Popaganda: The Feminist Guide to Escaping Diet Culture

Popagandas GLAMOUR season makes its debut this week—with an anti-weight-loss infomercial for the ages. In the first episode, host Carmen Rios talks to feminist activists and academics about how diet culture is fueling the kyriarchy, and how all of us can escape its clutches.

Virgie Tovar—the founder of Babecamp and author of You Have the Right to Remain Fat and the forthcoming The Self-Love Revolution: Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color, breaks down the politics of fat positivity. Caroline Dooner, author and founder of The Fuck-It Diet, weighs in on the danger of dieting. Sabrina Strings, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, unpacks the racist roots of diet culture, and the continued racist implications of our society’s narrow definition of beauty. And Kimberly Dark—professor and author, most recently, of Fat, Pretty and Soon to be Old: A Makeover for Self & Society, lays bare the reverberations, individually and socially, of walking away from body shame and judgement.

It’s probably not news to Popaganda listeners that our world has a whole lot of opinions about women’s bodies. But in this episode, Carmen digs even deeper—exploring the racist and sexist ideas that perpetuate unrealistic and unhealthy beauty standards for women and girls, and unpacking the impact the diet culture we subsequently live in shapes their lives. She also challenges listeners to envision a world beyond diet culture, and helps chart a course out of it. After this episode, you’ll be ready to say goodbye to all of the expectations our society has saddled you with—and start looking at your reflection from a new, feminist perspective.


Photo via NYU Press

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[epic, suspenseful movie theme music]
CARMEN RIOS: Have you ever woken up completely alone, in the pitch blackness of your own life, overwhelmed by the excruciating expectations that our entire culture puts on your human body? Are you currently haunted on an ongoing basis by the impossible beauty ideals espoused by the fashion industry? Have you ever thrown a so-called women’s magazine full of Photoshopped models at the nearest wall, only to find that the social pressure to be thin rose out of the pages and followed you across the room? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you might be trapped inside the clutches of diet culture. I’m Carmen Rios, feminist digital media superstar and host of Bitch media’s Popaganda podcast, and I’m here to help you escape.
[music winds down]
What if I told you that you could be healthy at any size and that you could feel yourself at any size, too? What if I told you that it was possible to dismantle kyriarchy just by eating whatever the fuck you wanted to every day? What if I told you that it was possible to devote your time, energy, and emotional headspace to something bigger, better, and a lot more fun and interesting than the numbers sewn into your clothes and blinking back at you from the scale? I sought out the advice and hard-earned wisdom of feminists who’ve untangled themselves from our suffocating web of demands put on women’s bodies and exposed diet culture as a racist and sexist institution designed to destroy us.
Stay tuned, and you’ll hear from Virgie Tovar, the founder of Babecamp, an online course that helps people break up with diet culture, and author of the manifesto, You Have the Right to Remain Fat and the forthcoming book The Self-Love Revolution: Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color. She’ll open up about her own journey as a fat activist and break down the politics of fat positivity.
VIRGIE: Somebody invited me to a conference called NOLOSE, which is a conference for fat queers and allies. And it was an Oakland that year. and I get there, right, and I don’t entirely, I have no idea really what to expect. I’ve sort of been told like, it’s about fat activism. It’s about discussing topics around fat liberation, and there are fat activists there. But I had no vision or no visual or anything attached to what that meant. And so, I get there, and I’m walking into the hotel. And I’m walking through the breezeway of the hotel, and I can smell the chlorine, and I can hear laughter. And then, as I exit the breezeway into the central part of the hotel where the pool is, I see this incredible visual that I’ve never seen in my entire life. And it’s like fat people just living their best lives. Fat people in amazing bathing suits, taking naps and putting on suntan lotion and chatting and floating in the pool, and they were just so happy. And I did not sense any sense, I did not sense shame from them, which I had never seen before. I had never seen fat people, number one, in a group, number two, clearly and visibly having fun without any self-awareness that I could see.
And then, somebody comes out of the side of this amazing tableau, and it is this really hot babe who was a burlesque performer in San Francisco and Oakland for a long time called Jukie Sunshine. And I didn’t know her at the time, but she came out, and she was just like red hair, big boobs, big belly, big arms, big thigs. And she was wearing a red and white vintage-cut polka dot bathing suit with cat eyes sunglasses. And she just sauntered out from her hotel room, pool side into the pool area. And there was this boy trailing behind her carrying a parasol over her head so that she wouldn’t get a sunburn! And I really, you know, in that moment when I saw her and that whole Tableau. that for me. was really the death of any chance that I was gonna ever go back to dieting.
CARMEN: Caroline Dooner, former chronic dieter and author and founder of The Fuck-It Diet, will also join us, weighing in on the danger of diets and opening up about the power of leaving them behind.
CAROLINE: My pattern was that I would start bingeing on the allowed foods on the diet, and I would sort of like push that to the extreme. And then I would sort of start playing with the rules and really going off the rails. And I remember it was after a binge on these paleo muffin—well, they were cupcakes that I made, but there was no icing—and I had removed most of the sugar from the recipe. And of course, it was a paleo recipe, so it was some sort of coconut sugar or something. But I’d removed most of it. I didn’t make the paleo icing. It was my birthday. It was my 24th birthday. And I ate all 12 of them, and they were disgusting. And I felt disgusting, and I was miserable. And I had this wake-up moment, and I call it an epiphany, and it hit me in like one bolt of understanding. But I knew in that moment, that I, even all of the times that I had tried to heal my relationship to food, I had not even begun to address my relationship to weight. And as long as I was trying to control my weight, I was never, ever, ever going to be able to heal my relationship to food and that this was just gonna keep on happening.
It was very clear. I was like, this has been happening for 10 years. I’ve been doing this for 10 years. I’ve been going on a diet, and I’ve been bingeing on a diet. And I’ve been going on a diet thinking that I’m gonna heal not only my body, but my appetite and my relationship to food. And it’s literally only made it worse. What followed was scary and difficult. But I knew, I just knew that it had to happen because I didn’t want to live the way I was living anymore, and I didn’t want to be obsessed with my weight. And I didn’t want, like I just, the level of obsession and misery and hyper-focus on looks and weight and therefore food was just something that I’d done. I’d really tried, genuinely tried, and I just knew that I didn’t want to do it anymore.
CARMEN: Sabrina Strings, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of California, Irvine, and the author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, will unpack the racist roots of diet culture and the racist implications of our society’s narrow definition of beauty.
SABRINA: You know, it’s funny. I think all of us have grown up in a fatphobic diets-centered culture, and yet it’s something we don’t reflect on very much. I think if it were not for my familial relationships, I wouldn’t have thought about it at all. For whatever reason, my grandmother held on to this intense curiosity about why white women were on diets. So, she and I were very close. And it was something that she experienced when she first came to California in 1960, she was like, you know, moving from a segregated rural community in Georgia to Pasadena, she could not get over the fact that so many of these white women were on diets. It’s like, what does it mean, [laughs] you know? And so, then she would draw me into conversations about that when I was in high school. And my general response was, “I don’t know. Can I get a cupcake?” ‘Cause my grandmother was like many grandmothers, always had plenty of treats and snacks around. And she’d be like, “Yeah, yeah, go get a cupcake.” So, but it wasn’t until years later that I noticed just how important it is in our culture. We try to make it into an individual problem: either a person has an eating disorder or a weight problem, and it’s about them. But I started to notice just how much it was pervasive in our society that women, by the time I was in my 20s, I would say women across all racial-ethnic groups were being encouraged to maintain a slim body. And I thought, well, this is a social problem! And what does it mean? Why are people being encouraged to do this?
