Yes People Are Allowed to Diet

DefendAfter my piece about Holley Mangold going on the biggest loser, in which I voiced my belief that Holley is allowed to chose dieting just like I’m allowed to choose not to diet, I got some push back.  Several people suggested that Holley’s choice to engage in dieting is not equal to a fat activist’s choice not to engage and thus her choice deserves critique that a fat activists does not.  It was suggested that I was wrong to suggest that Holley’s choices should be respected in the same way that I want my choices to be respected – that as an activist I don’t have to respect her choice or defend her right to make it – in fact that I’m hurting the movement by doing so – because she is buying into a system that oppresses me and other fat people.

For me it comes down to this:  I don’t want to base my activism on doing to others the exact same thing that I don’t want done to me, even if I have the right to do so.  I don’t want to make statements about an individual’s choice to diet that could be creating by copying and pasting my hatemail and exchanging the term “Health at Every Size” or “Fat Activism” for the term “dieting” even if there are theories of anti-oppression work that would support my right to do just that.

Insisting that those who chose to diet should be criticized because of the effect of their choice on society seems to me to be insisting that it’s ok to ask people to sacrifice their body autonomy for the greater good, which to me sounds a lot like the people who say that those who choose not to diet should be criticized because of the ramifications of our choice on society  – which is something that I rail against.  I’m not excited that people choose to diet, I don’t celebrate the choice and I’m careful about how I respond to those who are celebrating their weight loss, I simply respect their right to choose as I insist my right to choose be respected.

I think that fat people have the right not to be activists and to make choices that make their lives easier in current society (like being a “good fatty” and attempting weight loss) even if those choices make the lives of fat activists harder. People are also allowed to have different interpretations of the research and pursue weight loss because they believe it’s the best choice for their bodies. What they don’t have the right to do is suggest that all fat people should make that choice, or that those who don’t make that choice should be stigmatized, oppressed – or that we don’t have the right to choose not to diet.

I believe that the fight is first and foremost for civil rights which include respecting body autonomy, which includes defending the right of others to make choices I wouldn’t make for myself. As a fat activist I’m interested in fighting for civil rights which are not up for debate or argument.  As a Health at Every Size practitioner I’m interested in getting information out there and presenting options and counter-arguments but I’m not interested in dictating to others how they should live.

In my opinion, no matter how personally disappointed I am with her choice, attacking Holley for wanting body autonomy only hurts our movement because it’s hypocritical. It’s true that her choice does not happen in a vacuum and that the choice may have a negative effect on the fat activist movement, the fact remains that she is still allowed to make choices for her body, even if the fallout hurts the fat rights movement. (Just like we are allowed to chose Fat Activism, Health at Every Size etc. even though many say that those choices hurt society financially, morally etc.)

I think that if I want to eliminate the biggest loser or fat oppression or diet culture or anything else, I prefer to attack the institutions and social constructs that support them and those who seek to take away our rights through those institutions and constructs, not the individuals trying to navigate those institutions and constructs.  If I’m going to be radical, I want to be radical at the institutional level (like this response to Penn State’s crappy employee health program requirements)  not radical in my insistence that the choices of other individuals shouldn’t be given the same respect as my own choices.  Obviously these are just my beliefs and choices as an activist, other activists can make other choices based on other beliefs and I completely respect that.

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39 thoughts on “Yes People Are Allowed to Diet

  1. Agreed. Its just so tiring…and I hate to be around people with “new” diets who act like they just found that the key is to eat “healthy”.

  2. I have several friends who are dieting and I’ve spoken to each of them once or twice about fat acceptance and HAES and then let it go. Their bodies, their choices. The only other thing I do is ask them not to discuss dieting at/around me. It can take a couple of reminders (conversations about dieting are so ingrained in our culture) but they’ve been really good about it.

  3. Thank you Ragen.

    The fact is, while purposely attempting weight loss might go against HAES (on the surface) people still do it for a variety of reasons, and many of them personal.

