Fat Acceptance and Carrot Cake

Allow me a serious moment. I promise to reward you with cake.

I began 2010 in a really dark place, struggling with a pretty serious depression that I eventually started to refer to as “my sadness.” My sadness was full of insomnia-producing anxiety, deep guilt, and an absolute deflation of my self-confidence. My sadness was a life-sucking vampire, and not the sexy kind.. I feel lucky to have recognized that I was depressed and to have also recognized that my sadness was not the result of there being something fundamentally wrong with me. I struggled for the first half of the year through a long process of trial and error to figure out what kinds of things I could do to help myself feel even a little better. Not everything worked, but a lot of things did and the final breakthrough came when I allowed myself to step away from the world a bit and dedicate the summer to rebuilding myself. It was good. I owe a lot of where I’ve come over the past year to my support system—to good friends, family, and especially to Aidan.

Things like yoga and writing and establishing routines were all helpful, but light really started shining through the cracks when I stumbled across fat acceptance blogs and Health at Every Size advocates. These writers spoke (and continue to speak) to truths that I think I have known but not allowed myself to live for a long time:

  • That fat shaming runs rampant through Western culture and creates a deep fear that disciplines our bodies.
  • That diet culture (including all of those “lifestyle changes” that essentially act like diets in disguise) give rise to all kinds of disordered eating and fraught relationships with food.
  • That we are increasingly narrowing our vision of the acceptable body rather than appreciating body diversity.
  • That diets only ever work in the short term and maintaining weight loss from dieting is statistically improbable.
  • That we have come to mistakenly conflate health with weight. This conflation is particularly damaging when we get discouraged from doing things that can improve our health (like exercising regularly) because we don’t see the weight-loss results we desire.
  • That continual dieting does more harm than good to our physical and emotional health.
  • That what Kate Harding refers to as The Fantasy of Being Thin often leads us to put our lives on hold, expecting that things will magically come together and we can become the person we’ve always wanted to be if we can just manage to reach our “ideal” weight.
  • That medical terms like obesity and medical scales like the BMI further fat shaming and naturalize the narrowing of acceptable bodies rather than encouraging health.
  • That there are a whole host of medical studies that have proven that diets do not work, that weight is not a measure of health, and that dieting is harmful to health, but these reports are rarely circulated in the mass media outlets where stories about dieting, weight loss, and the so-called “obesity crisis” sell better.
  • That our bodies don’t need to be whipped into shape, but rather that we need to learn to listen to our bodies and the natural cues they give us so that we can feel as good as possible, and that feeling good will always be a better barometer of health than a number on a scale.

When I finally stopped worrying about my weight and severed myself from The Fantasy of Being Thin, I felt free. And most importantly, I learned just how much energy I had been pouring into worrying about my body–energy that I was able to dedicate to my work and toward creative pursuits like baking and blogging that have brought me a lot of joy and that give me something to feel confident about rather than ashamed. All of this is not to say that fat acceptance of HAES are easy roads with no bumps or that deciding to accept my body as it is was something that happened over night. It is a process that takes work. But it is a process that is definitely worth it. And while I think it is important to feel good about myself and would hope that you feel good about you too, I also know that the body politics that fat acceptance embraces intersect in important ways with other social justice movements. That is, unlike dieting, fat acceptance and HAES is not a solipsistic enterprise but rather has the potential, if we only work to seize it, to contribute to the fight against racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, ableism . . . and the list goes on.

I’m writing this now because of a campaign called the 2011 ReVolution. Marilyn Wann and a number of other wonderful people have set up a fantastic blog space that now houses a whole host of resources about fat acceptance and HAES, encouraging people to spread the word on social networking sites throughout the month of January. The goal is not only to raise awareness about FA and HAES, but to also try to counteract so much of the diet and weight-loss blather that pours out around New Year’s resolutions. I’m contributing my voice to the 2011 ReVolution cause because I believe deeply in resisting diet culture, in celebrating body diversity, and in transferring the energy we waste disciplining our bodies into more vital social justice work. So I just want to encourage you to check out some of the resources available at the above link and to throw out questions–I’d love to talk about this more! I’ve also listed some of the FA blogs I regularly read on my Favorites page. Check them out.

And now to cake. I made this carrot cake for a program dinner because I was tired and stressed and needed a sure thing. Carrot cake tends to be one of those things where people over-do it with add-ins like raisins and nuts and too many spices. It also suffers because it’s the kind of thing that people try to turn into a healthy, guilt-free dessert. The truth is that it is best when it’s simple, and most satisfying when we allow it to be what it really is: a humble slice of mid-twentieth century American life. If you have a food processor, shredding the carrots takes no time at all. And when you pull it out of the oven, you can slather it with some cream cheese frosting, throw some chopped pecans on top for a little pizazz, and make the people in your life happy. Very happy.

carrot cake

Best-Ever Carrot Cake (From Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook, 75th Anniversary Ed.)

  • 4 beaten eggs
  • 2 c flour
  • 2 c sugar
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 3 c finely shredded carrots
  • 3/4 c vegetable oil
  • 1/2 recipe of Maple Cream Cheese Frosting (below)
  • 1/4 c chopped pecans (optional)
  1. Grease and flour two 9″ round cake pans or a 9×13 cake pan. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, and baking soda.
  3. In a medium bowl, combine the beaten eggs, carrots and oil. Add the egg mixture to the flour mixture and stil until combined. Pour the batter into the prepared pan(s).
  4. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean. If making a layer cake, allow the cakes to cool for ten minutes before removing from the pans. Allow cake to cool completely on a wire rack before frosting.
  5. When the cake is cool, frost and sprinkle with chopped pecans, if desired.