CARMEN: And Kimberly Dark, writer, professor and self-professed raconteur, and author, most recently, of Fat, Pretty and Soon to be Old, will walk us through the social structures that shape how we feel about our appearances and the reverberations that shake everything up when we start taking care of our bodies instead of trying to punish and change them.
KIMBERLY: I was pretty young when diet culture [chuckles] and all of its accoutrements were trying to kill me, right? So, the first thing was survival, and then came the process of sort of being able to put down shame and then being able to talk about it. And the talking about it part, I think, is critical. We have to be able to talk to others about the experiences that we have with societal expectations. And for me, learning more about social context. I mean, when I started as an undergrad, started studying sociology and women’s studies, these were critical times for being able to go, oh wait. I’m not the only person who has these experiences, and they connect to a broader social fabric that needs to be changed. This is not a personal problem. So, I think that that, and it doesn’t have to be through university education. I mean, this is part of what I’m trying to do with this book by embedding the messages about radical social change in storytelling. What I’m hoping to do is to show folks that, first of all, you’re not alone in having these kinds of experiences, but also there is a roadmap for becoming a social creator, for reclaiming our power to not just be influenced by culture, but to influence culture as well.
CARMEN: I know: It sounds too good to be true. But the reality is that diets are bullshit, and so are the beauty standards that rob too many of us of our happiness and our health. So, don’t smash the “next” button on Spotify! Don’t pause this podcast. Stay tuned and try to envision a future beyond diet culture with us. Try it risk free, and you just might change your life and smash the patriarchy in the process.
[old-fashioned radio dial tuning]
WOMAN: You know, this was me five years ago.
MAN: What’s the best way to reduce?
ANNOUNCER: Diets don’t work!
WOMAN 2: ♪ “For every chocolate mousse I’ve missed, for every éclair I resist….” ♪
WOMAN 3: [angelic harp playing] I’m ready to lose weight, and I wanna start now.
[radio shuts off]
CARMEN: I know how it feels to be held hostage by beauty standards imposed by society. And I’m not alone. According to data compiled by the Social Issues Research Center, eight out of 10 adult women are unhappy with what they see when they look in a mirror. The journey to that dissatisfaction starts earlier now than ever: Over 80 percent of American girls have dieted at least once by the age of 10. And a study by Harvard University found that two-thirds of underweight 12-year-old girls thought they were too fat, and half of all 13-year-old girls were significantly unhappy with their appearances. Caroline’s own experience echoes that dismal data. At 14, she was put on a diet by doctors, not because she needed to lose weight for a medical reason, but because they wanted to be sure her hormonal disorder didn’t make her fat.
CAROLINE: When I was in high school, I was diagnosed with PCOS, which is a hormonal syndrome that is associated with weight gain. And so, thanks to diet culture, essentially my doctors at 14, were like, “Okay, great. So, just watch your weight. Try to keep your weight down, and we’ll put you on the pill. So, just avoid carbs and don’t eat too high fat, and exercise. And we’ll monitor it.” So, I mean, I now believe this is super, super, super irresponsible advice, and it also implies that you could maybe heal the hormonal syndrome from losing weight or from keeping your weight down. And that’s sort of what I assumed hearing that, and that’s what I sort of set out to do.
CARMEN: That initial recommendation sent Caroline down a dangerous road. She spent the next decade caught in the clutches of diet culture, battling her own body in a fight for a fictional idea of happiness and health.
CAROLINE: It is how I remember my high school and college days, by what diet I was on. So, the first one I went on was the Atkins diet, which is essentially just keto with different branding: super, super, super low carb. Basically just meat and vegetables. And that was the first diet I went on, and I lost weight, like a lot of weight initially. And I hesitate to say this because it makes it sound like that it would be okay to be dieting if I was in a larger body, which I still don’t think that that’s healthy for us. And it still can be super problematic and dysfunctional. But I wasn’t [laughing] even in a larger body. Like that’s the thing: to be told by your doctors when you’re 14 and are going through puberty and have gained normal amounts of weight for puberty and have a spotty period essentially at 14, to be told, “Okay. Well, we tested your hormones, and it looks like you might have this particular hormonal syndrome. Don’t gain weight.” It’s just so, so super irresponsible. But I started off on the Atkins diet, lost lots of weight, and then after a couple months, I, I…lost control.
And the weirdest thing is, I don’t remember the moments where it would tip. And it’s almost like it was this traumatic thing where I just couldn’t even believe that it was happening and that I was losing control because it was really, it was honestly, really scary to me. Because I thought that this was this super important, responsible thing that I was doing. And the fact that I started to lose control was absolutely terrifying to me, and I couldn’t help it. And I remember I would sort of binge on the allowed snack foods, and for Atkins that was almonds. So, on Atkins, you’re only allowed to have like eight [laughs], like eight almonds a day or something absurd like that because almonds have carbs. But I would start to abuse the allowed foods on whatever diet I was on. And then it would just sort of like tip into this frenzy and this bingeing that felt like that was my problem. It felt like the bingeing was the problem, not realizing that when you put your body on a super restrictive diet, you binge.
I mean, and it might not happen for a couple months, and it might not happen for a couple years depending on how well you are at restricting, you know, how good you are at restricting and how well you’re restricting. And in some ways, how successfully disordered you can be. Because you can be a disordered eater for decades, and a lot of people are, where it’s this obsession and it’s this fear and it’s this extreme control. But it becomes your identity, and it becomes this thing that you believe is good for you, or it makes you happy. Or a lot of people go back and forth thinking that they maybe have a problem with food, but also there’s this deep, deep, deep fear of gaining weight. And also when you’re restricting food, you gain weight at the drop of a hat, and that’s your body in a protective mode. But because our culture is so, so judgmental over weight gain and being in a bigger body, it’s a terrifying thing for people. And they assume that it’s something that’s horribly wrong. And so, we assume that thinness is health and gaining weight is not health, but that’s just diet culture.
But so, I tried lots of different diets throughout my teens, and I would always think of that first summer when I went on the Atkins diet, and I was so good at dieting that first time and that second time that it got harder and harder and harder and harder. And I would think, okay, Caroline, if you can just, if you could just go back to how good you were on the Atkins diet for those first four months. Just do that again. If you could just do that again. Just get into the flow. Like get, like…it just felt like it was this attainable thing that I’d done once before and I just needed to do it again, and I needed to do it forever. And I was like, and then you’ll lose weight again, and then you’ll keep the weight off again. And then you’ll be healthy and you’ll be successful in your career, and everything’s gonna be perfect. And I really, genuinely believed that it was possible because it happened that first time. Meanwhile, it got harder and harder and harder. And it was harder to stay on a diet even for a couple of weeks at a certain point. And honestly, looking back now and knowing what I know now, that was my body fighting back, being like, oh my god. Please, please don’t do this to me. But I just kept trying for 10 years, essentially.
CARMEN: Kimberly’s relationship with diet culture starts even earlier. In her book, she looks back on an entire childhood and adolescence spent restricting calories to such extremes that she couldn’t participate in recreational activities with her friends or go an entire afternoon without napping or even think clearly. She also remembers being rewarded for it over and over and over again. She remembers being praised for her body’s smaller size while she was exhausted from starving it. She remembers being celebrated for taking extreme measures to shrink in secret. It’s an experience Virgie also remembers well from her own years of dieting.
