A few weeks back, Salon published an article called “I Choose to be Fat,” in which writer Laura Bogart details her lifelong battle against her body. Bogart is 250 pounds and a size 24. In her early twenties, she fought hard to shed the pounds and employed a treatment team. Of that time, she says, “I remember purging and popping pills and eating three well-balanced meals a day; binging and starving and reading Anna Karenina on a StairMaster. But none of it left me happier or healthier. Just hungry.”
Although I’ve never been obese, I can relate to punishing my body for not looking the way I thought it should. In my younger and more vulnerable years, my weight frequently fluctuated, shooting up twenty pounds after stints of eating myself sick on a daily basis; following such periods, my weight would plummet forty pounds as I either starved myself or ritualistically shoved my fingers down my throat. And I didn’t struggle with just my weight; I hated my nose for being too big, my eyebrows for being too bushy, my feet for being too wide, my arms for being too hairy, etc. I would often fantasize about Rhinoplasties and electrolysis.
It’s taken me a long time to develop a healthy self-image, and it’s something I have to continuously work at. Bogart aptly illustrates this struggle that myriad men and women face. She offers all of us hope for overcoming the overwhelming desire to live up to preconceived notions of what we’re “supposed” to look like. When Bogart says, “I choose to be fat,” she’s saying “I choose my body; I accept my body; I accept myself. I refuse to let other people dictate how I perceive my body, or how I feel about myself as a human being. I refuse to hate my body any longer, to hate myself any longer, and I refuse to equate my image with my self-worth.”
Bogart has faced a lifetime of shaming for her weight. What’s more, some critics have shamed her for her newfound self-acceptance, translating her statement “I choose to be fat” to mean “I choose to be unhealthy. I choose diabetes, heart problems, and disease.” Not only does this perspective completely miss the point of Bogart’s piece, it’s a myopic vision of what it means to be healthy. We cannot accurately judge a person’s health based on their appearance. Being overweight does not necessitate disease. You can be overweight and your blood pressure and cholesterol levels can be perfect. Your weight can match your target BMI, yet you can have high cholesterol. You and I can be the same age, same height, follow the same diet and exercise regimen, but have a significant discrepancy in our weights because of the unique way our individual metabolic systems operate. Everyone’s body is different and responds to the external world differently.
Aside from being short-sighted (and none of our business), condescending people for being overweight on the basis that they’re not watching out for their health seems hypocritical. If such shaming really stemmed from wanting to denounce unhealthy behavior, why don’t we shame people in the same way for indulging in other unhealthy behaviors? Why isn’t there a larger body of critics for smokers? Binge drinkers? People who offset binge eating with excessive exercising? People with poor diets devoid of calories, centered on fast food, pop, sweets, potato chips, etc.? People who chronically deprive themselves of sleep? Is it because so many of us indulge these behaviors and we’re not willing to give them up? Or do we only judge what’s visible? And if so, why don’t we shame people for being too thin in the same way we shame people for being too heavy? Sure, we might criticize people for having a bony physique, but excessively thin women attract men more easily than do heavier women and incite envy among their peers; they still “pass” (just look at celebrities, our icons of beauty).
Regarding Bogart specifically, we can’t even accurately claim she’s simply choosing to slight her health. She states, “Now, I’m more concerned with what my blood work reveals than what the number on the scale says. Any physician who partners with me must understand this; I want a doctor who sits across from me, not a squadron that blocks the door.” She does care about her health. She’s simply refusing to make herself sick and refusing to hate herself in order to conform to what other people believe she should look like.
The ultimate point though, is that Bogart’s health is not even the point of the article. All her life, she has been mistreated because of her weight and that’s not right. It’s not right that she’s encountered doctors who avoided eye-contact with her, smiled at her condescendingly, and failed to review her entire chart because they assumed they could ascertain everything they needed to know about her health from her appearance. It’s not right that a therapist threatened to stop seeing her if she didn’t lose weight. It’s not right that shop clerks have given her “the side-eye” and bus goers have yelled that she’s crowding them. It’s not right that her treatment team viewed her as a “problem to be solved” rather than as a human being. It’s not right that being overweight means “you are your body.”
Bogart is not condoning an unhealthy lifestyle. Rather, she’s advocating a shift in our cultural perspective of what it means to be healthy. That means no longer shaming people based on their physical appearance, and more importantly, no longer shaming ourselves. She’s calling on each and every one of us to not merely accept our bodies, but to adamantly declare, “I choose my body.”