It’s a Big, Big World: A response to This American Life’s “Tell Me I’m Fat”
“So about a week ago, This American Life, one of the most popular public radio shows—possibly THE most popular podcast out there right now—released an episode called Tell Me I’m Fat. And leading up to the release I read some of the teasers, and I was really excited about it because it heavily featured Lindy West, who is an incredible fat activist, and she’s so funny. Her book Shrill was hysterical and I’ve recommended it to everyone. And so I was really excited because I thought that, if Lindy was leading this show, that it was finally going to be the mainstream media piece that treated fat respectfully and even positively. So I was really excited about the show and I made sure promote it on Twitter, and, when I did listen, a day or so after the episode was released, I was really disappointed. And I was angry.
And righteous anger is my favorite emotion. I love to argue passionately about the things that matter to me. But let me tell you, I find no joy in what I’m about to do today. And that is to respond to this This American Life piece. And the reason I find no joy in it is just because I’m so disappointed. I really wanted them to get it right. I really wanted someone to get it right. And I feel like I just…because I love This American Life, and I have enjoyed this show for so long. And I love Ira Glass—like, I even used to say that Ira Glass was my radio husband. That’s how much of a fan I am of this show and of the respectful, nuanced way that it tells stories normally. And so I expected that same treatment for fat as a subject, and because I care so much about the concept of fatness and fat phobia, I really wanted them to get it right, and I thought that they could. I thought that This American Life was going to be the first mainstream media outlet that did. And I was wrong.
Welcome to The Fat Lip. I’m Ash, your host. And today I’m responding to the Tell Me I’m Fat episode of This American Life.
Now I’m not going to run down the whole episode here. I just think that that’s silly. I just want to talk about the things that I think they did right and the things that they did really really wrong. And this is going to take a little while because there’s a lot to talk about.
I will say that if you hear this podcast and you haven’t heard the This American Life piece, I would caution you against listening to it because there are a lot of negative messages. And I know a lot of people who felt very alienated by some of the stories in the episode, and if you’re sensitive to that sort of thing or you’re on your self-acceptance journey or your fat acceptance journey, I think that there are some things in there that could set you back. So I would caution you against that. Likewise there are going to be some things that I talk about here that correspond to what went on in the episode that also could be difficult to hear. But I’m going to tell you why they’re wrong, so this might be a little bit safer.
So let’s get started. So in the introduction and in act 1, Ira is talking directly to Lindy West, and there are some excerpts from Shrill that are read by Lindy. And overall the intro and Act 1 are very positive. So Lindy starts out talking about how we’re taught in our culture to think of fatness as temporary and that we’re taught that if we just try hard enough we can become not fat. And then at some point she recognized that fat is not temporary and that she could love herself the way she is right now. And she just says “I’m fat” and Ira mentions how strange it is to hear someone say that they’re fat in a “this is part of my identity” kind of way. And I think that there are parts here that indicate that Ira has learned some things about what it’s like to be fat in the lead-up to this show. He mentions that he learned that strangers walk up to people on the street and tell them to lose weight and that they talk down to fat people like they’re stupid. And he says that when he was talking to Lindy he used the term “overweight” a few times and she mentioned that it’s not the preferred term because it implies that there is a correct weight for people. So then he says “That’s how radical this is. It’s saying that no weight is better than any other weight.” And this is where I start to get annoyed because why is that radical? Why is it radical to say that no body is morally superior to any other body? And i know that that’s a huge struggle in mainstream culture, but if Ira read shrill or listened to Shrill, this should not be a radical concept to him anymore. So it makes me think that he’s still a little detached. Which is confirmed when he continues to say that “given the health risks associated with greater weight, that Lindy acknowledges, it can be hard to get your head around this (no weight is better than any other weight concept.)”
Now, here’s the thing, health is the most tired talking point there is when we talk about fatness. It’s the first interjection in every fat positive conversation. And I think that if This American Life was interested in treating the subject of fat respectively and objectively, I think the show would recognize that health is just another arbitrary expectation that the culture has created to police people.
I mean, if we’re all really honest with ourselves, I think we can all admit that we do not care about the health of strangers. And if you question that, I have an exercise for you. On your commit home today, I want you to find the most average, middle-of-the-road-looking white guy. And I want you to ask yourself if you care what his blood pressure is. I’m willing to bet that this is something that has never crossed your mind. And yet the culture has taught us that when you see a fat person you should think diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease.
Health is just an easy way for the average person to justify their bias against fat people.
And it’s just disappointing that This American Life didn’t think beyond that.
There’s more to say about health as it applies to this episode, and I’m going to come back to it when I talk about a later story, but I want you to note here that Ira makes it a point to say that Lindy acknowledges the health implications of fatness.
So Lindy goes on. She talks about the simultaneous visibility and invisibility of being fat. She says that one of the questions she gets most often these days is “Where do you get your confidence?” And Ira gets it right again here when he says that it’s sort of a messed up question because the subtext is “If I looked like you, I’d definitely throw myself into the sea.”
