Aubrey Gordon describes herself as fat, specifically “very fat.” She uses the word purposefully, as a descriptor, in the same way she has blondish-brown hair and is 37 years old.
The book, a series of essays, delves into the roots of fatphobia, the failure of the “war on obesity” and why it’s not okay to tell fat people to love themselves. A former LGBTQ community organizer, Gordon, who identifies as queer, is now writing full time and co-hosting the podcast “Maintenance Phase,” which debunks wellness and diet fads.
From her home in Portland, Ore., Gordon talked about what she hopes people will get from her book, and why she felt now was the right time to publish it.
Q: Why do you think people hate — and I mean openly hate — fat people, particularly fat women, so much?
A: It’s a doozy of a question, right? There’s misogyny wrapped up in it. There’s ableism wrapped up in it. There are deep, deep, deep racist roots to all of this . . . like even with BMI, that was based on the bodies of White Western European men and not people of color, so it does about a 50 percent job of predicting obesity in White people and then it goes down from there. We’ve been talking about a war on obesity for years, and that facilitates this kind of open season on fat people. Not only is it okay to have comments and opinions about fat people — in some ways it’s sort of like you are being helpful to the greater public health.
Q: You share anecdotes about how people treated you horribly, from airplane behavior to strangers taking fruit out of your grocery cart, telling you it’s “too much sugar.” What surprised me is that when you tell your friends and family, they ask if maybe it didn’t happen that way, or if you incited it.
A: They are not trying to be hurtful, not in a million years. But it can be jarring and painful to hear about someone you care about in that situation. One of the ways we push away that knowledge is with straight-up denial. Part of it is that this is a world they don’t actually personally experience, and that can be alarming.
Q: It seems there has been some success with the body-positive movement, with Cosmopolitan magazine putting plus-size women, such as yoga teacher Jessamyn Stanley, on the cover, for example. But that got a lot of pushback, with some people saying that it was “promoting obesity.”
A: It does feel like there’s some willingness to move forward from some media outlets, influential ones in women’s and health media in particular. But the biggest thing I see is that there’s a willingness to engage in a conversation about how we see and treat fat people. It’s not as deep as a conversation as I’d like, but it’s a start.
Q: As a fat woman myself, one of the things that really struck me in your book was that programs to address obesity, like Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” campaign, do not include people with obesity in the planning.
A: Right. Thin people are the masters of weight loss although they’ve never had to do it. There’s a community organizer saying, “nothing about us, without us.” And yet there are all these people talking about us and making decisions about our bodies without talking to us.
Q: How does that show up for you?
A: It happens in our individual lives — where strangers come up to you and are like “have you tried paleo?” without knowing us or anything about us. The other issue is on a policy or institutional level. [Some people are] constantly ringing the bell on how dangerous it is to be fat, but that’s not making fat people thin. None of our practices — 95-98 percent of diet attempts fail — have been shown to be successful long term. So it just ramps up the stigma of fat people as failures. If only we would try at this thing, which has been shown not to work.
Q: What do you hope people take away from your book?
A: I hope that folks are willing to accept that their ideas about fatness and fat people have not been particularly charitable. And they also haven’t been particularly grounded in data or research or information or the experiences of the fat people in their lives.
Maybe people are willing to think about how they think about and treat fat people. Even if it’s something like — I’m not going to ask the fat person I’m with at the restaurant if they really want to get those fries.
Dawn Fallik is a Philadelphia-based reporter and an associate professor at the University of Delaware.
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