Content warning: The content linked to in this post, and to a lesser extent in this post itself, explicitly discusses body image, eating disorders, and fat-shaming.
Recently I listened to a rerun of This American Life called “Tell Me I’m Fat.” I’ll run through my gut reactions to each of the five stories in this hour long podcast, and then link them to other resources at the end. Obviously, as “gut reactions,” these are just thoughts (and in rare occasions actual opinions) and therefore not meant to be taken as statements of fact or evidence. At the same time, I think personal experiences are valuable learning tools. With that in mind, I think there is a lot that can be learned from this episode of This American Life and the stories that are told in it.
Prologue and Act 1: Lindy West
In the Prologue and Act 1, Lindy West tells her story of coming to grips with being fat and how that played out as a journalist in her relationship with her boss, Dan Savage.
I think she brings up a lot of interesting thoughts, including the idea in our culture that being fat is okay, as long as you’re trying to “fix” it; that fat people are just pre-thin. That it’s not okay for a fat person to just accept themselves.
The ensuing discussion about weight and health was an old one for me, and less interesting — but, in case there’s still doubt in your mind: Yes, it is possible to be fat and healthy at the same time, and cultural assumptions that equate being fat with being unhealthy are inaccurate and have consequences for the way big people are treated within the health care system.
In the interview with West, we are asked to question several assumptions in quick succession. “Where do you get your confidence?” is one of the questions she is most frequently asked, as though she is assumed to not have a right to self-confidence – whether one agrees with that social norm or not. The problem with term “overweight” is addressed, as it implies that there is a “normal” or “correct” weight and people can be categorized (and judged) accordingly.
As Roxane Gay writes in her book Hunger, “In truth, many medical designations are arbitrary. It is worth noting that in 1998, medical professionals, under the direction of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, lowered the BMI threshold for ‘normal’ bodies to below 25 and, in doing so, doubled the number of obese Americans. One of their reasons for lowering the cutoff: ‘A round number like 25 would be easy for people to remember.'”
I think this should draw our attention to the fact that even measures of “health” are often arbitrary and social, despite efforts to make them neutral or objective. Arguably, it also obscures the real health consequences of weight when weight itself is seen as a problem. West says that “If you were concerned about my health, you’d also be concerned about my mental health” – alluding to the depression and anxiety that can result from public shaming, as well as other conditions such as body dysmorphic disorder. To paraphrase West: “You don’t know what I eat or how much I exercise, or whether I’m actually healthy, and quite frankly my health is none of your business.” The upshot, though, is that when people pull the “health” card, it usually is not about health at all.
Another thing that West said that struck me was “I take up a lot of space.” West means it literally, and says it in humor, but it made me think of Penny’s book and Gay’s book – where physically taking up space seems to have some deeper connotations about taking up political and social space. There appears to be a relationship between social/political space and physical space in the way women unconsciously understand their permission to exist.
One of the things I found really striking was when West talked about a change she went through as a result of Leonard Nimoy’s book (around 12:30 in the podcast). It is worth listening to, because it illustrates the extent to which cultural standards of beauty are constructed; or at least can be seen as being constructed. The changes West went through as she contemplated Nimoy’s book, and body positive Tumblrs, weren’t just conceptual; they re-wired her brain. She had decided – “what if I found [fat rolls] objectively beautiful?” And her brain, as she put it, “was changing shape”; she was changing the way she found what was sexually attractive. (For more on this, and why beauty standards don’t necessarily apply to what gender one is attracted to, but can very much play a role in one’s dating choices in terms of race, see this episode of Invisibilia).
Another quote from West that resonated with me was the feeling of “being both invisible and too visible.”
Perhaps the sentiment that stuck with me most in thinking about what West discussed in Act 1 of this episode is:
“You know what’s shameful? A complete lack of empathy.”
Act 2: Elna Baker
This story touched me the most out of all five acts in this episode, because, I think, I sympathized and empathized with Elna’s story the most; even if my own experiences have been far less medically dramatic.