    I equate HAES to the natural hair movement in that there has been this big push for acceptance of non-chemically-relaxed black hair. Of de-stigmatizing the ‘fro, dreads, and other natural styles so that they are accepted as just another hairstyle rather than a radial act.

    I know this may sound trivial to some, but black women have been told for years that our natural hair texture is unacceptable and that we must straighten it to be accepted.

    Anyway, one of the downsides to the natural movement is the attitude towards women who still opt to relax their hair. The thing is, maybe they ARE buying into the white, patriarchal bull, or maybe they just prefer their hair that way, or maybe they tried natural for several years and decided it wasn’t for them.

    So, to relate this to HAES: Maybe someone who is trying to lose weight is buying into the bull, or maybe they just prefer to weigh a little less, or be a few sizes smaller because that’s their comfort zone.

    On the other hand, I also agree that it’s annoying as hell to hear people talk about their diets. But then, I also get annoyed when people talk incessantly about being gluten free (even though I know that there are some people who NEED to be gluten free, or they die) or going paelo, or being vegan, or whatever.

    It’s also annoying when people try to kill-joy other’s enjoyment of food by food policing.

    But that’s a separate issue from whether or not anyone is trying to lose weight.

    1. Doesn’t sound trivial to me at all. I remember very well the “advice” given to young black women that dreds/locks and cornrows were unprofessional, and it doesn’t take any memory at all to conjure up the image of that young girl sent home from school because her natural hair was a “distraction.”

  4. As a Libertarian, I am all about personal freedoms. I am sad for people who base so much of their self worth on the number on the scale, and it breaks my heart to see them struggle. I also have to distance myself from these people when their social networking pages become all about dieting, which usually happens, at least early on. But that’s for my own sanity, as diet talk is just too big a trigger for me.

    But we all have to do what we feel is best for ourselves. For me, that means NOT dieting. I ultimately believe that for most, dieting is just unhealthy and a bad idea, but it’s not for me to make choices for other people.

  5. My body, my choice.

    Your body, your choice.

    If you ask me what I think of your choice, I’ll tell you. If you don’t, I’ll shut the hell up. If you try to pressure me to make your choice, I’ll let you know it’s not appreciated. If you ask me why I made the choice I did, I’ll be happy to tell you. If I ask you not to discuss your choice in front of me because I find it triggering of behavior or thoughts I find self-destructive, I expect you to respect that. If you tell me talking about my choice is hurting you, I will do my best to keep that in mind and not talk about it.

    Respect is not optional. It is mandatory, and it has to go both ways.

    That’s my philosophy.

    Do I wish Holley Mangold wasn’t going on The Biggest Loser? Of course I do. I find the show reprehensible in every possible way. But Holley didn’t ask me. I don’t know what decided her to do this. I don’t know the extra pressure she is facing for being fat in public. All I can do is refuse to watch her do this and pray it doesn’t result in permanent harm to her.

    1. Yes, this. If I am asked directly, or opinions are asked for about dieting in general, I share my philosophy. It’s often not well received, but people learn pretty quickly around me that if they don’t want honesty, I am not the one to ask. I don’t tend to sugarcoat things, and I don’t tell you what you want to hear just because it’s what you want to hear.

      But if you don’t ask for my opinion, I bite my tongue. Sometimes I have to bite it damn hard, but I do it.

      I don’t respect dieting. I don’t respect horrible shows like The Biggest Loser. I may never understand why someone wants to subject themselves to that sort of public torture and humiliation, but I don’t have to understand it, or respect the show to respect your right to make your own choices.

      As an atheist, I face this sort of thing regularly. I do not respect religion. I just don’t. I did once, when I was religious. But I absolutely, 100% respect – and would FIGHT for – your right to believe. So, what do I expect in return? That you respect my right to not believe.

      It’s the same with dieting (and sometimes I am startled by the parallels between dieting and religion). I respect your RIGHT to diet, even if I personally think its setting yourself up to fail, and even if it pains me to see the hurt it causes most people. I don’t have to respect dieting or the society that pushes so many to go that route. But I have to respect your right to do what you feel is best for your own body.

