The way people talk about being fat is shifting. With one-third of Americans classified as overweight, and another third a s o b e s e , a nd almost none of us losing weight and keeping it off, maybe itâ€™s time to rethink the way we see being fat. A show inspired by Lindy Westâ€™s book Shrill.
589: Tell me I am fat!
Ira Glass & Lindy West Original Aired June 17, 2016 ÂŠThis American Life
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Prologue Act One. The Day the Scales Fell from Her Eyes Act Two. Itâ€™s a Small World After All Act Three. How Are You Doing with Sizes? Act Four. Crossing Training Act Five. An Immodest Proposal
Prologue Ira Glass
How old were you when you first came out?
That's weird to say it like that. I know. I can't really talk about it. Yeah, why is that weird? It does seem weird to me too. Well, because it feels- to me, it feels-
OK, here's something that I just heard about, though I guess it's been out there for a little while now. It's the idea that fat people would come out to their friends and family as fat. Like, they would decide, OK, today's the day, going to say it out loud to people, I'm fat. I heard about this from Lindy West. She's a writer who's been on our program before. Maybe you remember her story about confronting an internet troll. Coming out as fat is a strange idea, because, of course, people can see if you're fat. It's no secret. It's not like when you come out as gay or transgender. Nobody says to you, dude, I can't believe you're fat. Lindy says it was obvious how big she was. But I always felt like if I didn't mention it that maybe people wouldn't notice. Or it could just be
this sort of polite secret, like, open secret that we didn't address, because it felt so shameful. It just felt impolite to talk about, like me not wanting to burden you with my failure. Like, I'm not going to bother you with this. Yeah, and just give me a little more time. Let's not talk about it, and I promise I' ll fix it. That's key, she says. As long as you're a fat person who's trying not to be fat, that's acceptable. That's a good fat person. You don't totally admit to yourself you're fat, because, wellThe way that we are taught to think about fatness is that fat is not a permanent state. You're just a thin person who's failing consistently for your whole life. Laughter So to actually say, OK, I am fat- and I have been as long as I can remember, so I don’t know why I live in this imaginary future where I, you know, someday I’m going to be thin. So before you declared to others, OK, I’m fat, how did you see
yourself? Did you see yourself as fat? Did you conceive of yourself as fat? Yeah, but I was determined to not be fat forever. And my worst fear was, what if I am? And then at some point, I just was like, you know, it’s fairly likely that I’m going to be fat forever. So why am I putting off figuring out how to live with that? I should, rather than spending all my time counting almonds, why not try to figure out how to be happy now? Which means saying to everybody, let’s just decide together that, like most fat people, I’ll probably always be this way. This is who I am, which- right now, anyway- is so rare, it feels like a radical act. I’m fat. It’s so weird to actually hear you say I’m fat. I actually heard you say that. I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard somebody just say those words except in a much smaller context, like somebody puts on a dress and it’s like, oh, I’m fat. But they don’t mean, this is who I am. your whole life. Yeah, and it’s usually thin people who say that. Yeah. You know? Yeah. When you come out as gay, most people accept it, because they know you can’t do anything
about that. That’s who you are. You can’t change it. But coming out as fat, doctors and your family and kind of the entire culture is organized to point out how wrong-headed you are. When you’re over a certain sizeit’s been explained to me by a few people now- complete strangers walk up to you on the street and tell you to lose weight. They shoot you dirty looks when they see ice cream in your shopping cart. They talk down to you like you’re stupid about nutrition and calories, as if pretty much every fat person has not been around the block 500 times on that one already. That’s why deciding to stay fat and be OK with it is at a peculiar frontier right now, where things are shifting and people do not agree about what is acceptable to say and think. I was talking to Lindy. I used the word “overweight” a few times. And at some point, she stopped me and said, the word “overweight” is not preferred. She wasn’t strident about this. It was super friendly. She said the problem with “overweight” is that it implies that there is a correct weight for people. That’s how radical this is. It’s saying that no weight is better than any other weight, which, given the health risks associated with greater weight that Lindy acknowledges, it can be hard to get your head around. And we’re doing this show today because I read the book that Lindy just
published about this. And it made me see this whole thing differently. And so what we’re going to do today is we’re going to present some excerpts from her book. Her book’s called Shrill. And we’re going to hear from people who definitely do not feel the same way that Lindy does about all this. For WBEZ Chicago, it’s This American Life. I’m Ira Glass. Stay with us.
Act. One The Day the Scales Fell from Her Eyes
Act One. The Day the Scales Fell from Her Eyes Ira Glass
Act One, The Day the Scales Fell from Her Eyes. So Lindy West is very much a fat person with a before picture and an after picture. In both pictures, she’s fat. In the after picture, she is outspoken and happy. In the before picture, she is painfully shy and not as happy. She says, as a fat teenager, she felt like a monster. Cool clothes did not seem to exist for her. In her 20s, fat made her world smaller. She’d stay home when friends went hiking, biking, sailing. She’d cancel plans to avoid restaurants whose tables were so close together she couldn’t navigate through them.
And then not to mention the fact that you’re knocking stuff over. You know, just moving through the world as a big person is hard. I take up a lot of space. It’s undeniable. It’s awkwardand embarrassing. And I’m just constantly knocking stuff over with my butt, you know? She describes being fat as simultaneously being way too visible and being invisible- not wanting people looking at her, noticing her, noticing what she eats. She worried- and she worries still, all the time- about destroying chairs by sitting on them. Chairs. You catch that? Until this interview, it never occurred to me that a human being could sigh that way over chairs. For the record, she says she’s only destroyed one chair. It was at a friend’s comedy show. You know, packed, sold-out theater. And I’m sitting on the stage. And then, of course, the chair made a horrible, loud cracking noise, like, five minutes into the show. And I was already on high alert for the chair. So I managed to sort of leap into a crouch. As if trained for it. Exactly. It was like Mission Impossible. Because breaking a chair is a combination of so many horrible things. It’s like confirmation that you are giant, that furniture cannot withstand you. So it’s like falling down, making a scene-
You’re on stage, so people can see you.
