TAL: “Tell Me I’m Fat”

Once or twice a year, This American Life, a consistent favorite of mine, hits home with a punch-to-the-gut episode, and I remember just how great their work can be. This week’s episode, “Tell Me I’m Fat,” hit home hard.

The show starts with Lindy West, whose book, Shrill, sparked the episode. The book, and this segment, are about her journey from a hyper-ashamed fat person to a fat person whose advice includes, “At a certain point you just have to be like [jack-off motion] and do you.”* The segment’s underlying conflict is the feud between Lindy and her boss, writer Dan Savage. Dan wrote insulting, disparaging things about fat people, and Lindy wrote back—all while they remained friends and colleagues at the Stranger. Dan, here, speaks in the Voice of Society at Large, a voice that claims to care about things like fat people’s health. But, as Lindy says, “You’re not concerned about my health—because if you were concerned about my health, you’d also be concerned about my mental health.”** And there we have, more or less, the thesis of this episode.

The second segment is told by one of my favorites, Elna Baker, whose story is based, in part, on an essay she wrote for Refinery29. Unlike Lindy, she dealt with her weight by losing it, rather than by accepting it. In the segment, she comes out as a person who struggles with her body image, and who uses questionable methods to keep herself looking how she feels she must. New Elna also struggles with Old Elna. Old Elna was fat but happy (although I wonder how happy she was, given that she lost 110 pounds for the expressed reasons of getting a job and a boyfriend). New Elna is thin, and has a job and a partner, but she’s not as good a person. And here, too, we have the Voice of Society, which gives New Elna everything that Old Elna wanted: “[Old Elna] tried so hard for everything that [New Elna] now got so easily. New Elna didn’t have to be a good person. I just had to be thin.”

In the next segment, Ira Glass talks to Roxane Gay, who wrote about weight in Bad Feminist and whose forthcoming book, Hunger, delves deeper into the topic. She puts fat people into three categories: “20 pounds overweight,” or a Slim Fast diet away from not-fat; “Lane Bryant fat,” or able to fit into a typical plus-size clothing brand; and “super morbidly obese,” like Roxane herself. She talks, mostly, about what it’s like to constantly think about and navigate her size. Here, the Voice of Society appears through physical structures. At a certain size, one’s body is prohibitively large, so that, as Roxane says, “This whole nonstop anxiety conversation happens in my head all the time for just basic life functions…Before I will go out to eat, I research a restaurant extensively on Google…And if I don’t think I’m going to be comfortable, I simply won’t go.” Roxane is talking, here, about the size of chairs, the spaces between tables, the presence or lack of armrests. But this sentence could so easily apply to any number of issues. Wheelchair accessibility, for example, or the amount of light, or noise, or any other physical navigations one must make when spaces do not generally cater to one’s body. Will this space accommodate me? the anxiety asks. Am I welcome here?

The last segment explores Oral Roberts University’s weight-loss policy. Our guiding voice here is not the victim of fat-shaming, but its perpetrator. ORU, a Christian college founded in 1963, twisted the idea of holistic education—educating the mind, body, and soul—and used it to justify sizeist discrimination, as what started as an exercise requirement turned into a weight-determined suspension policy. Too fat? Get out. Lose five pounds and pray and maybe you can come back next semester. The ORU approach—and the approach of the Christian weight-loss movement in general—was, basically, as Lindy West would say, “Eeeewwwww.” It’s this approach of institutional fat-shaming that makes up the current backbone of America’s attitude toward weight. Luckily, the story ends happily, with the physical education director realizing that kicking a student out for being four pounds over the university-sanctioned goal weight can either drive the student to action, or drive them into the ground—and deciding that that isn’t a risk worth taking.

I am not fat. I have never been more than maybe ten pounds overweight. But I am a woman, and I have struggled with my weight, and I found all of these segments very relatable. As much as they’re about being fat, they’re also about being a person in a body—a person who does and does not want to be seen; a person who cares more about maintaining her size than about maintaining her health; a person who kills a part of herself to get what she thinks she can only have if she’s thin. The anxiety that Roxane references, the lengths to which Elna goes to alter her body, the emphasis on physical health (or looks) at the expense of mental well-being that Lindy describes—these are not only fat people issues. Because, as Lindy says, the idea of overweight only works if there is a correct weight. And anybody who has an idea of their correct weight can come to build their life around it, and to value their body in relation to others.

While “Tell Me I’m Fat” has the format and scope of a typical TAL episode, it has the impact of “Three Miles” or “Abdi and the Golden Ticket,” two other examples of the show at its finest. It’s episodes like this that remind me of the effect that personal stories can have. A society that decenters and dehumanizes people—particularly women—it deems too big must hear their stories. It is, as Lindy says in Shrill, “like medicine” to see fat women “wearing outfits and doing things and smiling”. It’s medicine to hear and see fat people loving themselves. And it’s an antidote to self-ridicule to hear other people—both still-fat and now-thin—struggling with their bodies. Log this under required listening.

*Shrill, page 48
**This and all future quotes are from “Tell Me I’m Fat”
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