I Do It with the Lights On by Whitney Way Thore

I Do It with the Lights On by Whitney Way Thore

published by Ballantine Books, 2016

Procured from my local library

Note: I have not watched My Big Fat Fabulous Life starring Whitney Way Thore. I heard about this book in the new FabUplus magazine.

*This book is part of my 2017 search to find positive representations of fat women in fiction or nonfiction, and that positive representation will not hinge on weight loss and falling in love. Thus, books will either meet or not meet my criteria, which will factor overall into my recommendations. I purposely use the word “fat” because it is not a bad word. Using plump, curvy, plus-sized, fluffy, big-boned, shapely, voluptuous, or any other term suggests that fat is bad and thus needs a euphemism.

Thore’s book begins with some context and then heads into her youth. At five years old, her mother is informed that Thore needs to watch what she eats. As evidence, Thore includes photos throughout the book, such as a slender girl in her bathing suit next to the caption, “Rocking my bathing suit during the summer before my first diet.” In elementary school, Thore participates in soccer, dance, and swimming. She is labeled “baby beluga.”

Her photos show a healthy-looking young girl; her analysis demonstrates someone in mental torment:

The consensus was that my body was shame. My body embarrassed me.

Below: two dancing photos, four-year-old Whitney, and prom princess — all labeled fat by schoolmates and her father.

I found the photos particularly effective. Looking at my own photos I realize that when I thought I was fat, I look only slightly larger than everyone else around me. I don’t look at photos now and cringe at the change; I’m sad for the girl who hated herself so deeply, and in that way readers can create a personal connection with Thore.

Thore quickly became bulimic, and though many people know about it, no one does anything. In fact, at a special school all the girls get together and throw up. They celebrate for “a job well done.” Though detailing all the painful memories of youth can seem like a sob story in the wrong hands, Thore demonstrates how an obsession with weight can lead a young girl to a life of shame.

Readers who feel disgust at the fat body may think turning to healthy eating and exercise will fix everything. Thore works with nutritionists and trainers, she dances for hours per week. Unlike math, bodies are unpredictable. You can’t do X and always get Y, which frustrates the young woman. One person always checking in on Thore’s body is her father, whom she looks up to, but who might come off differently to readers:

One day in particular, as I was rushing out of the house for school, I told [my dad] I hadn’t lost any weight the previous day.

“Well, what did you eat yesterday?”

“A sandwich,” I told him.

“Well, tomorrow,” he suggested, “don’t eat a sandwich.”

Though she constantly forgives her father for his abusive remarks, it was hard for me to do so, too. Perhaps she doesn’t fully see how incremental he was to her eating disorder and self-hatred, but I don’t expect writers to fully know their lives by the end of a book. She may still be learning about her dad.

I don’t love the full title. The “ten discoveries” part make it sound like a self-help book.

Before she discovers she must love her body to love herself, Thore struggles with chronic depression, polycystic ovarian syndrome, shame, and damaging comments. Thore fails out of college after she suffers depression and gains 50lbs in four months–the result of both inactivity/poor diet and a chronic illness. After she does graduate, Thore travels to South Korea to work as an English teacher. With her more advanced class, she goes over an article about obesity in relation to health problems. To test their comprehension, she asks:

“…what is one side effect of obesity?” A quiet, attentive student who went by the name Kerrick raised his hand.

With stone-cold seriousness he answered, “Suicide.”

His answer caught me so off guard that I laughed inappropriately. “Well, no…” I began. “The article doesn’t mention that. I’m obese, right?”

Twelve blank faces looked back at me, nodding.

“Do you think I will kill myself?”

Kerrick explained, “Teacher, maybe you have some depressions and maybe you want to die.”

This part of the memoir really struck me. It never occurred to me that other people would think fat men and women want to kill themselves.

My criteria for positive representations of fat women in fiction and nonfiction are all met in I Do It With The Lights On. Boyfriends don’t always make Thore happy, so she’s willing to break up with men. She works hard at all of her jobs, putting in more hours and effort than her colleagues (disposing of the “lazy” stereotype). She also details how weight loss takes up most of a woman’s time that could be dedicated elsewhere. For instance, when she returns from Korea after several years, her parents have her move into their house and abstain from employment so she can work on fitness. She’s counting calories and exercising with a personal trainer. Yes, you can lose 100lbs, but changing the body is a full-time job.

Thore is honest, too. Half way through the book she has still not discovered the body positive movement. She’s dedicated all of her hours to food and fitness. She notes:

Once I started to lose weight and saw how difficult it was for me to do so, I lost all sympathy for fat people who said they couldn’t lose weight . . .. I prided myself on being a different kind of fat person.