  6. Wonderfully written. Thank you so much. These days due to poor health, my activism is limited to the member so of my own family who just. don’t. get it.

    And slightly off-topic but activism and choice related. I was watching the Miss America Pageant last night. I loved it as a young girl, than as a young woman I was on the “this oppresses women” boo-train. But now that I’m old(er) I realize, being a feminist means supporting a woman’s right to choose what she wants to do and be who she want’s to be. If she wants to be a stay at home mom, a power-exec/ceo, or a beauty queen, that’s her right. Same fight. Just different circumstances.


  7. I don’t support The Biggest Loser anymore. If Holly wants to lose weight, great for her. It’s her body and her choice, but I don’t think it’s the healthiest choice. In a perfect world or a world in which we all lived on our own little islands, what each of us did for ourselves wouldn’t affect everyone else, but it does, whether we want to believe that or not. When Holly goes on The Biggest Loser and “succeeds”, she will be viewed as someone who was able to “conquer her weight.” If she doesn’t succeed, she will be viewed as a failure. I feel sorry for her because either way, she is going to pay a high price.

    1. I agree. What we do affects those around us and if I disagree with something, I’m not going to support it by watching it on TV or anything else.

  8. I can’t stand the biggest loser, I’m disappointed Holley is choosing to be part of that, but it’s her choice and I respect her ability to make choices for herself.

    I had to make the decision for myself to change the way I eat, not because I eat to lose weight, but because I need to prioritize my health. I have kids and I want to be healthy for them. I’ve had to choose a low fat, mostly unprocessed diet and I’ve gotten some crap about it from people who are disappointed I’m not eating the way they think I should eat, or that I’m now a “health nut” and I should just chill out and eat a slice of pizza. I respect the choices others make, it would be nice if my choices were respected. I have a medical condition that is forcing me to change the way I eat and care for myself, I need to do this.

  9. I think most of us have gone through a gamut of things in order to lose weight in our past and possibly like myself actually two separate weightloss surgeries of which the average age I believe is 50 years old.

    I don’t feel that I have been excluded from FA due to my surgeries one of which I live with every day of my life. Sometimes it takes a lot of destruction before we see the light and every one deserves that chance. Eventually we all see the light some sooner than others.

    It still though makes me sad/cringe every time I see a star or someone who I’ve admired as a fat person go through the magical diet or surgery transformation but it happens and who am I to judge??

  10. Nicely written, Ragan. I totally agree. I’m a civil rights advocate too. One of the toughest things is to respect dieters. But, I really do try to bite my tongue and not say anything disrespectful. My little sister had weight loss surgery and did not tell anyone in the family until it was all over. She knows how I feel about it, and I think her decision has caused a divide between us. I have done my very best to be positive around her, inquire about her health and check to see if she has any food limitations (in preparation for a visit) but not mention or give positive strokes about the weight loss.. While my other sisters are raving about her weight loss, I remain silent. I don’t have to reinforce this frightening decision she made. So far, she is doing well. I know others who did not survive. But, I agree, she had a right to make that decision, She is also respectful of me and has not advocated weight loss to the rest of the family or me. She IS my little sister and does understand about civil rights.

  11. i wholeheartedly agree. i see this as an issue quite akin to feminism — unfortunately there are feminists who criticize women who are stay-at-home mothers, and sex workers as doing damage to “the cause” — and they’re just as wrong as HAES adherents who criticize other individuals for dieting.

    we’ve all made dumb choices in our lives, and i expect i personally will make oodles more, but not all my choices are dumb; some are just not easily understood by outsiders. i appreciate constructive criticism IF I ASK FOR IT, but otherwise people can shove it. they’re not in my shoes, they don’t have to live my life. and i try my damndest to extend the same courtesy to others.

