Malware for Your Brain: How Sizeism and Diet Culture Hurt Us All

December 7, 2019

Sizeism. It’s one of those -isms that people like to pretend isn’t real because of a sometimes well-intentioned, but always misplaced, concern for health. The reality is it affects everyone, regardless of size. 

As a person who falls in the not-quite-straight-size, not-quite-plus-size category, I’ve felt a complicated relationship with my body for quite some time. Shopping is always a nightmare. I avoid going to the doctor for fear of not being taken seriously and having everything be written off as just needing to lose weight. All of those experiences are compounded for women bigger than me.

Here’s a not so fun fact: It is legal in 49 states to discriminate against a person based on their weight. So many people I spoke to at the end of Day One didn’t realize how much this issue infects every facet of their lives and cited this panel as their wake-up call.

The Sizeism panel began with a disclaimer that slightly shocked me. Of course we all know the statistics about the wage gap between men and women and how it gets worse for women of color. 

What many of us in the audience didn’t know – which Founder and CEO of 3% and moderator of this panel, Kat Gordon, informed us – is that the physically bigger men tend to be, at least height-wise, the more money they get paid salary wise: approximately 10k per inch over 6ft. Somehow, women tend to get the short end of the stick regardless of the -ism we face.

With the disclaimer out of the way, the real conversation could begin. We began with a discussion of the event that kicked off the idea for the panel: the plus-size Nike mannequin that set the internet ablaze.

Both Makeda Loney and Louise Green, our kickass panelists, were shocked by the international upheaval that came about over a plastic woman in a store whose sole purpose was to model the exercise clothing that Nike made. 

How DARE Nike make it easier for women to see what clothes might look like on them. The AUDACITY of Nike to show the smallest of their plus size clothing on a fake woman without a face. THE HORROR.

The question on all of the panelists’ minds was, “Why was this such a catalyst for venom and rage?” The answer was easy: fear. The fear of what happens when women aren’t obedient in a way that society dictates is acceptable.

Louise has worked with hundreds of women, training them to abandon diet culture and start to accept what their body is today. She, like Kat and Makeda and probably most of the audience, was stuck in diet culture for years. 

"Diet culture is like having malware running in the back of your mind."

A shockingly simple but extraordinarily poignant comment she made was that diet culture is like having malware running in the back of your mind.

“Every inch of my mental real estate was thinking about calories and what I can eat and what I can’t...I wasn’t focused on important things in my life – career, friends– because I was so preoccupied with my body.”

But where do we get that impulse to obsess over our bodies? It’s not a phenomenon we practice as children. In fact, as Makeda pointed out, most people don’t realize they should be so focused on their bodies until they start receiving that messaging from others.

“I didn’t know there was something wrong with me until someone told me there was something wrong with me. Until the media said there was something wrong with me,” said Loney. Imagine how confident women and non-binary people could be in all aspects of their life if they were never told they were wrong in the first place. 

It’s so sad that just letting people exist is such a radical and revolutionary thought. Kat brought up the excellent point she heard from Margaret Keene at one of the 3% traveling roadshows: the reason men, especially white men, are seen as more talented or smarter, or better isn’t because they are. It’s because they’re unfettered. Women are rarely given the license to draw on our full truth.

The speakers on the panel.

Making it so women, in particular women of size, feel guilty for just being, stunts so much creativity and insight that could benefit our industry in unfathomable ways.

The panel ended with a Q&A. The first audience member asked, “I’m kinda fucked because I'm old and fat and kinda funny. I find myself talking about how I work out when I'm in an interview. How do you keep yourself from getting apologetic in a space that isn’t safe for women of size?”

Both Makeda and Louise acknowledged how hard it is to try to stop yourself from trying to impress people. But it’s not our job to impress people. You don’t have to say, “I’m fat but I’m a good fat” who doesn’t eat the cheeseburger or “I’m black but I’m not one of those angry blacks” when someone says something racist in a conference room or “I’m gay but I’m not GAY gay” when someone makes an offensive joke about the LGBTQIA+ community. Eat the damn cheeseburger, call people out when things aren’t ok. Your purpose is to feel good about yourself, not make yourself smaller to make others feel comfortable in their bigotry.

The second and final question asked was, “What are agencies doing wrong to keep people from retaining fat talent and making them feel safe?” Makeda said she was lucky enough to not have been othered in her career, but implored that people just be mindful of what they’re saying and how they’re speaking. There are so many nuances to sizeism like height, weight, and ability. “It’s a very layered issue. Just treat people like they’re humans.”

Louise closed it out saying, “Being fat in America is a highly devalued identity. Celebrate it instead.”

As with any conversation between women talking about the many ways we are taught by society to think less of ourselves, there come the people who crawl out from whatever corners they hide in to tell us to shut up. It came as no surprise that the same would happen for this panel. The thing that was and wasn’t shocking (to me at least as a black woman) was that Makeda, the only black woman on the stage, was isolated as the target for adland internet’s ire. 

For a straight 72 hours after she told women, “Once you own your life to impress yourself you don’t need to impress other people,” Makeda was subjected to multiple people trying to tell her that she was wrong in the rudest and most vulgar ways on her social channels. 

Neither of the other two women, who are white, on the panel were targeted the way she was. The intersection of being black and fat brings out the worst in other people who want to bring you down for no other reason than they felt like it. But that’s a whole dissertation in the making.

Now for the other takeaways.

There was a three point checklist the audience was given to take away from the panel:

  1. Accept yourself. Once you internalize that you are great the way you are, you can live fully.
  2. Normalize bigger bodies. They exist and we need to represent the real world. 
  3. Familiarize yourself with experiences that aren’t yours. Experiences thinner people don’t have to think of are terrifying for fat people, like going to the doctor. (For example, a woman was told she was just overweight and she actually had cancer. I've personally had a similar experience of my concerns being waved away as I’m just fat and I’ll be fine once I lose the weight.)

The biggest takeaway for me? There’s so much more we as a society need to do to dismantle fatphobia and internalized fatphobia. There’s so much misinformation out there on the supposed correlation between health and weight. 

The simplest way to combat it is simply to just normalize the fact that people of all shapes and sizes exist and it’s ok. Showing people of size in your ads is ok. Showing them wearing clothes, eating, exercising, going to the movies, putting on makeup, basically just living their lives will help disable the malware of diet culture that society has been forcing on us for decades.