But Have You Tried Diet and Exercise?!
An open letter to my fat-shaming concern trolls—past, present, and future
Yesterday I received an email. It was not a remarkable email. It was indeed so unremarkable that I’m reproducing it here, in anonymized and abridged form, to make a few points to people with this mindset. And in the hopes that you too, dear reader, may get a chuckle out of the exercise or perhaps even find my responses helpful.
Fair warning: what lies ahead may be triggering to readers still in the active phase of eating disorder recovery, among other things.
Another warning: if you troll* me, then I—like one of my heroes, Virginia Sole-Smith—will consider it fair game for a substack post. (Note: please don’t regard this as a challenge!)
“I just read a piece you wrote a year ago in the New York Times about being fat and overweight,” this person opened: let’s call her Deanna (NB: not her real name). “You’re obviously a brilliant woman but what I didn’t hear in your piece was a discussion of a sensible diet and a sensible exercise routine both of which can lead to weight loss.”
Just the opening two sentences, and already indications are not good that the remaining, oh, some thousand words will be edifying. You haven’t addressed me by name. (“Kate” is fine, by the way, though I always appreciate the courtesy of strangers who go with “Dr.” or “Professor.”) You haven’t included a greeting or salutation. And, while I own the word “fat” completely, I have the feeling it means something different in your mouth than in mine: for my own part, I follow fat activists in regarding it as merely a neutral descriptor, not a pejorative term or anything to be embarrassed by. That possibility is further undercut by your using the term “overweight.” Over what weight? For, as I document in my forthcoming book on fatphobia, Unshrinking, following the lead of Aubrey Gordon and Sabrina Strings, the BMI (body mass index) is racist garbage. And I subsequently use terms like “overweight” and “obese” only in scare quotes, when unavoidable, such as when reporting the results of various scientific studies.
Did you know, by the way, that people who are classified as “overweight” according to the—again, garbagey BMI charts—have the lowest mortality rates, statistically speaking? That’s right: we (and yes, last time I checked, I was in this category myself) are less likely to die, on average, from all causes than people in the so-called normal-weight category. Moreover, people who are classified as “moderately obese” have the same morbidity, again on average, as people in the normal-weight category. (Both underweight and people classified as more than moderately obese do have greater mortality. But, as we easily appreciate for the former category, correlation is not causation here, and this may reflect the fact that people who have certain illnesses and health issues undergo certain weight changes, rather than vice versa. This is a big, complicated, fascinating topic, and there’s a whole chapter on it in Unshrinking.)
But back to Deanna. She calls me “obviously a brilliant woman” and then proceeds to talk down to me for the remainder of her email.
I found that so striking. And so typical. And depressing. As fat people, we’re standardly assumed to be incompetent, ignorant, oblivious, even stupid. One of the biggest reasons I struggled with fatphobia so long, I think, was that my fat body was at odds not only with dominant beauty ideals—which I’ve cared about only intermittently—but because it was also at odds with the image of an intellectual in contemporary Anglo-American culture. The sense that a fat person—still less a fat woman—who is smart and authoritative and an expert in her field is a walking contradiction. After all, if our minds are sharp, how could we have let our bodies get this way?
There’s so much to unpack here: the false, pernicious sense that book smarts and the ability to contribute to intellectual culture are the only forms of intelligence that matter. (Trust me, a society full of people with minds like mine, prone to abstraction over complex embodied knowledge, would be a complete disaster.) The false, ableist sense that creates intellectual hierarchies whatsoever, rather than looking to different people for different kinds of contributions. (I’ve been deeply influenced, lately, by Eli Clare’s Brilliant Imperfection: Grappling with Cure, and his argument that the disability rights movement comes close to disowning intellectually disabled people when it insists, however truly, that many disabled people are highly intelligent in the socially sanctioned sense. Another vital work on this topic is Eva Kittay’s Learning from my Daughter: The Value and Care of Disabled Minds.)
And then there’s the obvious truth, which my correspondent Deanna comes close to recognizing: intelligence and body size have nothing at all to do with each other. Some of the most brilliant and creative and impressive minds are housed in people living in “thick” or larger bodies. (How much more talent are we missing out on in the world because of our intellectual biases and epistemic injustice committed against fat people?) This implies our book-smarts will not save us from the intransigence of the flesh. And neither, hard as it may be to face this fact, will willpower.
Ah, willpower. That mysterious, suspect, sometimes necessary thing. Whatever you are, and however we should measure you and think about your development, there is ample evidence that you are not what stands between fat people and thin bodies.
