Nothing gets under people’s skin more than the sight of a happy fat woman. Whitney Way Thore is one such woman and she’s looking for recruits in her war against fat-shaming. The star of TLC’s My Big Fat Fabulous Life (which returns for its third season tonight, June 8) has made body positivity and self-acceptance her personal mission (she made her cultural debut on the Internet with her “Fat Girl Dancing” video that went viral in 2014).
Fat people don’t need to make excuses for their bodies, she believes. They need to live in them—fully, completely and happily. In her new book, I Do It With The Lights On: And 10 More Discoveries on the Road to a Blissfully Shame-Free Life, she aims to convert others to her way of thinking by sharing with them how she did it.
“People who watch the show, or who follow my social media know who I am now but they don’t know how I got to where I am,” she says on the phone from her home in Greensboro, North Carolina. Part biography, part manifesto, the 32-year-old wants to inspire others to follow her lead. “If I can do it then you can too.”
In the book you share that you were fat-shamed as a child. Even though you were an average-size kid you were made to feel fat by doctors, family and other kids.
If you’re a girl and you’re not a stick the first thing someone will do is call you fat and if that doesn’t work they’ll call you a whore. And then you’ll get called a fat whore! It just shows us that we want to attack women’s appearance and their “purity.” It’s just very transparent. Of course, I wasn’t really fat and I got called a whore when I’d never even kissed anyone…It also reinforces why we’re considered valuable. We’re valuable as attractive sex objects so that’s the first thing people try to take away from us which is a problem.
How do you think that experience as a kid played into your adulthood and your struggles with an eating disorder?
We’re all indoctrinated to believe that we should hate our bodies, that we should all lose weight, that skinnier is always better, and the majority of people do not question [that thinking]… All of these perceptions, of course, really influenced me and kept me wanting to change myself over and over and over. But now that I’ve come to the point of self-acceptance, I would never take that time back. I am so happy that I saw how people treated me when I was fat because I would never have really known where they were placing their value. It really has been an eye-opening experience and I feel grateful for it.
Your parents are clearly loving and supportive role models, but they’re not perfect. You’re very upfront about how their comments about your weight affected you growing up. How has your perception of those suck-in-your-stomach-type comments changed?
It was hard for me to write that stuff because I do love my parents so much I didn’t want to upset them or make them feel like they’re not the best. Really, you can’t blame your parents for not teaching you something that they don’t know. No one ever told my mom that it was OK how she looked, so how could she ever pass that on to me?
But now I see that all of those subtle remarks do mean something. They are important. We shouldn’t just take for granted that these are the things that people say to young girls. We really could change our reality around these things. I hope that it’s an eye-opener for a lot of parents that kids really internalize a lot of those messages from a young age.
You are frank about your sex life in the book and the title plays with that. Why did you choose to include your sexual journey in the book?
It is pretty hard to talk about your body without including anything about your sex life because as women we’ve been taught that our bodies exist for other people and we focus on other people all the time. In terms of a sex life, I think it’s a huge way to gauge how you feel about your body, how other people feel about your body, and in that way when I was finally able to have sex with the lights on it was kind of a litmus test. I was like, Wow, I did this so I know that I have kind of reached the pinnacle.
You’re a powerful advocate for body positivity, but you’re also a representative for people suffering from polycystic ovary syndrome (Thore was diagnosed with PCOS at age 23; excessive weight gain is a symptom). Are they separate communities or do they dovetail for you?
It depends. The thing that’s unfortunate is that I know I’ve been accepted by mainstream America because I have a health condition [that contributes to weight gain], which I don’t think is a good thing. I don’t think it matters why someone is fat. I don’t need an excuse, but I do know that a lot of people feel like they can use that to justify it, i.e., it’s OK to be fat if you are sick, it’s OK to be fat if you are pretty, or if you want to lose weight. I think it’s just OK to be fat.
I do see a lot of women who may follow me because of PCOS but who are not a part of the body-positivity world. They know how hard it is to lose weight…but they’re not really accepting of the fact that I’m accepting of being fat. I’ve had people accuse me of giving up and that I shouldn’t be an example for women who have PCOS. Unfortunately, I can’t represent every fat woman or every woman with PCOS. I’m only me and telling my story. I try to be inclusive and I try to consider perspectives but at the end of the day it’s just me still.
Whenever someone talks about body positivity someone always argues that they’re promoting obesity. Why does a fat woman being happy bother people so much that they align that happiness with doing something negative?