VIRGIE: Most people don’t understand the psychic, spiritual, and psychological toll that dieting takes on a person because essentially, dieting is a behavior that we undertake that confirms and keeps open a very deep wound. Dieting itself keeps the trauma and the wound of the idea that something’s wrong with our body. It keeps it alive and open. And in fact, it makes it worse day after day after day. So, what does it mean to essentially participate in a behavior that is meant to indicate to society that you understand that something is wrong with you and that you are undertaking sometimes extreme measures to fix it? And I could not, like there’s no way that I could’ve known how much…. Like, I don’t know.
So, let me back up and say the before picture was day in, day out, me waking up every morning, and my first thought was, I hate this body. And then thinking whenever something, whenever an opportunity to do something that maybe mattered to me was presented, it looked a lot like me postponing and saying and thinking, in the future when I’m thin, I will do that thing. I will go to the beach and wear a bathing suit. I will smile in a picture. I will go on this vacation that really matters to me. I will fall in love. I will wear that outfit later, some other day down the line, when I’m a radically different size. And I think those realities really had me in a disembodied, disassociated, and deeply miserable state. I had a lot of anxiety around food. Every single bite of food created a sense of panic because I was afraid of what it would quote-unquote “do to me,” right? When you’re dieting, every single bite of food, in the mind and the myth of dieting, right, every single bite of food matters greatly. Because every single bite of food presents a threat that you will lose all the “progress” that you’ve made so far. And so, that creates a terror-driven relationship to food.
And I think about also my relationship to things like sexuality. I remember moments in my dieting days where I literally couldn’t even get aroused because I was just so calorically deprived and so disassociated. And so, and I think what’s really sickening about all of it, two things: one, these elements like sexuality, eating, the experience we have with our body, these things are inherent, like they’re inherently magical, right? We have this biologically created, driven relationship to our appetite, to sexuality. For most of us, right, these things are things that have the potential to provide us with extraordinary pleasure and connection. And I feel like diet culture really just smashes those things. It smashes the inherent joy of movement because it turns movement into exercise. It’s smashes our access to joy with food because it turns food into diet. The other sickening part was as I was destroying myself, I was getting, the more I destroyed myself, the more accolades I got from other people. And this is a common experience. I work with people who are recovering from chronic dieting and who are trying to learn fat liberation and fat positivity. And it is really troubling to hear so many of them tell the story of how they got a mysterious chronic illness and began to lose weight because they were afraid that they were literally dying.
And people were telling them how fantastic they looked. People who had maybe gotten cancer, and people would say things like, “Well, at least you’re gonna lose weight.” Or I know somebody who had developed literally a methamphetamine habit in order to maintain a lower weight. And I think we can objectively probably say that being addicted to methamphetamines is probably really unpleasant for the person experiencing it. But got the most compliments she’d ever gotten in her entire life at the depths of her addiction. And so, I think there is this really terrifying, and I would argue really, it’s both terrifying and it’s also indicative of kind of the true nature of what dieting is. I feel like there’s something so metaphorical about the idea that, I, as a woman, when I was starving myself, that was when I was getting the most romantic attention from dudes.
CARMEN: These are all experiences I can relate to as well. I was dieting young and worried about my appearance as soon as I exited girlhood and entered adolescence. The ebb and flow of that kind of self-loathing has, in some instances, defined entire periods of my life, including the years I spent counting calories, daring myself to eat less than I wanted to, and feeling like a failure if I couldn’t make my body any smaller. These are pressures I still cave to. The idealization of thinness still sometimes overpowers my own desire to live a life on my own terms. But it isn’t my fault and it isn’t yours either. Because on top of our universally negative internal dialogues with ourselves about our bodies, women also contend with widely-held beliefs about their bodies that run counter to what’s good for them and media images that model unrealistic and unhealthy expectations.
VIRGIE: So, the reality is, like we know the statistic for women, right? 68 percent of U.S. women are a size 14 or above. Mass media is actually showing you, typically 95 percent of our feed, or rather mass media’s feed, is a body that is less than 1 percent of the population.
CARMEN: Everywhere women and girls look, they see fake and Photoshopped images of female bodies that define “perfection,” a phenomena Naomi Wolf, author of The Beauty Myth, called “the official body.” Just two or three decades ago, that body was a skip away from an average woman’s reflection. She weighed about 8 percent less than the average woman. But today, the “perfect woman” weighs 23 percent less than the average woman. Less than 5 percent of women can even look like the models they see in Vogue and the actresses who dominate big and small screens. Those disparities are dangerous for individuals and for entire societies. Northwestern University psychology professor and Body and Media Lab founder Renee Engeln has diagnosed our cultural obsession with an idealized body as “beauty sickness.”
And in Killing Us Softly, an ongoing documentary and lecture series by Jean Kilbourne, she shines a light on how gendered images in ads negatively impact not just women’s self-esteem and the likelihood that they’ll engage in disordered eating or other unhealthy behaviors, but also perpetuate stereotypes that justify violence and empower backlash against the feminist movement at-large. The truth is that diet culture is bad for us by design! It’s part and parcel of the kyriarchy that threatens our feminist values, and it actively fuels sexism and racism. That was a driving force behind Virgie’s decision to walk away from it.
VIRGIE: I think that a lot of us are trained to believe that our mainstream culture, our society is kind of this benevolent patriarch that largely wants all of us to succeed. And I think for me, I had to, unfortunately, I had to radically reorient myself to the truth, which is that that is true for a very small number of people, and it’s not people like me. I’m a fat person. I am a person of color. I’m a woman. I come from an immigrant trajectory. I was raised working class. That benevolent patriarch is not interested in my success. And in fact, he is much more of a sleazy salesman, in fact, much more so than a stately regal, bearded white man at the head of a table or whatever. He is much more of like the gross dude who’s trying to sell you really messed up stuff and knows it’s bad and is trying to trick you actively.
Leaving dieting was symbolic in so many ways. Walking away from a behavior that I had been taught was fundamentally tied to what it meant to be a fat woman, and arguably a woman at all, it meant walking away from heteronormativity on some level. I understood. I mean, I think again, sort of, I mean, in retrospect, I think I psychically understood that this was expected of me within a marketplace where I was interacting with dudes. And then I think also, I had to come to the realization symbolically that this meant that I was not accepting the white, masculine standard as a standard that I was attempting to meet day after day after day after day after day, which is a pretty strong sense of autonomy for a person of color. And I think the list kind of goes on and on. But I think for me, right, it was like that divorcing process that had to occur where I stopped seeing the culture as something that I could get the approval of if I kept working my little ass off.
And something that was never meant to be for me because I actively sort of in a lot of ways threatened, right, the sort of the maintenance of a white supremacist, patriarchal state. I have the potential to, and so my body always had to be controlled. And I think this is something that people on the margins really need to recognize, right? Like when we’re talking about the perpetuation of a white, hetero-patriarchal state, which is the current trajectory that we are on, that the country has been on since its inception. Whenever you’re someone who’s not part of making that machine, meaning you’re not a white dude and secondarily not a white woman, you know, your body—and I mean, even white women this, right—your body needs to be controlled because you have the power, just by virtue of being yourself. If you were allowed to just be yourself, you could entirely unravel [laughing] the trajectory of white supremacist, heteropatriarchy.
CARMEN: Unraveling damaging social structures is exactly what Kimberly hopes to engineer in her own work.