Yeah, I’m sure people in the audience- I mean, well, a guy came running out with a chair. Laughter Of course. Then how do you go about the, like, OK, nothing to look at here, nothingLaughter How do you do that? I don’t remember. Nothing’s going on here. I think I just started nodding a lot to the comedy, like, ooh, yeah. But those things just make you stronger, Ira. In fact, the question she’s asked most often these days is, where do you get your confidence? Which is kind of a messed up question, because the subtext is, if I looked like you, I’d definitely throw myself into the sea. Fact is, though, it is a good question.
How she went from somebody who never wanted to be noticed as fat or at all, to somebody who tells her well-meaning friends that, yes, she wants them to call her fat, even though it makes them feel a little uncomfortable at first. She says it took years, involved many humiliations, things she realized. But the biggest turning point- the moment that she actually came out and said to everyone she knows that she’s fat-- happened as the result of a fight she got into with her boss- or, to be more precise, the boss of her boss. She was working at a weekly newspaper, The Stranger, in Seattle. She got into a fight with the paper’s editorial director. His name is Dan Savage. And if you listen to our show a lot, you know him. He’s been on many, many times. I’ve also appeared on his podcast and Vice program, which I recommend wholeheartedly, the Savage Lovecast. He’s also written books. He appears on TV. Dan is friends with Lindy today and had no interest at all in coming on to the radio to revisit this fight that they had a couple years ago. Lindy writes about what happened between them in her book. I asked her to read this part of her story for us here. That’s going to be the rest of this act. She says, “Dan was a great boss. But starting around 2004, 2005, he began writing sometimes about obesity.” OK, here’s Lindy reading.
My boss, Dan, was on something of an obesity epidemic kick. He wasn’t alone. The rest of the nation had declared a war on obesity. They’d whipped up a host of reasons why it was right and good to hate fat people- our repulsive, unsexy bodies, of course, the classic, but also our drain on the health care system, our hogging of plane armrests, our impact on “the children,” our pathetic inability and/or monstrous refusal to swap austerity for gluttony, oh, and our health, because they care.
Dan was on that train, and I don’t blame him. It was a very popular and, I imagine, gratifying ticket at the time. And even more so than today, it was considered very roguish to tell it like it is about fat people. Dan’s main sticking point seemed to be fat people like me who insisted we weren’t imminently dying. He fiercely and persistently defended his, quote, “refusal to take the self-esteem-boosting/public-health-shredding position that you can be obese and healthy. More than anything, this passage from his 2005 book, The Commitment, sums up the overall tone of his stance at the time on fatties. Here’s the quote. “Two days later, in a water park in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, I came to a couple of realizations. First, anyone who denies the existence of the obesity epidemic in the United States hasn’t been to a water park in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. The owners of water parks in the US must be saving a fortune on water and chlorine bills. Floating in the deep end of the wave pool with DJ, Terry observed that there was an awful lot of water being displaced. If the South Dakotans floating around us all got out of the pool at the same time, the water level would most likely have dropped 6 feet.” That’s what Dan wrote. In other words, we’re horrible to look at. We’re in the way. We’re a joke. I could probably have dealt with that. But I started to get comments here and there from readers asking how it felt to know that my boss hated me because of my body. I knew Dan didn’t hate me. But why didn’t he see that when he wrote about fat people he was writing about me, Lindy West, his colleague and friend? And why should I, as an employee, have to swallow that kind of treatment
Dan Savage is the author, and he speaks on podcast and Vice program about wholeheartedly, the Savage Lovecast. He began writing sometimes about obesity. He also was a boss, and friend with Lindy West.
at my job, in the same newspaper I was sweating blood into for 36K a year? Did I want to be the kind of person who didn’t fight? OK, so I’m going to jump in here. Lindy decided to take a stand. And she did as a culmination of a bunch of experiences and changes in the way that she thought about being fat. And I talked to her about this in our interview.
One of the big things was, she saw these photos taken by the actor Leonard Nimoy, the guy who played Mr. Spock on Star Trek. Late in his life, he did a series of these gorgeous black-and-white photos called The Full Body Project, where he photographed fat women naked. And they’re presented as objects of beauty. They’re art photos. And I just had never seen that before ever in my life. It had never occurred to me that you would do anything with a fat body other than hide it. And the women in these photographs were so proud and just full of life. And it really had an impact on me. I mean, at first, I was really uncomfortable.
Uncomfortable, like, oh, no, don’t show that. Yeah, like, you guys! That’s secret! You guys, I’ve been working really hard on not showing this to people. From there, she started searching the internet with the intensity, she says, of a teenager looking for porn, only she was looking for sites where they posted images of fat people. There’s a bunch of Tumblrs along these lines. Some are basically just fashion blogs for fat people. Finding decent clothes is an issue if you’re really big. There’s a Tumblr called, “hey, fat chick!” I mean, this was just my favorite one of these fat acceptance blogs. It was just that. It was just bright, happy, funny, smiling people wearing cute outfits. It’s just, you’re so used to seeing fat people presented as sad and apologetic. And what did this do to you? What it do to see that? I remember feeling like my brain was changing shape. It just had never occurred to me that you could just decide that you were allowed to be happy and live as a-
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As a fat person.
Yeah, exactly. And did this change the way that you saw fat people? Yeah, I mean, I can’t even explain how strange it was, because it was like- it wasn’t just conceptual, like, oh, I deserve to be happy. It was like I was looking at specific parts of their bodies and staring at them- parts of their bodies that I had always just reviled on myself. Like, what do you mean? You know, like fat rolls and arm fat and bellies and staring at them and saying, OK, what if I found that objectively beautiful? What if I decided that’s beautiful? And then does that work? Yes, it does. At least, it worked for me. And then it really looked beautiful.
Yeah, really. Really, genuinely. And it felt like some sort of sorcery. Like, at the time, I was like, how is this possible? Lindy says in her book, “Want to change the way you see fat people? Try it.” So that stuff is rewiring her brain, and she’s thinking about it a lot. And to get back to our story, her boss is saying these demeaning things about fat people. And she decides, enough. OK, back to her reading. And I’ll just say we have unbeeped some words here on the internet version of our show. If you preferred a beeped version, there’s one on our website.
