In this episode of YR’s Adult ISH podcast, host Dominique French sits down with Aubrey Gordon, author of “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat” and host of the “Maintenance Phase” podcast. Together they bust myths and get real about fatness in advance of Aubrey’s upcoming book, “You Just Need to Lose Weight.”
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Georgia: Hey, this is Adult ISH producer Georgia Wright. We’ll start the show in a moment, but I wanted to give a heads-up that this episode includes discussions of fatphobia, dieting, and disordered eating. Please take care as you listen. Thanks.
Dom: Welcome to Adult ISH produced by YR Media and brought to you by Radiotopia from PRX. I’m Dominique French.
Nyge: And I’m Nyge Turner.
Dom: And this week, we’re challenging the widely held belief that we’re all capable of dieting our way to a thin body and moreover, that we all should.
Nyge: This week, Dom sat down with Aubrey Gordon, who co-hosts the podcast “Maintenance Phase.” “Maintenance Phase” is about wellness and weight loss, debunked and decoded. Dom, what was that interview like for you?
Dom: It was amazing! (Laughs) It was like meeting the president, specifically Obama. My president. That’s how big of a fan I am. And you know how they say that you shouldn’t meet your heroes — it will just let you down blah blah blah?
Nyge: Um hm.
Dom: If Aubrey Gordon is your hero, you should meet her. She is fantastic. This entire experience of talking to her was fantastic. We had this, like, meaningful, touching, and … is it too goofy to, say, life changing? Because I do feel different after having (laughs) had this conversation with her. And we talked about what it means to be fat today, what it’s like to live in a world with messaging that’s constantly telling you to be smaller. And we got into anti-fatness. We busted some myths and we just had a really, really good time. And I’m curious, Nyge, as a straight-sized person or someone who can shop for their size in most stores, what was going through your head when you listen to this conversation?
Nyge: I thought the conversation was really interesting, like especially just how society pretty much demonizes any type of weight gain, um, which y’all said about, like the U.K. — how like the U.K. version of Weight Watchers calls points “sins.” Anything that you eat is a sin and you only get a certain amount of sins for a particular day. That was wild! But I had to really be honest with myself and just think about it. And like, outside of the context of this episode, if you call something like having a snack, like a guilty pleasure or hearing about like “cheat meals” or anything like that, none of those words or phrases would really like set off any alarms in my mind. And… (Dom: Yeah.) It’s just wild to me how deeply we’ve been conditioned as a society. It’s really, it’s really gross.
Dom: You’re absolutely right. And honestly, I am really, really thankful to be able to have had this conversation with Aubrey and even more so to share it with you and to share it with the entire Adult ISH fam.
Nyge: And we really appreciate you sharing it with us. So let’s get into it.
Dom: Could you describe “Maintenance Phase” a little bit for the unindoctrinated?
Aubrey: Unindoctrinated!!! (Laughs) We’re starting a cult! No! (Laughs)
Dom: Join now for the low, low price! (Laughs)
Aubrey: Things are getting dark and meta over here. Every other week, my co-host Michael Hobbes and I look at a different diet or wellness or weight loss trend, either currently or from history, and sort of do some unpacking of the science and history and cultural meaning behind those diet and wellness trends. And boy, oh, boy, I’ll tell you what. Number one lesson learned, absolutely nobody is fact checking diet claims. Woah! Nobody is doing it! It’s really wild!!
Dom: They’re putting a lot of effort into not doing it.
Aubrey: That’s right. That’s right.
Dom: And if you haven’t listened to the show, listen to it immediately after you listen to this. If not sooner.
Aubrey: Aww, thank you! That’s very kind of you. I will say, just like a fun little preview, boop boop: I have been looking into the person who popularized making many and varied health claims about the use of apple cider vinegar.
Dom: Oh yeah.
Aubrey: Which was like a real thing, like 5 to 10 years ago. It’s calmed down quite a bit.
Dom: A little, but it’s still around.
Aubrey: It’s still around, for sure. That guy, Mmm, lied about his age for his entire life. He was like, “Look at how youthful and vitalizing apple cider vinegar is.”
Dom: He lied up??
Aubrey: He lied 15 years up!! (Dom: Oh, my God!) He fully started a fitness boot camp when he was like 25 and told everybody he was 40 and was like, “Look how amazing I look???” (Laughs)
Dom: Oh, I think he may have hacked aging. (Laughs)
Aubrey: I was like, that’s bold.
Dom: That’s a long, long, long con.
Aubrey: It’s bold! So, like, that kind of stuff comes up all the time. Right? Like that just like, boy, oh, boy, either there were a bunch of good intentions that led in a bunch of bad directions. Or there are just straight up bad intentions with, like, poor skills at lying, but a deep commitment to it. (Laughs)
Dom: So we wanted to get, before we got into the weeds, what is your working definition of diet culture?
Aubrey: Yeah, I’m like, oof, I need to look it up. What I would say off the top of my head is diet culture is the expectation that, uh, if you are thin, you’re not thin enough. If you’re fat, you’re definitely not thin enough. If you’re very fat, you’re basically dead. Diet culture is the system that puts all of us under pressure to lose weight, but specifically adds like rocket fuel to our stigmatizing of fat people in particular, not people who are on the edge of thinness, not people who have ten or 20 pounds to lose, but people like me who are instructed by our doctors to lose 100 pounds, 200 pounds, 300 pounds, so on and so forth. (Dom: Right.) From where I stand, I think diet culture is a huge engine of bias and discrimination against fat people because all of us, of course, turn those terrible feelings about our, quote unquote, inadequate bodies inward. We all sort of sop those right up. And diet culture also teaches us to do that to other people who are fatter than us.
Dom: Yes, indeedy.
Aubrey: Right? Like your mom telling you that you should consider a gym membership and maybe you want to join Weight Watchers. And are you sure you want that second helping, also teaches you to do that, too. Like it teaches you to internalize all of that stuff and feel real bad about yourself and it is also an instructional manual on how to treat other people, right? Like we also learn that part of the lesson.
Dom: Absolutely. This is something that I have only spoken about once during the run of the show that I’ve been a part of. I myself am fat. I’m a smaller fat person, which the audience may not know about. I don’t know if y’all be stalking me. I don’t know. (Laughs)
Aubrey: We’re all disembodied voices.
Dom: Yeah, no, exactly! But I wear like a size 22, 20, 24, depending on the store. And, you know, with that comes privileges of having stores that have some sizes that I can wear. And there are disadvantages because I’m still fat, you know? (Aubrey: Yeah, totally) So there’s a lot of complications there. But, you know, contextualizing the things to come.
Aubrey: Totally! Same same. So I would say for context, I am a person who is about 5’9” or 5’10” depending on the day and I fluctuate between, I don’t know, 330 and 350 pounds on any given day. I wear a size 26, 28 or 30, depending on the store. I’m right on the edge of plus sizes versus extended plus sizes. So even in plus size stores, I am right on the bubble of like, will this place carry clothes for me or not? And that is an immensely privileged experience compared to people who wear 6 or 7x clothes and can’t find anything to buy in any brick and mortar store. Or who are sent from their doctor’s office to a farm animal veterinary clinic to be weighed because the doctor’s office scale can’t weigh them. I super appreciate you bringing this up — because there are for sure major gradations in sort of like how fat are you and what experiences correlate to that level of fatness? And of course, that varies in different countries and different communities in different neighborhoods even, right? Like those gradations change based on a whole lot of other variables.
Dom: So I wanted to touch on the fact that at one point in time you used a pseudonym. Um, and I wanted to ask what that time was like and what the transition into using, you know, as far as we know, your “real identity” (laughs) as part of your work.
Aubrey: This is the episode where I pull off like a Scooby Doo mask and I’m like “Haaah! I would have gotten away with it!”
Dom: If it wasn’t for me and all my meddling. (Aubrey laughs wickedly)
Aubrey: Uh, yeah! I wrote for a number of years — first sort of writing and editing and putting out my own work just on Medium and then for Upworthy and then for Self magazine, writing anonymously about the social experience of being a fat person interacting with thin people who just overwhelmingly have not learned and have not been taught to consider the experiences of fat people. And the sad thing here is when we’re not taught to consider those experiences, we definitely don’t consider them. So I wrote about that anonymously for a good long while, in part because of the amount of like trolling and threats that come with being, you know, anybody who’s not like a cis white able-bodied dude on the internet. Just like part of the cost of admission for being truly anybody else. Yikes!
Dom: Yeah. Shout outs to them. But when you’re not them… (Laughs)
Aubrey: High five! So I did that in part because of that, and in part because genuinely, based on my experience as a fat person in the world, when people see or hear a fat person speaking, often they can’t see or hear past their judgments of our bodies. And there was something really useful about being able to write from a perspective of a fat person and not have people be able to just default and fall right back to ad hominem attacks, which almost as soon as I became unanonymous and there was like a photograph of me on the internet, like my replies on almost everything I wrote just changed to like, “What happened to your neck? Where is it? How many people did you eat today?” Just like truly… (Dom: hatred) gruesome versions of very juvenile schoolyard kind of bullying. Do you know what I mean?
Dom: Yeah, yeah. Unimaginative, but hurtful nonetheless.
Aubrey: Designed to be as hurtful to you personally as they can make it. So, yeah, I wrote anonymously for a long time, and then I wrote a book and I’ll tell you what’s hard to do, and that’s promote a book without anyone seeing your face or knowing your name. (Laughs) And at that point, also, the anonymity felt like this big box I had to carry around everywhere, right? Like it was sort of this cumbersome thing to navigate, and it just felt like it was time.
Dom: So touching more on “Maintenance Phase”, which you host with Michael Hobbes. You both talk a lot about the dangers of anti-fatness and toxic diet and wellness culture. You obviously have a skill for identifying these red flags for this insidious diet and wellness rhetoric. What are some tips and advice you could give us and our listeners for sharpening those skills? How do you, when your spidey senses start tingling?
Aubrey: I love this question.
Dom: Okay, cool. (Laughs)
Aubrey: I love this question. I’m very into this question. Okay. So a couple of things. One: every single new diet or wellness trend that comes along wants you to think that it is brand new, groundbreaking. “Sure, you’ve tried everything and none of that worked. But ours is different.” Right? Like, that is like — it’s fascinating to me that at this point, the marketing of diets relies on being like, “We all know diets don’t work except for this one!”
Aubrey: Like,that they’re all willing to throw the entire rest of their own industry under the bus and be like, “But we’re the ones who definitely aren’t lying to you,” when they almost certainly are!
Dom: I’ve never thought about it that way, but that’s banonkers. Yeah.
Aubrey: Imagine how you would feel if you went into a doctor’s office and your doctor was like, “All right, we all know that doctors are grifters. We’re terrible, we’re garbage. You’re probably going to die in a doctor’s office, but not me! I’m great!” (Dom laughs) That is wild marketing. (Dom: It really is!) And I would say, in spite of wanting to bill themselves as a totally new, completely radical, groundbreaking, new thing, most diets boil down to about three or four different sort of master categories. Right? There’s the low calorie diet. That’s your Nooms, your Optavias — all of these things that want you to think they’re like brand new, radical, super cool. Nope! Same old thing. There are low fat diets which are very closely aligned with low carb diets. Historically, this would be your Weight Watchers, your Slimming Worlds and such. There are…
Dom: You make it sound like a fun place you can go: Slimming World!
Aubrey: No. Slimming World, no joke. Okay. So Slimming World is the UK version of Weight Watchers essentially. They also have Weight Watchers, but it’s like, holds that kind of cultural space in the UK.
Dom: Oh geeze.
Aubrey: Instead of counting points, what they call points are sins. You’re counting your sins for the, like — It is gnarly as all get out.
Dom: Just in case y’all forgot that puritanical thought came from over here. (Laughs)
Aubrey: Whoa, whoa, whoa. It’s wild! Okay, so we’ve got low calorie diets. We’ve got low fat diets, we’ve got low carb diets, and then we’ve got food group restriction diets. Those are things like elimination diets, Whole30, but also things that are like any diet that’s like, “You need to cut out nightshades or whatever.” You know what I mean? Like when you sort of get into these like cutting out particular foods, these are all the chumbox links at the bottom of every like clickbaity news piece that you read that’s like “Here’s the one food the doctors say you can’t eat if you want to eliminate belly fat.” Like that’s all in that category.
