My Journey Toward Radical Body Positivity
Actor and activist Matt McGorry shares how he lost himself to diet culture — and what it took to come home
CW: disordered eating and exercise
I’ve gained quite a bit of weight. I mean, I’ve really let go. And as a result, my health has been impacted. I have a healthier relationship with my body than ever before. I’ve let go of internalized fatphobia, and all correlating notions that I have to look a certain way to deserve love, dignity, and respect. Yeah, I’ve really let go of the myths and bullshit around what my body is supposed to look like. And I’m more joyful, more free, and more fulfilled because of it.
I’ll always remember my first big shirtless scene on television. It was also my first big acting gig, as Correctional Officer John Bennett on Orange Is the New Black. I was still moonlighting as a personal trainer at the time, and I prepared for the scene accordingly. In the two weeks before the shoot, I shifted from my normally restrictive diet to something more severe, rapidly dropping weight as a result. I also doubled my time in the gym and had a dehydration plan — a standard for bodybuilders, most fitness models, and many actors. As a result, my energy tanked, my sex drive became nonexistent, and I was constantly irritable and miserable, which put a good deal of strain on my relationship with the woman I was living with at the time. My free-falling energy levels made it impossible to focus on anything other than making it to the next meal, my obsession with food and losing weight, and my body, which I checked in the mirror many times a day. All the while, most of the people around me offered me the validation I craved as I pushed myself to unhealthy extremes.
The social power afforded to me as I reached the ideal body type was undeniable. I was high on it all.
Of course, this unhealthy obsession — and the resulting positive feedback loop — didn’t develop overnight. I was 14 when I first began working out with a personal trainer, and 18 when I became one myself. Before that, I was often teased for being chubby, as so many of us are as kids. I remember once, in an act of desperation, swimming countless laps in the pool at summer camp, only to pass out on my cabin floor afterward. Another memory: ordering exercise DVDs that promised “ripped abs,” and taking whatever diet pills came with them. This was all before high school.
But things began to change as my body did. The bullying stopped; there was no more being made fun of. Instead, I was admired for my discipline, work ethic, and willingness to sacrifice in many other areas of my life — prized attributes in our hyper-individualistic, bootstrap culture, especially for men. The social power afforded to me as I reached the ideal body type was undeniable. I was high on it all. It had always been explicitly clear to me that some bodies were more valuable than others — that much is unmistakable, for anyone who grew up in this culture — but the experience of trading in my softer, chubbier body for a muscular one made this realization a part of my personal narrative.
Becoming a personal trainer would allow me to distance myself even further from that chubby kid and the pain he’d endured — or, that was the hope. It probably looked like I’d succeeded from the outside: I rose to the top of my field over the course of a decade, writing for magazines like Men’s Fitness and Men’s Health while competing as a nationally ranked powerlifter. I even won a bodybuilding competition — with dangerously low body fat levels, of course. I’d wanted to prove my ability to exert discipline over my body, and to gain the social benefits that came with it — and I did, fleeting as they were. The owner of my gym, who agreed to measure my body fat a week before the competition, gave me his nod of approval for the first time ever when he told me I’d reached a ridiculously low body fat percentage (which was also very unhealthy, not to mention unsustainable). My win also meant other trainers and experts now saw me at a new level, which translated into more clients, more media exposure, more assumed credibility, and more revenue.
But now, when I look at pictures of myself from the day after the competition, I remember deprivation, not success. I remember being so dehydrated I would dream about water. My body was incapable of producing enough heat to stay warm, even in reasonable temperatures. My sex drive was nearly non-existent, with nothing coming out when I orgasmed. And I was proud of this, all of it.
My heart sank when I went in to record sound for post-production and caught a brief preview of my first shirtless scene. I felt I should’ve been leaner. That I had fucked up this opportunity to show how “great” my body could be, how worthy I was of being cast as a “leading man” — and of the success and validation that came along with such a role. I was desperately trying to make my mark on Hollywood, get my foot fully in the door. And seeing myself on screen, I felt I’d blown my opportunity. But when the show aired, no one had anything to say other than that I was “hot,” or that I had a six pack. And while this felt good at the time, it still could not assuage the deep insecurity that existed within me.
No, people didn’t make terrible comments about my body online, the way I’d anticipated they would. No one did, except the owner of the gym I worked at, who jokingly advised me that I should see him for advice next time, if I really wanted to get lean. Only, he wasn’t joking. The message was that I wasn’t as lean as I should have been. And I agreed with him — not with the overwhelmingly positive feedback I’d received from everyone else. I remember thinking, “What I had in that scene is not a six pack.” When I’d say this to other people, they’d tell me I was “lean enough.” Unfortunately, the lack of negative feedback could not counter my investment in the oppressive standards I felt my body needed to meet, and the harm I caused myself trying to fit those norms.
In taking extreme measures to “achieve” this deprived body, I was unknowingly complicit in inflating the standards of what is considered “normal.”
