Emma Woolf Gets It Very Wrong

I'm ok you're okReader Diane sent me an article by Emma Woolf ITW: everything I’m about to talk about] asking why, if fat bashing is not ok, thin bashing is?

The article started:

I have never been fat, but I know exactly what it is like to be judged for my size and hear unkind comments about my appearance. We need to shift the weight debate to health, rather than looks

So far so good – I agree with this. I don’t care how much thin privilege someone has, I’m against body shaming for bodies of every size and I believe that a culture of stereotype photo shop beauty, body bashing, fat shaming, and the fear of fat hurt everyone.

I also think that having thin fat activists/allies is important and that it’s easier to create allies where there is common ground – if someone is acknowledging that the way fat people are treated is wrong and they realized this through some empathy from personal experience, then I think we’re moving in the right direction and I’m not likely to jump right into “ACKNOWLEDGE YOUR PRIVILEGE!”  I’m happy to save those important discussions for later, once we have a bond that makes the discussion more likely to lead to empathy and understanding than defensiveness and frustration.

Unfortunately, Emma takes a bad turn.  She says “my book contains not a single word of criticism about larger-sized people.”  But then there’s this:

I’m fed up with being judged for being physically disciplined, for watching what I eat, and for exercising five times a week.

If Emma is being judged/bashed/shamed because she is thin, I think that’s wrong, but it’s not the same as being judged for her eating and exercise choices.  Those are separate from body size and when you’re working with stereotypes like this and making assumptions and confusion behaviors with body size you can assume that you are traveling down a bad road. Things do not get better:

Other things a thin woman is not allowed to say: “it takes willpower to stay slim”; “of course it would be easier just to eat anything I wanted but I don’t”; “yes, I’m often hungry mid-morning but I wait until lunchtime”. Above all, a slim woman must never say: “I prefer being slim.”

Actually a thin woman can say all of those things but she doesn’t say them in a vacuum.  First of all, there are many, many studies that show that body size is not a matter of willpower, or a matter of ignoring our bodies’ hunger signals.  And it’s not surprising that one would prefer being slim considering it means not have war waged on you by the government for how you look – but that’s where it helps to understand that, even if a thin woman is wrongly shamed for having a thin body, there are still privileges that she receives that make her life different than the lives of fat people and it would be pretty cool if she would work to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to prefer being the size that they are like she does.

I wasted a decade struggling with the mental twists and turns of anorexia. It was only in the last few years, when I found a medical reason to recover – my fertility — that I made progress with weight gain. Could the same approach work for weight loss? If we reframed the debate around fat and accepted that it can be a form of disordered eating with physical consequences, we might start to get somewhere.

I am so sorry that Emma had to struggle with an eating disorder, but her attempt to extrapolate her experience to fat people, and her thinking around fat and eating disorders is deeply flawed.  Body size is not an eating disorder diagnosis.  Eating disorders are complicated mental illnesses with various physical symptoms, behaviors, and manifestations that can be different for everyone.  People of all sizes have all kinds of eating disorders – there are fat anorexics and thin people with Binge Eating Disorder.

People who have recovered from eating disorders are also all different sizes.  The conflation of size and diagnosis and the assumption of size and cure do a disservice to everyone. The problem with weight loss isn’t that it’s not tied to mental illness, the problem with weight loss is that is just doesn’t work.  Almost everyone loses weight in the short term, almost everyone gains it back in the long term and attempting to diagnose an eating disorder based on body size won’t change that but will cause a host of additional problems.

The piece ended up in a very different place than it started when Emma was suggesting that “We need to shift the weight debate to health, rather than looks.”  When you equate looks with health you make that shift impossible, and you add to the tremendous about of stigma, stereotyping and shame that fat people already face – and since you know how painful that is, if you think about it I think you’ll realize that you know better.

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Published in: on August 6, 2013 at 11:27 am  Comments (37)  

37 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. I wrote a (very personal and in-my-experience) counterpoint to that very phrase about discipline on my Tumblr: http://lauralifts.tumblr.com/post/57510503125/why-is-skinny-shaming-ok-if-fat-shaming-is-not

    …and she Tweeted me exasperatedly. I feel quite honoured! It was good to have a sort-of dialogue about it though.

    I did think of you, too Regan – you train even harder than I do!

  2. I find it very troubling that a woman who has recovered from one of the most serious psychiatric disorders known – anorexia – is telling the world that “willpower” around food is a good thing to have. And being given an international platform to do it.