Dom: Yes, yes, yes, yes.
Aubrey: So like step one is: is it one of those things? If it is, uh, there’s a ton of research on all of those things and why none of them lead to sustained weight loss. (Dom: Yeah.) Absolutely none of them have been proven to work for most people most of the time. And absolutely none of them have been proven to work for more than 3 to 5 years. This is another little myth buster for you — quite a bit of dieting rhetoric is built around this idea of willpower. If you ask health care researchers, if you ask people who research fat people and health conditions related to what we eat or your endocrine system or all that kind of stuff, what they will tell you is that what we consider to be willpower are two hormones, ghrelin and leptin. (Dom: Yeah.) Those hormones kick in to tell you when you are hungry and when you are full. And if you’re eating way less than you usually are, they’re going to tell you that you’re more hungry and they’re going to take longer to tell you that you’re full because it’s used to getting a certain amount of food every day. (Dom: Yeah.) And when you cut that down dramatically, your body is going to respond to be like, “Hey, we need more food! It’s real empty in here! Could you send something down, please?”
Those kinds of reframes situate this question in a very deeply moralizing Puritan work ethic, resist temptation, deeply Christian kind of frame. And if you sort of pull out what we know scientifically about that, it’s like, “No, man, your body’s doing what it’s supposed to do. You’re not eating enough and it’s making sure that you’re eating enough.” In the same way that like if you held your breath for a really long time, your body would be like, “Hey, so you should start breathing again. That seems like a good idea. Could you do that?”
Dom: Yeah, exactly.
Aubrey: “We haven’t peed in, like, several days. Could you find a bathroom, please?”
Dom: No, just willpower it out. Just willpower it right on out. (Laughs)
Aubrey: Right. But with hunger, we have just, like, piled on all of this weird judgment and assessment of what that means about you as a person, sort of as to how you relate to hunger and when and whether you eat like it’s bonkers. The last thing I would say on like tip tips, um, is there is a fantastic website. It is still very academic language. But if you want an overview of: where is the science at on X and such diet or X and such approach to dieting? Cochrane.org is the home to a bunch of meta studies.
That kind of stuff can be really, really, really helpful to get re-grounded out of the kind of wishful thinking that diet culture instills in your brain, which is like not just the wishful thinking that you can lose weight or become thin or become thinner, but the wishful thinking that your life can’t actually start until those things happen. You can’t start to date people. You can’t go after your promotion. You can’t go on a vacation. You can’t go to the beach looking like that. There are all these things that we think we will somehow earn when we become thin or thinner people. And that works if you don’t think too hard about it. So my other tip is like, think harder about it. Remind yourself that that’s not true. Do you know what I mean?
Dom: Yes, absolutely.
Aubrey: Like, really, really, really I know it’s hard. And I — most days I do a bad job of the reminding myself that it’s not true. But like when I do, it is like the best reminder ever. And I think also I would say, you know, just in my own personal experience, Mike and I have this ongoing conversation where we’re like, we need to find an uplifting episode. We have to find something that will make people feel really good that like, you know, feels like it’s a success of public health or it’s a success of sort of the wellness world or something. And every time we do, it’s like the first day of research, one of us texts the other one and is like, “It’s not a feel good. Everyone’s lying and they’re making a lot of money! And like they’re doing horrible things, right?”
So I think the other thing that I would say that works really well for me personally in the face of the onslaught of like diet marketing, that’s certainly about to come our way in the new year. Good Lord. (Dom: Yeah.) Remind yourself that most of the people who are talking to you about those diet and wellness claims stand to make quite a bit of money off of making those diet and wellness claims. And certainly in almost all of the cases I’ve looked into, there is somewhere between a blurring of the truth and a cherry picking of favorable results all the way up to straight up and down boldface lying (laughs) about sort of these wellness practices, these diets, all of it. I find it really helpful and frankly really therapeutic to get mad that people are lying to me in order to make me feel bad about myself, in order to pay them money like that is a depraved cycle we got going there, team.
Dom: Yeah! No, the diet industry is like that dude that you just started dating that’s like late to a date and is mad at you that you’re mad at him he’s late. (Aubrey laughs) He’s like, “Why are you freaking out? This is like, so not cool of you.” It’s like, “Because you’re 45 minutes late! You lied to me!”
Aubrey: You cracked the code! Which is diets are like the fuck boys of the wellness world. They are totally… (laughs)
Dom: Exactly! Very attractive but mean to you! (Laughs)
Aubrey: Yeah, that’s exactly right. That’s exactly right.
Dom: So you said something about wanting to find an episode that’s like feel good that lifts people up. And it reminded me of something that I wrote down while reading your book “What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About Fat”, which is that to me it feels like a love letter to the future you want us all to have. And that’s all of us as in fat people and all of us as in all people, all people who exist within a world that is anti-fatness, that is rife with anti-fat bias. So I wanted to ask you why it was important to you that this book not only be in part a memoir, but that it was a tool for social change, that it is a roadmap for tackling systemic issues.
Aubrey: Yeah, I mean, I felt at the time — and less so now, thankfully — this is like deeply wonderful that there are way more fat people doing way more work in way more public ways, which is like thrilling to me. But at the time that I started working on the book, it felt like most of the conversations about fatness and fat people were: a fat person would post a picture of themselves in some kind of revealing outfit, and then a bunch of thin people would be like, “Stop eating, you’re going to die!” And then an equal number of thin people would be like, “Your confidence is amazing. You’re so inspiring to me!” And none of the comments had anything to do with that actual fat person.
Aubrey: And none of them had to do with the things that felt like the biggest barriers in my life, which were like going to a doctor and having them agree to examine you and treat you. Finding an airline that would seat you and let you keep your seat without kicking you off unannounced on the day of the flight. Right? There were real key clear cut policy issues that could be solved. And I had spent the previous 12 years of my work life as a community organizer. So I was like, “Oh, we got some policy issues? Great, let’s roll!”
Dom: Let me at em!
Aubrey: Let’s do this! (Laughs) And I mean, I think, you know, the only way you can really get to all of those policy issues is if you think about these issues, intersectionally, right? Like you can’t really uproot all of anti-fatness without addressing the number of countries that have straight up BMI limits on who can immigrate and under what circumstances. Like that’s like an astonishing thing. And if you care about ending diet culture, the way to do that is to create a safe and affirming world for fat people, which will allow thin people to stop being so afraid of being fat, which is also what drives thin people to treat fat people like garbage so that they’re not socially perceived as being in the same group.
There are so many sort of little dominoes that can fall if we think about this just a little bit more broadly than: someone said something mean to me once about being fat or about being thin or, you know, it’s just “my brain is broken and I have a negative body image.” Like, no, no, no, no. All of that stuff comes from somewhere. That somewhere is outside of you personally. And in order to engage with that and to fix it, we’re all going to need to stretch outside of ourselves and our own experiences to get there. And this felt like one way of talking about what would it look like to actually change the systems that we have to make them safer and more affirming for every kind of fat person there is.
Dom: I find that so beautiful because to me, as a person who is fat and Black and queer and disabled, I really feel like I’m getting it from all angles. (Laughs)
Aubrey: I bet, I bet.
Dom: Something that I was thinking about when I wanted to do this episode was that to me, there’s nothing more personal than the systemic. (Aubrey: Mm hm) Because it has nothing to do with you, but it also has everything to do with you.
Aubrey: That’s exactly right.
Dom: Like those insults you were talking about. Those like childlike insults that are made, specifically crafted to tackle and cut at every single part of who you specifically are. But it also has nothing to do with you, because it was all there before you got there. You just happened to walk into the room, and this weird party was already going on.
Aubrey: Mm hmm. And the weird party is a bunch of people who are not you, who have never lived your life experience imagining what they think your life is about and what it’s like.
Dom: Exactly! Something about, like, being able to really recognize that that correlation between the personal and the systemic both gives me personally the right to really be mad about it. And also a sort of distance to not blame myself.
Aubrey: Mm hmm. Yeah. I mean, I think in a lot of ways that’s how I think about the project of our podcast is like charting back the sort of taproots of where all of these terrible body image ideas come from, where the impulse to diet comes from. And the answer for most outlets is, you just need to love yourself more. It started in your brain and it needs to be fixed in your brain. And I don’t believe that at all. (Dom: Yeah.) My ideas about my body have almost entirely come from other people making judgments about my body to me and telling me where I socially fit with the body that I have. (Dom: Absolutely, yeah.) So, like, we can’t, can’t, can’t treat this as a strictly individualized thing when it’s roots and when it’s nature are systemic. It’s institutional, right? It’s baked into so many ways of being. Like, I’ll talk about airbrushing magazine covers, sure. Right? And unrealistic body standards of runway models or whatever. But I’m much more concerned with large scale national policy initiatives like Let’s Move, which both like improved options for school lunches, sure. And also made a generation of fat kids feel like they were the problem that the nation had to deal with.
Aubrey: Both. And. Like it’s tricky. It’s tricky and it’s tough for everybody.
Dom: It’s tricky and it’s tough. And the opposite of systemic issues is never bootstraps. That’s never the solution.
Aubrey: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. You can’t bootstrap your way out of a well that has been dug for you. Right? There is no bootstrap long enough, no arm strong enough to make that happen. Yeah. Absolutely.
Dom: You can find more of Aubrey’s work @yrfatfriend on Twitter. That’s Y R fat friend or on the “Maintenance Phase” podcast wherever you get your podcasts. And be sure to check out her upcoming book, “You Just Need to Lose Weight and 19 Other Myths About Fat People” coming out on January 10th, 2023.
So getting ready for this conversation. I read Aubrey’s book and I got ready to talk with her and doing all of that, in addition to the conversation in and of itself, made me confront so much of my own internalized fatphobia and anti-fatness in a way that shed light on some of the darkest elements of like my own, I have to say it, self-hatred. And I feel like I really found some much needed community, both with Aubrey, but also with the fat community at large. And that’s so wonderful and so surprising for me, because before this conversation, I didn’t even know if I was going to be able to claim a space in that community.
Nyge: What do you — what do you mean by that?
Dom: I mean that up until really this moment in time, I didn’t know if I was allowed to call myself fat. I didn’t know if I was fat enough to be considered fat, to take up that space. I didn’t know if I could handle or overcome my own negative associations with the word. But now, like as I’m sitting here with the word fat, describing myself that way, I have this, like, almost excited sense of neutrality with it. It just feels like an aspect of myself related to this community that I’ve been welcomed into. And it’s just a fact. And that’s so wonderfully freeing.
Nyge: Adult ISH is produced by YR Media, a national network of young artists and journalists creating content for this generation. Our show is produced by Georgia Wright, Dominique French and by me, your boy, Nyge Turner.
Dom: Our engineer is James Riley.
Nyge: Our executive producer is Rebecca Martin.
Dom: Our interns are Laly Vasquez, and Ichtaca Lira. Original music for this episode created by these young musicians at YR: Christian Romo, Anders Knutsted, Noah Holt, Jacob Armenta, Chaz Whitley. Michael Diaz, Sean Luciano Galarza and David Lawrence. Music Direction by Oliver “Kuya” Rodriguez and Maya Drexler.
Nyge: Art for this episode created by Brigido Bautista with these young people at YR: Ariam Michael and Jordan Ferguson. Art direction by Marjerrie Masicat. Creative direction by Pedro Vega, Jr.
Dom: Special thanks to Eli Arbreton.
Nyge: We are also proud to be members of Radiotopia by PRX, an independent listener supported collective of some of the most amazing shows in all of podcasting. Find them at Radiotopia.fm and if you haven’t reviewed our show on Apple Podcasts, please be sure to do so. Five stars is much appreciated.
Dom: You can follow us on all the socials @YRAdultISH. And on that note, we’ll see you later.
(Music fades)Dom: And on that note, you don’t get to go home, but you can’t stay here because I’m in my mom’s closet. (Laughs)