You (Don't) Just Need to Lose Weight
An interview with Aubrey Gordon about her new book on 20 anti-fat myths
Ah, New Years. The time when diet companies ramp up their weight loss speak. And it works. The industry continues to grow and is worth $71 billion, even though diets fail 95% of the time. Much of this persistence is due to anxiety about fat bodies.
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Aubrey Gordon doesn’t think you need to lose weight. In fact, it’s not as simple as “calories in, calories out.” She wants you to know that BMI is BS. And in her latest book, You Just Need to Lose Weight and 19 Other Myths About Fat People (out January 10), the writer and Maintenance Phase podcast cohost lays out the truth about fat folks and diet culture. She tackles oft-repeated comments like “It’s easy to lose weight” and “Fat people are unhealthy.” The book also includes vulnerable anecdotes held up by solid research that helps us figure out where these ideas about fat people came from with reflection questions and suggested action items.
Gordon and I spoke in December about galaxy brain moments, her self-care writing hack, and her favorite comedian. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Christina Berke: Who did you write this book for and who do you hope reads it? Because I’m thinking the people who really need to read this likely won’t.
Aubrey Gordon: It’s designed as a sort of come one, come all, an introduction to a bunch of ideas. My most grounded hope for how it gets used is from a lot of demographics that we’ve heard from on the show [Gordon’s podcast which debunks everything from Goop, Weight Watchers, the Food Pyramid and much more] — folks who haven’t quite cracked the code on how to reach their family members who are kind of messed up on this issue. Or the number of emails that I get from a thin sibling of a fat person who’s like, Our parents won’t leave them alone. What do I do? Or someone going through medical school saying, I’m getting told that every time a fat person comes in, I need to lecture them about weight loss. And I’m pretty sure that training is wrong. What are the lines really? Where do I go to get more concrete information that can move that conversation a little further?
This book is for folks who have identified that there’s a problem, but I feel stymied as to how to get to it, or have identified that there’s a person in their life who needs to do some growing on this issue, and they’re not quite sure where to start.
My hope is that this gives folks the grounding and confidence that they need to apply what they already know about the people and institutions in their lives, and how those change to feel strong and competent enough to take on that conversation; to not feel quite so hesitant or stumped by the enormity of the change that they are identifying needs to happen.
CB: So it’s kind of crowd-sourced from people saying, Well, I don’t know what to do.
AG: That’s the number one — the volume of emails that I get are people saying, Oh, my God, you’re a person who I’m hearing talk about fatness in a way that isn’t totally stigmatizing. I have this thing that I’ve been trying to change — the t-shirts that my volleyball team makes only come to a size large; what the hell are we supposed to do if a fat person wants to join the team? People who want some in-depth coaching on these very specific challenges that they’re facing. Often what folks need is — Hey, you’re on the right track. And all you have to do is something.
CB: You wrote, “Learning more about anti-fatness does not change things” though it can be a starting point. You recognize next steps can be unclear or daunting, but some suggestions seem manageable. For instance, requesting seating options for students who are fat or disabled is something an ally could do. One point in the book says doing anything is enough. There’s a lot of work to be done.
AG: I was talking to a health and wellness reporter the other day who said, “I don’t think I’ve ever had a fat editor. I don’t think I’ve ever worked with another fat writer.” They were galaxy-braining out. It’s all broken. You just have to pull a thread and pick one and see what happens. I think the problem that we have right now is not too many people doing too many things to help fat people. That’s not the problem.
It seems that way too many people are thinking, “I don’t know if that’s right…” But then are not saying or doing anything. Part of the goal here is to get folks over the hump of feeling this incredible dissonance between their values and what’s happening around them and getting them to think through some steps to get those two things more in alignment.
CB: Are there plans to expand this out, like creating an online course? Or are you putting it out there for other people to do the work and have it splinter out from there?
AG: I think if I followed it to its logical conclusion, it would end up being an advocacy organization. But those already exist like the Association for Size Diversity and Health, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, and NoLose, a queer fat organization. I’m much more interested in helping those folks do their work more and better and easier than creating a new vehicle for all that.
CB: I’d love to hear a little bit more about your transition from writing anonymously under Your Fat Friend and going public. What compelled you and what’s changed since?
AG: I started writing anonymously around 2016 because I was working a day job where I knew folks would be hostile to this issue and it would impact my ability to do my job on a daily basis. And because I knew that people react extremely irrationally to conversations about fatness and fat people. Pretty quickly I started getting a number of death threats and quite a few people who would email me every time I mentioned the location in my writing which is enough to give you pause, enough to want to stay in on this for a while.
But it’s a really hard thing to keep a secret, especially in the media, and try to do that over the course of years. After a certain point, it just became more of a burden to carry around than a helpful shield. If people want to find you or cause you harm, they’re going to do that, whether or not you tell them your name. It was giving me an illusion of safety that wasn’t really there. It seemed much easier instead of feeling that I had to lug this thing around with me all the time and be all cloak-and-dagger with editors who are trying to work with me.