  3. -bodycrimes….Oh so on point. As someone who had a number of eating diagnoses as a teen (including anorexia) I couldn’t agree more. I would like to add that I think she has a way to go on her journey of recovery …of course I am making a huge sweeping assumption, but she sounds extremely defensive of her efforts to maintain her hunger/slim size, when in reality, who are these great hoards of people judging her or making it difficult to be slim??? Perhaps simply, the same critical, body shaming culture that we are ALL subjected to, some at the pointier end than others……acknowledge privilege and go from there….absolutely..(By the way why is that damn word so freaking hard to SPELL!!!)

  4. it really is scary how it seems to come down to money, power and sex–and how convenient that this issue gets women on all the issues here. Keep us so busy with our bodies while the men go about dealing with the world.

  5. (Diclaimer: I hope I won’t offend anybody, I’m still learning about all this and besides, English is not my mother tongue).

    Dealing with privilege is a very difficult thing. As a naturally thin person, I am simply not able to know what it feels like to be fat in our society. My personal approuch to the topic includes:
    – Fat acceptance is NOT about me.
    – Although I was at the receiving end of body shame and the food police, too, I am sure it is not the same amount that fat people get. I guess if I multiply my experience by let’s say a hundred, then I can perhaps roughly imagine how it is for fat people.
    – Don’t patronize fat people in any way. This is sometimes hard for me, as some friends of mine and family members have to deal with fat shaming, self acceptance issues and more – but it just doesn’t help when I try to lecture them about fat acceptance (I still don’t have any solution for that, so far I try just to say that I think they are smart and beautiful and kind people.)
    – Though I learned incredibly much from fat acceptance activists and though reading about it helped me immensely to deal with my own insecurities (leading to learning about body shaming and self acceptance in general or e.g. Ragen’s fantastic “underpants rule” that can be applied not only to fat acceptance, but to life in general), fat acceptance is NOT about me. That also means that when someone food-shames or fit-shames me I don’t throw the “would you say the opposite-thing to a fat person” bomb, but just calmly remind them that my food or fitness choices are none of their business.
    – Be tolerant when I get hate from fat people. Yes, this happens, too, yes, it is not okay when someone calls me bony or accuses me of being bulimic or anorectic or whatever, BUT in regards to the society we live in I always try not to fight back but to manage a friendly “I guess that’s just not your business” reply instead of “you’re just jealous because you’re fat” which would be incredibly unfriendly. I tend to have a lot of privilege because of my body size, it is natural that some people who have the war against fat raging against them might feel bitter towards me. It’s not about me as a person, but about my privilege.

    Please feel free to add points to the list. I there is any further advice about how to be a good (thin) ally to the fat acceptance movement I’d be very happy!

    I hope it’s okay to comment (because hey, fat acceptance is not about me ;-)) but the topic thin people/fat acceptance, allies, etc. kept popping up here, so I thould perhaps my opinion could make a contribution.

    • Umbarto, it looks to me like you’re doing tremendously well at both FA and ESL!

      As an ally, I think you’ve figured out the most important lesson quite well: It’s not about you. It’s about justice.

      Keep letting your fat friends know you love them just as they are. Keep reading. Keep letting others know you don’t want to hear body shaming language. Remember your privilege, but don’t let it stop you from participating. When you hear a good opportunity to speak up, say something, if you can.

      Oh, and welcome to the party!

      • Ubarto, Ubarto, Ubarto.


        I’m so, so sorry for getting your name wrong. This, sadly, is what happens when I type before I make coffee.

        • Personally I don’t trust myself to write anything without the coffee making into my brain doing. Sentence structure too hard to be forming….

          • doesn’t matter about the name 🙂 (I’m joining the group of coffee-addicts here) and thank you both very much!

      • I second that!

    • Ubarto, I think it’s okay to let people know it’s no more okay for them to comment on your body than it is for others to comment on theirs.

      I had a friend who had trouble gaining weight who I was insanely jealous of (this was long before I found FA) and she pointed out that me talking about her body was not appropriate and I never mentioned it again. At that point in my life, it had never once dawned on me that anyone would tire of hearing they were thin; that conversation was a real awakening to me.

      As for how to be an ally, while I don’t claim to speak for anyone other than myself, I think the best way any ally can support a movement is to just show up and let people know you’re here.

  6. I appreciate your comments, ubarto. I have a neice is who is very, very thin. She’s always been that way; it’s her natural body size. People have been making comments about her body her entire life and she is sick of it. High school was particularly hard for her.

    The world would be a much better place if we all followed Ragen’s underpants rule.

  7. It sounds as if she’s still struggling with anorexic thinking – ‘thinner must be better, eating is a matter of self-discipline, the more exercise you do the better’ etc.

    • This. So much this.

