Virgie Tovar’s nonfiction book, You Have the Right to Remain Fat, was published by Feminist Press in 2018. It’s 121 pages with what I thought was somewhat large font compared to most books. Thus, I read Tovar in one sitting. The basic synopsis is that Tovar dieted heavily for two decades before finding queer fat activism and learning that her body is not something to alter to please the male gaze or prop up white supremacy. Since then, Tovar has been writing about fat activism in Forbes and Ravishly in addition to editing the collection Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love, and Fashion. Tovar is considered a leading expert in fat activism.
I don’t typically give bios for authors, relying instead on the work I read to create my review. However, when I started reading You Have the Right to Remain Fat, I was completely convinced that this was not Tovar’s first book of essays. Thus, I was disappointed, wondering what new ideas she brought to the table in this small book that didn’t include a lot of evidence. I thought maybe I read Tovar’s books out of order (most people who write multiple nonfiction books build off of their previous works). Essentially, I’ve read so many of Tovar’s online essays that I thought this book was some sort of afterthought.
Instead, I realize it is an entry point into fat activism. Yes, it’s short and doesn’t include the kind of evidence my academically-driven brain craves, but she does plant seeds. Firstly, fatphobia is not about health, it’s about people not falling in line:
“Fatphobia . . . places the burden of anti-fat bias on ‘non-compliant’ individuals — that is, fat people.”
I was glad Tovar discussed fatphobia’s recent rebranding as “health,” which still demands compliance. Even Weight Watchers have rebranded themselves to seem less focused on weight — WW now stands for “Wellness Watchers.” Society asks, “Why don’t you want to be healthy? It’s always better to be healthy.” But, Western society is so trained to see thin as healthy that it’s ingrained in the culture. We’re rewarded with good feelings about our caring hearts when we talk to people who are fat about how fat they are because we feel they aren’t healthy. Beware, says Tovar, of any “health” benefit that touts weight loss as a marker of health:
“. . . any lifestyle or plan or philosophy or app that treats weight loss as a goal is a diet.”
Here, I wish Tovar had gone more into different companies that sell diets under the guise of health. Each section she covers is brief, brief enough for someone new to fat activism, but may not satisfy readers who have been studying fat activism for a while.
Some folks on Goodreads claim that You Have the Right to Remain Fat is a book that speaks to an audience that already agrees with it. However, I noticed that Tovar speaks to women of all body sizes through a fat activist lens. Fatphobia is tangled up in a sexist society. If women can be controlled via their bodies, they are less useful and powerful in other areas of their lives because they’re thinking about food and malnourished (which does not mean thin, but lacking proper nourishment). Every woman can likely relate to the following memory Tovar shares:
“The challenge, of course, is that women are systematically taught not to trust our instincts or our experiences. One of the first times I remember being advised to question myself was during childhood, when I was told that I wasn’t hungry even though I was. . . . I was told that I should question my body’s demands for food and instead ask myself whether I’m not just actually bored or tired.”
While body positivity has taken off, I’ve always been trepidatious about how fluffy the whole movement is. So, I was relieved when Tovar had a chapter about “BoPo” vs. fat activism. Again, the problem is the male gaze. “BoPo” is the happy, sunshine version of loving your body that fails to be aggressive when necessary and still puts up boundaries on bodies: you can be overweight but not fat, you can ask for kindness but not demand it, you can be quirky but not outright “other,” you can claim to be an activist without being one of “those” feminists. Tovar argues that fat activism (not body positivity) has it’s roots in the queen Jewish community of the 1960s and I wanted to know loads more about that.
While I appreciate Tovar opening the door to fat activism, I was left with so many questions, so I would recommend this book to folks who are new to fat activism.
An anti-diet simile from Virgie Tovar:
“To put it plainly, dieting is a little bit like someone pissing on your leg and then telling you it’s raining. Except it’s more like someone shitting on your face and then asking you for a dollar and then going into your house and systematically shitting on everything of value that you own and then setting that shit-filled home — that was once filled with the sound of laughter and love but that now’s just filled with shit — on fire and then blaming you for it.”