Things have changed more because of the sort of shocking success of the podcast. I thought it was going to be a fun side project, and like most podcasts, maybe five people I knew would listen to it. I didn’t anticipate that it would find the kind of audience that it did. On the rare occasion that I get recognized in public, it is absolutely because I am talking loud, not because of my face or someone recognizing my name. Someone knows my voice.
CB: One of the myths circles around the title of your book — “If fat people don’t like how they’re treated, they should just lose weight.” It’s the first one, so maybe it’s the most important, but I have to ask — if you could choose just one myth that everybody read, what would it be?
AG: It’s not the first one! Twist answer. I wrote about the Body Mass Index (BMI) about five years ago and it continues to be one of the most read, and most cited, things that I have ever written. It was trying to stitch together a cohesive history from the invention of the BMI to its current use.
There are these long periods where nothing is happening with the BMI. And then an insurance company is like, I feel I could make money off this. It is such a weird, craven history. And yet it is our number one metric, a tool that we use in defense of anti fatness — it’s just science. But all of that science is oriented around the BMI.
There’s something that happens when folks are thinking about the BMI and it becomes more of an academic conversation for them. They’re more able to accept, Oh, wait, I thought I knew this thing. And I’ve got it totally wrong. In a way, that’s a harder sell when you’re talking about relational things. When you’re talking about things like, I don’t want to be fat, but I don’t treat fat people differently, it’s more of a needle to thread, right? Versus people can just take in a history about the BMI and go, Oh wow, that’s really wrong and weird. It becomes a galaxy-brain moment that is a safer entry point for folks to think more critically about the information that’s around them. People really take off with it.
CB: I took a long time reading this and not because I didn’t want to read it, but because I sat with it so much. I was expecting to read it quickly — it’s one of those things where you think, Okay, 20 things, a list. I can get through this, no problem. But it’s a challenging read.
AG: Yeah, it’s a hard one. You should not read this in one sitting. That’s a bad idea. You made a good choice.
CB: Was it hard to write too? I’m curious what it was like to write this and what your self care practice looked like?
AG: The thing that I did with the first book, which I wish I could have done with this one, but I wrote it in the pandemic, so less options, is take my laptop in my car and drive it out to an empty parking lot near a movie theater. So there’s nothing — there’s not a TV to turn on. You can’t do the laundry. You have to write. I’d pick a showtime for a movie. Then I would write however many words was my word goal for the day and I’d have to be done by a certain time to watch some garbage thriller.
My mom is in early childhood education, and she talks about it as changing the channel in your brain or taking your brain to the playground. That was extremely helpful to me.
CB: A well-needed playground break!
AG: The hard part is having to contend with this stuff as a fat person. But for me, it felt much easier and much more cathartic to take it apart, like an engine, and see how it worked. It felt much more useful and distancing to actually do the research into issues, like Where did people get the idea that we are in an obesity epidemic? What were the motives of the people trying to lead us to that conclusion? It’s a really thorny, messy, best-intentions-plus-worst-intentions story. But to be able to get into the mechanics rather than passively accepting that other people are going to tell me that my body is evidence of an epidemic and that I am somehow a contagion in their life, it feels like a much stronger and more powerful position to go, No, actually, you bought into a narrative that was fed to you by like five people. You really took the word hard of a very small number of people in your life. That felt much more grounding, much more powerful and more of a relief to go, Oh, I can actually see where all of this comes from. And a bunch of it is just bullshit.
CB: Does it change how people treat you?
AG: Me having that knowledge doesn’t change how people treat me. But it does change how I process their treatment of me, which is more from, Oh, sweetie, you just don’t know. Rather than, You’re right, I’m terrible and I should go away. It helps me get some distance between who I actually am and how people see me and who fat people actually are and how we are forced to be seen.
CB: The final myth in your book is that “anti-fatness is the last socially acceptable form of discrimination.” It makes sense in terms of people trying to be a supportive ally. But in reading this chapter, I realized, Oh, shit. That’s not right at all. Though well-intention, you write that it “implies you’ve reached the end of your learning. Systems of oppression are all around us and if we aren’t actively tackling them, then we are accepting them.”
AG: It’s easy to forget about homeless people and incarcerated people. We are issuing a lot of judgment about a lot of people out in public. And it feels really supportive to hear someone say, This is the final frontier, and you’ve been hard done by it and someone should have done better by you. And that’s not totally accurate.
CB: You wrote that you’ve long since stopped going on diets and trying to lose weight. What shifted for you and how did that seed blossom? Maybe a series of moments that led to more self acceptance and realizing diet culture is bad?
AG: I appreciate the seed blossoming and the series of moments because usually the way folks ask some version of those questions is, When did you call it quits? That’s not how the world we live in works. The idea that there is a point of arrival where you’re like, I’m done now. I did it! You jerks can suck it! is not an accurate representation of the world we live in because then you turn on the TV and there’s an ad for fucking Noom or then you go to a holiday party and someone starts telling you about their diet or saying, God, I really missed when you were this size.