November, 2009 Something lurched awake inside of me. A lifetime of being talked down to about nutrition, being kept secret by men I was dating, being both invisible and too visible finally foamed up and spilled over. I emailed Dan privately in In my memory, I asked him to consider his words more carefully before writing about fat people, to remember that we’re human beings with complex lives, not disease vectors or animals. I was timid, pleading. Or at least, that’s how I remember it. While writing about all this, I looked up the original exchange. And it turns out that my memory sucks. Here’s the actual email that I sent to my actual boss.“To Dan Savage. Subject- hello, could you lay off the fat people shit? Just curious. Who are these hordes of fat people chasing you around, insisting that eating pot pies all day is awesome and good for your health? Because, um, I don’t believe you. That sounds like a strawman. And I know some of your best friends are fat or whatever, but you sound like a bigot. Also, your super fucking obvious and regressive point has been made. Everyone in the world already thinks fat people are lazy and gross.” Then I went all caps. “WE GET IT! YOU ARE NOT BREAKING NEW GROUND HERE!” Back to regular case. “Being fat is its own punishment. I don’t give a shit if you think I lie on the couch all day under the Dorito funnel.
I’d just rather not be abused on the internet from inside my own workplace. Just a thought. Love, Lindy.” Dan’s reply was nine words long. He asked simply if I’d ever detected any animus from him personally. “Nope, not at all,” I wrote. “Not my point at all either.” He said he heard me, but I was accusing him of being a bigota serious charge against someone exhibiting, by my admission, no animus. It was a dodge. He was deliberately missing the point. We never talked about it in the office. For the next year, he went back to posting semi-regularly about the horrors of the obesity epidemic with no discernible interruption. And I went back to ignoring him. Then Dan wrote a blog post entitled “Ban Fat Marriage.” He was responding to some Republicans’ argument that gay marriage should be illegal because gay people supposedly die younger. Here’s Dan. Quote, “Why stop with gay people? Iowa should ban fat marriage. There are, according to the state of Iowa, more than 1.4 million obese people living in Iowa. The social costs of Iowa’s obesity epidemic are pretty staggering. And those costs include premature death and lower average life expectancies for Iowans.” In response, I threw up a quick blog post. “Hey, Dan. So now that you’re equating the stigmatization of fat people with the stigmatization of gay people, does that mean you’re going to stop stigmatizing fat people on this blog?” Nothing. I waited a few days. Nothing. I looked back over our old email exchange. My private confrontation with Dan had gotten me nowhere. Taking a quick, vague swipe at him on the blog had gotten me nowhere. So I did what honestly I thought Dan Savage would do, what he’d taught me to do over my years at the paper.
February 11, 2011 On February 11, 2011, I wrote a scorched-earth essay and posted it publicly at the tail end of a sunny Friday afternoon. The post was called, “Hello, I Am Fat.” It included a full body photo of me taken that day by Kelly O, our staff photographer, with the caption, “28 years old, female, 5 foot 9, 263 pounds.” 32
It read as follows. “This is my body, over there. See it? I have lived in this body my whole life. I have wanted to change this body my whole life. I get that you think you’re actually helping people by contributing to the alp of shame that crushes every fat person every day of their lives. But you’re not helping. Shame doesn’t work. Diets don’t work. Fat people already are ashamed. It’s taken care of. No further manpower needed on the shame front. Thanks.” Then I tore into something Dan wrote about fat rolls. Here’s the quote. “I am thoroughly annoyed at having my tame statements of fact- being heavy is a health risk, rolls of exposed flesh are unsightly-characterized as hate speech.” Ha! Rolls of exposed flesh are unsightly. That is in no way a tame statement of fact. It’s not a fact at all. It’s a cruel, subjective opinion. But this
is what’s behind this entire thing. It’s not about health. It’s about “ew.” You think fat people are icky. Ew. A fat person might touch you on a plane with their fat. Ew! Coincidentally, that’s the same feeling that drives anti-gay bigots. No matter what excuses they drum up about family values and, yes, health, it’s all “ew.” And sorry, I reject your “ew.” You’re not concerned about my health. Because if you were concerned about my health, you would also be concerned about my mental health, which has spent the past 28 years being slowly eroded by statements like the above. Also, you don’t know anything about my health. You do happen to be the boss of me, but you are not the doctor of me. You have no idea what I eat, how much I exercise, what my blood pressure is, or whether or not I’m going to get diabetes. Not that any of that matters, because it is entirely none of your business.” OK, I’m going to jump in one more time here, because this health question is actually kind of the third rail when people talk about fat people. Fat people are told all the time they’re choosing to be unhealthy. Lindy and other fat people point out that OK, I’m going to jump in one more time here, because this health question is actually kind of the third rail when people talk about fat people.
Fat people are told all the time they’re choosing to be unhealthy. Lindy and other fat people point out that actually, the causes of obesity are way more complex than just eating too much. According to the National Institutes of Health, they include physiological, metabolic, genetic, psychological, social, and cultural factors. Also, we haven’t invented a way to make fat people thin long term. Fewer than 1 in 100 obese people get thin and keep it off, according to one recent study, which tracked over a quarter million people for nine years. So we’re in this situation, where a third of all Americans are classified as overweight, another third of us are obese. Can it really be that so many of us are just weak and choosing to be unhealthy? There must be some other way to think about this. OK, back to Lindy.
I reject this entire framework. I’m not concerned with whether or not fat people can change their bodies through self-discipline and choices. Pretty much all of them have tried already. A couple of them have succeeded. Whatever. My question is, what if they try and try and try and still fail? What if they’re still fat? What if they’re fat forever? What do you do with them then?
Do you really want millions of teenage girls to feel like they’re trapped in bodies that are ruining their lives? And on top of that, it’s because of their own moral failure? And on top of that, they’re ruining America with the terribly expensive diabetes that they don’t even have yet? You know what’s shameful? A complete lack of empathy. A few days later, Dan Savage wrote a response, by the way, three times longer than Lindy’s post. She didn’t convince him at all. Dan and she went out once for beer and soft pretzels and talked it out a little to make sure they were still friends. Of course, they still didn’t agree. And then they never spoke about it again. Lindy says in the years since, though, she’s noticed- and Dan says this is true- he writes about fat people differently. No cheap punchlines. Live and learn, he texted me. Of course, how Lindy writes about fat people was changed by this as well.
