Home > Uncategorized > On Being Lane Bryant Fat

On Being Lane Bryant Fat

June 27, 2016

There was an amazing This American Life episode that aired earlier this month called Tell Me I’m Fat, centering around 4 stories about how people have dealt with being fat and the obesity epidemic more generally (hat tip Becky Jaffe).

And I plan to respond to all of them in turn, but let me mention right off the top that I didn’t think I had much to learn about this topic, but I learned a lot about this topic from listening to this episode, which was both empathetic and deep.

The first story could have been about me, almost. In short, it was about a woman who spent a bunch of wasted time in her youth worrying about being fat, then eventually she realized she was always going to be fat, that she was sick of apologizing for it and going on diets that didn’t work, and she came to terms with being fat. She owns it. Good for her.

What especially made me nod along was her talking about how she’d prefer the descriptor “fat” than the alternative, “overweight,” which is both a useless euphemism and a judgment, that it was somehow a temporary problem that would soon be fixed. Fuck that.

Oh, and also, she works with Dan Savage, and she called him on his fat shaming. I have always wanted someone to do that.

The second story was super sad, about a woman who was fat at some point but lost a bunch of weight by taking diet pills – basically speed – and found love and a good job by slimming down. She is now married to a man who admitted on tape that he wouldn’t love her if she were fat. She has a job which she claims she needs to be skinny to keep. She’s still taking (black market) diet pills. I am absolutely terrified for her.

The third story was what hit me. It was the story of a very fat woman of color, talking about just how hard it is to be that large. I really do get a lot of what she’s saying, but the more I think about it the more I realize I don’t get it, actually. I mean, I’ve been to restaurants where the chairs have arms and define a butt size that is simply smaller than mine. I have needed to ask for another chair. I have been extremely uncomfortable in an airplane seat.

But I’ve never been unable to fly, nor have I worried about chairs breaking beneath me. This woman does worry about this, and researches restaurants before she goes in case she cannot be accommodated. It’s a different level of humiliation and isolation. Where I feel annoyed that subway seats are too small, she is truly removed from the realm of normal.

She has a name for people like me: Lane Bryant Fat. I’m the woman who, increasingly, can find cute clothes to wear, who can talk about being fit and fat, and who can find company in a larger and larger adult population of women of size 22 or thereabouts.

She’s right, I don’t feel like a freak anymore. When I go to Brooklyn, I actually feel very normal. Even when I was in Paris I didn’t stick out very much, which was certainly very different 20 years ago.

And she’s also right that Lane Bryant Fat women don’t really get here or care about her. When I pass by people as large as she is, I do not regularly relate to them. On a normal day, some little voice inside me, some mean part of me, says, at least I haven’t let myself go that much.

Considering how hard I know I’ve tried in the past to change, you’d think I would be more enlightened about this issue, but until I heard this radio segment, I had never examined my own, internal version of fat shaming. Shame on me.

The last segment was about the Oral Roberts University effort in the 1970’s, I believe, to make its students lose weight as a graduation requirement. This resonated with me deeply, because it was a large scale version of what went on within my home as a child. For a time as a tweenager, I wasn’t given my allowance unless I’d lost enough weight each week. It was cruel, humiliating, and it imbued me with a shame that lasted longer than I’d care to admit.

This was a breakthrough, this radio program. I am so very glad this conversation has begun, and I’m so very glad it included these multiple voices, but it’s really just the beginning.

For example, here’s the thing I’m grappling with right now. I’m living in fear of becoming (type II) diabetic. I’m absolutely high risk for it: my age, my genetics, and my weight all point to it. The only thing I have going for myself is that I exercise regularly, which reduces the risk, but not entirely. So I’m on the lookout, and I’d like to think I’m prepared.

But part of that preparation includes being willing to have gastric bypass surgery, which has become much safer and is an almost miracle cure for type II diabetes. It is, in fact, the treatment of choice according to some international experts.

But at the same time, it’s a diet surgery, and if I underwent the procedure, I could expect to lose a lot of weight. For someone who has spent 20 years establishing a (Lane Bryant) fat identity, it’s actually really confusing to imagine opting for the knife. I’d feel like a turncoat.

Which isn’t to say I’d refuse it. I’ve already checked that my insurance covers the surgery. For BMI up to 40, it covers it if diabetes is present. But given that my BMI is actually above that, I could get the surgery now, without needing to “be sick.” I’m confused by this, and I don’t think I’m alone.

So what about it, This American Life? More episodes, please!

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. DanaP
    June 27, 2016 at 8:51 am

    I’m with you- literally. While I have mostly made peace and “own” my identity as a large woman, I struggle with figuring out how to improve myself without falling into the same traps that got me here. I, too, fear type II diabetes. But I know that I’ve tried so many times to lose and just wound up frustrated and broken (and bigger). If I get bariatric surgery to avoid diabetes, why didn’t I just do it years ago? Am I really not capable of following a plan? Am I really so weak that I can’t follow an eating program without surgey just because my health is now in real danger (vs vague danger ten years ago)? And the shame spiral that I’ve managed to silence comes back to suck me under.

