Fat activist Virgie Tovar wants to upend the world's understanding of weight, health, and dieting. The writer is a regular contributor to Ravishly, where she dismantles fatphobia and celebrates fat acceptance in a weekly column. She's also a regular contributor to Forbes, writing about the triumphs and travails of plus-sized female executives. Her manifesto, You Have the Right to Remain Fat, was released last year, and now she's working on a new book for teens.
This summer, Tovar is hosting Camp Thunder Thighs in the Marin Headlands, California. It's modeled as a mini-sleepaway summer camp where plus-sized folks can attend workshops on creating community, participate in a fashion show, and jiggle joyfully.
Tovar has led a similar camp, Babecamp, in person and online for years, but this year she changed the name to evoke the summer-camp feel that she's aiming for. The forested setting, bunk beds, fire pit, and s'mores bar will make it feel like "the best 'fat camp' ever," she says. Tovar spoke with Pacific Standard to discuss diet culture and fat-shaming, corn dogs and bikinis, and how she's preparing the next generation of fat activists.
Tell me a little about Camp Thunder Thighs. Who's the camp for?
A lot of people have heard of something called "fat camp," which is a summer camp focused on weight loss. Camp Thunder Thighs is about creatively re-envisioning that experience and making it about self-love and body celebration, regardless of size—but especially for plus-size people. It's hard to find places where fat people can safely eat or play or have fun without the fear of being mocked. We're going to make that happen in a beautiful national park in Sausalito, California. [The camp] is for women, femmes, and non-binary people of all sizes who feel drawn to doing the work of radical self-acceptance and body justice in a fat-positive environment.
What are some of the activities you have planned?
Mornings begin with a delicious breakfast buffet. Then, workshops that focus on community-building and skill-building, things like how to set boundaries and how to deconstruct diet messaging. There are activities like the Vulnerability Fashion Show, where people are encouraged to bring a look that makes them feel vulnerable and wear it in a runway show.
Another activity involves this thing I call "jigglecize," where we jiggle as a group. This exercise came out of my childhood. I used to love jiggling before I was taught fatphobia, and so I love asking people to inhabit that playful spirit of childhood and move our bodies in this fun way without shame. Camp is near a beach, and I'm encouraging campers to head there and watch the sunset. After sunset, we'll have a fire pit and a s'mores bar.
One of the central things you critique in your work is "diet culture." How do you define that culture?
Diet culture is the inescapable behavioral paradigm we live with in the West that normalizes food restriction and hunger suppression and values thinness above actual health. Dieting, or food restriction, is one of the major behaviors we see in diet culture. And women are disproportionate consumers of diet products. We keep the industry afloat because the industry capitalizes on the fact that women are constantly being fed the message that something is wrong with us. We use dieting as a way to cope with that messaging.
What's so weird about dieting is that all the data says it doesn't work, longitudinally. People on diets go up and down in their weight, and this is worse for the body than staying at a higher but more stable weight. The data is also pretty clear that diets are correlated with anxiety and depression, and have been linked to acceleration into eating disorders. The ethos of diet culture is what allows us to bypass actual data in order to keep doing behavior that I would argue has no value and, in fact, is self-harming.
What does diet culture do to people?
Diet culture essentially keeps people in a mindset of insufficiency and self-loathing: "I'm not good enough at my current size." This mentality is actually very anxiety-provoking, but we see this idea as a positive thing in the United States. People believe that this mindset motivates them to do better.
"Better" is kind of a complex concept. Like, we as a country measure "better" through quantifiable outcomes, such as income and weight loss, and believe that the way to a happier life is to add more control into our lives—such as controlling how much we eat and when we eat. In general, however, I've found that people are way happier when they stop dieting, when they let go of that control mentality.
You often talk about the ways in which thinness and dieting have become synonymous with health. Is that a false correlation?
It is absolutely a false correlation. To be fair, weight science is not my area of expertise, but I've had to learn about this in order to navigate people's questions around it. There's so much to discuss about a claim like this, but I think it's important to share that, in 2015, a paper came out that stated that "discrimination based on weight is a stressful social experience linked to declines in physical and mental health," and concluded that, "in addition to poor health outcomes, weight-based discrimination may shorten life expectancy."
So, on the one hand, we've got a problem where the medical research on higher-weight people isn't taking into account the deleterious effects of discrimination. And, on the other hand, we as a culture are discarding any data we see around the fact that there are thin people who have health issues too. Because of how we view weight as a society, we are automatically likelier to never attribute health issues to weight in thin people and over-attribute health issues to weight in fat people.
How do we change the narrative around health, food, and size?
The first thing we need to do is stop worrying and wondering and questioning why people are the size they are. We just need to stop. It doesn't actually matter, because at the end of the day people deserve respect, care, love, medical care, and humanity no matter what size they are or why they are their size.
Second, we need to stop moralizing and vilifying food. Stop using weird, biblical language to describe food! I can't tell you how many times I hear words like "sinful" or "evil" to describe comestibles. When we stop putting food into binaries—good or bad—we create an environment where people stop feeling afraid of food.
Finally, we need to understand that our understanding of health in this culture is quite myopic. When we teach people to be afraid of being fat, we create a world where people develop eating disorders. All the things we do to pressure people to lose weight do not lead to weight loss, and primarily have negative health outcomes. When we focus on helping a person feel supported and seen, [and] encourage them to pursue joyful movement and to eat in a way that feels good for them, we create a world where all people are much better equipped to thrive.
Your next project is aimed at teenage girls. Can you tell us a little about that?
My next book is called FLAWLESS: Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color, and it's coming out from New Harbinger in the spring of 2020. [When planning this book,] I kept coming back to this message for the reader: "You are powerful beyond words. You are inherently good. You deserve to thrive. You deserve to dream of a better world. You deserve to have that world." And then, "Here are the tools to use when you're in doubt of these inalienable truths." Of course, the book does this through the lens of body image and questioning diet culture, but we have to see these topics as connected to the greater struggle to create a world where girls can thrive.
Your Instagram is filled with fun images, fun clothes, fun food. Is that because it's what you love, or are you sending a message?
It's both. I genuinely live for corn dogs and bikinis, but I do also see these things as political, because when you're a fat woman of color, wearing a short dress or eating a cupcake in public are considered political acts. We're not allowed to live joyful, thrilling lives because that flies in the face of what the culture says are "the rules" for someone like me. If I'm fearlessly breaking the rules and loving my fat life, it makes people question how true the rules are in general (answer: not true at all).
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