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But I think the fat positivity movement can also create a double burden. Instead of genuinely feeling good about themselves, women continue to want to look skinnier and then feel guilty for being unable to “love” their body the way they’re supposed to. It introduces a new way to feel bad about yourself, without getting rid of the original. Women still exercise and diet to lose weight, but aren’t allowed to be honest about the reason — instead they say they’re doing it to “feel good” or, the vaguest reason of all, “for myself.” These reasons might be true some of the time, but if exercise and diet had no effect on body shape whatsoever I think the gyms of the world would have far fewer women looking for “empowerment” and “self-improvement.” I feel very uncomfortable with encouraging women to speak this coded double-talk, to lie about their motives and their real inward thoughts. If anything, that seems a great way to encourage an eating disorder, and to teach them that they should hide their suffering behind a sunny veneer.

Maybe fat positivity is still nascent and it’s a “fake it until you make it” kind of situation. But I sometimes wonder if getting women to stop talking about their obsession with being thin (while they are still obsessed with being thin) is just a means of making others feel more comfortable with an uncomfortable topic, while still ensuring conformity. It’s like when women are asked to be “effortlessly” beautiful: we don’t want to hear about how the sausage is made, so on top of everything else, look happy while you do it.

What these conversations rarely cover is what I personally think is the solution. Blasting the message that “everyone is beautiful” still presumes the most harmful thing of all: that beauty is the most important thing. Beauty is so important, in fact, that we must twist and contort to make sure everyone fits. Because NOT being beautiful, NOT looking good, well that’s a fate so horrible it’s unimaginable.

The really radical message is not that fat is beautiful. It’s that beautiful just isn’t that important. Beauty should be like a wonderful singing voice: lovely if you’ve got it, but your world isn’t over if you’re born tone-deaf. There are other things to be. You can be talented, funny, intelligent, sporty; believe it or not, there’s an entire spectrum of human achievement completely unrelated to weight. And unlike “empowered” female scientists and superheroes on TV, those things don’t have to come ACCOMPANIED by beauty; beauty isn’t the prerequisite before you get to have other human attributes. This is more-or-less how men live, and I think it’s a way of being that is entirely achievable.

Celebrating fat beauty is just another way of saying beauty is still a requirement for female existence, but we’re going to let more women be people now. But what if we just didn’t give the word “beauty” that power? What if we just lived without that voice in our heads constantly assessing, positively or negatively, revising, trying to think what we “should” think, trying to see what we “should” see. What if it just didn’t matter? What if women could be something other than beautiful?

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As the mother of a Gen Z teen girl and 21 year old young man (both white), I suspect that their equivalent is also about skin care. The culture of Glossier and all of the other lite-makeup skin wellness products is strong. They all come delivered in minimalist packages, in white tubes or bottles with "clean" sans-serif designs, promoted through Instagram and Tik-tok (which are the Sassy and Seventeen for this demo). They are too old to hear me when I tell them that blemishes are not reflections of their character or worth. I wonder how this will play out when they are 40 or 50.

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I'm an older millennial who grew up what I (proudly) called "pop-culturally illiterate." I didn't get "those" magazines (notable exception: a single-year flirtation with Teen when I was 12), I didn't like to watch TV, I wasn't into boy bands or Britney, etc. Until I read this essay, I would have told you I didn't know (or care) about any of the big pop-culture trends or moments that happened parallel to my adolescence.

Reading this, though? I'm crying tears of recognition. ALL of this influenced me, and although I didn't consume and obsess over any of it at the time, I absolutely remember it now. It all got filed away, tagged how-to-think-about-my-body, and holy moly does it power my unconscious thinking to this day.

I've only begun unpacking this very recently. AHP, your work has done so much to help with that: thank you. Culture Study community, our discussions have been hugely helpful as well. Thank you.

It's not too late. <3

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I remember so clearly reading an interview with Gwen Stefani in which they asked her how she got her signature abs and she said “I’m hungry all the time.” It was so utterly confusing to me because I’d been convinced that you could look like that by just being a little disciplined and doing some crunches. What do you mean I can’t actually get Gwen Stefani’a abs?!

(I think that was also a turning point in realising I had very much Been Had by Stefani and Just a Girl feminism, which you have also written about brilliantly.)

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As a 50+, 450-pound woman, this article speaks volumes to me. I grew up on Seventeen in the late 70s-80s. It has always been the same, and I DON’T see it ACTUALLY getting better or changing beyond the surface. It’s so far beyond depressing and I’m so, so tired. It runs way too deep, fat people will never /really/ be accepted because thin people are terrified they’ll become us. There will always be diets, they always leave us fatter. People will always shell out more money than they have to “fix” it. They’ll line up happily to be told they’re the “perfect candidate” in the hard sell for surgery that will mutilate and irreversibly damage their bodies in myriad shocking ways — no one really talks about the extreme damage because that also goes against the idea that they’re successful and “fixed”. And ALL the doctors who push referrals for surgery because they get that nice referral fee. The language they use is beyond offensive as they sell us out. As for all of these supposedly “size-inclusive” lines of clothing? Size 28 isn’t actually very “fat”. Going up to size 3x and no further? Not really size inclusive. I wear a 6x, and after that there isn’t anything. No more clothes for you because you’re a freak.—if you haven’t yet realized you’re cast out of society, here’s another reminder. Pushed off the cliff. At 23 and 220 pounds, I was told I was too heavy to have a pregnancy—/very high risk/, but I was also far too heavy to have an abortion. It never ends. When I think of all I’ve been through, I feel so exhausted and so hopeless. And it all started with my mom taking me to Weight Watchers (more shaming of my 12-year-old body) and the ever-present gospel of Seventeen magazine.

