You Have the Right to Remain Fat by Virgie Tovar

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.

Virgie Tovar. Image taken from her website.

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.”

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21 comments

    • At one point in the book Tovar asks if we could imagine a single day when someone didn’t mention what they were eating and tie it to weight, if someone didn’t mention calories or a need to work out because they’re getting porky, something like that. I can’t imagine it at all. And hearing about it is not only damaging, but sooooooooooooo boring.

  1. I really relate to what you’ve said in reply to the previous comment. It truly is rare to have someone talk about food without relating it to “health” or “wellness”. I do it too, occasionally, though I’ve learnt to enjoy eating without guilt.

  2. Very interesting. I hadn’t realized Weight Watchers’ new “WW” campaign was related to a name change. It is interesting that it seems to be a more positive-sounding program, like it’s all just about being healthy and happy. But–it’s still about weight loss, is it not? They’re just trying to brush over that a bit for some reason.

    • Yes, Weight Watchers is doing the same thing but change the branding so they seem less diety and more healthy. Which, as Tovar writes, anything “health” program that has weight loss as a goal is a diet. What if a person followed WW and never lost any weight? He/she would be disappointed or angry.

  3. Hmmm lots ot pick apart here. The Jewish Queer Movement? Tell me more!!! That sounds fascinating on its own, so I can tell why you were looking for more.

    But, still good that she’s bringing this message forward; it’s nice to hear more and more of. And something to think about while I’m raising my daughter, too.

  4. […] You Have the Right to Remain Fat by Virgie Tovar. In her first-ever solo book (she’s edited anthologies), Tovar scratches the surface of how dieting ties to patriarchy, racism, and fatphobia. Not many people read my review, making me think the title is too bold, or the subject matter not of interest. […]

  5. I would also like to hear more about how fat activism and the queer Jewish community intersect. We owe so much of where we are in terms of activism to communities with multiple marginalizations. It’s why intersectional feminism is so important. You seem to have enjoyed this one, despite it being more of a “starter” book, so I hope the author writes something more in depth, so you can pick it up.

    • I’m surprised she didn’t take her many articles and turn those into a book. Then again, readers always holler when blog posts are made into a book because you can access them all online. I’ve read before that the trans community has paved the way for other marginalized groups by thinking intersectionally, but I don’t know enough about it to speak on it confidently.

  6. Oh man. That final quote shakes me to the core. I will admit, I don’t know much about fat activism, so perhaps this is a good book for me to pick up as an introduction?

    I get so frustrated when the people of the internet put down a book as not doing whatever they wanted it to. This isn’t your book, people! Who cares if Tovar is speaking to other fat activists or not? This isn’t for you to decide! This is for the READER to decide. Also, Tovar. Because she put this collection together. *cue eye roll*

    • I think people get concerned that we live in an information vacuum. I remember being concerned when I read that Facebook’s algorithm works to make like-minded people appear in your feed more often that those who would disagree with you. In the end, you get positive feedback that may not reflect the reality of a situation. However, when it comes to something like fat activism, I think the fatphobes have had the podium long enough. We know what they’re going to say: diabetes, heart attacks, cancer, drain on economy, etc. We’re good. So if Tovar is speaking to other fat activists, or even people who aren’t fact activists but know something is not right with how they feel in society because society hates their bodies, this is the right book. It IS a quick read, so I think it would be a great rec for you!

      • Oh, yeah, social media definitely perpetuates an information vacuum. And I think it’s a valid thing to be concerned with as an individual. David actually has two Facebook accounts to help with this. One for his political education (he explores the whole spectrum and gets into conversation with people who all have different perspectives) and a personal account. This is one way to fight the vacuum, but it requires a lot of effort.

        And this is one reason I don’t use the internet as a primary news source.

  7. Just sent you a link to my review! I definitely agree with you that there were areas that she could have expanded upon. I also really enjoyed the chapter about bopo versus fat activism. I never really understood the difference between the two before I read this.
    Interestingly, I wrote half of an article about the Weight Watchers re-branding. I looked at the new graphics as well as the new acronym – it’s all pretty awful, imo. I hate that they’re trying to equate ‘wellness’ (which I’m not a fan of anyway) with weight loss. :/ I might try and finish that article and post it on my blog.

    • I didn’t realize that people in BoPo were still creating borders for how bodies could look, but it makes sense. BoPo was taken over by people with all sorts of bodies, even the kind of body that society recognizes as normal or beautiful. The message of body positivity got out to anyone who had ever felt bad about their body, so those people, with their biases against bodies they believe look worse than their own are that they perceive as “unhealthy,” joined the group. That’s what I knew about BoPo. Whitney Way Thore is often the face of BoPo, but I know’s an avid dieter.

  8. I didn’t know if it was just me or not, but I’m tired of hearing about “wellness”. I think it’s just a way for people to make a lot of money on our desperation to be “well”.
    Good review of this book! And now I know who Virgie Tovar is!

    • Thanks so much, Naomi. You know which term really honks my hooter? “Clean food.” All I can think of is people didn’t used to wash food and now they do, but I know that “clean food” is some kind of euphemism for dieting.

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