After years of battling the bulge, conquering cravings, fighting fat, and waging war on weight gain, Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby were tired of the struggle. "Think about the language of dieting," says Kirby. "All of these things set you up as a disconnected being, as an enemy of your physical body." Both Harding, founder of the blog Shapely Prose, and Kirby, who created The Rotund blog know that life's too short to worry about weight (yours or the person sitting next to you on the plane).
Their sites--along with several other pro-fat blogs--make up the “fat-o-sphere,” an online world dedicated to fighting anti-fat bias and promoting “Health At Every Size”, a weight-neutral approach that advocates healthy behavior over an obsessive focus on the scale.
In their new book, Lessons From the Fat-o-Sphere: Stop Dieting and Declare a Truce With Your Body, (Perigee Books, 2009), Harding and Kirby try to help men and women learn to love the bodies they've got--even in a world that pushes them in the other direction. NEWSWEEK’s Kate Dailey spoke to the authors about life in the “Fat-o-Sphere” and what they mean by the term “death fat.” Excerpts:
Dailey: Before we get started, let's talk about language. You don't say "overweight," you just say "fat." Why?
Kate Harding: Overweight implies that there is a particular weight that I should be or that anyone should be, and we don't think that it's as simple as a BMI [Body Mass Index] chart, or an insurance health and weight chart. If this is the weight that your body consistently ends up at, if you're eating a balanced diet and exercising moderately, then that's probably the weight that your body was meant to be.
Marianne Kirby: Fat is such a loaded term. There are so many negative connotations, and it's kind of ridiculous. Fat means fat. It doesn't mean ugly, smelly, lazy. It means fat.
And people who are not fat?
Kirby: There's such a wide variety of thin people that even that language doesn't seem dead on. It seems like we have only two categories of body.
Harding: Sometimes you want to make a distinction about people who are extremely fat, and subject to that much more discrimination and that many more problems, but there's not a good word. Some people have claimed super-sized for themselves, but I don't particularly like that.
Kirby: We're going with "death fat" for that, instead of super-sized. Because super-sized is just such a horrible word.
I'm sorry--did you say “death fat?”
Harding: Morbidly obese.
And that's better than "super-sized"?
Kirby: Death fat is funny. Look, 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. A friend of ours coined the term humorously to respond to those sorts of expectations.
In the book you talk about how you went through a whole phase preaching the gospel of "lifestyle changes."
Harding: When I lost weight, which I did a couple of times, I really thought, this it, I've done it, I've licked it, I'll never gain the weight back.
I knew the statistics and thought that I was in the tiny percentage of people who would never gain it back, because I had figured out something they hadn't and I had really changed my life. But even those lifestyle changes did not create permanent weight loss. After a couple of years, both times, I gained it all back. It wasn't because I suddenly dropped the lifestyle changes. It was just, that's what happens to me, that's what happens to everyone.
You say they don't work, but a lot of the tips in your book [finding exercise you like, eating intuitively] seem like healthy lifestyle changes.
Kirby: When Weight Watchers goes on TV and says, "Diets don't work, you need lifestyle changes," they're talking about making deliberate changes in pursuit of weight loss, which is a diet. It's the difference between "I'm going to pursue intuitive eating and give that a try," and, "I am [only] going to eat 12 points worth of food a day for the rest of my life."
Harding: We have no objection to the term "healthy lifestyle changes" in its literal sense. There's nothing wrong with doing things to feel better and improve your life. The problem is that's so often used to mean weight loss. The changes that we suggest as part of “Health At Every Size” are the opposite of doing it for weight loss. It's doing it for the positive effects it will have on your body and your mind.
You talk about intuitive eating, meaning that you should just eat what you feel like. Do you have to train your body to want to eat [right]?
Kirby: You have to train yourself to recognize what your body needs. We're adults. If we think we want ice cream, it may be that we're craving fat in our diet, because we've been eating too much low-fat stuff. We have to relearn the language of our bodies.
I do think that food, especially foods that are so processed, can have addictive effects. So you eat Fritos, and then you want more Fritos. It's almost like a drug.
Kirby: But I think you learn [with intuitive eating] that if you eat too many Fritos you feel awful.
Harding: When you're dealing with the restrictive "good" and "bad" foods there's the appeal of the taboos. Oooh, it's a bad food. Yes, it gave me a stomachache, but I sort of deserved that punishment. Oooh, it's so fun to do something bad. And if you take out that moral component, then you realize: eating a bag of Fritos makes my stomach hurt, and eating something that has a lot more nutritional value makes my body feel better.
Has that actually been your experience?
Kirby: I had Brussels sprouts for dinner the other night, because you know what? They looked pretty.
Brussels sprouts get a bad rep. Brussels sprouts are freaking delicious.
I was so into them. They're my new vegetable.
Do you think there are some people who for whatever reasons--poverty, depression, poor choices--are fat but aren't supposed to be?
Kirby: You can't look at the entire spectrum of fat people and say all of these people are fat for this one reason. That's incredibly oversimplifying the situation. I think that looking at exceptions is not necessarily a useful tool.
Harding: Most people are willing to accept that there are thin people who can eat whatever they want and not gain weight. When you look at a thin person you think naturally thin, or they have an eating disorder. I think it's the same way with very fat people: you're either meant to be fat, or maybe you have an eating disorder and are eating more than what your body needs or wants. No one really sees that. They say there's something morally wrong or broken with you because you're fat.
A contestant in the Miss Australia pageant is coming under a lot of criticism for being 5'9" and 109 pounds. Is this a form of body fascism, saying you have to meet a certain BMI to compete in a beauty pageant, or is it important to regulate the types of bodies we put on display?
Kirby: It's one of those issues that I feel kind of conflicted on. I feel strongly that when we hold up bodies that a very tiny percentage of the population has as an ideal, we contribute to the problem. [But] body fascism of any sort bothers me. I feel sometimes like in order to present healthier images of women, we have to reach a compromise. I hate to penalize women who are naturally of that very small body type. There's no easy answer.