    i believe in maximizing information and choices for all people. it makes me sad that holley mangold is making a choice that looks bad to me, but quite honestly, since i don’t know exactly why she is making this choice, i am not particularly well informed about its quality. could be it’s just for the promotional value, so she can make enough money to finance her continued olympic career, and that may well be worth the abuse in her eyes — it’s not like she is going into it blind, everybody knows what the show is like. in any case, it isn’t my choice, it isn’t my life, and i wish her the best. her life is hard enough without my criticism.

    as to whether she is my role model, that is my choice, and it’s not her responsibility at all. i don’t really have role models, and she never was one, so there’s not going to be a change, *heh*. i mean, i don’t think the olympics are a particularly good thing to aim for anymore, but i support people who want to aim for it, and contrary to most i think winning is overrated, and coming in 10th in the world is fracking amazing. can no stupid TV show take away from the level of dedication and hard work that goes into that.

    and if i want to heat more healthily because my sky-high blood pressure impressed on me that i have learned some really bad habits and got suckered in by the food industry into consuming way more sugar and salt than is good for me, then that is my business. i hate that people are now papering over their new fad diets with “eating more healthily”, and that’s not what i am doing (i say defensively), but eh, tough. i didn’t really like it when the word “diet” was appropriated for everything fad in order to push weight loss either. i resent it a little that i feel like a HAES traitor when i do exert some control over what i put in my mouth. *sigh*, we are so screwed up about food. i’d really just like to ENJOY it again some day, without all the politics.

    1. I feel your pain about food politics. The last year has been really hard for me, because I’ve had to change my eating habits strictly for my health. I found myself losing some weight as a result, and so it’s been really difficult to keep my focus on the goal of health rather than weight loss.

      I get that people who compliment me on the weight loss are just trying to be nice and/or helpful (however misguidedly), as are the people who comment on my food choices. But I’m also tired of trying to explain to people that while I realize that steak and bacon aren’t the healthiest foods for everyone to eat, that *I* am healthier on a high-protein diet rather than whatever route they’ve chosen to weight loss. (And while I’m thinking about it, doesn’t it just suck out loud that “diet” is the appropriate word for one’s overall eating patterns?)

      It’s been a hard road, especially as I had finally thought I’d reached peace with my body before the health issues popped up. But every day, I just try to re-focus on eating to nourish the body I have, and to remind myself that changing my food habits isn’t about losing weight, it’s about staying healthy at whatever size I end up being at the end of the day.

        1. Actually, the word “diet” was applied to a person’s way of eating LONG before it became a term for a way to lose weight.

          It’s what diet means.

          Essentially, they were originally labeled by the TYPE of diet (as in calorie restricted diet or low-fat diet, or weight loss diet) then some brilliantine shortened it to just “diet” and it stuck.

          The word diet isn’t the problem, it’s how people use it.

          1. “Origin of DIET

            Middle English diete, from Anglo-French, from Latin diaeta, from Greek diaita, literally, manner of living, from diaitasthai to lead one’s life
            First Known Use: 13th century”

          2. Yes, I know that. My point wasn’t about the definition of the word itself but its co-option by the diet industry to mean something very restrictive. I simply don’t believe we’re going to be able to reclaim that word to its original broad definition, so I think it’s time we come up with an alternative word or phrase. “Plan of eating” feels very cumbersome to me, so I was hoping that someone might have another thought on that.

      1. oh, i hear you — especially about thinking i had made peace with my body, and then have my health kick me roundly in the behind. and it feels weird now, that i am exercising a lot more and eating better (as defined for me), and most definitely NOT trying to lose weight, that my body insists on losing weight. and all the comments i get are just SO WRONG in every which way. i do not want to be praised for weight loss. i try to impress on people that i am exercising to give my heart a fighting chance to survive, and no, weight or even fat loss is not the reason, but i might as well be talking to a solid brick wall.

        honestly, i can’t wait for it to stop with the weight loss, and settle in where i think is probably my natural size (before it got mucked up by ill-conceived diet experiences), or thereabouts. which will still be fat, because i have always been fat, no matter whether i was healthy, or not. it’ll be a relief because at least i won’t feel like i am getting support for the wrong thing from the wrong people, and disdain from those i am actually 100% behind.

        best wishes for your own journey. and enjoy your steak and bacon!

