I recently realised that 2017 marks 10 years that I’ve been practicing fat positivity. It’s a slightly overwhelming thought. For one, I’m still convinced that 2007 was 5 years ago, so it’s a bit disorienting to discover that nope, it’s been a whole decade. Living a fat positive life for that long also means that I haven’t had to think about it very much in the past several years. It’s who I am, and fat positivity is just something I do, like sleeping or breathing. But a 10 year anniversary feels like a good time to take a look back and review how fat acceptance has transformed my life since that summer of 2007. 10 years ago I was still an undergrad with my twenties stretching out in front of me and no concrete plans for what I wanted to do in that time. I was also deeply unhappy with my body and consumed with the idea of trying to ‘fix it’ before I could fully embark on my life. I can’t imagine what a timeline where I didn’t come across the fat positive internet would look like because it changed everything – from where my life could have gone to where it actually did. I’ve talked at length about those early years – in fact when I think of the discourse surrounding body positivity, I find that most of it centers around those crucial first steps intended towards those who are just coming to grips with the idea of accepting their bodies. What I want to discuss, instead, are the long term results of living a fat positive life and how that’s played out in my case.
Fat Acceptance vs BOPO
Before I talk about the long term benefits of fat acceptance, however, I’d like to make the crucial distinction between what I call fat positivity/acceptance as opposed to what’s known as body positivity. Both these terms meant pretty much the same thing to me until the corporate takeover of the body positive movement in the early-mid 2010s which hijacked the phrase from its rad fatty roots and turned it into an anodyne, feelgood platitude. So when I say fat positivity, I’m referring to the core tenets of fat acceptance that I picked up from a tiny corner of the internet back in the day. It was very much a niche interest at that time, spread across a few LJ comms and standalone blogs. I spent those early years lurking on the Fatshionista LJ and in comment threads on Shapely Prose, following second generation fat activists like Lesley Kinzel and Substantia Jones. What stands for body positivity now wouldn’t have come into being without the foundational work laid out by radical fat activists, something that the bopo trend continues to ignore and remain wilfully ignorant of. Similarly, it ignores the demographic who built the movement in the first place – people on the larger end of fat, people who suffer the worst of systemic fat discrimination.
I also understand my rather awkward position in talking about this as someone who’s always been on the smaller end of fat by Western standards but pretty much on the opposite end of the scale in the Indian subcontinent. The face (rather body) of bopo looks closer to my own than that of people who bear the brunt of fat prejudice. However, when fat prejudice succeeded in destroying my life, it wasn’t because I suffered from disordered eating and body image issues. It was because the size of my body made me an outcast in the society I grew up in and continue to live in today. I still can’t walk into a doctors and expect treatment instead of prejudice, and when I want new clothes I have to resort to tailoring or shopping online, that too from stores outside India. If I wasn’t lucky enough to meet my fiance, I would have resigned myself to a lifetime of stoic loneliness considering how Indian men have never seen me as anything other than a fat joke. Outside the romantic context however, I’d still be trapped under societal expectations about the size of my body had it not been for fat acceptance. Some of it, obviously, is stuff I can’t change. I can’t make plus size clothing magically appear in shops, and I can’t make the medical profession take off its fatphobic lenses and see me as a real person. But I can call out doctors on their bullshit now and demand the treatment I need because fat acceptance has given me the confidence to do so. I still get the stares and the comments that I always have when I go out of the house but I’ve learned to not let them affect my everyday life. I managed to cut off all the toxic friends and acquaintances who saw my body as a receptacle for their fat hate. I’ve set clear boundaries with my remaining family, who in turn have learned to not bring up my fat in conversation, ever.
Fat acceptance hasn’t changed the landscape I have to survive in, but it gave me the tools I needed to navigate that landscape and make something of myself while doing so. Over the years, I’ve been more than aware of my unique position as someone who’s outsized in real life but physically closer to the ‘acceptably curvy’ ideal that’s turned the online and predominantly Western body positivity movement into a farce. It’s one of the reasons I avoid speaking on the subject, because unlike the majority of ‘bopo influencers’ I’m acutely aware of the need for people who are fatter than me, more marginalised than me to be visible in the community. The reason I’m writing this today is that I feel I have something useful to contribute to the discourse rather than just saying ‘hey, my size 18 body is okay too!’ I know my body is more or less acceptable in the online community I’m writing this for, I know that I’m not shunted aside for my size the way very fat people are. But I’m not writing this from the perspective of an online-only persona, I’m writing this as someone who continues to stick out like a giant thumb in a population of rather petite humans, someone who very literally was saved by fat acceptance.
