I’ve known Jess Weiner for a lot of years. We’ve connected at different points in our lives, our careers, our body image activism, and on our paths to making peace with our own bodies. From our first meeting, I have counted her as a friend and ally in this work—work that is a whole lot easier to do honestly and authentically when you know that there are trusted colleagues who have your back. When my inbox started blowing up this week with “Have you seen this?” “What’s your take?” and even some “WTF?” messages about her Glamour essay, (“Jess Weiner’s Weight Struggle: Loving My Body Almost Killed Me”), I had to stay out of the fray for a minute. What did I really think about the piece?
I read the article wearing a few different hats. I tackled it from a media literacy angle. Then I explored how I felt about it as a body acceptance activist and as someone who has recovered from disordered eating. Finally, I thought hard about how to engage in a public conversation about the piece while honoring the respect I have for Jess. I reached out to her privately and she agreed to address some of my concerns on the record. We met up yesterday and chatted over breakfast. There was laughter. There were tears. There was oatmeal! Here are my reactions to the article and my interview with Jess.
[UPDATE: Glamour has changed the title of the online piece to "Jess Weiner: Did Loving My Body Almost Kill Me?" The question mark was added to clarify that this was a personal process of questioning her own attitudes about food, weight, health, and body image. She also asked that they remove the mention of a "weight struggle" from the headline. She did not intend for this to be a story about weight, so the original framing of the article confused her message that health, not a number on a scale, was her priority.]
1. Did loving her body really almost kill her? I mean, really? The article’s title was a sensational doozy. But I was fairly confident that Jess had not suddenly flat-out rejected the idea of body acceptance after nearly two decades of work in the field. I asked her to clear that one up first.
CM: Ok, so what’s up with the title?
JW: The title was about an inner exploration and question that I was having. It was not intended to be a declaration that in general, everyone who loves their body is hurting themselves. That’s too literal a takeaway. My intention for the piece was to talk about the fact that my own version of what it meant to love my body, even as a self-esteem expert, even as an eating disorder survivor, even as a conscious woman aware of body image issues—even then, loving my body didn’t involve getting deeply involved in my real physical health. That was a conflicting, confusing, vulnerable, and scary place to find myself in. So for me, that was the question. Had my own perception—my own, underscore my own!—of loving my body stopped me from really knowing my body? And the truth was that for me, it did. It meant that even though I wasn’t weighing my worth on the scale, I also wasn’t looking at the weight gain I had had over the years. I wasn’t looking at my blood pressure and my cholesterol, and those were things that were troubling to me. And I feel like there are so many women out there who are in a position similar to mine. They’re questioning those things too and they don’t know where to take them. I found myself in a very tricky spot and I needed to figure out where to go from that question.
2. Working within the media to change the media is no easy task. Of course it was frustrating for me to see that a story about how Jess improved her health by adjusting her activity level and working with a nutritionist and therapist was packaged as a story about her “weight struggle.” [UPDATE: The "weight struggle" has now been removed from the title. See above.] After all, she said herself that health, not weight loss, is her priority and that the weight she shed was not as dramatic as she expected (I did raise an eyebrow at her admission that she still wants to lose 30 more pounds despite her doctor’s assurance that her numbers cholesterol, blood sugar, blood pressure, triglycerides are now in the healthy range, but I’ll get to that in a sec). So how did weight loss become the hook? Well, it happened because this story is in Glamour magazine. There are tradeoffs when you talk about body image issues in mainstream media. On the plus side, you have the opportunity to reach millions of people. And you might just sneak in some messages that rarely see the light of day outside body acceptance circles. But the downside can be a big downer. Mainstream media operates in sound bites. They have to grab audiences with provocative headlines. They have to answer to advertisers who wield a tremendous amount of power–advertisers such as diet, beauty, and fashion companies, most of whom sell their products by exploiting women’s insecurities about our bodies. There is not much motivation for them to promote ideas that challenge the “self-improvement” status quo.
But I believe there are some victories to celebrate here. Consider this: When’s the last time you heard the language around the national obesity debate described as “shaming” and “vitriolic” on the freakin’ Today Show? Yeah, that happened. And it was Jess who said it, even as she sat in front of a cheesy “Are you healthy at a size 18?” graphic. Would she have been given such a massive platform if there hadn’t been some kind of weight loss angle to the story? Sadly, probably not. The reality is that it is very hard to communicate clearly about food, weight, health, and body image when you’re dealing with mainstream media biases, profit motives, and sometimes downright cluelessness. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying.
CM: What are the biggest challenges you face talking about these issues in the media?
JW: I walk a very slippery slope, and I do that consciously. I mean I’ve chosen to crawl into the belly of the beast by going to Hollywood and working within media to talk about issues that have incredible layers and nuances to them. This piece is no exception. This piece, however, comes from a deeply personal place and knowing that it was going to be in a mainstream women’s magazine and that it had the potential to reach millions of women, I was speaking to the most general audience that I could imagine. I was speaking to women who are curious about what real health means in their life. I wanted to speak to women who may have had a history of yo-yo dieting and disordered eating and confusion about what it meant to be really healthy and I wanted to try to include nuances in literally a 1,500-word article that doesn’t always allow for it.
So some of it hit. I thought I got some great messages in there. I thought I did a good job talking about doctor biases in a way that hopefully enlightens both the physicians and the patients. I wanted to talk about not being afraid to change your convictions or challenge your convictions or look at something deeper. For women I think that’s part of our own evolution. And I wanted to talk about the fact that it’s ok to be vulnerable and share a story. I chose to do it in a magazine, but I’ve also shared this story with my friends and family for years.