Here, Thore’s attitude reminded me of the 13 Ways of Looking at a Fat Girl in which the fat characters compare one another. Instead of clinging to her attitude, Thore realizes she is delusional. Even when she is losing weight, society sees a fat women; it doesn’t matter if she’s just come from the gym. Society sees fat as a failure without any context.

Her honesty extends to her sex life. Thore seeks sexual partners for her own pleasure, but she doesn’t sleep with everyone she meets. Several pages are devoted to exploring both the flattery and objectification found in websites full of men seeking fat women to have sex with them, stand on them, or feed. Sexual relationships are presented respectfully, thank goodness. In Mona Awad’s book, you’d think fat people have sex with anyone.

One reason I wanted to find books about fat women is lack of representation. However, my quest is also to teach people of other sizes that they are privileged, not better. Fat people are asked to count calories and exercise daily so they’re better to look at. However, thin people are not questioned about their diets/physical activity, even if they eat poorly and are inactive, because they don’t look fat. Thore acknowledges she’s been on both sides of the aisle:

As a teenager, I wasn’t blind to the systematic sexualization of women . . . but I wasn’t as concerned with it because it was a system that benefited me. A young, privileged girl submits to the system by offering up her appearance as collateral, and she receives positive attention and affirmation in return for her willingness to play the game. As long as she stays obsessed with her appearance, making it a top priority, society will cheer her on for this and dole out validation accordingly.

At 130lbs in high school, Thore was praised when she dropped a few pounds. As a woman nearly 30 years old, at around 330lbs, she must prove every day she is smart, talented, cares, is valued, and deserves love.

Honest, analytical, and carefully constructed, Whitney Way Thore’s memoir is a must-read for those fighting in the #nobodyshame movement.


  1. Great review. Thanks for sharing. This is not a problem I’ve ever had, but it’s certainly very interesting to read about and I’ve always been among the people who defend others who are shamed about their ‘size’. Another person’s ‘size’ is none of your business.
    Strangely, I can’t see it at all in those childhood pictures. It just looks like a normal child to me. If they hadn’t traumatized her since her very childhood, I wonder if she would have had half the weight problems even? So much about our bodies results because of what we’re told and not actual genetics or predilections. Such a shame when that happens.

    I also had one childhood friend who was always plump, quite a bit more than anyone in my class. And what do you know, puberty came, and lo and behold – without any diets she became pretty much dystrophically thin. She’s always been this thin afterwards, and she’s not the kind of person who ever worried about her weight. So I mean, she didn’t slim down due to anorexia or diets. Sometimes bodies are just unpredictable.

    Liked by 1 person

      • A problem is when you’re unhappy about it, and it seems at one point she was. So the problem isn’t really related to a specific weight but the circumstances and the point of view. But yes, I guess you are right – it’s one of those ways of speaking you use without thinking much about it cause it’s the way it’s often referred to.

        Liked by 1 person

        • You’ve got me thinking! Thore considers her weight a “problem” when other people tell her it is, which starts when she is 5. Thus, it gets into her psyche–who she is. It takes a long time to break the association with weight and what is actually a problem. The problem is with the person judging and trying to change others based on a visual cue. Thanks for getting me thinking more!


  2. Great review. I like the fact that the theme actually falls in one of your reading goals for this year. I have read books that feature fat women but not really as a main theme. I do understand the issues raised in the book though especially since my weight has always been so up and down. The idea of fat-suicidal is a bit shocking though. I have never heard/thought of that 😦

    I am really interested in this memoir. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    • The is a lot of humor and wit, too, but I didn’t get into that because the review was already long enough. What I would really like with fiction if to find books about fat women where fat ISN’T a big theme; she’s just living her life. I’ve got a few in the pile that fit that criteria. When it comes to non-fiction, though, the memoir will most likely focus on her size because that’s what everyone wants to know about. Imagine a Melissa McCarthy or Rosie O’Donnell or Oprah book that didn’t mention weight.


  3. Wow! What a powerful review. After a bit of a false start this year, I now more fully understand your quest.
    I read Shrill by Lindy West last year, and it really opened my eyes. I have thankfully only struggled with my physical appearance a small amount. West showed me I have so much more to learn. I will definitely be following your posts this year, Melanie. I believe in body positivity and that fat isn’t a bad word- but I don’t know enough to defend it well.
    It sounds like I need to pick up this memoir on my quest to better understand. Thank you for introducing me!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. It’ll be great when it’s finally properly recognised that it’s not a simple matter of diet and exercise – that different bodies react differently. And you make a great point about it not being to do with truly eating and living healthily but about looks. Glad you found a book that met your criteria…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Fiction Fan! I’m still keeping an eye out for stories with fat women who don’t even mention their weight. The story should be good all on its own, no matter the character’s size. That would be ideal, but nearly unheard of. I was also talking to other women on Twitter about gym culture, and a couple had found places that never (possibly as a policy?) mention weight (gaining, losing, size, etc.).