I’ve been seeing some talk recently about certain ‘bopo role models’ making statements like “body positivity is fine, but only as long as you’re healthy!” (And of course, I can’t find a link any of these discussions now because I’m disorganized af when it comes to writing, so if anyone can link me up, please please do!) When I started practicing fat positivity, I was similarly uncritical of this concept of the ‘healthy fatty’. After all, I’d spent my childhood and teens being mocked for not being able to keep up with my peers, in dread of becoming the stereotypical sweaty, out of breath, token fatty in the group. Even as I tried to come to terms with my body, I clung onto the idea of health, or rather the public performance of it. I’d push myself to walk faster and longer than my thin friends, I’d climb stairs while somehow controlling my breathing so that no one would know how my lungs were ready to burst. Health was the currency with which I had to buy my humanity as a fat person. In its absence, I had no way of justifying my existence. I had a skinny ex with whom I’d spend hours walking around town on weekends, not once able to articulate the pain that put me in, and the days of rest that I needed to recover from it. It was only after my scoliosis was diagnosed in 2012 that I finally started letting go of the pretence. I’m not proud of the fact that I needed to succumb to chronic pain before thinking critically about health and fat. I needed to go through the experience of my spine giving up before I could accept that I wasn’t a ‘model fatty’, and make peace with a body that didn’t cooperate with my demands from it. Even a couple of years ago, I couldn’t have admitted to this publicly, but that’s why fat acceptance is a journey. I’m no longer afraid of admitting that I am unhealthy, that I smoke too much and eat horribly and don’t get as much movement as I probably should, and none of that detracts from my humanity. It doesn’t make me any less of a person. That’s what fat acceptance is. It’s not about health, and it’s not confined to a certain range of sizes. If I take shitty decisions about my health and my lifestyle, that’s all they are. I’m no less human than my skinny friends who smoke just as much and eat just as badly. My fat is not a reflection of any moral or emotional lack, it just is. Even after my 5 year long backache started and I had to adapt to it physically, I’d feel like I had to justify why I needed to sit or lie down most of the time. I don’t do that anymore. I demand my space because it’s my right as a human being, and I don’t care if anyone thinks it’s because I’m fat. Having to justify your basic physical needs on a constant loop ends up whittling you down emotionally. Fat acceptance was what gave me the strength to break out of that mentally erosive cycle.
The morality of food
Related to this is the concept of ‘good’ or ‘healthy’ food as opposed to ‘bad’, ‘sinful’, ‘unhealthy’ food. Although I spoke about eating badly just now, I used it to mean not eating as regularly as I should for the sake of my gastric ulcers. The first few years of my fat positive journey were mostly spent in unpacking and mending my relationship with food. Eating disorders can happen to anyone, at any weight, but in my case it was inextricably linked to hatred for my fat body. To heal my relationship with my body, I had to stop looking at food through a moral compass of pure vs. sinful, and allow myself to eat whatever I wanted and whenever I wanted it. These days, when I admonish myself for eating badly, it’s because I’m skipping meals in favour of work and popping ulcer meds to counter the pain. Morality doesn’t come into it, acute, physical stomach cramps do. Back in my early 20s, when I mentally sorted food into morally opposed categories, it wasn’t because of any imperative towards health. I keep thinking about a journal entry from late 2006 in which I wrote: “It’s not even about being healthy anymore. I stopped caring about health a long time ago. I know what I’m doing is not remotely healthy but I don’t care about that. I just want to be thin.” ‘Healthy’ food was just the stuff that I thought would help me lose weight, even when that meant living on watered down soup and apples. Most of my health problems these days are a direct consequence of those years of starving myself with supposedly healthy food when I was young enough to feel invincible. The contemporary trend of ‘wellness’ with its juice ‘cleanses’ is no different from the soup diets of the 2000s. Both have a single, unified goal, which is to banish the existence of fat, and consequently, that of fat people. Because the so called health concerns of being fat are seldom about health – it’s about the value of thinness in our societies and how well we can perform thinness in public.
