Food for us comes from our relatives, whether they have wings or fins or roots. That is how we consider food. Food has a culture. It has a history. It has a story. It has relationships. –– Winona Laduke
Food is about more than sustenance. It is about pleasure and joy and connection. Food is one of the ways we connect with our cultural traditions and our ancestors. This is one of the reasons I am so passionate about my work to help people with eating disorders. When someone has an eating disorder and they are fearful of eating or of eating certain foods, they miss out on the pleasures of food and they miss out on the opportunities to connect with others through food. They also miss out on their own connection with their relatives and their cultural heritage.
In my own family, my 103-year-old Nana has always been known for her piano playing and her delicious poundcake. While her prized Steinway piano now stands in my home, I did not inherit her piano-playing her abilities. I did, however, learn her poundcake recipe.
From the time I was a young girl, I have memories of “Nana’s poundcake.” Simple to make with only 5 ingredients, buttery and yummy. During visits to Kansas City, I looked forward to making it with her. And when she visited us in New York we would make it together. And, occasionally my mom and I would make it without Nana. My kids have had the experience of making poundcake with my Nana, their great grandmother. And they have made it with me. After she eventually passes, we will retain this connection to my Nana and my kids will hopefully continue to make and share her recipe with future generations.
Photos of my daughters making poundcake with Nana back in 2012 at her apartment (she was 96)
I am glad to have this connection to Nana and to be able to fully enjoy making and eating poundcake with all its rich butter and sugar. What joy and connection I would be missing out on if I were afraid of eating it. To be able to make it and eat it with enjoyment enriches my life and allows me to have a shared experience through four generations of my family. I will always have joyful memories of baking and eating poundcake with the different generations in my family.
Bonus Feature — Nana’s Poundcake Recipe
1/2 pound salted butter (2 sticks) – softened
1 3/4 cup sugar
2 cups sifted flour
2 T vanilla
Cream butter and sugar
Add eggs one at a time while beating constantly
Add flour and flavoring
Pour into well-greased loaf pan (or bundt pan)
Bake at 350° for 90 minutes
Photos from a poundcake I made with my daughter in 2019.
“Body positivity can’t be just about thin, straight, cisgendered, white women who became comfortable with an additional ten pounds on their frame.” —Stacey Rosenfeld, Ph.D., Shape magazine (July, 2018).
Eating disorders are about so much more than body image, but the current diet culture, idealization of the thin ideal, and “war on obesity” make it much harder for people with eating disorders to recover. We are barraged on a daily basis by media images of people who represent only a small portion of the population.
As Dr. Muhlheim discussed in a previous post about fat photography, the mainstream media images we see are not diverse, and the images we do see of larger bodies are often portrayed in a particularly negative and stigmatizing way, adding fuel to the fire.
Thus, an important exercise for people of all sizes in recovery is to curate their social media feed by removing accounts that perpetuate the thin ideal and expand the range of body sizes and types to which one is exposed. Adding diversity to your social media feed isn’t only important for people in recovery, it can be just as important for partners as Sarah Thompson wrote about here. It would even be useful for parents and family members of those recovering.
The term used to describe the absence of representation in media was coined by George Gerbner in 1972. This phenomenon is “symbolic annihilation.” Gerbner was a Hungarian Jewish immigrant and communications professor who researched the influence of television trends on viewers’ perceptions of the world. According to Coleman and Yochim, Gerbner explained that “representation in the fictional world signifies social existence; absence means symbolic annihilation.” Representations, or lack thereof, lead to assumptions about how the world works and who holds power.
Gerbner did not assign symbolic annihilation to any particular group, so it has since been applied to many different identities. We can apply the concept to non-dominant systemic identities, such as larger bodied people, people of color, trans and gender-expansive people, disabled people, etc. If we don’t see bodies like our own represented, we may come to believe “my body doesn’t matter”. Often, this can turn into “I don’t matter”. This means that for people whose bodies are marginalized in any way, it is essential to see images of people that look like them.
