I was recently one of four obese women interviewed for an article about the problems that weight stigma creates around eating in public while obese, and how we overcame them.
You can read the full article here. We did this interview via email, and of course the articles naturally use partial quotes and so, for posterity, my full interview answers:
When did you notice a certain level of concern for you when eating in public?
When I transitioned from high school to college, I became deeply involved in diet culture and began noticing that people would praise me for eating the “right” foods (salad, no dressing, skip dessert etc.) so that, even if they didn’t when I didn’t say any Something when I ate the “wrong” things, I felt rejection was implied.
How did that make you feel at first?
At the time, I was still so deeply invested in diet and anti-obesity culture that I felt like validating my choices to use eating as a way of trying to manipulate my body size. As I learned more about the pernicious nature of diet culture, the inherent hypocrisy, double standards, and harm of this practice became more apparent, but I didn’t see it at the time.
Have you ever had an incident where someone said or did something to you while eating in a restaurant
I was eating at a restaurant with three of my friends, all of them are skinny. A man led by a stewardess to his table stopped dead in front of my table, looked at my plate, looked at me, then pointed at the plate and said, “That’s why you’re fat.” While that would be pretty inappropriate regardless, and it’s not the first time this has happened to me, but it was interesting to note that in this case we were all eating exactly the same thing, because it was a specialty in the restaurant. I made it clear that this is not about health or logic, but rather about engaging in a fat phobia.
How have these experiences of weight stigma, diet culture, and lipophobia affected your mental health?
When I was still deeply embedded in diet culture and became acutely aware of the ways my eating choices were related to my body size, notions of my health, and even morals, I often found the process of eating in public really stressful. This was exacerbated by the fact that I was very physically active and the analog food intake that was required of me to avoid scrutiny or rejection was not in line with the nutrition my body needed to participate in the activities I loved. My relationship with food eventually developed into a complete eating disorder.
How has that changed over the years?
I recovered from my eating disorder, but was still considered “too heavy” and doctors urged me to lose weight until I was healthy. I was fortunate to avoid a complete relapse, but I did spend years cycling (aka the yo-yo diet). My educational background was in research methods and statistics, so I decided to review my own literature to find the diet that works best. That was when I learned that there wasn’t a single study where more than a small portion of people were able to maintain significant weight loss, and that the yo-yo diet I was testing was the expected biological response rather than a personal response to failure. As I pulled myself out of diet culture, I began to see the ways in which stigma affected my relationship with food in unhealthy ways, as well as the hypocrisy driven by the phobia of fats that exist — for example on TV shows where a skinny woman eats tons of food. Food has been celebrated as ‘cool chick’ and ‘wife stuff’, when a fat woman who eats even half the amount is ridiculed as ‘not prioritizing her health’ and ‘undateable’
If this no longer affects you in the usual way, what helped you overcome it?
I repaired my relationship with food and eating in public by first acknowledging that weight stigma is real and that it is doing me real harm. It’s not in my head, it’s not something I can solve by loving my body, it’s a systematic process of suppression. Understood, I realized that until it was possible to end the obesity phobia, my choices were to continue fighting my body on behalf of the stigma, or to start fighting the weight stigma on behalf of my body. I chose the latter. This includes refusing to eat performing performing or engaging in or caring about other people’s unwelcome opinions about my food choices or my body. It also includes setting boundaries about what is open to discussion and not available, people are allowed to reduce what they want about what I eat, but are responsible for keeping those ideas to themselves if they want to spend time with me, especially when dining is involved.
Despite changing attitudes and the rise of the body-positive movement, do you feel that eating in public is still an issue that many grapple with but rarely discussed?
I think it is a serious issue. Weight stigma and diet culture often convince obese people that we deserve to be treated badly and that, at the very least, we owe explanations and justifications for our body size, food choices, and health to anyone who thinks they deserve it. On the contrary, it gives those who wish to judge and comment on fat people’s choices and their bodies the misconception that it is their prerogative to do so. In this way, fat bodies are seen as open to public discourse, which makes eating in public very risky.
What are your thoughts on Tess Holiday’s comments and the way the media and society at large treat larger women who eat in public?
I think Tess was aware of the harmful nature of these photos. They reinforce the idea that obese people should never be safe from observation and judgment about their food intake. The fact that someone eating at Disney World (an activity that Disney World relentlessly champions through its marketing) is deemed worthy of publication is just another example of the ways the media exploits stigma and harms obese people for attention and profit.
What advice would you give plus size women who struggle with eating in public?
First admit that the problem here isn’t your body, it’s fat phobia. Reassure yourself that while this has become your problem, it is not at all your fault. You realize that this shouldn’t happen, that you shouldn’t have to deal with this, and then you have to make choices based on your goals in any given situation. These goals may change based on who you are with eating, whether there is a power imbalance (eg: eating with your boss versus eating with a friend), how you feel on any given day, and many other factors. You can choose to eat based on what seems to be the tastiest food to you, based on a desire to avoid judgments from the people around you, or for any other goals or reasons. If you experience a judgment, you can respond in any way that makes the most sense for your circumstances, from ignoring them, to changing the subject, to setting boundaries, or confronting the person whose behavior is inappropriate. Activity is a choice, but not an obligation – you can choose to respond in any way that puts your personal needs and goals into any given situation.
Upcoming online workshop:
Dealing with vatophobia in holidays
Between in-person and online family gatherings, work parties, New Year’s Eve parties, New Year’s resolution, numerous diet announcements… the holiday season can be a perfect storm of fat phobia. Plus all the talk this year about body changes linked to COVID adds another layer of nonsense, all this food culture can really put you down. In this workshop, we’ll talk about tips, tricks, and techniques to help us manage and have a happy holiday season on our own terms – whether we celebrate a holiday or not.
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