KIMBERLY: I think that we live in a culture where of course we’re aware of appearance because it’s very important. And it is not incorrect to believe that you might get better opportunities or better privileges if your appearance is more conforming to what the culture tells us women are supposed to look like. And let’s be clear: those guidelines to be slender, to have a certain kind of beauty, they’re strongly rooted in white supremacy. And so, we have to be really clear about what are we upholding? I often say we are creating the world even as it creates us, that both of those things are always true. And so, that’s actually a brilliant thing because we can come to see the ways that we are influenced by culture as we decide, what are the ways that we hope to influence culture?
So, one of the big ways all of us are influenced by culture is through media—the kinds of images and messages that we consume—and also through the idea that, you know, I think that part of sort of growing up and taking responsibility for our time and our lives, part of that is to acknowledge that we live in a culture where people are trying to sell us things all the time, right? And you’re right. In the book, I do discuss consumerism and more broadly, capitalism, but consumerism can even prevail in cultural circumstances that aren’t strongly capitalist like in the U.S. But the idea that you need to purchase something in order to make yourself acceptable to others, I mean, think about that for a moment. It’s a radical idea that we have all just swallowed wholesale, that there are things that you need to purchase. And I don’t feel like I’m exempt from that, right? We are literally all influenced by consumer culture.
Sometimes I ask myself a little question. If I’m looking at buying something especially for my appearance, I sort of ask myself the question in a tongue in cheek way, is this really going to improve the quality of my life? Like if I believe this lip gloss will improve the quality of my life, [laughs] then go ahead. And sometimes it’s like, yeah, actually, I do right now, right now in this moment. But then that becomes a conscious relationship with consumerism rather than an unconscious one, which I think is the really dangerous part. And it’s dangerous exactly for the reasons that you mention. Because it is upholding and reinforcing values that we might otherwise really say we disagree with: things like white supremacy. That when we are upholding ideals of beauty that really have a lot to conforming with whiteness.
bell hooks, for instance, talks about how even white people are not white enough for whiteness, right? The idea that there’s all of these hair lightening. There’s whole salons that are focused on highlights and making hair blonder. Imagine if there was a salon that you walked past that was all about giving people afros. I mean, it doesn’t exist, letting people of any race have a tight afro. It doesn’t exist because that would be counter-cultural. Whereas we kind of take for granted that the quest for blondness or skin lightening or getting rid of freckles or making our bodies slender in a certain way, we kind of accept that those are normal pursuits without ever really thinking through what is the history of these things. And the history very clearly is a white supremacy, even with fat hatred.
CARMEN: Sabrina knows that history well.
SABRINA: I would suggest that everyone who is slender has been privileged, including myself. So, there are some very clear ways that I can see when I go out in society that people see my physique, and then they make a variety of assumptions about me just based on that. However, we must also keep in mind that the highest form of thin privilege is white thin privilege. So, it’s not as if I’m having the same reception in society as a white woman who was slender, much less a white woman who was blonde and blue-eyed, all of the various characteristics of what was historically Aryan ideology. It’s not as if I’m meeting the vast majority of those. And so, it is being presented to women of color, look, why don’t you reform yourselves? Eat differently, weigh less, and then you will no longer be a burden on the public health, and you will be less stigmatized, etc., etc. But again, white supremacy is shape shifting. It’s constantly moving. It wouldn’t matter if a Black person was to be slender or fat at the end of the day because they’re still Black. So, we have to constantly keep an eye out for the reality that simply trying to assimilate or conform by adhering to a strict set of standards does not nevertheless undo white dominance.
CARMEN: Her research exposes the explicit racialization of beauty culture in the 18th and 19th centuries and reveals how the legacy of that racialization endures, even now.
SABRINA: I began this project by reading many of the writings by second-wave feminists who we’re mostly describing how this was a form of women’s oppression: that men were encouraging women to be slender for their own sexist fantasies to be fulfilled about having a woman who was petite and delicate and also probably docile. So, someone that they could very clearly have physical power over. But when I started to do research on my own, what I noticed pretty quickly just looking at women’s magazines from the late-19th through early-20th centuries, was that white women were heavily invested in this trend because it was able to prove their racial affiliation, and by that, racial superiority, white racial superiority. So, for example, some of the earliest research that I did in this project was looking at Cosmopolitan issues from the late-19th century. And later, I found also Godey’s Lady’s Book, which was a very prominent magazine in the 19th century. And it was very clear that they were talking about themselves and their racial peers as they viewed them as being tall and slender, with just the right Nordic air to make them a beauty. And I thought, wow! This racialization is explicit, and yet people have not paid attention to this before. And so, when I went back to try to figure out, well, why do they think that white people are inherently taller and more slender, I was quickly drawn into racial scientific literature that was being promoted as early as the 18th century.
So, what we saw in the 18th century was a very explicit detailing of the relationship between fatness and Blackness in that both of them should be degraded because each of them was supposed to be an index of barbarism. But as communities of color, Black people started to push back against these racist notions, white supremacy didn’t die off. It actually didn’t go anywhere. It simply transformed. It became more opaque such that today, we see a lot of the same ideologies but under a new guise, right? And that guise is often the obesity science, such that what has taken place is that we have a very arbitrary standard of weight as it pertains to health outcomes, which is being measured by body mass index or BMI. And they notice that women of color—and this is largely Latinx women and Black women—have higher BMIs than many other subpopulations, and therefore, they are a threat to the public health. We need to figure out how to convince them that the way that they look in society is wrong. That what they’re eating is wrong. That they need to be reformed.
All of the same ideologies that you would’ve seen in the 18th century, but now, instead of it being a form of obvious racial degradation, it comes across as medical paternalism. We actually care about you, and this is why we are trying to encourage you to change everything that you are. It’s now become much more internalized. You know, it’s like Foucault talks about this panopticon, which is like the all-seeing eye of society that we internalize. And I think this is a great tool for us to understand what happens with fatphobia, which is that in its earlier manifestations, it was very clear that first, men were telling other men no, being fat is bad. And then they were telling women being fat is unattractive. And then women were telling other women, don’t be fat. But now we’re all in the mode of regulating ourselves. So, even though many of us will experience, around the holidays, family members telling us that we’ve lost or gained weight and what’s wrong with us, we will also constantly be monitoring ourselves for that. So, we don’t even really need other people to tell us anymore. So, this is one of the things that makes it intractable, which is that once something like this is internalized, it becomes a personal value. It’s meaningful for us in a variety of respects to look a particular way. And so, we have to move beyond our own internalized biases as well as start to challenge the structures that keep reifying this that exist within our society.
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CARMEN: Now, I know what you’re thinking: How the heck is it possible to get out of this thing that we’ve been trapped inside of for centuries? But all of us have the ability to intentionally extract ourselves from this toxic bullshit, and you can start right now. First, you’ll have to have some a-ha moments about the very nature of diet culture to begin with. Luckily, our experts can help you get there even sooner by sharing their own.
VIRGIE: When I’m talking about having the right to remain fat, I really think about the conversations that I’ve had within queer community and queer politics. On the one hand, there’s data that would indicate that we can’t really control, relatively speaking, our body size. And so, for example, when we undertake dieting and weight loss, restriction we’re kind of, like typically, people sort of stay within a certain range that is within their genetically-determined general body size. So, on the one hand, we have this data that says really, if you’re born fat, you’re probably gonna stay fat. If you’re a naturally thin person, you’re gonna probably stay a naturally thin person. But when I assert the right to remain fat, essentially I’m saying that we all have the right to refuse to accept the cultural mandate that we attempt to control our body size. Because in reality, when we’re talking about “weight loss” quote-unquote, we’re really talking about weight cycling.
