Who's Afraid of Big Bad BoPo?

Let’s talk for a minute (and by minute, I mean LONG RANT AHEAD) about mainstream understandings of body positivity – and collect yet more evidence as to why you NEED your community.

The New York Times and other news media, developing their awareness of a growing cultural movement, have taken to publishing articles that display varying degrees of understanding of body positivity every few months. Yesterday’s NYTimes op-ed by Kelly deVos, titled “The Problem with Body Positivity,” was a typical example.

Let me start by saying that I don’t know Kelly deVos, I was not previously familiar with her writing, and I don’t believe in attacking individuals for their personal perspectives on body positivity. This is not about her. Every single one of us struggles with our feelings about our bodies and our health – no matter how far along we are in our so-called body positive journeys.

The problem is that mainstream culture, struggling with its desperate need to hang on to fatphobia and diet culture and fat people as a scapegoat – and, under all of it, the DREAM OF BEING THIN ONE DAY – really fears body positivity.

Here are some of the fears I’ve seen come up in mainstream articles about body positivity.

BoPo Fear #1: body positivity is some kind of mass delusion designed to indoctrinate us all into ill health.

deVos’s experience was that body positivity had led her to believe, incorrectly, that her body was “healthy at any size.” As if the movement, like a cult, had promised her health through the power of mere positive affirmation. I declare myself healthy at any size! I accept that I can be healthy at this size, because I do Pilates and eat fruits and veggies! I’m healed! Watch my blood sugar plummet!

This is nothing more than a diet-culture-inspired misunderstanding of the concept of Health at Any Size (HAES). Because everlasting health is exactly what diet culture DOES promise: you lose weight, your health will improve, you will simply GLOW with the amount of health that radiates off of you, and hey, let’s throw an improved sex life and some business success into the mix too! You’ll get everything you want if you have the willpower to stick to 1200 calories a day for the rest of your life! Let’s do this!

HAES does not promise health. HAES and intuitive eating and nondieting approaches offer an alternative to dieting, which we know does not improve mental or physical health long term or lead to lasting weight loss. This alternative involves developing deep attunement to your body’s hunger and fullness signals and learning to attend to them mindfully, engaging in movement that you enjoy enough to keep doing over time, and working with health professionals who don’t believe dieting is the answer to every one of life’s physical problems. Among many other skills.

Which brings me to BoPo Fear #2: being body positive means you have to ignore doctors’ advice.

deVos, having gotten what sounds like the world’s WORST spider bite, found herself in the hospital for a “flesh-eating streptococcus infection.” But plot twist! deVos then found out she has Type 2 Diabetes. She tried arguing with her doctor first. She couldn’t have Type 2 Diabetes, because she was healthy at any size!

What happened next just needs to be quoted directly, because this is what happens to fat people who go to the doctor:

“Look at where you are,” [the doctor] snapped. “You’re not healthy at any size. Unless you make some major changes, you’ve probably got about 10 years left to live.”

Let’s break that down:

  1. The doctor “snapped” at her.
  2. The doctor blamed her hospital stay on her diabetes, although deVos had stated it was for an “unrelated” problem of, you know, FLESH-EATING BACTERIA. It just has to be written in all caps.
  3. The doctor suggested she make some “major changes, “although she had just described having the lifestyle that, supposedly, we should all aspire too: high in exercise, high in fruits and veggies.
  4. The doctor told her she only had 10 years to live at 41 years old because she had Type 2 Diabetes.

So the doctor is snapping at her, gaslighting her as to why she’s in the hospital, prescribing vague “major changes” even though she’s just described leading a “healthy” lifestyle, and giving her an incredibly grim prognosis – and let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that all of that is just to help her. But help her do what?

What is it that deVos took from that conversation and plugged into her life to improve her health? What changes did she make? What help is this doctor actually offering?