Instead, the image of my “imperfect” body on TV recycled itself again and again in my head. I’d set this nearly impossible bar for myself that I imagined I’d now always have to aspire to. And as a public figure, I was also setting the bar for other men and boys, who saw me on their televisions and absorbed what a “real man” should look like from my example — even as I felt unable to meet this oppressive standard myself. In using my bodybuilding photos for the press I’d do as an actor, in taking extreme measures to “achieve” this deprived body, I was unknowingly complicit in inflating the standards of what is considered “normal.”
I upheld this “normal” by restricting my food intake to maintain what I deemed low body fat levels, despite almost always feeling that I was losing this unwinnable game. I convinced myself that what I called “eating with moderation” or “being healthy” or “ditching bad habits” was about health. I was clueless about the impact all of this was having on my actual health, not to mention my happiness or ability to thrive as a person. As it often is in our culture, the facade of “health” was a smokescreen for what was, primarily, about looking a certain way.
The ability to pummel my body into submission, to reach a valued place in the hierarchy of men’s bodies: this allowed me to feel superior…to the images I believed I was supposed to emulate.
I don’t mean to give the impression that I wasn’t proud of some aspects of my physical achievements; that’s not the case. But a lifetime invested in diet culture never brought me to a point where I regularly felt satisfied with myself. No matter what “fitness” goal I reached, it never resulted in a real, deep sense of well-being, born of self-love and self-respect. More and more, it became difficult to confuse the high of external validation for a true sense of joy. My sense of power was not rooted in genuine confidence, but in a mindset of domination, which our culture teaches everyone — but especially boys and men — to value from a young age. The ability to pummel my body into submission, to reach a valued place in the hierarchy of men’s bodies: this allowed me to feel superior — or, at least most of the time, not inferior — to the images I believed I was supposed to emulate. But self-love never followed because, when it comes down to it, love is never born out of domination and control — whether it’s the love we share with others or the love we show ourselves.
What is diet culture? Dr. Kate Browne defines it as “a system of knowledge, values, and meanings that supports interpretations of personal health choices as moral character.” You might think your eating habits exempt you from this system, but it’s not as simple as it sounds. I never called my eating habits “dieting,” either; we’d created plenty of euphemisms for it by then. Perhaps you’ve also restricted your intake in the name of “clean eating,” “moderation,” “healthy eating,” “a lifestyle change,” or a “nutrition program.” Even Intuitive Eating, an inherently anti-diet movement, is now being co-opted and packaged as a way to lose or “manage” weight. If you’re still tempted to dismiss the influence this system has over you, remember the “culture” in “diet culture” — the impulse to restrict or otherwise “manage” our diets is ingrained in the collective; it’s not something we can opt out of without consciously choosing to do so.
And until we do, we won’t think twice about the messages we receive from commercials or at the grocery store, where foods are described as “good” or “bad” — labels that easily translate to how we feel about ourselves when we eat them. How about the vast number of foods marketed as “guilt-free,” and how most of us rarely stop to question the harmful implication that we deserve to feel guilty when we make “sinful” food choices? We feel we’ve earned “being bad” or a “cheat day” when we’ve “been good” long enough, or once we’ve paid penance with a workout that “killed” us. Meanwhile, a fat person could do serious damage to their health through dieting, overexercising, or having an eating disorder — in fact, many do — and they would still never measure up to cultural assumptions of how they “should” look. (They’d still receive constant reminders that they’re “just not trying hard enough,” though.) This is diet culture. And, together with fatphobia, it leads to many horrific situations. By the age of 10, 80% of girls have been on a diet and, in a large study of 14 and 15 year olds, dieting was the greatest predictor of developing an eating disorder. Those who dieted moderately were five times more likely to develop an eating disorder, and those who practiced extreme restriction were 18 times more likely to develop an eating disorder than those who did not.
You may be familiar with those stats — no doubt young, thin, white, middle-to-upper class women are often thought of as the “face” of disordered eating and body issues. But this short-sighted vision of diet culture is inaccurate, and it masks very real problems for everyone else. Trans people, for example, experience eating disorders at much higher rates than cisgender women and men. People in larger bodies exhibit disordered eating at higher rates than straight size populations, too, yet they’re half as likely to receive a clinical diagnosis. And low income communities face unique challenges at the intersection of food scarcity and diet culture, which we overlook in favor of the narratives our culture is accustomed to. In Anti-Diet, Christy Harrison writes:
A 2017 study of [a] low-income population in urban San Antonio, for instance, found that food insecurity is associated with significant levels of rebound eating, with more than 56 percent of participants reporting binge eating, overeating, or night eating. The risk of these issues increases with rising levels of deprivation, and 17 percent of people with the most severe food insecurity were found to meet the clinical criteria for an eating disorder — far higher than the single-digit rates of clinically diagnosed eating disorders in the general population. This shows that the stereotypical view of eating disorders as a disease of wealthy white folks is sorely mistaken; most of the participants in this study were Latinx and black people living far below the poverty line.
