Since I can first remember, I’ve been fascinated with water. At age four, I was briefly obsessed with the sinking of the Titanic; I’d recall the temperature of the ocean during the sinking while voraciously chewing my pizza lunch in preschool. I loved the way my arms and legs felt in the pool or the lake or the sea. This intrigue led to joining a summer swim team, which, in turn, led to competitive year-round swimming at age eight.
From an early age, I discovered that if I could push my body to its limit, I’d see improvement in speed, in endurance, in affirmation. However, I also visited the doctor for my yearly check-up and was time and time again told that I was borderlining obesity, that I needed to eat more fruits and vegetables, that my active lifestyle was somehow “unhealthy.”
Because of the way I looked, I internalized the idea that I could never be good at most sports. My hand-eye coordination was—and still is—nonexistent, I hated sprinting and I couldn’t throw a ball more than a few feet. Swimming was different. Despite my belief I wasn’t athletic, I succeeded in swimming for years, receiving invitations to more selective meets and moving up levels quickly. I still felt that I had something to prove; even as I became taller and stronger, I couldn’t stop shaming myself for my “fat”— my body’s stored fuel source and protective layer for vital organs. My relationship with swimming became more about proving my worth and less about love for the water. I’d burst into tears if I didn’t set a personal record, believing the problem was with my body.
When I reached high school, I did not understand why I was continuing to gain weight even though I’d stopped growing. This, of course, was a natural part of maturing into an adult body, which I refused to recognize as my swimming times suffered. During one of our routine meetings, my swim coach sighed exhaustedly, took a large swig of diet soda, and told me that I was slower because I’d gained weight in the absence of strength. My male teammates further invoked deep-rooted body image insecurities by ranking each girl on our team by physical attractiveness.
In response, I poured more and more of myself into the sport, hoping I’d see results on the scale and stopwatch. I hated every single minute of swim practice. At the peak of my swimming career—during my sophomore year of high school—I was engaging in grueling exercise twelve to fourteen hours per week, and yet I had never been more unhealthy. I overworked myself to the point of injury multiple times. This sport was probably the most major stressor in my life. It also became my life.
I share this journey because now, in my second year at Duke, it’s still inescapable. No, I’m not a Varsity athlete. I’m an exercise addict.
I plan my entire day around my workout, whether it be swimming or HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), and feel anxiety if my routine falters. When I skip a day, I’m filled with guilt. Over quarantine, I ran—against the advice of my physical therapist—six to seven miles per day and strained, nearly tearing, both of my hip flexors. The reason I engage in these behaviors, I tell myself, is to stay in shape. But in reality, I’m exercising in large part because I fear reverting back to the little kid who was once fat-shamed at the doctor’s office.
It’s well known that eating disorders run rampant at Duke, but we barely acknowledge that “female undergraduates at Duke exercise more than their counterparts,” or that overexercise and eating disorders or disordered eating often coexist. I could write pages upon pages about eating disorder culture—the normalcy of ‘pulling trig’ after drinking, the two-meal day, the skinniness (and whiteness) nearly a requirement in exclusive social circles. But addiction to exercise is often unnoticed, often more subtle. Why? Because exercise is a good thing. The National Institute of Health reports that “exercise improves mental health by reducing anxiety, depression, and negative mood and by improving self-esteem and cognitive function.” We’ve heard it in probably every physical education class ever.
And even when exercise becomes disordered, it is intensely encouraged. Mega-fitness trainers like Kayla Itsines advertise “6-week sweat challenges” to become a part of the Bikini Body Community. Before-and-after pictures of white Bikini Body Guide women with chiseled, surreal muscles seem to accessorize her website. HIIT workouts gain thousands more viewers for each potential calorie burned. Countless times, friends and peers have told me that “they’d get to the gym more” if only they weren’t so “lazy,” as if laziness were synonymous with rest. When I tell others I sometimes exercise upwards of five times per week, I’m met with universal praise and the occasional comparison: you’re so healthy. And some part of me enjoys these reactions. I’ve been conditioned since my younger doctor’s-appointment days to view fitness as the opposite of fatness; to view fatness as amoral, wrong, a failure. I had fully both internalized and externalized countless messages of fatphobia, which is defined as “the fear and/or hatred of fat bodies.”