We have developed a roundup of Instagram accounts to help you on the journey. While it is not comprehensive, it is a starting point. What follows are some Instagram accounts that show body-positive images that celebrate diverse bodies in ways that mainstream media does not.
At the time of this posting, these accounts are free of body shaming, fat shaming, food shaming, and disordered eating. Some are people in recovery from eating disorders. If we missed one of your favorite accounts that consistently publishes photos of bodies at the margins, please email us and let us know!
People of color
Gender diverse people
People with disabilities
Other body positive accounts to follow
Coleman and Yochim. The Symbolic Annihilation of Race: A Review of the “Blackness” Literature. Perspectives. Spring 2008. http://www.rcgd.isr.umich.edu/prba/perspectives/spring%202008/Means%20Coleman-Yochim.pdf
I’ve recently returned from the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH) Conference and I’m reflecting on all I’ve learned. I’ve wanted to share and further explore Substantia Jones’ keynote, “Fat Visibility Through Photography: the Who, the How, and the Hell Yeah.”
Jones is a photographer, a “Fat Acceptance Photo-Activist,” and the proprietor of the Adipositivity Project. She started Adipositivity in 2007 to “promote the acceptance of benign human size variation and encourage discussion of body politics” by publishing images of women, men, and couples in larger bodies. Substantia is passionate about the fact that fat people don’t see a balanced representation of themselves in the media—as she says, “Humans need visibility. Positive and neutral visibility is being denied to fat people.”
So many of the media images we see of larger-bodied people portray them in negative and stereotyped ways: unkempt, unhappy, eating fast food, and often headless—as if they are ashamed to show their faces. At the same time, the range of body types provided by media images does not really represent most bodies. The media typically culls the thinnest or fittest sliver of the population, and then proceeds to photoshop the images of these bodies. According to the Body Project, “Only 5% of women have the body type (tall, genetically thin, broad-shouldered, narrow-hipped, long-legged and usually small-breasted) seen in almost all advertising. (When the models have large breasts, they’ve almost always had breast implants.)”
In September 2009, Glamour included a photo of Lizzie Miller, a model who is a size 12-14. The photo showed Lizzie nude and looking joyful while displaying a roll of belly fat. The response was overwhelming—American women were thrilled to see a woman who looked more like them and was happy to boot.
While this was groundbreaking, the average American woman is a size 16. So where are the images of the upper half of the weight spectrum? It should be noted that it is not only larger bodies that are marginalized; other bodies are often not portrayed in mainstream media. These include bodies that are darker-skinned, disabled, aging, and gender diverse.
It is important that people in larger bodies see images of people that look like them. It is also important for all people to broaden their aperture on what people should look like. This includes viewing images of fat people who are happy, sexy, desired, and beautiful and engaging in all the activities that make up a fulfilled life.
Those working in the field of body acceptance confirm the therapeutic value of seeing attractive images of larger-bodied people. Unfortunately, these images can still be hard to find. One must look outside of the mainstream media. With that in mind, I thought it would be useful to provide resources for beautiful, artful photos of people living in larger bodies.
During her keynote, Substantia shared photos from several of her favorite fat-positive photographers, including those that inspired her. Below I list some of the photographers she shared and where to find their photos and information about them.
The photography of Patricia Schwarz can be found in Women of Substance – Portrait and Nude Studies of Large Women, published in Japan in 1996 by The Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts. Little has been published about her aside from this article, which states that Schwarz, who belonged to the fat liberation community in the 1980s, specialized in full-color photography of fat women. The book features women posing in domestic, natural and urban settings in various stages of clothing and nudity.
Laura Aguilar is known for her photographs of people from various marginalized communities (including fat, lesbian, and Latina). She is particularly known for portraying her own nude body as a sculptural element in desert landscapes.
Leonard Nimoy (yes, that one) published The Full Body Project, a collection of black-and-white nude photos of members of a burlesque troupe called the Fat-Bottom Revue. According to Nimoy, the purpose of the book was to challenge the harmful beauty ideals promoted by Hollywood.