Food insecurity and diet culture don’t exist in separate silos, either: the same study found that those with the greatest degree of food insecurity also had the highest levels of internalized weight stigma, as well as the highest levels of bulimic behaviors and overexercising as a way to compensate for eating. (Those last two findings surprised even the researchers, who had expected not to find compensatory behaviors in this highly food-insecure population). So even if binge eating begins in response to food insecurity rather than concerns about weight and shape, it’s clear that diet-culture beliefs about body size also come into play for those who lack reliable access to food.
Oppressive systems and societal beliefs always have a negative impact on the collective, regardless of their intended target. For example, patriarchy privileges men over women and non-binary people, while simultaneously dehumanizing men. You can see this in the way our culture conflates masculinity with an inability to feel or express emotions, or in the way we treat male teachers or nurses — any male in a caretaking role, really — as suspect. You may know, logically, that you are not a direct target of fatphobia — yet that does not protect you from absorbing unconscious beliefs and standards that affect how you value yourself and others. Only when I began to do the deep and uncomfortable work of learning how all aspects of my life had been impacted by patriarchy could I see how my relationships with other people, of all genders, were harmed by the beliefs I’d internalized. And only when we understand the origins of our ingrained beliefs around weight and food, and how they’re perpetuated daily, can we make a conscious choice to free ourselves of them.
Understanding the impact internalized and societal fatphobia has had on my own health and psyche has required me to simultaneously hold two ideas in my head. The first: I am among the most privileged in our society. I’m a white, non-disabled, cisgender straight man who has financial privilege and fame. I have a body type that more closely aligns with what’s considered “good looking” and traditionally masculine. These attributes give me privilege and access. The second: That I must learn to recognize the privileges I have, even as I allow myself to feel my pain and create room for my healing. That, despite my privilege, the pressure to conform to an ideal was, and still is, enormous.
This is why the work I do — as a man committed to feminism or as a white person committed to anti-racism — is not a charitable act, or a favor for women and/or people of color. I do it because I understand my stake in dismantling any system of oppression that degrades my humanity or otherwise keeps me silent and complicit. I understand how the pressure to conform to traditional notions of masculinity has lulled me into upholding the oppression of women and gender non-conforming people, while also stealing my happiness and wholeness. Just consider such joy-stealing slogans as “pain is weakness leaving the body” — ideas like this cause men to deprive themselves, self-administering pain and courting disconnection just to get high on the noxious fumes of power. We are all negatively impacted by such oppressive systems. And yet, those with the most privilege — the foremost benefactors of these systems — are still in the best position to dismantle them.
It’s not enough to change the way we feel about ourselves as individuals; we have to change the way we feel about fatness as a whole.
That’s why, however difficult it may be, those of us with great privilege cannot afford to limit this conversation to our individual struggles. My lifelong battle with body image has been painful, even at a more culturally acceptable size, yet it is still different than experiencing fatphobia in bodies that are larger than mine. We mustn’t equate the experience of body image issues (which can occur among people of all sizes) with the marginalization experienced by those in larger bodies. When we in smaller bodies do not name or acknowledge our privilege in these conversations, we often erase these differences, lumping everything under the more palatable banner of “everyone struggles with body image.” This elevates the experience of those who already live in more privileged bodies, and distracts from the more severe consequences that anti-fat oppression has on those most marginalized by fatphobia: people in larger bodies.
It’s not enough to change the way we feel about ourselves as individuals; we have to change the way we feel about fatness as a whole. And in order to do that, we need to understand the ways we’ve been conditioned to see fat as a moral failure, which has roots — like so many issues do — in the oppressive system of racism. In her seminal text, Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, Sabrina Strings writes:
It is not surprising that the French and British were at the helm of the eighteenth century racial scientific discourse marking black people as ‘gluttonous.’ The growing codification of black people as greedy eaters developed against the backdrop of the accelerating slave trade among these two colonial powers of the eighteenth century. This, together with the exigencies of reasoned self-management in the context of High Enlightenment, transformed the act of eating from personal to political. Indulging in food, once deemed by philosophers to be a lowbrow predilection of slow-witted persons, became evidence of actual low-brow breeding. It bespoke an inborn, race-specific propensity for laziness and ease, an unbridled desire to meet the demands of the flesh at the expense of cultivating higher pursuits. Such behavior was deemed wholly uncharacteristic of the rational thinkers sitting atop the new racial hierarchy.
Fatphobia is why, in large part, we see stereotypes about fat people mirroring those of Black people, and why those who share both identities experience exponential levels of oppression. Stereotypes suggesting laziness, gluttony, overindulgence, lack of control, unintelligence, etc. are all used against fat people and people of color, particularly Black people. And like fat people, Black people suffer the consequences of these stereotypes when seeking medical help or guidance. In a 2006 study, clinicians were presented with identical case studies of patients with disordered eating symptoms. When the patient was identified as white, 44% of the clinicians identified the behavior as problematic. When the patient was identified as Black, only 17% of the clinicians found that same behavior problematic. The clinicians were also less likely to recommend that Black women seek professional help.