Maple Cream Cheese Frosting (from Smitten Kitchen)

  • 2 8 oz packages of cream cheese, softened
  • 1/2 c unsalted butter, softened
  • 1/4 c pure maple syrup
  • 2 c powdered sugar

Beat cream cheese, butter and maple syrup until smooth and then slowly add powdered sugar. If necessary, refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour until frosting reaches a spreadable consistency.

Fat Girl Says: Resist the Shaming!

Last night, I kept Aidan awake by ranting about the all too-common moment that happens when you share food with people–especially desserts–in which people start talking about how they shouldn’t really partake because its “bad” or in which they curse you for tempting them to . . . um, enjoy themselves? When I’m feeling particularly belligerent, I think to myself, “I worked hard to make this so you should really just shut the hell up and eat it.” Or maybe I’ll think, “Why don’t you find something else to project your internalized sense of guilt onto and leave my brownies/cookies/cake/whatever alone.”

For me, sharing food is an act of celebration, an act of connection, an act of fellowship. It is, and should be, a spiritual and emotional act of communion in which we share in even the smallest of ways significant parts of ourselves–our histories, our cultures, our desires, and our stories. To make food mechanical or to treat it as a rule-bound terrain in which we separate the good from the  bad is, I think, to deprive ourselves of a rich and necessary opportunity to nourish body and spirit together. I don’t share the food I make with the people around me because I just don’t want it to go to waste–I do it because I value the act of sharing, because I care about the people around me and the act of sharing functions for me as an outward symbol and testament to that care. I’m not going to be offended if people just don’t like what I make or just decide not to partake, whether because of choice or restriction. But I do feel deeply bothered, regarless of whether or not I’m responsible for making the food in question, when people insist on prefacing desire or appreciation with all kinds of qualifications about what they “shouldn’t” do or about feeling guilty for transgressing some set of externally determined expectations. Particularly when I am around other women, I don’t want our time together dominated by feelings of shame and guilt over enjoying food. Because when that becomes the case, it means that my interactions with other women, and my attempts to forge meaningful connections with them, are being overrun not only by misogynistic ideas about what it means to be “good women,” but I would also argue by a whole network of racist, classist, heteronormative ideals of citizenship that divide and pathologize particular kinds of bodies in order to justify a denial of the rights, protections, and recognition we all deserve. So it shouldn’t really come as a shock that I’m not willing to quietly allow that kind of bullshit to have so much power over my life and my relationships with others. And I don’t think you should either.

This all came to the surface again tonight when I caught a brief interview with Nikki Blonsky who starred in the 2007 film version of Hairspray and is now starring in the new ABC Family show Huge. In the interview, Blonsky spoke about the ramifications of her decision to not lose weight after filming Hairspray, as well as the sense of confidence and increased comfort with her body that she learned from playing the character of Will in her new show. Without thinking much of the interview, I opened up Ravelry and found a discussion thread someone had started expressing excitement over Blonsky’s new show. I probably shouldn’t have been shocked to find that this post was followed up by a whole slew of people more or less cringing at the idea of a show that “glorifies” obesity. But I was shocked, and I was also pissed, so I just stopped reading. But it’s not like you really have to read any of it to have a good idea of what might be said, because we all know the “fat is bad” script backwards and forwards. So many comments in the thread echo what we hear in so many other places: that the only “okay” way to be fat is to feel bad about it, to confess mental or physical weakness or inability, to show that you’re doing everything you can to be different.

I hope to write more here on this topic in the future, because I can’t possibly put all of my thoughts into a single post. (I take this a good sign since I see glimmers of a dissertation on some facet of body politics in my horizon.) But, as a way of giving myself a point to return to later, the question under my skin is this: what exactly is it that we gain from treating obese bodies as pathological, as weak, as necessarily diseased? And what exactly do we gain from treating fatness as a hyper-individualized issue through which, in the name of “health,” we continually foster a climate of shame and blame that disciplines us all into treating and talking about our bodies in very narrow and problematic ways? What has made us so certain that we are right to treat our bodies this way or to make pronouncements on the bodies of others?

While there’s certainly a lot at work in the way we talk about fatness, it seems to me that the power of a lot of these discourses lies precisely in their ability to narrow the scope of our attention. The climate of shame and guilt surrounding fatness not only has the all too frequent effect of relegating fat people to positions of silence and invisibility, but it also occludes from our vision powerful systemic factors that create deep and staggering divides between those more and less likely to experience frequent, debilitating, or even chronic health problems–divides that not only tend to correspond to but actively reinforce raced, classed, and gendered oppressions.

Sometimes when I realize how deeply I’ve internalized all of this negative body talk, I feel overwhelmed because it seems to take so long to unlearn the ways we so often talk about and view our own bodies and the bodies of others. But I’m committed to the unlearning, because I think I’m worth it and because I have no interest in reinforcing ways of speaking and being that are so harmful to others. I know there are plenty of other people who share similar commitments, and who are writing and speaking out loudly about body politics. I look forward to contributing in a more public way to these discussions.