What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon

In her collection of essays What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Fat, Aubrey Gordon (she/her) covers some familiar (to me) ground. And yet, she writes in such a clear, straightforward way that I struggled to finish her book. What were the more challenging parts? The extent to which being fat not only leads to bullying that the majority of people not only approve of but encourage, but also civil rights issues surrounding employment, housing, and health care.

Firstly, both Gordon and I use the word “fat” instead of something . . . more gentle? Gordon writes:

Fat stands in contrast to an endless parade of euphemisms — fluffy, curvy, big guy, big girl, zaftig, big boned, husky, voluptuous, thick, heavy set, pleasantly plump, chubby, cuddly, more to love, overweight, obese — all of which just serve as a reminds of how terrified so many thin people are to see our bodies, name them, have them.

As she moves forward, Gordon includes both studies and personal examples of what it’s like to live in a “very fat” body, and even tells her weight. This is in direct opposition to what I’ve read from other fat activist authors. Sharing weight takes away opportunities for thin, straight size, and “Layne Bryant fat” people to say, “I support fat people. Wait, just not that fat.”

What I mean is that there is a subgroup of folks, many of them part of the Body Positivity Movement (which I do not condone), who upon reading a weight higher than a certain number, abandon ship on fat people. Smartly, Gordon says she is 350 pounds, or was 400 pounds (depending on which point in her life). In order to keep reading, folks who feel squirmy about the very fat have to realize they’re part of the problem.

The problem is that fat people are one of the last groups that can be legally discriminated against for their bodies, a topic that Gordon covers so well that I started to feel sick. Only Michigan, Washington (the state), and San Francisco (just the city!) have a law against discrimination based on a person’s size. In 48 states, a potential employer can reject an applicant for their size, or fire a current employee. A fat person can be refused service in a restaurant or a room in a hotel. It’s even legal to keep a fat person from housing. When I say that I am against Body Positivity, what I’m saying is that B.P. is a turn inward, a search for self-esteem, whereas fat activism, closely linked to disability rights, is about the law and justice.

Even more frightening is Gordon’s research into doctors who refuse to take on patients who are fat, the most common cutoff weight being 200 pounds. What I didn’t know about before are the weight shaming campaigns against children. Rather than teaching children to cook, what are nutrient-rich foods that will give them energy, and to enjoy physical play, the surgeon-in-chief for Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta launched a billboard campaign. Pictures of fat children with their faces blurred our dotted the state, each one with statements like, “WARNING: It’s hard to be a little girl if you’re not.” The effort to shame adults using fear for their loved ones look like a direct warning, but it misses the big picture:

Rather than initiating parent trainings, advocating for increased funding for school nutritional education, changing the contents of school lunches, or alleviating the poverty that relegated so many low-income students to highly processed, low-nutrient foods, [the campaign] opted to rent billboards.

I know that many of my readers are not in the U.S., so perhaps your situation is different, but in my own childhood, I remember the lunches served by the school consisted of hamburgers, chicken nuggets, pizza, hot dogs, and taco boats. In fact, in middle school the most commonly eaten foods were pizza slices or a bag of bread sticks, both from Little Caesar’s, suggesting the company had a deal with the school. Even if you don’t have children or haven’t seen the billboards in person, What We Don’t Talk about When We Talk about Fat will strike a nerve with readers because we’ve nearly all experienced poor quality public school food and fat shaming. Shaming and bullying don’t work. Environmental factors, such as lack of choice and food deserts, can be part of a teachable moment.

That’s not to say that the Gordon argues fat people will achieve thinness. Using several convincing studies, she persuades readers that fat is often a permanent body shape the result of genetics. Equating thinness with health not only harms fat people, it harms thin people, too. Case in point, when I was teaching in a correctional facility, every day the inmates were given baloney sandwiches at lunch. Although no single student of mine was fat, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone to convince you baloney is nutritious.

As horrible as this book made me feel — and I did feel ill, even considering whether I should finish — I did learn that there is much more work to be done for fat rights. How might you help? Change other people’s mindsets through a change in your own thoughts and actions:

  1. Stop assuming a certain body size is healthy.
  2. Don’t sign up for workplace weight loss programs.
  3. Advocate for furniture that can hold all body sizes (also good for disability accessibility).
  4. If someone makes a fat joke, act dense and ask what they mean. If they have to explain that the joke is funny because they’re just making fun of fat people, they come out looking cruel — and then they feel bad.
  5. Disengage from diet talk that centers on weight loss (people may want to talk about food allergies or a cool new recipe they found; food talk is not “off limits.”)