A blog post by The Militant Baker with some photos
Catherine Oakson was described in an obituary as a creator of “artistic self-portraits—some playful, some sensuous—and messages of body positivity.” Unfortunately, since her death, her photographs are extremely hard to find. Her website, “Cat’s House of Fun,” is only available via web archives (web.archive.org). Search for the website, http://catay.com and look at screen grabs prior to 2017
Shoog McDaniel, an artist and photographer living in Florida, was also present at the ASDAH conference, and their art was used in the conference program. Shoog was featured in this article in Teen Vogue which described them as “the photographer pushing the boundaries of queer, fat-positive photography.” Shoog states “the work that I do is about telling the stories of people who are marginalized and not usually put on the forefront, and whose lives are beautiful and important.”
Although Substantia’s presentation did not touch upon it, it’s worth mentioning Representation Matters, the world’s first website providing high-resolution, royalty-free, stock images of diverse bodies for commercial use. (The image in this post is from Representation Matters.) They specifically include larger bodies portrayed in a positive light. These photos are available for purchase.
Unfortunately, diet culture and thin privilege are alive and well, and those in larger bodies remain marginalized and excluded from most mainstream media. I hope you’ll check out these resources and come to appreciate the vast diversity of the human body. I purchased some photography books to share at my office. Together we need to work to challenge the notion that there is a best way to have a body and learn to celebrate the beauty of all bodies.
Baker, Cindy. 2013. “Aesthetic Priorities and Sociopolitical Concerns: The Fat Female Body in the Photography of Patricia Schwarz and Jennette Williams A Review of Patricia Schwarz: Women of Substance, by Patricia Schwarz, and The Bathers: Photography by Jennette Williams, by Jennette Williams.” Fat Studies 2 (1): 99–102. https://doi.org/10.1080/21604851.2012.709447.
Recently, I went to visit my grandmother, who is almost 103 years old. She was complaining of leg pain. She asked me to help her put on her shoes. I tried really hard. But in her sweltering apartment (she can’t stand any temperature below 80), I was sweating and the shoes were not going on. I had visions of Cinderella’s stepsister needing to cut off her heels to get her feet into her shoes.
Nana has edema—swelling in the lower part of her legs—because she has been sitting in a wheelchair a lot lately. She is quite fashionable and still loves to get dressed up every day. But no shoes were fitting.
I had to nearly drag her, but I convinced her to go shoe shopping with me. When we went to the shoe warehouse, we pushed her in her wheelchair but brought along her walker as well. Nana has always worn a size 7, but we could not fit her into any shoes smaller than an 8.5 or 9! We tried on one pair of gold shoes —Size 9. Finally, we were finding some shoes that fit.
Nana loved them. And she found them comfortable. The woman who had insisted on wheelchairing everywhere, refusing to walk, suddenly started walking with her walker and refused to stop! She was not taking off those shoes and she was not going to ride in the wheelchair again. Suddenly, Nana was transformed. Not only was she comfortable, but she felt stylish.
Why am I telling this story? Often when I am working with patients of any size who have eating disorders, they may have gained weight from a previous lower weight that the eating disorder was an attempt to maintain. People often experience a sense of failure and surprise when their clothing size goes up a level, just like Nana did. This is no surprise: our culture overvalues thinness. But continuing to wear too small clothing is uncomfortable physically and mentally.
People often have a lot of reasons for not shopping for larger clothing —they worry they will be unable to handle the anxiety and sense of failure, and they also don’t want to spend the money on a larger size. I had to help Nana face this. She didn’t totally understand why her shoes didn’t fit, she felt disappointed, and she definitely didn’t want to spend any money. But boy, after she got those shoes on, she felt so much better!
My patients tell me the same thing —once they have clothes that fit well and are stylish, they feel more able to face the world, and getting dressed each morning is no longer an occasion for self-deprecation.
Bodies age and change in ways that we can’t control. We need to accept that. My advice is always to buy a few things that fit you well and help you to feel great and put the other clothes out of sight for now.