Anonymous writer Your Fat Friend illustrates how this medical bias plays out in the daily lives of fat people. In an essay for Self magazine, she describes her many dehumanizing experiences with doctors, which kept her out of their offices for a decade. She describes one doctor recoiling at the sight of her, telling her to lose weight before she came back again — all without examining her, or even touching her. During another appointment, a nurse took her blood pressure four times because she couldn’t believe it was in the normal range. She writes, “Every doctor I saw looked past me. They did not ask about my diet or exercise. Instead, my body spoke on my behalf, proof positive of my assumed irresponsibility and neglect.” She cites a number of studies that show how medical professionals internalize weight stigma, and how it affects fat patients and the care they receive. These studies show that doctors build less emotional rapport with fat patients, hold negative views about them, and see them as “awkward, unattractive, ugly, and noncompliant.” As a result of this stigma, many fat people delay or skip doctor’s visits to avoid such encounters. In both gyms and doctors’ offices, fatphobic beliefs become a barrier to entry, diminishing the chances fat people have to access the very tools that could actually support better health, like medical care or a place to exercise.
These are just some of the harmful effects of “healthism.” In Body Respect, co-authors Dr. Lindo Bacon and Lucy Aphramor eloquently state:
The nonmaterial or social effects of living with deprivation and discrimination account for a huge portion of the social gradient in health — much more than attributed to health behaviors… maintaining the primacy of the individual-lifestyle focus — without being transparent about larger influences — is an affront to people living in disadvantage, as it reduces ill health to poor ‘choices’ and blames them, all the while contributing to the stigma and judgmental thinking that fuels oppression, worsens their health, and expands the health divide between the advantaged and the disadvantaged.
The hypocrisy of claiming to care about health and wellness, while creating barriers to entry and ignoring how marginalization and oppressive systems are more detrimental to our well-being than individual “choices,” reveals the true motivation of the health, fitness, and wellness industries. Rather than facilitating good health, these industries profit off of people’s fear and hatred of fatness. To be clear, I’m not against people pursuing ways to improve their own well-being. I support people finding joyful ways to move their bodies, or eating in ways that allow them to feel their best. But separating what is really best for our health from the deeply entrenched fatphobia permeating most of our beliefs about exercise and eating is work. And it’s work that must be undertaken by all of us, especially by those supposed gatekeepers of “health and wellness.”
Because what those gatekeepers know and won’t say is that fitness, as we often use the term, tells us virtually nothing about how fit we are to complete certain tasks. When we say someone is “fit,” it’s almost never because we saw them demonstrate said fitness, but because they have a certain body type that leads us to assume what they can or can’t do. These industries aren’t selling fitness, but the promise of a socially acceptable body. I mean, why else would almost every “fitness” plan feature models with six packs, if they weren’t also selling aspirational leanness? I still remember how chubby trainers or nutritionists in the industry would be judged by others — myself included, even if in silence — when we had no way of knowing anything about their fitness or well-being from looking at them, and when neither of those factors have any bearing on how adept they are at their job. Rather than the “fitness industry,” we should call it the “thinness/leanness industry.” An accurate name for the goals we’re pursuing would at least force us to be honest about what we value: thinness and leanness, not health and wellness. If the reverse were true, we would focus on the fact that we undermine people who are trying to move their bodies and eat intuitively for their well-being when we make intentional weight loss a goal.
Those in health, wellness, and medical professions may feel it’s not their responsibility to undo these oppressive systems, but that’s exactly the kind of apathy that got us here. If we don’t address these issues head-on, we will continue to be complicit. And again: the responsibility ultimately belongs to all of us, because the system impacts all of us. Fatphobia is so entrenched in American institutions as to be unavoidable, regardless of who you are. In Body of Truth, Harriet Brown writes:
It is rare to find an obesity researcher who hasn’t taken money from industry, whether it’s pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, bariatric surgery practices, or weight-loss programs. The practice isn’t limited to lesser-known luminaries, either. In 1997, a panel of nine medical experts tapped by the National Institutes of Health voted to lower the BMI cutoff for overweight from 27 (28 for men) to 25. So, overnight, millions of Americans became overweight thanks to the NIH. The panel argued that the change brought BMI cutoffs into line with World Health Organization Criteria and that a ‘round’ number like 25 would be easier for people to remember. What they didn’t say, because they didn’t have to, is that lowering BMI cutoffs put more people into the overweight and obese categories, which in turn made more people eligible for treatment. More patients to treat means new markets and more money to be made from doctors and hospitals to pharmaceutical companies and yes, researchers.
It’s for this reason that many fat activists — and myself, as a result — refuse to use the terms “overweight” or “obese.” I am not interested in legitimizing arbitrary designations that have more to do with politics than with true equity, health, and wellness. I do not identify as “overweight” or “obese” because I am not interested in validating the Body Mass Index, a system that was never originally intended to measure individual health and which has extremely racist origins. Weight loss is a $59 billion a year industry. And 95% of people who lose weight will gain it all back within five years. So either 95% of people are flawed, or perhaps the game is rigged.
The Bizarre and Racist History of the BMI
Body Mass Index has been used in recent decades as a referendum on individual health. But it was never meant to be.