    • Exactly what I was thinking. Not having read the whole piece, the part in Ragen’s blog suggested everyone should just go hungry until lunch and exercise five times a week.

  8. Weird rant, but I’ve decided that I hate the word, “slim.” It’s very value laden, IMO. Anorexics are thin, models are slim. Slim is the ultimate goal and people go on diets to become slim (or skinny, though that one goes both ways). It’s like it’s thin with style, but it makes me think of those 50s fashion plates where the women have really bad posture, pencil skirts, and bodies that look like they couldn’t actually hold organs. I don’t have any particular reason to bring this up except that the article Ragen quotes goes from talking about being thin to being slim pretty quickly and it seems to color the writer’s tone. /rant

    • I think this fine-tuning and re-aligning of names for body types is a very good thing to point out. I am raising my two kids (my son being 10 and starting to be aware of this kind of thing) to understand that fat is only a descriptor with no moral value, the way that tall or handicapped is. And that idiots come in every type of person imaginable.

    • I was thinking the same thing. Just reading her use of the word “slim” was making my skin crawl. I also think she sounds like most others I’ve known who are in that place in recovery where they’ve learned the lingo, but they’re not actually better. Her comments read like a series of red flags for relapse and/or triggers for those still in the thick of eating disorders (lots of talk about discipline and control). Maybe this is unfair, but I really don’t believe that thin women are as criticized or commented on as this woman seems to believe. I know it’s tough for women of all shapes and sizes, but I don’t believe her defensiveness comes from having been heavily criticized. I believe it comes because she has an eating disorder and is looking to defend it.

  9. The thing I think I hate most about her piece is that it insidiously attempts to reframe the injustices fat people face as nothing more than harassment about their body, which–she is correct here–thin people also experience (albeit usually to a lesser degree).

    It is not just people harassing fat people about their bodies. It’s the constant feeling that you are too big to fit in public spaces. It’s the lack of respectful healthcare. It’s being expected to engage in destructive behaviors to stop being fat. It’s being charged more for health insurance. It’s being told you deserve the abuse you suffer because you’ve brought your weight on yourself.

  10. Ragen,

    I just wanted to drop by to say – you are so brilliant and so thorough in how you dissect such things that it simply makes me want to cry from joy. You do not only have a gorgeous dancer’s body – you have a gorgeous mind.

    Have a good day.


  11. I’ve been reading A LOT (okay, like 4 times a day) over at thisisthinprivilege.com, and it has been absolutely eye-opening. It completely re-affirms what I’ve been thinking and sniffing out since I was 9 and the genetic weight started piling on, that Thin Privilege is a very, very real thing. Then it outrages me somehow every day. And the above submission is a classic example of an attempt to inject Thin Privilege into Fat Oppression by doing the common “well, we thin people have to deal with this too, so stop complaining.” Classic derailment by something nearing a concern troll.

    She is trying to equate someone thin having an eating disorder with someone dealing with fat bigotry. I’m sorry, but that’s apples and oranges. It reminds me of that line in “Good Will Hunting” (paraphrased): “Can I say I know what it’s like to be an orphan just because I read ‘Oliver Twist’?” She won’t get it because she hasn’t experienced it. And to equivocate: I would never attempt to say I know what she’s been through with her eating disorder because I have friends with EDs and I’ve read a bunch of pamphlets. It’s arrogant and ridiculous.

    The truth is…in a thin person, an eating disorder is a medical illness. In a fat person…well, it’s a diet aid. Fat people just can’t get eating disorders because it (ideally) results in weight loss which what they need anyway. So in short, it can’t exist if it leads to us losing weight and being healthy. Right? RIGHT?

    I give the writer credit for trying to explain very simply an extremely tangled topic. But after that, it just smacks of derailment and the Thin Privilege cry of, “But it’s not fair for us either!! We suffer like you! Please let us play on your playground??”

  12. It seems Emma isn’t happy that the size acceptance movement is getting in the way of her being praised for being thin. I knew someone in a online community like this. They became extremely passive aggressive when told being fit wasn’t everything when it came to health. They lashed out with their fetishistic tales of what was wrong with having a fat body. There is no talking to those kind of people, they are toxic. They don’t care who they have to hurt, as long as they can pretend their body is a result of effort, and not just having won the genetic lottery.

    I empathize with people who have eating disorders. They shouldn’t be allowed to antagonize and bully others into following their illness behavior. I’m familiar with how thinspo people will turn claims towards them on to fat people. Pretending living as a fat person is just as deadly as self starvation. Calling fat people who aren’t ashamed by their bodies delusional.

    It seems being popular for being thin is all they have. They will fight viciously to defend thin privilege, as that is the only thing they are good at, being thin.

