I have spent the last year embracing my body and reading up on fat acceptance. I feel like I’m in a really good place with it and so are most of my friends and family. They might not agree or understand but, if that’s so, they have kept it to themselves.
Anyway … I’m having a hard time explaining my outlook to new people I meet without imposing the same sort of judgment that has been put on me in the past. Meaning I really don’t want to give people shit for wanting to change their bodies when, in the past, people have given me shit for not working out and/or dieting.
Basically … How do I refrain from being a judgmental hypocrite while expressing my passion for my self-acceptance?
Love and thanks,
I love the thoughtfulness and generosity you are bringing to your process. Really important.
I read your letter a few times in order to really hear you because I found myself imposing meaning on the part about hypocrisy. I started to write about how refusing to participate in diet culture isn’t the same as people expecting you to change your body, but you are talking about the avoidance of passing judgment. With that being said, I think it is so challenging and fruitful to point our critical lens inward as we are making substantive changes to our lives.
Anyway, my thoughts on your question are inspired by my friends who are vegans, and who have taught me about the power of compassionately articulating a politic that many people find a little intimidating. I have three suggestions:
1. Prioritize the Internal Work.
I think the most important part of this process you are undertaking is the internal piece. I advocate for taking the time to release judgment of others — while being patient with yourself. Everyone has judgment feels sometimes, especially in arenas where we have experienced harm. I also think it is important to really own that this is a choice that matters to you and is very personal to you. And finally, accept that there will be many people who do not share your politics and that does not make them bad or inferior people. It is OK if you exercise ideas that prioritize taking care of you, even if that means they are different from the people around you.
Damn, as I am writing this I am realizing how hard this work is! Shit. I know for me being judgmental is my defense/survival mechanism, and it makes me feel like I can create safety for myself and protect me against future pain or disappointment. Moral superiority is an ideology that lots of traumatized and hurt people practice — including me! — and I am learning how to let that go FOR ME, not to make anyone else’s life easier. So I am writing to myself too as I write to you.
2. Figure Out Your Boundaries.
Back to you. It is also helpful to take the time to think about what you want to express to people and what boundaries you have.
Figuring out your boundaries and how to articulate them is kinda hard, but feel no shame as you make these decisions and recognize that they are not static and will change as you do. So, for instance, I no longer find it upsetting when people talk about their dieting behavior. I find it a little boring maybe, and it is a little awkward when they are waiting for the commiseration and I just smile and nod, but it does not set my teeth on edge. So diet talk is not a boundary for me.
Overt mockery of fat people is a boundary for me, though. So I will just say something like “girl, chill out with the bigotry” or excuse myself. It doesn’t have to be a big ol’ thing or a full-on intervention. Most people get it. Give them the benefit of the doubt unless they have given you reason not to. Also can I just say that it is totally OK not to take on every person who says something messed up. People believe what they believe because they feel they must believe it, and if you want to be generous and help them out then great, but you don’t owe that to anyone.
3. Have a Script in Mind.
Finally, flesh out a little script that is succinct, personal, in your voice and feels authentic to you. You don’t have to memorize it or anything, but have a few bullet points in mind.
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I have a script around this, and it usually comes up around work conversations with people. When people ask what I do professionally, I talk about “lecturing and writing on body image.” This language is vague but it is also clear enough that people who, like, hate feminism typically choose to change the subject and people who are curious proceed with follow-up questions. This gives both of us some wiggle room. Maybe they don’t want to hear about how I’m a mouthy fat feminist and I’m not trying to get into an hour-long intervention convo with everyone who asks me what I do because they can’t think of anything else to ask me at a dinner party, ya know? I feel like this language works for me because it treats both me and new people with generosity.
If they inquire further, then I tell them about how I started to do research on the history of dieting and how it affects women’s lives and that led to some really big changes in my own life. If I felt that people were getting defensive I might add, “I do not have a problem with people who diet, but doing this work is a really important thing to me.”
Going back to the boundaries piece, as you figure out what your boundaries are, it is a good idea to draft some scripts for moments when those boundaries come up and you are with someone you do not know well.
Hope this helps!
Dear Virgie is a weekly advice column by Virgie Tovar, author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp, the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and the mastermind behind #LoseHateNotWeight. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race, and gender. Virgie has been featured by the New York Times, MTV, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, and Bust Magazine. Find her at www.virgietovar.com.