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  2. June 27, 2016 at 10:16 am

    For your comfort: in Dutch “vet” means “cool”, same for Danish “fed”.

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  3. June 27, 2016 at 11:36 am

    I finally went to a high school reunion to see my best friend. Actually, we had these lunches where we meet up for several months before the reunion. At the first such lunch, I find out that he died of a stroke at 48. I was overweight, had high blood pressure and diabetes. I hadn’t don anything about it. Well, that was it. I went to the doctor, did South Beach phase I, and walked up 100 floors worth of stairs every day. I went from a 3XLg to a size 14. I was losing a belt size a week. My health improved greatly.

    But, inside that body, I was still that 3XLg guy. Women were hitting on me all the time. I didn’t have the skills to deal with that like I didn’t know how to say “Yes.”

    Being large is hard on your body, your mind, your life.

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  4. June 27, 2016 at 1:54 pm

    At 50 I have yet to show any signs of diabetes (despite having been fat all my life). And I guess I’m not as terrified of it as some people. I’m FAR more terrified of bariatric surgery.

    I’m not scared of the surgery itself. I’m scared of life afterward. 1) for it to work requires a MASSIVE change in the way you eat, forever. My boss had it and has been very successful, but 3 years out she still eats <1000 calories per day, mostly protein and veggies, and can't have more than a bite or two of anything sweet or fatty without getting sick. That sounds kind of terrible to me. 2) those who are unable to make that change permanent tend to GAIN THE WEIGHT BACK. For every person I know who was successful, I know another who had surgery then gained most or all of it back.

    Also, I think that there is something inherently WRONG with saying the cure to fatness is major surgery. Especially when I'm told that I am eligible right now, even though there is nothing wrong with me. It feels like yet another form of bias.

    In the end, all of the literature suggests that fat is more than just calories in and calories out. It's a lot more complicated then that. If you starve yourself, you will lose weight. You will also lose hair, skin tone and a lot of other things. Bariatric surgery isn't a panacea and it scares me how common it has become.

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    • June 27, 2016 at 5:26 pm

      Yes.

      To be clear, I wouldn’t do the surgery to lose weight. For some reason it seems to cure diabetes even for people who gain weight back. That’s why I’d be doing it.

      And yes, I agree entirely that it feels like bias.

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      • dana
        July 10, 2016 at 3:36 pm

        I have been wrestling with this a lot the past few weeks- I binge read ever Jes Baker, Kelsey Miller, etc book I could get my hands on. I subscribed to Gwynnie Bee and invested in the cutest bathing suits I could find- including a bikini. I can love who I am, but at the same time, I cannot bear the idea that I am setting myself up to potentially spend my 401k money on mobility gear, medication and helpers to get me out of the bathtub. I’ve already had the sad experience of being too heavy to zipline on Fremont St in Vegas and horseback ride on a mountain vacation. I am not the kind of person to be held back from life! So… while I am going to continue to “own” who I am now, I can’t give up working to become a lighter me.

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  5. June 27, 2016 at 9:55 pm

    I found Regina Lawrence’s Framing Obesity helpful for understanding the context of the obesity discussion. The highlights:
    – US starts from a default position that health issues are an individual responsibility
    – However, systemic factors are very important, if not dominant (obviously the case when an issue occurs frequently across the population and in many geographies)
    – Systemic factors only start getting addressed when the issue is reframed into one of collective responsibility
    – Obesity had (as of 2004 when the paper was written) moved somewhat away from the strict individual responsibility frame, but in 2016 still seems very close to that frame (my own judgment)

    To the last point, my quick review of google searches for “systemic causes of obesity” and “systematic causes of obesity” yielded no results that exclusively focused on system considerations and, in fact, all the hits primarily emphasized behavioral factors.

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  6. Anna
    June 28, 2016 at 9:06 am

    Did you hear the Sporkful episode on gastric bypass surgery? Also fascinating. Talked about one woman’s grieving process after surgery.

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  7. Savonarola
    June 29, 2016 at 3:14 am

    I was horrifically shamed by my family for being fat when I wasn’t as a child – I eventually became fat from the destruction of my metabolism through dieting, desperate hidden eating, shame, and overall dysfunction. I have been thin, I am currently quite large after several health setbacks. The only thing that works for me is low carbing, which is a reasonable long-term way to eat but really inconvenient unless you focus all your attention on what goes into your mouth. I’ve been living my life for 25 years trying NOT to do that, because it seems I can either focus only on what I eat, or get other things done. The latter serves me as the person I am and want to be, but the former as the person that everyone else seems to prefer I were. It’s a conundrum.

    Through it all, I have learned that no amount of thin will ever fix the feeling of inadequacy I was gifted by my upbringing. That voice inside will never be silenced.

    An in-law forwarded me “just in case I was interested” information on the bariatric surgery that got her back in shape and it was one of the worst things anyone has done to me lately. A reminder of exactly how I’m viewed. The surgery itself horrifies me, I admit it. To me, the answer to Type II would be to permanently shun all sugar and white flour and just work within that frame. It would still be less restrictive than the surgical option, from what I’ve seen. It is all so fraught for me.

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  8. Kim
    June 29, 2016 at 7:56 am

    I heard that TAL episode too. I used to be super morbidly obese (410lbs, size 32) and my experience was closer to that of the third speaker on the show than the first. I gastric bypass surgery 2.5 years ago after exercising aggressively for 1.5 years before that. I started trying losing weight in a serious weight after an ankle injury made it clear that I was looking forward to decades of being dependent on people during my old age.

    I’m an academic and I researched the surgery quite seriously before I did it. For someone my size it was really the only weight loss option and, even then, long term success is not guaranteed. Formerly fat people tend to regain weight for both hard-wired physical reasons and deep-seated psychological ones.

    So, I encourage you to look into the surgery. You should know that you probably won’t have to let go of your identity as a “Lane Bryant fat” woman. I’ve lost 210lbs (40 before surgery and 170 after). I still think I’m much bigger than I am. It’s pretty common for a person’s brain not to catch up after they lose weight.

    (I got to your blog because I heard you on Slate Money. It’s great! I’ll be back.)

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  9. Jheri
    July 2, 2016 at 7:34 am

    I read the TAL transcript and found it fascinating for a different reason. I think there is body shaming for women in general – some from society and some we learn to use against ourselves.

    I’m on the other end of the spectrum. My BMI is in the low 17s and I’m very tall for a woman at six three so I stand out. Both sides of my family are string bean thin and I eat normally and exercise daily. Doctors tell me a small percentage is like me – they are stable at very low weights and can’t easily gain. This turns out to have its own medical risks. Anything under 18.5 is considered unhealthy and under 16 is very dangerous.

    My life has living with thin shaming. People, usually other women, have no problem telling me I’m unhealthy, anorexic or some other eating disorder, and that I’m a bad example for children. As a teen there was huge rejection and the first time I heard the word I was fourteen and a man called me that on the street.

    I used to dress in many layers to cover up my image. To the point where it is uncomfortable in the Summer. When I was in my early 20s I started accepting my body. I’m more comfortable with my image. I’m not going to get butt and boob jobs, but I have strangers suggest I should nearly every day.

    Don’t get me started on being tall..

    All of us are beautiful in our own way.

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  10. G.
    July 4, 2016 at 3:31 am

    We nee a dialectical opposite to “Lane Bryan Fat”. How about “Taylor Swift thin”? If you are as supposedly courageous about women’s rights as you say, then you should have no problem in using the phrase “Taylor Swift thin” to denote the opposite and quote it often.

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    • dana
      July 10, 2016 at 3:27 pm

      Lane Bryant isn’t a person or a specific size or shape- its a range of sizes. It means we are large women, but not so large that we can’t find clothes relatively easily and live a mostly normal life with our extra weight. The woman in the TAL episode who said she was about 200lbs heavier than someone that could shop at Lane Bryant coined the term.

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  11. Mustrum Ridcully
    July 10, 2016 at 2:01 pm

    I am a man, and listening to the second story made me wonder – the woman was saying how sad it was that the man she’s with would not have been attracted to her if she was fat. The thing is, what/who we are attracted to is not really a choice. As a man, I admit I am generally not attracted to large women. Fortunately, some men are. Luckily for fat men there are some women who are attracted to them. But I imagine many/most women are not. Most women are not attracted by men who are bald, etc. So, the question I had when listening to the second story was, is her husband fat, bald, with bad skin or teeth, and would she have noticed let alone loved him if he was. Maybe she’d have, but it is also very likely that there exists a man who feel really sad that she never looked at him twice for the sole reason of not finding him attractive. I doubt there is much difference between men and women in this respect. Attractive people are generally attracted by other attractive people.

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    • July 10, 2016 at 2:06 pm

      Good point, and I thought it was a bit narrow and passive, the way this episode presented women’s ability to attract men. For my own part, I’ve never, ever had trouble finding men to date, but that could be because I’m extroverted and have no qualms about being rejected. Also, my tastes have always run broad! After all, why not widen the search, if you’re not finding love in the most standard places?

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      • Mustrum Ridcully
        July 10, 2016 at 2:29 pm

        Would you say it is you who chooses what your tastes are like? I find the debates on determinism vs. free will very interesting (Sam Harris had an interesting one recently on his podcast with Daniel Dennett) .

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  12. July 10, 2016 at 7:11 pm

    The thing I was hoping for was more of a perspective from a fat man (I’m what might be called “Casual Male XL fat”). I know fatness is more stigmatized for women than it is for women, but for goodness sake, TAL, can’t you give at least one of your four stories to a fat man? The male perspectives in this episode were the thin husband who doesn’t want a fat wife, famous fat-shamer Dan Savage, evangelist fat-shamer-for-the-Lord Oral Roberts, and to give a bit of contrast and to slightly widen the perspectives (if not the waistlines) of men presented on the show, the very brief cameo at the end (may have been only on podcast version?) of Lindy West’s thin husband.

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