Men, whether they realize it or not, have the idea that women are just here for them so to have a woman say, I don’t care what you think about my body or if I’m attractive to you or whatever pisses them off. I think it bothers other women because if you’ve been a woman who has bought into the lie that you have to change your body to be happy, and you’ve lived that lie your whole life, and been on the cycle of eating disorders, diet pills and always wanting to fix yourself over and over, and you’ve always held on to that feeling that, When I lose weight I’ll be happy, it can be upsetting to see a fat woman take themselves out of it like me. It doesn’t seem fair. Why does she get to be happy? I’m following all the rules and I’m still struggling.
You make a distinction between what you call ‘good fatties’ and ‘bad fatties’ in the book—a distinction that society perpetuates. Can you talk about the differences and where you fall in line?
I used to really want to be a good one and sometimes I’m still positioned as a good one and I hate that because a good fattie is someone who shows remorse for their body, they apologize for it and assert that absolutely they want to lose weight. They are people that do things really so that other people will be comfortable—they exercise or drink green juice—so that they’ll show other people that they want to change. A bad fattie is someone who doesn’t really give a shit why they are fat. They don’t have a health condition; they don’t feel like they need to justify or explain themselves. I certainly don’t want to be looked at as a good
fattie, but because of the huge deal made about my PCOS unfortunately I see myself getting positioned that way and when I see people saying, ‘Well, it’s OK because she has this medical condition, or it’s OK because she really wants to lose weight’—that frustrates me.
You seem way more radical in your thinking in print than on TV.
I actually say that all the time.
You strongly identify as a feminist in the book and you say that for you, the movements of body positivity and feminism are linked. Can you explain that?
To me, the basis of feminism is wanting to be recognized as a whole human being. Unfortunately, we talk about body positivity only in terms of wanting to be pretty and wanting representation in fashion and modelling and all that. And I think all of that is important—we deserve to be acknowledged as beautiful and to feel beautiful. But at the end of the day we need to be fighting for more than that. As women, all of us need to be fighting for the right for it to not matter if we’re beautiful! We don’t care if men are handsome! That’s what women need. …Body positivity without feminism is almost a lost cause because even in the body positive world you hear people saying, ‘Oh, she has an hourglass figure and I don’t,’ or ‘Wow, she’s really big but I have more cellulite.’ We have to get away from that because now we’re creating a new standard of what fat women should look like and all the millions of fat women that fall short of that.
I spoke to a fat woman who complained about the use of the word “curvy.” She hates it when people call her curvy. She says it’s patronizing.
I’m the same way. People have called me “fluffy.” Or they say, ‘Whitney you’re not fat. You have fat.’ I’m like what are we even talking about? I’m white, I’m short, I’m brunette, I’m fat! Like, shut up! …I wish we could just move to acceptance of calling things as they are. People who say plus-size shouldn’t be a term at all— it’s kind of like if we could go back and redo life, then yeah, it probably should never have been; we should have all been in one category. But at this point, if you want to go back and take it away I think that is moving backwards.
What is wrong with [being] plus-size? It’s the same idea when Jennifer Lawrence said it should be illegal to call people fat. Well, yeah, you shouldn’t be a dick but why is “fat” the worst thing on earth you can call someone? It’s still running away from the word because we’re scared of what it implies.
You chose to respond to Nicole Arbour’s notorious “Dear Fat People” video in which she insults people who struggle with their weight and ignorantly so—ostensibly in the name of comedy. Why did you do that? Did you ever hear from her?
I happened to see it and I had just started following her when I noticed a few of my other friends were following her too. I just commented on the video and said to my friends, ‘I think it’s time to unfollow her right?’ And Nicole herself commented back, ‘Oh, the irony of a TLC star commenting on this video.’
I tried to engage with her after that and every time I did she kept deleting my comments…And I was just like, No, I’m not going to let her get away with this.
What did you think when you first saw it?
Just really obvious lazy comedy. I don’t know if she really thinks this stuff or not. I think she’s an attention whore so she probably doesn’t care [what people think of the video].
Did you ever think that you would be this happy at 300-plus pounds?
No, no, no. And I tell people that to give them hope because even when I was 270 pounds and [someone] told me, ‘Whitney you’re going to be fat for the rest of your life,’ I would have seriously rather died. I thought a life of being fat was not worth living. I absolutely believed that 110 percent. The good news is that you can stop believing that. It is possible to re-program your brain and start loving your body.