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Act. Two Itâ€™s a Small World After All
Act Two. It’s a Small World After All Ira Glass
Act Two, It’s a Small World After All. So when we were all talking about what wanted to put on this week’s show, we come to the subject of fat suits. And one of our staffers, Elna Baker, blurted out, if she put one of those on today, she’d feel like herself again. Elna is one of those rare people who has lost a lot of weight. She lost 110 pounds, and she’s kept it off for years and years. Says she grew up being told the same thing that lots of fat girls are toldthat she’d never have a husband or a family if she stayed fat. She’d never got the job she wanted if she stayed fat. The job she wanted in her case was she wanted to be an actress. Her grandfather would tell her flat out, nobody wants to see a fat girl on TV. But she didn’t believe it. She thought it was an exaggeration. She’s a hard worker, good attitude. She just figured she’d just make it work. Then it didn’t work. Here’s Elna. A year out of college, I took stock of my life. It was not going as planned. I was unemployed, and I had never been in a relationship. I tried for the life I wanted, hard. I got a scholarship to NYU. I was a huge flirt with lots of guy friends. But it felt like there was an invisible force blocking me from achieving my dreams.
Elna Baker is a writer and performer of humorous stories. Her stories have been featured on radio programs such as This American Life, The Moth, BBC Radio 4 and Studio.
They would look me up and
Sure, I’d think, is it because I’m fat? But then I’d think, don’t be paranoid. I refused to believe that people were that shallow. It had to be more complicated. I tried to put my finger on it, but I just couldn’t figure it out. Once I lost weight, I realized, it was all because I was fat. It felt like that famous Eddie Murphy sketch on Saturday Night Live, where he goes undercover in whiteface and gets treated way better. He rides the city bus. And when the last black rider gets off, music starts. A cocktail waitress in a sequined dress hands out martinis. That’s what I felt like- like this whole other world for thin people had existed alongside mine, a world they’ve been keeping a secret from me. When I was fat and I walked down the street, people would stare. I’d hear comments that I would ignore. Occasionally someone would shout something out at me. In this new world, when I walked down the street, attractive men and women would do something to me they’d never done before. They would look me up and down, and then they would nod their heads. Thin people nod at each other? One day, I went to pay for my groceries at a deli and realized I was short, off by a full $10. I looked at my pile and began debating what would stay and what would go. The deli guy waved his hand. “Just take it,” he said. Take it? I walked out cautiously, not sure what had just happened. So I tried the same thing at a different deli, this time on purpose. I picked out more items than I had money for. Then I faked debating which ones to choose. “Just take it,” the man behind the counter said. Soon it was a scam I ran all over the city. It wasn’t about saving money. I wanted to know, is this is a thing? It’s a thing. Of course, I’d lost the weight to fix two specific problems. I wanted to get a job and find love. Old Elna looked for a job for a year and a half. New Elna was offered work a month after she hit her goal weight, an entry-level position on an actual TV show. I was hired to be a page at the Letterman show. My job was to walk down the line of people waiting to go into the theater and divide them into three groups- dots, generals, and CBS twos. The dots were the beautiful people. T h e y go t seated in the first three rows. Usually those were the only rows you saw on television.
10 mo re Elna Baker
Generals were average people. They sat in the order they arrived. CBS two was for fat people, elderly people with a visible illness, people who looked like they might be disruptive, and goths. I’d scribble CBS two on their ticket. And that was code for, seat them in the back three rows at the balcony- the nosebleed seats. I’d seen Letterman a few years earlier. I was near the front of the line and somehow ended up in the nosebleeds. I remember being confused by it. The day I was trained, I put it together. I lost weight so fast- close to 100 pounds in 5 and 1/2 months- that it was like going from one human to another. Here’s how I did it. I enrolled in a weight loss clinic. The doctor gave me a list of foods I could eat and told me I had to exercise daily. Your diet will be aided by medicine, he told me- potassium, serotonin, dopamine, a multi-vitamin, and then phentermine, which would help suppress my appetite.
I look down at the little colored tablets. Skittles, I thought, only the opposite. I began my diet with a prayer for grace. I was Mormon then. I asked God to give me the same willpower Jesus had when he fasted in the wilderness for 40 days. I prayed for his self-control.
Then I took the first pill, phentermine, which is similar to amphetamines- speed. I’d never done drugs before. Remember, I was Mormon. I’d never even tried coffee. I didn’t know how a substance could alter your state of being. And so when I became so focused, so driven, so able not to eat, and so into cleaning, I was certain my prayer had been answered. I was sure it was God. I kept a journal during that time and recently read from it on stage. This is from my journal. So I’m doing it. I’m taking control over my body. In the last month and 10 days, I have lost 30 pounds. I cannot deny Heavenly Father’s role in this whole process.
I am receiving divine help. I basically feel like I am possessed by an alien. Now I just have to keep going. And this is after- so after I’d lost, like, 60 pounds, it was like the racial breakdown. I would walk down the street. Black dudes noticed me. 10 more pounds, Hispanic guys noticed me. 20 more
pounds, white guys noticed me. And Asian guys have never noticed me! I have never been thin enough for Asian men. I’d only been kissed a handful of times when I was fat. Each ended with the guys saying the same exact thing“don’t tell anyone about this” I was hoping that losing weight might change all that. And it did. New Elna kissed 16 guys in eight weeks. I know this, because I drew a map in my journal of the city and marked the location of each kiss with an X, geolocating it. Nine months in, I started seeing a guy from my buildinga kindergarten teacher who left love notes on my door. And we started to really fall for each other. One night, he told me, “I liked you from the first moment I saw you.” He was referring to the building barbecue we’d hung out at a few weeks earlier.
20 mo re
But we’d met long before that barbecue. We’d lived in the same small building for four years. One day, when I was still fat, I’d knocked on his door and asked to borrow a hammer. When I brought it back, we talked for 20 minutes. After that, I knew him. He was Andy in 3C. We nodded when we saw each other in the hallway. Now he had no idea that girl was me.
