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Accepted: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
It's an absurd memory, but I can recall it like it was yesterday. I was 11 or 12, and I accompanied my older sister and mom to a tailor where she was getting some clothes fitted. I was wandering around the store, amusing myself, and ended up at the counter just in time to hear the tailor remark to my mom: 'You won't have to worry about her', pointing to my sister. 'This one,' she said - pointing at me - 'she should only eat fish and lean food; she's likely to gain fat.'

It is such a weird story and wholly inappropriate for so many reasons - but more than two decades later, it still occupies brain space because it marked something. It was the first time I registered the idea that my body size was something to worry about. Genetics gave me a petite frame and small body - thin privilege - and still, it's been a long and ongoing road to shift my attention away from how my body looks.

The multibillion-dollar diet culture industry thrives on people believing that making their bodies smaller will lead to more happiness, but I know that all of us, especially those in more marginalized bodies, deserve better.

This is Embodied - our show about sex, relationships and your health. I'm Anita Rao. Shifting from critiquing every belly roll to loving yourself no matter your size, may seem like an unrealistic leap. That's where body neutrality enters the conversation. The philosophy asks you to consider whether you could move to a mindset of neutrality. Your body is neither good nor bad, ugly nor beautiful. It just is. Beyond that, you are not your body.

Kate Sutton
What do you think about body neutrality and what it means to being in this body, I think about things that my body can do for me, like my heart is beating, and it's keeping me alive, or my lungs can breathe in oxygen. And that way I can do cool stuff because I have oxygen that goes to my brain. I think it helps think about these things in terms of neutrality, because there's no external judgement factors that go into that. It's based and more fact versus myths that we tell ourselves and it helps reframe and keeps us in line with gratitude for our bodies.

Chloe Konrad
For a long time, body positivity has been pushed as the only way to get out of the body negative state a lot of people are in. But neutrality might be a better option for most people or even a stepping stone to get to positivity. For me, it's like maybe we kind of need a mix of both. I want to be able to go through my day without having to think about my body and just be neutral. But when it comes time to put on a cute outfit and go out with friends, I do want to be able to look in the mirror and really love how I look.

Anita Rao
You just heard from two of our listeners - mental health and intuitive eating counselor Kate Sutton, and Chloe Konrad from the blog Fashionable Enough. Body neutrality is one part of a larger movement pushing for fat acceptance and body based justice-liberation. One of the folks in that movement who I've long admired is Virgie Tovar. She's a fat activist, host of the podcast Rebel Eaters Club and the author of "You Have The Right To Remain Fat and The Self Love Revolution."

Virgie Tovar
Honestly, I see body neutrality as a bit of a critique to body positivity - and I'm really into it.

Anita Rao
Virgie spends more time in the realm of body love than body neutrality - and that has to do with her own personal journey and political context as a woman and a person of color.

Virgie Tovar
As someone who is a fat person and someone who is you know, as still recovering from years of disordered eating and exposure to diet culture - I think for me, you know, my body has become the center point of a lot of my development as a human being.

Anita Rao
Virgie grew up in a fat body and a fat family - and in her early years, long before she came to this work, she had what she describes as a really beautiful relationship with her body. Then when school started, the bullying began.

Virgie Tovar
It was very painful, like going from having this great relationship to my body to internalizing that something was wrong with me, and that I should be ashamed of myself - and I did what a lot of people in that situation do - and I went on to have disordered eating and obsessive exercise, you know, was part of my life for 20 years. And the collective results of like, what it was like being treated so poorly and told that I was unlovable and ugly and a monster, you know - I'm still working through the long-term effects of that.

Anita Rao
So then how did you move from those years of being in that mindset? That your body was a problem to realizing that actually society was the problem - what was that turning point for you?