What we’re doing when we’re dieting and we’re quote-unquote “losing weight” is that where essentially losing and gaining the same amount, the same pounds over and over and over again. And the statistic kind of is, that I often point people to, is sort of like a woman who is classified as fat becoming a thin person, there’s less than a 1 percent chance. When we diet, we’re actually performing sort of a social function. It doesn’t actually have a, like it does it lead to the thing that it’s supposed to lead to. In fact, it leads to the opposite. In general, dieting leads to weight gain over time. I don’t have an issue with weight gain. I think being fat is totally a fine and normal thing to do be. But right, our culture says differently. And so, I think when we get down to the reality that dieting doesn’t work, then we have to accept that dieting serves a social purpose.
And when I say you have the right to remain fat, I am saying that you don’t have to engage in that social purpose, which is to essentially have a controlled relationship to the body, have a terror-driven relationship to food. And I think especially for feminine people, there’s this real preoccupation with our body and using our body to sort of trade for things like respect and access to romantic relationships and things like that. We’re essentially saying, like when I say you have the right to remain fat, I’m essentially saying you don’t need to do all of that. You don’t need to engage in this, what I would argue, dehumanizing and harmful behavior in order to get the things we all deserve as people regardless of size or health status.
CAROLINE: That’s exactly how I feel. All of the rules and all of the drama and all of the overthinking about food, the way that I feel is, fuck it. It hasn’t helped me. Literally fuck all of this. And that that was going to be the extreme response that I needed in order to get to an intuitive place with food. I had to have that mantra with myself every time. And my brain, I mean, my brain was so used to overthinking food and overthinking, is this okay? Am I eating too much? Is this a bad food for me? Is this gonna be bad for my health? Is this gonna be bad for my hormones? Is this gonna be? And I needed “fuck it” essentially to be my mantra to myself. It was this, it doesn’t sound it to everyone, but it was this sort of spiritual, let go. Please let go.
And the other thing that really helped me make the shift was, even in the paleo community online, which I was super, super deep into following, I was hearing whispers and little posts here and there and little blogs popping up here and there of people saying that going super low carb, especially women going super low carb, messed up my hormones and messed up my fertility and made my hormones super low. I stopped getting my period. And little whispers here and there that going low carb actually worsens insulin resistance, makes you more insulin resistant, which is one of the other things that’s associated with PCOS, the hormonal syndrome that I was diagnosed with. They associate it with insulin resistance. And they say, okay, so, go low carb or cut out carbs, which actually doesn’t heal your insulin resistance and can make it worse. And when I heard that, I remember being like, I can’t. I can’t even believe it. Are you honestly telling me that the thing that I’ve been trying to do subconsciously or consciously, trying to eat the lowest amount of carbs possible for 10 years has actually maybe made everything worse, A? B, you’re telling me that eating low carb and dieting is making hormones worse?! And maybe also the thing that’s affecting my cycle? I had never heard that before.
And so, I started following people who were trying to heal their fertility by eating carbs! And some of it was through sort of a paleo thing being like, okay, well, I’m gonna start to eat more potatoes and whatever. And then some of it was a little bit more anti-diet. My take was anti-diet because I knew that the rules were messing me up and that the focus on weight was messing me up. And then I started researching Health At Every Size, which somehow I stumbled upon. And that took the science to another level understanding that dieting suppresses your metabolism, and essentially we’re wired to fight back. Our bodies are wired to fixate you on food, make food taste better, and the hormones in our bodies change when we’re undereating. It raises our hunger hormone, which makes you fixated on food. And so, gaining weight after dieting was actually something that is really, really, really hard to avoid without extreme, extreme disordered eating. But that obviously isn’t good for you either.
CARMEN: And don’t worry, by the way, about how long it took you to get there. It’s never too late to challenge the dominant social structures that threaten our liberation! And once you’ve gotten past a moment of revelation, you’ll be ready to move toward more and more moments of recognition.
VIRGIE: I do think that that that switching kind of into critical thinking mode is important. Really going through and kind of asking yourself, does this thing actually benefit me and others? And who does it benefit if it doesn’t benefit me? And going through your life and kind of just— I think what’s really great is you can just kind of have that question in the back of your mind, and you can kind of walk through life like that in moments where it’s like, huh? Does this actually benefit me, or does this benefit someone else? And if it doesn’t benefit me and the people I care about and people like me, why am I doing it? And I think it’s important, I think, to bring a lot of compassion to that process because with that question in mind, you will find a lot of flaws all around you and within yourself! I mean, within yourself too on some level. And to really understand that as a product of a cultural education that we’re all exposed to. And so, to really kind of put that into context, you’re not some kind of terrible, horrible human being. You’re just someone who came through this culture and became the person that this culture taught you to be. And that’s okay, right? I think it’s okay to have that grace about yourself and others insofar as you want to.
KIMBERLY: It’s really important to think small in that way and to not sort of beat ourselves up for not being instantly more enlightened [laughing] about things all the time. So, one of the really simple things that an individual can do is just notice media messages as media messages rather than, oh, this is just, look, here’s all the things that I should want. And I think this is a subtle shift because I don’t think it’s reasonable to stop enjoying what we enjoy all of the sudden. And it’s fine, if you love fashion or if you care about who’s got which hairstyle right now, to still enjoy that, but also to simultaneously hold the absurdity of that as a pursuit of great importance. And so, what happens when we acknowledge, oh, these are media messages and they are socially constructed, it’s freeing, right? It’s freeing to the mind.
CARMEN: Plus, escaping diet culture isn’t an inflexible program. You can take it at your own pace. And when you’re ready to start actively removing yourself from this culturally-sanctioned sunken place, you can start with small gestures of freedom. You can change the images you see in your social media feed, for example.
KIMBERLY: If you notice that your social media feed is full of a lot of people who look very similar—which is true for many people—then what about diversifying it, right? What about specifically subscribing to, following an Instagram account that shows fatter people doing interesting things, right, like the Adipositivity Project. The idea with those things being that we cannot come to a place of love for bodies we have been taught to hate without actually seeing them with love and compassion and interest, right? And there’s beauty. Finding beauty in bodies that you were taught you should hate and avoid. So, we can literally do that by diversifying what do we see, and what do we consume?
VIRGIE: Keeping in mind that, let’s just say around 70 percent of Americans around are plus-sized people, your feed should be reflecting that because these are the people who are your neighbors. These are the people who are in your society, actually. And I think that’s a really helpful metric, right, is just to be like, all right, that’s gonna be my goal. My goal is for my feed to look like the lived reality of the people around me and the culture in which I live.
CARMEN: Or you can start the critical conversations you need to have with yourself by writing more and more of your experiences down.
CAROLINE: So, slowly but surely, I started doing research on the actual health problems with dieting, which also really helped. So, as I applied everything to myself, I was writing about it. And that also helped because it was a sort of accountability to you know what? This is something that I really have committed to. It’s something that’s very clear to me in my gut that this is the best thing I can do for my physical health and my mental health. And it was definitely a slow process, but I was extremely committed to [sighs] figuring out what the hell was going on in my own brain, you know?
