Episode 4: It’s a Big Big World, A Response to This American Life’s Tell Me I’m Fat

Last week This American Life, possibly the most popular podcast there is, ran an episode called “Tell Me I’m Fat.” Leading up to the episode’s release I had read and listened to some teasers and learned that Lindy West and her book, Shrill, were featured, so I was really excited. I love Lindy and loved Shrill and I’ve been a huge fan of This American Life’s thoughtful, nuanced reporting for years, so I thought that someone was finally going to get the subject of fat right.

When I actually listened to the episode, though, I was really disappointed. Lindy was fantastic and hilarious and everything I hoped she’d be, but there were so many other elements of the episode that were really flawed. I listened to it over and over again hoping I was just hearing the most offensive parts wrong, but the more I listened, the more disappointed and angry I became. And this has happened over and over. No mainstream media outlet has ever learned how to talk about fat respectfully and it has gotten really old. So today I’m doing something about it. This is my big fat response to This American Life’s “Tell Me I’m Fat”.

The music in today’s show is by our friend, the very talented young DJ Citizen Starcrusher. His new album, Goodbye Halcyon Days will be out soon! In the meantime make sure to check him out at https://soundcloud.com/cstarcrusher

4 thoughts on “Episode 4: It’s a Big Big World, A Response to This American Life’s Tell Me I’m Fat

  1. I actually had the exact opposite interpretation of Elna Baker’s story, and I want to talk about why I view it differently. First, I think it’s important to note that it is a personal story, and I think the ways in which it differs from stories of Lindy West and Roxane Gay serve to demonstrate the point that not all fat stories are the same. So I take her at her word when describes her previously fat existence as being happy and somewhat blissfully unaware of her own body. And I think this is what’s critical about her piece– it subverts the typical success story of losing a lot of weight, in which the person was sad and only while fat, and then magically transformed into their best, happiest self through healthy eating and exercise. Elna’s story keeps suggesting that she was happier before, and that part of that was a naive obliviousness to thin privilege. You heard her talk about getting kissed a bunch and heard her talking about no longer being lonely; I heard her coming to realize the shallowness of sexual attraction, and the extent of objectification all women face. I thought the purpose of discussing her use of weight loss pills and skin reduction surgery served to present the “ew” factor our culture usually subjects fat people to onto the process of weight loss. I explicitly heard her discussion of her use of weight loss drugs as a condemnation of health-focused fatphobic language. I don’t think that was a subtle message– I think it’s hard to hear that story and not think that staying fat would have been healthier for her than becoming thin. What I heard in that story was a woman who accepted the idea that her fatness was a problem, and even though she lost weight– which usually is the happy ending in this kind of story– she was lessened as a person by accepting that kind of body shame. It’s a devastatingly sad story, particularly if, as both you and I have, one has heard Elna’s voice over the years. In her piece on The Moth– which I can only assume was from her fat, happy days– she was effervescent and exciting. The last few times I’ve heard her on TAL, she has seemed so different from that person that I wondered if this was a different Elna. I know there wasn’t an explicit moral stated at the end, and that Ira didn’t reinforce the point of the piece. But I also think this piece could potentially be the kind that persuades fatphobic people to rethink some of their assumptions– most notably that weight loss is the cure for all of a fat person’s problems, that weight loss will make their lives better. In Elna’s story, it didn’t.

    1. I think you make some fair points here, and I agree that the Elna story was impossibly sad. But I think This American Life’s audience already leans very anti-fat. I don’t think for a second that the average listener’s takeaway was that Elna could have stayed fat and been happy or that she was healthier in her fat body than taking phentermine to achieve and maintain her thin one. Suffering for thinness is considered virtuous! And I think Elna does believe that her life is better for being thin–she has a husband and a job now, after all–because she continues to take phentermine. I think that the message this sends is that she believes that being thin is worth all of her suffering, and that’s a message the world already hears all the time. And honestly my concern isn’t with thin listeners who hear TAL and think either that Elna’s story is a triumph or that it’s a tragedy. I don’t care about them. My mission isn’t to convert fatphobic people. My concern is about the fat people who just keep hearing how undesirable and unemployable they are, the fat people who are not naive to thin privilege, and the fat people who only hear Ira Glass insisting on an acknowledgement of the health risks of fatness while never mentioning the health risks of extreme measures for weight loss. Fat people are already inundated with these same messages over and over every day, and I’m disappointed that TAL decided to participate in that. If Ira had questioned Elna’s decisions and motivations for pursuing thinness like he questioned Lindy’s for choosing to be happy in her fat body, the whole thing would feel more balanced and objective. But he didn’t, and in the end it felt like the message was the same tired, regressive crap we always hear.

  2. I defintly didn’t came out with the same feelings you did after listening to TAL.
    You defintly changed my mind about the host’s reaction espcially in the health related issues.
    Regarding Elna’s, maybe it’s because I am a guy and we are we get a discount from soceity as far as anti-fatism goes, but for me her stort was just sad. I was sad about the harsh examples to the world we are living in, and sad about her that even though she got what she wanted it came at such a cost. for me putting Elane’s and Lindsy West’s stories one by the other emphesais that loving your self and your body regardless of weight is healthier both physicaly and mentaly. But to be honest that was my point of view before the podcast, so I might have just heard what I wanted to hear.

  3. I had such a different reaction to the Elna Baker act. I thought it was heartfelt and a good critique of going after the thinness ideal when it clearly has nothing to do with health. I also thought her reflections on not being able to garner respect as a fat person read like lies you tell yourself as a fat person when accepting your body is hard. As a fat person, I appreciate a story that acknowledges those fears and doubts and then goes on to demonstrate that they don’t go away just because you get thin. It makes me feel better about those days when it’s really hard to feel the fat acceptance thing in my heart even if it’s all up in my brain. Shit doesn’t get better just because you get thin. Which is the opposite message we get from society/diet culture every day.

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