Virgie Tovar
Yeah, I mean, there were a few turning points. You know, like, the first time that I went on a date and someone said I was attractive, that was a huge moment. On the one hand, not really a super radical thing - and on the other hand, completely blew my mind because I had been told that I was never going to, you know, be attractive to anyone, until I became a thin person - which, of course, as a naturally fat person, I was never going to become a thin person.

Then I happened to date someone who was fat-positive, and that was really incredible, and really didn't have that language - but now in retrospect, I'm like, 'Oh, that was like a fat-positive relationship.' And he really helped me recuperate my relationship to food as well - and there were these beautiful moments where we'd be cooking together, and he would just walk me through becoming less terrified of cheese, right. Which, when you're like somebody who's terrified of their body, you know, cheese is like this enormous, monumentally terrifying thing.

Certainly the biggest turning point for me was being introduced to fat-liberation, ideology and fat-activism, and it really blew my mind. I had been a feminist, I had been anti-racist, I had been an activist, since I was 18 years old - and yet, you know, at no point anybody told me it's okay to be fat, right? Like, I mean, I've literally had gone through the process of like radicalizing around being a person of color, radicalizing your own being a woman - and no point has anyone ever told me it's totally fine and normal to be fat. And this was really that moment when I was introduced to fat-activism.

Anita Rao
It's so interesting when you say that, you know, for so long, no matter what you were doing, or what your relationship with food was, there was kind of this internalized belief that your body could be another way. And I think for me, like learning that body diversity is real - and there is a real science behind the fact that we are, even if we all eat the same and move the same, our bodies would not look the same. So talk to me about what body diversity is, and what coming to that kind of meant for your own realizations?

Virgie Tovar
I think that we have this really reductive and actually anti-scientific attitude about bodies and food, right. There's still the prevailing idea that food is fuel exclusively, and that bodies are machines, right? So I think that once I got into the literature, and really reading the research, it just became so clear - and there's this amazing little tutorial called The Trouble with Poodle Science - this amazing video on YouTube, and it talks about how we've been told that every single human being is one kind of dog - and that a German shepherd is simply a weird looking poodle. A chihuahua is just a tiny poodle, and actuality, right, we're like chihuahuas and mastiffs. And there's real beauty in that - when you kind of can embrace like, oh, right - and I think that the punchline for that video is like, you know, in the same way that we understand that the dog breeds have these different strengths and these different risk factors - if we began to open up our scope of what the diversity, the real diversity, that exists of humankind - we'd be able to see like, 'Oh, this person's body is really really well equipped for like, this thing. They're very talented at this.'

And I remember that one of the first stories I heard when I was becoming a fat activists that blew my mind was a new friend told me that she had been in a car accident that would have killed her, but because she had a belly - she survived. And the doctor literally said, you know, if you hadn't had a belly, your internal organs would have just been destroyed - and so it was like that kind of story just doesn't exist in the social imaginary and, beginning to accumulate those things, you begin to see there's a spectrum of body size. There's a spectrum of what those body attributes do for a person, and how there's strengths and weaknesses in every kind of body size.

Anita Rao
If you haven't seen the poodle science video, trust me that it is worth a watch. Finding gems like that reminds me how beautiful and healing the internet can sometimes be. The digital world and especially places like Tumblr, Instagram and now TikTok have become hubs for body image conversations. And that, of course, has its pros and cons. Earlier this year Lizzo called attention to a trend that other folks in the body liberation space have also been noticing - thin, white influencers have started to shift the focus of the body positivity movement. Fat people are still getting the short end of this movement, Lizzo said: 'We're still getting talked about, meme shamed and no one cares anymore.' So how far has the body positivity movement strayed from its roots? - and how did it start in the first place?

Tigress Osborn
Well, when folks talk about the roots of body positivity, often what they're talking about is the social media body positivity movement that kind of exploded on Tumblr and Instagram in the 2000s. But the grand elder of that movement is the fat acceptance movement.

Anita Rao
Tigress Osborn is the chair of National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance or NAAFA. It's an organization that was founded in 1969 - and part of the beginning of the documented organized fat acceptance movement.