For most of us, the concepts of weight and health are so tightly linked that we have a hard time even imagining what it would be like to improve our health without losing weight or falling back on the lies diet culture has sold us. But we absolutely must do the work of untangling these beliefs, because we know that the norm is not sustainable, and that losing and regaining weight is detrimental to our health. On an individual level, a Health at Every Size (#HAES) and Intuitive Eating approach offers a true alternative. When we refuse to do that work, we will continue to offer people false solutions that result in internalized shame and hopelessness, especially for those in larger bodies who will never meet society’s standards and will always be judged as “unhealthy,” no matter their actual health.
Most of all, we must recognize that health does not have a moral value. No matter a person’s health, they are worthy of respect and dignity. And they will never receive those things unless we are actively dismantling fatphobia and diet culture. No one should have to “earn” their way out of oppression. Just like the person who emphasizes “personal responsibility” in conversations about systemic racism, the person who defends diet culture by making it about health is not helping those they claim to be concerned for; rather, they’re merely revealing their own bias and misunderstanding of the issues. If justice has to be earned, then we need a better definition of justice.
“When did you first realize you loved your body?”
This is what my mentor and empowerment coach, JLove Calderón, asked me a few months ago. I answered truthfully. It wasn’t after going to the gym for the first time at age 14, or after winning that bodybuilding competition, or after years competing as a nationally ranked powerlifter. It was within the last two years, once I walked away from diet culture for good. Inspired by the Health at Every Size and Fat Acceptance movements, I committed myself to unlearning the lifetime of fatphobic messaging etched into my psyche. For the first time ever, I embraced who I naturally was, releasing my white-knuckled grip on who I thought I needed to be to live the life I wanted. I began to feel more in touch with my true self, releasing the pressure to conform to who society told me I should be. For the first time, I worked to embrace sensuality and joy in my daily life, instead of equating deprivation with “character building.” And I decided to challenge the unconscious belief, rooted in traditional masculinity, that I always needed to be ready to have sex — a belief which often gave me anxiety.
The joy I received from divesting myself of these unconscious notions of what men are “supposed to be like” cannot be understated. For so long, I believed I had to “earn” positive feelings by relentlessly dominating my goals, that “nothing easy is worth having.” What a recipe for a joyless, disconnected life. And yet, so many of us men are faithful to these ideologies, even as they sever our connections to ourselves and those around us. Many of us believe our being worthy of love and respect is predicated on having the “right” kind of body — and we’re not alone in perpetuating these limiting ideologies.
I’ve gained weight since I decided to love, and heal my relationship to, my body. And people notice. They comment that I’ve gained weight since they last saw me on TV, tell me I shouldn’t “give up on myself.” They give me unsolicited advice at the gym (which never would’ve happened when I was leaner) and talk about their restrictive diets, their juice cleanses for “health.” It’s exhausting to feel like I have to prove my worthiness — and the worthiness of other people in larger bodies — when people make assumptions about me, my health, and my well-being. It’s beyond frustrating to be subjected to other people’s diet plans — which is commonplace at the gym — when I’m summoning all the courage I have to make peace with myself and allow myself to gain weight as part of my healing.
Whether we realize it or not, comments about weight — our own, or someone else’s — are rooted in our own insecurities and internalized fatphobia, and they negatively impact ourselves and everyone around us. I’m not just talking about the critiques and unsolicited advice we give when someone has gained weight. The compliments can be just as toxic. We’re groomed to comment on people’s weight loss as though it’s a positive change, a sign of a job well done. We often don’t consider if weight loss is the result of an eating disorder (eating disorders are the deadliest mental illnesses, by the way), physical/ mental illness, or the result of dieting — lost weight that, for most of us, will return. And this sets us up for more cycles of shame and disappointment. As we gain the weight back — a statistical likelihood, as 95% of dieters will gain back the weight they lost within five years — no longer will we receive praise for our socially acceptable bodies. Instead, it’s back to the body society has deemed undesirable, and the shame we feel we deserve for failing to restrict ourselves. It’s incredibly common, and incredibly harmful. In Anti-Diet, Christy Harrison writes:
Weight cycling has been associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular problems and higher mortality from all causes. Indeed some research indicates that weight cycling can account for all of the excess mortality risks for certain diseases associated with being in a larger body. One large-scale, long-term study followed more than 3,100 people over thirty-two years; it found weight cycling correlated with an increased risk of death from all causes and an increased risk of developing coronary heart disease, even after controlling for BMI and other potentially confounding factors such as preexisting illness and smoking. Not only that, but the relative risks attributable to weight cycling were comparable to the risks that typically get blamed on being in a larger body — suggesting that if all studies were to control for weight cycling, any excess risk from so-called ‘overweight’ or ‘obesity’ might disappear… Until all research can control for weight cycling and weight stigma, we can’t say that being at the higher end of the BMI spectrum causes any health conditions — even if higher weights are associated with these health conditions.