We dated for another two months, but I couldn’t let it go. It just spoiled everything. I thought we were falling in love. I thought it was real. But it was based on the way I looked. He couldn’t even see me when I was fat. I didn’t matter until I was this size.
The attention I got from men, I wrote in my journal, I wish I could just enjoy it. Instead it made me sad. It was the unfairness that got to me. Old Elna longed for someone like Andy and never got him. She tried so hard for everything that I now got so easily. New Elna didn’t have to be a good person. I just had to be thin. It made the world seem so bleak, like this is the system? Really? It made me less hopeful about people. When guys came on to me, it didn’t feel like it was about me. I could be anyone. It made it hard to trust people.
Can I just say another word about this? It’s just such an unbalanced reward system. It took so much more kindness, hard work, and ingenuity to be a person in the world when I was fat. All this took was not eating. Here’s something that surprised me. It wasn’t enough to take diet pills. It wasn’t enough to lose the weight of an entire adult woman from my own body. Once I did all that, I realized I still wasn’t actually thin. Not really. After dropping the weight, I had so much extra skin that I could lay on my side and pull it a half foot in either direction.
For a long time, I tried to get the skin to go away with lotions and exercise. Eventually, I resorted to surgery- in fact, four different surgeries. They included something called a circumferential body lift. They made an incision around my entire waist, cut out a 6-inch belt of skin, and then sewed me back together. I also got a thigh lift. They cut up my legs from my knees to my groin and took out as much skin as they could. Now I have a scar that runs completely around my waist, as if a magician cut me in half. I also have two scars running up my legs like inseams. In order for my legs to heal, I had to sit alone in a room for a month without any underwear and my legs spread eagle. It’s OK. I made it through every season of The Wire. But it was a painful month. One night, I went to pee, and the incision along my crotch split open two inches, not unlike splitting the crotch of your jeans, except it was my actual crotch. I called the doctor in a panic. He told me he couldn’t sew it back up together without a risk of infection. So I had to pack the
wound with gauze and keep packing it. I tried to pack it myself, but I was too hurt to move. As I bent forward, I heard it split even more. I called my friend Andrea sobbing. She was at my apartment within five minutes. She came in holding a bottle of white wine and two Valiums- one for her, one for me. She had me lay back and pushed wads of gauze in my leg crease like she was putting the stuffing back in a teddy bear. But even surgery couldn’t remove the extra skin entirely. When I hold my arms and legs out, I still look like a flying squirrel. Here’s a journal entry from when I was 22. Quote, “I was happy when I was overweight. I had no idea I should be sad. I was free before.” I had trained myself not to care what people thought, and I’d done a good job of it. I learned how to do the worm, and I would do it in dance circles. Only I wasn’t actually physically capable of it. I just thought it was funny, and it made everyone laugh. I would never do that now. What if I look stupid? I wore the most ridiculously bold things- vintage neon green and pink Hawaiian print dresses. I didn’t constantly take the temperature of the room. It just was. That’s the person I sold out to become this person. As new Elna, I threw out all my pictures of old Elna and all the pictures in my parents’ photo albums too, because I didn’t want people to see them. And when I looked at those photos, they made me feel bad, because in the pictures, I looked happy. And I’d look at them and think, you’re so stupid to think that you’re happy. That’s crazy, of course. And now I don’t have any pictures of myself from ages 12 to 22.
As new Elna, I once went on a date with a cute guy who said to me, I know this is going to sound mean, but I just can’t tolerate fat people, and then took my hand for the very first time. And I held his hand. I said nothing. I didn’t tell him about old Elna. We went for a walk. I went out with him again. It’s sad that new Elna gets everything old Elna wanted, because I think old Elna was a better person than new Elna. Recently I read Lindy West’s book. She’s my same age. We both grew up in Seattle. We’re the same height and used to be the same weight. And she stayed fat and decided she was happy with it. She got everything I thought I had to lose over 100 pounds to get.Sarai Walker’s book Dietland hit me just as hard. I related more to those books than any I’ve ever read. In each of them, a fat woman grappled with the same things I did and made the opposite choice. They stayed fat. And reading these two books was the first time I was able to imagine a parallel universe where I could have stayed fat. For the first time, I wondered if I had done the right thing by killing off old Elna. I’ve been honestly in
a bit of a crisis. I started recording a conversation with my husband a few weeks ago about some of this to help think through the ideas of this story. I do that a lot. He and I have only been married a month. He never met old Elna. And we were talking about fat and beauty and how important beauty is for men. And it got really emotional really fast.
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-to be that. You would never have been attracted to me before. You know that makes me really sad? Oh, my god.
I mean, you married someone that wouldn’t have been attracted to you? Who wouldn’t have loved me. You would never have talked- I mean, you would have talked to me. We would have been friends. But you wouldn’t have ever dated me, ever. Yeah, but you know what’s funny? There’s something about youHe changes the subject to disillusionment in general, says what I’m realizing is the same thing every teenager realizes in every John Hughes movie- that the world is unfair. I’m not having it. “Can I go back a second?” Yeah, how far back? I actually have never said it. But I said to you that you wouldn’t have been attracted to me. Mm-hmm.
That’s true, right? What do you mean? It’s true. That would I have dated fat Elna? Uh-huh. I don’t know. Probably not. Yeah. OK. So we’re a newlywed couple. Married for two weeks. Married for two weeks. Not even. How long have we been married? 10 days? 10 days. And we’re realizing that our marriage is based on a lie. Uh-huh. It was a joke, of course, our marriage based on a lie. Ha, ha, ha. But then there’s this.
Mark is Elnaâ€™s husband. He often talkes with her about fat and beauty is how important to man.
I’ve always said I think the real you is the skinny you.
That’s stupid. Not the skinny you, but the realNo, that’s not even true. I think the realThis argument over which is the real me, old Elna or new Elna, goes on for days. Well, then that’s you. No, it’s just- Here we are in a car. Mark explains that he doesn’t think I became comfortable with myself until I was thin. If this isn’t- no, no, no. No, no, no. Listen to me. I didn’t feel like I’m comfortable in my body or my own skin before. It was just me. I know, but ifIt wasn’t like I wasIf you feel like-
It wasn’t like me in a fat suit. It was me. That’s what I was. So I wasn’t like, oh, this feels really big and uncomfortable. It just was me as a human. I was just a human. It was me. I know, but you-
What Mark doesn’t understand is that my old body doesn’t feel that far away. What he’s rejecting is me. I could gain weight so easily. I mean, what if we have kids? But we’re working on it. He told me recently he knows he hasn’t been listening.
