Each year after the holiday season comes to a close, diet culture looms as the new year approaches. Many resolutions involve dieting, and with it often comes anxiety and guilt over weight gain or eating habits.
But author and fat studies scholar Virgie Tovar is encouraging everyone to stop that cycle, which she says not only is personally damaging but also fuels fatphobia.
Fatphobia — the fear of fatness — is “a form of bigotry that essentially says that fat people are inferior and that weight gain is a sign of moral inferiority,” she says. Diet culture — a culture that equates weight loss and thinness with being healthy — exists because of this fear, she explains.
“A lot of people don’t realize that a lot of our food restriction and our fear of food really comes from the terror that we’ve been taught to have around weight gain,” she says.
One fear is the way people are socialized to consider dieting as a form of self-improvement. How food and bodies are viewed can be connected to the messaging people digest each day that convinces many to distinguish between “what kind of bodies are good and what kind of bodies are bad.”
It can foster an environment where worrying over weight gain is normal and where body-shaming is rampant.
So go ahead and enjoy yourself this holiday season without putting pressure on yourself to conform to the norm, she says.
“I think for everyone, we can all just opt out of talking about food and bodies,” she says. “Just call a moratorium on it. Just enjoy.”
On ways in which diet culture inundates daily life
“One of the things that really surprised me when I started working with women who are recovering from years and years and years of either disordered eating or chronic dieting, they consistently talked about one unexpected place where they experienced the most hostility — and that was the workplace. Literally, it blew my mind. I was expecting family or dating. Women tend to work in environments with primarily other women. And so there’s kind of this idea, you’ve probably heard this, that kind of food chatter that goes on at the office. Like, ‘Oh, my goodness, these cookies are so bad. Oh my goodness, somebody brought a cake. This place is terrible. What are you doing? You’re being so good at lunchtime [and] going on a walk. Or are you eating a salad?’ ”
On food chatter at work and how that may affect how we view our bodies
“I think this includes people of all genders, we’re kind of socialized to believe that this idle food chatter is innocuous and that it’s actually kind of a fun way to connect with people. It turns out that it’s extraordinarily triggering. I think when you really get into it, like the women who are essentially paying me to give them tools to deal with this, they’re paying a tax for this. Like they’re paying for this idle chatter.”
On how diet culture thrives in a misogynistic culture
“We’ve been taught to see dieting as a method of self-improvement — and this isn’t just women. It’s exacerbated for women because women are taught to trade our bodies to get access to commodities [for] things that matter to us, like marriage, jobs, clothing. We know that dieting, weight cycling, whenever you want to call it, that it is not efficacious. It literally does not work, and it ultimately creates, over time, an upward trajectory in weight. We do know that it’s highly correlated with depression, anxiety, increased likelihood of developing an eating disorder and a number of other things that I would argue are pretty objectively negative things. And we’re being told that this is for our own good. I think of that as … a political sedative because women are being told that a behavior that has been proven to be negative and deleterious is a positive thing for them, which is deeply confusing.”
On whether she would have listened if someone told her years ago that it was okay to be fat
“There’s a part of me that thinks, yes, there’s a part of me that thinks no. I mean, I remember being in the depths of my own self-hatred. And even in college, I remember seeing a performer, a fat performer, sharing this piece that she had written about being a fat person and loving her fat. And I was mortified. I felt like she was exposing this horrible secret that I thought I could hide.”
“At the end of the day, the meaning of ‘fat’ and ‘thin’ are socially constructed.”
On acknowledging and accepting being fat one’s own fatness
“People think that they’re terrified of fat, but [what] they’re actually terrified of is the experience that they have seen fat people have over and over and over again. They know the attitudes culturally that people have toward fat people and they’re terrified of the bigotry itself. And they transpose that onto the fat.
“So it’s important to recognize there are cultures where fatness is totally lauded and considered very attractive and healthful and whatever, including our own culture in certain historical moments. At the end of the day, the meaning of ‘fat’ and ‘thin’ are socially constructed. They’re time-bound. They’re not sort of this time immemorial [where] everybody has loved this one kind of body type. That’s not how it’s worked. I think to really come to terms with being fat is to come to terms with the fact that you are going to stand unapologetically against every single gender norm in this culture. And that is a very, very daunting task.”
On whether radical body positivity in pop culture is more than a phase
“Yeah, I don’t think it’s a moment. I think about the CEO of this incredible plus-size company called 11 Honoré, says, ‘It’s not a moment, it’s a movement.’ I think that we are seeing a major shift that we’re not going to see the end of. I think this is fourth-wave feminism, TBH.”
On restructuring how we think about health
“The data point that doctors and lots of people are really, really attached to is this data point that says thin people live longer, better lives. We need to unpack this. You really cannot make this statement in a vacuum. What I do know and what we know about public health is that people have this idea that when it comes to your health and it comes to health outcomes, if we were looking at it as like a pie chart, that the biggest slice of the pie is our individual behaviors. That is just patently false. What we know is that the social determinants of health have a much larger impact on the outcomes we’re going to have, how long we’re going to live, how healthy we’re gonna be. Many of them are things we can’t control. They include things like childhood experiences of trauma. They include things like access to clean water, job opportunities, income. A lot of these things are things that are outside of the control of individuals. And we really need to understand health in that model.”
On her tips for avoiding the cycle of diet culture and canceling fatphobia
“I think for the people who are really, really terrified and I know there are many, many, many of you out there, for those of you who are terrified, I would really offer to have a little plan leading up to and perhaps even after the meal, like take care of yourself after. If you know that there is a likelihood that you’re gonna get triggered or people are going to be food shaming or body shaming you, take a few minutes today to write out a plan that you’re going to going to implement afterward. And that can include like just sitting down and breathing or journaling or doing something that takes care of yourself and recognizes that what happened was not okay. And I think for a lot of people, what happens is they get triggered into that really deep weight loss behavior, which is deeply harmful for most people. That plan is about not going to that place, just taking a minute, taking a breather. And if you have a little bit of extra time, figure out some boundaries you want to set going into the thing, like how you’re going to exit conversations that are upsetting, what you might say to a person very quickly when you’re not interested in having the conversation they might want to have that might be fatphobic or food shaming.”