Performative thinness is what I used to cling on to before I came across fat acceptance. As a visibly fat woman, I had to give off the unambiguous message that my fat body was only temporary and I was paying the price for it by always striving to be thin. I’d never eat in public, especially not the kind of ‘bad’ food that would implicate me further in my fatness. At university, I’d be hungry for the entire day, and then go back home to binge throughout the evening in the privacy of my room. Sometimes I’d throw up, and when I couldn’t bring myself to, I’d berate myself for not being ‘strong enough’ to do so. I’d constantly talk about the diets I was on, they were my disclaimer, the shield with which I defended myself from being seen as an unrepentant fatty. Repentance, sinning, and guilt were the trifecta of words I would immediately associate with food – words which continue to form the mainstream vocabulary behind something as universal and necessary as eating. If 10 years ago, popular culture dictated that a thin person eating a donut follow it up with ‘Oh my god I’m going to get so fat’, bopo culture of the present day has simply replaced it with ‘Haha, I’m going to get so fat.’ Outside of radfat circles, being fat is read to be as much of a moral failure as it ever was.
In 2008, after a year of daily exposure to the fat positive internet, I started eating in public for the first time as an adult. My ex girlfriend and I would get absolutely blazed and then go to our favourite restaurant for a three-course meal with milkshakes on the side. Funnily enough, becoming a dedicated pothead is what gave me the emotional space I needed to actually put fat acceptance in practice than just reading about it. Before I started smoking weed, I’d spend most of my time obsessing over food. There was this engine in my brain dedicated to running over calorie counts and meal plans 24/7 while the rest of my thoughts centered around daydreams of fat and sugar laden goodness. But once I was high and the munchies hit, I couldn’t bring myself to care about portions or calories anymore. I ate for the sheer joy of it, I delighted in actually being able to taste what I was eating instead of gulping it down in pangs of guilt. These days, my relationship with food has but a fraction of that intensity. I love cooking and my baked goods are infamous among my friends, I’m forever hunting down new places for the best street food and cake, but food no longer consumes me. It’s a necessity and a delight, not a calorie controlled prison. I haven’t had to think twice about eating in public for the longest time – if there’s tasty food at hand, I’m going to eat it and that’s that. At the beginning, however, it wasn’t that easy. I needed to be in a stoned fug before I could step out of the house without having a minor breakdown about what people might be thinking. In those early years, self identifying as a pothead gave me the break I needed to withdraw from social conventions, including those which were imposed on my body. The haze of smoke that surrounded me formed a cocoon in which I could ensconce myself and finally grow.
Inside the cocoon
Before I was a pothead, I was just fat, nothing other than fat. It was all I knew about myself. Sure, I was smart, articulate, and kind, but mostly I was fat. Back then fat wasn’t the neutral term I see it as now. It was the defining curse of my existence, the stigma I could never shake off even during the worst of my eating disorder. But once I started thinking of myself as a stoner, that’s what became my defining feature rather than my fat. Outside my smoky cocoon, the rest of the world faded to white noise. I dropped out of my MA within the first week with no plans for what I was going to do next. All I knew was that I had to fix my head before I could emerge as a fully functioning person instead of the one dimensional being that fatphobia had turned me into. I spent close to two years detached from everyone I knew except close friends and family, and in that time I started reacquainting myself with the body I had and figuring out ways to thrive in it. Even though I’d always been drawn towards pretty clothes, I’d rarely had the confidence to wear anything that didn’t disguise my shape. Accepting my body as it was opened the doors to a thrilling new world that I’d never believed could be mine. I never believed I could wear a sleeveless dress in public until the day I screwed up my guts and went out in one. People stared and passed remarks as I’d expected them to, but with 2 years of fat acceptance to prop me up, being called a fatty didn’t devastate me the way it once did.
By the time I went back to uni in 2010, I was actively calling myself fat, and inspired by The BMI Project, tagging my fashion photos with ‘obesity epidemic’ on Flickr. Without the self assurance that fat positivity had given me, I’d never have had the courage to pack up my bags and move halfway across the world to start anew in a place where I didn’t know a single soul. Like I said earlier, I don’t know what the trajectory of my life would have looked like in the absence of the ‘fatosphere’. Those first three years of self renewal and remaking are the foundation stones of who I am today. It’s because I’d found that corner of the internet where it was okay to be fat that I was able to normalise the idea of being a fat person and living as one, rather than a secretly skinny individual who just happened to be ‘trapped’ in a fat body. That was crucial. Recognizing that as fat people, we are individuals in our own right, and that skinny isn’t some default state of being that we have to aspire to.
