In this episode, Tiffany talks about dealing with the pressure to maintain a certain body size during adolescence and adulthood. She talks about the emotional and physical toll of the many fad diets that she tried and shares her more recent pursuit of weight-neutral medical treatment.
If you’ve heard of any diet, I’ve been on it. I’ve been on South Beach. I’ve done Weight Watchers. And not only have I done them, I’ve probably done them multiple times. The cabbage soup diet. Cleanses. The cayenne, pepper, lemon, and water thing - where you’re supposed to drink that for all three meals for a week or something and lose weight. But, I didn’t become larger until probably my early thirties. Then I started gaining weight and I started to panic. So, of course I jumped with both feet into diet culture as hard as I could.
I had a complex relationship with food as a child. My parents were struggling. I was the first child, so I got to see all the struggle, right? They didn’t have a lot of money so, if you didn’t eat all of your food it was like a major crime. We are not wasting food in this house because, you know, we don’t have a lot of money, so we can’t afford for you to be picky and kind of play around with the food and figure out what you like. You have to eat it. So, I got accustomed to eating things that I didn’t necessarily want or things that I didn’t necessarily like.
So, it was right after I started my period, that’s when weight became an issue. I was not in a larger body at that time, but that’s when people started saying, “ok, you have to start watching your weight.” I wasn’t really sure what that meant, but now, as I look back on it, I think it was about me coming into womanhood. I guess the thing that’s supposed to be great about womanhood is that you have this perfect body. You have a flat stomach. It’s okay to be a little curvy in your hips and your butt - particularly in the black community - but your stomach should be flat. And as I began to develop and go through puberty, that’s when it started becoming more like, “oh, you wanna make sure you eat a vegetable, you wanna make sure you’re eating a salad.” And not just in my household, but pretty much everywhere. Me and my friends talked about it. Things I saw on TV.
I’m really going to tell my age here, but Jazzercise was really popular at the time, in the 80s. So everything was about Jazzercise and you know, you have your leg warmers and your really ridiculous leotards and tights and everything with the headbands. Richard Simmons was really popular at the time. I’m watching this and those people were pretty much my mentors of health. I thought that these were the people who knew their stuff. The Jane Fonda workouts were out. One thing that I hope that you’re noticing is that all of these people are white. Nothing like me. But that was what I was trying to attain. With Richard Simmons, of course I wasn’t trying to look like him, but he had people in the background and sometimes he actually would have some body diversity, but what I looked at were the thin people and I knew, ok , that’s the look you go for.
My whole family was pretty fatphobic, but my father’s side of the family, they were like really, really, really, really, super fatphobic. And none of them were small people, incidentally. That’s when I remember a cousin, someone distant that I didn’t see all the time, at a family reunion, I remember her saying, “ooo you’re getting a little hippy.” I was like maybe thirteen at the time and I wasn’t “hippy” I was just developing like young girls do. That’s when I started realizing weight and how you’re shaped is a big deal.
My father was very fatphobic towards my mother. She had given birth to my little sister and he fat-shamed her the entire pregnancy. And, of course, after pregnancy, it takes a while, if you’re going to go back down, it takes a while for that to happen. He just ridiculed her the whole time. I remember her getting on all these diets, and joining these gyms, and stuff like that. I really did get it ingrained in me that it’s painful for you to see your mom go through it, so you better not ever get fat so, no one will do it to you.
I can’t think of any women that I knew at that time who ate what they wanted. There was always some type of restriction. Even the thinnest women I knew it was like, “ok, I’m thin, and I better stay that way.” And I think that’s when I really started recognizing morality around food itself. At this point I’m like there are certain foods that are bad. If I want a cupcake, that’s bad. If I want a salad, that’s good. That’s when that all started to form, right around adolescence. I began to understand ok, people are really paying attention to size and shape and I have to fall in line so that I don’t get hurt.
I’ll also say too, at the time, I was very fatphobic myself. If I saw larger people, I would make fun of them. Even if I didn’t say anything out loud, I was secretly. I would lose respect for a person who was larger- particularly kids who were my age. I feel really bad about that, but I think that I should be transparent, in that I was very much a part of that culture. I wasn’t just sitting back and looking at it like, “oh wow, these people are crazy.” No, I was very much a part of it and very steeped in it. Even myself and a friend in highschool wrote a rap song called, “Porkasonic,” that was specifically about making fun of fat people and I cringe at the things that I thought and the things that I said. The rap song I mean, we were not like Salt’n’Pepper or anything. We didn’t make it. It was just something that we did as kids, you know? And actually the friend that I did it with was...she was in a larger body than I was and yet she still engaged in that. I think it’s because, no matter what size we were, we were a part of that culture, you know? If you were large, there was definitely something wrong with you.
I think that the thing about diets is...when I tried my first diet and failed and I don’t remember what the first diet was - I believe it was some type of restriction of something- the first time I failed, it hurt like nothing I can probably accurately describe. Let me rephrase that, the diet failed me, I did not fail the diet, the diet failed me, but it made me feel like I did something wrong. I didn’t have the willpower. I did not do what I was supposed to do when I binged. I thought, you know, this is your fault, you can control these binges, but you don’t.
So, my relationship with food became progressively worse. You could not have told me that I had an eating disorder, one, because I’m fat. Of course fat people don’t have eating disorders, it’s only people like Karen Carpenter, the singer who died from it. Somebody who is so thin that they can’t sustain life. That's who people think of when they think of people with eating disorders, they don’t think of ...the thing is with fat people it’s celebrated . It’s celebrated as a diet.
I’ve noticed that since I’ve started going into doctors appointments and basically telling them that I want weight neutral treatment, I’ve never had a doctor disagree with me. I switched doctors back in the summer and I told her that I wanted weight neutral treatment. I said, “ I’m recovering from disordered eating and I can’t afford to hear about weight loss and diets and things like that. Please actually treat the problem.” And my doctor was totally onboard. And my thing about weight stigma...at first I thought it was just a thing of, “oh, somebody’s saying something mean to you, just ignore it.” It’s deeper than that. This could actually cost people their lives because they’re being told, “you have to lose weight,” when there might be a deeper issue going on that has to be investigated. That has nothing to do with your weight. And then a doctor actually told me, what patients don’t tend to understand is that the doctor works for you. You don’t work for the doctor. The doctor works for you. They said if [the doctor] insists on giving you weight stigmatized treatment, fire them and find somebody else. Let them know what treatment you will allow. And she said you can not get treatment that you don’t agree to. And that changed everything for me.
I’m trying very hard to make sure that my boys don’t fall into what I fell into. I don’t want them demonizing food. If they want candy, they can eat candy. If they want fruit, they can have fruit. I will introduce them to other things. I won’t just let them, you know, if they like skittles, they can’t just have skittles and that’s their diet. No, but, if they want some skittles, I’ll let them have some skittles. But I will say, “hey look, I made this tonight, why don’t you try this and see if you like it.” If they don’t like it, I’m not forcing it on them. If they do like it then I’ll give it to them again. It’s that plain and that simple. I don’t want them...if they have a toxic relationship around food, I don’t want it to come from home. I know that society will do its work, but I’m trying to fight that.
Tiffany Stewart's podcast Tiffications.
Tiffany's dietitian, Kaitlin Bolt-Lovett's website.