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August 9, 2011 / missmarymax

An Unglamorous Response to Jess Weiner

Full-disclosure: fat acceptance, social justice, and loving myself saved my life.  Which might explain why Jess Weiner’s Glamour article, entitled “Loving Myself Nearly Killed Me” — and arguing that unequivocally accepting her body somehow put it at risk — made me want to throw a tantrum of epic proportion.

The Health at Every Size (HAES) movement exists, in large part, to battle the perspective that fatness is automatically pathological, that it’s an “epidemic” killing our kids one corn-chip at a time.  It’s a complex argument that works to separate eating choices from body type — and body type from health.  Unfortunately, in a culture of soundbytes and 5 minute TV spots, that complex argument often devolves into “fat is healthy!” and “skinny is bad!”  It’s a misrepresentation of what the movement actually is, and means, and includes — but it’s often the best we get from mainstream media.

It would be fantastic, of course, to be able to say that bodies are complex and the relationship between weight and health is not something we fully understand — or that bodies and weights can mean different things in different cases.  But the “fatness kills” narrative does not make room for complexity. It does not qualify through caveats. And so we’re compelled, time and again, not to qualify either  — for fear of losing ground in the fight.

I’m afraid, even as I write this, that it will read as a weakened position.  Oh, she’s not fully committed to HAES; oh, she’s not really a Fat Acceptance (FA) activist. Oh, she doesn’t really think that person’s body/ my body/ her body is okay.

No, I really, really am — and I really, really do.  I believe that fat is a body type, and as such tells us little to nothing about health.  I believe that exercise does not always mean weight loss and that weight loss does not always improve health.  But I’m also aware that I’ve seen the struggle behind Jess’s article in other places.  It came up for songwriter Meghan Tonjes when she began losing weight in response to a back injury.  It came up for Pattie Thomas when she revealed her struggle with chronic illness.  And it came up for Jess Weiner, I’d hazard a guess, long before she shared it with us in this article.

Of the three, it’s not surprising that long-time fat activist and social justice organizer, Pattie Thomas, offers the most nuanced narrative.  Over at FattyPatties, she writes at length about how dieting contributed to her disability and how anti-fat bias contributed to poor treatment, misdiagnosis, and struggle.  She tells her story in a markedly different way than Jess Weiner does. Still, I’m struck by the shared difficulty, the challenge all three express, the challenge of expressing a health struggle in a movement rooted in the notion of health at any size.  Hearing these women express concerns about “backlash,” I’m reminded of a friend, years back, who feared mentioning she was queer-by-choice, lest she undermine the “born this way” queer rights movement.

What does it do to a person, to feel like their story cannot exist in the context of their politics?

Was the solution, for Jess, to diverge from those politics?  Is that what explains her mind-boggling title choice, her conflation of exercise with weight loss, her uncritical acceptance that it’s losing weight — not moving — that improved her health?  Is that what explains her desire to keep losing weight after her numbers improved?  Her reification of the “if I’m losing weight to be healthy (not to be thin), then it’s not dangerous” narrative? Is that what made it necessary to write an article so easily viewed as proof that one more fattie that has “seen the light?”

I take issue with Jess’ work for misrepresenting HAES.  I take issue with her suggestion that ignoring your body constitutes loving it, that having Binge Eating Disorder de facto means being overweight (and vice-versa), or that physical health requires the rigorous re-training of the body, not the acceptance of it.  I hold her responsible for how easily her piece can be appropriated into the war on obesity/ orthorexia/ thin=healthy mindset.  I take issue with a fashion mag once again framing self-love as a dangerous alternative to letting it fix us. I do not believe in putting the personal before the political.  I do not believe our right to tell our stories lets us off the hook for what they mean in a cultural context. Particularly when we publish and promote them from a place of authority.

But stories like Jess’s continue to crop up.  And I recognize that this article — particularly in the context of so many pieces like it– underscores the challenge that Wacky Lisa pointed to, in her comment on my last post, namely that  Health at Every Size can read like a KEEP OUT sign to someone who is actively ill.

Like Lisa, I don’t believe the movement intends that; HAES aims to change public perception, not mandate individual health. But without more openness in the community to health issues, without more awareness of how ableism creeps into Fat Acceptance, our cries of “betrayer!” serve to push fat&sick people back into the fat-hating culture. They create a perception of the movement as a place in which unhealthy people have no role.

This is not the HAES/ FA movement I know.  I cannot shore up this perception from the inside, and I cannot support Jess in shoring it up from across the fence.  I do not believe in telling our stories in a way that supports an oppressive status quo, in sacrificing social justice for self-actualization.  I do not believe in this, primarily, because I believe the two facilitate each other. I believe in self-actualization that promotes social justice and social justice that promotes self-actualization.  I believe in self-love that harms neither my personal body nor the body politic.

What would it have taken, what will it take, for people like Jess Weiner to believe in that too?

