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Unlearning Fat Phobia Is A Lifelong Process

by Melissa Toler, Pharm.D.

After performing at this year’s Super Bowl half-time show, Lady Gaga’s stomach was at the center of some good old-fashioned body-shaming on social media. Super Bowl viewers took to Twitter and Facebook to express their disapproval of her belly fat and suggested that maybe she should have hit the gym a little harder before the big show. It caused enough of a ruckus that she responded on her Instagram account with a brief post to acknowledge that she is proud of her body… and we should be too.

The fact that a woman’s body can draw such criticism is angering, but unfortunately it’s nothing new. We live in a culture that pushes an ideal body type for women; a culture where strangers feel entitled to offer unsolicited comments about women’s bodies. When you put those two things together you get the “The Gaga Incident.”

It’s also indicative of how fat phobia is so deeply implanted into our individual and collective psyches and how much we have to unlearn.

For the past 4 years I’ve undergone my own journey of unlearning the lessons of our toxic diet culture. From a young age I, like everyone else, have been programmed to believe that a smaller body is what women should want. I’ve been socialized to think that it’s perfectly normal to spend most of my time and emotional energy striving for smallness. I’m now at the point where I know with 100% certainty that this is nonsense.

I believe that diet culture dishonors our humanity, over and over again. At times, it’s utterly dehumanizing. I’ve spent the last several months calling out diet culture for what it is: violent, oppressive and harmful to our bodies and minds.

Despite all that, I have to confess: when I saw Lady Gaga’s stomach, an old judgmental voice inside of me resurfaced and said, “Oh my God, why didn’t she cover up her pooch?!” (Yeah, I know. I feel awful just writing those words.) This was the voice that evolved from 25 years of dieting and weight loss obsession. It’s the voice that I’ve worked hard to silence for 4 years. It’s the voice that goes against all of my writing and teaching about body acceptance.

How could I, an advocate for body justice, have such a thought? I found solace in a quote by one of my favorite writers and civil rights activists, Audre Lorde:

“The true focus of revolutionary change is never merely the oppressive situations we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor that is planted deep within each of us.”

When living in a racist, patriarchal, capitalist culture, it’s difficult to not have internalized the message that only certain bodies are worthy of being seen. Despite all the blog posts I’ve written and presentations I’ve given, there’s still a piece of the oppressor that lingers in the recesses of my mind.

Unlearning harmful messages is a key to our individual and collective liberation from the body injustices that many of us face every day. The belief that a smaller body is better is so ingrained in our culture that we don’t even notice it. That’s how programming works; it’s part of your operating system.

This is why intentionally deprogramming and reprogramming my thinking has become a daily practice. I can break this process down into the following three steps:

  1. Over time, I’ve unfollowed and unsubscribed from social media accounts, websites, and magazines that reinforce diet culture’s toxic messages. Essentially, I detoxed my environment and eliminated any traces of ‘fitspo,’ diet talk and fat phobia. Initially, it was difficult to let go of things that I’d believed for so long, but it created mental and emotional space to absorb new approaches and perspectives.
  2. Once I freed up valuable headspace, I immersed myself in Health At Every Size (HAES) materials and online communities. The idea that weight and size were not indicative of health or worth were foreign to me and took some time to fully wrap my mind around. Now, the HAES approach is a part of my life and my business.
  3. In the past year, I’ve become more aware of the social injustices that are rampant in our society. I’ve learned that body positivity and acceptance isn’t just about learning how to love our bodies as they are; it’s about justice. Our society has a long track record of marginalizing, stigmatizing and abusing people whose bodies don’t measure up to our standards of beauty or worthiness. I’m continuing to view my work through the lens of social justice.

This has been and will be an ongoing process for me. I believe that diet culture dishonors our humanity by demanding perfection, undermining body autonomy, overriding our body wisdom, and ignoring body diversity.

My initial reaction to Lady Gaga’s stomach at the Super Bowl tells me that there’s more work to do. There are still traces of diet mentality lodged deep within me. Maybe it’s something that won’t completely go away, but I’m committed to doing the ongoing work to disentangle these messages from my mind as much as possible.

Those of us in the HAES and body positive communities want to see revolutionary change. We want diet culture to be burned down to the ground. We want to see weight stigma, weight bias and other dehumanizing body injustices evaporate into the atmosphere.

The work that we do with clients, patients and our communities is important. We have to consistently speak up and speak out. However, our work doesn’t stop there. The oppressor may still be operating within in us, but by doing our work, its impact on our lives can be diminished every day.

Melissa Toler Melissa is a non-diet, weight-neutral wellness coach who speaks and writes extensively about diet culture and the toll it takes on our lives and our humanity.

She uses her background as a pharmacist, a certified health & wellness coach, and her 25-year history with dieting in all of her work.

A fierce advocate for body justice, Melissa believes that now is the time for us to make justice a priority in the body positivity community and to reject the status quo. Her mission is to help people connect the dots between our racist, patriarchal, capitalist society and our personal struggles with weight, body image and self-acceptance.

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