I’m five feet, five and a half inches tall, and I weigh 150.7 pounds. This gives me a body mass index (BMI) of 24.7, just a hair below the cutoff for overweight (25).
I used to be skinny. I had no breasts to speak of until well into seventh grade. I had bony knees tiny legs and ribs you could count, if only just. By freshman year of high school, I had developed a bit. I ran cross country that fall, stopped running once the season was over, kept eating four meals a day and gained ten pounds that winter. In my first two years of college, I’ve put on another fifteen pounds.
By American standards, I’m an average weight, probably even below average. I’ve always loved my body–especially during the two or three years when I had a respectable chest and still held on to my flat stomach. I’ve never felt “fat”, or had any particular desire to lose weight. But over the past two years, as I’ve gained more weight, I’ve found it harder to look in the mirror and feel proud. Initially, I thought this was because of the way I looked–the rolls of fat on my side that appeared when I bent over, or the way my cheekbones didn’t stick out quite as much as they used to. I told myself I wouldn’t always look like this, that it would get better when I didn’t have school and three jobs to keep me busy and stressed.
After a year of feeling this way, during which I stayed about the same weight, I realized I wasn’t mad at myself for the way I looked. I was mad because I wasn’t taking care of my body. With an all-you-can-eat meal plan, I’d been eating more than I was used to, and I felt worse for it. I wasn’t exercising regularly. I made some choices to change this. I signed up for aerobics classes, got off Whitman’s meal plan so I could cook healthy food for myself and tried to limit my binging on chips and cookies a bit.
Guess what happened? I stayed exactly the same weight. I might have even gotten bigger. And I do not care anymore.
My parents, like many well-meaning people, have fallen into the skinny = healthy trap. When I told Mom I hated cross country and was quitting junior year of high school, she was concerned about my health without a regular source of exercise. The way she chose to phrase this concern was, “Aren’t you worried you’ll get fat if you don’t exercise?” This summer, I proudly declared that I didn’t care about my stomach fat anymore, because I had more important things to worry about and I wasn’t “overweight” anyway. My dad’s response: “Don’t you think you are, a little bit?” I responded with a vehement, “No!” Later, I had another thought. What if I was? Would it even matter?
Since then, I’ve thought about fat a lot. Here’s my non-radical reasoning about why fat is the wrong question:
Americans (and other people, to be fair) eat terrible food and don’t exercise. Many people could stand to be more healthy. But healthier doesn’t mean skinnier. People can be healthy at tons of different weights. Some obese people eat very little and exercise regularly. Some skinny people can eat whatever they want without gaining any weight. Most of us are somewhere in the middle. So sure, encourage people to be healthy, eat well, lay off the junk food and exercise regularly. Maybe they’ll lose weight in the process. Maybe they won’t. But either way, they’ll certainly be healthier, and better off. There is absolutely no need to shame people for their weight or teach them that they are disgusting or unworthy of love or some other awful shit like that.
And here’s my more radical reasoning (thanks to the amazing Lindy West at The Stranger for giving me some of these ideas in her awesome essay Hello, I Am Fat, which you should go read right now.)
Being healthy is an admirable trait, but it’s not the be all and end all of human existence. What if someone wants to eat fried food all the time? That’s their right as a person. What if someone has absolutely no desire to lose weight? That’s absolutely their prerogative, because it’s their body. Not yours. Not society’s. Not everybody has to be healthy, just like not everyone has to be well-read or fluent in three languages or able to cook five course meals or pilot fighter jets. These are all traits that make for pleasant, well-rounded people, but they’re not essential to live a happy, fulfilling life. If someone wants to be unhealthy, that’s completely their choice. If someone happens to be fat, there’s no guarantee that they are unhealthy at all, and either way, you don’t have a right to tell them how to live their life.
People berate and ridicule fat people, tell them that they’re imperfect, half-formed people who just need to lose a little weight before they can find love and happiness. People who do this claim to be concerned about health and people’s well being, which is bullshit. As Lindy points out, health includes mental health, and there are literally millions of fat people who’re tried to lose weight to no avail.
For people who are concerned about public health, I would like to point something else out. I’ve previously quoted Raj Patel, author of Stuffed and Starved, who argues that obesity is a symptom not of “an impoverished faculty of choice” but “an impoverished range of choices”. Obesity correlates with poverty, because poor people are more likely to live in food deserts and to not be able to afford fresh produce, gym memberships and a host of other things that keep the rich looking like covergirls. So if you’re really, really concerned about health and people’s well being, you’d be much better off pushing for food system reform (an end to corn subsidies, better social welfare programs, subsidized produce, etc.) than you would shaming fat people.
Obviously, that’s what I want to do. But I’m making a promise to myself. Starting today, I promise to take good care of myself–regular exercise, not too much junk food. I promise to love myself no matter how much I weigh. I promise to never try to lose weight, because that’s so not the point. I promise to remember all the amazing things my body can do, like hiking up ridiculous hills. I promise to never encourage anyone else to lose weight or shame them for their body size or appearance. I promise to be aware of thin privilege. I promise to fight with everything I have to build a better food system, and if I happen to have stomach fat rolls while I’m doing it, I promise to not care at all.