My Big Fat Fabulous Life and Fat Shaming Culture

So yesterday I watched a couple of episodes of TLC’s new show My Big Fat Fabulous Life, which debuted last week. The show centers around Whitney Thore who, at 5’2″ and 380 pounds, reached internet notoriety after her “Fat Girl Dancing” video went viral on YouTube, in which she gets diggity down to a Jason Derulo song.

The show seems, at least thus far, to be trying to focus its gaze on Whitney’s venture into teaching dance classes, losing weight, and loving herself unabashedly along the way. Definitely three things I can get on board with, especially since as far as I’m concerned, girl can really dance! She’s also pretty funny, has a vibrant personality, and I do think that she makes for good TV.

Of course, as with most shows on TLC, I find myself a little bit torn about how I should “feel” about it. On the one hand, I appreciate the show’s attempts to portray an obese woman (relatively) honestly on her quest to live her life doing what she loves (dance) and get healthier without a specific focus on weight loss (though that is something that Whitney says she does want to achieve.) I also appreciate that she offers a frank portrayal of the difficulties she has being obese (chub rub, she has to have her mom help shave the back of her legs for her, etc) while not being apologetic about it.

But on the other hand, there’s also something, I don’t know, not quiiiiite right in the way that the show shapes its message. Whitney has Polycystic Ovary Syndrome, something that I admittedly know very little about. I understand that it can cause sudden weight gain and make it very difficult to lose weight, in addition to a myriad of other symptoms, and I don’t doubt that it has had a very serious impact on Whitney’s life. However, at least within the first few episodes, I feel like the PCOS thing is continuously shoved in viewers’ faces. Like, “Just so you remember, Whitney has PCOS! Her weight isn’t her fault! Don’t forget!”

There’s also the fact that the show does seem to focus on some of the more ridiculous (for lack of a better word) occurrences in Whitney’s life. I guess this is an argument that you could make about any kind of reality TV, to be fair, since these things tend to make for better TV. But when the show is spending so much time focusing on things like Whitney’s pants splitting at the grocery store, taking her measurements but the tape measure is too small to fit around her, trying on heels at the mall and almost toppling over… it still feels a lot like making fun.

Overall, I do think the show has a lot of good going for it. I try to take all reality TV with a big grain of salt, but for the most part, I do like this one. It helps, of course, that Whitney’s got a really likable persona — she really is pretty fabulous! And even with the skewed lens that TLC might be filming the show through, I can still appreciate its messages about self-acceptance, body love, and encouragement to those beginning their health journeys.

For me, the real heart of the show is in its portrayal of how Whitney has been treated due to her size. The show really shines light on the culture of fat shaming that we live in (something you can also pick up on in about 0.043 seconds of reading the comments on her YouTube dance video). In Episode 2, Whitney is walking out of a store with her friend, when a guy in a car stopped at a light calls her “Shamu.” In the same episode, she and her friends read hateful comments about her from folks on the internet, which say things like, “You should lose weight and then dance, not the other way around!” To which Whitney responds, “How am I supposed to lose weight if I can’t exercise?!”

And there’s the rub. America wants it both ways: we’re to lose weight, be healthy, and stop being the lazy fat asses we obbbbviously are, but ehhhh, nobody really wants to see it. We need to make like Monica on Friends and somehow magically lose all our weight in secret. (As a sidenote: I’ve been rewatching Friends since it’s been put on Netflix, and while I’m still in love with like 99% of the show, including the total lack of internet and shocking number of denim overalls worn, I gotta admit I don’t really love the Monica-was-fat jokes anymore. Go figure.)

Anyway… I recognize that I am super lucky to never have experienced outright hatred or animosity because of my size. Granted, given the fact that I put my entire life out here on the interwebs, I have experienced my fair share of anonymous comments and concern-trolling, but I’ve never been laughed at to my face. I’ve never had to deal with people gaping in awe at my girth. I’ve never felt outright discriminated against because of my weight. I’ve never incited commentary from random strangers out in public.

That said, I absolutely still feel the effects of our fat-shaming culture. We live in a world where people actually think it’s not okay to love yourself if your pants are over a certain size. Where people feel free to comment on your body and your choices because “it’s not healthy” and they’re “concerned.” Where if you are overweight and aren’t actively trying to change that fact, to lose weight, to slim down, you’re lazy and a “bad role model.”

We live in a culture where one of the worst things you could possibly be is fat. Far worse than being stupid or unsuccessful or mean or selfish is being fat.

Which is why, despite the fact that it may still be working out its kinks, watching My Big Fat Fabulous Life made me pretty happy. It’s chock-full of positive messages, even if there are times when Whitney herself is clearly not as totally body-confident as she would probably want us to believe. For example, she almost turns down being in a plus-size fashion show in episode 3 because she’s worried that there won’t be any clothing that fits.

Regardless, it is a show that challenges common misconceptions about weight + health, and the idea that you can’t love your body if it’s not the perfect size-whatever. And that’s something I know I can get behind, since even as I am working on my own personal fitness and trying to lose a few pounds, I’ve long-acknowledged that it’s unlikely I’ll ever be conventionally thin. Even at my lowest adult weight, I was still donning a size 12, and even with me trying not to make my weight the main focus of things this time (trying being the operative word, haha), I still need all the help I can get in shifting my mentality.

Oh, and as one last aside, episode 3 makes a big deal out of Whitney making herself a banana and mayonnaise sandwich for breakfast — apparently this is a thing in the South?? Would love to hear if any of you guys have eaten this concoction before… I mean, peanut butter and banana sammies, sure, but banana + mayo?!

A Shift in Perspective

Happy Monday, folks!