And when I spoke to Nana last week, she let me know how much she was loving her gold shoes and walking more again!
I recently went to visit my 102-year-old grandmother. In 1921, at the age of six, Nana emigrated from Russia to Kansas City.
She entertains her living facility with her piano playing and loves to talk all day. She continues to leave sassy messages on my phone. She sends thoughtful gifts to her great grandkids. With such a full life, the following stands out to me.
Always concerned about her shape and weight, at 102 this is still a concern as evidenced by her bathroom in assisted living. Although Nana walks with a walker and now requires some assistance with getting dressed, she still steps on her bathroom scale every day. (How exactly she does this without falling, I don’t know!)
She declared to me, “I weigh x. If I could lose 10 pounds, I’d look younger.”
Two years ago, when she turned 100, I actually did a brief interview with her about dieting. After all, how many 100-year-olds are there who can offer a perspective on dieting in the 1930s and into their centenarian years?
Following is an excerpt from my interview with Nana:
How old were you when you first became concerned about your weight and shape?
At 9 years old people wanted me to start appearing on stage playing the piano. My teacher wanted to speak with my parents and told them he thought I was overweight and should lose some weight. He wanted to groom me for concert piano playing. I remembered how he spoke about my being a little heavy. It didn’t set in right with me. It didn’t bother me. I wasn’t obese, but I was heavy.
When was the first time that you dieted?
On January 2, 1935 (at age 19), I started a strict diet (for me) while at the University of Missouri in Columbia. In 3.5 months I lost 45 pounds. I worked very hard at that. Not only did I have a diet plan, but I also read a great deal. Just before that I also bought a powder that I put in tomato juice and it helped reduce hunger. When I came back to college after Christmas I was told by a friend who was a medical student to stop taking it. He said it was harmful. And then I continued on with the diet plans and that was in 1935. That’s when I really lost the weight. I became ever more popular and I noticed that the weight loss was really helpful.
Do you still worry about your weight?
I’m still concerned about my weight. I watch it very carefully. I get on the scale every single morning because I want to get in the clothes I have. I used to measure myself with a tape measure every day.
Why do you think it is important to be thin?
I think it’s important. I love my clothes and if I don’t hold my weight to the clothing that I’ve bought, I’d feel very sad so I watch my weight carefully and I am able to get into clothing that I’ve had for years. There are some skirts that I can’t fasten at the waist, but I don’t wear skirts anymore. But weight has always been a very important concern. I don’t think you have to be thin but you have to look good in your clothing and for me, I don’t want to have to buy new clothes.
It is sad to me that after all these years, the fear of returning to a bigger size still looms over her. When she eventually passes I doubt many will remember Nana for her shape.
Instead, I expect they will remember her for how friendly and caring she is, how she finds the positive in everything, her desire to make everyone around her happy, the sharp dresser she is, and what a great pianist she is (she makes you FEEL the music).
I know I will always hold dear in my heart her tremendous love for so many people, her years of serving the community as a social worker and volunteer for numerous charitable organizations, her delicious pound cake, her witty jokes (mostly from Readers Digest!), her long stories, her piano playing, and for how she knows (and is loved by) everyone in Kansas City.
To the long list of desperate and dangerous weight loss products, we can now add the AspireAssist, sadly approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) this week. The device is marketed as a “minimally invasive” and “reversible” weight loss “solution” for “people with obesity.” Essentially, an aspiration tube is inserted into the patient’s stomach so that the patient can, after eating, empty the contents of their stomach into the toilet by pressing a button on the device. To critics such as me, this device sounds a lot like a bulimia machine.
The AspireAssist has been through limited research; potential negative consequences remain unknown. It represents yet another example of how larger people are stigmatized and then preyed upon by manufacturers (abetted by the US government) who reinforce the belief that their bodies are inadequate and sell them various misguided products to help them attain the thin ideal. These dangerous products range from medications (remember phen/fen?) to surgeries, and now a device to empty one’s stomach.
