05.19.09

The Fat Wars

Anna Wintour's remarks about Oprah's weight sent fat-acceptance activists into overdrive this week. Marisa Meltzer writes about the fat-shionista backlash, including a bestselling new book—Lessons From the Fat-O-Sphere—that argues that the best diet is no diet at all.

Anna Wintour's remarks about Oprah's weight sent fat-acceptance activists into overdrive this week. Marisa Meltzer writes about the fat-shionista backlash, including a bestselling new book— Lessons From the Fat-O-Sphere—that argues that the best diet is no diet at all.

When Anna Wintour appeared on 60 Minutes last weekend, the subject of the Vogue editor’s uniformly thin body ideal invariably came up. "There's such an epidemic of obesity in the United States, and for some reason, everybody focuses on anorexia," she said, adding that she could only “kindly describe” Minnesota residents as “little houses.” Here, she made a wide gesture with her hands to show how wide the Minnesotans in question really were. She said, however, that her true goal is to teach readers how to “eat, exercise, and take care of themselves in a healthier way.”

Wintour’s is, if nothing else, an egalitarian policy. When Oprah Winfrey landed the cover of Vogue in 1998, she was told by the editor to slim down first. "It was a very gentle suggestion," Wintour said. "I went to Chicago to visit Oprah, and I suggested that it might be an idea that she lose a little bit of weight…I said simply that you might feel more comfortable.”

And then there was this month’s Vanity Fair, with a cover story on Jessica Simpson—target of much tabloid debate this winter after photos surfaced of her filling out an unflattering pair of mom jeans and a tank top—in which its writer, Rich Cohen, tries to address the elephant in the room: “She didn’t want to talk about her weight, so, of course, that’s all I could think of,” he writes. “What are you working on now [that you’re fat]?”

Enter Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby, the authors of a new book, Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body, who promise there is an alternative to diet extremes. The goal of the book is to "achieve detente" with your body. Their premise is that dieting or "permanent lifestyle change" or whatever we (and by "we," they seem to be saying "women") call it doesn't work in the long-term. The authors suggest that we turn our anger away from ourselves and towards the diet industry, our culture, and the media that encourages us to hate ourselves.

View Our Gallery of Voluptuous Beauties

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It’s not a new idea—Susie Orbach’s Fat Is a Feminist Issue came out in the ‘70s—but the book, which is based on Harding and Kirby’s popular fat (“fat” is their preferred term) acceptance blogs (Harding’s is “ Shapely Prose”, which Kirby blogs at “ The Rotund”, is a tentative hit: Just a few days after it came out early this month, it had reached the number-one position on the Powells.com list. Kirby thinks that the book is finding such a willing audience right now is because “body policing has ratcheted up more than usual.” Just ask Jessica Simpson.

A little background: Harding and Kirby are big voices in the so-called fat acceptance movement, a fight that has been around since the 1970s and now has national organizations and regularly updated newsletters to keep up the momentum. But the movement seems to be gaining some steam—not only with the publication of Fat-o-sphere and the media reaction to Wintour’s comments or the scrutiny surrounding Simpson, but with new trends, like Fatshionistas —a group of fashion blogs and photo galleries dedicated to plus-size garb. The popular women’s site, Jezebel, put up a post about the Fatshionistas on Monday as a response to Wintour’s remarks, yielding a stream of pro-fat comments, including to concise: “All I have to say to Ms. Wintour is FUCK. YOU.”

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In come Harding and Kirby to this debate, who in their book prescribe a diet of a different sort—no dieting at all. They encourage women to stop yo-yo dieting (which the two blame for more health problems than actually being fat), practice intuitive eating, find a doctor who won’t lecture give a lecture on dieting when you come in for an ear infection, don’t put dating off until you lose weight, and seek out likeminded friends. Fat-O-Sphere has some vital information on media literary and how to decode alarmist articles about how fat the nation is becoming and if you're in the mood for a pep talk about self-confidence, it does the trick.

But some of their advice has already proved to be controversial. After Newsweek published a Q&A with them that drew an overwhelming number of comments, both positive and negative, the magazine posted a follow up on their website, quoting doctors and researchers who had issues with some of their claims. For example, Kirby argued that the only obesity that really needs addressing is “death fat,” and that even at her heaviest, she is healthy: “I weigh 300-plus pounds. According to everything you read on the news or on the Internet I should be just about ready to fall over dead. But I'm not.” Doctors argued in the follow up post that not only can minor obesity cause major health problems, but also “depression, suicide, and other forms of stress-induced mental problems.”

So who is right? Harding and Kirby, who argue that health can be found even in the most rotund bodies (and the media is at fault for telling us otherwise)? Or the doctors who see fat as a medical issue? Or Wintour, who has another agenda entirely for promoting rail-thinness as the watermark for beauty?

Whether or not Harding and Kirby can convince us that having a high BMI is healthy is almost beside the point; they want us to love ourselves, no matter what. To accomplish that, they have the rather strict recommendation to go off the cultural grid and to wean ourselves off television and magazines (read: this means Vogue and Vanity Fair) that present, when the average dress size of an American woman is a size 14, a skewed version of normal. “What we found so powerful is suddenly realizing that the majority of women we see on any given day is not models and actresses—Normal looks a lot different,” says Harding. “I'm not the hippopotamus I think I am when I'm comparing myself to Blake Lively.”

Yes, recognizing that diets often fail but that loving your body doesn't is a political act. They take the adage of the personal being political to heart; the authors write in a chatty (and sometimes way too cutesy) bloglike tone and often hold themselves up as positive examples of how to achieve this.

But they're the exceptions. For most women living in western culture, that's probably going to be a long process. Reading the book tended to make me feel an additional level of shame: not only am I often a failure at being the perfect size, but now I'm also a failure as a body acceptance radical. In Fat-o-Sphere, Harding and Kirby acknowledge that they might come across as chastising American women who can’t reconcile not being magazine-skinny but also want to love their bodies and promote tolerance--but it's not much more than an aside.

They both show a bit more fallibility when asked about this conundrum in person. “We’re not even going to tell you how to love your body. It might never happen,” says Harding. Kirby notes that we demand so much perfection from our bodies that even when we try to give up dieting, we “replace it with wanting to be perfect body activists that never have a bad day.”

The fat acceptance movement is an important one, and something that hasn't been written about, particularly in mainstream media, enough. But when it comes to Fat-o-Sphere, I kept wishing I was reading a different book--one that was more angry, more serious, less about how we can transform ourselves, and more about how we can transform society.

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Marisa Meltzer is co-author of How Sassy Changed My Life: A Love Letter to the Greatest Teen Magazine of All Time.  Her next book, Girl Power , will be published this fall.