Just consider what it might be like if we reversed the traditional “before and after” weight loss photos, posting our “after” once we’ve gained back the weight. These images would more accurately reflect the typical weight loss journey — yet, deep down, most people would see those images and be genuinely confused as to why anyone would want to highlight that they’ve regained weight. We assume that weight gain is a physical and moral failure. This belief is so ever-present in our culture that we don’t even need anyone to shame us for having gained weight in order to feel ashamed. It’s that insidious.
In our culture, it’s “normal” for thin people to self-deprecatingly call themselves fat, revealing how they feel about fat people (albeit, wrapped in a joke). They talk about avoiding certain foods in anticipation of a “summer body,” or how they’re dreading the holidays for their weight-gain potential. More recently, they joke about gaining “The Quarantine 15” during the coronavirus pandemic. When someone laments that they’ve gained weight, the underlying assertion is that “fatter” is worse and “thinner” or “leaner” is better. Thin people may feel these comments are harmless, empathetic, relational, or simply self-deprecating. Most of them are probably well-intentioned, and I don’t intend to shame anyone for what they’ve internalized. I had to do a lot of personal work these past few years to unlearn these very same ideas. It’s been a deep process, requiring a great deal of self-reflection and re-education.
I Will Not Help You Hate Your Body
Saying what you hate about your own body doesn’t just hurt you
Which is how I know it simply isn’t enough to have good intentions. These comments do not occur in a vacuum. They exist in the context of a fatphobic culture, where people have histories and traumas. Those tempted to respond to the issue with, “I don’t hate fat people” or “I think all bodies are beautiful” illustrate how deeply we misunderstand the insidious nature of anti-fatness. If a person of color were to tell me I did something racist, I would not respond with, “But I love people of all races,” because whether I do or not has nothing to do with the impact of what I said. Platitudes do not undo oppression. A commitment to acknowledge when you’ve messed up, and a promise to do better, can. If we really want to “help,” we must be willing to understand how we’ve internalized these oppressive beliefs, and prepare to make some big changes.
Rather than hiding behind the half-joking, “I feel so fat today,” we’d all be better served by making more objective, truthful, and vulnerable statements like, “I’m really struggling with my body image today.” And yet, it’s understandable why so many may not choose this route. Particularly for people in larger bodies, engaging with fatphobia in the daylight means opening yourself up to a wide range of assumptions and questions: people ask if you’re healthy, suggest that you’ve lost weight or that you should, or make comments indicating that you’re not actually that chubby — what are you so worried about? The subtext of that last one is, “Fat is bad/ unattractive/ unworthy of respect — you, though, are not bad/ unattractive/ unworthy of respect, because you’re still in an acceptable range.” This reinforces the idea that some bodies are acceptable, and others are not. The underlying message is not that you’re fine as you are, it’s “at least you’re not like one of those people.”
The larger a person is, the more difficult and triggering these conversations can be, given the frequency and severity of their othering and dehumanization. I must acknowledge that my privileges shield me from the worst of these fatphobic conversations. Despite my personal investment in anti-fatness, I’m still more likely to be seen as an objective voice, given my various identities — and even my history in bodybuilding, powerlifting, and personal training — than someone who is considered fat and can easily be written off as making excuses for their own laziness (or whatever else is projected onto fat people in our society). But when we write off “those people” and their experiences, we exhibit our bias and fail to understand how these ingrained beliefs impact us all.
As a culture, we are much more comfortable acknowledging systemic bigotry than we are interrogating our own unconscious beliefs. We can easily recognize explicit hatred, for example, yet we often become defensive when anyone suggests that what happens unintentionally can be just as hurtful and affecting. Unsolicited advice, dismissal, and other microaggressions are perpetual reminders that one is “other” or “less than.” I can attest from my own experience that it doesn’t take many of these incidents to cause immense stress, sparking a hyper-vigilance that is more emotionally and psychologically taxing than those who do not experience it can understand. Walking into a gym, or just about any other setting, is still an anxiety-inducing experience for me, because I know the odds of someone saying something fatphobic are high. At times, I even become unsure whether something I’ve experienced was actually fatphobic, or if the trauma of living in this larger body, where I’m gaslit by society on a daily basis, is causing me to imagine a dynamic that isn’t there. In more ways than one, fatphobia constantly makes one question their own reality.
When trying to relate these struggles to my thinner or leaner friends, I’m often met with an unconscious minimization of my experiences. Their responses make it that much more difficult to share how I, and millions of others, feel, perpetuating the silence that allows fatphobia and related oppressive systems to thrive. One of the reasons I wrote this article was to not have to go through the heavy emotional labor of educating every person in my life about their anti-fatness as I simultaneously witnessed and experienced it. My anti-sexist and anti-racist activism work informs me of parallel dynamics: why women often don’t tell men about sexual harassment or abuse; why people of color don’t feel obliged to tell white people about the racism they experience daily. Nobody who has suffered pain and trauma due to their gender, race, size, etc. wants their experiences disregarded, nor do they benefit from misguided advice like “just love yourself!”