Dagan Vandemark, Program and Policy Coordinator of Trans Folx Fighting Eating Disorders, stated, “This is a medicalized, surgicalized imposition of bulimia on higher-weight bodies, telling folks that having an eating disorder is better than being fat.” Bariatric surgery is often touted as the solution to obesity. And yet, I have seen clients post-bariatric surgery who were no better off.
A number of compensatory behaviors, including vomiting, exercising, and laxative use, can qualify one for a diagnosis of bulimia nervosa according to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5). The only difference between these behaviors and the Aspire Assist is that the latter is medically prescribed.
Psychologist Deb Burgard has eloquently made the case that the behaviors society prescribes to help large patients lose weight are those same behaviors we diagnose as an eating disorder in lower weight patients. The Aspire Assist goes one step further by mechanizing bulimia nervosa. This device has a potential for the same kinds of weight loss abuse as do laxatives and diabetes medications.
The FDA press release lists among the potential side effects of the AspireAssist “occasional indigestion, nausea, vomiting, constipation, and diarrhea.” The endoscopic surgical procedure to insert the tube includes potential problems ranging from a sore throat, bleeding, pneumonia, unintended puncture of the stomach, and death. Risks related to the stomach opening include infection and bleeding.
As someone who has treated patients with bulimia nervosa and binge eating disorder for many years, this concerns me greatly. Helping clients to stop purging when it involves a behavior as unpleasant as vomiting is difficult enough. The leverage clinicians use to help people stop purging involves the individual’s own shame and disgust as well as negative health consequences. It is appalling that we now have a device that makes it easier (and permissible) for people to remove food from their stomachs.
Additionally, to help clients break a bulimia cycle, clinicians help clients employ strategies to stop restricting and purging. Bingeing is often the hardest behavior to change. Clients who continue to purge give themselves permission to engage in bigger binges. The thinking is, “Since I am going to purge anyway, I’m going to go ahead and eat more and then get rid of it.” An important intervention is for clients to remove purging as an option; this makes binges easier to modify. Outfitting clients with a no-fuss purge device will only encourage more binge eating.
Eating disorders occur commonly enough; there is a shortage of adequately trained professionals to treat the current number of patients with eating disorders. Let’s not make the problem worse by inducing eating disorders in even more patients.
We need to stop preying on and oppressing people in larger bodies and leading them to believe they are a problem to be fixed. We need to stop subjecting them to insane procedures in an effort to conform to an unnecessary standard. No treatment for obesity has been shown to work long term. We need as a society to accept that people come in all shapes and sizes.
At Eating Disorder Therapy LA, we treat eating disorders (including Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder, and Other Specified Feeding and Eating Disorder or OSFED) across the weight spectrum. We often get inquiries from clients interested in help for binge eating or emotional eating, with their primary goal being to lose weight.
We always tell them that while we believe we can help them with their disordered eating, if weight loss is their real goal, we cannot help them. By contrast, we are willing to help with, and in fact are rather insistent upon, weight gain for our patients who are below their body’s healthy weight.
Many prospective clients seeking help with weight loss have completed a diet regimen (or often, in their minds, “failed” one) and are suffering from binge eating. They want to eliminate the binge eating and concurrently lose weight. While we are expert at helping clients to stop binge eating and learn to regulate eating, we will not consent to “help someone” lose weight.
We don’t think anyone really has the answer to help someone lose weight. The research shows that diets don’t work. We are not so grandiose as to believe that We are any different.
Traci Mann’s 2007 review of 31 weight loss studies showed that on average, 41% of dieters regained even more weight than they lost on the diet. In an interview about the study, Dr. Mann said, “You can initially lose 5 to 10 percent of your weight on any number of diets, but then the weight comes back. We found that the majority of people regained all the weight, plus more. Sustained weight loss was found only in a small minority of participants, while complete weight regain was found in the majority. Diets do not lead to sustained weight loss or health benefits for the majority of people.”