Once you’re comfortable shutting down bullies and have changed your own mindset, know that a single positive interaction during which you listen to and do not judge a fat person can change their whole outlook. Gordon ended her book with an anecdote about an experience with a doctor’s office that sends readers off renewed. Challenging yet educational.

CW: verbal, physical, emotional, sexual, and mental abuse; eating disorders; fat shaming.

25 comments

  1. I can say that here in the UK you get letters sent home about children’s weight that have had the effect of fat-shaming them and shaming their parents (although I am not a parent and have only read about this). I’ve been compelled to go and look up about discrimination, and found that obesity is not one of the nine protected characteristics that you’re not allowed to discriminate against, but any disability caused by obesity may fall under a protected characteristic https://www.stephensons.co.uk/site/blog/employment-law-blog/obesity-discrimination-in-the-workplace is just one place I found this. I also found this interesting article about the legal aspects https://theconversation.com/sizeism-rampant-in-uk-workplace-but-eu-law-may-offer-protection-58460 so there we go. Interesting stuff, and thank you for making me think about it.

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    • Even if there are non-discrimination laws, people will say it’s “something” else when it comes to hiring. Not enough experience or wrong attitude or “we’ve decided to go in a different direction” — whatever it is. And if a person says that they’re being discriminated against, I can’t imagine that endears them to the employer, so you have an awkward relationship if you DO get hired after threat of lawyering up.

      When it comes to something like getting a loan, though, all you need are the right credentials to prove you are qualified. That one is less slippery.

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      • Oh, absolutely, of course. And we don’t even have anti-discrimination laws: I had just wanted to look up what the legal situation was in case it was better than I thought (ha!).

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          • I think the law does sometimes make things better, but I can see your point and insidious discrimination like this does have to be ended. I’m perfectly prepared to call stuff out as I see it, although I haven’t seen this issue arise in my bubble, unsurprisingly (I have just come across a very dodgy Facebook post about slavery legacies I need to work out how to deal with!).

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  2. Melanie I had this long comment all typed out this morning on my phone and then it just disappeared into the ether and it made me so mad! Anyway, since I love her podcast so much (with Michael Hobbes – Maintenance Phase) I’d probably be into reading this, although it would piss me off so much my blood pressure might go nuts. We’ve got so many freaking problems in the country, but one that encapsulates so may others is our insane reliance on the individual solutions to systemic problems. Make people feel like shit about themselves and then we’ll all lose weight and then we won’t have all these “obese” people clogging up the health care system. Um, No. Maybe if we didn’t shame people all the damn time and we genuinely focused on biometric markers instead of weight, and focused on making sure everyone has access to nutritious food and safe places to move their bodies we’d have a less stressed and healthier populace. Like weight stigma and health care. Maybe if certain doctors weren’t such A-holes about fatness, then people wo were fat would be more comfortable going to doctors – I’ve heard so many horror stories about fat people having legit issues and just being told to “lose weight” to magically solve their problems – and then they DIE! Or suffer needlessly. It’s ridiculous. Also, we have GOT to stop equating thinness with health. Obviously this is my soapbox and I’m stepping off now, ha ha.

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    • Yeah, they have issues like cancer or something not related to weight, and doctors don’t take them seriously. The end of Gordon’s book has a positive anecdote that really struck me. Actually, it made me realize how to approach exercise with peace in my heart, not shame, and I’ve been happily exercising every day for almost a month. I’m glad because at first my body was quite stiff and now I get excited about seeing how fast I can go and being loving toward what this vessel that carries my brain does to continue carrying my brain around.

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  3. It seems a truism that the poorer you are the worse you eat. It’s not just that McDonald’s is so cheap, and so full of sugar and fat, but that so many people buy processed foods instead of fresh. I’m not sure schools are the answer – the last time I ate in a school canteen (1964) I had a meat pie and an apple pie – they can teach nutrition but it’s what you grow up eating at home that shapes you.

