There’s a T-shirt I cannot stop thinking about. I saw it three months ago, while browsing the loungewear section of a local clothing store, looking for another pair of leggings I don’t need. It was the last of its kind on the rack — clearly, a popular item, and I could see why. It was a soft and cloudy white, with a poppy illustration of an ice cream sundae printed on the front. Above the picture were two words: Diet Dropout. I’ve since learned that Wildfox makes the T-shirt, and that it’s sold out everywhere. I know because in the months since I first saw it, I’ve done some covert Googling to try and track it down. I should have bought it back there in the store, but at that moment, I was half horrified, even to be holding it. Part of my brain thought, “Cute!” while the other part frantically searched the room for the nearest exit, then whispered in my ear, “Run.”
In truth, it was the perfect T-shirt for me. I am a diet dropout, and a proud one. I am also on the record as an enjoyer of ice cream. But the thought of walking around with both these facts emblazoned on my chest, for all the world to see, kickstarted an old, familiar blend of panic and shame. I was okay with eating ice cream, and even writing about it. But showing it? Declaring it like this, without context or explanation? That would be like walking down the street eating an ice cream sundae, right in front of everyone. In other words, something I would never do.
It’s an unwritten rule, but a firm one: Thin people can eat ice cream in public, and wear T-shirts advertising this fact. They can post ooey-gooey chocolate chip cookies on Instagram, and use that crazy, all-caps #EEEEEATS hashtag, or the tried and true #innerfatkid. An actual fat person, though, would never do this. They’re not supposed to, at least. It’s pretty common to eat cookies, but anyone whose body size extends beyond the bounds of what we consider “normal” (read: thin) is not supposed eat like a “normal” person — not in front other people. Instead, we are supposed to be “good.”
By that I mean, we are suppose to choose the most lean, light, raw, healthy-sounding items on the menu. Those are the “good” choices. Sometimes the “good” foods change a little, depending on cultural dietary trends (grains were once “good” but then the pendulum swung against carbohydrates). The “bad” foods generally remain fixed: burgers, fries, chocolate chip cookies. It’s a generalization, but anything considered delicious is deemed a “bad” food (sinfully delicious, decadent, indulgent, etc.), while “good” foods are “guilt-free.” Those of us with not-thin bodies are already seen as guilty, thus this public penance at the table. We are supposed to order salads, with dressing on the side. We’re supposed to comment on how large the size small popcorn is, and ask if anyone will share. Maybe at home we can relax and have some pasta, but in front of others we are expected to be “good” and get the fish.
In part, it’s self-defense, this posing as The Good Fatty. It’s a way of trying to convince others that all their biases and beliefs about fat people are false. We don’t eat nothing but pizza and donuts, see! We don’t actually sit around on our asses all day; we exercise and enjoy the outdoors! In other ways, it’s conceding to a kind of tacit compromise between fat people and everyone else. You may exist, the contract reads. But don’t rub it in our faces. We agree, vowing to atone for our abnormalness and do penance with every meal. It’s a system which both fuels and feeds off bigotry. And in a world where weight bias still affects everything from wages to legal outcomes, I don’t blame anyone for doing it — including myself. But I know that, in the big picture, I’m not helping anyone (also, including myself) by playing The Good Fatty. It’s an old and ugly rule, and ever since I saw that damn T-shirt, I’ve been trying like hell to break it.
Like most of us, I learned how to be “good” almost as soon as I learned how to eat. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t calculate the ramifications of asking for seconds, or reaching across the table for the gravy boat. When I started dieting, I lived for those impressed or approving eyes, noticing the total lack of carbohydrates on my plate — even if I only imagined them. Then social media came along, and I didn’t have to. That approval translated into literal “Likes” when I posted photo of a lush green salad, or a plate of spinach and scallops, perfectly framed and portioned.
This was the turning point. Social media made eating even more of a demonstrative act, not just for fat people but for everyone. Things like food porn had always existed, but thanks to visually driven platforms like Instagram, it became a constant in our lives. Like everyone, I’d occasionally post “bad” food too, but always with context in the caption. Vacation! I’d note, under a shot of lobster and fries. Birthdays, holidays, trips — these were the mitigating circumstances under which a fat girl could be “bad” in front of others. But even then, I knew I’d have to “make up for it” with a photo of me at the gym, ideally within the next 48 hours. Of course, the only person really keeping tabs on me was me. Still, I couldn’t ignore the praise I got from gym photos, and “good” food ‘grams. (I mean, I could have ignored it. But I didn’t.)
Then I quit dieting, and things got complicated. When I began intuitive eating, I had to learn how to eat everything all over again, constantly reminding myself that everything was allowed, nothing was off-limits, and that there was no such thing as “good” and “bad” food. It was all just food, and eating a wide variety of it, was how normal people ate. There was nothing wrong or unhealthy about eating pasta, if that was what I wanted. Furthermore, there was nothing wrong or inherently unhealthy about my body. In fact, the more I let go of those old food rules (not to mention, my old exercise beliefs), the better my overall health became. It took a long time and a lot of help, but I finally got the message: No matter my size or my current workout schedule, I knew I had just as much a right to eat pasta. Still, in the back of my mind, I knew another thing: I’d gotten the message, but no one else had.