Even with my privileges, this hasn’t been an easy conversation to have. As I’ve begun to challenge fatphobic ideas and explore how they impact me, I’ve found others often make the initial assumption that it can’t be true. Men like me can’t possibly feel deeply, or have complex layers of emotions. It’s a notion born out of the patriarchal mandate that men cannot, or should not, experience sadness, self-consciousness, anxiety, or depression. Nor can they struggle with their image or size. In reality, 25% of people who suffer from anorexia nervosa are men, and they’re more at risk of dying from the disorder due in part to our cultural assumptions preventing them from receiving prompt and accurate diagnosis. Subclinical patterns of disordered eating — such as binge eating, purging, laxative abuse, and fasting for weight loss — are also nearly as common for men as they are for women.
When a belief is already the cultural norm, it doesn’t take much to put the person questioning it back in their place: the slightest look or word carries a lifetime of inertia.
Yet there’s still a refusal to accept that this might be a conversation we need to have. Even when someone senses the seriousness with which I’m approaching this issue, I often feel they want to skate past it. They don’t have to tell me to “man up” to send the message that they think I’m being “dramatic.” When a belief is already the cultural norm, it doesn’t take much to put the person questioning it back in their place: the slightest look or word carries a lifetime of inertia. And because I often don’t trust most people to truly hear what I’m saying on a deep and full level, I find myself wondering how much of my own personal pain I’ll have to disclose to get them to take me, and my experiences, seriously. If I do decide to perform my pain for them, will they even be able to hear it? Or will I feel even more out in the cold, as I reach deeper into my own trauma only to find that the other person cannot, or will not, give me what I need?
It’s not lost on me that, in attempting to redefine masculinity for myself and to become my own person, I’m told I’m no longer qualified to play a “leading man” on-screen. The incredibly superficial industry of Hollywood tells me that, due to the changes in my body shape, I am not seen as physically worthy of an on-screen relationship — even at my relatively small size. This underscores how our culture terrifies us with the idea of being fat. Literally, the message from my industry is that, to play someone who’s worthy of being loved, I must treat myself in a way I know to be detrimental to my health and well-being: physically, mentally, and spiritually.
This message doesn’t just impact me as an actor, but as a human. As I watch films and TV shows, I find myself witnessing men being targeted with body shaming and fatphobia, as if it’s somehow acceptable or “progressive” to do to men what has been done to women for far too long. Hollywood is one of the largest propagators of fatphobia in our culture, and I recognize the importance of challenging its ideals while acknowledging the complexity of my working within that industry, which allows me to continue my art and career, as well as build my platform for change. I consistently seek to challenge all systems of oppression within my industry while recognizing that it’s not a battle that can be won overnight. It’s taken me decades to even recognize the fatphobia, racism, and sexism I internalized, just growing up on Hollywood stories. I’ve been absorbing this toxic buffet of garbage since I was a child. So I know unlearning it all — personally and collectively — will require sustained and conscious effort.
I also know it’s not easy. It’s not easy to think about all the time I spent chasing bouts of extreme exercise and dieting with shame-filled, compulsive eating, my body’s loving way of trying to feed me despite the trauma I’d put it through. It’s not easy to see that I was holding my body hostage at the expense of my own joy and well-being. I have moved through intense feelings of sadness as I become more aware of how I’ve treated my body all these years. I have poked and prodded my belly, unconsciously checking it in the mirror every time I found myself in a bathroom. I thought obsessively about food for years, because my body’s survival mechanisms were trying to get me to be less restrictive. I allowed my life to be controlled by my workout and food plans, never recognizing the stress and anxiety this made me feel. In The Self-Love Revolution, Virgie Tovar imparts great wisdom:
The truth is that you know your body better than anyone on this planet ever will. This makes you an expert. Your body tells you when it likes something and when it doesn’t. Your body tells you when it likes a person and when it doesn’t. Your body knows when you’re in danger and when you’re safe. Listen to your body. It’s giving you information all the time. Your job is to clear away as many obstacles as you possibly can so that you can hear all the messages and secrets it has for you. Obstacles include things like toxic relationships, abusive households, teachers who put you down, friends who don’t support you, bullying and emotional abuse, self-criticism, dieting, sexism, and fatphobia.
For so long, I thought “chubby” was the worst thing I could be. Men are “supposed” to be tough, strong, and rugged, and I associated chubbiness with everything that came with being a boy. You’re weak, not powerful. You’re soft, not strong. This is patriarchy, combined with anti-fatness, at work. At the suggestion of Megan Jayne Crabbe, I have reclaimed the word “chubby” for myself, even when it first terrified me. And because I did, I’m more powerful than I’ve ever been. I no longer rely on the metrics of oppressive systems to tell me how I should value myself.
It takes a great deal of time and intention to separate the idea of weight from health. Even as someone with an extensive history of personal training, it’s taken quite a bit to understand what it means to pursue health while surgically removing the malignant beliefs about fatness that have been unnecessarily intertwined with it. I had to understand that binging was a result of constant deprivation, rather than a lack of willpower. I had to trust that giving up dieting in favor of an intuitive eating approach would allow me to break old patterns and finally achieve greater physiological and psychological balance. I now listen to the primal human function that is my hunger.
