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Self-respect and body love: not just for thin people

September 3, 2013

Weight LossFat HealthEating DisordersWeight Loss SurgeryDiet Talk

Trigger warning: Discussion of eating disorders and messages promoting health in the guise of weight loss.

Secret Eaters

Anna Richardson, Presenter of Secret Eaters

Something very disappointing happened today. I’ll need to give you a little background first. In the UK, one of the commercial TV channels has a programme called “Secret Eaters.” I won’t bother linking to it — you can look it up if you want. I wouldn’t, though, if I were you. The blurb on their website says:

This groundbreaking series about the psychology and science of eating scrutinises the eating habits of overweight families by putting them under 24-hour camera surveillance.

There is nothing groundbreaking about this sorry excuse for fat shaming. They film fatties secretly (I’m not sure how that works since this is what they’ve signed up for) and catch them stuffing their faces with lots of crap that they don’t record in their “food diaries.” This exercise is designed to show that their protestations of “I don’t understand why I’m so fat, I don’t really eat that much” is actually false and their fat is their own damn fault. Revolting, right?

But that’s not the disappointing part.

A bit more background. Also in the UK, there is an organisation called Body Gossip (BG) who describe themselves thusly:

Body Gossip is a positive body image campaign that is working to banish body shame, encouraging everyone to be the best version of themselves and rock their very own brand of gorgeous.

The women behind BG, Natasha Devon and Ruth Rogers, do amazing work. Amongst other things, they go into schools and universities and run sessions on self-acceptance. Tash is also a bit of a media darling, and is frequently seen very elegantly and eloquently standing up for the little folks against the media onslaught of “you must look like this or else.” She used to be a model and got very caught up in this, developing an eating disorder. Having recovered from her ED, she founded Gossip School, to help other young people avoid this fate. And in 2008, she and Ruth created Body Gossip. I’ve always loved Tash’s stuff, and I frequently want to stand up and cheer after hearing her address the issues.

My adulation isn’t without some concerns, however. First of all, I’m not so sure that BG is quite as inclusive as they think they are. They say they’re about promoting self-esteem and beauty in all forms, shapes, and sizes. But just take a look at their ambassadors: pretty much young, white, slim. Not a lot of diversity in that “accept yourself” mission.

And then, a couple of weeks ago, I caught her on morning TV arguing against a news story that said parents were to blame for their children’s obesity and were guilty of negligence for letting them get that way. She was a little less convincing than usual, and then she said something that raised my eyebrows several inches up my forehead. I don’t remember the exact words, but it was about understanding the psychology behind obesity, getting to the root of the problem. It was live TV, and given it was just one blip among a lot of very clear body positive messaging, I let it go and continued to have faith in BG and their message.

But then today, they put this up on their Facebook page:

Post on Body Gossip facebook page, 2nd Sept 2013

Post on Body Gossip facebook page, 2 September 2013

I was surprised and disappointed to see this, to put it mildly. And I was not alone. Several people posted in the comments that they were very disappointed to see BG endorse this programme, and explaining why. But instead of actually listening to the concerns, Natasha went into back-pedalling mode.

 I was chatting to the casting director and he said that they were changing the focus of the programme so it was for people who wanted to lose weight for health reasons and genuinely didn’t know why they were unable to do it. They said they would be focussing more on self-esteem this series and I really did get the impression they were trying to be more responsible, which is why I posted this. Having said that I’d never encourage anyone to do anything they didn’t want to and if they are overweight and happy and healthy then that’s brilliant. Hope this clears up any confusion.

Um, no, not really Tash.

Then there was this:

Also, Body Gossip are approached about once a week by TV casting people looking for us to help them out and we never do if we think the programme will be irresponsible. That’s why Tash took the time to have a long discussion with them and check out their motivations.

You get approached once a week and THIS was the one you decided to share with your thousands of followers? Oh, well, so long as their motivations for secretly filming people stuffing their faces and helping them see the error of their ways so they can finally become thin and more acceptable “healthy,” then that’s OK.

A few more comments followed, still not convinced that this was a good move. From Tash:

Thanks for all of your thoughts and I do understand your concerns — I’m sorry if you think this is not in line with our ethos and I hope that you will continue to support our work. Tash x

If it’s not in line with your ethos? IF? Actually, I don’t think she does understand our concerns. And then she proves it by saying this:

Also, loads of people are fat and FABULOUS and those people shouldn’t feel like they have to change. This was a point I made to the shows producers and they agreed with me…. but to be absolutely honest I haven’t watched the show — just had a long convo about their aims for this series and thought it sounded like a good step forward. They have a new team and said they wanted it to be complete different from Supersize, Biggest Loser et al and I (perhaps naively) believed them. Tash x

The post is still up on their page. The problem here, in terms of BG, is that she really can’t see what the problem is. She seems to think that if the producer was actually telling the truth and was only trying to help people who want to lose weight for their health, then that would be OK. Because “obesity” is a big problem, obviously. We need to help these poor people who just can’t help themselves.