It was challenging enough to learn to eat “bad” food in front of my boyfriend and my closest friends — but I’d done it. I remember one night, I was hanging out at my friend Chrissy’s when I decided I wanted one of the cookies that we had put out. She was in the bathroom, so I shouted, “Hey, I’m going to have a cookie now! Okay?!” Silence. “Hey! I’m having a cookie!” She came out of the bathroom looking at me like...I guess the way you look at a person who has just beckoned you off the toilet to announce that they’re eating a cookie. “Dude, have a cookie,” she said. “You’re the one that brought them.”
I’d gone through those early, awkward moments with my friends, and now I was relatively confident eating cookies in front of them, without getting verbal permission. But it was different with acquaintances, coworkers, family members, or strangers in restaurants. They didn’t know me — they didn’t know I often had super-healthy oatmeal for breakfast, and they didn’t know I was exercising more regularly than I ever had, even at my thinnest. They just saw a fat girl eating a hamburger, and assumed I was two more hamburgers away from a heart attack. (At least that was probably what they thought.) And then there were the strangers on the internet — more and more of them with each new essay I published on this very column, lambasting diet culture and celebrating my still-not-thin body. But even as I grew more confident with my own food choices and comfortable in my own skin, I still wanted those approving glances.
Without even realizing it, I was still self-editing, on and offline. I ate what I wanted, but I only shared photos of meals I thought were the most acceptable. If I ordered a burger in public, I found myself making a case for it (“I’ve had zero protein today, I’m starving”). I’d learned not to engage in diet talk, and no longer said things like, “I’m being so bad today!” If that thought even popped up in my mind, I made a point of talking back to it, reminding myself that there was nothing bad about eating this. In fact, it was good — great! — that I’d chosen to eat something I truly desired. Burgers used to be a forbidden food, and now I was treating it like a neutral, normal one. Hooray! I was so busy giving myself pats on the back that I didn’t realize the verbal diarrhea still coming out of my mouth: “I haven’t had a burger in forever.” It wasn’t an apology, but it was still an explanation.
“There’s this narrative that, as long as you’re doing all the right things, eating all the right foods, exercising and whatnot — and performing those things — that you can somehow get a pass,” said activist and author Virgie Tovar during a 2015 interview on the Food Psych podcast. As one of the preeminent voices in the realm of size discrimination, Tovar is known primarily for her lectures, books, and workshops. But she is also known for her Instagram account, where she often posts photos of herself with pastries, bagels, tacos, and other so-called “bad” foods. I was already following Tovar when I heard this interview, but until then I hadn’t really noticed all the pretty pastry pics — or the subtle message she was sending with them.
“The food is a metaphor. I don’t just eat those things — but it’s nobody’s business what I eat,” said Tovar. “At the end of the day, I don’t have to explain to people, ‘Oh, I’m eating this donut in this picture, but I also eat salad. I also enjoy lean proteins.’”
It was such a simple rebellion, but an effective one. Rather than play The Good Fatty, Tovar chose to play directly into a viewer’s bias. With every taco and donut, she offered them a chance to confront their own beliefs and discomfort — while taking on none of the responsibility herself. While I, and so many others, were desperately trying to convince the rest of the world that we weren’t monsters, she was out there living her life, eating her lunch, and letting the rest of the world take care of itself. She wasn’t holding the bigots’ hands and gently ushering them into acceptance. She was poking them in the eye. “If you’re so idiotic that you don’t understand that I eat all kinds of things, if you are so convinced of me as this irredeemable, horrible, unhealthy person,” she said. “I don’t owe you anything.”
I don’t owe you anything. It was Tovar’s words that came flooding back to me, two years later, as I stood staring at that stupid T-shirt. That’s what I’d been doing all this time. I was eating freely, but still paying a toll for doing so. I was still acting as if my meals required explanation, and by extension, so did I. I still had the impression that because I was not thin, my every bite was being clocked by friends and strangers. The worst part was that, as ever, I was still imagining it — some of it, at least. Surely, it was true, because again, I hadn’t even noticed Tovar’s foodie pics before I heard her talk about them. Thinking back over the last few times I’d gone out to eat with other people, I hadn’t taken much note of what they’d ordered, either. Certainly, that didn’t mean that bias and judgment didn’t exist. Of course they did — they do. And I had internalized so much of it that I was policing myself, better than anyone else. I wouldn’t eat a hamburger without offering a reason. I didn’t buy that T-shirt, because I was afraid.
This doesn’t mean I need to start eating more hamburgers and wearing more graphic tees. It definitely doesn’t mean I need to post more food on Instagram, because nobody needs more of that. It’s not about more of anything, really, but about less shame. It’s about not letting fear make my meal or fashion choices. From now on, if I’m having the hamburger, I’m not saying anything but please and thank you. Same goes for the salad, or the fish, for that matter. I don’t want to waste any more breath explaining myself, when simply being myself is good enough.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, rational fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.