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Fat? No... fabulous!

San Francisco author, activist is on a mission to change the way people feel about their bodies

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Virgie Tovar

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Virgie Tovar

Did you pledge to lose weight this year?

If you did, you're not alone; the No. 1 New Year's resolution almost every year is to lose weight. So it's little surprise that, come January, we're surrounded by human-interest stories about people who have lost weight, relentless advertising by gyms and diet companies and marathons of weight-loss based reality TV shows.

The message is clear: weight loss is the key to a happier you. A healthier you. A better you. For women in particular, this messaging is nothing new; we're constantly told our bodies aren't good enough, and we spend a great deal of time, energy and money chasing an often unattainable ideal.

It's also deeply entrenched in society that being fat equals unhealthy, being thin means healthy. To be thin is to be desired; to be fat is to be reviled. One doesn't need to look hard for proof we live in a fat-phobic society. For example, consider the images that accompany articles on obesity; larger bodies are often portrayed as the headless cautionary tales, says Dr. Charlotte Cooper, a trailblazing psychotherapist.

"The body becomes symbolic: we are there but we have no voice, not even a mouth in a head, no brain, no thoughts or opinions," she writes. "Instead we are reduced and dehumanized as symbols of cultural fear: the body, the belly, the arse, food."

What if we could change the way we thought about our own bodies?

What if we could resolve to lose hate, not weight?

Virgie Tovar is the brains behind Lose Hate, Not Weight -- a campaign that's much more than a snappy slogan. The 31-year-old San Francisco-based author and activist is one of America's leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She, like many other women, has chosen to riot instead of diet, and is part of the fat-acceptance movement, which is built on the belief that a person's size does not determine their health or self-worth.

Tovar's Lose Hate, Not Weight campaign is part of her vision to "debunk the current fat-phobic health model, which equates thinness with fitness and health."

"What (the movement) seeks to do is reframe life based on self-hatred to a life based on self-love," she tells the Free Press. "It challenges us to think about what health means. Our culture will promote health and fitness, but not spiritual or mental health, when the reality is, they are all connected."

Tovar says dieting and obsessive thinking about food and exercise create stress, and stress worsens your mental health as well as your physical, sexual and spiritual health.

And she would know. She's been there.

Tovar grew up in San Pablo, Calif., as part of a fat family. "As a little girl, I was fat. I was a fat baby. Very early on I learned that I was fat and being fat was bad."

It wasn't always that way. "There was a pre-fat consciousness that I had before I was five or six. I registered that I was larger, but it didn't register as a bad thing. It was important to my political and personal journey to remember that time."

Then, things shifted. "It didn't take long to reach a very developed state of self-loathing. In photos (from preschool), I saw a confident, happy child. By seven or eight, you could see the change."

Her diary was filled with sad confessionals. "I was writing about literally taking a knife to my body fat," she says. "I kept drawing myself inside of a jar, which is a reference to that popular meme that fat people have a thin person inside of them."

By the time she was 11, Tovar had put herself on a hyper-restrictive diet -- the first of many. "The summer between fifth and sixth grade, I decided to get really serious about dieting. I exercised for two to three hours a day, and I ate only toast and lettuce with barbecue sauce." She lost weight, but puberty hit.

At 17, she'd begun to explore her sexuality. Dating older guys proved to be a shot in the arm. "It instilled this sense that my body was desirable -- that my body was beautiful and fine and sexy. That turned everything I was told on its head. I was told I was worthless, that no one would want to date me or have sex with me or marry me -- and certainly no one would love me."

While she was finding joy in her body, Tovar says she was still deeply invested in cultural expectations. After returning home from a summer in Italy -- where she developed scurvy as a result of restrictive dieting -- she reached an epiphany. "I sat down and had an intense conversation with myself. When can I stop this? When can I stop hating my life? Maybe in 20 pounds? No. Maybe in two years? No. Maybe when I get a boyfriend?

"I realized it wasn't ever going to end. I'm a fat person. I'd have to live my entire life fighting the body I was endowed with. That's not living."

