By Tiana Dodson
As a fat person, you’re constantly browbeaten with the idea that your health has been somehow damaged, ruined, or compromised and that it’s imperative that you reclaim it by figuring out some way to make your body thin. So we look for people who model what we’re supposed to be. We look for the yoga teacher with the tightest butt, the deadlifter with the biggest pecs, the marathoner who makes the 26.2 look effortless, and the lithe, glowing health guru smiling around the straw of a green juice.
It might seem logical –– imitate that which you want to become –– but what people don’t know is that it’s more than a lifestyle that got those people there. It’s their job. So unless you’re trying to make fitness your career, you’re more than likely going to be trying to squeeze fitness into a life where time, energy, and resources are already at a premium. Trying to emulate these people almost always falls short… and that’s without starting from absolute fatness.
If you’ve got an extra 20 pounds or so, then yeah, that 21-day cleanse might put you out
the other side with washboard abs. But if you’re in a situation where losing 20 pounds
would be unnoticeable because your body is very large at the outset, any advice these
health gurus give is just not helping. In fact, it’s much more likely to throw you into a
shame spiral, because if you can’t succeed with the 7 simple steps that anybody can
do, then you’ve failed, and it’s all your fault.
This is why fat people need their own health and wellness gurus –– and that’s
where I come in.
When it comes to overcoming body hatred, yo-yo dieting, and the difficulties of
navigating a fat phobic culture, I’ve been there and my work is based in my own journey.
So when a person tells me how hard it is for them to even be at the gym because of
how other people look at them, I get it. I get it when someone says that they really want to order dessert at a restaurant, but they’re deterred by the thought of the dreaded eyebrow raise –– because even if it’s the only dessert they’ve ordered all month, it still looks like all they eat is dessert. I get it when they say that they’re dreading going home for Thanksgiving because they’ve had to buy pants in a larger size. I get it because I’m fat, too.
I’m also a certified health coach, which means that I have both the intellectual and
experiential knowledge of how bodies work. So when a client comes to me looking for
guidance on how to improve their health, I can easily put myself in their shoes because
their experiences are so familiar to me. And experiential knowledge can never be
outpaced by theoretical knowledge, no matter how many fat people a skinny health
coach has worked with. I’ve done –– and am still doing –– the work personally, so I know what it’s like to go through these steps, to experience the backslides, and to overcome the hurdles again and again.
The most well-intentioned ally can never be more than just that –– an ally.
But when your health’s on the line, you don’t just need an ally. You need a peer.
You need a partner. Not just because it’s nice. But because research indicates that
shared identity is foundational to forming a more effective partnership with a healthcare
provider (Street et al, 2008) . My compassion and my empathy comes from the fact that I have been there at
the lowest lows, and I’ve climbed up to the highest highs –– and I know how to help
other people do that too.
Health is more than numbers on pieces of paper, health is all-encompassing and
holistic. And to get there, you need to be able to work with someone who can get
all of your life, not just the theoretical experience of it. When you’re talking about wanting someone to be healthy, you also need to be talking about all of them, all the things that make their life uniquely theirs. This includes the intersections of their identity and the social determinants of health (The World Health Organisation., 2010), because fatness never happens in a vacuum. It’s related to race, class, gender, sexuality, geography, and genetics, among many other things.
When you’re assessing the potential for health improvement, you have to be able to
understand how these things affect the probability and achievability of real health
improvement. Because not everybody can just get up and walk, not everybody has
equal access to healthcare providers. You have to take into consideration where a
person is starting from, what they’re capable of in their reality before you can start
prescribing things to improve their health. There’s just something about experiential knowledge that makes the difference between okay healthcare and life-changing healthcare.
So when I introduce myself as a fat health coach and you find yourself wondering how
that can even be possible, understand this: the “fat” part is the part that makes me really
damn good at what I do. It’s the same reason why welcoming, centering, promoting, and
employing people with marginalized identities does nothing but enrich a space. There is
so much to learn from those who are different from us, and embracing these differences
helps us all move forward.
Street Jr., R., O’Malley, K., Cooper, L., & Haidet, P. (2008). Understanding
Concordance in Patient-Physician Relationships: Personal and Ethnic Dimensions of
Shared Identity. Annals of Family Medicine 6:3 , 198-205. Available as Open Access:
The World Health Organization. (2010). A Conceptual Framework for Action on the
Social Determinants of Health. Social Determinants of Health Discussion Paper 2 . p. 6.
Available as Open Access: