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Author Aubrey Gordon wants to change the way you think — and talk — about fat people

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

This time of year, there's a lot of pressure to change the way you look. And a lot of that pressure is rooted in what author and podcast host Aubrey Gordon describes as anti-fatness.

AUBREY GORDON: Anti-fatness is a sort of web of beliefs, interpersonal practices, institutional policies that are designed to keep fat people sort of on the margins.

SUMMERS: And along with that come myths, a whole lot of them about fat people - myths like being fat is a choice.

GORDON: Researchers have been clear for years that our body size isn't solely or even primarily the result of our own choices.

SUMMERS: Or that BMI, body mass index, is a reliable way to measure health.

GORDON: The BMI was not developed by a health care provider. It was developed by a mathematician, statistician and astronomer working exclusively with data from French and Scottish military conscripts in the 1800s.

SUMMERS: Gordon debunks all this and more in her new book ""You Just Need To Lose Weight": And 19 Other Myths About Fat People." When we talked, we started with the idea of an average body size and how it plays into everything in our environment, from the size of airplane seats to the distance between tables at a restaurant to the size of a blood pressure cuff at the doctor's office.

GORDON: I appreciate you bringing up the idea of, quote-unquote, "average." It's worth reminding ourselves in these conversations that in the United States, the average is plus size, right? The average person is a fat person. So we are building environments that are hostile not only to sort of some vanishingly small minority of people but to most of us.

SUMMERS: I'd like to ask you about just one more myth in this book. And it's the idea that fat people should not call themselves fat. And can you just, for people who have never experienced this before, talk about the types of responses that that can sometimes elicit and what's wrong with that?

GORDON: Yeah, absolutely. I will say this is one that happens to me very regularly. The most recent example was I was at a women's soccer game - I'm, like, a huge women's soccer fan - with a friend of mine and was looking at their sort of merchandise and was flipping through the racks. And they didn't have an offering in plus sizes that would fit me. And a friend was like, you should get a T-shirt. And I was like, no, they don't have fat lady sizes. And a stranger turned around and went, don't call yourself that. That's terrible. You're not. And I thought, well, I'm a size 26, you know? I weigh over 300 pounds. I don't know where your standard is for fat people, but I'm pretty sure I'm in it by most people's standards, right?

But it is this very strange moment where my understanding of my own body as a fat body, which I think of pretty neutrally - when I say that, other people, and usually thinner people, rush to object to that. And what they're responding to there isn't the accuracy of my statement, right? They're not disputing that my body is, like, actually small. They're sort of shadowboxing with their own kind of assumptions about what it means to be a fat person, right? They're assuming that what I am saying is that I am unlovable, that I am undesirable, that I'm ugly, that I'm rejected, that I'm unlikable, all of these sorts of things.

And while they think they are defending me, what ends up happening is that they don't end up listening to me, right? And this becomes a place where thin people start to name fat people's experiences and bodies for us without really realizing how kind of wild that is to tell someone else how to feel about their own body and how to describe it.

SUMMERS: You know, I really like that this book includes all of these really practical, often quite simple calls to action. And in the section that you wrote about this myth, you challenge people to say and hear the word fat in a neutral manner. Why is that so important?

GORDON: The more comfortable that people, particularly people who are not fat, can get with hearing the word fat, the more they'll be able to actually hear out actual fat people's experiences, right? I think the other thing that it does is it requires folks to face their own biases and what they have attached to the word fat so that they're not going around and projecting those assumptions or that sort of emotional baggage onto fat people, who are mostly just trying to live our lives.

SUMMERS: You know, another thing you suggest that people do when they're thinking about the language they use is to say what they really mean. So instead of saying, when they're thinking about themselves, I feel fat, maybe say to yourself instead, I feel tired, or, I'm struggling with my body image today. Why is a shift like that so impactful?

GORDON: I will say it's impactful for a couple of reasons. One is that fat is not actually an emotion, right? Fat is a body type. And fat people's bodies are not metaphors for low self-esteem or bad body image days, right? It is really disheartening that when people want to talk about feeling at their worst in their bodies, the descriptor that they reach for is a descriptor of my body. They're saying, I feel terrible today, which means I feel like I look like you, which feels terrible to me as a fat person, right? The more that folks can talk about the real thing, it actually gets you more precise help and support from your friend.

SUMMERS: So the next question I have for you, I have to say, is a little bit personal. I'm somebody who probably falls into the category of what you describe in your book as a smaller fat person. So I'm on the lower range of plus sizes. Sometimes it's really hard in a mainstream store to find clothes that fit me well. And like many people, my relationship with my body over the years has been kind of a rollercoaster. And one thing that I have found, especially recently, is that while I'm an imperfect person like all of us, I try to be very vocal and upfront about challenging anti-fatness in the relationships in my life and in the communities I show up in, whether it's at work or in fitness spaces or in my family. But I find when I think about it, it's a lot more difficult when it comes to my relationship with myself and my own body. And I'm just curious how you think about that.

GORDON: Yeah, it's so tricky, right? It's such a hard thing. I mean, I think different things work for different people when it comes to sort of addressing our body image stuff. I think one of the things that has been really helpful and impactful to a lot of folks is filling their social media feeds with people who look like them or who are fatter than them or hold more marginalized identities than they do. Build a social media feed that feels more reflective of the world that we live in is a really important step for a lot of folks.

I will say for me, the stuff that gets my relationship with my body back on track is actually sort of peeling back the curtain on where a bunch of our most reductive beliefs about body size come from. And overwhelmingly, they come from really unreliable sources, like scientific racism in the 1800s - right? - like corporations looking to profit off of our bad body image, right? Like, all of this sort of stuff comes from people who don't want what's best for most of us, right? They want to make a buck, or they want to prove a political point or what have you. And it's really freeing to realize, you know, we've been sort of led down a garden path. And once you sort of see where that garden path leads and where it came from, things have gotten a lot easier for me on that front.

SUMMERS: Aubrey Gordon, thank you so much for talking with us today.

GORDON: This is such a joy. Thank you for having me.

SUMMERS: Aubrey Gordon is the author of ""You Just Need To Lose Weight": And 19 Other Myths About Fat People." It's out tomorrow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALT-J SONG, "3WW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.