And for my part, I see how so much of love is physical attraction, especially at the beginning. It’s not the story we’re told. It’s not the one I wanted to believe. But it’s a story I can live with. Here’s something I never tell people. I still take phentermine. I take it for a few months at a time a year, or sometimes it feels like half of the year. I can’t get it prescribed anymore, so I buy it in Mexico or online, though the online stuff is fake and doesn’t work as well. I have a shirt that says, “I’m allergic to mornings.” Everyone who knows me knows I have problems sleeping at night. I am usually up until 4:00 AM. I say I have insomnia. Really, I am awake because I am on speed. And I am on speed, because I need to stay thin. I need to stay thin so I can get what I want. I know how this sounds. I know exactly how messed up it is. But I also feel like I can’t be honest with you, like we won’t really get anywhere unless I admit it. I’m taking it right now, by the way. I took it at 11:00 AM this morning. I will take another one at 4:00. I was on it to lose weight for my wedding. And now I’m still on it because I’m about to pitch a TV show in LA, and I need to lose even more weight.
Phentermine turns off the part of my brain that thinks about food. When I’m on it, I can legitimately say, I forgot to eat. I’ve thought before that it may be affecting my health. It feels that way. I’ve intentionally never googled the side effects. I know that all of this is wrong. I don’t like what I am. But I’ve accepted it as part of the deal. Elna Baker is one of the producers of our show. Coming up, does God want you thin? Some people think so. Grab a Twinkie and come back in a minute, Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.
THE AVERAGE CLORIE INTAKE BY A HUMAN P E R D A Y VERSUS THE RECOM MENDATION CALORIES P E R D A Y F O R U S D A RECOMMENDATION 2010
WOMEN 1600 CAL
Act. Three How Are You Doing with Size?
Act Three. How Are You Doing with size? Ira Glass
It’s This American Life. I’m Ira Today’s program, “Tell Me I’m Fat,” in which we ask, should we think about weight differently than we do? We’ve arrived at Act Three of our program. Act Three, How You Doing with Sizes? So obesity in America affects a higher percentage of black people than white people. Roxane Gay has written a lot about race and some about obesity in her book Bad Feminist and elsewhere. Roxane’s black. She’s fat. And she says those two things together have a huge impact on the way people perceive her.
Oh, I’m mistaken for a man all the time. Literally all the time. And I’m sorry, but I have huge breasts. There’s just no way that you’re mistaking me for a man. It’s because they see me, and they see my skin. And they think, well, no, she can’t possibly be a woman. And so that’s the number one thing that happens, and it’s actually extremely annoying. And it’s white people, or it’s black people also?
Oh, no, it’s white people. Black people know what I am. You said being black adds another layer of bullshit to being overweight. Yes, it does, like you’re even lower on the sort of totem pole of dignity. People look right past you, and they don’t think that you have anything of value to offer. Like, you can go into a car dealership, for example. And you’re the very last person that the dealer will walk up to, because they think you can’t buy a car. Has that happened to you at a car dealership? Yeah, definitely. You know, I think the thing that happens most commonly is when I’m flying, I am oftentimes standing in the priority line, because I travel every week. And people will say, you know, this is the first-class line, as if I don’t belong there. What do you say? I say I know how to read and just leave it at that. You draw a distinction among different kinds of fatness. Can I have you talk about that?
Yeah, I mean, I think there are different kinds of fatness. There’s the person who’s maybe 20 pounds overweight, who’s fine as they are. But if they want to lose weight, they just need to go on Slim Fast for a couple weeks or something. And then you have people who are- I like to call them Lane Bryant fat, which means they can still buy clothes at Lane Bryant, which goes up to 28 in size. And they’re the ones I find that are often the strongest cheerleaders of, this is who I am, and, you have to take me as I am and respect me because of my body not despite it. And I admire that a great deal. But I think it’s easier to feel that way when you have multiple places where you can buy clothes and feel pretty and move through the world. And you noted, Lindy is what you call Lane Bryant fat. She told me she was a size 22. Yeah, I mean, and I don’t mean that in a disrespectful way. I just mean she has access to spaces that people like me do not. Because what’s your situation? There’s another level. I mean, then there’s when you’re super morbidly obese, where you can’t really even find stores that can accommodate you. You don’t fit in any public spaces, like movie theaters, public bathrooms, so on and so forth. Is the official name of what you are morbidly obese? That’s the medical term? No, the medical term is super morbidly obese. It’s so mean. Yes, it is. It’s mean. It’s dehumanizing. How much weight would you have to lose to be Lane Bryant fat?
Roxane Gay is an American feminist writer, professor, editor and commentator. She is an associate professor of English at Purdue University, contributing opinion writer at The New York Times, founder of Tiny Hardcore Press.
You’ve said this thing- fat is all I ever think about, and it’s exhausting. What are you talking about? What do you mean? I’m just hyper-obsessed. This whole nonstop anxiety conversation happens in my head all the time for just basic life functions, like, oh, I have to go do this, you know? Before I will go out to eat, I research a restaurant extensively on Google. And I look at Google Images. And I make sure, are the chairs solid? Do they have arms? What does the dining room look like? And if I don’t think I’m going to be comfortable, I simply won’t go.
It’s sobering to realize just how the past 25 years have just been all about my body. And that’s where I struggle with the fat acceptance movement. I think it’s wonderful, and I think it’s necessary and a necessary corrective. But not all of us of have been able to get to that space where we don’t care what other people think. I’m not all there yet, and I’m trying. But it’s just really hard to not care what people think, especially when they’re constantly telling you what they think. But part of it is being able to say,
I feel good and fine about looking this way and being this way. And it seems like when I read you, I feel like, oh, well, that’s a huge part of what you actually don’t want to accept. You’re saying, I happen to be this way, but I don’t want to be this way. So why do I have to pretend that I’m OK with it? Exactly. I don’t want to pretend that I’m OK with it, and it’s not judging anyone else. It’s just that I know the realities of living in my body. I know how irritating and how exhausting it is to, for example, climb a set of stairs. And so I don’t need to be thin, but I want to be in better shape. I want to
have more stamina. And I honestly, because I’m vain, want to wear cuter clothes. That’s normal. Yeah, it is normal. But then there’s a lot of people who don’t like that attitude in me. But again, I think it’s because they’re Lane Bryant fat. And even when you’re Lane Bryant fat, it’s a struggle. But at least you have that. I don’t even have that. And so it’s like, let me feel the way I want to feel. Just let me be me.
