The Role Model Problem

The Role Model Problem centers around whether or not a healthy fat person should speak about their health in terms of numbers. The main concerns that I’ve heard are:  What happens if someone discloses their numbers as a healthy fatty and then gets sick; and that every body deserves to be treated with respect so there is no reason to talk about our numbers.

I completely understand this perspective, I see the merits and I respect everyone who espouses this point of view.  I thought long and hard about putting my numbers out there for this exact reason and I came to a different conclusion for myself.

I don’t write or speak for the people who disagree with me. My work is for the people who are looking for an oasis of body love in a bleak desert of body hate. We are bombarded with the idea that fat is synonymous with poor health. I think that’s untrue and I think that it’s important to stand up to that stereotype.

Of course I always want to be clear that health is multi-dimensional and that I don’t consider health to be a moral, social or personal obligation or a barometer by which worthiness is judged.  My health isn’t just because of my habits, it’s also because of genetics, environment, access, and stress just like everyone else.  Nobody’s health is entirely within their control, and it does it make them more or less worthy, or better or worse than anyone else.

Still, one of my favorite poems is by Marianne Williamson:

…Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you…And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others…

All any of use can do is choose to shine our light.  Other people will chose insecurity, liberation, or something else as their reaction but that’s their choice, not our responsibility.

Our society does it’s best to hide people like me, and I don’t really feel like helping them out. I believe that healthy habits, while not a guarantee of health, are our best chance.  If I get sick I won’t start telling people “never mind, I was wrong, don’t move your body and nourish it”.  Marathoners drop dead of heart attacks and get cancer and they don’t lose their status as athletes who lived a healthy lifestyle.  There is a tremendous double standard if fat athletes who get sick do lose their status, and I simply refuse to buy into it.

We’re all going to die eventually, and whether my health is ended by a fast-moving bus, old age, or alien abduction someone will be standing around saying that it was because I was fat.  So what?  I’m not at all concerned with what these people think.  I’m also much less concerned with being a “good role model” than I am with being authentically me.  I feel good when I look for things to celebrate about my body instead of things to change or hate or hide.  Right now those thing include excellent numbers and I will not let fear of the inevitable stop be from celebrating my body as it is, continuing to pursue things that may me feel good, and bucking a ridiculous unsupported stereotype every single chance I get.

21 thoughts on “The Role Model Problem

  1. There are too few people these days willing to stand up and be their true selves in the face of society.

    For that, ~you~ are my role model. 🙂

  2. I decided that living well is the best revenge and that exemplifying what I believe about fat is the best thing I can do. It may be in part my age group – I am 65 and I notice few like me writing about fat acceptance – but evangelizing verbally with people is just not who I am these days.

  3. There is a fat woman I’ve transported in the ambulance a time or two. Her name is Mary. She has a generous belly and legs that remind me of my own. It takes a few of us to safely lift her when she has anything splinted. She had a hip replacement, then went through the usual rehab and returned to her life as she knew it before. She has cardiac issues here and there, but takes far less medication than many people her age, and has a booming laugh that you hear very frequently when you visit with her. Usually right after she asks you “How old do you think I am?” Most people guess around 74.
    She is 95 years old.
    To the people who are convinced that weight is an absolute indicator of health, I invite them to get EMT certification. Somewhere between Mary’s conspiratorial laugh as she waves down the hall and refers to “These old ladies” and the 54 year old men who I can lift in my arms like children while they waste from diseases that are no respector of adipose tissue, they’ll realize that much of what they think they know with certainty is simply wrong and there are a thousand other factors more decisive than weight bearing on us all.

  4. You are not a number. Not your weight, not your labs, not your cholesterol. Those numbers, good or bad, do not make you good or bad. Each of us deserves respect, not because we have good numbers, but because we are human. Healthy or sick, fat or thin, can we treat ourselves and each other with dignity? Thanks, Ragen, for resisting the pressure to quantize yourself as if your worthiness could be measured.

  5. I so agree with you on this and feel more and more strongly about it, especially now I’ve turned 50, I can almost feel people wanting to say to me, “don’t you think you should help your health more by losing weight”. I started developing major health problems when I turned 40, starting with adult asthma and irritable Bowel Syndrome, I am almost sure in my mind it has nothing to do with my size, as you say Ragen, it’s a combination of factors. In my case, I believe it’s partly genetic and partly my mind make up, i.e I get stressed a lot, in the years leading up to my 40’s I was bringing up a disabled son, his behaviour was very difficult to deal with and he became abusive to me and this carried on into his adulthood. I have since”progressed” to Fibromyalgia, Osteoarthritis(1 hip replaced)high blood pressure, underactive thyroid. This also leads to my immune system being shot to pieces, but I always try to eat reasonable healthy, take some exercise when I can and am able and pain levels allowing, lead an active life. I refuse to be bullied into this mentality of obsessing about what I eat and weigh. Thank you Ragen and all you other posters as though I’m talkative, opionated, etc., about many things, this is one subject I don’t really talk about to anyone, except maybe my partner, but he doesn’t really see it a problem and therefore doesn’t feel the need to discuss it with me.

    Marion, UK

    1. Hi Marion,

      Thanks for sharing your story, sorry to hear that things have been difficult but I’m glad that you are finding a path that works for you and I’m inspired by your refusal to be bullied into something else.


  6. The part that irks me the most is frequently, not always, if a fat person has a health problem we are admonished and cautioned that it’s because of our weight, If the same health problem afflicts a thin person, there are frequently more expressions of sympathy and “that’s no fair” offered to that person. That kind of inequality is hurtful and frankly, I just don’t like it.

  7. The part that irks me is frequently, not always, if a fat person has a health problem we are admonished and cautioned that it’s because of our weight, If the same health problem afflicts a thin person, there are frequently more expressions of sympathy and “that’s no fair” offered to that person. That kind of inequality is hurtful and frankly, I just don’t like it.

  8. “…Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you…”

    I so so SO needed those words today!!!!!! In a fit of courage (yes it comes in fits, mostly because of inspiring blogs like this one) I signed up to get certified as a Zumba dance instructor. Now that my fit of courage has passed I am totally *freaking out*. I am terrified that I’m going to be the fattest person there and everyone is going to be all “what is she even doing here, can she actually dance without snapping her ankles?” My regular class instructor is really happy for me, and everyone congratulated me when I told them I was going for it, but I sensed a faint aura of surprise/disbelief from a few who don’t know me very well. And I *know* my stamina isn’t up to ‘class leading’ level, but I’m worried people will assume it’s just because I’m fat.

    Even when people are supportive, I find myself gritting my teeth against some moments I sense are “good fattie head-pats.” Like I get extra credit for EWF – Effort While Fat. And the motivation behind the effort is assumed/misinterpreted: “Oh good for her, trying to lose weight by dancing!” No, *I’m doing something I love for my health* dammit!

    Gee, I’m not bitter or cynical about this at all am I? 😛

    Since finding this site and the FA/HAES blogosphere, I’ve been trying to love my fat a** as it is. Now, the prospect of putting that same fat booty on instructional display is bringing back the self-judgement and shame I’ve been working so hard to let go of.

    I need role models like Ragen to remind me that I can be fat – and dance.
    So no ‘playing it small’…training here I come! >:-D
    Thank you Ragen!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. Pauline,

      I’m super excited for you that you are taking the Zumba instructor training. Your story really inspired me – I hope that you’ll let us know how the training goes, I’ll be cheering you on from afar 🙂


  9. Not to mention the popular media lie that “fat” equals “ugly.” I’ve seen a lot of absolutely gorgeous fat women, and I’ve seen some mighty ugly thin ones (and quite often, the ugly is manifested the moment they open their mouths).

    Not to be cruel or to lack compassion, but being thin sure did wonders for Karen Carpenter, didn’t it? Our culture will gladly repeat the dogma that being fat is unhealthy, but when their myopic focus leads to dangerous eating disorders, such as the one that so damaged Carpenter’s heart, they’re strangely quiet on the risks of their foolishness.