Hopefully you all had rockin’ weekends — mine was pretty busy with not one, but two different events that I worked on Saturday. First up was the Taste of Falls Church, where Intern Sean (heh) and I manned the Yelp booth and challenged many a folk to some rousing rounds of Rock, Paper, Scissors in exchange for rockin’ swag.

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I know it doesn’t seem like rock, paper, scissors would be that fun at first glance, but people got really into it! Full credit goes to my beautiful coworker (and fellow blogger!) Kimberly for thinking it up. Plus it’s always a huge hit at family friendly events like this one, because it’s A) free and B) kids know how to play it. Really well, actually. Most of them kicked my butt.

The second event of the day was an Elite Event at Glynn Jones hair salon in Old Town Alexandria. It was my very first salon event so I was admittedly a wee bit nervous, but it turned out so fabulously! Elites got to nosh, sip, and watch (and if they were lucky, get selected for!) demonstrations on blow dry technique, updos, airbrush makeup, and more.

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So Saturday was a tiring day for sure, but a lot of fun at the same time. And I got to make up for it yesterday with just about the laziest Sunday I’ve had in a loooooong time. All I did yesterday was sleep, cuddle with schnauzers, cook, sleep some more, and then give all my money to Target. In my defense, I think I’m a little bit under the weather — Mia was sick pretty much the whole time I was visiting her in Macon, and given her penchant for sharing food (aww!) and my penchant for being a sucker and letting her shove said food into my mouth, I think it’d be more surprising if I didn’t catch whatever she had.

Sickness be damned, though! I’m not feeling too terrible (thanks to the probably 15 hours of collective sleep I got yesterday), so this week I’m determined to continue the good gym habits that my sister helped me start to establish on what shall henceforth be known as the Healthiest Vacation Ever. I’ve marked some classes at my gym that looks interesting and have booked time in my actual calendar to make sure I don’t book any calls or meetings during those times. So now it’s just a matter of actually, well, going!

Now, if any of you are skeptical as to my ability to keep my enthusiasm for working out up, well… I don’t blame you. After all, I don’t exactly have the best track record. I’ve never been shy to admit my utter hatred of working out, getting sweaty (ironic, because I’m probably the sweatiest person on the planet even just standing still and breathing), and just generally exerting myself. I wasn’t a particularly active kid — I played basketball in middle school because I was tall. And I wasn’t very good at it. Growing up, my family never put a real focus on fitness or being active, so I never thought of it as an important thing to incorporate into my daily routine. (This, I have to say, is somewhat funny to me now given that my sister is a marathoner who teaches fitness classes and my dad bikes like 20 miles every single day.)

So I never learned to find the joy in being active, and, obviously, that translated into my adult life. It wasn’t for lack of trying, though. When I first started out on my weight loss journey and found myself immersed in the world of healthy living blogging, I definitely tried. Everyone tells you that you just have to find an activity you like doing, and then you’ll want to that thing and, by default, you’ll want to be active. So I really did try to find something I liked.

I went to the gym. I walked. I ran. I swam. I did yoga. I did hot yoga. I did Zumba. I did CrossFit. Nothing stuck. I never got myself into a regular routine, and when I did go, I still found I was forcing myself to, and only because I knew that it would help me burn XX amount of calories.

Of course, as I discussed in my last post, I’ve also only ever thought of fitness being a means to an end for weight loss.

But hey, it did work for a while! I mean, even if it was unwilling and forced, I still did get myself into gear long enough to help me shed some weight, tone up, and be fit enough to accomplish quite a few fitness milestones. I was running 5Ks and 5 milers and 200-mile team relays, after all. It’s just that even when I was doing those things, even when I was legitimately in shape (well, in shape for me, at least), weight loss was still my primary focus.

But, obviously, using weight loss as a motivator for fitness can only last as long as you are losing weight. So when I stopped actively losing weight, I stopped feeling a need to dedicate time to fitness, and that, amongst other things, meant I ended up gaining back a lot of the weight I had lost.

Which is why I can say, even with my track record of failing at maintaining a regular fitness routine, I’m actually feeling fairly confident about seeing this through this time around. Because I really do feel like my motivation, and my perspective, has shifted. Do I still find myself thinking about my weight, thinking about how I look, comparing myself against the standards that the media has set forth? Of course I do. I’m only human, and I’ve got over twenty years of negative body image and weight obsession to fight against.

That being said, it takes up only a minimal, miniscule amount of my thoughtspace now. And without all those negative thoughts weighing me down, without the constant, continual focus on how any activity, any food, any choice will ultimately affect my weight loss…well, who knows if all the things I thought I felt about working out and being active and being fit weren’t wrong all along?

I sometimes feel that within the body positive/fat acceptance culture, there’s almost an expectation that you shouldn’t want to work out or eat healthily or whatever, because doing so means you must still want to change yourself. And, more specifically, you must still want to be thin. You must still secretly be working towards conforming to society’s standards or whatever. And I know that most people don’t think that way, and it’s not indicative of the entire movement in any way, but I do believe it is a sentiment that exists.

And so I have struggled with the idea of whether or not I’m really, truly, honestly rededicating myself to fitness because I want to, or because I still feel like I need to. Am I honestly doing this because it helps me sleep better and it boosts my energy and it is healthy? Or is it just because it will help me look better?

I guess only time will truly tell since, based on past precedence, we already know that if it’s the latter, this current burst of motivation won’t stick for long. But I do know that it does feel different. I’m not weighing myself. I’m not counting calories. I’m not using food as a reward system. I’m not limiting myself to not buying clothing because I want to wait until I’m smaller, or purposely buying clothes in a smaller size to “motivate” myself.

I’m just loving myself. And as much as I used to only think of it in relation to my weight and size, I know that being active in some form or another is just one more way to love myself. So that my body — curves and flesh and fat and muscles and stomach rolls and ligaments and stretch marks and all — will be around for me to love as long as possible.