We need complicated weight loss stories
I don’t want the only weight loss stories out there to be celebratory ones. I want the unnerved and disenchanted ones, too.
Sam Anderson’s New York Times Magazine story, “I’ve Always Struggled With My Weight, Losing it Didn’t Mean Winning,” is a first-person piece that probes his experiences as a fat person, losing weight via the Noom diet app, how he feels about the “journey” of weight loss, and much more.
Naturally, readers seemed divided—across the internet, some said it was relatable, some said they wanted to give Sam a hug, some said they just couldn’t stop thinking about it. Others said it was fatphobic or problematic.
I think it’s critical reading. Sam’s story made me wonder about the bodily experience of another person and any experiences we might share. It made me furious at how unjust living in a fat body can be (I know from experience). It made me see just how, well, fucked up many of us are about eating, fatness, the excuses we make for others’ behavior toward us, and our efforts to live in differently shaped bodies at any given time. Basically: I write about how fucked up I still am about my own body in this newsletter, and Sam’s piece made me feel less alone. I don’t know whether those who said the piece was “fatphobic” or “problematic” are suggesting the piece shouldn’t exist at all. I know, though, that I want to read it, even if it is exactly those things.
And it has its eyebrow-raising moments. I balked at Sam’s assertion that his friend had a “right” to make a joke about Sam’s fatness—maybe their dynamic is such that fat jokes are acceptable, but would we really say people have the right to make them?—and I wondered over his statement that he’s “never struggled with an eating disorder.” When I read that he’s been in the habit of “eating when I wasn’t hungry, eating until I felt almost sick, mindlessly inhaling whatever heaps of processed food the multinational snack conglomerates managed to stick in front of my face all day long,” I relate as someone who’s had binge eating disorder; that’s exactly how I ate. This doesn’t mean Sam had or has one—it’s not my place to assert that—but it seems clear that such habits are at the least distressed ones. Considering how hesitant we are to recognize and discuss binge eating disorder, I wonder how Sam does define disordered eating or an eating disorder for himself.
Casey Johnston in her “She’s A Beast” newsletter wrote that “the piece radiates guilt, shame, and self-consciousness about eating and fatness in a play for ‘relatability’ that still normalizes this retro moralizing about eating and body size.” I must respectfully disagree that this is a play for relatability. For many of us who have been or are fat, it simply is relatable. As someone who lived many years of my life as a fat woman, guilt, shame, and self consciousness suffused every area of my life no matter how hard I resisted, because other people mistreated me. I didn’t necessarily feel guilty for eating two dinner rolls, but people made me feel guilty with their “You sure you want to eat that?” commentary. I didn’t feel shame about my body every day, but then a patron at my food service job would ask me if I ate all the desserts (a “joke” they had no right to make). If I tried to muscle past self-consciousness and wear whatever I wanted, I’d hear someone deride my body as like a “linebacker in a dress.” No matter how much body or fat positivity you claim, someone lurks in the wings ready to declare you undeserving of a moment of bodily peace. I’m moved by other people’s honest stories about just how deep that reality cuts.
I don’t think Sam is “normalizing” the moralizing of eating and body size as much as he’s pointing out, through the lens of his personal experience, just how absolutely normal it already is. We should read such stories to fully realize how common it is that fat people are treated this way, feel these feelings, and have these struggles, and be motivated (hopefully) toward new attitudes or better behavior, not discourage writing about these harsh realities because, why? That makes them go away? Hardly.
I don’t think anyone who hasn’t gone through a substantial weight loss can truly understand just how complicated and deeply weird it can be. You have potentially experienced profound struggle but no longer wear the marker of that struggle. You might feel, as Shonda Rhimes puts it, “like a chunky spy in a thinner world.” You can have heaps of internalized fatphobia from how people treated you and, maybe, from the smugness that can come with losing weight in a world that uplifts that as one of the greatest accomplishments you can achieve. You may feel your identity has been cracked in two and you don’t recognize your body as your home anymore, at first. You might feel more self-conscious in your “new” body than you did in your bigger one, because it’s easy to feel invisible when you’re fat. You could see that the same people who “worried” about your fatter body are now “worried” about your smaller one because apparently no body is ever the “right” one. Most of all, you may feel nonplussed that the anxieties of a newly smaller body are as destabilizing as those of a larger one. These feelings are alienating and unsettling, so I want people to talk about them. I don’t want the only weight loss stories out there to be ebullient, celebratory ones. I want the unnerved and disenchanted ones, too.
We might need to see someone writing about their friend’s fat jokes, not because those jokes are OK, but so we can see that some people accept them maybe just to cope. We might need to see someone claim that they have “never been grievously hurt by diet culture” in the same breath as they say that their weight has “somehow managed to make itself a central fact of my life,” not to rebuke the idea that diet culture is harmful but to demonstrate how it can affect us, how insidious it can be, without us really even knowing it.
Maybe in some way, I’m just rooting for Sam—not to lose weight or maintain weight loss, but to find peace in his body—because I’ve been Sam. He writes of losing weight with the Noom diet: “I felt pretty much exactly as I had always felt my whole entire life. I was, after all that change, still only myself. My big epiphany, if I could put it into words, would be something like: ‘So what?’”
I’ve dieted before (many times in my younger life) and felt the same way. There were temporary weight-loss thrills, but just fad or crash dieting to lose body mass was so empty of meaning for me. The only body change that eventually felt meaningful was confronting the fact that I had deeply disordered binge eating habits and working to fix those, and getting into weight lifting. To feel less dissociated from my body when I was abusing it with food, I had to confront what I was doing and why. Just dieting didn’t do that. To find a long-lasting, more harmonious relationship to my body, I had to rewire my mind, reframe my sense of what I can “control,” address my fear of failure and self-doubt—all the things at the heart of my eating disorder, because an eating disorder is never just about food. Getting into lifting helped me do those things. Other people might find other channels to a greater sense of peace.
I agree with Sam that changing your body doesn't change who you are—I'm still me. There’s no un-painting that landscape. But there was a transformation in how I related to food and movement once I spent a lot of uncomfortable, tremendously difficult hours thinking and talking about my issues with eating. Maybe for Sam, this essay is a start in that regard. He also writes that no matter how he loses weight, he will “still be Fat Sam.” My hope is that he’ll come to think of himself as not A Certain Size Sam, but just as Always the Same Sam Under Different Circumstances. I hope those circumstances are ones that make him feel good in his body as often as possible, whether or not that depends on him changing anything about it. I hope he can feel no need to place any kind of body size-related qualifier before his own name. I hope I can, too. Until then, we can at least explore why we feel compelled to do so.
This is one of your best pieces Mikala.
I wish more people would read this. Personally, the most difficult line to walk between the fat and thin self is the acceptance of going through trauma without embracing victimhood linked to BED.
I almost want to reach a place of neutrality where my fat self and thin self are just phases, neither is 'right' or 'wrong', and there is no linear path to victory that connects them.
Stories like Sam’s and stories like your live storytelling in Philly in 2016, ”Lost”, are important. As someone who has chronically struggled with the way I view my body and the way I view how others view my body, I hear what you’re saying- these stories aren’t playing for relatability, they just ARE relatable. Being fat doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There are deep emotions tied to it, either as the cause or the effect, there are societal norms and judgements surrounding it. I don’t want to just read the “yay I lost weight!” stories because they put weight and fatness into a vacuum and don’t make me feel like I’m reading about a human. I want to hear about the messiness that is the rest of life surrounding it, because that’s what I can connect with. Thanks for writing about this!