Virgie Tovar is a body image activist and author of the book, You Have the Right to Remain Fat. She says her advocacy for being healthy at any size and against fat discrimination and fatphobia isn't about food, but about human rights. She talked with Franic Lam about what that means for our mental health as individuals and as a society.
Virgie also left us with a list of resources and recommended reading related to topics of body image and activism. You’ll find her book suggestions below the interview transcription.
We have more links to mental health resources and help at splendidtable.org/mentalhealth.
Francis Lam: Thank you so much for talking with us; I'm really excited to talk with you. I want to start with telling you a little bit about my happy place: I love going to restaurants. My wife and daughter are going away in a couple of weeks, and I'm going to be sad to miss them, but honestly, I keep thinking, where am I going to go for dinner by myself? Like, I can't wait to go! For me, restaurants are warm and inviting. I feel happy when I'm in a restaurant or just sitting at a bar having an appetizer. So, it was eye-opening for me when you made me realize that for a lot of people going to restaurants can be a really stressful experience. Can you tell us about that?
Virgie Tovar: I think a lot about restaurants in terms of access because I am a bigger person. There are a lot of dimensions and thought that go into a regular experience like going into a restaurant, which for many people is a joyful experience. For me it starts even before I even get to the restaurant. I'm thinking about how much space is there in the waiting area, where the line is, and if I am going to be in the way. I think about my favorite coffee place; there's this very narrow area and it always gives me this little hit of anxiety.
Then I think about what I’m going to order, and am I going to have to worry about the people within earshot judging me? Am I going to have to worry about the cashier thinking some kind of way? Am I going to, for instance, get the whipped cream on the coffee that I like so much because they make it in-house? Am I going to get that hit of, “She's bigger so she shouldn't be getting whipped cream on her coffee?” Then, there's this other dimension of whether I’m going to sit and eat the thing or drink the thing. Because eating in public is really vulnerable when you're a bigger-bodied person, especially if you're a woman.
And then there's the dimension of the seating. Am I going to be able to fit in the chair – number one? And more importantly perhaps, am I going to be able to sit there comfortably to actually enjoy the thing? So, there's all of these different components that go into it that are sort of hidden but that are very real and layered in the mind of someone like me.
FL: Even in the food industry, we talk about it as welcoming and it's about bringing people to the table. But it's like, no, you literally did not make a table that many people who would otherwise be happy to come there feel comfortable sitting at.
VT: I live in San Francisco, and it's a very design conscious city; minimalism is the height of design here in this moment. And I don't know, I think a lot of people find minimalist seating to be quite uncomfortable. For me, there is physical discomfort but it's also a mental health hit that happens because I'm used to walking into a restaurant – especially in San Francisco – and thinking, “This place is not for me. This place is for very thin foodies.” And so that tiny chair feeds into a narrative that says I don't belong, and that's a narrative that I've been taught for a very long time, ever since I was a child.
FL: What other basic things do thin people or – this is a term you taught me – straight-sized people take for granted.
VT: I've been thinking so much about this. I've always been fat, so it's hard for me to have perspective. There are moments of realization where it just blows my mind. Like, for instance, someone had to explain to me that thin people think that fat people are fat because we have this obscenely different lifestyle than thin people do, that we just eat significantly more and move significantly less than all thin people. I can say as someone who has researched this for a decade, this is not supported by data. She had to sit and explain it about five or six times for me to be able to understand that, oh, the data don't matter. What matters is this is a discriminatory belief; this is like a victim blaming belief. It doesn't make any sense because it doesn't make any sense.
A lot of thin people have been taught not to be friends with fat people. So, if you don't have any fat friends, you don't know what our life looks like. Then on top of that there's this confirmation bias where we discard information that goes against whatever deep-seated belief we have and we lean in very hard to information that confirms what we believe. And so there are multiple effects going on there, multiple things that are creating the reality and perception of others. But that was a big one.
Another one that I'm thinking of is a more recent area of research that I've been looking into, and that is the efficacy of important medications is not tested above a certain weight. And this made international news, I think it was last year, when they found out that a very popular form of emergency contraception in Europe lost efficacy at I think it was 165 pounds, and was completely useless I think above 170 pounds. Now, this is in Europe, but to give context, in the United States 68 percent of American women are a size 14 or above, meaning that they're sort of at that level.
I think another example is access to fashion, like having clothing available to you that makes you feel good, that makes you feel seen. For a lot of plus-size people going into a store is a very stressful experience, a very stigmatizing experience, a very shameful experience.
There's this real disempowerment that's built into fat phobic discrimination.