Harriet Brown, the author of Body Of Truth – a detailed analysis of the war on obesity and the diet industry – wrote in an article about the book, “In reality, 97 percent of dieters regain everything they lost and then some within three years. Obesity research fails to reflect this truth because it rarely follows people for more than 18 months. This makes most weight-loss studies disingenuous at best and downright deceptive at worst.”
Dieting and weight suppression may be the major drivers of binge eating and ironically, can cause weight gain.
Research on “weight suppression,” which is the difference between someone’s current weight and their highest adult weight, shows it is linked to both anorexia and bulimia. Drexel University psychologist Dr. Michael Lowe, Ph.D. is one of the leading researchers on weight suppression. His research shows that the greater the weight suppression, the more severe and difficult to treat was the eating disorder. His research also shows that the more weight-suppressed a person is, the more likely they are to regain weight in the future. To me, this suggests that some bodies are naturally larger and will resist all attempts to reduce in size. Attempting to fight the body’s predestined weight may contribute to binge eating behaviors and even higher future weights.
Evelyn Tribole, coauthor of Intuitive Eating in a review of dieting wrote: “Dieting increases your chances of gaining even more weight in the future, not to mention increase your risk of eating disorders, and body dissatisfaction. “
Weight loss can trigger both anorexia and bulimia. Research from the Mayo clinic shows that 35% of the young people who visited the clinic with anorexia started out in the “obese” or “overweight” weight range.
Dieting is incompatible with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), the treatment we provide for adult eating disorders.
While CBT is very effective for eliminating binge eating, it relies on a non-restrictive approach to eating. The goal of CBT is to disrupt the diet-binge cycle through a pattern of regular eating and relaxation of dietary rules. Patients are encouraged to end restrictive dieting and behaviorally challenge dietary rules through behavioral experiments and exposure to forbidden foods as part of treatment.
Even adding a behavioral weight loss program following completion of CBT for binge eating does not lead to additional significant weight loss. However, it is possible that long-term abstinence from binge eating may prevent future weight gain especially as compared to untreated binge eaters.
Our first responsibility as practitioners is to do no harm. Even if weight loss is a client’s stated goal for treatment, and even if their doctor is advising it, we fear that “helping” someone to diet may increase their binge eating and disordered eating. This may in turn cause greater weight gain or weight cycling – a far worse alternative than remaining at the current weight.
Here is how EDTLA can still help in the absence of weight loss:
We provide CBT-E for bulimia, binge eating disorder and subclinical disordered eating. I trained with one of the original developers of cognitive behavioral therapy for eating disorders. Clinical trials show 65.5% of CBT-E participants meet criteria for remission from their eating disorder. Relief from cycles of binge eating usually leads to benefits such as freedom from obsessing about food, greater productivity, decreased anxiety about food decisions, and improved self-esteem. Commonly, patients experience decreased guilt and shame around eating and food. Relationships improve as clients become more able to fully participate in meals with loved ones and friends. It also commonly leads to the expansion of other enjoyable areas of one’s life outside of dieting and body image.
We work with clients on challenging weight stigma (both their own internalized and in the larger community). We also work on improving body image.
My associates and I follow a Health at Every Size® approach. At Eating Disorder Therapy LA, we recognize and celebrate that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. We focus on creating and maintaining healthy behaviors including flexible eating and enjoyable exercise.
Many clients arrive in therapy feeling that they cannot feel better unless they lose weight. However, the majority of those who go through a full course of treatment make significant improvements in their eating behaviors and are surprised at how much better they are able to feel even without weight loss.
Berner, L.A., Shaw, J.A., Witt, A.A. & Lowe, M.R. (2013). Weight suppression and body mass index in the prediction of symptomatology and treatment response in anorexia nervosa. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 122, 694–708.
Mann, T., Tomiyama, A., Westling, E., Lew, A., Samuels, B., Chatman, J. (2007). Medicare’s search for effective obesity treatments: diets are not the answer. American Psychologist, 62(3):220-33.