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The Complexities of Fat Shaming

Should a former anorexic be allowed to criticize the obese?

On Tuesday afternoon, The Daily Beast posted an article with the following title: "If You're Fat You've Only Got Yourself to Blame."

Oh boy.

The article's author, Emma Woolf, makes a simple enough argument: That, as grown adults, we should just know that eating vegetables is better than eating junk food, and that it's basically our fault that we're fat. An oversimplified argument to be sure, but not one that's especially new or entirely wrong. 

But then, buried in the middle of the piece, is this confession from the author that made me slam on the proverbial brakes: "After 10 years of anorexia I personally find this weight-and-body-obsession unhelpful, but I don’t blame them."

It was an immediate call back to a controversial article that ran on Marie Claire's website in 2012. In it, writer Maura Kelly was harshly critical of TV show "Mike and Molly" for daring to portray two overweight people in a loving, and yes, sexual relationship. That author, too, had a documented struggle with an eating disorder.

Woolf may not have been so hateful -- she certainly didn't express feeling "grossed out" by fat people as Kelly did -- but I find it incredibly problematic that someone with her own issues and struggles with weight and food would offer advice (or more truthfully, criticism) about how others struggle with weight and food. And though she's referring to the body obsessions of her friends who juice-fast and compare thigh-gaps, it's a bit ironic that she expresses frustration with "weight-and-body-obsession."

I have to wonder if, during her struggle with anorexia, Woolf ever had someone tell her to "just eat something." I'd imagine that she did, because eating disorders are still so frequently misunderstood as a simple problem of vanity rather than a complex and devastating mental illness.

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By Woolf's own argument, she should have known -- and probably did know -- that depriving her body of food and nutrients was likely killing her slowly. Yet I have to imagine that having someone tell her to just stop, to just eat something, would probably have been a deeply frustrating experience.

That's because weight, like every other decision we make as human beings, is a much more complicated equation than, "I know this is what I should be doing, but I'm not going to because I don't feel like it." If simply knowing something was bad for us was enough to deter us from making bad decisions, no one would over eat, become addicted to drugs, practice unsafe sex  -- or fall victim to eating disorders.

In her piece, Woolf says that she quit smoking -- another vice, by the way, that she should have "known" was bad for her -- and avoided every single place she knew she would feel tempted. "Instead of blaming other smokers, I simply avoided pubs, clubs – even coffee bars – until I was through the worst cravings," she says. "This is called taking control."

The problem with this argument should be immediately obvious: You can't avoid food. If you're trying to eat healthy, you can't barricade yourself in your home with only a giant pile of broccoli -- nor should you have to. In fact, Woolf goes on to criticize a radio host for losing weight via a dramatic crash diet -- because making truly healthy changes in your life means learning how to deal with everyday temptations in a way that is still livable.

I'm happy for Woolf that she was able to recover from her anorexia, a disease that carries the highest mortality rate for young women than any other mental illness.  She must have been incredibly brave and self-determined after such a long period of suffering, and I wish her only the best.

But like so many others who have overcome a problem, Woolf has the attitude that, "If I can do it, anyone can." What she fails to take into account is that her own triumphs do not translate for everyone. Though she cites the anecdotal success stories of a friend who went from being obese to being a triathlete (as well as a recovering alcoholic friend), she ignores the countless other stories of those who have tried and failed. 

Knowing is one thing. Doing is quite another. And for the many who struggle with obesity, there's more than one issue involved. Woolf, for example, totally ignores the socioeconomic implications of obesity --the fact that, for many families, buying fresh produce and other healthful foods is simply too expensive. For them, there are more obstacles than simply "taking control." 

As Woolf says in her piece, "the real world is full of triggers" -- and she would do well to recognize and be more sensitive to those which may not affect her, but have profound effects on others.