I have finally broken up with dieting as a woman who has been fat since puberty hit. One thing I have noticed in this transition is how concerned people are with my health if I don’t continue to diet. I have stopped sharing revelations and ideas around life without diets because I don’t want to have to field the concerns from others. It makes this journey lonely for me. Originally I was excited and joined online groups for support, but I have been limiting my presence in body-love Facebook groups etc, because I don’t want the wrong people to see and write to me concerned for my health. I feel like everyone is waiting for me to inevitably have a health decline so they can say, “I told you so!” I had a big argument with a close friend about it recently and it was traumatic trying to stand up for myself while they were predicting my future and all the health horrors I am apparently going to have.
For this reason, I would also like to remain anonymous, because I am scared that it will happen again.
OK, so the very first thing I want to address is the health thing. And I’m going to be brief because I feel like this is really straight forward: YOU DON’T OWE ANYONE YOUR HEALTH (thanks to body positive personal trainer Rachel Marcus for teaching me this). You don’t owe anyone an explanation of your health. No one gets to demand it or expect it from you. You deserve to live a life free of bigotry and discrimination (and free of people invading your goddamn privacy) regardless of your weight. Period.
OK, next we need to talk about this argument with your close friend. That was fucked up. I don’t know the details of your friendship and I refuse to judge your relationship based on this one detail I know, but I want you to know what they did wasn’t OK. I have so much empathy for how you must be feeling. It is really hurtful to have someone feel they have the right to shovel all of their anxieties onto you, especially when you consider them a friend.
Our culture sends us mixed messages about what friendship looks like and what we can expect from friends.
Growing up as a fat girl I learned that my expectations from others should be around the level of zero. I had to re-learn my notion of friendship in adulthood.
So let me share with you what I learned. A friend is someone who sees you and what you offer to the world, cheers for you, treats you with dignity and nourishes you. A friend respects your boundaries, supports the autonomous decisions that you make and makes amends when they are in the wrong. I KNOW it is really hard to expect this from the people in your life, especially after a lifetime of being taught that we don’t deserve to expect things from people.
This gets to your bigger concern.
All of the reasons that you are self-isolating make sense to me. You’ve got this data set that shows you that people are going to cross your boundaries and you’re acting from that knowledge. That’s logical. In fact, a lot of fat folks self-isolate, sometimes even becoming agoraphobic because of how overwhelming it is to live in a super fatphobic culture. It’s part of the experience of being an acutely marginalized person. We learn that the world outside isn’t emotionally or physically safe for us and so we take measures to control the experience — to feel safe. The problem, of course, is that we deserve better than that.
So, I want to tell you this: you deserve support and to navigate online spaces in a way that feels good to you.
The internet is a massive place, and with that comes wonderful possibilities and also way, waaaaay too many opportunities for randos to give you unsolicited feedback. I know all about rando feedback and its demoralizing effects! Because that’s, like, the point, right? These people want to silence you/me/everyone who has even the slightest ideological diversion from them.
The difference between you and them is that they feel emboldened by the widespread sexism and fatphobia that surrounds us. And you, my tender-hearted burgeoning fat feminist, are doing something that is actually brave and wonderful. And your only job is to be you.
It sounds like you want support and you want to engage with online forums, and I say do it.
What this will likely look like for you is (1) beginning slowly and (2) practicing boundary-setting:
1. Limit exposure. Maybe start with re-entering just one online forum or group. This way you feel more in control and don’t have to manage all these different small worlds.
2. Anonymity can be nice. If you need to make an anonymous Facebook account in order to feel a bit safer, do it. Yes, yes, it’s annoying to have two Facebook accounts, but for now maybe that buffer is a useful tool.
3. Practice detachment. Detachment is part of boundary-setting, and in this context it essentially means that you have the right not to let every person’s opinion ruin your day. This one takes practice, but it’s ultimately about not letting everything in all the time. It’s important to determine which people in your life (online or IRL) matter to you and which ones don’t. You do not have to listen to anything that people who don’t matter have to say.
4. Block people early and often. You’re in a tender place right now, so I recommend the moment that someone starts saying some weird stuff that you immediately block them. You don’t have to engage them. You don’t have to read their entire rant/private message/comment.
5. Carefully manage your feed. I don’t read my feed. Maybe once every two weeks I will read three or four updates on my feed, but other than that I engage very, very mindfully. And I have the right to do that. So do you.
I hope this helps!
Dear Virgie is a weekly advice column by Virgie Tovar, MA, author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp and 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.