women who still feel food guilt, or go on juice cleanses, or exercise even when they feel tired. The only difference for people who are ‘under’ or ‘over’ weight, is that we wear the same internal conflict—between self-love and self-loathing—on our bodies; and people feel entitled to make assumptions about how we eat and move in response to that conflict.
I wish I could wear a sign explaining my body: I want to tell people how much I’ve been eating; that I’ve intentionally not exercised in nine months (and I miss moving my body!); that I don’t want to look the way I do—in the same way a fat person might wish people knew all the circumstances that contributed to their physical form.
The old saying holds up—don’t judge a book by its cover.
P.S. LMK if you liked this week’s topic, I have lots to write on the subject!
Who came up with the “beach body” anyway? A body… on the beach… is a beach body in my books.
While many are turning to diet and exercise in pursuit of this arbitrary ideal, what if we changed our wardrobe instead?
Fashion has come a long way when it comes to designing for bodies that fall outside the straight-sized norm, but swimwear remains behind. Up until recently, buying a plus-size swimsuit meant succumbing to sagging bottoms and boring designs. But a select number of brands are creating inclusive swimwear that is comfortable, functional and stylish too.
Here are some of the standouts:
🍒 Sidway—love me a onesie with giant cherries and retro tropical prints.
“The body we have is ready to look sexy and chic poolside — no crunches required.” - says founder Sarah Sidney Godshaw
🌙 Kitty and Vibe—cottagecore meets cosmological, and they created their own sizing metric too!
😌 Knix—of course a brand that is known for comfy, period-proof undies would excel at inclusive swimwear too (🇨🇦!)
👙 Miga Swimwear—one-of-a-kind designs in terms of style, but also function, (I wish my mom were still around to benefit from their zipper pulls).
As the founder María Luisa Mendiola says, “The clothes should fit the body, not the other way around.”
Everything Virginia Sole-Smith writes on diet culture and body image is gold, so when I discovered she has a whole book on food guilt—The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image and Guilt in America—I devoured it (no pun intended).
Her most convincing critique is on the organic, clean eating movement. It’s become politically incorrect to subscribe to weight loss culture, so we’ve become obsessed with clean eating instead: moralizing food as “good” or “bad,” cringing at anything processed, putting organic and local on a pedestal.
“We’re still looking for the plan, only now the plan is organic, artisanal, more expensive, more steeped in socioeconomic privilege. The backlash against dieting has, so far, only raised the bar on how too ‘eat right’.” - Virginia Sole-Smith.
How do we strive to be healthy and support a sustainable food system, without letting it take over all of our food choices?
“We must decide for ourselves what we like and dislike, and how different foods make us feel when we aren’t prejudging every bite we take. It takes its own kind of relentless vigilance to screen out all that noise. It requires accepting that the weight you most want to be may not be compatible with this kind of more intuitive eating, but that it’s nevertheless okay to be this size, to take up the space that your body requires.” - Virginia Sole-Smith.
🔥 My Hot Vax Summer looks more like Blob Girl Summer, and that’s ok.
“I am part of a vast middle sector of womanhood who are pretty bad at Being Women in the way that involves an arsenal of products and a wealth of knowledge to address every detail of our femininity with attention and care and perform it with the practiced grace of dancers.” - Talia Lavin.
👙 You’re allowed to feel insecure about your body right now.
🧖♀️ On the tiresome maintenance of beauty.
“When I think about beauty standards, what I mostly consider is all the space the not feeling good took up; all the things that weren’t done; all the rooms that weren’t walked into because so much of the language of beauty is about forcing you to itemize for yourself all the ways in which you don’t deserve to be where you are.”-Glynnis MacNicol
💄 A beautiful deep dive on the normalization of men wearing makeup.
“This is the paradox inherent in makeup: the desire to fit in and to stand out — to feel liberated from shrunken notions of gender and grossly restrictive social confines.” - Megan O’Grady.
🌱 Is your desire to lose weight really “to be healthy”?
“We can tell ourselves that our need to change our body isn’t rooted in hating fatness. But it’s worth considering just how sure we are that wanting to ‘feel better in clothes” isn’t code for “get all my thin privilege back’.” - Virginia Sole-Smith.
🤦♀️ All the ways in which millennial women grew up with fat-phobic messaging:
Britney’s stomach and the discourse around it (1000 crunches a day).
The phrases “muffin top” and “whale tale” and “thigh gap.”
Miranda pouring dish soap on the cake she put in the garbage on SATC.
“We can’t stop the cycle of passing fat-phobic ideas down to future generations in slightly camouflaged form if we can’t even identify their presence in our own. And we can’t unravel these ideologies without acknowledging the deep, often unrecognized trauma they have inflicted.” - Anne Helen Peterson.
🎤 Also reading Peterson’s take on Taylor Swift and the grey area of eating disorders.
“As Swift says in Miss Americana, ‘You don’t ever say to yourself, ‘I’ve got an eating disorder.’ But you know you’re making a list of everything you put in your mouth that day. And you know that’s probably not right. But then again, there’s so many diet blogs that tell you that that’s what you should do.’”
💪 And the pressure millennial men grew up with to be jacked and fit.
“They didn’t suffer from the same patriarchal oppression as women, but they weren’t free from it either, and it wasn’t considered ‘manly’ to ever talk about it.” - Emily Contois.
👩🏿🦱 FYI, Black women have eating disorders too.
🥼 BMI (The Body Mass Index) is doctor’s go-to for assessing our health (weight divided by height). But do you know about its racist roots? Or that it wasn’t even invented by a doctor).
In the first episode of the latest season of Shrill, an OB/GYN casually recommends weight loss surgery to main character Annie (played by SNL’s Aidy Byrant, who co-created the series). After the appointment, Annie yells “You’re a bad fucking person!” at the gynaecologist in the parking lot. The doctor has her AirPods in and can’t hear her, so she waves back with an ignorant smile.
Starting the final season off with this bold statement against systemic fatphobia, Shrill stays true to its original premise—demonstrating what it feels like to live in a fat woman’s body. Adapted from the book of the same name by Lindy West, the show follows the everyday life of Annie, a tired-of-being-too-nice journalist who refuses to be defined by her fatness in all areas of her life. It’s been encouraging to watch Annie find her confidence over the seasons, but I love that she still struggles in the third; that she’s portrayed as a real person.
“It’s a show about a fat woman whose weight is only one aspect of her life. The fact that the conflict with the OG/GYN winds up serving as the first strand in a braid of story lines about Annie’s insecurities, stubbornness, prejudgment of others, including romantic partners, and lack of storytelling perspective speaks to how holistically Shrill views its protagonist. Fatness is not the defining characteristic of most overweight people. The same thing can be said of Annie and Shrill.” - Jen Chaney.
Too many specific episodes to recommend so instead, here are some podcasts that have helped me with my own body image.
Rebel Eaters Club: from fat activist and journalist Virgie Tover. (Love her Anti-Diet as Death Work series!)
iWeigh: from body positive crusader and actress Jameela Jamil.
Food Heaven: from Black nutritionists Wendy Lopez and Jessica Jones.
Food Psych: from renowned dietician and intuitive eating coach Christy Harrison.
Send me your recommendations! ✨