Roxane Gay. She’s currently writing a book about being fat. It’s called Hunger. By the way, we double-checked with Lane Bryant. This doesn’t change Roxane’s point at all, but they go up to 32.
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w a y t h e w o r l d perceives that strength.â€? â€” G.D Anderson
Act. Four Cross Traning
Act Four. Cross Traning Ira Glass
It’s so common to judge people on their weight. And of course, so often there is this moral dimension to it that is just gross- this idea that you’re fat because you’re weak, you can’t get control of your own life. Today on our program, we’re saying maybe that is not the most accurate or the most helpful way to look at this. This next story is about a very specialized example of this kind of moralism. You may know that there’s a Christian weight loss movement. And it’s big, with seminars and books like Help Lord, the Devil Wants Me Fat. Daniel Engber takes us into to a particularly extreme moment for this movement.
Paul Brinson loves to exercise. He’s a runner. He’s a biker. He’s actually got a doctorate in physical education. And he spent a big portion of his life teaching people how to stay in shape. In the early 1970s, Paul got this dream job offer. He got a call from the brand-new Oral Roberts University asking him to head up their new phys ed program. Paul was a Pentecostal Evangelical Christian. And Oral Roberts was maybe the most famous televangelist and faith healer in the world. Two of the biggest things in Paul’s life were coming together- God and exercise. So Paul and his wife moved out to Tulsa. When I arrived at Oral Roberts University, within a month, he met with all the new faculty. And I remember sitting across from him in his home having dinner. And I asked him the question, why is physical fitness so important to you? Because I was aware of the whole Pentecostal fundamentalist movement of Christianity, and exercise was not a part of that environment. And so I wondered, why was it important to Oral Roberts? And his response, I thought, was really interesting. Now, he was a faith healer. He had traveled the world for those 25 years before we got there praying for the sick. And so he told me. He said, I’ve probably laid my hands and prayed for over a million-- well over a million- people. And as I did that, little by little, I observed that I think I wouldn’t have to pray for the healing and health of these individuals if they would just take care of themselves.
Daniel Engber is a writers about obesity for Slate magazine and The New York Times. He met Paul at Oral Robert University in new pays ed program.
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Oral Roberts wanted to teach a lifestyle to his students, what he called the whole man philosophy- mind, body, spirit. They would all have equal importance at the school. Here’s how the provost from back then, Carl Hamilton, explains it now.
Our bodies are the home of the Holy Spirit. Making that home a fit one is one of the ways to glorify God and the Holy Spirit.
Paul would be in charge of making that home a fit one. In the fall of 1974, he took over the school’s aerobics program at a brand new $2 million center with a fancy indoor track. Every student had to get a certain number of aerobics points per week. They might get a point for walking a mile or two for playing doubles tennis or five for bouncing on a trampoline. Remember, this is 40 years before Fitbits. Back in 1974, just the idea of regular exercise was cutting edge. Jogging had only just become a thing. Aerobics was brand new. And here was ORU with all its students running around in headbands and tube socks. Then Oral Roberts had another idea- to push the fitness program even further. Here’s Paul.
Paul Brinson 82
At the graduation ceremonies of 1975, at the end of my first year there, Oral Roberts observed several students who graduated that he saw were obese. And within the next few days, he contacted Dr. Carl Hamilton, the provost of the university- and this is, I understand, how this took place- and said, I really don’t want to see significantly overweight, obese students graduating, because it indicates that they have not met the goal of the university to be physically disciplined. And please develop some guidelines or some criteria so those students make progress or do not graduate. Maybe do not graduate is too strong a term, but that, anyway, something is done about that.
In that moment, something changed. Paul’s fitness program wouldn’t just keep tabs on students’ exercise. Now he’d make sure they weren’t fat. Suddenly how you looked mattered.
And so we began doing skin fold testing that fall.
Skin fold testing. Just to give you a sense of how serious ORU was about this and how ambitious, at the beginning of every semester, every freshman went to what they called the human performance lab for skin fold testing. They were tested on a bunch of stuff- their lipid levels, their lung capacity, and their body fat. First, they take a caliper to the thigh.
In the abdomen, in the back, in the triceps area.
And then in certain cases, they checked their measurements by dunking students in a giant bathtub. That was the gold standard for determining body fat in the 1970s.
So they put you in a bathing suit, right? So the least amount of clothing that you can get away with. And of course, it was a Christian university, so it was almost like a turtleneck bathing suit, right?
Jerri Johnston was one of the students in Paul’s new program. She says her fat test was like being in a carnival dunk tank.
They would put you on this chair and lower you into the water-filledI would just call it- it was almost like they were putting you in a big beaker. You know what I’m saying? And it would have water in it, and they would put you in the water. And they would tell you- up to your neck. And they would say, blow out as much air as you can and then hold your breath as long as you can. And then they would put you on in the water. And then they would-
You were completely submerged?
I mean, well-
Did all of the students have to do that?
I don’t think so. I think just the people that were in- just us special ones.
Jerri Johnston was too big. Students like her were put onto something called the Pounds Off plan. It all came down to their percentage body fat.
25% for males and 35% for females would be a good cutoff.
And then they had to lose some weight. Specifically, lose 8 pounds each semester and 1% body fat. This wasn’t a suggestion. It was a requirement. The school told Jerri at the end of sophomore year that she’d have to keep on losing weight. She’d have to weigh 180 pounds by the time that she came back in the fall.
Well, we came on campus. And so my roommate was there, and then my friend was there. And so I was like, oh. And then I said, let me go over. I have to go over the lab. We had to check in over there.