For Tovar, true health and happiness became the result of hard work toward body acceptance.

The fat-acceptance movement has its critics, many of whom say it promotes an unhealthy lifestyle. Tovar would argue that the opposite is true. After all, it's hard to do positive things for your body -- whether it's to eat well or sign up for that yoga class -- if you hate your body.

"I am pro-choice before I am anything else," Tovar says. "But if you hate yourself, how can you make decisions that are right for your body? I have no desire to turn everyone into a happy fat girl. But people might find they want something completely different for themselves if they didn't hate themselves."

Winnipeg feminist/activist Jodie Layne can attest to that. Finally "tired of feeling like I had to lose 10 more pounds to be pretty or accepted," the 24-year-old turned to the Internet, where she found fat, fabulous women, like Tovar, who were -- gasp! -- enjoying their lives.

"I saw all these women who had boyfriends and great lives and got (stuff) done by not fixating on their weight. I latched onto that completely. What I found in (body acceptance) was feeling like a whole person and not a pant size. I didn't feel the pressure to practise dieting or justify my choices. My relationship to food is so healthy now."

 

And, for the record, so is she. "My doctor says I'm healthy as a horse -- but I fall into the obese category on the BMI scale," Layne says. "But I have good cholesterol. I'm a vegan. I'm a daily yogi."

A poor diet coupled with a sedentary lifestyle can wreak havoc on anyone, which is why many holistic health and fitness professionals look beyond the number on the scale and focus on measurable health goals such as improving cardiovascular fitness, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol, building lean muscle mass and fat loss -- which is not the same as weight loss.

Anna Lazowski, a Winnipeg-based holistic nutritionist, says we need to go back to paying attention to how we feel, a body awareness that comes from mindful eating.

"Part of the problem is that people are completely divorced from their bodies," she says. Lazowski notes we just accept certain ailments -- acid reflux, bloating, chronic fatigue, constipation, to name a few -- as normal because we no longer know how those conditions relate to our diets.

She also points out that nutrition isn't one-size fits-all.

"Everyone is different. There isn't one thing that will work for everyone. Going gluten-free or going Paleo doesn't solve everything. You need to figure out what works for your individual body. That's the best way to succeed. And you're going to feel better."

That's what drives local personal trainer Lindsay Hamel, who works in partnership with Lazowski. Hamel, to quote her blog, doesn't have six-pack abs and doesn't yell. She uses a tape measure, not a scale. She believes fitness should be pleasurable, not punishment. She believes that the benefits of working out go beyond physical health.

"You manage stress better, and you have a better perspective on the world when you're working out. You feel better," she says. "My focus is always to make people feel better. That's actually my goal for my business: to make people feel better. And that's a very different thing for every individual person. When I meet with clients and set goals, one of the last we'll ever set is weight loss. It's about having strength and energy for day-to-day life."

After a few weeks of training, Hamel will check back in with clients who, say, felt winded going up a flight of stairs or couldn't lift heavy grocery bags. Overwhelmingly, they will have noticed positive changes.

"That's motivation," she says. "That's success. That's a huge part of why people should be working out. If we could focus on the qualitative gains instead of the quantitative gains, people would have that motivation to carry on with it."

While food is fuel for our bodies -- and we should eat as many whole foods as we can -- everyone who contributed to this story agreed that there's room for birthday cake in all of our lives. "We're humans," Lazowski says. "Deprivation is not a realistic way to live."

For her part, Tovar believes cultural attitudes are shifting. Larger bodies are gaining more visibility in mass media, whether they are trailblazing plus-size fashion bloggers like Gabifresh and Nicolette Mason or hot-right-now actresses such as Melissa McCarthy, Rebel Wilson, Lena Dunham and Mindy Kaling.

Tovar herself edited a book called Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Love, Life and Fashion.

"I do have a lot of hope," Tovar says. "I think people want liberation. It's hard to divest. But hating yourself is not sustainable. There's no reward, no dividends when you hate yourself. I reap the benefits of self-love every day and of the work I did. And it's hard work. It's not the lazy choice."

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition January 14, 2014 D1

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