You Have the Right to Remain Fat
by Virgie Tovar
FL: Tell me what that kind of stress does to people.
VT: There is this phenomenon known as minority stress. It’s actually a body of research that looks at the cumulative effect of discrimination and quantifies the physiological effects of stress among people who are marginalized – that includes fat people. Stress, especially ongoing stress, affects the function of the heart and the immune system. These are the issues connected with higher weight. What minority stress theory is attempting to posit is that it's typically the experience of discrimination that leads to negative health outcomes in people who are discriminated against and marginalized people.
A paper came out in 2015 that I thought pretty firmly posited that weight discrimination could lead to shorten life expectancy in higher weight people. Stress manifests in a lot of different ways. I want to talk about this thing called hypervigilance, this constant state of awareness of how others are perceiving you, of attempting to offset those things. It's about doing a lot of mental work – really like mental Olympics – around trying to prevent experiences of discrimination and/or always being prepared for those moments.
When you're a fat person in our culture, where it is still socially acceptable to overtly express fat-negative views – which I certainly think that that is changing rapidly – we are constantly anticipating cruelty and negativity. Increasingly there is less overt fatphobia happening in media and maybe even in social interactions and certain places, but they're still happening and you never quite know when it's going to hit. And when that moment hits, it is so utterly dehumanizing. It's so humiliating. And I think that it's that humiliation component that can be so deeply painful. And the humiliation comes from the fact that you're living in a culture that corroborates this cruelty.
FL: It is about a culture. It's about our society. So, what do you say to the arguments then that even if you're being pressured to be thin, isn't it better to be that way because it's quote-unquote healthier for you?
VT: There's so much to say to that. I want to talk about the way that fatphobia taxes all of us, but really the ways in which it does as you get larger in this culture, the way that that tax gets bigger and bigger and bigger. Do we have time to talk about this for a second?
VT: Okay. Then I'm going to address this concern about health. It’s useful to look at a type of discrimination like fatphobia with a three-dimensional lens.
The first dimension I often talk about is the intrapersonal dimension; this is how a person feels about themselves and their body. When we're talking about this level, this is where we are seeing a lot of suffering and anguish regardless of size, that moment in the mirror that accumulates into hundreds of thousands of moments over a lifetime.
Then we look at the second dimension, which is the interpersonal. This is the relational and social dimension. We know, for instance, that many employers have bias against plus-size candidates, we know that doctors tend to judge fat patients more harshly, and we know that dating is harder for fat people. Those are all things that are happening between people; that's the interpersonal.
And then there's a third dimension, which is the institutional dimension. And this is the outside-of-human-exchange dimension. It has to do with institutions, industries, the world in which you are living, and if these systems and institutions are accessible to you or not. This includes something like education with the size of seating in classrooms, the size of seating in lecture halls. This includes access to fashion and what I was talking about earlier. The fashion industry has long neglected the 68 percent of American women who are a size 14 or above. And then again, efficacy of medication not being tested above a certain weight. These are all things that are above the intra- and interpersonal and make up the world that we're all navigating. When we're talking about the second and third dimension, the higher your weight the more you're getting hit on both of those. This is how we create dimensionality around understanding how this issue affects people across the size spectrum.
In terms of health, in our culture there is a false correlation between food, exercise and body size. Most people who are thin are genetically predisposed towards having a smaller body. There are many fat people who exercise and eat vegan, or any number of vegetable-based diets or what we would consider nutritious diets, and are still fat. I think the fact that we don't see this speaks to a lot of things. It speaks to confirmation bias. It speaks to the lack of representation of fat people. It speaks to the ways in which thin people aren't having meaningful relationships with fat people, generally speaking, because of the fear of being stigmatized through proximity.
I can say this with complete confidence: our attitudes towards body size are archaic and they're not data informed. Discrimination becomes the area where we as a culture – and any culture – begin to have blind spots, begin to cherry-pick data, begin to delete certain things and lean into others. And the truth is we need to accept that the current paradigm around how we understand health, how we understand food, how we understand size, is not working. We need to stop worrying and wondering and questioning why people are the size that they are. Because at the end of the day, every single person deserves respect, care, love, proper medical care, and full humanity – no matter what size they are or why they are that size.
Reading and Resources Recommended by Virgie Tovar:
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Francis Lam is the host of The Splendid Table. He is the former Eat columnist for The New York Times Magazine and is Editor-at-Large at Clarkson Potter. He graduated first in his class at the Culinary Institute of America and has written for numerous publications. Lam lives with his family in New York City.