And finally Lindy tells the story of her war of words with Dan Savage who was her boss at The Stranger at the time. Dan was on the Oh Noes Obesity Epidemic train at the time and she went toe to toe with him. And she shares an email that she sent to him, and there’s a part of it that I love so much I’m going to quote it here. She said to him, in part:
“Your super fucking obvious and regressive point has been made. Everyone in the world already thinks that fat people are lazy and gross. We get it. You are not breaking new ground here.”
I silently cheered at that because it’s so good and it’s exactly what I want to say so many times.
So now let’s move on to Act 2. So Act 2 is a personal story told by one of the show’s producers, Elna Baker, who I know from The Moth and from other stories that she’s done. And I always thought she was funny! Like she told this story about being a Mormon and losing her virginity, and I thought it was hysterical. But Elna’s fat story was not funny. It was sad. And really its inclusion in this episode was so deeply disappointing.
So Elna Baker is a formerly fat person. She has lost over a hundred pounds, and at the top of this act Ira says that she’s one of the rare people who has lost a lot of weight and kept it off.
So what we learn about Elna is that she wanted to be an actress and she thinks that her fatness kept her from getting the jobs that she wanted. And I believe that because the entertainment industry is twisted as fuck when it comes to body image. And I think things are slowly changing, but it’s going to be a really long haul. But the other reason that Elna says that she needed to lose weight was that she needed to find a husband. She even quantifies her ultimate weight loss on disgusting racial terms. She says she lost 60 pounds and got the intention of black men and another ten pounds and got the attention of “Hispanic” men, and another ten pounds and got the attention of white men. Which is so beyond not okay.
And also it completely ignores the fact that there are literally millions of people who are attracted to fat people around this world. Fat people get laid every day. Fat women get married every day. And it’s just fucked up and irresponsible to continue to tell girls that if they’re not thin then they won’t find love. But of course Elna Baker thinks it is because she got thin and she kissed a lot of boys. And she got a job and she got attention and she got…free groceries at a deli?
Because, surprise, thin privilege exists!
And then she tells us the cost of all of this. So the way she lost weight was that she went to a diet clinic and, among other things was prescribed the drug phentermine. So phentermine is like an amphetamine. Elna herself calls it speed. So on phentermine she lost 100 pounds in 5 1/2 months, and then she had some skin-removal surgeries to complete her transformation into the thin woman she always wanted to be.
And then she says some other questionable and sort of offensive things about how she realized that when she was fat she didn’t have to worry about what people thought of her and she didnt’ have to worry about being noticed. But now that she’s thin and she has people paying attention to her she has to dress perfectly and act perfectly. Which is a little back-handed I think.
Then she starts talking to her new husband and she’s completely dismayed when he tells her that he would not have been attracted to her if he had met her when she was fat. And this is sad for her on a personal level I guess because she loves him, but frankly I do not care that some boring ass dude doesn’t like fat chicks. Because attraction is real and it is an important part of relationships and because he is one of literally 7 billion people on this earth and he doesn’t speak for everyone.
So Elna still takes phentermine. She says she’s taking it right now and she can’t get it prescribed anymore so she buys it illegally online.
She says that she has a shirt that says “I’m allergic to mornings” and that everyone who knows her knows her as a person who doesn’t sleep well. And she’s never told anyone that the reason she doesn’t sleep is that she’s still on speed.
She says she knows that she knows that this can’t be healthy for her but that she’s never googled the side-effects.
And this is interesting because we don’t hear Ira piping up now to make her acknowledge the health risks of maintaining her thinness! And because she has never googled the health risks of phentermine, I did it for her, and this is what I found. The possible side effects of phentermine include anxiety, insomnia, constipation, dependence (the longer you take it, the less effective it becomes so you’re forced to take more to see the same results), it causes fainting, swelling across the body, psychosis, chest pains, and in some rare cases arrhythmia, seizures, and heart failure.
But look, Elna, I’m not here to tell you not to take diet drugs. You’re allowed to do whatever you want with your body. I support your right to make your own decisions and all I’m asking is that you do the same for me. Well that and I’m asking you to stop perpetuating this lie that fat women are undesirable because that sucks.
But if we have to talk about the health implications of fatness, we should probably be talking about the health implications of becoming un-fat too. That’s all I’m saying. And this is where I think This American Life could have turned this around. This piece could have easily turned into a critical examination of the health risks of dieting and extreme weight loss and the lengths that people will go to to become not-fat. That would have made this an original and important story and it would have made this the kind of story that I know that This American Life can tell.
The fact that it didn’t, to me, means that This American Life doesn’t care about the health of fat people. It cares about providing easy-to-swallow, socially acceptable narratives to its white liberal audience. And that’s a really heartbreaking place for me to be after loving this show for so long.
And honestly it just got worse because right after the Elna story—like immediately following the Elna story—which already felt like a kick in the stomach, Ira Glass, my one time radio crush, throws to commercial by saying “Grab a Twinkie. Come back in a minute.” Come on, Ira. See, I don’t hate fat jokes. I even think that they’re funny sometimes, and I think that if that one had been properly timed, it wouldn’t have bothered me. Like if it had come after the Lindy segment where we were lightheartedly talking about breaking chairs, I probably would have laughed. But right after the act where a formerly fat person is telling us how much better it is to be thin? That joke sucks.