No no no no no no no.

This is the response I wrote on the Facebook page, corrected only for typos and grammar mistakes as my fingers typed a mile a minute trying to convey just how much was wrong with all of this.

I am horrified to see BG supporting this, even if the producers made all the right noises.

Tash, I see you’re under a bit of a hailstorm here, and I’m sorry for adding to it, but this is not the first time something you have said suggests to me that you have very little awareness of ‘obesity’ and the lives of fat people.

You said above: “Also, loads of people are fat and FABULOUS and those people shouldn’t feel like they have to change.” I’m sure when you wrote that you weren’t trying to suggest that people who are fat and not fabulous SHOULD have to change, but that’s how it’s coming across to me. You also said above that the producers were: “changing the focus of the programme so it was for people who wanted to lose weight for health reasons and genuinely didn’t know why they were unable to do it. ”

This is a myth that the diet industry is selling. Not only isn’t it necessary to lose weight to improve your health, the efforts to lose weight can further damage it. When people do lose weight they often exercise and improve their diet. It is likely these changes lead to any short-term health improvements. Liposuction studies show that having the fat sucked out of you does not improve your metabolic markers at all. And contrary to popular belief, exercising and improving your diet will not necessarily lead to significant weight loss in many people, especially those who have a history of disordered eating. When people regain the weight, as the vast majority of them will — not through lack of willpower but because their bodies will do everything possible to return to the heavier state, many of them will stop with their healthy behaviours, discouraged. This cycle is setting them up for failure and self-loathing. And further studies (based on hundreds of thousands of people) show that the size of the difference between what you weigh and what you want to weigh is directly related to both physical and mental ill health, even after controlling for BMI. In other words, “feeling fat” is actually worse for your health than being fat.

And everything in our society is set up to make us feel fat and hate our bodies. Those “fat and fabulous” people you talk about are the rare exception who have managed to stand up against that onslaught and demand respect at any size. It is the ones who haven’t who need something like BG, and yet you are letting them down here.

The idea that people want to lose weight for their health is flawed. People do not want to be thin, per se. They want to be happy, healthy and attractive. They have been told by society that they cannot be any of this in a fat body, and programmes like this just amplify that garbage. The evidence from studies of people undergoing weight loss surgery consistently shows that people will accept enormous health risks, up to and including death, and one study showed that people who had lost huge amounts of weight with surgery would rather be blind, deaf, lose a limb, have a heart attack etc etc than regain the weight. This is not about health. This is about the stigma of living in a fat body in this society. And stigma/prejudice have consistently been shown (whether for racism, homophobia, and other prejudices, or weight) that being exposed to this kind of stigma is associated with biochemical inflammation, which is scientifically proven to be linked to increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, etc etc.

I know that you are not familiar with the programme, and I know that the producers were using nice kind-sounding language, but even if this is true and their intentions are good, the very concept of this programme is based on a false scientific message and on the culturally-sanctioned unacceptability of fat bodies. These people do not need ‘fixing’, they need to learn to respect themselves and take care of themselves. This is not equivalent to becoming thin. And I feel that, despite the incredible work that BG do, and it IS incredible — I know you have helped thousands of young people, “obesity” is not something you understand well, and your take on this is likely to increase harm to this segment of the population. Self-respect and body love is not just for thin people.

A later commenter, while agreeing with me on the facts, suggested that people who are at different stages of understanding, but who are fighting for positive body images, shouldn’t be discouraged if they make mistakes. This is indeed true. We all make mistakes — I am no exception. But what is so wrong with all of this is that we’re not talking about a fledgling self-acceptance campaigner. Tash has been doing this for a long time, and passionately believes the self-acceptance message except, apparently, for fat people. She is coming at this from a point of empathy, admittedly. It’s great if fat people can accept themselves, but if not, we must try and help them to become thin.  She seems to have totally bought into society’s anti-fat message. If even our “allies” in the fight against body fascism don’t understand the difference, what hope do we have?

I study stigma. I know how ingrained in society it is. As the great activist Marilyn Wann has said:

Fat hatred, Marilyn Wann

Tash seems to think her (possible) mistake was in trusting the producers when they said it was going to be more about health, to help people for their own good. She doesn’t seem to understand that even if the producers genuinely have this motivation, the entire premise is STILL problematic and highly stigmatising. This is thin privilege, through and through. As someone who has recovered from an eating disorder, and who has been fighting against the cultural imperative to look a certain way for so long, the overriding sense is that, yes, this is all very good and well, but if you’re fat, well obviously some people don’t want to be fat, you know, for their health, and we should help them fix themselves. This is a fundamental problem, not a simple error in judgment, and if we don’t call it out when we see it, it will never end.

