Anti-Fat Bias with Aubrey Gordon

What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat by Aubrey Gordon

I first heard of Aubrey Gordon when I started listening to her podcast Maintenance Phase. She and cohost Michael Hobbes discuss wellness and weight-loss trends, fads, and policies to find out what’s true, what’s a myth, and what’s just flat-out ridiculous to learn more about how society is obsessed with diet and wellness culture to the detriment of our health. I love their tagline, “Wellness and Weight Loss, Debunked and Decoded,” and I come away from each episode with new ideas and understanding, which is an interesting experience as I try to get healthier and lose weight for my own benefit.

So, when I started reading Gordon’s What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat, I knew I’d learn more about diet culture, and I certainly did! As a fat woman who has always felt less-than because of my plus-size body, who has been ashamed to be in public because of my weight, who has fluctuated in weight throughout the last 14 years, I embraced this book with a desire to feel more in control of my body.

Important Note: Gordon defines herself as fat and uses that terminology throughout the book, not in a pejorative way but in a descriptive manner. Therefore, I’m following her lead in that language within this review.

What I Liked About What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat

  • The Vulnerability: Gordon shares personal experiences with anti-fat bias that are both heart-wrenching and infuriating.
    • She is open about being a fat woman and shares stories of times when other people have shamed her for being fat, like when a man threw a fit in a plane because he was seated next to her, when people have told her she shouldn’t be wearing an outfit, and perhaps the most passive-aggressive woman actually took a melon out of Gordon’s grocery shopping cart and told her that she didn’t need the sugar. The fact that so many strangers feel superior enough to take agency over Gordon’s body was eye-opening, as was her overall message that her experiences are not anomalies.
    • Another truly impactful part of this book for me was Gordon’s discussion of how fat women are assumed to be less desirable and therefore more culpable in sexual assault and abuse situations. She wrote all the words I wish I’d read when I was 18, a Size 14, and kept quiet about my sexual assault because of my shame.
  • The Research: Gordon’s book is short, less than 200 pages of essays, but it is full of research and footnotes. While I found some sections to be a bit too dense, I loved that this book wasn’t just a memoir about fatness and personal experiences. Gordon is a brilliant researcher, and so much of the book reads like investigative journalism, which gives way to fully understanding what anti-fat bias is, its pervasiveness across society, and how policies should change to rectify how companies and individuals treat body size.
  • The Messages: Gordon’s message that anti-fat bias is prevalent in nearly every aspect of society. She’s not afraid to take on tough topics that we’ve accepted as the rule, not the exception, like the BMI; the calorie-in, calorie-out weight loss model; the expense of nutrient-laden food; and the constant recommendations of how/why/when to lose weight.
    • Also, I appreciated that Gordon doesn’t assume that everyone should embrace the body positivity movement, especially as others (namely thin white women) have switched the movement to further establish their thinness superiority.

If you’re looking for a weight-loss motivation book, What We Talk About When We Talk About Fat is not it. If you want a book that will help you to understand the reasons why anti-fat bias remains prevalent and destructive, then this is it. And, if you want to learn more, I highly recommend the Maintenance Phase podcast with Aubrey Gordon and Michael Hobbes.

Childhood Experiences and the Influence on My Body

It is well-established that experiences in childhood can impact your life as an adult. While literature on the subject continues to grow, a recent study encapsulates this phenomenon for me:

Childhood experiences affect family health in adulthood in the expected direction. Even in the presence of early adversity, positive experiences in childhood can provide a foundation for creating better family health in adulthood.

Daines, C.L., Hansen, D., Novilla, M.L.B. et al. Effects of positive and negative childhood experiences on adult family health. BMC Public Health 21, 651 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12889-021-10732-w

Let me illustrate this with a story about how a few simple interactions have influenced my shame about my body throughout the years.

As I’ve established, I have had a weight problem since I was 6 or 7. One day, I declared to my mom that I wanted to lose weight and therefore would eat nothing that day or the next. She said, “That’s not a reasonable way to lose weight.” I couldn’t do it anyway, I was little and liked food.

Every year during my childhood, my parents would take me to an asthma and allergy clinic to get a physical and check any new symptoms. I hated this annual appointment with a fevered passion. Yes, the allergy tests – those dreaded scratch tests – hurt like hell, but what hurt more was the doctor’s inevitable statement that “Jessica would do better if she lost some weight.”

I knew that statement was coming every year. I was on the high end of the recommended weight for my height, never really over and beyond that, but the doctor didn’t like my weight for medical reasons, he said. In the summers of my pre-teen and teenage years during the few weeks before this annual appointment, I’d try to lose weight, having the scale reading from the year before imprinted in my mind. But crash diets didn’t work for me and I liked food too much. My only triumphant year was in high school when I weighed one pound less than the year before. But it wasn’t enough for the doctor.

So, my history with food and weight loss and disordered eating didn’t just begin in 2000 when I started purging as a 19-year-old at a family dinner in a steakhouse. And it certainly didn’t end after I returned home from getting treatment for bulimia. I slowed my purging, cutting down until I absolutely needed to do so – to expunge all the weight and heaviness from my body. But, my weight is a constant theme in my life, covered in a thick sauce of anxiety and depression.