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As the Fat Daughter of Immigrants, Dieting was a Toxic Component of Assimilation

When I was around eight years old, I had a pink and purple diary with scalloped pages. On its hard-plastic cover, there was an anthropomorphic bear dressed like a ballerina balancing on a single chubby toe. In it, I often wrote about my grandmother’s cooking. I loved her food and that it was inspired by where she grew up in Monterrey, Mexico. I loved how it smelled, how it tasted, and how proud she was of her culinary skills. And I hated myself for that. 
I believed her delicious food — and the love I had for it — kept me fat. I blamed her for “tempting” me with her aromatic tamales and enchiladas. How was I going to stop getting tortured at school if she kept serving us meals that were irresistible? How would I ever get anyone to love me if I couldn’t stop eating? I would learn later that dieting wasn’t just about looking for love from boys or men; it was also about deeply craving a sense of belonging in the broader white culture of the United States. Dieting was a way to adopt white beauty ideals by starving my brown body. I believed that if I could just sacrifice the right amount of my grandmother’s cooking (and the joy, affirmation, and memory that came with it), then I could finally unlock the American Dream, finally have it all.

Dieting was a way to adopt white beauty ideals by starving my brown body.

I was born in 1982: a chubby, brown, giggly Mexican nerd par excellence. I didn’t exactly learn fatphobia — the culturally accepted form of bigotry against higher weight people — at home. My fat mom, grandma, and grandpa taught me to love myself. They saw no flaw in me, and so I lived for almost five whole years with the innocent belief that I was perfect. Then I was introduced to fatphobia at school. The speed and virulence with which it stole my innocence still humbles me. Fatphobia took something from me that is bigger than I can comprehend — even now, almost 35 years later — and it made me ashamed that I’d lost it. 
I was told that the reason I was getting psychologically abused for my body was because I was fat, and I was fat because I ate too much food. I started restricting in hopes that I could finally be liked, be accepted, and feel OK. I never ever would have called it an eating disorder (ED). I just thought I was trying to be pretty, normal, and “healthy.” Since culture contends that beauty, normalcy, and “health” are synonymous with thinness, I skipped meals often and waited for the day when I would emerge from the cocoon of my fatness and finally become the “real” thin me. At the age of 10 or 11, I started starving myself for the first time, while also doing two to three hours of exercise a day. This type of behavior continued for another decade. My ED was never detected because doctors rarely suspect fat people struggle with this illness and because emaciation (and whiteness, it seemed) was part of ED diagnostic criteria — things I never was and never would be. 
Even though I didn’t learn fatphobia at home, once I’d adopted it I began to see how it touched my family’s lives. My mother had (and might still have) bulimia. My grandmother restricts and binges. My grandfather was always on a diet. And everyone in the house uses the word “fat” as an epithet. As an adult, I began to understand that this maybe wasn’t as much about losing weight, which didn’t really happen, as it was about us playing out a role that had already been written for us: one where we acted in line with a white colonial legacy of restriction, morality, and bootstrapping in hopes of finally becoming “real Americans.” 
Diet culture, the pervasive belief that appearance and body shape are more important than our wellbeing, is rooted in the otherness and demorality of non-white bodies. In the 1800s and 1900s, influential white men developed the ubiquitous reality in which we find ourselves, one where we’re told that food is dangerous and that fat is death. Men like Reverend Sylvester Graham, the dude after whom the graham cracker is named, started The Dietary Reform Movement, an early ancestor of diet culture. He and his followers believed that morality was an individual issue and that it could be controlled through food. He recommended that people not eat spiced foods or yeast because he believed these foods led to sexual excitation and moral decay. Spiced foods? Yeah, it’s one of the earliest documented instances of coded Mexiphobia. He also suggested that parents pour pure carbolic acid on their kids’ genitals if they were caught masturbating. Clearly, he wasn’t someone anyone should be taking advice from.

Diet culture, the pervasive belief that appearance and body shape are more important than our wellbeing, is rooted in the otherness and demorality of non-white bodies.

Graham and men like him believed that Black and brown people were savages, that land was a resource (not a home), and that the body was a criminal that must be vigilantly surveilled day and night. These were the kinds of men who were afraid of their own flesh because it held the truth of their mortality and, therefore, their connection to the planet, the land, and to the melanated humans they both feared and desired. The more flesh, the more dangerous and unruly the body became. 
These men set the stage for my hatred of enchiladas, which were of course an extension of me, my fat family, and the place where we come from. Through diet culture, we see our bodies the way they saw the world: through the lens of domination, punishment, and anxiety, a commodity to be trained and traded, a place where there’s no room for love or delicious things. 
The American Dream is one of rag to riches. It’s a transformation story — so is every weight loss tale ever told. Weight loss stories are bombastic, absurd, and extreme: she was a nerd no one liked, and now everyone wants to be her; he could never find love, and now he finds himself in the middle of a competition for his attention. My family and I deeply understood that weight loss was a path to redemption, a path to being loved by a culture that was never supposed to feel like home for us. 
Dieting — that is, using food as a way to overcome oppression and adversity — is a long-standing tradition in the U.S. that was pioneered by white people and preserved by colonial thought. Immigrant families like mine see a path to acceptance, opportunities, and safety through the adoption of the traditions of the place that is their new home. I’m not saying fatphobia doesn’t exist in Mexico, but I am saying that dieting became an avenue through which my family and I could perform our willingness to assimilate

Smallness, in every sense of the word, is demanded of people of color and immigrants in this country.

Smallness, in every sense of the word, is demanded of people of color and immigrants in this country. We’re encouraged to “fit in,” which is itself a demand to shrink. Dieting became a way that my family and I could perform the act of making ourselves smaller. Contracting fulfilled the culture’s notion of health, but it also fulfilled the culture’s demand that we make everything that made us, us — the selves that loved spice and enchiladas and the selves who saw food as a gesture of hospitality, care, and love — disappear. The shame of our fat bodies was not separate from the shame of our brownness or our otherness.

Now, I’m grown up. I know the data on weight loss and what it does to mental health. I know first-hand that it eats away at the spirit and the body in equal measure. I know that you can’t become a better or worse person through food. I know that all food is good food, especially the food you grew up with. I know I don’t want to make myself disappear. As an adult, I do not carry on my family’s tradition of dieting, but I do carry on the legacy of my grandmother’s enchiladas.

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