Body positivity doesn’t demand that we ignore doctors’ advice – quite the contrary. It suggests that we work with doctors (albeit preferably doctors who don’t do the 4 things that this doctor did to deVos, but sometimes that’s all we’ve got available to us) to discuss a range of actual action steps that we can take to address health issues in our lives.

Even supposedly fat-related health issues like Type 2 Diabetes have medical treatments for them, or maybe there were types of exercise and ways of eating that would be better for insulin resistance than Pilates and fruits and veggies. Body positivity empowers us to ask for actual medical treatment and medically-informed recommendations for our health issues, rather than just accepting contempt, vague suggestions of “major changes,” catastrophic prognoses, and emotional manipulation.

Okay, on to BoPo Fear #3: body positivity is gonna make all our kids fat.

Oh, my heart ached for deVos, whose daughter had adopted highly disordered eating due in part to peer pressure and in part to a fear of growing up to weigh 300 pounds just like mom. I think this is a fear all fat parents worry about: are we infecting our children with fat just by existing as fat people in their lives?

I remember a bunch of years back a study came out showing that fat was “contagious,” that friends of fat people were likely to gain weight just by proximity. I remember feeling intense guilt about merely existing near my thin friends, even as I knew this was a fully absurd thing to internalize. But the shame I felt on a daily basis about my body? I didn’t want that for them. I wouldn’t have wished that paralyzing, stifling shame on my worst enemy.

Because that’s what deVos is experiencing as she worries about her daughter growing up to be 300 pounds: is she going to be discriminated against like I’ve been? Is she going to encounter the daily indignities that I struggle with?

And I’m sure deVos couldn’t help but worry about the diagnosis she’d just been handed, too: was her daughter going to grow up to have Type 2 Diabetes and a 51-year life expectancy, just like mom?

I wanted to reach through my computer screen and hug deVos and her daughter, and invite them to sit down with me for some tea and a snack of their choosing. I wanted to cry with them about how cruel our culture is to fat people, and how scary that must be for deVos’s daughter to think about what it would be like to grow up and be treated like her mother is treated. I wanted to commiserate with them about the inevitability of health issues, and how little control we end up having over our health in the end – how helpless we can feel in the face of terrifying diagnoses. I wanted to hold their hands and think about how to form a kinder, more size-diversity-accepting world for the next generations to come.

So here’s where I circle this back around to the importance of community.

Because a thriving, healthy, bustling, diverse body-positive community could have helped remind deVos what body positivity is all about. That it’s not about deluding ourselves into thinking we’re healthy when we’re not, it’s not about avoiding going to the doctor or having regular blood tests or ignoring doctors’ advice. And no, it’s not about allowing our kids to live unhealthy lives.

  • It’s about understanding that health science includes many, many solutions beyond body shaming, “make some major changes,” and “lose weight.” And that some conditions, like FLESH-EATING BACTERIA, cannot be cured by weight loss.
  • It’s about understanding that health is far more complicated than are you fat or thin, and that health conditions that afflict fat people also afflict thin people.
  • It’s about accepting that there is no quick or easy way to lose weight or to reverse health problems like Type 2 Diabetes. And that that’s sad and scary.
  • It’s about accepting that diets don’t work, but that there are many other options for managing our health.
  • It’s about refusing to accept cruelty and contempt from doctors.
  • It’s about refusing to accept bad medical advice.
  • It’s about supporting each other in resisting and fighting against cultural cruelty toward fat people.
  • It’s about supporting our young people when they are infected with diet-culture fear and magical thinking, and helping them see the diet industry’s manipulation for what it is.

These aren’t small or easy tasks. It’s not a benign thing, body positivity. It’s fucking radical. And that’s scary as hell. And that’s why we need our sisters and brothers and all our nonbinary folks to circle around us when we start fearing that our fat-caused diabetes led to flesh-eating spider bites that caused us to only have 10 more years to live AND to infect our daughters with eating disorders and/or frighteningly fat futures. Oh my!