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    • There are studies of schools that serve fresh, nutritious food — for less than the cost of processed food — having better student behavior and learning outcomes. I think one part of the conversation people miss (myself included sometimes) is that poverty isn’t just buying cheap processed foods, it’s the lack of location to make anything else. Housing for the poor often lacks a stove/oven or full-size fridge (just those little dorm ones). Folks will try to make due with a hot plate, but that’s not cooking.

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  4. This sounds so interesting. As I was reading, my thought was of how much genetics can play a role in weight so I’m glad it talks about that too. I never went to a school that provided lunches and none of the ones in our area do either (except for special occasions and then it’s an opt-in event) so I always feel kind of confused by American school lunch programs. Do you have to participate in them? And the fact that you can not hire someone for being fat??! That makes no sense to me! I’m going to see if Canada has similar rules. For most jobs, how could your weight possibly matter?

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    • As for jobs, I don’t think it’s so much that your weight matters, but that we’ve been conditioned to see fat people as lazy and stupid, so they may be passed over for that reason.

      When I was in school in the 1990s, a hot school lunch cost $1.85. Part of this was because for children in poverty, school lunch may be their only hot meal of the day. Part of the reason it’s such a problem that schools close for the pandemic is because for a whole lot of kids, that school lunch is literally the only food they eat all day. So no school = no food. Then you see schools that are closed due to COVID having a drive-thru sack lunch pick up to try to alleviate the food issue. The lunches are inexpensive because they are part of the government behind the school, and if a child’s parents’ tax situation indicates they are very poor, they can get those hot lunches for free.

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      • Interesting…in schools around here hot lunch is maybe a once a month thing that you can opt in on if you choose. High schools have a cafeteria but in my experience it was rare that anyone ate from it regularly. I don’t recall it being particularly cheap. Nowadays, especially in elementary schools, there will be good available in classes or in a shared area that’s available for any kids to take as wanted. Usually finger food and it’s all free. Pearl loved to snack on it last year and I actually asked about it because I wanted to make sure she wasn’t taking food meant for other kids. But they purposely put it out for everyone so there’s no stigma attached.

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  5. I think I would find this too difficult to read, even though it’s important. Even hearing about the healthcare stories via review is hard enough! Since an NHS doctor is required to take everyone who registers with them until they hit capacity (and then they don’t take anyone), we don’t have quite the same issue here. It’s still very difficult though to engage fat people because of past bad experiences with judgemental professionals, and so a lot of people end up not going to the doctor for things that could be treatable – because they assume they will just be dismissed. Even though I am (I think) what you call “Lane Bryant fat”, and I have the medical knowledge/communication skills/confidence to advocate for myself, I still sometimes hold back on going to the doctor when I know I ought to for exactly this reason – and so many people are much more vulnerable than I am.

    As for that billboard campaign, it’s horrific – I would expect to be struck off if I was involved in something like that, and I can’t imagine what those supposed professionals were thinking! I am quite tempted to look it up and use it as a discussion case with my students, though.

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    • Oh, how interesting that you could use the billboard campaign as a teaching tool. That would be excellent. This was a incredibly hard book to read, to be honest. A lot of books are now body positive or giving a middle finger to society for bashing on fat people, but Gordon’s work is truly the legal and medical reality of being fat, which is not a feel good story anymore than other books about systemic oppression are.

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  6. Wow that billboard story makes me CRINGE. How horrible. I’m actually reviewing a book right now (stay tuned) all about why and how our body craves food, and there’s quite a bit about why obesity is often linked to one’s wealth. Access to healthy food is a big one, and of course, if you’re working 3 or 4 jobs you don’t have time to make yourself a salad from scratch every day. That being said, body acceptance at every size is important, but people who describe body size as a choice is what I find so ignorant.

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    • I think I mentioned this in another comment, but not only is pre-packaged food typically high in sugar, salt, and fat, but people who live in poverty often have residences that do not have a kitchen. You get maybe a microwave, a mini fridge, and a hot plate — and having the hot plate may be against tenet rules.

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  7. In complete honesty, I had no idea that anyone could legally discriminate against someone for being fat. That might be because I’m from Michigan though and that’s one thing we’re doing right. The thought that a doctor would turn someone away for being fat is so alarming. First, do no harm, yes?

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