Elna tells the story of how she lost a bunch of weight in order to attain and achieve all that seemed denied to her when she was fat — even though when she was fat, she did not believe she was actually treated any differently. When she was fat, she didn’t believe people were shallow enough to treat her differently because of it. When she became thin, she likened her experience to the SNL skit where Eddie Murphy masquerades as a white man and sees the difference in how people treat him.
She says that her motivations for becoming thin were to get a job and to find love, and she is able to give us a unique and stark point of view on how that worked out for her since she went from “fat” to “thin” in such a short period of time. She really gets to give us a good perspective of what the experience is like, socially, between being fat and being thin as a young woman in America.
There is a point in her story – and it’s difficult for me to pinpoint where, because it’s not a point in time, but rather a point in her own reckoning of what she is willing to accept and appreciate in herself – where I truly begin to empathize from my own experiences growing up girl in America. I am still not sure where exactly this point lies, but I think it has something to do with that point-of-no-return urgency that accompanies drastic decisions like weight-loss counseling and surgery, or a commitment to anorexia or bulimia.
There are several moving stories she tells throughout her telling of this journey, but the one that really gave me all kinds of complicated emotions was the conversation she recorded with her new husband.
Here is an excerpt – […] indicates places where I redacted dialogue for the sake of making this post as short as I can; so please listen to the original story in Act 2 to get the whole picture!
Elna: You would never have been attracted to me before. You know that makes me really sad? […]
Mark: You mean you married someone that wouldn’t have been attracted to you…?
Elna: … You wouldn’t have loved me. You would never have talked — I mean you would have talked to me, we would have been friends. But you wouldn’t have ever dated me, ever.
Elna: That’s true, right?
Mark: What do you mean?
Elna: It’s true.
Mark: That I wouldn’t have dated fat Elna?
Mark: I don’t know. Probably not.
Mark: I’ve always said I think the real you is the skinny you.
Elna: That’s stupid!
Elna narrating: This argument over which is the real me, old Elna or new Elna, goes on for days.
Elna narrating: Here we are in a car. Mark explains that he doesn’t think I became comfortable with myself until I was thin.
Elna, to Mark: It wasn’t like me in a fat suit. It was me. That’s what I was. So I wasn’t like, oh, this feels really big and uncomfortable. It just was me as a human. I was just a human. It was me.
If you only listen to one Act from this episode, or want to use one for a class, use this one.
This Act covers so many issues all at once. While it doesn’t explicitly unpack them, I think they are there to be unpacked and they are still relevant to Americans (particularly girls and women) today.
Here are three other thought-provoking quotes from Elna in Act 2:
“As new Elna, I once went on a date with a cute guy who said to me, ‘I know this is going to sound mean, but I just can’t tolerate fat people,’ and then took my hand for the very first time. And I held his hand. I said nothing. I didn’t tell him about old Elna. We went for a walk. I went out with him again. It’s sad that new Elna gets everything old Elna wanted, because I think old Elna was a better person than new Elna. […] New Elna didn’t have to be a good person. I just had to be thin. It made the world seem so bleak, like – ‘This is the system? Really?’ It made me less hopeful about people. When guys came on to me, it didn’t feel like it was about me. I could be anyone. It made it hard to trust people.”
“I was happy when I was overweight. I had no idea I should be sad. I was free before. I had trained myself not to care what people thought, and I’d done a good job of it. […] I just was. That’s the person I sold out to become this person.”
“As new Elna, I threw out all my pictures of old Elna and all the pictures in my parents’ photo albums too, because I didn’t want people to see them. And when I looked at those photos, they made me feel bad, because in the pictures, I looked happy. And I’d look at them and think, you’re so stupid to think that you’re happy.”
There are a lot of things going on there, I think – and I can relate to a lot of it on a personal level – and it goes beyond simple explanations of individual self-confidence. Elna’s story gives us a useful basis for talking about broader cultural influences on the way women in general see themselves in the US, I think. (And that doesn’t even delve into the further complexities added when one has to think about race.)
Act 3: Roxane Gay
Roxane Gay brings several more nuanced perspectives to all of these discussions. She makes an important distinction between “Lane Bryant” fat and socially debilitating fat, and she brings the topic of race into the discussion.