If you want to read further, I recommend Deb’s marvelous response at the HAES blog and this fantastic piece from Dances With Fat — about as highly as one possibly can.



Leave a Comment
  1. Deb Burgard, PhD / Aug 9 2011 4:34 pm

    Thanks, Mary – your points are so important – and beautifully written.

    • missmarymax / Aug 10 2011 4:17 pm

      Thank you so much. Your post was incredible.

  2. Ily / Aug 9 2011 8:56 pm

    Based on the horrendous title, I was expecting to hate the article. But I ended up having mixed feelings about it. Yay? As long as our culture remains obsessed with thinness, it’s extremely difficult to lose weight for “health reasons” alone. Like, even when Jess’s doctor said that her health was better (which was the supposed point of this whole endeavor), Jess was still disappointed that she hadn’t reached a certain arbitrary weight. If you lose weight for health reasons, most people’s response is exactly the same as if you lost weight due to illness– “You look great!”. Not, “You look healthy”. I feel like the health emphasis can fall by the wayside once someone starts getting that social approval for being thinner.

    Also, I want to see food justice be the next civil rights movement. Along with body acceptance, access to healthy food should be a core goal of the HAES movement. As it is though, I don’t see it mentioned much.

    • sui solitaire / Aug 9 2011 10:26 pm

      Ohh, I am so seconding what you say about food justice. The fact that the prices of processed junk food and fast food have been consistently going down and the prices of fruits and vegetables have been going up… ergh. ergh. There’s way too much corruption in the overall food system in the US right now.

    • missmarymax / Aug 10 2011 4:04 pm

      Great point. I love processed food as much as the next girl, but I also love PRODUCE (etc) — and living in a “food desert” is slowly driving me mad. My location is marvelous — (relatively) cheap, central, and mass-transit friendly — but it still falls into the racial and socioeconomic bracket that (supposedly) only needs/ deserves/ should afford/ will eat Doritoes and Twinkies. I love Doritoes and Twinkies. But can a girl get some spinach and an apple without having to catch a train across town?

      My own “ICanHazSalad?” soapbox aside, I think your point speaks to one of the many things HAES could gain from working toward a more complex representation of its (already complex) perspective. As I said above, when we have to defend weight as (always) unrelated to health or eating, we can’t very well point out that having little choice about what you eat can result in health problems — connected to weight or not. Currently, HAES may be too fledgling (in terms of media presence/ authority/ etc) to withstand the “I knew it!” backlash of bringing up issues like how class affects eating, but at the very least, it seems like HAES activists could coordinate with food justice activists on certain issues. I know from my own circle of friends that many FA activists are vegans/ foodies/ etc — (although they tend to be in the “good fatty” category, which is — understandably — problematic for activism.) Seems like it’d be easy enough to coordinate two movements that already have overlap..?

      • Deb Burgard, PhD / Aug 10 2011 4:10 pm

        Have any of you read Linda Bacon’s book? She is tirelessly working to bring the HAES and progressive food communities together.

      • missmarymax / Aug 11 2011 5:11 pm

        I love everything I’ve read of Linda’s, but unfortunately haven’t gotten my hands on her book yet. And let me just add (because Internet dialogue is so easily misconstrued) that I didn’t mean to imply that there aren’t people actively doing the kind of bridge-work we’re discussing. Obviously there are. And doing it damn well in many cases. As someone who graduated from a university with a strong (and seriously fat-phobic) dietetics program, I’m especially grateful to the RDs of that movement for the work they’re doing in a field that still — in many cases — fiercely opposes it.

  3. Nancy Gruver / Aug 11 2011 7:38 pm

    This is a great post – combining your intellect and your emotions – Brava! You do an amazing job of saying what you find wrong-headed and concerning about the Glamour article without attacking Jess as a person. I hope that some of the tidal wave of energy generated in the ED activist community by the Glamour article will follow your path and look to what we need to do now and in the future.

    • missmarymax / Aug 11 2011 7:57 pm

      Nancy — that means so much more than you can know; thank you. Not defaulting into attack mode is a seriously new and challenging strategy for me, and it’s incredible (and strangely freeing) to feel it taking root. Following your hope here that good will come from this.

  4. Pattie Thomas / Aug 19 2011 6:12 pm

    Excellent points and thanks for the shout-out. I’ve been doing more thinking about this question (not so much because of Jess Weiner, though I’m sure the discussions that emerged from the Glamour article probably helped). I ended up writing a piece that follows up a bit on the one that you referenced here and I think gives some depth to HAES as a concept. At the risk of self-aggrandizement:

    I will say that one of the problems I’ve had with working with the “health” concept in fat liberation is that it feels a little like accepting the terms of the stigmatizers. The bottom line for me is that this is about stigma and social justice, not about health and it is “them” not “us fat people” who made health THE issue. But because of the “social” in those two concepts (stigma and justice), we have to have some engaged dialogue. Difficult to maneuver. Thanks for adding to the conversation.


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