Michael Hobbes’ eye-opening piece “Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong” published on HuffPost this month explores the stigma surrounding obesity and exposes both the dismissal and mistreatment of obese people in our country. The personal accounts in the piece connected us to a group of people who have been failed by the medical system, their loved ones and society.
Interviewees were also given creative control of the photos featured in the piece ― an effort to change the way larger people in this country are so often depicted, and to give people in fat bodies the rare opportunity to choose for themselves “how they want to present themselves to the world,” as the piece states, in photographs by Finlay MacKay.
But change doesn’t happen overnight, and, while impactful, one article cannot alter the perception or treatment of people on its own. In a continued effort to raise up the voices of the participants and encourage others to speak out, we followed up with a few of the people involved in the piece.
Below, five of the story’s participants discuss their experience shooting the photos and the impact it’s had on their lives.
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“I’m not big on attention, so scrolling down my newsfeed was both exciting and anxiety-provoking. After initial shares of the article in Facebook groups I’m part of, my friends started to share just my picture and caption. That was another round of “yay, somebody please find me a place to hide!” Stepping out and doing what you believe in is scary, especially when you know your ideas are not welcomed by the majority. In hindsight, I also find it to be worth the exposure. Somebody has to speak up for us because if not, we will find ourselves holding the remnants of personalities and bodies lost to diet culture in next generations. That’s not a sentence of judgment I’m willing to bear.”
On shooting the photos:
“Finlay and Donica Ida [HuffPost Highline’s creative director] were wonderful and worked hard to make sure I was comfortable. After letting them know I had only two poses [laughs], we worked with that. Toward the end of the shoot, I switched my outfit and it just seemed like things came together. When Donica sent me two shots to choose from, I felt the one in the article helped to show my personality and strength. The caption just took things to another level! People loved it! I loved it! And if you read the article on a large screen, it just takes your breath way a bit.”
On blackness and fatness:
“As I sat, read and processed what was written in the article, I started to look deeper into how I fare as a Black woman within the context. I thought about how my interactions needed to be escalated before anyone took me or my mother seriously. How my experiences are sometimes disregarded because there was a lie told that Black communities don’t experience fatphobia. Other groups do not have to deal with the ‘angry Black woman’ stereotype. Feeling trapped in a vicious cycle that inhibits you from advocating for yourself is exhausting, and in the case of medical attention, if you are Black and poor, you can forget it! Not only are you shunned due to your blackness, but also because your insurance or lack thereof isn’t respected.”
On reactions to the piece:
“Being a part of this piece was really empowering. I was very worried about being recognized, about sharing such personal experiences regarding my romantic life and medical treatment, but the response from folks I know has been overwhelmingly compassionate and positive. I think a lot of eyes were opened and I don’t think I was expecting that. I had a fear that I’d put my experience out into the world and the reaction would ― yet again ― be dismissive. Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to expect.”
On feeling less alone:
“The other stories in that piece are so familiar to me. I talk about those types of interactions regularly with other fat-bodied people, and the world never seems to notice or care, so I think I wasn’t really prepared or expecting such a generally affirming reaction to it. But I am so glad I did it.”
On the impact:
“If one fat-bodied person sees my contribution and feels more powerful or less alone, then it was worth it. If one medical professional sees the piece and makes an honest inventory of their assumptions about fat-bodied patients, then it was worth it. If one thin-bodied person reads it and feels the desire to be a better ally to fat-bodied people in the world, then it was absolutely worth it.”
“I don’t know when, or even if, I will ever learn to truly accept my body. Not just how it is today, but whatever it may become. But the process that I’ve participated in, culminating with reading an article ripe with emotional triggers, fear-inducing ideas and statistics, and one of my oldest, most tightly guarded secrets, has shown me how far from alone I am in this battle of trying to stop hating myself.”
On agreeing to participate:
“Initially, I scoffed at the idea of being interviewed about this body I’m stuck in, about all the secrets I’ve held for decades, at the idea that my existence alone has been subject to public commentary, and that I actually cared about what was said. I have been hiding all of this for as long as I can remember, the thought of telling someone even one of these secrets when they are not bound by confidentiality laws was laughable. It was so outside my comfort zone.
I slept on my decision and quickly realized that just like a flesh wound, the wounds that I’ve been hiding would really benefit from some open air. If nothing else, it would be another opportunity to speak my experience openly, to admit my secrets. Secrets I learned as a teen led to sickness, and I was only a few short months out from hitting rock bottom, the sickest I’d ever been. Bring on the openness, the vulnerability, turn on the lights.”
On the photos’ impact:
“I think I felt overwhelmed because of how unusual and refreshing and wonderful it is to see fat folks being happy and being fat. And it was also lovely to see that it wasn’t the fake happy of ‘I’m always happy with my body and isn’t it beautiful 100 percent of the time like I am,’ the way that some body-positive folks talk about bodies. It was real. The photos spoke of both the struggle and the peace, the shame and the joy. I felt as if our humanity was captured, and it showed a range of powerful, diverse folks living life in fat bodies. That was really powerful. It’s sad that we don’t see this, really ever, unless you are in some obscure fat-positive group.”
On sharing the experience with loved ones:
“I haven’t told my mother or my sister about it even coming out. They are still entrenched in a diet paradigm. I’m pretty sure they would be a bit upset by my photo being featured with the title ‘Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong’ in capital letters across my image. They would definitely be embarrassed that I chose to wear a pride shirt. It is striking to me that I haven’t been able to show some of the people I’m closest to, and that I fear their reaction so much more than the 10,000 internet trolls that I know will attack this. As the article states, one of the worst parts about weight stigma is that it usually comes from those you love, too, not just the world. So the people that should help protect you from that stigma might actually perpetuate it.
I wish I could tell my mom about this, because it certainly has been a weird, surreal experience. And maybe I will at some point. I just feel a little too vulnerable right now. Having so much of me “out there” (mostly referring to the photo) is hard to hold, knowing how cruel many folks are. But I’m also surprised by the humanity I’m seeing, and the human empathy that seems to have been evoked by this piece.”
On being photographed:
“I was running off the dock and jumping in the air, lounging around like a supermodel ― it was fab! Part of my job is taking photos, and it’s been an incredible way to practice self-acceptance for me. Seeing yourself on camera can be so difficult, but practicing it and really getting to know what your body looks like has been cathartic for me. It’s helped me heal from my brain’s disconnect from how I look. I see photos of myself every day. I know what I look like. And that’s empowering.”
On the eye-opening response:
“The amount of people who have stories similar to mine is both shocking and disheartening. I knew I wasn’t alone in my experience, but having it reflected back to me through so many other people has been so validating and a little terrifying. I think I’ve been taught to think that weight bias was all in my head. I always question myself when going to the doctor and feeling like they don’t treat me quite right.
I wonder if I’m overreacting, or imagining the discrimination. I think part of me always kinds of hopes that I am. It would be easier to believe that it’s me rather than a huge societal problem. But it’s clearly not. Not if the responses to this article are a reflection of what’s happening to fat people at the doctor every day.”
On how the article will impact the fat community:
“I think within fat activism and the fat community, we are all operating under the same understanding that health does not equal weight and that health is not an indicator of worthiness. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is a sentiment that the general public shares. Articles like this help bridge the divide between people who have never seen or heard of fat activism or healthism, and the work that fat activists are doing. It helps bring these big radical ideas to a mainstream audience.”
Interviews have been edited and condensed for clarity and style.