  12. It’s important to avoid victim blaming, as well; I feel like condemning dieters, some of whom are doing what they have to to survive or as you say to navigate the world and all the stigma in it, has a touch of this. Not to describe everyone as a victim, I obviously don’t know their circumstances, but some dieters were/are misguided and doing something harmful to their health in the belief that being fat is automatically unhealthy, or that they owe society a different kind of body, and to condemn them for this seems cruel to me.

    We have a right to set boundaries, and to expect respect for our decisions about our own health and bodies, but if people really are just caught up in a system and dieting because of that, blaming them for it just makes it worse for everyone.

    Or in short: Agreed. Institution-level activism for the win.

    1. I agree with you. Dieting may be a choice, but the way modern society is set up, it’s a Hobson’s choice; you’re hurting yourself in the hopes other people won’t hurt you. Ben Richards agreed to run, but he was still a victim. Damon Jillian… I mean Killian… was the bad guy.

  13. I want to write in support as well, Ragen — I believe you’re right, because the Underpants Rule becomes meaningless if you only apply it to yourself and not to others.

    That said, do I wish Holley wasn’t going on Biggest Loser? Sure, but then again, I wish no one was. It’s horrific, and I’ve never understood why anyone would intentionally subject themselves to emotional abuse, much less agree to have it televised nationally. I don’t get why the show is popular — well, I guess I do, it’s because not-fat people get to feel justified in their attitudes — but I accidentally ended up watching one ep at my mom’s house and avoided it like the plague ever since. (My husband and I call it “Making Fat People Cry” rather than by its correct name.)

    At any rate, your attitude about issues such as this was a big part of the reason I was drawn to your blog. I’ve dabbled on feminist groups, but there’s so much “you-can’t-be-this-if-you’re-also-that” that I just about can’t stand it. Maybe it’s the libertarian in me, but I believe others’ choices reserve absolute respect. Not agreement, mind you, but respect, because we have to right to tell others what they should and shouldn’t do, especially with their own bodies.

    And as for Holley Mangold, mostly I just feel really bad for her. I can totally understand how it feels to want to be thin, but I can’t understand wanting anything so badly that I’d buy into the idea that having a skinny person screaming at me in public would get me there.

    1. Just FYI, there are some great feminist blogs out there about critiquing and dismantling the system, not attacking personal choices. And yeah, the abuse those people endure on BL amazes me. I guess working out until you drop is easier when there’s a camera on you and someone is screaming in your face, although I’d personally have to walk out in order to avoid punching someone instead.

  14. It’s pretty much the typical damned if you do, damned if you don’t, lose-lose situation. Regardless of your choice or your reasons for making it, you’ll receive backlash and criticism from some faction of society. To me, the main problem is that a show like this is even allowed in the first place. It would be great if no one was willing to compete on it and subject themselves to abuse and/or if no one was willing to watch it, and then it would just disappear. But it’s not fair to blame people who are desperate to lose weight, think it’s something they need to do, and will try anything that might work. That is just abusing them even further.
    My personal hope is that anyone who goes on this show will realize in retrospect that what they went through was totally unjustified abuse and that it’s not their fault they couldn’t maintain the unrealistic and unhealthy amount of weight loss they experienced. I hope they will come out of the experience stronger people better able to love themselves and know how to truly respect their bodies and health. I wish them all emotional healing and I hope more of them will gain the courage to speak out, like that lady (can’t remember her name) who I read about on this blog before. Although, not one of them is under any obligation to speak out, as they would go against everything I just said.