This Act is only 5 minutes long, and personally I think it should have been much longer (at the expense of, say, Act 4). I would have liked to hear more analysis about knowledge and discourse and power and the way terms like “super morbidly obese” have an effect on both health care professionals and the people that term is meant to apply to.
But Gay’s book Hunger covers it all, and you should definitely read it.
I also think Gay makes a good point when she talks about how the “fat acceptance movement” is great, but that it has its limits.
This 5 minute interview will not satisfy most questions relating to these kinds of discussions – for that, you might need to use her book. (It’s worth it, trust me.)
You can also watch Gay’s TED Talk “Bad Feminist.”
Act 4: Christian weight loss movement
I actually heard about this in another podcast, the always excellent Ologies podcast (which I highly recommend), in an episode called “Food Anthropology (FEASTS) with Katherine Spiers.” It’s worth listening to that whole episode purely for the entertainment factor – it’s super interesting, including the reasons why we have green bean casserole and sweet potato casserole – but for the purposes of this topic, the Christian influence in the American diet and weight loss can be found at the previous link at 14:25–16:13. There are other discussions in that episode of Ologies linking religion to the enjoyment of food and the idea of “fitness” in the United States, but the history of religion and weight loss for women can be heard there in 14:25–16:13.
In Act 4 of this episode of This American Life, a story is told of a Christian university that used students’ weight as a barometer for how dedicated they were to their religion and education. The university was subject to a lot of criticism for its tactics – like measuring students by placing them in water tanks to see how much water they displaced, and suspending students who were too heavy (according to their weight standards) – but, as the NPR journalist rightly points out, this concern with weight was not at odds with the broader culture; it was just more explicit. The podcast quotes John F. Kennedy: “There is nothing, I think, more unfortunate than having soft, chubby, fat looking children, who go to watch their school play basketball every Saturday and regard that as their week’s exercise.” (can also be found here).
It was interesting to hear a recording of a lecture where the speaker uses Bible verses to moralize people’s weight. And it was shocking to hear that a student could be kicked out of the school for being 4 pounds over the weight deemed by the school to be acceptable.
This segment was interesting too, for me, because I didn’t realize that there was a religious component to the moralization of weight.
Act 5: Immodest Proposal by Lindy West
This is a sweet, uplifting end to the show, about 3 minutes long, where Lindy tells the story of how her husband proposed to her. And why he did it the way he did.
It’s nice 🙂
The Upshot and Discussion Questions:
I think this podcast can be used for a lot of different educational purposes; it challenges norms, and it covers a disparate series of stories with the same theme in a way that opens up space for a lot of questions.
Here are some that come to mind:
- All the main stories focus on women, women’s stories, and/or women’s weight. Why do you think that is? Is it a coincidence? Or is there something about the American experience of the politics of fat that is particularly female?
- Which story did you find most compelling? Why?
- What can we as a society do to curb the stigmatization of being “heavy”?
- Where should the line be drawn between what is “normal” and what is not?
- Is it fair to scorn people for being unhealthy in some ways but not others (or at all)? Can we assume anything about a person’s health by visually assessing their weight? Are we really concerned about others’ health when we talk about weight, or is something else causing us to comment on it? (See Button Poetry slam below)
- Is beauty culturally subjective? How do you know?
- Why do you think our society is so concerned with how people look, and why does it almost always overshadow everything else about them; like if they are kind, or intelligent? Does this affect women more than it does men, in your opinion? Why/why not? Does it affect people of color in different ways than white people? How?
Links and Resources Related to this Podcast:
The Get: “The Body Is Not An Apology” (really good, down to earth discussion of weight and family and how to deal with it)
Invisibilia: “A Very Offensive Rom-Com”
Code Switch: “Pretty Hurts”
Articles and Books:
David Engerman, “American Knowledge and Global Power”
(this was called to mind when I was reading Roxane Gay’s description of how BMI is constructed)
Laurie Penny, Unspeakable Things
Roxane Gay, Hunger
Lindy West, Shrill
Caroline Knapp, Appetites: Why Women Want