I am worth so much more than a lifetime of obsessing over food, exercise, and weight. I am a beautiful, powerful being, defined by so much beyond how I look. I just had to strip away layers and layers of societal bullshit before I could realize it. I had to investigate the lies about weight I’d internalized, and replace them with beliefs that actually served me. And the journey continues, as I still have to unpack and challenge the lingering ways these belief systems continue to lurk in the shadows of my psyche. I am still healing from the psychological, physiological, and spiritual damage of having spent over half my life trying to restrict myself into a body that I felt I needed, a body that would shield me from fatphobia. There are still times when the stories, the lies, and the fears creep in, but I am more equipped than ever to manage them. I still have a great deal of internal work to do, but I’ve decided I will no longer actively participate in my own dehumanization, and there is a great power in that. In a world where most of us turn our eyes away from injustices perpetrated in the name of patriarchy, whiteness, and wealth, I choose to base my identity in a passion for love, justice, and equity, and in my commitment to personal and collective growth. Not how many abs I have showing, or how angular my jaw looks. I’m ready to continue tapping into the deep and beautiful wisdom of my body, to grab hold of those intuitions and feed the hunger I have long suppressed.
The radical politics I’ve learned over the last five years have built my capacity to self-examine, have fierce conversations, work on the practice of being an ally, and take powerful stances against giant systems of oppression like diet culture. Learning from and listening to the most marginalized has been an absolutely essential part of this process. I am beyond grateful that my social justice politic has allowed me to claim my freedom, joy, and liberation. My magic, splendor, and spirituality. So my journey with weight and body positivity continues to unfold in this light.
For anyone committed to removing themselves from diet culture, and more broadly, unlearning social and cultural forms of oppression, know that it is a lifetime’s worth of work. We must seek to be as gentle with ourselves as we are committed, as we recognize how we perpetuate our own dehumanization and the marginalization of others. As society tells all of us that we do not deserve love, dignity, respect, or joy, we must work to reclaim it, with justice and self-respect as our compass. And as Sonya Renee Taylor writes in The Body Is Not An Apology:
It is critical that we find communities of care and compassion. In their absence, we are relegated to an echo chamber of pathological body hatred and oppression. Radical self-love environments are all around us, and thanks to the power of technology we can find people all over the world who are committed to interrupting body shame.
I could never have gotten to the place of understanding, healing, and fighting against fatphobia without seeking a loving community that had different values than the larger culture. Following many of the incredible fat activists on Instagram has been an essential tool for shifting what is normally an incredibly fatphobic platform into a liberatory one, and I can’t highly recommend enough that you consider doing the same (I’ve included resources below).
In a culture that seeks to elevate the most privileged, even in social justice movements, it is also critical that we’re aware of the ways we may unconsciously keep hierarchies intact. This is why the movement for “body positivity” cannot only center thin white people, or on a narrative exclusively about “self-love.” Self-acceptance alone does not break down the walls of oppression that harm the most marginalized. And so, while self-acceptance is a valuable goal, those of us with the most privilege must consistently work to challenge our own biases that allow us to paint these movements in broad strokes of individualism. Likewise, as a white person working to be an anti-racist accomplice, or a man working to be a feminist accomplice, my goal cannot simply be to “empower women” or “empower people of color.” The systems and culture itself, along with our own beliefs, must be shifted to imagine a world where all people are free, not just better able to survive within oppressive systems.
If any of what I wrote rings true for you, I ask that you follow your intuition and stay on the path toward learning. Have the conversations and ask the questions. This is the kind of work it takes to dismantle racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism, and homophobia, and it is the same for defeating the forces of diet culture and anti-fatness. This is how we live up to our values of equity and justice. There is no quick fix or magic bullet for achieving social justice. And yet, this is some of the most important work we can do. At times, I still struggle with my own internalized fatphobia, though now I recognize that it’s part of a process. A provocative and challenging process. As Virgie Tovar says about dieting in You Have the Right to Remain Fat, “You cannot learn to love yourself by walking a path paved by self-hatred.” This process is necessary for us to be able to liberate ourselves, and those who are most marginalized. There is no liberation without mutual liberation, so let’s all get fucking free.
Health At Every Size, by Lindo Bacon
The Body Is Not An Apology, by Sonya Renee Taylor
You Have The Right To Remain Fat, by Virgie Tovar
Fearing the Black Body, by Sabrina Strings
Body Respect, by Dr. Lindo Bacon and Lucy Aphramor
Body of Truth, by Harriet Brown
Body Positive Power, by Megan Jayne Crabbe
Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice, by Leah Lakshmi-Piepzna Samarasinha
Anti-Diet, by Christy Harrison
The Self-Love Revolution: Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color, by Virgie Tovar
Intuitive Eating, by Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch (Note: I had some issues with the 3rd edition, which I’ve been told by Tribole are addressed in the 4th edition, to be released in June.)