One study showed, for example, that, while willpower is an important predictor of SAT performance, differences between willpower account for between just 1 and 4 percent of the variance in body size across the population. In contrast, what accounts for upward of 70% of this variance? None other than genetics. To put this in perspective, genetics account for just under 80% of the variance we find in human height—making weight just a bit less heritable than height. And many of the other factors that go into determining people’s weight are equally out of our control, as I argue in Unshrinking—factors including trauma, features of the built environment, and many common illnesses and health conditions. And some people, like me, are just prone of fatness.
But people like Deanna are heavily invested in maintaining that they are in control of their weight, and that fat people like me could be too, if we just had the requisite self-discipline. Much of the rest of her letter is devoted to detailing her food and fitness practices: “Eating healthy food matters. Not eating junk food and fattening food matters. We don’t have to eat food that is high in fat and calories. We have choices and we’re capable of making them.” “You can choose to get off of your ass and walk every day. It works!!” In other words, have I tried diet and exercise?! No, this advice is wholly unfamiliar to me, a fat, rock-sheltered Martian. And Deanna is not shy about communicating the superiority of her choices: “I’m 69 years old and I choose to control my weight through diet and exercise. I walk five miles every day on my treadmill and I enjoy it. I set a quick pace on a steep incline and I sweat! It feels good to do that. I also don’t eat crap. I “deserve” to eat food that’s good for me. I don’t “deserve” the expensive giant cheeseburgers and French fries from fast food restaurants or fattening food from gourmet restaurants.”
Deanna, are you OK? You sound breathless. And, frankly, hungry. (Those slightly salivating descriptions of all of the food you don’t eat—the supposedly disgusting fattening food, glistening alluringly—are often a bit of a tell. Forgive me my close reading: I’m not out of breath or exhausted from my grueling treadmill workouts. Unlike Deanna perhaps, who tells me: “It’s 7.40am and I’ve already walked my five miles and I might do a few more today as I often do… Before I got my treadmill I’d go out at 5am NO MATTER THE WEATHER to walk.”
We’re in all caps territory now. Hold me! (I will spare you the ensuing run-down of Deanna’s cholesterol and triglycerides, A1C levels, and other sundry, including the appearance of her calves and stomach. I don’t need to know! Neither does anyone.)
In all seriousness, there’s an urgency to Deanna’s tone that betrays a need to believe she’s in control of her body, rather than possessed of a frail, ageing, changeable body that might grow fatter, or thinner, and whose size and shape is not fundamentally due to her assiduous efforts. Many fat people work out daily; many fat people pursue grueling diets (my New York Times piece, written early in 2021, and published in January 2022, was about this). For most of us, most of the time, it will make little difference: extensive evidence suggests that we will lose a little weight in the short term, and end up fatter than ever in the long term. The few exceptions to this rule have to pursue such drastic measures to maintain a lower body-weight than their body would naturally support that they often end up miserable, injured or otherwise unhealthy, and sometimes with mental health difficulties—including eating disorders.
There’s a kind of magical thinking about the body that says that, if we do the right things—whatever those may be—then we’ll end up fit, thin, and non-disabled. It’s a myth, I’m afraid: and a fatphobic and ableist one, which keeps us on a perpetual treadmill of trying to determine a bodily fate that is in large part beyond our power to control in the long run. Then we will feel guilty and shame-filled for “failing” to meet an essentially unfulfillable demand and complete this—ironically—fool’s errand.
I want better for all of us. I want better for Deanna. She wrote in her missive that “because you’re a philosopher people will listen to you.” Well, rarely. But I can hope. I hope they listen to me and eat when they are hungry, and what they are hungry for, in the evidence-based clinical tradition known as intuitive eating. I hope they eschew punishing exercise, and move in ways that suit their body, if and when they can—exercise is often great for us, unlike dieting, it turns out. But it won’t make us thin. It might make us that much healthier. And most important of all, when it comes to the self, is to let go of the shame that is the internalized echo of the disgust often leveled at us by Deanna and her fatphobic compatriots, when she writes: “42% of Americans are OBESE!!! I see them in the supermarket, their carts full of expensive crap. It’s infuriating because contrary to what you said their choices do affect others. Health insurance premiums rise for people like me and taxes rise for people like me to pay their health care costs.”
There’s another whole chapter of Unshrinking on the supposed immorality of fatness. (Spoiler: being thin is not a moral obligation, and fat people are not a burden on the health care system.) I’ll write Deanna back and suggest she pre-order.
* Is this kind of letter trolling, exactly? As my husband put it, it’s a particular kind of self-consciously well-meaning but actually extremely condescending microaggression, common in response to fatness and also disability, that really needs its own name. Suggestions welcome in the comments, along with accounts of your own related experiences, as ever.
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