    1. I just wanted to respond because this post kind of bothered me (guess I got ‘triggered’)…I don’t think it is productive to put fat acceptance together with thin rejection. Thin shouldn’t be labeled un/healthy any more than fat should be; it doesn’t do anyone any good to argue thin v. fat or put one above the other.
      Fat and thin aren’t beautiful or ugly they’re just FAT and THIN, everything else is projection and conjecture and personal opinion.
      Yes eating disorders are horrible (I know, I had/have one), but not everyone who is thin is anorexic – thin people are hurt by accusations of anorexia just like fat people are hurt by assumptions of sloth or gluttony.
      Yes the media does terrible things to manipulate our self esteem and body/health choices. But we are *all* victims of that no matter our size. I think being angry about thinness is understandable but ultimately alienating.
      Instead of ‘Up with fatties and down with skinnies,’ how about ‘Up with everyone and down with judgement’? Or is that too idealistic?

      1. Believe me, I know. I’ve always been on the lean side, while my wife has always been on the heavy side. When I joined the USAF at age 17, I was 6’2″ tall and weighed 108 pounds soaking wet (I should have failed the induction physical for being too thin, as I was two pounds under the minimum weight for my height). Without a shirt, I could have been a poster child for “Feed the Children,” but it wasn’t from any eating disorder. I packed away food like it was going out of style. My wife, on the other hand, eats less than I do, is just as active (if not moreso), and puts on weight easily.

        I also did not mean to come across as suggesting thin was ugly in itself (I did say “some” and not “all”), but rather to make the point – as did you – that, despite our cultural obsession with skinny, being thin does not automatically equate to beauty, nor does being fat automatically render one repulsive. Our culture would have us believe that I should be lusting after wasp-waisted starlets, while wishing that my wife were as hot as the starlets. It seems to be outside their ability to comprehend that I find *her* sexy and attractive, because of who she is, and that regardless of whether she remains fat or whether she ever loses a significant amount of weight.

        The ‘ugly’ I referred to being manifest the moment they opened their mouths is from the self-absorbed, egotistic attitudes that some of them have, acting as though surgically-sculpted breasts, thin waists, and “just-so” curved behinds make them better than anyone else. There are a lot of “nice bodies” out there with really repulsive people living inside of them, while a beautiful person shines through regardless of whether or not the external appearance of the body lines up with the narrow beauty standards of our culture.

        My point with Karen Carpenter was not to suggest that being thin was the cause of her untimely death, but instead, the compulsive pursuit of being thinner that was ultimately fueled by our society’s erroneous idea that fat=bad and skinny=good, is what led to the irreparable damage done to her heart. The Media will trumpet when someone’s early demise is linked to fat, and the diet industry will gladly latch onto that to boost their sales. What they are not doing is accepting their share of the responsibility for the damage and deaths occurring when people become so fearful of even the least amount of fat, that they will resort to dangerous measures to try and lose even one more ounce of weight. Had Ms. Carpenter accepted her body for what it was, and focused on being healthy instead of being thin, she likely would still be with us.

  10. And you do inspire. You remind me that I can focus on improving my health w/o focusing on decreasing my size. In fact, history tells me that focusing on size or getting distracted by size simply derail my efforts to be in good health. I forget to apply those principles, I get tired of applying those principles while not shedding pounds, I forget to be healthy. Thank you for constantly reminding me, pushing me, inspiring me, and encouraging me in my determination to kick fibromyalgia’s ass and generally be in better health.

  11. Has anyone read the book “Losing It”? I remember reading a story in that book of a woman who wanted to be a Jazzersize instructor but was not hired because she was “too overweight to be an instructor” (or some such garbage), even though she could run 4 classes in a row without being winded or physically stressed. She ended up suing Jazzersize, but at the time of the book’s publication, the case was just getting started. Does anyone know the outcome of that?

    I highly recommend reading “Losing It” and “The Diet Myth”. Both saved my sanity when I was a teenager and a young twenty-something coming to terms with the fact that I was just going to be fat, and there was nothing I could really do about it.

  12. Oh, the “Losing It” I am referring to is not the Valerie Bertinelli book, but a different book who’s author’s name escapes me now. I can’t seem to find it on Amazon so it may be out of print now. I’ll do so more searching.

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