There’s no point of arrival because there’s no stepping outside of it. Stepping outside of it would be a shack in the woods, no media. You would really have to opt out. You’d have to be off the grid to make that happen.
There are lots of points and none of them are a thunderclap. Most of mine were: I’m tired of this and nothing is changing. At one point I lost [several] pounds and a number of folks didn’t really notice or say anything. The treatment that I faced didn’t change because I’m not close to thinness. I’m not a person who’s right on the edge about to get there. I don’t get the encouragement comments nearly as much as I get the You’re going to die. I was trying and trying and trying and trying and putting everything I had into it. I’m still buying clothes from plus-sized stores which means I have less than 2% the access that straight-size people do. I’m still getting treated like a fat person — meaning treated terribly. And I’m not getting those social affirmations that people are “supposed” to get when they diet which is just a compliment for looking more like a thin person.
In college in particular, I was thought, This sucks, and I’m tired of it. I feel bad all the time. And I’m not getting anything out of this at all. Even amongst people who do lose weight, it was almost always combined with, I was really worried about you before, or You really looked terrible before. It also required me to reject myself as I had always been before that moment.
That’s a thing that we’ve all been trained to do — compliment people on weight loss. I don’t blame those people. But because they’re not interrogating the script that they’ve fed, they were asking me to do a really cruel thing to myself. And I got tired of doing that.
The thing that most sealed the deal for me is doing the research to write the books and to make our show and actually seeing the mechanics of all of this. It’s not just people waking up one day and deciding to be a jerk. It is a really complex web of bad decision making, often from people who stand to make their careers or profit off of that bad decision making, often at the hands of folks who think they’re helping or are trying to help but are still not actually listening to the people they say they’re trying to help. It’s really nuanced and makes it easier to look at it like a snow globe. It lets you step outside of and go, Oh, this is a small thing and separate from me.
CB: I have to admit that I’ve fallen for a cleanse; I thought, It’s not a diet. That’s what’s so insidious about it — it’s just rebranding. But I wanted to clear up my skin and be glowing and all the other “right” reasons; weight loss, sure, but it was incredibly hard and physically painful and I was so hungry!
AG: It turns out your body is like, Give me some food!
CB: Yeah, it was so incredibly restrictive. At one point you eat a lot of plain steamed sweet potatoes or something. I was like, I just want some ketchup. I want some salt. I want something.
AG: A condiment would be nice.
CB: In your book, you cite research that fat people are “far less likely to be portrayed as experts, advocates, and journalists.” We rarely see fat experts in the media (or in rom-coms, or skincare ads, or TV show hosts, or or or…). There are still a lot of magazines that take advertisements from diets that repackage themselves as not-a-diet, quote thin experts who’ve never struggled with weight, and showcase certain body types. Do you feel like there’s a conflict of interest in some of the places you’ve published?
AG: They don’t tend to feel a conflict between publishing both things. Like any other sort of print, magazines are doing their damnedest to stay relevant. Diets are not selling in un-interrogated ways right now. In order for a diet to sell, they have to say — We’re not a diet! Or We’re not like other diets that you’ve had! So I don’t think that they see any friction between those two things. Maybe they should… But I don’t think that they do.
I come to this work with about a dozen years as a community organizer. At some point I worked on policy campaigns particularly to advance the rights of queer people and trans people and immigrant communities and marginalized voters. And what you do when you’re trying to create change from a campaign standpoint is go to the places where the change needs to happen.
So when an editor from SELF magazine reached out and asked, Do you want to write for us? I said, Yes, people reading this need to read something other than what they have previously gotten. I will happily go there. I will happily introduce more.
It’s also in the service of making sure that you’re getting to people who aren’t just the people who are already personally impacted and already feeling really frustrated and isolated. There’s more openings in those spaces to have conversations that are imperfect and decent. They’re trying to get more folks to think critically about the ways that they show up in the world and the narratives that they buy into and what those narratives allow them to believe about the fat people around them, about themselves. Maybe you didn’t earn your thin body. The greater goal is to get more people thinking differently, especially in as many anti-fat spaces as possible.
CB: It sounds really exhausting. How is that sustainable?
AG: Movements are built to expand. If they’re not expanding, they’re just contracting to the people who know the most and are the best equipped to tackle the work. They are not actually creating social change. You have to actually go out into the world and engage with it to change it. Just figure out a place to start and pull that thread.
CB: Let’s pull on a thread of joy. Who are some fat artists and performers you love?
AG: The number one always for me is Nicole Byer, the stand-up comedian. Her material is almost entirely about her sexuality. She messes with the audience’s expectations about what it means to be a sexually desiring fat person. The other person who springs to mind is character actor Ashlie Atkinson. She’s in Mr. Robot and BlacKkKlansman — her work is outstanding. And Chika the rapper is totally incredible.
There’s a million to choose from. We’re in a real Golden Age. Fat people are doing amazing stuff right now.
Christina Berke is a Los Angeles based writer working on a memoir about eating disorders, body image, and childhood trauma. Find out more at www.christinaberke.com.
Such a Pretty Face is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.