  15. What I really wanted to say & have been thinking is that it is unnecessary for us to discuss whether or not people have the ‘right’ to diet. WE are supposed to be about rights, respect, access, civil liberties for FAT people, something we are routinely denied. We should not have to worry about the hurt feelings of dieters. They do not need OUR permission to keep dieting & trying to change their bodies. We live in a culture where 98% of people believe it is better, healthier, more moral, more responsible to be thin. Dieters receive all kinds of praise, acceptance, recognition, & unending support for their decision to make less of themselves. It is a religion in our culture. They do NOT need the acceptance or praise & support of the fat acceptance community to do so. And as we assert ourselves & fight for our rights, we do NOT need to keep apologizing to everyone & assuring everyone that we mean THEM no harm. The vast majority of people show no such respect for us or concern for our feelings.

    Can people diet? Absolutely. Can they climb Everest, drive a racecar 200 mph, snort cocaine, shoot up with heroin, drink until their livers are pickled, pierce &/or tattoo every inch of their bodies, dye their hair purple, do anything they want? Yes, they can & do, even the parts which are which destroy their health, take years off their lives, or are illegal. They do not need my permission or my approval. In MY world, dieting is forbidden, talk about dieting is forbidden, I will not allow people to criticize my body & tell me that I would somehow be better, healthier, or whatever, if I lost weight. I am all about rights, access, respect for all of us of all sizes, but especially fat people because we are the ones who are stigmatized, marginalized, & abused for the size of our bodies. I do not want to hear about people’s diets…no, not even how they are ‘doing it for my health’…& I do not want to hear any weight loss propaganda. I also will not give praise & encouragement to those who are changing their bodies, however temporarily. But I do think it is unnecessary & even a little ridiculous for us to be reassuring dieters that they have the right to diet. Of course they do, they always have, & that is just one of their little ways of always turning the conversation back around to them, a way to make us look wrong or extreme, to suggest that fat activists are trying to stigmatize dieters. As if THAT could ever happen unless our entire culture changes a great deal.

    1. Thank you for your comment Patsy, of course I respect your choices for you when it comes to this, and I have tremendous respect and gratitude for the years and work that you’ve put into fat activism.

      I will say that for me it is not unnecessary or ridiculous because, as someone who knows what it’s like to be treated this way, I am committed to never doing to others what I do not want done to me. That is a core principle of my activism and of who I am as a human being.

      You said that “WE are supposed to be about rights, respect, access, civil liberties for FAT people” but I disagree with that. I think it’s totally fine for you to be about that, but I am about rights and civil liberties for everyone. My focus is on fat civil rights but I don’t want to gain my rights, respect, access and civil liberties by stepping on those of others, no matter how much privilege they have. It’s not about them, it’s about who I want to be and staying in integrity with my own beliefs.

      Dieters are subject to the same culture that I am – they believe their family, friends, insurance, employer, government and healthcare professionals who are telling them that dieting is what they need to do to be healthy, to save their lives, and that they can succeed if they just work hard enough. Maybe they believe it’s unhealthy and likely to fail but are desperate to try to get out from under the crushing weight of stigma and oppression by trying to lose weight. They are dieting and, though of course I can only speak from my experience, I remember how miserable I was when I was dieting. Statistically they are also failing over and over and trying over and over and I remember how miserable I was when I was doing that In my dieting days I was miserable and hated myself but didn’t have any hate for fat people and I don’t know how much longer it would have taken me to come to SA/HAES if I had been treated like the enemy by those I met.

      I want to present the options of SA/HAES in a way that they can be considered and digested and for me that means being clear that people have a right to diet just like I have a right not to diet, even though my choice comes with more societal oppression and stigma. I prefer to focus on dismantling social constructs and institutions (and those who use them to oppress fat people) and not the people who believe what those constructs and institutions perpetuate.

      I don’t think that our movement loses anything by affording others the same respect that we demand, but of course that’s just for me and, as always, I could be wrong. I completely respect those who want to go about it a different way.



  16. Thank you for this piece. I am relatively new to FA and HAES, and I have a small but close group of friends that I met through a weight-loss group. It is been a struggle for me trying to balance my new awareness of the problems with dieting and the weight loss industry while being “supportive” of my friends who are still involved with it. I like your perspective of seeking change at the institutional level while respecting individuals and their individual choices. I think it’s a good lesson for any type of activism

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