Accepting my changing body
My journey into fat acceptance didn’t end with calling myself fat, it was a foundational block but also a stepping stone. I know this is a journey that’ll continue for as long as I live because there isn’t a destination, it always has and always will be a work in progress. At first I believed that all I had to do was get to my set point and accept my body as it would be then and that’s it, job done. I figured that once I reached my set point weight, I’d just stay there forever until I got old, shrivelled up and died. But our bodies seldom follow the plans we carefully lay out for them. Mine kept changing. I gained weight and lost it and gained it back again, and somewhere down the line I realised that fat acceptance wasn’t just about accepting one version of my body, be it the smallest or largest one. Everytime I gained or lost weight, it would send me into a full blown emotional crisis. My body would feel disjointed and alien, and I’d have to go through the process of becoming familiar with it all over again. I needed stability to feel good about my body – anytime it was in flux, so was I. For fat acceptance to work for me the way I needed it to, I had to be prepared for change. I had to understand my body and not just know it, I had to be comfortable enough with it so that I could change in tandem when it did. In all the time that I’ve spent around fat positive and bopo circles, I never found the concept of having to love my body either constructive or helpful. The radfat ethos that brought me into the fold focused not so much on love as acceptance, and inhabiting one’s body fully and without apology. I don’t know if I love my body, I don’t know how I could love something that’s such an intrinsic part of me. Love needs distance to grow so it can bridge that distance, but my body and I work as one. When my BPD flares up, my body suffers alongside my mind. I neglect to eat, I push myself through my nerve pain instead of trying to treat it because at that point, I just need to spite myself. I can’t disengage one half of me from the other, they’ll always have to coexist the best they can. But I no longer work against my body the way I used to, with deliberate, focused hatred. I know it too well to hate it, and I understand it too well to not be comfortable in it. And I know it will change, with children and age, and I no longer dread that. I’m a little curious, if anything – after all, pregnancy is bound to be a thrilling adventure with my lumbar scoliosis. I’m sure my body will frustrate and confound me like it does whenever I have a pain flare and am confined to bed, but we’ll work it out. That’s what old friends do. And that has been the most poignant gift of fat acceptance – turning my once reviled burden into a vessel I can mindfully inhabit.
In the last few years, I’ve found myself looking inward a lot more than I used to. Taking pleasure in the quiet things, introspecting more and saying only what needs to be said. I feel like I’m finally conscious of actually living, of being a living, breathing, thinking creature that’s conscious of existing in every moment. I no longer feel like I’m careening abruptly through life, with no clue as to where I’ll end up next and how. I don’t think I could have found this inner quietude had I not spent all this time trying to inhabit my corporeal self as fully as I could. And that’s why the bopo line of ‘intentional weightloss is fine if you’re doing it to love your body!’ strikes me as utter garbage. If I was still trying to push change instead of accepting it as it comes, I’d still be chasing an arbitrary goal, feeling unfulfilled and incomplete, ever so slightly hollow. I started out to accept my body in all its fatness, so far on the way, I’ve discovered mindfulness. So before I conclude, here’s the 4 point version of my guidelines to living a fat positive life.
1. I will not diet or practice intentional weightloss. Instead I will focus on eating intuitively and continue to rebuild my damaged relationship with food.
2. I will not be critical of anyone else’s body, especially when that person has less body privilege than I do. Neither will I engage in any kind of body shaming or weightloss talk, but I will shut down instances of such talk when I encounter it.
3. I will not conflate weight with health but I will try to be kind to myself and look after myself the best I can with the resources I have.
4. And lastly, I will not let my body stop me from doing whatever it is I want to do. I will live the exact same life that I would if I was thin instead.
That’s what it is condensed down to its core: living the same life I would have if I was thin instead. Loudly, aggressively if I need to, demanding my space when I have to. No less boldly than if I were thin. And certainly not waiting until I was thin. When I think of my fatness now, I relate pretty strongly to this quote from Michelle Allison. It is completely arbitrary to me because it doesn’t affect any part of my life outside of others’ reactions to my size. And I’ve learned not to expend much thought on those reactions – a key contribution from my fat positive ethos. The day I realised my life was happening in the here and now is the day it began. Without fat acceptance, I’d still be waiting for it to start, just as I was waiting 10 years ago.