VIRGIE: The other thing that I often encourage people to do is to have sort of like, I’ve been calling it a triggers heat map, but you could also, I’ve called like a body image audit as well. And what you do is you kinda have a diary for about a week. If you can do it for longer, that’s great. If you only have three days or two days, that’s also fine. And what you do is you kind of, as you have flare ups of body image, bad body image feelings or feelings about yourself or others that are really sort of really fatphobic or really body negative or whatever, you’d sort of keep track of what is triggering those thoughts. So, do you find that every day you read this certain magazine, and afterwards, you feel really terrible about your body? Okay. Write that down in the journal, right? The time of day, what the trigger was, maybe what some of the thoughts and feelings were around it. Or like, oh, I have this weekly call with this particular family member or this particular friend. And they really talk a lot about this thing, about how their body looks this way, or maybe they even criticize my body. And that might be a trigger, right? And I’m gonna write down the time and the place and the thoughts and whatever. And you kind of go through as you’re undertaking this exercise, you go through your life with the lens of like, okay, I’m going to write down the stuff that is really triggering me.
And then I’ve found the heat mapping part, you kinda go through after the day or week or whatever, and you look at what you’ve written. And you sort of start to ask yourself— First, you start to notice, right? It’s like, okay, wow. Every time I read this thing, this happens. Every time I talk to this person, this happens. Every time I’m on this Instagram account, this feeling happens. And so, you sort of go through, and you can kinda color code things. You can go like red would be really, really super, super triggering, right? Like every single time I interact with this thing or person I get triggered. A yellow would be like, okay, this thing kind of makes me have some feelings. Maybe it’s not always triggering, but, uh, it’s a yellow for me. And then green would be stuff that actually nourishes you and helps you. And so, the moments, experiences, people where you don’t feel triggered around your body and you feel good. And those might be moments like I was alone in my bed, or I was taking a bath or whatever. I was out looking at trees.
And what you do is you try and really, you try to eradicate the reds, the things that you’re redlining—not redlining, but the things that you’re highlighting in red—you try and get rid of those things as quickly as possible, as if they’re easy, right? For instance, if it’s a magazine, you gotta unsubscribe. If it’s an Instagram account, just unfollow it. If it’s people who are really triggering you, you’ve gotta give yourself the opportunity to kind of manage them. So, give them some boundaries, give them some time to adjust to your new boundaries, and then make sure that you have consequences if they don’t respect your boundaries. Or for instance, if it’s let’s say a family member who’s really triggering, it might look like, okay, instead of talking to this person once a week, I’m gonna talk to them once every two weeks. Or instead of talking to them for four hours, I’m gonna talk to them for two hours. I’m a big fan of reducing by 50 percent over time, depending on whether or not the thing changes for you and whether or not this person or this thing is able to respect your boundaries better. And then you kind of go into the yellows, right? And you begin to learn how to manage those. Like how can I minimize access to these certain things? Or if I can get rid of them all together or if I can somehow convert them into greens, great! But I think it’s really important for people to recognize that they have the right to have an intentional relationship to the things and people around them.
CARMEN: Eventually, you’ll notice a change in how you approach food and your body and in how you think about yourself.
CAROLINE: The first thing that I learned myself and that I write about is that we are wired to gain back weight when we go on a diet, and that it’s not a bad thing, that it’s actually a good and protective thing. So, a lot of people find me because they feel extremely addicted to food, which is exactly how I felt. And there’s a lot of fear-mongering about food addiction and sugar addiction and this belief that we need to get control of ourselves or else we’re going to spin into chaos and disease, essentially. And the experience of food addiction and the experience of sugar addiction is very real. It really, really, really feels like a food addiction when you’re in it and when you’re dieting and when you have all of these rules around food and when you’re kind of in that yo-yo cycle. Even if it’s not as dramatic as mine was or as dramatic as some people’s are, the backlash from restricting or even the guilt around food can also, especially, if you’ve been on lots of diets, your body literally pushes you off the diet. So, understanding that that’s happening for a reason and that it’s not a sign that you have a p-, I mean, it is a problem with food, but not a sign that you have a food addiction that will be cured through abstinence.
I mean, that’s the fascinating thing about the experience of food addiction is that restriction is the thing that makes it worse. So, the idea that you can heal the addiction or the feeling of addiction or the intense cravings and the bingeing and the frenzy around food and the fixation of food—that’s what feels like an addiction, right—that you can’t stop thinking about it and you kind of go nuts when you start eating and that it’s a binge. That feels like an addiction, but it is a very specific response to restriction and also diet culture: this sort of low-grade guilt that we have around eating and around our bodies. So, the idea that we can, heal it or manage it through more rules actually just perpetuates it. But it is this kind of self-fulfilling prophecy because for me, and for a lot of people, when you tell yourself, okay, I have a food addiction. I’m completely, completely a monster around food, and I can’t control myself. And if so, I need to have really extreme rules.
So, you put yourself on a diet, and you feel great for a couple weeks or a couple months. And you’re like, wow, I’ve really figured it out. But then you start slipping up, and you start bingeing. Or you start, you know, you have these extreme cravings for food, and you say, my god, there you go. Look, that’s my food addiction. I really do have a problem. Look, I binged last night. I am, I am out of control. I’m not like other people who can do intuitive eating. I really, I really have to get this under control. And you put yourself back on another diet, and the cycle continues. And you convince yourself that your problem is food addiction. So, just even just educating that that cycle exists, not just for the person who’s suffering with it, but mostly for everyone can be a huge relief to people. And just understanding that you are not alone in this and that that literally is just what happens when people go on diets can be, you know, that’s the thing that people need to hear.
Because people want to heal their relationship to food, and a lot of people will find the Fuck It Diet or will read the Fuck It Diet thinking, oh great, I’m gonna go on the Fuck It Diet. I’m gonna heal my relationship to food, and then I’m gonna be skinny, right? The same thing that I did with intuitive eating, which is why a huge part of the book is talking about how our obsession with weight and our misconceptions about how weight and health work together are still actually at the root of our dysfunction with food. So, that’s the next big piece. The next big piece is our beliefs about food and eating and weight are mostly myths and dysfunctional: the belief that anyone can diet and become thin. The belief that thinness equals health, and fatness equals horrible health is also not true.
Understanding size diversity, that different people have different resting, essentially, weight ranges where their body feels the safest, and not everybody wants to be skinny. And those bodies that feel safer with extra weight—and “extra weight” even makes it sound like, you know, that’s actually not the best phrase—at a higher weight believe that they need to become thin, but that’s actually a really unhealthy weight for their body, even if they quote-unquote “look good” or quote-unquote “look normal.” Our relationship to weight is also a huge, huge, huge part of putting ourselves back into the diet cycle and thinking that we should be eating less and all of the sort of little subconscious beliefs that we have about what we should be doing or how we should be eating or how we should be looking: all those things affect our relationship to food.
KIMBERLY: Notice how much time you spend focused on your own appearance and maybe even your own life and the minutia of your interactions with others and start to ask, maybe even just before getting out of bed in the morning like, I am a cultural creator. What are the values I care about creating today? And see how that infuses your life in a different way. See what bubbles up to the surface. And that’s very different than saying like, suddenly I’m gonna, [chuckles] suddenly I’m gonna go out and change the world. It’s not like that, right? It’s more like, how do we just shift our small words and actions so that we are creating something different that is beneficial to others? Because gosh, make no mistake; we are literally influencing how the world will move on, the culture will move on after we have spoken, after we have taken those actions, right? We influence people we will never meet. And that’s hard to remember when we’re just in the supermarket or taking a yoga class. But it absolutely matters how we include and affirm others and ourselves in our diversity and complexity.