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May 23, 2021Liked by Anne Helen Petersen

Regarding the Tweet, we also all have eating disorders because in elementary school they told us "the foundation of your diet should be 6-11 servings of pasta a day" and then in middle/high school the zeitgeist became "You must never look at a noodle again!"

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Where was Lizzo when I was 14?? I needed Lizzo! WE ALL NEED LIZZO

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May 24, 2021Liked by Anne Helen Petersen

I feel like I just found Roman ruins in my basement reading this, as this piece has truly excavated some feelings I haven't thought about or felt in years/decades. To aid in my own mental archeological dig through these ruins:

• Does anyone remember the jeans brand that was hugely popular (maybe just in the upper midwest?) in the early 2000s that had the SIZE printed on a little tag on the back? Silver jeans?? I just had a full-on flashback to standing in choir and noting the size of every girl in the row in front of me, so shout-out to the sadist who thought that was a good design decision!

•Was it a whole US thing that girls would place stickers on their hips when they went tanning so they'd have a playboy bunny or stars (or whatever) contrasted against their tan, which would of course peek out between the bottom of their multi-layered tank tops and low-rise jeans? The ubiquity of year-round tanning in my MN high school was so deranged, even the local gas station near our high school had some tanning booths. Our poor skin!

Anyway, thank you for this post, AHP! After decades (literally since I was pre-teen) of avoiding shorts, this has inspired me to declare that this is THE SUMMER OF THE SHORTS. I refuse to spend another summer sweating through my jeans bc I don't like how my legs look. I've wasted so much of my life thinking about how my body looks/behaves and this post is a great reminder that, just as I look back on my high school photos and think I look very stupid but also very cute, I'll probably do the same about this time in another 5+ years so I might as well let my legs out. Whew!

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I know I have recommended it already, but everyone at all interested in any of this really needs to listen to the fabulous Maintenance Phase podcast. (They have done episodes on Snackwells _and_ Olestra already! And I believe the episode coming up will deal with celery juice...) Also, for a deeper dive into the Jessica Simpson discourse, someone/something that was never really on my radar in any significant way until I listened to this, the always spectacular You're Wrong About podcast has a multi-part series of Jessica Simpson episodes that, among other things, gets way into how everyone talked about/treated her body throughout the '90s and early '00s. They also, last year, did a 5-part series on the life and death of Princess Di, which gets deeply into her body issues and eating disorders. All worth a listen!

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I've never directly "blamed" society or culture for my struggle with an eating disorder; years of therapy have helped me realize that there's a lot more going on there. At the same time, this "vernacular of deprivation, control, and aspirational containment" is a convenient way of expressing those deeper issues. Also, society's obsession with weight/diet/body image definitely made it so much more difficult for me to recover, because all of the damaging things I had been doing to my body were praised by the culture at large.

I consider myself pretty far along in my recovery, but I fall back to those old, disordered habits the moment the rest of my life feels out of control. Because somewhere along the way I learned that if I could control nothing else, I could control my body. I'm a college professor now, and I see young women falling into the same patterns - trying to maintain control through food and exercise - and it breaks my heart.

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I'm a young millennial/old Gen Z, and this makes me think about the teens on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon who were so, so thin, and it's only just now coming out now that some of them struggled with eating disorders. And then girls like me watched them and thought that those were supposed to be normal, relatable bodies, achievable for everyone without great effort.

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I'll preface this by saying that I am not (maybe?) a millennial, being born in 1997. But I did develop a life-threatening eating disorder around 2009 after a few years of all-too-precocious reading of celebrity magazines, Oprah, Cooking Light and Time, and have spent the last few years trying to untangle the pervasive fatphobia of that period in media. These might have come a little bit later, but I think the separate, more "scientific" strain of "obesity epidemic" related fatphobia and the Michael Pollans of the world added another layer onto the list that was put here, and Michelle Obama -- bless her heart! -- really fuelled that, especially toward children. I won't get into the gory details of my disorder, but the messaging about counting your exercise minutes AS A CHILD and being destined for a life of poor health if you didn't have vegetables on half of your plate AS A CHILD was really scarring for the Millennial/Gen Z cuspers like myself, I think. Things like the "Eat This, Not That" franchise, "Supersize Me" which I think everyone my age was forced to watch at one point even though the science behind it is dubious at best, and KIDS VERSIONS of books like "Fast Food Nation" were so wildly irresponsible in their health messaging that honestly I'm amazed that more kids didn't end up with eating disorders around that time.

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As someone who was old enough to have actually had a subscription to Sassy, it wasn't really all that great. The models were still mostly white and pin thin and Jane Pratt was fully "Jane" so the whole thing was performative White Feminism 101. The notes from Jane section always read as yet another clique that wouldn't have me as a member. It wasn't Young Miss (what YM was before it was YM) or Seventeen but it was still for a "certain" type of alternative white teenager who was into Sassy's idea of cool bands, which I certainly was not.

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I'm a younger millennial, but one of the defining features of my first year of college was that, at pretty much every party, at least one girl would have one drink too many and cry about her eating disorder. I went to a prestigious women's college, which is an environment that self-selects for overachieving, type-A, generally middle class and upper middle class women who hold themselves to impossible standards, but it was eerie. Like clockwork, a few hours into the party, the conversation would inevitably turn to our bodies and what we hated about them, and someone would cry. For so, so many of us, it was clearly on our minds, at least a little bit, at all times. I can't help but think about all of the things I could have done with that brain space...

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There was such a white supremacist streak through all of this subtextual (and textual) media messaging about body size, too. I'd love a follow-up piece that delved into that.

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May 23, 2021Liked by Anne Helen Petersen

OMG I just remembered the wisdom of cutting bananas in half because it was too dangerous to eat a whole one.

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