CW: Fatphobia, disordered eating, mental illness, self-harm
When I watched Nicole Arbour’s video to fat people, I couldn’t help but be struck by her complete conviction that shaming fat folks would motivate them to be healthy.
The research does not back this claim – in fact, it consistently refutes it – and fat folks have asserted time and time again that shaming them does real psychological harm.
So I’m confused on how making people feel like shit is supposed to be encouraging, but okay.
Throughout the video, Arbour takes jabs at the body positivity movement, stating, like many trolls have before, that it promotes unhealthiness (while her very original insults and hatred of fat folks, comments that they certainly haven’t heard before, will definitely promote health).
Yes, against my better judgment, I watched the video. And Nicole Arbour’s fat-shaming did nothing to motivate me as a person who is “overweight.” Body positivity, on the other hand, has motivated me – it has made me a healthier, happier, and stronger person.
I spent most of my life as a very thin person. But secretly, I was also terrified of being fat. Most of my family was, which made me feel like I was constantly trying to outrun my so-called genetic fate, and being constantly praised for being thin made me feel like I had to work hard to maintain it, to make sure I didn’t lose it.
So when I was a teenager, I started skipping meals. And worse, I felt accomplished when I did. I felt like I did something good, something I should be proud of. In fact, if Nicole Arbour had seen me a few years ago – underweight and depressed – she would have assumed I was healthy and applauded me for my efforts.
No one ever told me to diet, but I started restricting my intake anyway. At one point, I wasn’t eating much more than an apple at lunch time and a protein bar at dinner. Because we live in a society that teaches us that there’s nothing worse than being fat. Controlling my food intake gave me a certain kind of pride, a sense of moral superiority to my fat relatives who just needed to “get their act together.”
You see, I wasn’t much different from Nicole Arbour when I was thin. I was an asshole that had a lot of problematic ideas about fat people. And I think that’s why I take it so personally – because it hits close to home, because I know deep down that the problem isn’t with Arbour so much as it is the society that teaches us to fear fatness, to shame fat people, and to reject them as fully-formed human beings.
When we place this morality around fat bodies and food, we create a very toxic culture that lends itself so easily to eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and yes, discrimination against and hatred towards fat bodies.
My disordered eating was rooted directly in the ideas perpetuated by Nicole Arbour’s video – a panic and a fear around fatness, a call for self-control even if it means self-harm, and a disgust with fat people – and those same ideas were what led to me being underweight, unhappy, and destructive.
As an adult, after spending years on a rollercoaster of suicidal lows and manic highs, I was diagnosed with disordered eating, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. And after my worst episode of depression, I was finally prescribed a life-saving medication that tamed my depression in a way that I had never been able to on my own.
I finally felt a sense of peace and stability that I needed to get my life back.
But the universe, in some kind of act of karmic retribution, gave me weight gain as a side effect of that medication. I went from being thin to gaining sixty pounds, and hearing a doctor tell me I was “overweight” for the first time.
And despite being in the healthiest place I had ever been – finally mentally sound and capable – people who had never been concerned about my health before suddenly started asking if I was okay, if I wanted dieting tips, and encouraging me to “take control.”
Ah, yes, taking control. You mean when I was restricting, underweight, and depressed as hell.
Internalizing all of that negativity around my weight gain, I started to feel self-loathing and I couldn’t even look at myself in the mirror. I debated going off of the medication that had saved my life – because to me, it was better to have unmanaged bipolar disorder with all of its dangerous lows than to be fat.
I think the real sickness in our society is that someone who finally achieved mental health would risk everything just to be thin.
And to the rest of the world that saw my round belly and my big thighs, they, too, would rather me be back in that dark place and be thin than be mentally healthy, happy, and “overweight.”
Attitudes like those present in Nicole Arbour’s video are the same attitudes that I started wrestling with when I looked in the mirror and no longer saw someone who was lovable, desirable, and worthy. Somehow having fat on my body made me “less than,” and made other people treat me as such.
When I finally lost the privilege of being thin, I had to come face-to-face with the fatphobia that I had clung to for my entire life – and I had to acknowledge that I had been perpetuating really awful ideas about fat and fat people, and doing harm to the people in my life that I claimed to love.