[upbeat country music plays]
CARMEN: Still not convinced? Imagine a different kind of before-and-after photo. One is of you right now, today, drowning in depressing self-talk imposed upon you by structural forces beyond your control. On the other side, instead of what you would normally see—a thinner and probably even more unhappy version of yourself—there’s just a happier and actually healthier version of yourself. And she’s not looking back with regret. Instead, she’s intent on paying it forward and spreading the good news about life beyond diet culture. And just so you know, she is absolutely slaying it in that outfit.
KIMBERLY: Yeah. Well, the first immediate effect is very day-to-day, moment-to-moment, and that is how much of our actual time, our precious life force, is spent strategizing appearance or thinking about the food that we eat. And I don’t just mean thinking about it like, well, what would taste good and be delicious and nutritious? I mean, thinking about it in terms of social acceptability, right? Like whether you’re talking about whether the food is clean or whether the food is going to have an effect on you that ruins your appearance, I mean, all of these things are taking, you know, there’s only so many minutes in a day. It’s only so many days in a life. And there is a tremendous drain, I think. And I’m not saying it isn’t interesting to think about preparing a meal. But what are the other aspects of that? Sharing it with others or thinking about where the food came from, and is it sourced fairly, are there labor issues involved?
I mean, these are things that one might think about if you weren’t so busy thinking about the other, you know, the other more obsessive things related to personal appearance. There’s also the issue of being so interested in these things is also reinforcing the standards that we currently have that, as I’ve already mentioned, are rooted in white supremacy, are very strongly related to gender conformity, that might not be completely— Well, look. I mean, gender conformity, the idea of a two-gender system is a social construct. And so, the importance of conforming to it so that you can be employable or respectable is really problematic. And I think that you’ve hit on the idea, right, that some bodies are valued more than others. It’s like when we really stop and think about that, it’s not something that most folks want to reinforce. And yet, we are put in a position day by day to either unconsciously pursue body and identity conformity or to choose when we’re going to invoke it.
And I think that’s really what I’m suggesting in this book is that we come up with some better overarching goals, right, for human relationship and love and compassion. But also that we acknowledge, it’s fine to acknowledge the world you’re in and to say, as a woman, I’m going to be judged poorly if I don’t wear makeup to the job interview. And so, for that, I’m going to wear makeup to the job interview. Like there’s nothing wrong with making a choice, to play along with the culture. There’s nothing wrong with that either. So, we have to be making these choices moment by moment, day by day. There’s no perfect way to unplug from the diet and glamour culture, but there is a way to be in relationship with it with integrity. And that’s really what I’m hoping for.
VIRGIE: It’s really hard to put into words how lucky I feel that I found fat activism and how different my life is. I’m so grateful that today, I didn’t wake up with the thought, I hate this body, and that I never have to wake up with that thought again. That alone, that alone is worth everything. The idea that we can walk around without a sense that something is not fundamentally wrong with us, that is everything. That is revolutionary. That has the potential to change history. That is the key. That is the core of any liberatory movement. So, there’s that.
I think about how my dating life changed drastically after I really adopted fat liberation. I began to have boundaries for the first time in my life. I had standards for the first time in my life. I think about how my relationship to clothing really changed even. I remember shopping used to be really upsetting for me and triggering for me because it was so hard to find clothing in my size, and I blamed myself all the time. And so, even going for clothes shopping now, it’s like, it’s not this horrible, stressful experience for me. Even if I am in a store where nothing’s going to fit me, or only like two things that are oversized are gonna fit me, because I radically have reoriented myself to garments, I’m like, if a garment doesn’t fit, I mean that’s a bummer for the garment. Because I would’ve rocked the garment. So, I mean, that’s unfortunate, piece of clothing, that you unfortunately cannot be part of my life, and that’s too bad for you, girl. And so, [laughs] that sort of that, that reorientation is really powerful.
I think also the relationship to food that I have now is so much better and so much more beautiful and so much more fun, and it really does feel like it’s derived from pleasure and desire. And I can feel when my body wants something, whether it’s food or something else, right? That sense of intuition has been largely restored. I can feel when my body doesn’t like something or someone. I can feel when my body wants to go do something. Like even, I mean just, it’s wild actually, right? I think about, and I’ve been telling my friends ‘cause it’s just been blowing my mind ‘cause it’s been happening more frequently where my body will just give me information that I don’t even know. It’s like, it’s clear that it’s her and not me because my brain could not have come up with this.
Just stuff, like for example, the other night I was having sex, and my body was like, you should move this thing, and it’s gonna feel really good. And I had never done it before, and I was just like, all right! And I did it, and it was amazing! I was like, what?! But anyway, that kind of stuff is not stuff that I was capable of experiencing during sex or anything. And I just think even to go back to sex, right, the idea that because I don’t feel like anything’s wrong with me, and I’m a babe, I don’t feel the need to only have sex in one or two positions. I don’t feel like I can’t put my butt in my partner’s face. I don’t feel like I can’t be totally sexy and do a weird, hot butt dance. Like I’m like a total babe, so I can do whatever I want, right? I can do this thing in the bedroom. I can do this thing out in my daily life. I can eat this thing. There’s nothing wrong with me!
CAROLINE: I also, I [sighs] hyper-focused on the way that I looked and my weight and the way that I thought people perceived me in a way that I didn’t even realize. I mean, it was just the way my brain worked. It was just the way that I thought about myself. And I worried about it so much, and I over-thought. And I was so critical and judgmental of myself. I felt like people were watching me all the time and that it really mattered that I looked good and that I impressed people. It is so liberating to not live in that head space anymore. And when any old thoughts like that come up to just remember that that is such a miserable life to feel like you constantly need to be impressing people and you constantly need to be looking a certain way. And I couldn’t even imagine what that would be like. It just felt so far away. But the idea that you can just be and you can just have a body and you can just wear whatever clothes you want. They don’t have to be flattering. They don’t have to be “flattering.” They don’t have to be…. You don’t have to be constantly impressing people.
And I know that that’s easier said than done, especially in the world that we live in, especially, you know, everyone has a different story and a different, you know. And a lot of people reach out to me, and they’re like, “But I am in a career where I have to worry about what I look like.” And my response is, “I totally empathize, but at a certain point, we just have to examine. The culture is unavoidable, but some of our choices and some of our in life choices are things that we can change in order to have a calmer, kinder, self-compassionate existence, less stressful.” I think it’s so loaded because there’s so many things that I wouldn’t have been able to hear. There’s so many things that I needed to kinda play out to see for myself, oh, dieting really doesn’t work. And oh, trying to live this life and go to auditions every day is genuinely the worst, [laughs] the worst life I could ever imagine for myself. I was always miserable, and I didn’t want to admit it to myself because I wanted to be able to hack it and figure it out. I would just wanna tell myself that it’s possible to not wake up every day in dread and terror [laughs]—
CARMEN: [Chuckles.]
CAROLINE: —over the life you’ve chosen.
CARMEN: But wait! That’s not all! Once you’ve freed yourself from the clutches of societal expectations about your human form that unfairly ask you to render yourself invisible and disproportionately tiny, you can also begin imagining an entire world that is free from those cultural demands.
KIMBERLY: I’m interested in a world where body diversity is not arranged in a hierarchy. It’s literally that simple when it comes to appearance: that we can look at different people’s appearances and identities in terms of what interesting perspectives they bring and offer, as opposed to which one is better than others? I mean, how many women do that, it’s like an almost subconscious, that mental thing when you’re in a room with other women, you start to look at who’s prettier than me, and who am I prettier than? And that’s a thing that I think younger people do. Hopefully, it falls away a bit as we age, but I’m not sure it falls away so much as it just becomes some conscious, right, that we know how privilege works. But you’re right that there is a story in the book where I’m talking about that microcosm where fat is not a problem; it’s just a thing. And people organize their lives and live and work and dance and play and have sex and move along without being judgmental or at odds with their own bodies. And that world is absolutely possible.
