‘Fatty Fatty Boom Boom’: A Q&A with author Rabia Chaudry
"The feeling of empowerment that strength training gave me, I’ve never had before."
I had the pleasure of speaking with Rabia Chaudry: attorney, executive producer of the HBO documentary series, “The Case Against Adnan Syed,” and producer/co-host of four podcasts. We dove into the topics of her latest book, “Fatty Fatty Boom Boom, A Memoir of Food, Fat, & Family,” such as body comments from family members, the joy of strength training, people’s reactions to weight change, and more.
The dedication to Rabia’s book reads:
“Finally, it is dedicated to all those who have spent their lives being judged—and judging themselves—for their weight, who have struggled between deprivation and depravity, and who deserve like anyone else to live an abundant life full of great food.”
If that resonates, I know you’ll love “Fatty Fatty Boom Boom.” It also includes recipes for Rabia’s favorite dishes, which she writes about in loving detail.
Our conversation has been edited and condensed.
MJ: You write about many moments where your family members commented about your size as a negative. How did you approach writing about your loved ones in such a frank way that didn’t always throw them into the kindest light?
RC: At no point did I want anybody in my family to come across as being malicious or hateful or hurtful on purpose, because they really weren’t. When I watched the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding,” that family resonated with me so much because that’s just like my family. You know there’s a lot of love there, but also they’re saying things that can come across really terribly for the protagonist.
I never was hurt by those comments, even though I obviously carried them, because I knew there wasn’t any malice or hatred. My family was trying to prepare me for what they knew the world was going to be like, what Pakistani society was going to be like as a got older. To this day, if I bring up, “You put me in Weight Watchers,” they’d say, “Yeah, what’s wrong with that?” They don’t see anything wrong with it because their intention was good.
Now that you have children, how do you approach conversations with them about their bodies, their eating habits, their body image?
My three kids are a decade apart. I had my youngest in my early 20s, I had one in my mid-30s, and one in my mid-40s. I was a different person and a different mother at each of those stages. My eldest daughter, who is in her mid-20s, her eating habits to this day are very much like my eating habits were when she was a child; my eating habits weren’t great when I was 22. My teenager eats a lot of salads because by my 30s I had discovered eating salad. I realize it hasn’t been a conversation, it’s been modeling. Your kids will model what they see and what you do and obviously the food you put on the table—you are forming the palate for the rest of their lives.
When I finished writing the book I realized: People said all kinds of things to me [about food and weight] my entire life and none of those were helpful to me. None of that stuff ever helped me do better, feel better, be better in any way. The minute I finished writing this book I said, I’m never going to have any of these conversations again unless [my kids] want to have them, and what I need to do is model good, healthy behavior. So my 14-year-old has been watching me go to the gym since she was eight, nine years old. As soon as she turned 11 and was old enough she’s like, “I want to go to the gym with you.” She’s a cross-country runner. She lifts weights, because she’s seen her mother do it.
There’s nothing like living your best life to show your children how to do it.
After years of just cardio, you started working with a trainer on strength training. You write that this shifted your focus from only wanting to lose weight to wanting to “kick ass in the gym.” What do you think it is about strength training specifically that has helped you think of you and your body as “friends,” as you put it?
The thing about strength training is, my body changed in front of me, my body was doing things I never thought she could do. And I realized how low my expectations of my body were. I had spent years slogging away on the treadmill and ellipticals. There were entire stretches where I’m running three, four, five miles a day, eating 800 calories and nothing’s happening.
When I started strength training, I was in my 40s. So I’m 44 years old, I’m already like, “This is not going to work. You don’t know my body. You don’t understand what you’re dealing with,” is what I said to my trainer. And then I couldn’t believe it. I remember seeing people do things in the gym—you get very intimidated when you see people in the gym, especially strength training—and I’m like, “I could never do that. I could never do that.” And then I could do all of it in four months. In four months. I get the runner’s high, but the feeling of empowerment that strength training gave me, I’ve never had before.
Then you started talking about your body issues in therapy, you started finding recovery from disordered eating behaviors and an overall more harmonious relationship to your body. It reads to me like you had to walk through the door of “I just want to lose weight” to get to the deeper body healing that goes beyond size—do you agree?
Oh, absolutely. I really thought what is going to be was like all the other crash diets I had done. You know, there’s a wedding coming up, you just want to lose X amount of weight, you know it’s going to come back later, but it’s just for that specific moment, just so I don’t feel terrible in that moment. I did not expect that I’m going to never want to stop doing [strength training], that this is going to be something that feels like a lifestyle. In the past I never saw results and my struggle with food was constant because I was always told: It’s just calories. So restricting, restricting, restricting instead of expanding; now I have trainers saying no, you need to eat more—I’m like what? And you’re eating more, and you’re feeling stronger, and you’re walking out of the gym everyday feeling like, “I haven’t felt this good even in my 20s.”