I can understand why Nicole Arbour would resist that kind of criticism from viewers, because she, too, would have to acknowledge that she is actively doing harm. It’s not fun to admit that you’re hurting people, that these beliefs that you’ve bought into are actually causing real suffering to people of all sizes.
I, at first, felt helpless when I realized how fatphobic I really was. I didn’t know how to unpack those ideas, and I didn’t know if I could ever feel okay about myself and be “overweight.”
The hashtags that Nicole Arbour mocked in her video are the hashtags that ultimately turned my life around. I discovered the body positivity movement through social media, and realized that my self-worth did not need to rely on an impossible ideal that most of us will never attain.
I realized that being thin is not a requirement for being happy or healthy or fulfilled, and when we break away from diet culture and fatphobia, it can be transformative in the best way.
When I gained weight, I was convinced that it was the end of my self-esteem – I had no idea that it was actually the beginning of an unconditional love for myself.
It’s a kind of love that we all deserve to have, a self-love that is not a privilege reserved for a select few that fit into our norms, but rather, a relationship that we are all entitled to by virtue of our humanity. Outsiders do not get to dictate the kind of relationship I have to my body and myself.
Body positivity taught me that health cannot be measured by a number on the scale, cannot be observed by a stranger, and is something that we, ourselves, get to navigate and define on our own terms. I learned that we all get to exist in our bodies, whatever they may be, and that we set the rules.
Body positivity taught me that love, and confidence, and happiness are possible and do not need to be determined by our size.
Body positivity taught me that I do not need to resort to restricting and starving just to be worthy, and that the real problem was never my weight, but rather, the poisonous conflation of thinness and happiness that I was convinced held the secrets to self-esteem.
Body positivity taught me that hatred disguising itself as “health advice” is still hatred.
Here’s the thing: What people like Arbour don’t seem to understand is that loving myself was the healthiest decision I’ve ever made. Living without shame enabled me to make good choices for myself, because no choice that is rooted in self-hatred is ever sustainable and no choice rooted in self-hatred can ever be healthy.
Being thin never made me feel confident. Being thin never made me a better person. Being thin never made me healthy. But now, with a body that most would consider undesirable, I finally feel happy and I live a meaningful life, one in which I contribute positively to the world, one in which I do everything I can to reduce harm towards myself and others.
And for naysayers who insist that I’m unhealthy because of my size, I can only laugh. Because if it weren’t for the medication that caused this weight gain in the first place, my bipolar disorder would have ravaged what remained of my life until I could no longer bear to live it.
But when you look at me, you can’t see that. Because health is not a size.
Toxic ideas about fat are feeding into an epidemic of self-hatred, disordered eating, and self-harm – an epidemic that Nicole Arbour perpetuates under the guise of “health” – that leaves kids as young as six dieting while they’re still in kindergarten.
If that’s the kind of world you want to live in, you need to own the fact that you are making it that way. You need to understand that these attitudes about fat people are actually harmful and discriminatory – stop hiding behind this so-called “health” crusade – because you aren’t motivating, you aren’t helpful, and you aren’t saying anything novel or new that the diet industry isn’t already profiting off of.
You do harm. And if you can live with that, so be it. But realize that you aren’t helping fat people – you’re hurting them, along with anyone who has ever struggled with their body, because at the root of that struggle is a fear of fat.
Honestly, sure, if I had watched this video when I was younger, I definitely would have felt motivated. Motivated to keep skipping meals. Motivated to celebrate my disordered eating. Motivated to scrape my dinner into the trash again. Motivated to starve myself into oblivion. Motivated to keep being cruel to fat people and making assumptions about strangers.
And if I hadn’t found body positivity, I would have been motivated to reject the medication that ultimately saved my life, because I thought it was better to be thin than to be sane.
And if that’s what health looks like to you… then I don’t want to be fucking healthy.
Sam Dylan Finch is a transgender activist and feminist writer, based in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is the founder of Let’s Queer Things Up!, his blog and labor of love, as well as a writer at Everyday Feminism and Ravishly. With a passion for impacting change through personal narrative, Sam writes about his struggles and triumphs as genderqueer and bipolar with the hopes of teaching others about his identity and community.
Editor’s Note: We use the word “overweight” in quotations because it is, indeed, a problematic term that suggests a normative weight. However, it is used for clarity and to make a distinction here because while Sam is not perceived as fat, he is also not perceived as thin, necessitating a term that acknowledges this “in-between” kind of space.