While we don't typically include content warnings, this article discusses and references external content which many may find triggering. If you are dealing with an eating disorder or related issues, you can find resources and assistance from the National Eating Disorder Association.
In 2015, Joni Edelman wrote an essay titled “Being Thin Didn’t Make Me Happy, But Being ‘Fat’ Does.” She published it on Ravishly.com, the website for which she also serves as editor-in-chief. In it, she described her agonizing battle with disordered eating and exercise, which had kept her thin — until it finally dawned on her that she was also miserable. Now recovered, she was “fat” and finally, blissfully free. The post went viral, and then some.
At the time, the concept of body positivity was not at all new, but it was a relatively recent addition to mainstream cultural consciousness. Thus, Edelman’s piece struck a loud and resonant chord. She was invited on Today and The Rachael Ray Show; her story was covered by media outlets across the globe. She was sweet, witty, a high-energy mother of five, and soon became a beloved and familiar name in body positive circles. Her website, Ravishly, was a warm, welcoming space which invited readers struggling with eating disorders, mental illness, disability, and other less visible issues to see themselves reflected in its content, “because,” as its tagline said, “life is easier when you’re not alone.” Edelman’s bio described — still describes — her as a: “Body-positive intersectional feminist. BP Type II. Diet industry dropout. Wife. Mom of 5. Bibliophile. Cake aficionado.”
I first met Edelman (over the phone) shortly after that first megawatt viral post in 2015. She’d asked to interview me in advance of my book launch. I remember it was the end of a long day; I’d gotten caught in a rainstorm and barely made it home in time for our scheduled phone call. I was soaked and cranky, hoping to get the interview over with in 20 minutes, tops. An hour later, I was lying on my couch, still chatting and laughing with Edelman as if she were my long-lost camp friend. I say this both in the interest of full disclosure, and simply to illustrate the kind of person Edelman is. “Friendly” doesn’t quite cover it. She’s the kind of person who can talk you out of a bad mood.
Edelman made contact with many other writers and activists in body positive and fat acceptance communities. People like Lindy West, Roxane Gay, Jes Baker, Virgie Tovar, Linda Bacon, Melissa Fabello, and Sonya Renee Taylor have all appeared on Ravishly, either as writers or interview subjects. It was a testament to Edelman’s drive and earnesty that she drew such hard-to-get names as West and Gay to her comparatively tiny site. Small or not, Ravishly had a potent ethos of inclusivity and an unapologetic commitment to all people, all bodies, all those things we shouldn’t apologize for. It featured topics like, “Trans Inclusivity: A How-To,” “I’m A Man With Anorexia — I’m Not ‘Manorexic,’” and “We Need To Remember Disability When Talking About Sexual Assault.”
Meanwhile, Edelman’s personal brand grew more visible too. She continued to share both raw, personal stories about her struggles with mental illness and her history of disordered eating, as well as excited, empowered #riotsnotdiets Instagram posts about the sheer joy she found in fat acceptance.
Needless to say, there was no diet talk, and none of the before-and-after nonsense found in most mainstream media. So, when Edelman launched a new column on Ravishly, called Beyond Before & After, in June 2016, it raised an eyebrow or two. In the posts that followed, it became clear that something had shifted in Edelman’s stance. She still declared herself a “body positive bread enthusiast,” in a banner which ran above every post (at first). But now she wanted to lose weight. Perhaps some readers might like to join her? Still, “no diets allowed,” she promised, and “no weigh-ins.” “…Hide The Scale,” ordered one headline. “19 Weeks, 39 Pounds,” declared another.
How had Edelman gone from — in her words — a “#FearlessFatty” to someone posting scale numbers and promoting fasting?
“I got thrust into the activism. I didn’t mean to,” Edelman explained to me over the phone earlier this month. It all goes back to that “fat and happy post” she wrote in 2015. “I just wrote an article, and it sort of happened.” In publicly eschewing the body positive title, Edelman stresses she never asked for it in the first place. The Rachael Ray appearance, even editing Ravishly, “was sudden and unexpected for me.” Still, when she “fell face first into the body pos community” she gladly embraced it (well: “it embraced me”).
“I was rebounding, a couple years out of an eating disorder,” she explains. “I was now part of this group of people who were all saying, ‘You don’t have to diet! You don’t have to lose weight! you don’t have to care what your body looks like, you know, fuck the patriarchy!’ And I was like, you know what?! Yeah!” What followed was a thrilling swing of the pendulum. Online, at least, she appeared to relish her newfound freedom with both food and her body, writing odes to Nutella and tips on improving your self-image without weight-loss. Offline, she says, “I just stopped caring.” Until, one day, “that stopping sort of caught up to me.”
Primarily, what caught up to her was an old injury: A few years ago, long before the viral post and the TV appearances, Edelman fell down the stairs and broke her ankle. She went to the doctor, but after the bandage came off, she was still in pain. And as many of us have done, she just kind of ignored it. Though she is herself a nurse, Edelman is also a mom of five kids and an editor-in-chief. She was busy. And then she was embraced by body positivity, which, for her, meant, “I can do whatever i want with my body and you can’t tell me otherwise.” It also meant (again, in her opinion) “eating a big slab of cake every night.” Her weight went up, her pain increased, and eventually, it forced her to get the MRI (and the blood work) she’d been avoiding for years. That’s when her orthopedist told her she had degenerative bone disease in her ankle.
“He never said ‘lose weight,’” Edelman adds. “He never said ‘this would be easier if you weren’t heavier.’ But I know that — I’m an RN. I know physiology. I know physics.” She also knew that dieting doesn’t work, and most deliberate attempts at weight loss aren’t statistically successful in the long term. Yet, she wanted to lose weight. “So, I started sort of feeling people out,” she says, and found that there were others caught in the same conundrum: “How can I love my body and want to change it? Can I do both?” She wanted to find what she refers to as “the space between” disordered diet culture and body positivity. So, she launched Beyond Before & After, a weight-loss column that somehow wasn’t about the weight. “I said, if I lose weight, excellent. If I don’t, well, that sucks.” But she did lose weight. “I think the problem is people were mad because I said that I was glad that I did,” she says.
Some, maybe. But no, I don’t believe that Edelman’s weight loss, or even her gladness over it, has much to do with the real problems. It’s her body, to do with as she will; that autonomy is at the very foundation of body activism. Furthermore, I doubt any of her peers in the fat acceptance realm would blame her for wanting to take weight off an injured joint. Body positivity, fat acceptance, size bias — these are movements and issues to be addressed on a systemic level. Personal health is to be addressed personally. The two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive: You don’t have to choose one or the other. It is unfortunate that Edelman, for some reason, thought body positivity required “eating with reckless abandon,” refusing to exercise, and avoiding medical care. But, truly, even that is not the problem. The problem is that she published all this on a public platform, for which she is also the editor-in-chief.
“You know, the column is about me trying to figure shit out,” Edelman says. “It’s not scientifically reported, journalistic writing. It’s a personal column. It’s me talking about my life.” This is her primary response to the critics — and if the column were entirely personal narratives, it would be hard to argue. But, as I discussed with her, her pieces are filled with statistics and statements presented as fact, many of which go unattributed to any legitimate study or expert. In one post about intermittent fasting and insulin resistance, she notes: “I won't include all the science-y links because I think what you most care about is the information, and if you're reading this you hopefully trust that I'm not making shit up.”
And many readers likely do trust her, on this and on everything else she writes. As the head of this site, anything with her byline comes with a certain authority and responsibility. “Right, true,” she agreed when I suggested this to her. At the same time, she adds, “I mean, I’m not a professional writer.”
She is, though, as long as she’s in this job. This is happening on Ravishly.com, not in her journal or on her personal blog. Sometimes, Edelman says she’s doing this simply for herself, and “to minister to those people” dealing with her same struggles. Sometimes she says it’s partly because she’s an RN: “I have a literal oath to promote health in public spaces.” Sometimes she says she’s only saying what other body positive writers won’t, for fear of losing their livelihoods. Sometimes she says it’s because she has a responsibility to her kids and their friends, all of whom, she says, read her writing. “Most of the people who have come at me with anger over me talking about weight loss, are not parents … I have to address these things in a different way than someone who has to just live their life and try to survive the world on their own. I have to think about other people.”
“I’m sure she’s in a confusing situation,” says Melissa Fabello. “I do believe that she honestly believes that what she’s saying is right and important.” Fabello is an activist herself, as well as the managing editor of Everyday Feminism. “Doing social justice work or any kind of writing, especially publicly, people are constantly criticising you,” she adds. “It becomes a constant. And it becomes very, very difficult to weed out and understand which of those criticisms are legitimate and deserve some introspection.”
Furthermore, she adds, when you’re in a position like Edelman’s, it’s easy to drink your own Kool-Aid. “I’m not in her head, so I don’t know — but I wonder if the way that it’s landing for her is like, ‘Yeah, I’m saying these really controversial things that need to be said, because I’m adding nuance to the conversation about body image and body positivity.’ Rather than, no, actually what you’re saying has been said a million times in the past, and people have been calling it harmful for a long time.”
Regardless of the rationale, Fabello points out that Edelman could have taken some basic steps — like consistent content warnings and avoiding the use of numbers — to write this column in a more responsible way. (She cites the National Eating Disorder Association’s “Guidelines For Sharing Your Story Responsibly,” which she says she sent to Edelman.) “Because I feel really strongly that people should be able to say the things that they want to say. They should be able to struggle, even publicly, with some of the complications that they experience within feminism, within body positivity, within their relationship with their own body.”
But, she adds, what Edelman did (surely inadvertently) was amplify a number of harmful stereotypes and misunderstandings about many things, including body positivity: “I see this happening with body positivity everywhere. You cannot say that dieting is a body positive choice. You can say that you believe in body positivity as a concept, and that you also are on a diet. Again, we all have our own struggles, and it’s okay to struggle while also believing in this value. But you can’t say that the choice to diet is, in and of itself, body positive. That doesn’t make sense.”
You cannot say that dieting is a body positive choice.
I also spoke with author and activist Jes Baker, a friend of Edelman’s and a former Ravishly contributor. “I had very mixed reactions,” she says. As someone grappling with her own body and food-related issues, “I personally hated the articles that Joni wrote. They were triggering as fuck…and I told her that.” But, reflecting on the big picture, Baker thinks that Edelman’s situation is also a symptom of a much larger problem. “We need to hear multiple perspectives on this. I think that’s where we fall short. So, when one person comes out with their narrative, we don’t have any others to balance it with. And so then it becomes like ‘truth.’”
She adds that most of the people who would read a column like this would likely be coming to it in a compromised state. They’re struggling with these issues too, and seeking support of some kind. And when you’re writing for people who’ve been hurt by size biases and diet culture, you’re going to hit a lot of nerves.
“I think we hold people [like Edelman] up as our heroes, and we rely on their strength,” Baker says. “And when they let us down, we are already so wounded that we react instead of respond.” And Edelman, she posits, was reacting herself. “It was defensive writing. And I think that comes from being attacked by a community that you felt you were a part of.” Ultimately, Baker is wary of laying blame at Edelman’s feet, pointing out that no writer (or RN, or mom, for that matter) can untangle a reader’s personal issues and history with food, exercise, health, or body image. “That’s just not something you can learn from a blog post,” Baker points out. Even the best, most responsible blogger cannot take the place of a professional. And watching them grapple with their own struggles, relatable though they may be, will not actually address your own. “You can’t just be inspired by someone on the internet.”
That much I think we’d all agree is true, Edelman included. And, Baker points out, she’s made mistakes in her work as well. Fabello acknowledges this too, and while we’re at it, so will I. Of course we have. We are all in glass houses when it comes to this subject. Make no mistake, I don’t intend to throw this as a stone. I write this as a reader who was rattled by Edelman’s column, and as a columnist myself.
We who share our stories must always be looking for “the space between” ethical transparency and responsible discretion. We can ignore the nasty comments, sure, but we must listen to our critics. That’s the most important part, I think. We have to listen as much as we talk.