It’s diminishing and mean and I expected better from Ira Glass. I don’t know why, but I thought that Ira Glass was on my side. I thought that one day if it came to a West Side Story-esque snapping fight between fat people and fat haters that Ira Glass would be on my side. But he’s not.
I was talking about this with a good friend and he reminded me of something that is so true and so depressing. He said even very smart, cool, funny people who generally really care about the oppressed are completely tone-deaf when it comes to fat phobia. Like even the most caring, most compassionate people still don’t know how to talk about fatness and still don’t understand that this is a serious social issue.
But the truth is that if I met Ira Glass, even after he met Shrill, he would still think I’m gross. But he would tell himself that he was just worried about my health. And that’s because the obesity epidemic is the only headline that otherwise ill-informed people know, and it’s the only way that people who are uncomfortable with fatness can justify their discomfort. And Ira has to keep the show easy-to-swallow for readers (listeners) who feel like he does. And that’s why even after Ira says that Shrill changed the way he thought about fat, he’s still in disbelief when Lindy says that she just decided that fat bodies were objectively beautiful. Ira has to make sure that his listeners know that he has not had a sip of the fat kool-aid, because it might give him diabetes.
So then we move on to Act 3. And in act 3, Ira is interviewing Roxann Gay who is a writer. And she says a lot of things that are really important that we don’t hear anywhere in media.
Roxann talks about how being black adds another layer of oppression to fat phobia and she talks about how there are different layers to fatness. How there are the just-20-pounds-overweight people who are fine and they can easily fit into society.
And then there are what she calls Lane-Bryant-fatties who can easily find plus size clothes that fit them. She says that these are the biggest cheerleaders of body acceptance—as they should be. And it’s great.
And then she says that there’s a third variety of fatness, the super morbidly obese. Now this is the clinical term and, really, we don’t hear enough about the super morbidly obese in fat acceptance to really give them a better name. Or to give us a better name because I am one of them. And me and my also very very fat friends who are over a size 32 call ourselves super fatties just because that’s the only thing we have even though it sort of sounds like we wear leotards and capes. Which only happens sometimes.
But Roxann says, and it’s true, that it’s really hard being a super fat. She says, and I relate to this completely, that she has to call ahead and research every place she goes to make sure that she can fit in the seats or that there aren’t too many stairs or that the aisles aren’t too close together. And if they are, then you just don’t go there. And like that’s just a daily reality for super fats. And that’s something that doesn’t get acknowledged in fat positivity and body positivity. The experience of a woman who is a size 42 is vastly different from the experience of a woman who’s a size 22. If you’re a size 22 you don’t expect the woman who’s a size 2 to understand your struggle. So I think it’s really important that mid-fats acknowledge that they don’t know what it’s like for super fats and that the solutions that they’ve found for themselves don’t always work for us.
Roxann Gay is not happy in her body, and it is extra extra challenging to live in her body especially when fat positivity, the movement that is supposed to be for us, still leaves us behind. That’s why I’m so interested in making space for women who are above a size 32. I just want to get in there and throw some elbows and find some space for me and my fellow super fats.
So I am really glad that Roxann Gay was on This American Life so she could bring some of these less discussed topics to the attention of the fat positive community.
But here’s the biggest kick in the teeth about all of this. So This American Life did an episode about fat people, and we only actually heard from two fat people. One of those was Roxann Gay who is black and supersize. But guess what? On the NPR, which is the radio, not online version of the show? The Roxann Gay act didn’t even make it. It wasn’t even heard (at least in some markets.) And even in the internet version the Roxann Gay piece was only 7 minutes. Act 1 with Lindy was 18 minutes. And the longest act, the one in the center of the episode, was the Elna story, and she’s not fat anymore. And she didn’t exactly have positive things to say about fatness.
And the fourth act was just some boring story about how Oral Roberts University used to require students to lose weight. Now I really wish this story was shocking or at least that it was a story we could look back at and be ashamed of because only now can we see how wrong-headed we were. But it’s not and we can’t because this still happens! Some employers, like big, major, national ones that we’ve all heard of, still incentivize weight loss. They bury this in employee wellness programs. And even Oral Roberts still has a fitness requirement. So we have gotten precisely nowhere.
So Virgie Tovar was interviewed twice for this episode, and they told her shortly before it went to air that they didn’t have the time for the personal narratives that they thought they would. And that is a fucking crock because they could have easily cut out some of the bullshit from this episode and made room for actual fat positivity in there. Virgie did however post a response to this episode in her Take The Cake column for Ravishly, so you should check that out.
So, in closing, I want to go back to the letter that Lindy wrote to Dan Savage, and I’m going to adapt it and make it my own message to This American Life.
Dear This American Life,
Your super fucking obvious and regressive point has been made. Everyone in the world already thinks fat people are undesirable. Everyone in the world already thinks that fat people are gluttonous, unhealthy blobs. We get it. You are not breaking new ground here.
This American Life, Ira Glass, please do better. Fat people really need you to do better. Like actual lives depend on it.
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