    • I think some of these people can be thin by working at it, but they have to put a huge amount of effort into it and want to be rewarded for following society’s rules. They aren’t actually controlling their food and exercising an hour every day because they enjoy it. (Some people might enjoy it, I’m just saying this particular type of person doesn’t seem to.)

      Since they ‘can do it’ they feel that everyone else ‘can do it’ regardless of how realistic it is for any given person. Why should they be alone in their suffering?

      • Good point. Suffering on one hand, pride (or even a feeling of superiority) on the other. Thinness being equated with all kinds of virtues. Fatness being equated with all kinds of faults. Constant preoccupation. Self-esteem highly dependent on one’s weight. In my experience, people with eating disorders just have a more extreme form of those beliefs and attitudes that we see everywhere. They are at the end of the continuum. Some people only partially recover from an eating disorder and preserve this mindset to a large extent. I think in true recovery, these attitudes themselves change. Values change. Fat is not the ennemy anymore. Food and weight are not constant preoccupations. The person develops other priorities and finds other sources of pride. It’s all the difference in the world! People who reach that point are not at risk for relapse anymore. Something deep has happened for them.

  13. Reblogged this on The Cheese Whines and commented:
    You can’t equate looks with health. You simply can’t. When you do this, you get people like Kelly Osbourne refusing to take her thyroid medication even though she has Graves Disease, because if her thyroid normalizes, she’s likely to regain the weight she lost. Kelly is thin now, but her untreated hyperthyroidism is not healthy.
    You also get people saying horribly inappropriate things to cancer patients regarding their weight loss. In one case, a woman’s co-worker actually said to her “cancer looks good on you.”
    A certain size does not equal health. Its a horrible, inaccurate equation. We need to erase it.

  14. Well, it happens that I am thin. But I never intended for that to happen. And I’m certainly not proud of it. I miss my fatness. Once I got past my last diet, at age 21, I was quite OK with it. On June 2nd 2012 I staged an activism/consciousness-raising event in the food court of the Danbury Fair Mall. I wore a custom-made t-shirt with an image of the fattest me, and this text: “This is the “real” me. Please don’t assume that I prefer being thin.” The idea was to challenge anti-fat bigotry and ill-considered assumptions at the same time. And, by extension, ALL of the forms of bigotry. And I’ve been criticized as a thin person, too.

  15. Hello Ragen, I absolutely agree with your comments to the above letter. At first it seems so easy to just nod my head and agree with her arguments, but I just can’t. And what you wrote is WHY I can’t! At age 69, I’ve decided to just eat what I like – and that includes a good amount of sweets because I love them (!) – but it seemed to me that it was either that or ave stomach reducing surgery. The more I read about those surgeries, the more I abhorred the idea. I determined I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life eating tiny bites of food so I wouldn’t throw up or just plain feeling ‘picked on’ because I couldn’t enjoy what I love!!

    I’m not active due to several reasons, but even after a knee replacement 2 years ago and a 7 week PT schedule that had me really working hard for 3 – 3 1/2 hours 3X/week, really helped me get my knee back to better than it had been for years, but I didn’t lose weight. I’m sure I was in much better condition, but as you say, it doesn’t last. I DON’T LIKE EXERCISE and you are the first person to make it OK! For that I thank you. I’ve actively dieted at least 3 times in my life and have lost way too much weight twice due to medical disorders. Once I ‘went off my diets’ and the medical issues were under control the weight always came back. As my very wise granddaughter told me ‘Grandma, it is what it is’. Gotta love her and I do!!

    I want to share an email I get each day from a website called ‘The Universe’. It’s always upbeat and very often hits me right between the eyes with what it writes. This one came today and seems to fit so well with what you wrote.

    “No more “supposed tos,” OK, Carol? You’re not supposed to work harder, look better, sleep less, sell more, run faster, talk slower, be happier, stay longer, leave earlier, cook, clean, negotiate, settle, start, stop, move, try, win, shake, rattle or roll. Other people made all that up.
    I love you the way you are, The Universe”

    Thank you so much for your common sense and your amazing way to find good things in our world instead of what is wrong!! You are a true blessing, Carol

    • Carol, thank you so much for sharing that email. It brought tears to my eyes.

      I’m currently really struggling to get back into my university schedule and fighting flu at the same time. As a total overachiever I find it difficult to allow myself to be ill or recover – I feel amazingly guilty for not working hard and doing the things I’m ‘supposed to’.

