Dear Virgie: My Mom’s A Feminist — And a Fatphobe
My mom identifies as an intersectional feminist, but she is constantly talking about my weight and how disappointed she is that I have gained weight over the years. She totally “gets” so many political issues that affect women, but she has a blind spot when it comes to her own fatphobia. Do you have any advice on how to deal with her?
Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh MAINSTREAM FEMINISM.
The truth is that Feminism (note: capital F) has never been good with the fatphobia conversation. Susie Orbach’s Fat Is a Feminist Issue, probably the most famous book written on the topic of fatness within mainstream feminism, was itself fatphobic. Admittedly, in often subtle ways.
Orbach positioned fatness as pathological, claiming that it was a product of and defense mechanism against patriarchy. It left little room for a nuanced discussion about the reality that body diversity is A THING, and that those of us who are on the bigger side of the spectrum don’t have the moral or cultural imperative to dedicate our lives to losing weight.
Back to your mom, though. It is really hard when someone who should know better doesn’t. She has access to the ideological framework that would make a critique of fatphobia seem inevitable, and yet she’s not making the connections.
There are lots of potential reasons for this – even amazing feminists have bias and blindspots, or maybe she (like many women) truly cannot imagine life without weight loss in it. The reasons don’t matter, really. What matters is that she’s enacting behavior that is hurtful to you and she needs to stop.
You know that weight-loss is a socially constructed expectation.
You know that dieting is one of the most powerful patriarchal tools that’s ever existed.
You know that your mom’s fatphobia is a gaping hole in her feminist worldview.
And you know that your mom is wrong.
That’s what matters. You.
So just to be clear: your mom is doing two not-so-feminist things.
- She’s being fatphobic.
- She’s projecting her weight and body anxieties onto her daughter as if you belonged to or were an extension of her. These behaviors negate your autonomy. They also activate a sexist dynamic, where you are responsible for others’ opinions about your body and your mother is the person who is policing you on behalf of society.
I think the crux of my advice is BOUNDARIES.
You don’t need to dedicate energy to changing your mom’s mind if you really don’t want to. It’s super exhausting duking it out with someone who’s entrenched in a messed-up belief system. Also, sometimes boundaries send stronger messages than words!
I would create a little plan: start with really accepting that you deserve better than this. This is an internal process, where you really allow yourself to recognize that her behavior is hurtful and therefore unacceptable. Then, the next time she brings it up, tell her how you’re feeling. It doesn’t need to be a long conversation. Being frank and honest can be very powerful, but if she’s very entrenched then she might not be able to hear it.
In that case, begin setting verbal boundaries by offering a short script. For example, “I am not open to discussing my weight with you. This conversation is over.” If she doesn’t respect the verbal boundary, then add a physical one: leave, end the conversation, or excuse yourself. I recommend maintaining the same script every single time it happens. It’s less work for you because you don’t have to come up with something new each time, and it’s very powerful for the other person who will increasingly come to understand they aren’t getting anything more than the script. I would try this for three months and see what happens. If you’re open to having a heart-to-heart with her again after the initial boundary-setting period, then do it!
I hope this helps!
Virgie Tovar is an author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp, a 4-week online course designed to help those who are ready to break up with diet culture, and started the hashtag campaign #LoseHateNotWeight. Tovar edited the ground-breaking anthology Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012).