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April Herndon, Ph.D.
April M. Herndon Ph.D.

Thin Like Me

What I've learned on the other side of the fence

In a Saturday Night Live sketch called “White Like Me,” Eddie Murphy “goes underground” to examine the question of whether or not there is a White America and Black America. The Black actor hires a top-notch hair and makeup team to make him read as White, he reads Hallmark cards and watches episodes of Dynasty so he can speak like a White person, and he practices walking with his butt “real tight” in hopes he can pass. After all his preparation, he finally manages to walk the streets of New York as a White man and see what it’s really like in White America when no Black people are around: another White man gives him a newspaper without charge, a bus full of White people break into Big Band dancing when what they presume to be the only Black man on the bus exits, and as a White man Murphy learns he can get a loan for an undisclosed amount without filling out any paperwork. Murphy concludes that the situation was “worse than he expected.” Murphy’s spoof manages to offer a sophisticated account of racism, racial inequality, and the aspects of privilege that it’s one thing to have knowledge of, and another to be a part of.

This year Murphy’s skit became meaningful to me in a new way. I recently dropped one hundred pounds, and my weight loss immersed me in a world of privilege that was new to me, the world of thin (or at least thinner) people. I currently walk the world in a very different body than I once possessed, a body that has given me a set of new experiences not unlike those Murphy sends up in his routine. As a Fat Studies scholar and a self-identified Fat woman, I certainly knew thin privilege existed, but my experiences in the last year—experiences of feeling like I’m in disguise—have given me a whole new perspective on the psychological issues surrounding large embodiments and people’s reactions to them. In the course of a year, I stepped into the privileged class of thinness and learned that—even as a Fat Studies scholar—I wasn’t always prepared for those experiences. My body became, in some very tangible ways, unbelievable to me and certainly unbelievable to others. The reactions people have had to me, my struggles to work through their reactions, and my own reactions to suddenly being thrust into this world of privilege have been both difficult and enlightening.

People may wonder why a self-identified Fat woman and a Fat Studies scholar would lose so much weight. To tell the truth, I didn’t set out to do it. My mom, who has always been a thin woman, has type 2 diabetes. After witnessing diabetes march across her body, I knew I needed to take my high blood glucose readings seriously, so I saw a dietician to help me regulate my blood sugar. She put me on a plan similar to one that someone who had already been diagnosed with diabetes would follow, and I thought I might lose ten or twenty pounds as a side effect of eating smaller portions of carbohydrates and trying to exercise more. I had no idea I’d lose one hundred pounds without really trying to lose weight, but along with regulating my blood sugar came pretty drastic weight loss.

Slipping into the world of thin privilege and feeling like I’m in disguise has been especially hard for someone like me, a person who hasn’t bought the traditional narrative of why people are fat. I have always eaten plenty of fruits and vegetables and I have always exercised, and so I knew—at a very personal level—that it was possible to eat good food, move, and still be a large person. Thus, I’ve always believed large people who say they eat healthy and exercise and still maintain their weight. I have watched people in my family, especially my father’s family who are large people, work hard all day in the coal mines and come home and pull weeds out of a garden or pick beans all evening, so I knew fat people weren’t lazy by definition. I have a Ph.D. and see people of all shapes and sizes around me in the academic community, so I knew all fat people weren’t stupid.

Yet losing weight seems to have signaled to those around me that I must have always or must now believe these stereotypes of fat people; my weight loss also seems to have suggested to them that it’s now okay for them to admit they believe those stereotypes. Numerous people have said to me that I must have lost so much weight because I’m eating right, as if they didn’t believe me before, even though some of these people have personal knowledge of at least some of my eating habits since they’ve seen what I eat for lunch for several years. Others have said to me that it’s amazing that exercise could make that much difference, implying that I wasn’t exercising before, yet these are people I regularly see in the exercise rooms, pool, and locker room of the YMCA where I have a gym membership. All of this smacks of claims that fat people fail to realistically represent their diet and exercise habits and aren’t to be believed. Remarkably, no one had made these sorts of comments to me until I was thin like them.

Having spent 38 years as a Fat woman, I have an impressive repertoire of stunning comebacks for people who make negative comments about my body or fatness, but I was unprepared for these comments. These people were trying to praise me, but it felt hurtful and wrong and I wasn’t sure how to respond. Perhaps my most challenging comment came from a colleague during a conversation about my weight loss when I said if I were betting in Vegas I’d bet that I would gain some or all of the weight back. She asked what I meant, and I told her that I was a Fat Studies scholar and knew the literature says there’s a 95% chance I’ll gain some or all of the weight back, and I wasn’t sure I was special enough to beat those odds. She said to me, very sincerely and without a hint of malice, “April, you’re too smart to gain the weight back.” I left the conversation wondering if she believed all large people were dumb or if I had somehow been the exception. I wasn’t happy with any option I could come up with for what such a statement implied about large people.

During similar conversations this last year, another truth about how people think about weight and weight loss has been confirmed for me, and that is that those who claim their concern about weight is all about health are fooling themselves. Although I’ve been very clear that this process was about regulating my blood sugar and the weight loss has merely been a side effect, no one has asked about my blood glucose levels. A few people have congratulated me on having good numbers after I’ve told them that my blood glucose is regulated and I now feel much better, but no one has ever asked about it. When people have approached me, they’ve asked about how much weight I’ve lost now and about how I lost the weight. My body is being read apart from my goals and wishes, and there’s very little I seem to be able to do about it. When I tell them that the weight loss isn’t important to me, they look at me as if I can’t possibly be sincere.

The change in my embodiment has also brought problematic notions and opinions about my scholarship to light, ideas I didn’t know people held. One colleague told me that I could no longer call myself Fat and that she supposed I’d find something else to write about now. I explained to this colleague that I did still consider myself Fat identified and that my scholarship wasn’t about my personal identity. Most scholars, I told her, have written work that is both related to their identity and not. I, for example, don’t have an intersex condition but have published on that subject and worked for the Intersex Society of North America. Besides, I told her, there’s still lots of fat discrimination in the world that needs to be acknowledged and addressed, and I still plan to be a part of that difficult and important work. I wondered if somehow people had been thinking of my scholarship as personal therapy rather than rigorous academic work with an aim toward social justice. I wondered what they thought of me as a scholar and colleague, and if they’d ever really understood my work or seen its merit.

Another colleague said to me that my arguments about weight were probably more on target twenty years ago, implying that I was behind the times. She’d never said this to me before, even though we’d talked about my scholarship many times and she’d seen many of my on-campus talks. It made me wonder if my weight loss enabled her and others to say what they’d been thinking all along: that my scholarship wasn’t valid. Perhaps they’d been afraid to say this to me before because they believed it would have been personally insulting, but now that I was thinner their comments would only be about my scholarship? Maybe now I could have the distance from fatness to see that I’d been wrong to argue against simplistic understandings of large embodiments?

Throughout this last year, I’ve struggled to find support for my difficulty in feeling at home in my scholarship or in this instantiation of my body. When you lose weight, people act as though you’ve won the lottery. When you suggest that maybe winning that lottery hasn’t been the easiest thing for you, they react as if you’ve lost your mind or are just too ungrateful to appreciate your good fortune. The truth is, though, that losing this much weight caused many changes in my body and my life, and I haven’t been prepared for them all. I certainly wasn't ready to become a member of the privileged class of thinness and discover a harsher reality than I’d imagined.

The master narrative about losing weight is that it always makes one’s life better, and almost no one talks about the complications that it also creates. After 38 years, this body feels foreign to me, and it looks different than I’m used to. I have loose skin in places that used to be firm; I have half the breasts I used to have. I have muscles in places I didn’t before, and sometimes I stare at my own hands, marveling that they’re actually mine with all their visible veins and sinews. I’ve had to learn to dress myself all over again and figure out what stores have clothes that fit me, which has been time consuming and expensive. When I’ve told people that the weight loss has been a big adjustment and not always a comfortable one, they brush my concerns aside, as if I’m just being silly. I should just enjoy my lottery winnings and not whine.

In spite of all these changes in my body, I still feel like the same person, and this also contradicts the master narrative of weight loss. My Fat self was not hiding my Thin self. Recently my dietician, who I genuinely like, asked what I’d done with all of my clothing that no longer fits. I told her I’d had some of the clothing altered and packed the rest in boxes. She insisted that I either sell or give away all my larger clothing so that I wouldn’t be holding on to my old self. She said I needed to burn that bridge. To me, this replicates the notion that fat is only ever loathsome. In most people’s understanding of weight loss, body fat is an enemy to be isolated and destroyed. But I never lived that kind of existence with my fat. I was always very aware of my fatness and comfortable in my own skin. When I described myself as fat, I meant it as an objective description of how my body existed in the world, not an insult or a symbol of sloth or stupidity. In a world of thin privilege and fat prejudice, I understand why some larger women talk about living from the neck up, but I’d never been one of those women, and so I didn’t see my “old self” as a problem. I don’t see my fat as an enemy lurking on the other side of a bridge I needed to burn, and I’m not afraid that boxes of clothing will drag me back to a loathsome fat self.

In spite of the changes, I’m still very much Fat identified. To me, this feels similar to my identifying as Queer by choice. To say that one chooses to be queer contradicts the master narrative of queer life being fraught with peril, joyless, a life no one would choose. Yet, I did start dating and continue to date women by choice because I see life as a Queer person as more than pain and prejudice. I see it as freedom to date whomever I choose, the ability to have a community around me, and the pleasure of wearing comfortable shoes and still be considered sexy. Hearing that someone identifies as Fat probably feels the same to people. If a person believes that Fat means being lazy, stupid, out of control, or any of the other stereotypes rife within American culture, then it would be difficult to understand why anyone would choose to identify as Fat. But I’ve never had those associations with fatness. I still weigh 185 pounds, obese by medical definitions if one wants to think of it that way, still fat by many people’s standards of bodies, and still Fat in terms of my political commitments and intellectual endeavors.

A few nights ago I was trying on clothing that no longer fits, trying to figure out what I could wear to get me through this semester of teaching, and talking to my partner about how difficult this journey has been. I’ve felt so misunderstood by so many people, and knowing what people in my life were really thinking of me before will make it hard for me to face them if and when I do regain some or all of the weight. It even makes it difficult to face them now, as I seem to be continuing to lose weight. I told her I worry that if I do regain the weight I will have done myself more harm than good psychologically and physiologically because I also know what the medical literature says about the negative health effects of yo-yo dieting. My partner said she thought if I had known I would lose this much weight I probably wouldn’t have even started this. She’s probably right, and that’s just another part of my now unbelievable body.

Much like Eddie Murphy in his sketch, the knowledge I’ve gained during my time in the privileged class is both oddly comforting, because it means that as a fat person I wasn’t imagining what was happening (I now have “proof”), but also disconcerting, because it says to me (as Murphy’s experiences said to him) that things are worse than I thought.

* This piece was originally published in Atrium: The Report of the Northwestern Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program in Spring 2011, Black and White, Issue 9.

About the Author
April Herndon, Ph.D.

Dr. April M. Herndon has a Ph.D. in American Studies and is an Associate Professor of English at Winona State University.

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