I recently wrote a blog post in which I said something along the lines of “weight stigma is the last socially acceptable prejudice.” The number of public and private comments I got about this phrase, how it engenders the Oppression Olympics and, what’s more, how it is simply not true, left me somewhat chagrined. So I get it, I really do. Tash thinks she’s on the side of the angels and people pick her up on these little things. Except, they’re not little things. They’re huge. And if we’re going to make a difference, we allies, we really do need to all be clear exactly what it is that we’re fighting against.

Update: BG has now taken the post off their FB page.

Never Diet Again Sigs

9 Comments leave one →
  1. September 3, 2013 1:24 pm

    BOOM!! Angela — that was beautifully written, passionately expressed! I really hope BG takes all that you’ve said and lets it simmer in their collective brain for a while…. and realize that you fucking NAILED IT!

  2. September 3, 2013 1:36 pm

    Wow, your FB response was everything about the HAES movement summed up in one perfect document. It also hit a nerve with me–the line “In other words, “feeling fat” is actually worse for your health than being fat.” especially. I need to think about this for awhile. You’ve set my mind reeling!

    Thank you for this and for taking on this cause!

    • September 3, 2013 2:31 pm

      Hi Susie,

      I tell people about that study (non-HAES/SA people) and they just nod, ‘yeah, of course’, like it’s obvious. I think they obviously don’t understand it. The implications, as you’ve realised, are enormous!

      If you follow the link to that study, you’ll see it was based on information from 170,000 people. They knew what they weighed, what they wanted to be, and recent health information. And what they found was that the larger the gap between a person’s actual and ideal weight, the more health problems they had. After controlling for BMI. In other words, the more unhappy they were with their body, the worse their health, no matter what size they were. This is game changing, isn’t it! Good luck with the processing 🙂

  3. vesta44 permalink
    September 3, 2013 2:06 pm

    This pretty much sums it all up for me. I’m almost 60 years old (give me 2 1/2 months and I’ll be there. . . .lol), and it’s taken me years, more years than I care to count, to be able to tell the world to FO when it comes to how it feels about my size/weight and really mean it. I said that for a lot of years, but it still hurt every time I heard those platitudes that get spouted at fat people (especially women) – “You have such a pretty face, if you’d just lose some weight. . . . “, “You have a great personality, but more people would like you if you were thinner. . . . “, etc. Now, I can honestly say I hear that crap and think “Who fucking cares what you think? Who cares that you think I’d be even prettier if I lost weight? I don’t owe good looks to you or anyone else. Who cares if you think more people would like me if I was thinner? If the only reason they like me is because of the size of my body, then I really don’t want shallow people like that in my life. And it doesn’t hurt to hear those things anymore because I have finally come to believe, in my heart, that how other people feel about me, think of me, says way more about them than it does about me. So I can tell the world to FO when they say nasty things about me, and walk away, unhurt, unbowed, and determined to continue living my life fat at the world. I’m just sorry it took me so many years to figure all that out. Would have saved me a lot of tears.
    While BG/Tash may be doing a lot of good, they really need to take what you said to heart if they want to help everyone with self-esteem issues (Self-esteem, it’s not just for thin, white, rich folks anymore).

    • September 3, 2013 2:32 pm

      Thanks Vesta. And I love you just fine the way you are x

    • September 3, 2013 9:17 pm

      I’m turning 60, myself, around that same time. I was 21 when I decided never to diet again and never to endure criticism of my fatness (or my preference for fatness) in silence. That bigotry, the assumptions, and the intrusiveness of the judgmental are more pernicious and pervasive than ever right now. The societal angst, that “We have to DO SOMETHING!” impetus, is deeply troubling and hurtful. It is, however, a reassuring and marvelous thing that thoughtful and gifted young people are re-framing these issues and doggedly refuting the twaddle that occasionally masquerades as “being helpful”.

  4. Dizzyd permalink
    September 5, 2013 6:42 pm

    “Tash thinks she’s on the side of the angels” – unfortunately, not all angels are on the side of good (think: fallen angels).

    • September 6, 2013 6:58 am

      Lol. We all think she’s being obtuse. She no doubt thinks the same about us, having apparently bought into the fat/health message. Yes, she may wish to take the blame out of it, but still sees is as a problem. She genuinely can’t see the conflict between what she’s saying and BG’s supposedly inclusive message of body acceptance for people of all shapes and sizes.

      And in other news, according to her twitter feed, fat activism is all about making and keeping people fat and attacking people who are thin or who lose weight (as apparently happened to her when she had an operation). I know there are some fat activists like that, but Tash is clearly not the ally we thought she was, which is a shame.

      But it’s my comment about the lack of diversity that have created the biggest stink. A lot of the ambassadors are in recovery from AN and they have taken this observation to be akin to skinny bashing and attributed the whole thing to our own unresolved body issues. Sigh. So much for us all being on the same side.

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