      • I doubt they’re your kind of book, but Alexander McCall Smith’s No.1 Ladies Detective Agency series stars Mma Ramotswe who describes herself as ‘traditionally built’ which in Botswana where the books are set means fat. She does worry about her weight very occasionally, but on the whole she likes being the size and shape she is and there’s no implied criticism in the writing. They’re a bit cosy for you though, I’d think. But she is a great positive character…

        Liked by 1 person

        • A few people have recommended those books to me, but since they’re written by a man, they don’t fit the theme. I might read one just for fun and put it on Goodreads, though. Thanks! Do you read/review them?


          • No, I read loads of them years ago before I started reviewing but eventually got a bit bored with the series so I haven’t read any recently. They’re quite fun though – nice gentle stuff. I shall keep thinking… 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

  5. So glad you found one that fitted your requirements, sounds like a harrowing in places but positive read. I love that you say you don’t expect writers to know all about themselves by the end of the book!

    I have done my own bit for anti-fat-shaming; there was someone at my running club who (as someone who had lost 5 stone himself so was very activist about that) kept talking to people about their “build”, euphemistically but pointedly. I had a massive go at him when on a run with him about how he could be seem as shaming people and also triggering people who were in recovery from eating disorders. I mentioned I’m happy about my own “build” because I’m strong and fit and full of stamina and who knows what I’d be like if I was a wisp of a thing. And I have had reports that he has not done it since in several people’s hearing who would have previously heard him do it several times. One step at a time, one person at a time.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Bravo, Liz! I’m so proud of you!! It really, really takes one person at a time. I’m a big believer in healthy eating and exercise, but not with the singular goal to lose weight. That’s something prior don’t get: weight is infrequently an indicator of health.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Those are lovely photos! People are so mean 😦 ! So glad you loved this and her writing ❤

    I know a friend who has health problems and that's why she's overweight. Nothing to do with the way she eats or exercises. Most people don't realize that!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. It’s amazing how people start torturing little girls as young as age 5 about weight. In all of those pictures you shared she looks perfectly healthy to me. I’m really pissed off at her dad and I’ve not even read the book! What a tool! (That’s a more polite word than the one I’m thinking of.) You’re so right about people not inquiring about thin people’s habits, even though I know plenty of “naturally thin” people who smoke and don’t exercise at all. But a fat person’s habits are fair game. This book sounds great. I’m glad you’ve found one that fit your criteria!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Though it’s just my opinion, I think society harangues fat people based on their health because they know it’s not socially acceptable to say, “My god, you’re a fatty and that grosses me out.” It’s like one giant euphemism.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. What really strikes me about this book (and maybe it’ll come up time and time again as you read more) is that she was called fat from such an early age. I wonder how her life might have been different if no one had commented on her looks at all? But then I wonder if anyone ever has gone through life without someone commenting on their looks?! (Wouldn’t that be nice?)

    When I was little my mother used to describe me as chubby. And although she never said it *to* me (this is how she described me to other people and I would just overhear her), and she always said it in a loving way (to this day she loves chubby kids), I still remember and I still think of myself that way, all these decades later. As a result, I have been really careful not to describe my own children in terms of the way they look. (My mother-in-law was always doing it, and I had to ask her not to) Anyway, time will tell… And, of course, who knows what they hear from other people. I just keep my fingers crossed!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think more than having someone describe me, I hear other people describe themselves badly, which can be just as damaging. Women tend to pick a problem area, one they image were it different, they would be…what, perfect people? It sounds silly when you spell it out. “If my arms were smaller and not so sail-like, I would be an awesome person.” Not likely, because our negativity bleeds into other people (Meryl Streep didn’t say that, but it would fit with the rhythm of her speech the other night about violence and bullying). I’ve found that when I only surround myself with people who aren’t diet obsessed, it’s very easy for me to forget that I don’t look like someone society wants to approve of. However, that’s a privilege I enjoy as someone with a job in academia, a husband who thinks about bodies and how they’re designed to function (not how we want them to look), and I don’t have kids to worry about (kids bring home social garbage that they should never have to face. Poor children!!).

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Excellent review! Unfortunately I can relate to having a critical father. It is easy to make excuses for the people we love, so I can relate to her in that aspect. I’m so glad that her sex life is portrayed in a healthy light, that was another issue of mine with Awad’s book: that fat women will give it up to anyone… Glad you found better representation in this book 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your dad, Amanda. I hope things are better now, and for reasons unrelated to your size. At one point Thore does yell at her father, but it’s very far along in the book, and it seems like their reconciliation is more made-for-TV than genuine. However, what she and her dad said at the time may have been true, though to me their conversation sounds like one they may have to have many, many times.

      Liked by 1 person

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