All of those issues have nuances and typical media doesn’t do a great job at covering nuances. They need extremes, they need fast hits, they need before and afters. And I fought really hard to not have a before and after photo in this piece. It was important for me that it was not about the weight loss. I understand that weight loss ended up being the hook for this piece, but that was not my intention. My intention was to talk about moderate transformation and being healthy at the size, shape, and vitality that I am now and where I want to see myself in the future—and that it’s okay to ask those questions.
I fight on a daily basis when I do mainstream media. I fight a ton of bias that most people don’t know about and I speak up wherever and whenever I can. And sometimes that’s meant that I’ve walked away from or walked out of interviews because they’re putting pictures up that I don’t approve of or they’re framing a question in a way that I don’t think is appropriate. And sometimes it means working with media to meet them where they’re at to educate them as to why this is a deeper, more complex issue than how they cover it. And people run the media. There are people producing these segments. There are people editing magazines. And everybody deserves a chance to be educated. Not everybody is going to come from the same media literacy, body conscious space that I come from. So I try to do my best.
There are tons of biases in the media. First of all, they think that anybody over a size 10 is plus-sized and unhealthy. It’s always framed as a quest to change themselves for a vanity issue. Rarely ever do we get to talk about the layered issues of health in the media. It’s always extreme, it’s always fear-based, it’s always about shame. And visually, because we now work in such a visual-based media, especially now, even with social media—everything needs to be visually provocative. And I fight that a lot because you can’t see what recovery looks likes on the outside of a person just like you can’t see health. So when I get asked to do a story or there’s an opportunity to speak publicly and they want to go that visual place that they need to go as media—They need to show people. What does this look like, right? Because they want to keep eyeballs there—I have to fight them from a content perspective and say this is more than that, this is deeper than that.
I think people who watched my press on The Today Show and CNN might have seen me do that. I had to correct the reporters who asked questions that were completely off the mark of what we were there to talk about. But that happens all the time—not just around this issue, but in general. As a media person, you have to try to guide the conversation back to the points you want to make. And again, I try to do my best.
3. Body acceptance is an individual process, and it’s not a perfect one. I’ve been recovered from disordered eating for over fifteen years. The daily struggle part of my recovery is a distant memory, and hopefully it will stay that way. I’ve got my own strategies to ensure that it does. I go to the doctor regularly, but I don’t weigh myself or focus on numbers. I eat intuitively and as healthfully as I can, and I never restrict. I exercise in ways that make my body feel good. I have a strong support system in place and I stay in tune with what’s going on with me emotionally. It threw me to read that Jess was disappointed that she hadn’t lost more weight despite cutting out desserts and exercising when she was exhausted. And why does she want to lose 30 more pounds when her doctor says she’s healthy at her current weight? Doesn’t that reinforce the dangerous idea that no amount of weight loss is good enough? Aren’t restriction and overexercise no-nos for people with eating disorder histories? For some, yes. But these are also her choices. Our eating disorders were different. Our recoveries are different. And the truth is that I’ve had body image “disappointments” too. I co-authored a book about accepting your body before and after baby. Does that mean I wake up every day feeling fabulous about the way I look? Um, not so much. I have mostly good days and some bad ones, just like a lot of smart, kick-ass women I know. We need body image activism that allows for the fact that activists live in this f*ed up world too. We see all the b.s. about how we should be striving to be thinner, prettier, and all-around perfect. Let’s try not to beat ourselves (and each other) up because we can’t find the superhuman strength to resist those messages 100% of the time.
Jess told me, as she told Kate Harding, that her 30-pound goal is a “moving target.” She has goals for her body size and strength. She wants to be able to hold the plank position for a minute. She wants to run a marathon. She believes that losing more weight will help her reach those goals. And at the end of the day, the way I feel about her 30-pound goal isn’t really the point. I don’t live in her body—I live in mine.
CM: Where can we go from here?
JW: The one thing I would love to share is that I am still me. My convictions and beliefs around everybody’s individual right to health, happiness, and freedom from body tyranny have never changed. What I really wanted to do is just [and here’s where things got emotional]…I wanted to share with people that even someone who knows or thinks she knows what she’s doing—whether you’re a mother, whether you’re an expert, whether you’re a teacher—there’s always a space to learn and to grow. And I wanted to challenge something that I thought was taboo. I wanted to look at health and part of my looking at health included weight. I wanted to feel like I was allowed to do that. And I think I was the one telling myself I wasn’t allowed to do that. That was my own journey in redefining loving my body. I now care about my body enough to want to find optimal health and happiness for me. And it’s not a number. It will never be a number. But I wanted to look at the numbers in my life differently than I had before. They didn’t have control and reign over me—they were just indicators. I actually found great, deep connection to my body by looking at numbers periodically. It was a way that I hadn’t communicated with my body before. What I hope now that people take away from the article is that perhaps they can re-read it with some of these nuances in mind. I’m learning, especially as a media person, I’m learning how fast rumor and gossip can spread and how some people will read a piece—no matter what I say–the way that they need to read it. But I want people to know that this is just the beginning of a conversation and not the end—of the world! You know what I mean? I mean, really. I want to just have some levity here too. It’s my body. It’s my process. There have been a lot of people who’ve felt that they’ve been given the permission to ask the tricky questions around this issue, and that’s all I wanted to do.