Tigress Osborn
I always like to point out that we're talking about the documented organized movement because there have always been sort of badass fat people living their lives - and, you know, we also know that there's been a tremendous amount of fat leadership in other kinds of social justice and civil rights movements - especially the Black American civil rights movement, but NAAFA was started by Bill Fabrey, who at the time was a young engineer who was, you know, a skinny guy, a cisgender, straight white guy. And he really loved his fat wife, and was really angry about the discrimination that he saw her facing in the workplace, in social settings, in trying to find clothing, all of the things.

And so he sort of teamed up with an author named Lew Louderback, who wrote one of the first fat acceptance books and who was writing in the Saturday Evening Post about American attitudes about that - and said: Let's start this national organization to support fat people. And it was really revolutionary in that they were labeling fat people as fat in a non-pejorative way.

But for some people who were involved in the early movement, NAAFA wasn't quite revolutionary enough - and so the other sort of pillar of the early organized movement is the Fat Underground - which was a group of radical fat feminists who started in the Los Angeles area, and who wrote this fat manifesto that just declared, you know, opposition to the diet industry, called out the medical industry for the ways that they had, you know, pathologized fat and mislabeled fat people's health, took the media to task for the way they were showing fat people, and, you know, connected it to gender issues and feminism - but also really connected this movement of solidarity with other anti-oppression causes.

Anita Rao
And one of the things about that foundation is it really acknowledges intersectionality at its core, and I feel like folks of the fat studies movement have been really trying to track the racial origins of fatphobia and make that connection more prominent in the conversation today. Can you tell me a bit about that connection?

Tigress Osborn
Yeah, I mean, I think historically, in practice, it wasn't always an intersectional movement. You know, the Fat Underground dissolved after a few years - there were other feminist groups that had the same kind of intersectional politics, even though we weren't talking about it as intersectionality, back then - and much like modern body positivity, had a lot of - sort of - centering of white folks and centering of, you know, people who are not marginalized in other ways - and, you know, body positivity, in its early days, was sort of correcting that core. And then, as it became co-opted by mainstream media and, you know, used by capitalism - and you have people like Weight Watchers talking about body positivity - it loses some of that politic or some of the people with that politic get pushed to the side or shoved into the background. When really that's sort of like the beginning of what we identify as the third wave of fat activist movement is that early social media body positivity movement, and that was a lot of Black and brown and LGBTQIA, and disabled folks - and when you look at body positivity on social media now, that's not always what it is. In fact, it's often not what it is.

Anita Rao
While the TikTok version of body positivity may not always call attention to the movements, more radical roots, folks like Tigress and Virgie work to constantly remind people that your relationship to your body is not happening in a vacuum. Whether you choose body positivity, body neutrality, or neither. All of us are living in a culture rampant with fatphobia that has real life consequences.

Virgie Tovar
Literally, there's research that shows the doctors take fat patients less seriously. Patients are less likely to receive preventive care like cervical cancer exams, etc. When you think about how this affects how fatphobia impacts the workplace, I mean, there's a wage gap between - for women, at that, it starts at about $9,000 to $19,000 a year that plus-size women make less than their straight-size counterparts. In addition to the fact that like higher-weight people get sort of funneled into more physically laborious and lower paying jobs and straight-size people, or thin people, get sort of funneled into client-facing, higher paying jobs - and it kind of goes on and on and on. This is the backdrop that people are facing - and regardless of where you are on the weight spectrum - you're highly aware of these attitudes because they are not being hidden, literally, exposed in the media, all the time.

Tigress Osborn
One of the things that can be challenging for people about fat liberation movement, in a personal way, is that they begin to feel like they are somehow failing the movement - if they have a day where they feel bad about their body. And body neutrality allows people to say, and as it is, it deserves, rights - So I want to fight for my rights, but I might be doing that on a day when I don't feel that great about my body or when I just don't feel that much about my body - and I don't have to be in a sort of 'rah rah' spirit about how much I love everything about myself. I think for fat people, and I think for other people in marginalized bodies to, like - one challenge of body neutrality is there are definitely spaces where I don't want people to be neutral. I want people to be fat positive, I want people to be fat aware.

So for example, I want my my doctor to be be neutral in terms of deciding what tests to give me or things like that, but I want him or her or them to be fat aware, when they're doing things like making sure they have equipment that fits my body, or making sure that there's space for me in the waiting room where I can sit down because the chairs don't all have arms or only hold people who weigh 150 pounds, like right - there are times when specific body awareness is really necessary and body neutrality - when you get into the more political aspects of bodies, and the access issues around bodies - has a danger to be a little too sort of like we are all the same. We don't need to think about bodies because we're all the same.

Anita Rao
We're not all the same, and the language we choose to talk about our bodies has consequences that go far beyond just us. We heard from Val Leclair about this. She's a musician who is fat and disabled.

Val Leclair
I used to lean into the overly positive motivation all the time, especially when combating the negative stereotypes and thoughts about being disabled and fat. And it's a good first step forward to change the rhetoric from, your body is a good body if it meets these arbitrary aesthetic standards, to your body is a good body because it completes these tasks for you like walking, eating, laughing, hugging, etc. But that rhetoric excludes bodies that do not do these things. Disabled bodies are still beautiful and still fundamentally good, not because your body is kind to you, so you should be kind to your body - because not everyone's body is kind to them, but all bodies are still good bodies because they are what houses you.

Anita Rao
If there is anything that takes me from intellectualizing these messages to really wanting to put them into lived practice, it's being an aunt. As I've watched my 3-year-old nephew grow up and start to repeat everything he hears, I'm reminded that he is watching me and absorbing everything. I know that it's a David and Goliath battle between me and diet culture, but how can I, and all the other adults in their lives, raise them to have more peaceful relationships with their bodies than the ones we have with our own? Step one: rethink our definition of what constitutes a healthy body.

Zoë Bisbing
The root of this is healthy bodies. You do not know what a healthy body looks like because there is not one way to be healthy. You don't know what a healthy body eats, there's not one way to eat in a healthful way - and as a parent to be mindful that you also don't want your kids to get the impression that health is something to moralize over somebody else.

Anita Rao
Zoë Bisbing is a psychotherapist who specializes in child and adolescent eating disorders and body image. She and her colleague Leslie Block started the Full Bloom Project, which offers educational content to prevent child eating disorders.

Zoë Bisbing
It starts with really creating what we consider a body positive home, to really, you know, have a no body talk policy at home - to really be clear with your kids, when they're at home, that this is a safe place, that your body is growing as it is meant to grow. We eat in ways that make us feel good, and that we listen to our internal cues and that we want our home environment to have baby books and all sorts of books - and as much media as possible available to our kids, while they're in our homes, that they see as close to a utopia as possible. So that they understand that this can exist because then the other piece of it is when they go out into the world and face, inevitably, face either, you know bullying directed at them, or they observe fatphobic comments being made, whether it's on a TV show or between kids on the playground, and we want those kids to be able to come to us either with their pain of what they're experiencing, you know, and/or with something they're observing that feels messed up to them. And we want to plant seeds, so that they know something's wrong with that.

Anita Rao
And I think one of the things about body neutrality that is so relevant to conversations about kids is how you talk to a kid about their appearance, or whether you do it at all. I've noticed, I have a niece and nephew, and they're so adorable - and I want to comment on their appearance, and I can feel myself wanting to tell them like how cute they are, what they look like, but then I have this moment of thinking, you know, what does the way that I'm commenting on your body - or how you look - do to how you start to perceive yourself and how you start to perceive your worth? So how do you kind of think about the socialization that others do around kids bodies and kids appearances, and how to retrain yourself away from some of that?

Zoë Bisbing
It's hard, and I'm a realist when it comes to this because I have little kids, and I know that impulse to say, 'Oh, my gosh, you look so cute,' or when I see one of my son's friends, I haven't seen them in a year, to say, 'Wow, you've grown so much.' And for me, this is like I'm so excited to see them grow. You know, and so okay, we do it. This being said, we know from research that it's not just negative body comments that hurt. It's those positive body comments that can hurt too because it increases our kind of self-objectification muscle - and we think about 'oh, this person's pleased by me because of the way I look.'

So it's one thing to know that, and I think that sometimes it's the first step, just know that like compliments even about appearance for children, it's not really the most loving thing you can do for a child, but if we can then take that next step to really try to make those comments, those enthusiastic comments about internal characteristics, you know, traits that you think are special about that person, or if someone's put together a fantastically, bizarre cowboy boots and, you know, pajamas and a rain coat, - which might I've seen my children's peers do - 'Wow, you're so creative, like, how did you think to put those things together?' So it does, it's like a new muscle for us because we are really inclined to make those positive comments about bodies, but, you know, unfortunately, I hear in my own practice, and with parents I work with, so many stories of negative body comments, which are violent in so many ways - and, so obviously we want to stop those as well, but even the positive ones require a little bit of rewiring on our part.

Anita Rao
For parents who may be in a struggle with their own bodies, may have negative body image, may be working on their own relationships, but want to be a good model for their kids - What do you suggest that they think about or work on?

Zoë Bisbing
Well, I think that the word optics comes to mind because you know, everybody's in a different place in their journey. And I don't expect a parent that, you know, comes to the Full Bloom Project for example, to be fully ready to divest from diet culture and, you know, immediately join the fat liberation movement. I mean, many of those folks aren't ready. They're not there. I wish they were, but they're not. But perhaps they're ready to, if they're, let's say, actively trying to, quote, 'fix or change their own bodies,' - if they're not ready to stop that themselves, hopefully, they're ready to stop talking about it. Because we really do need to shut that down.

And when I say create the optics, like I want parents to not neglect themselves, I want them to do this work to. There's a lot of re-parenting work that we offer away within this movement, but I want parents to try to create at least the illusion that we don't do that here, just so that you can tomorrow, right, create a safer environment for your kids, so that then those kids can create a safer environment for their, you know, - the community of the future.

Anita Rao
Talk about some of those things to amp up. You suggested, you know, kind of cutting down on how you talk about your own body, on critiquing your body, on commenting on other people's bodies. What are things to add to the conversation to encourage body acceptance or even body neutrality?

Zoë Bisbing
I think it's really important to talk actively about diversity of size, diversity in nature and animals. I live in New York City. Love to look at all the dogs on the street, like, 'Oh, my gosh, look at this size of this one and this one.' And isn't it amazing that we're all shaped so differently? So on one hand, I want people to kind of immediately stop negative body talk - and yes, also the kind of body compliments, but to increase sort of observations about whether we're talking about humans, whether we're talking about dogs, trees, right - opportunities in nature present themselves all the time just to plant seeds that diversity is just - it's just the way it is. Isn't that interesting. The body is the same, and so really, from early on, we want to make sure that we're vocal about that.

And also, you know, maybe not with your 1-year-old, but that you're vocal about injustice, and how it's, it's pretty messed up that, you know, not all people get this yet. That all people should be treated equally. I think it's important to be vocal about how pervasive and problematic fatphobia is - anti-fat bias, whatever words people want to use - I think it's important to be open and honest about that, and also to talk about the importance of, you know, sharing your pain, like - if you are feeling, you know, upset to be in your body or upset about anything, really, to be able to talk about it, right, because one of the things we want to stop doing, or help parents stop doing, is when their own children start to feel a sense of emotional pain because they don't like that something about their appearance - we want those parents to get better at supporting their child with the pain rather than help them change their bodies.

Anita Rao
You've put together this beautiful resource called the ABCs of body positive parenting. And there's one in particular, I'd really love for you to talk about, which is: A for ancestry - and I loved thinking about how better understanding personal ancestry could be a body positive parenting tool. I know, I've talked with so many friends, who from different cultural backgrounds, who kind of had this moment of confusion almost when they went away to college, and were suddenly distanced from their home of origin - which maybe had particular cultural traditions or particular kind of ways of being around food in your body, so I'd love for you to talk about ancestry as a body positive parenting tool.

Zoë Bisbing
Yeah, and I will give credit where it's due. Connie Sobczak, who's one of the mothers of the body positive - their actual entity - was the first guest that I had on the Full Bloom podcast and really talked to us a lot about ancestry. And we've sort of adapted it into a parenting practice, honestly, creative ways to get our children to visually see their lineage, see where they're from, what stock they're from - and to try to, both through visual representation, but also through conversation, try to help our children literally get that they are who they are for good reason.

And that one of the things that I like to share as, my own mother who's learned a lot through my endeavor with Full Bloom - you know, she's in her early 70s, and she said, 'You know, I've always hated my feet, they're so big.' This is like one of her body image things, and she said that I started to think about like, how I've evolved my lineage, my people evolve, to give me these feet, and these feet have allowed me to work into my 70s in a relatively, you know, manual, labor-oriented job - and she had this new appreciation and reverence for her body even many years later, you know, in her later life. And I love that because it sort of allows her to connect with, you know, she didn't get these big feet from nowhere - they came from her ancestors, and they actually serve a purpose, a function. And that is what we really want to instill in, what we want to amplify. By the way, going back to that other question, we want to talk about how the body's function is so magical, even if our bodies don't do as many things as another person's body, I mean, that sort of anti-ablest sentiment should be there, too. But this idea that the body has function, and it serves us, and we want to be thinking so much more about that from a mind-body perspective, rather than that sort of, you know, high risk for self-objectification.

Anita Rao
Body image work is not linear. Which is why this is neither the first, nor the last time, we're going to talk about it on this show. So while I encourage you to do some reading, thinking and step away from the mirror, I also want to leave you with some beautiful tips from Virgie Tovar - on practices that she comes back to when she's having a bad body image day herself.

Virgie Tovar
I think honestly, some of them are a little more magical, and some of them are kind of boring. I mean, think about your CBT right: cognitive behavioral therapy or mindfulness. They're not bells and whistles, right? They're just things you do over and over and over again, right - like you eat. I think about you have the thought, right? - What is it you have a body shaming thought, then what is my response to that thought? I've sort of taught my brain like, you know, we don't react to those thoughts.

And I think for me that the sort of the magical, perhaps, part of it is - I've been more and more getting into the practice of understanding my body as an extension and a complete part of nature, and I think for me, just going out into nature, whether it's my park or wherever it is, even going outside and seeing a tree or something and remembering like, 'Oh my god, I share a significant amount of DNA material with this tree; with this flower; with this Bumblebee.' As someone who has been taught to be so apart and alien and to hate my body, and I look at a tree and I'm like, 'I don't see any fault with that tree. I can't see any fault with myself either, you know.'

Anita Rao
Embodied is a production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC, a listener supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org now. Incredible storytelling like you hear Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you.

Josie Taris produced this show with editorial help from Kaia Findlay and Amanda Magnus. Jenni Lawson is our sound engineer and Quilla wrote our theme music.

We want to say a huge thank you to all of the listeners who shared their stories with us, and a reminder that we want to hear from you and include your voices in future shows. We're working on a show right now about skincare, and we'd love to know: has the appearance of your skin ever impacted your self esteem, how or why? Email us embodied@wunc.org.

Also, if you follow us on Instagram or Twitter, you'll see our questions for you each week. We're @embodiedwunc. If you want to support this podcast, write us a review on iTunes and share this episode with a friend who you think needs to hear it.

I'm Anita Rao - taking on the taboo with you.

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