The human performance lab?
Yeah, and check in. And then I’ll be back, and we’ll unpack and everything.
When she stepped on the scale, she came in at 184, 4 pounds too heavy.
And they said, you’re over this weight. We want you to go home and try to get the weight off this semester. And then you’re welcome to come back next semester if you make the weight.
She’d have to go back to the dorm, say goodbye to her roommates, and go home. She’d been suspended for being fat.
And I was astonished. And then they prayed with us. I was like, OK. And thenWell, I was praying. My dad might have been acting like he was praying, because he was pretty upset that somebody was treating me like that. And so when I got back in the dorm and I was talking to my roommates and stuff, they were like, well, you can do it. You know, we’ll pray for you this semester.
And I was just pretty devastated for the first couple of months that, you know, that that was the only thing that seemed to be important, right? What I look like and not what kind of person I was. And it was kind of a disclaimer of everything that a Christian university was supposed to be about, right? I was like, really, God? Is this how you’re judging people? I don’t know how they reconcile that, you know? The thing is supposed to be, God looks inside and sees your heart, right? That’s the premise. And that’s how it’s supposed to be.
In 1977, word got out about the Pounds Off program to people who didn’t go to Oral Roberts.
The university wants to know what percentage of a student’s weight is fat.”
The Today Show, ABC, the BBC- news crews arrived on campus to film the students doing their aerobics and sit in on special lectures for the fat kids.
You know, in the book of Romans, Paul says that all- 8:28’s the verse in case you want to look it up- all things work together for good to those that love God, who are the called according to His purpose. Now, my goodness, how can anything like fat be good? And how can God have purpose in a person being fat?”
In one report, the camera shows this guy, an overweight student, sitting
shirtless in the lab. A woman in a white coat grabs his belly fat with a set of calipers during the interview.
“How much weight have you lost in this Pounds Off program?
“I’ve lost 25 pounds since last summer, Julie.
“And what do you think about that?
“Well, I’m thrilled with it. It’s changed my life already. I didn’t have the incentive without this program to do it on my own. In fact, without this program, I don’t think I could survive, because I’d feel like- I’ve just been reborn, actually.
Born again by losing weight. The newscasters made it seem like this was some crazy Christian thing. But it wasn’t really all that strange. Paul Brinson may have taught what he called God’s diet plan to the kids at Oral Roberts.
But by the mid-’70s, diet plans were as ubiquitous as they are today. Then, as now, being fat was not just seen by lots of people as a medical failing, but a moral one. That if you’re fat, you must be lazy or lack self-discipline, that there’s something wrong with our country that so many of us can’t control our weight. As I looked into the history of weight loss culture, I came across this amazing tape of John F. Kennedy from a speech he gave on child welfare in 1962 and sounding not so different from Oral Roberts.
John F. â€œThere is I think, more than to have fat-looking c go to watch play basket Saturday and as their wee
Kennedy nothing, e unfortunate soft, chubby, children who their school tball every d regard that ekâ€™s exercise.â€?
But as people grew more obsessed with being thin, there was a backlash. So when the Pounds Off program started making headlines, plenty of people said it was discrimination. And plenty of others said basically, sure, it’s discrimination but in a good way, like it could inspire lazy people to get in shape. The ACLU got involved. Paul was shaken up. He talked to my producer Zoe about this.
Were you afraid it would be hurtful to them?
What were you nervous about?
I think every individual is different. For some individuals, I suppose if they were four pounds over and they didn’t meet a goal that they were supposed to meet, not allowing them back in school-- for some individuals that could be a turning point where they could change their life around, and that would never happen again.
That’s a really good way to put it.
For other individuals, that can be a devastating experience that they never recover from. And who’s to know which way that decision is going to go? And so at this point in my life, I’d say I would err on the side of, let’s not hurt somebody.
Oral Roberts still has a physical fitness requirement. Students there still have to collect aerobics points. But they’re not required to lose weight. When we asked the school about the Pounds Off program, the current administration said they hadn’t heard of it. They said it was super difficult to comprehend that such a thing had existed. But I don’t think it’s difficult at all. Stuff like this is all around us. Oral Roberts just made it more explicit.
Daniel Engber. He writes about obesity for Slate magazine and The New York Times.
Act. Five An Immodest Proposal
Act Five. An Immodest Proposal. Lindy West
Aham took me out for dinner on my 32nd birthday, then suggested a quick nightcap at our neighborhood bar. Everyone was there. It was a surprise. Our friends, our families, the kids, a cake. Aham took my hand and led me to the back. There was a paper banner that said my name. Our friends Evan and Sam were playing a duet on cello and bass. I was confused. Why were there somber strings at my birthday party? Why was Aham doing intense face? Wait, it’s almost 10:00 PM on a school night, and we’re at a bar. Why are the kids here? Then it all happened at once- the knee, the ring, the speech, the question, the tears- all the hits. It was a full-blown grand gesture. Later, I asked him why he did it that way-such a big spectacle, such an event, not precisely our style. And I expected something cliche but sweet like, “I wanted to make sure our community was part of our marriage,” or, “I wanted everyone to know how much I love you.”
Instead, he said, one time, when you were drunk, you told me, “if you ever propose to me, don’t do it in the bullshit way that dudes usually treat fat girls- like it’s a secret, or you’re just trying to keep me from leaving you. Thin girls get public proposals, like those dudes are winning a fucking prize. Fat chicks deserve that too.” Our program was produced today by Susan Burton, Elna Baker. Our production staff- Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Neil Drumming, Karen Duffin, Stephanie Foo, Chana Joffe-Walt, Miki Meek, Jonathan Menjivar, Robyn Semien, Alissa Shipp, Lyra Smith, Matt Tierney, and Nancy Updike. Our editor’s Joel Lovell. Editorial help from Julie Snyder. Research help from Christopher Swetala. Musical help from Damien Graef and Rob Geddis. Our website- thisamericanlife. org. This American Life was delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange. Thanks, as always, to our program’s co-founder, Mr. Torey Malatia. You know, he just loves a conference room. You know what I’m talking about- the big table, the white board. I’m Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.
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Published on Dec 2, 2016
Published on Dec 2, 2016
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