Our culture only permits women to be one thing: perfect. And if you have to be perfect, you certainly can’t be fat. Like many women, author and activist Virgie Tovar spent a lifetime hating her body before finding her people and true self. In her manifesto, You Have the Right to Remain Fat (Aug. 14, Feminist Press), she discusses her journey from self-hatred to self-love, the effects of diet culture, and the importance of fat activism over the body-positive movement to enable meaningful change from the oppression fat people suffer through in our culture. The manifesto is short and sweet like a decadent treat, and cuts right through the BS—the real junk we’re being force-fed.
Tovar was made aware of her fatness at the wee age of four, from a preschool bully (Joshua, what’s good?) informing her why he wasn’t trying to look up her skirt. Before that, she lived her childhood blissfully ignorant of her difference from the other girls—the way it always should be. Tovar points out how boys and men work as a stand-in for society to punish women for not conforming to the standard. To avoid the banishment that fat people are punished with, women must obey and obsess over their bodies, as being thin and beautiful are simply their jobs. There’s nothing more for them to aspire to, and once they’ve reached that impossible goal, life will be so much easier. While this ideology’s clearly bananas, this is precisely the logic of our thin-obsessed culture, one that brainwashes women into obsessing over their bodies, maintains the status quo and keeps white men in power—and in control of women’s bodies, too.
Following that logic, then, the only way to gain such approval from men and society is to diet. In early chapters of the book, Tovar talks about how she dieted for almost 20 years of her life, trying to reinvent herself to get the perfect body. At age eleven, she spent her summer basically starving herself—eating only toast and lettuce—and when she finally lost some weight, no one noticed, because it wasn’t enough. And it’s never enough in our society. Yet we’re taught to believe we can change all that, treating weight loss like the American Dream for all women. Tovar describes the idea of bootstrapping and how it ties to diet culture, in that it reinforces the common notion that you can be anything you set your mind to. Tovar writes, “I didn’t even skip a beat when I was asked to bootstrap with my weight. Dieting maps seamlessly onto the preexisting American narrative of failure and success as individual endeavors.” Through the bootstrapping narrative, being fat becomes a problem that’s solely on the individual to solve. It’s not a problem with our culture, it’s the individual’s failing—one that must be corrected to be allowed back into society, and in order to be worthy of affection. Clearly, it’s a trap.
Luckily, Tovar freed herself from that trap, once she realized just how garbage all the lies fed to her from diet culture were—and realized she needed to rethink how she viewed herself. In the final chapters of the book, Tovar discusses how she found herself by finding her people, when she met BBW fat activists who didn’t give a donut about what other people think, and lived their lives shame-free and happily. Around the same time, she also met body-positive advocates, a movement she describes as playing too nice with the status quo to be effective. For fat activists, having cute clothing in larger sizes and the approval of heteronormative folks isn’t enough. Being fat isn’t a trend; it’s an identity that one can’t shake or change, and that’s met with hatred and bigotry. Having some people approve of larger bodies isn’t enough for a cultural shift, and Tovar is convincing in her argument for a stronger movement, one that demands real change to be effective. Of course, the argument isn’t new here, as it’s a problem fat activists and even body-positive supporters have with the trending movement.
As someone who’s struggled with body image issues forever, perhaps the hardest truth in this book to swallow is the reality of how much time women waste over a lifetime on this obsession with losing weight, an obsession that pushes everything that should matter aside—including a life actually worth living. In the chapter “In the Future, I’m Fat,” Tovar explores why the future is so perfect and full of promise in theory, when the present’s perfectly fine as is. She writes:
The allure of diet culture is a life lived in the future. The future is a hermetically sealed unreality that possesses none of the limits—or the potential for magic—of the present. The present is messy, sweaty, filled with longing and sometimes anger and sometimes sadness. The present holds your body in all the imperfection that makes it real.
You Have the Right to Remain Fat is brief yet packs a punch. Tovar goes over so many problems with our fatphobic culture that it’s impossible to do anything beyond scratch the surface of these issues (My further reading recommendations are Tovar’s Ravishly articles and the book she edited, Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love & Fashion). Tovar’s badass persona shines throughout the book, and she sprinkles in so many fascinating stories from her life—stories we only get tiny glimpses into. I really need to know about the David Lynch-hosted party she attended, because that sounds epic. Tovar is the fab friend everyone needs, and her manifesto is the next best thing. It brings fat activism to a broader audience and demands radical change over baby steps, which is so necessary in countering our image- and diet-obsessed culture, and rightfully questions the watered-down version of fat acceptance: the body-positive movement. You Have the Right to Remain Fat dismantles the lies we’ve been told, those lies we tell ourselves—and preaches the importance of making Treat Yo Self Day every day—by living life now, no matter our size.
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