Anybody who has been through the cycle of weight loss and weight gain over and over, you know the minute you stop doing whatever it is you’re doing to restrict your calories or lose weight it comes back so, so quickly. And COVID happened about two years after I started getting into [strength training]. So for a year, I didn’t go to the gym, and I fully expected I was going to gain 50 pounds. I gained like 10, that was it. I maintained it without hitting it as hard as I was before. I definitely think building muscle is what made a difference.
With strength training I can have rice and I can have bread and I can eat from every food group—there’s nothing I don’t eat now. I’ve never been able to live like that in my life. I’ve also never been able to actually enjoy food.
Let’s talk about the response to your body changes: Once you started losing more weight than you had before, your mother started asking you if you had cancer, telling you that you looked sick. I’ve had this experience—when I was feeling my fittest and strongest ever and deadlifting twice my body weight, my mother said she was worried about how “skinny” I was. How do comments like this make you feel, and why do you think people say them?
My mom has seen me struggle my whole life, and she had never seen the very quick transformation that took place—we’re talking about four months. I think that’s what surprised her, and I understand that. I think she had a genuine concern because it happened so quickly.
There were people who were excited and happy for me because I’m happy, but there were also people who—and I think sometimes this is projection—were like, “Why are you even sharing online that you’ve lost this weight or you’re exercising? This is fat shaming.” And that was a little complicated to respond to.
Yes—you write about how as a public figure who lost weight in front of many people, you got criticism for not being “body positive” and for “demonizing fat people.” Something I see come up in a lot of body-acceptance spaces is the idea that “intentional weight loss is fatphobic.” How do you respond to this idea?
I did a live radio interview yesterday with callers, people were tweeting. And someone was tweeting and saying: “This whole conversation is fatphobic.” I said: “This conversation is my life story.”
Somebody else said in an email that they only reason anybody feels bad about their body is because of external fatphobia. That’s actually not true. There are times when your knees hurt, right? You have health issues, you cannot be active, your body feels a physical effect of the weight and of eating junk—that’s my reality.
This is what I realize as someone who’s a little bit in the public eye: When I was at my heaviest, around when “Serial” came out, people were making fun of how I looked online. And then, some people were upset when I’m losing weight. I realized it doesn’t matter. Who am I trying to please other than myself? At the end of the day, I can’t please all of them. None of them are living in my body, nobody’s paying my bills. The only thing that matters is how I feel about myself. Do I feel good? Do I want to be mobile and flexible and active as I get older? Because I’m watching my parents lose their mobility and it’s really scary. That’s what I’m thinking about as I’m nearing 50.
Another thing people have said to you is that everyone should love themselves as they are and you should have loved your body at your largest size. “Maybe everyone should,” you write, “but not everyone does.” There were external things, like criticism from others, that seemed to keep you from fully loving your body at your heaviest, but what were the internal things that had nothing to do with looks?
I realized that I had felt the worst in my life when I felt like I had no control, and I didn’t know what to do. Right now, I’m not at my fittest, I’m not at my lightest, but I feel like I have a sense of control, I know exactly what to do if I want to do it, when I want to do it, if I want to get into better shape.
I felt like a failure because I literally didn’t know how to control my body. I felt like I’ve got this enemy, I’m stuck inside this enemy that doesn’t want to cooperate with me. It’s always been this feeling of control and despair, more than what I see in the mirror.
Do you have any body-image or eating-related things you still struggle with now?
I’ve made peace with pretty much all of it. That’s why I said there’s nothing I won’t eat, but I’m not living on fast food now. I don’t have a taste for it now. I like home-cooked food, I like whole foods. I’m not saying I’ve solved everything for everybody, but I feel like I’ve solved it for me.
The editor who bought the book, she’s a wonderful editor, but after I’d written half of it, she said: “Rabia, I don’t know how to reconcile that you’re talking about these weight struggles and then you’re talking about all this rich food.” And I said, “Why? Are people who are heavy not allowed to like food?” But this is what we’re told—if you're heavy you shouldn’t even say “I like food.” I said no, there’s nothing contradictory in this. Everybody has to eat. Everybody should be able to enjoy to eat, enjoy good food. Including people who are heavy.
I asked Rabia to recommend any body image-focused content she’s enjoyed lately. She mentioned “Big Girl: How I Gave Up Dieting and Got A Life,” by Kelsey Miller.
Pieces I’ve written that touch on the subjects in this interview:
On how certain foods can change your palate: “Junk food” needs no defense, “healthy food” needs no praise
On modeling self-acceptance behavior for kids: Weight loss made me obsessed with my looks. Now what?
On how people respond to weight loss: Weight loss is weird
On binge eating disorder: What are we supposed to do with our bodies now?
A couple articles explaining why strength training can be more effective for fat loss than other exercise:
Casey Johnston on getting into the gym to lose weight and finding a love of weight lifting instead: I Didn’t Start Weight Lifting Because I Wanted to Be Strong
Body Type is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.