In 2017, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a study advising healthcare providers not to directly talk to children about their own weight, as these stigmas can affect children for years. There’s also evidence to support the theory of a body weight set point, or a natural weight that our bodies may gravitate toward depending upon our genetics. Even if I lift weights for five hours per day, it’s genetically impossible for me to look like Kayla Itsines. The message that hard work will produce a certain body type espoused by doctors or coaches is not only false; it’s extremely harmful.
Moreover, fatphobia, through its personalized blame, fails to consider the impact of capital in categorizing “health” and “obesity.” Diet-culture is designed to make marketers and corporations rich at the expense of the consumer. Political scientist J. Eric Oliver wrote, “it is difficult to find any major figure in the field of obesity research….who does not have some type of financial tie to a pharmaceutical or weight-loss company.”
Similar to other -isms and phobias, fatphobia has most directly asserted itself when intertwined with white supremacy. As we’ve seen increasingly during COVID, inequitable access to medical care and treatment by healthcare professionals affect health extensively, disproportionately harming Black, Latinx, and Indigenous communities. This phobia ignores the implications of often racialized poverty; it is possible to be both food insecure and fat. Policies such as SNAP restrictions, which outsource culpability to the individual in the name of health, are rooted in colonialist ideology. The racism in anti-obesity rhetoric dates back to centuries-old pseudo-science, blaming Black women for having “animal appetites.” Fatphobia, alongside racism, has been used to justify state-sanctioned killings: Darren Wilson “felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan [Michael Brown].”
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In this world, we are taught, often violently, that some bodies have more value than others. At the top of this imposed hierarchy are people with white, skinny, tall bodies. As someone without a physical disability; as someone who inhabits a white body that adheres to most societal beauty standards, I possess immense privilege and a limited perspective in crafting this article. And I understand that fat liberation is essential not only for my own sake, but to stand in solidarity with BIPOC, to build a more just society.
I want to embrace fat liberation as it relates to my Jewish culture, too. Jewish people are often seen as wild: our lives embrace food, savor it, enjoy it; anti-Semitic fatphobia is centered around this so-called “lack of control.” We place Biblical importance on the fat body. We are not ones for regulation; on Chanukah, we feast on latkes and jelly donuts; on Purim, hamantaschen. Meals I’ve shared with other Jewish families consist of kugel, kugel, more kugel, some lox, an entire refrigerator of matzo ball soup, and ten or so plates of regulach and babka.
Additionally, in my life, body neutrality is a recent concept in which I’ve found sanctuary. Although neutrality itself will not end body-based oppression or pave the way for liberation, focusing on my body’s functions rather than its looks allows me to think of my physical self as a vehicle, rather than an object of performance.
I know that healing begins at the initial site of the wound, and my own internalized fatphobia, which is why I’d like to revisit my 8-year-old self and tell her that I am sorry. I’m sorry that I felt you needed to shrink. All of your body was okay then. I’m sorry that sometimes you still feel this way. All of your body is okay now.
I’m also finding that healing comes through allowing myself to be angry, that anger is a secondary emotion to pain, so I’ll say this: I’m angry at the obesity industry. I’m angry at swim coaches. I’m angry at the boys at swim practice who taught us to become compliant with the male gaze before we even knew what it meant. And I’m also, rightly, angry with the world.
I am working toward reclaiming my relationship with exercise; recovery comes in bits and pieces that sometimes shatter. I am working toward seeing swimming as something for myself, only. I’m grateful that it brought me some of my closest friends and equipped me with important values.
Regardless, I’ll always love the water. It’s a moving, drifting, ever-changing substance that affirms the fluidity of our experiences. Water connects who I am now to who I want to be, to who I am continuing to become.
Lily Levin is a Trinity sophomore. Her column usually runs on alternate Thursdays.