It’s absolutely possible through practice, literally through practice, and through seeing other bodies with love and with interest and with compassion. That is literally a day-by-day practice, and you start to see your life expand, I mean, just expand. The amount of time that you free up by having loving, compassionate thoughts toward others as opposed to judgment and how do you fit in and what can you do to improve yourself and your appearance? You know, a lot of times we talk about self-improvement, and it doesn’t have anything to do with the self. It has to do with the look, and we can reframe that day to day. So, I think that’s what it looks like is, we cancel out that consumer-culture pursuit world by enlarging the world where human relationships matter.
SABRINA: I think it’s very important that we can start right now resisting the whole trend toward trying to maintain a particular BMI. And that would already help individuals who are fat, who are labeled quote “obese,” and who are managed within the medical field in a way that contributes to the stigmatization of fat bodies as opposed to a holistic path for regarding human beings and encouraging healthy habits where they are possible. And creating the structures to make healthy habits possible. So, I think that’s very important as a starting point, but it’s like so many other forms of inequality that we are experiencing within our society. What we really need to think about is how can we undo white supremacy? How can we address ongoing forms of misogyny? Because while we could very clearly have a movement against BMI, again, white supremacy, male domination, these are constantly changing within our existing white, hetero-patriarchal, capitalist structures. And so, the question is what kind of society do we want to have, do we want to collectively create in which these things no longer exist?
That’s a much longer project, obviously. That’s a revolutionary project, but it’s the kind of thing that I’m hearing as a teacher from my students all the time that they are really invested in. It’s the kind of thing that young people can get behind, not just these small changes here or there that more or less leave structures of inequality in place. But really starting to rethink how can we live our lives differently in a way that respects all of humanity? What I envision is an opportunity for individuals to have honest conversations, to be loving, to know the past. To me, this is a very important portion of moving forward in a revolutionary manner. So frequently when we’re talking about having a conversation surrounding race, having a conversation surrounding sexism, ableism, so many of the other types of -isms that exist in our society, we are like, okay. Well, we want things to be better. How do we make it better? We wanna rush to the solution. Okay, how do we fix it? Right?
It’s like, well, we don’t quite know how to fix it because we don’t yet know all of the ravages of these particular oppressions in society. I, for example, am still learning about the significance of settler colonialism to Native populations. And that in and of itself, will necessarily change what social justice means for me as a Black American. So, first before we can jump ahead, which we all wanna do—I think we all want the revolution—we first have to educate ourselves about what it is that are the various pains that communities have experienced? What kinds of retribution do these communities want to see? And how can we come together, based on our collective sense that we all want to live in a way that’s in harmony and respectful of one another, how can we then, once we know what we need to know, start to build a movement from the ground up?
VIRGIE: The end of that phobia is really connected to the end of a lot of other oppressions too. Because fatphobia has these deep connections to white supremacy, to sexism, to ableism. And we could not have fatphobia without all those other things and vice versa. I often think of oppression as a multi-headed Hydra, right? Maybe it has a bunch of heads, but it all has the same body. And it all goes back to colonialism. Really, fat phobia is about re-inscribing and normalizing the idea of hierarchy, the idea that some people are good and some people are bad. And that we’re allowed to abuse people who are bad. And this is the same kind of binaristic, reductive, absurd, barbaric thinking that is part of racism, that is part of sexism, that is part of homophobia and transphobia and all, you know. Any system that relies upon binaries, fatphobia is connected to that system. So, in my mind, in the future where there’s no more of this fatphobia and body shame and all of this stuff, we’ve also worked through a lot of other stuff too. Because you cannot get rid of that in a vacuum.
CARMEN: Not sure what it will look like when we smash fatphobia and racism and sexism and every other -ism? Here’s a sneak peek, courtesy of Virgie’s own beautiful brain.
VIRGIE: So, in the moment it’s the actual, it’s funny, ‘cause there are flashes of it that I’m seeing already that are blowing my mind. So, I’m gonna tell you what it looks like on the ground, right? It’s a lot of post-gender babes of all sizes wearing really cute spandex bike shorts. And [laughs] right? And there’s no advertising, and people are just like, there’s laughter and there’s trees and people are eating a variety of foods. And I think what’s so beautiful is there’s a joy that you can feel. I think there’s sort of a texture, like a sort of a spiritual texture, to this future that is really different than the one that we have now where you can kind of sense that people are nourished, and you can sense that they have access to joy and they have access to all the stuff that they need to be okay. And I don’t know. Again, a lot of cute outfits, a lot of really amazing earrings are definitely there. And I don’t know. I think that’s as far as it goes. But I mean, in particular, in the field of vision for me, there’s this adorable, cute fat person, and they just have their adorable fat roll out. And they’re just kinda like living their best life. There’s just no awareness or idea or anything that something might be wrong about this fat roll. It’s just like there’s just this perfect, angelic fat roll.
[upbeat music]
CARMEN: This revolution starts within, and it reverberates exponentially once we start to wear it on our skin. And it starts with each and every one of us putting the potential for a diet-free world at the top of our minds. Don’t wait one more second. Put on a crop top, order whatever the fuck you wanna eat, and start living your best life today. You just might usher in a new world order, one where every single body is finally seen as beautiful.
[upbeat music transitions into theme music]
Okay, folks. That’s all for this installment of Popaganda by Bitch Media. This episode was edited by Emily Boghossian and produced and hosted by me—feminist media-maker and movement-builder, Carmen Rios—as part of our GLAMOUR season. Our jingle is by Mucks & Owen Wuerker. Today’s guests were Kimberly Dark, Sabrina Strings, Caroline Dooner, and Virgie Tovar.
The conversation doesn’t stop here. Use the hashtag #Popaganda on social media to share your thoughts and feelings on the show. Follow Bitch @BitchMedia on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram to get more feminist stuff like it in your feed (algorithm willing), and find me @carmenriosss (with three s’s) for behind-the-scenes selfies and unsolicited excerpts from my secret Tumblr. You can also send me hate mail at carmenfuckingrios dot com.
Popaganda is produced by nonprofit, independent Bitch Media. Our feminist response to pop culture is funded entirely by our community. So, if you loved what you just heard, you can support the show directly by joining The Rage, Bitch’s monthly membership program for fed-up feminists like you, at bitchmedia.org/rage. Members get print and digital subscriptions to Bitch magazine, a members-only Filled With Rage mug, and other sweet feminist swag! And if you wanna make sure you never miss an episode of the show, you know the drill: subscribe to Popaganda on iTunes, Spotify, or Stitcher. And leave us a nice review if you feel like it.
Stay tuned for our next episode on January 2, when I’ll talk to some bona fide witches about their patriarchy-smashing beauty rituals and buy way too many handmade bars of soap. Till then, I’ll see you on the internet.


by Carmen Rios
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Carmen Rios is the host of Bitch’s Popaganda podcast. She’s also the Managing Digital Editor at Ms. magazine and co-host of Trigger Happy, a weekly webseries about women’s issues on Binge Network. She has been described as “petulant and idiotic,” “intimidating to some,” “vapid and uninteresting” and “brazenly misandrist.”