  16. I have a friend (former co-worker) I’ve known for almost 30 years. When I met her, she was very, very skinny and had been most of her life. She was a skinny teenager in the 50’s when curvy was valued and skinny was not. She told me stories about how she would wrap her hips with material, to appear curvier and padded. She would tell how her husband would sing the “I’ve got a girl called Boney Morroney” and how it would make her cry. We bonded deeply over the things that people would say to us about our bodies and stay that way to this day. When she started hanging out with me, people said to her “Don’t hang out with her, it’ll make you fat too.” She didn’t give a sh*t if it did. Ironically, she did end up eventually doubling her size eventually, though we did not share the same eating habits (blame menopause there).

  17. These tales of abuse at the hands of a “plus-size sisterhood” seem to crop up on a pretty regular basis. I guess my experience has just been very different. The people I typically see doing that whole “OMG you’re so thin I hate you” thing tend to be women only slightly larger than the thin woman. Fat people are not typically the ones wanting to make body size a constant topic of conversation and debate in the workplace- that would be the folks no one perceives as fat.

    • That’s also my experience.
      I tend to get most shit from men (mostly men who are significantly older than me) who tell me that my lack of flesh (not my words) is not “desirable for men”. That’s bodyshaming mixed up with misogyny and men thinking they have the right to comment on every women’s body. Smaller is the commenter-group of the “normal” or slightly larger people, often women who go like “OMG you’re so thin I hate you”. Fat people do indeed comment very rarely, and in my case mostly only responded to stuff I said that was really stupid, e.g. when I complained about my body or about certain types of clothes not looking good on me or when I did any other kind of self-shaming negative body talk – then I got a “like you have anything to whine about, bony like you are – I can’t even find any clothes that fit me in a regular store” response. Though calling someone bony is also not nice, I must totally admit that I had it coming 😉 Another good reason to stop negative body talk. It’s not only bad for you, it can make other people really uncomfortable.

      • I totally agree with your post, and especially the last part about negative body talk. I remember a girl in Highschool who was so beautiful (in the stereotypical, socially desirable way). She was constantly complaining about her body, body parts she didn’t like, too much fat here and there, this and that. (Maybe so that other girls would’t hate her for being so beautiful?) I couldn’t believe it!
        At some point, I couldn’t stand it anymore and I said, in front of other girls: “Well if that’s what she thinks of her body, imagine what she must think of ours!” I regret saying that, because in saying it I was judging everybody, implying that the rest of us were not as beautiful as she was. I didn’t mean to embarrass her, but I think that’s the effect it had. I just felt that she was ungrateful for the beautiful body she had, and that she had “no right” to complain. I hope I will never say something like that again, but her negative body talk did make me very uncomfortable. I should have said it that way (“it makes me uncomfortable when you talk negatively about your body”).

  18. Maybe she is being criticised for being a self righteous pain in the butt rather than for being thin! Stupid comes in all sizes!

  19. I lost a lot of weight recently. Stress, change in habit, who knows. Anyway, I get lots of compliments. People praise me for ‘eating healthy’ and working out. I do exercise a lot. It helps with stress and is a good use of time.

    I stopped quote eating healthy. Since losing the weight, I eat a lot more junk food and meat. If I tell people that, they smile and say something to the effect that it works for me. People’s compliments add pressure to stay ‘thin’. It’s very rare when someone says that I’m too thin. Then, I’m in the “normal weight range” not underweight.

  20. “I’m fed up with being judged for being physically disciplined, for watching what I eat, and for exercising five times a week.”

    Well maybe Emma, if you didn’t say anything about it no one would notice. I imagine that those having to listen to you over and over and over, as you let them know what you’re doing makes them pretty fucking fed up with you too.

    So you are privileged with thinness, money and time. Some people are up at 5am home at 8pm with a four hour commute each day. They can’t afford the rent to live anywhere near where they work, are lucky to even have a job in this economy that offers no benefits and no health insurance, and the job they have does not pay a living wage. So that’s great that you have the privilege of time to use to exercise five times a week and that you have food security to decide what of the very best and varied foods that you will choose from. Many of us don’t have the luxury of such choices. Also, you may want to consider that you’re not being “judged for being physically disciplined”, you’re judged for being an insufferable fat-hating, diet-culture disordered thinking denier of the privilege you weld in this thin-obsessed culture.

  21. Thank you! agree with everything you say. As to her claim that her book contains not a single word of criticism about larger-sized people, that is sadly not true. I wrote a little review of the ministry of thin and i’m actually quoting from the (miniscule) bit on fat acceptance because I found it so offensive.

  22. Emma wrote: “We need to shift the weight debate to health, rather than looks”.

    How about just dropping “weight debate” altogether? Just accept every body AND every body. Period.

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