IT HAPPENED TO ME: My Mentor Told Me I Had to Lose Weight (and My Feminist Views) to Be a Successful Nutrition Writer

During an internship I sought out a mentor for career advice, but it turned out to not be quite what I wanted to hear.
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Publish date:
July 6, 2015
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Tags:
feminism, fitness, body image, IHTM, diet, nutrition

During the winter months in Canada, we don’t have the luxury of selecting business meeting outfits based on what will best demonstrate professionalism and ambition. Instead, you dress in as many layers as you can fit under the top one. It is cold, and you don’t want to work for someone so blind to reality that they wouldn’t expect you to be wearing Russian nesting doll layers of tights.

Because of this, sometimes you look like you’re carrying some extra bulk. When I set out in a blizzard during one particularly bleak December, I bore that in mind and tried to feel confident when I arrived to meet with a prestigiously published fitness writer.

My confidence went unappreciated, and my bulk was definitely noticed.

Allow me to explain how I found myself in these circumstances. I was required to complete an internship for a nutrition course, and I had chosen to explore fitness and nutrition journalism. As such, I had arranged to meet with a local fitness writer and learn the business.

As soon as I saw him, my initial worry about my appearance diminished. I may have been looking thicker than usual, but he had a belt clip for his flip phone and a ribbed T-shirt tucked into cargo pants. Having regained my internal sense of power, I eased into the meeting and we spent a pleasant hour talking.

I explained that I wanted to write about nutrition in an inclusive way that would represent different experiences and reflect real scientific data instead of food fear. Most of all, I told him, I was a feminist. For me that meant doing my part to guide women to a greater love for their bodies and what fueled them. It was all very high minded and aspirational and I would be embarrassed to hear my idealism now, but the important thing is that he agreed with everything I said.

Nodded fervently that he too was a feminist! He also thought women should be primarily concerned with their health and the joy of food! How wonderful!

As the conversation wound to a close I let go of my misgivings about his belt clip, we all have our follies, and I was ready to pledge my efforts to the cause we both cared about.

Then, as I packed up, I realized he was waiting to say something he clearly did not want to say. I assumed it would be about the difficulties of succeeding as a writer, and I prepared to reassure him that I had no illusion about success or money. As I smiled, ready to respond, he said something I had never expected any man to say to my face:

“Look. I think you’re great. You’re smart, funny, and have good ideas! But we need to be realistic. If you want to be successful you’re going to have to lose weight."

There are a number of ways I could have responded to this small-minded and cynical opinion.

I could have slowly taken him through each of my life accomplishments and experiences that have nothing to do with my weight, and explained how these would contribute to me guiding others who struggle with healthy eating.

I could have told him that I have weighed 145 pounds since I went through puberty, a weight considered to be in a healthy range by medical professionals and one at which I am more or less pleased with.

I could have explained that if people choose to read something because of the author’s picture and not her words, they likely aren’t an audience I can easily reach regardless of how I look.

Or, I could have simply said, “Fuck off, how I look is none of your business”.

What I said instead came so naturally that I didn’t have time to consider the above alternatives until much later.

“Yea, I guess I knew that,” I quietly mumbled as I pushed away a mostly devoured “Protein Tray” that had contained thick orange slices of cheese and olives glistening in oil. Foods I had unselfconsciously snacked on while we talked, and which now felt shameful.

My inflated self-esteem sank while my perception of my size ballooned. I felt disgusting and ashamed of even existing in the same space as this man who felt entitled to state my chances of success after an hour of conversation, and determine that my main obstacle was not talent, personality, or hard work, but how I look.

I doubt I’m alone when I admit that as a young woman I am constantly plagued by fears that I am not enough. I know I’m capable, I know I’m smart, funny, and have an array of hard won skills. But at my core? I wish I was much more, and I wish that more included being more attractive. It is the fear that fuels the stupid, nervous questions, “how do I look?”, “Is this color flattering?”, “Am I look too fat for this?”

To have a man in a position of economic and social power confirm this fear with such a casual phrase was crushing.

What was worse, it did not stop there. He had more suggestions for my success.

“I think we could really generate some interesting ideas with this whole ‘feminist’ angle, you know? Like, first of all, you’d have to document your weight loss. It could be really inspirational. Include a before and after shot! I mean, you don’t have to be in a bikini or anything, at least not in the before shot (nervous laughter)! And you could do an entire segment called ‘Fuck Bikini Season’ where you complain that as a feminist you find it gross that you should change your body, but you acknowledge you’re part of the system so you find a fun way to do it anyway”.

The conversation continued for another 10 minutes until I told him I had to leave. We ran into each other shortly after in Safeway. My basket full of butter and sweetened condensed milk for fudge, his with kale and protein powder.

I’d like to say that was our last encounter, but by the time I was home, he’d sent an email explaining that he’d found a website for my new venture.

Unfortunately for him, I had spent the previous hour commuting home in a white-out storm. I was ready to vent my fury on any man who didn’t think I deserved a little extra thickness to keep me warm in such conditions.

The voice I had lost in our meeting returned.

I replied that I would not lose weight. I didn’t have to, but more importantly I didn’t want to. Nor would I use my feminism as a gimmick for justifying unfair standards of weight and appearance; in fact I would not use my feminist views for anything except to encourage women to love their wondrous bodies. Finally, I would not be open to discussing my weight or appearance ever again.

I signed off that I was spending the night eating fudge, and I was going to enjoy it in a hard and meaningful way of someone who loves food and has zero fucks to give about the impact of a few deliciously savored calories.

Unless my fingers are stung by a hundred bees and are enlarged to such a size that I cannot type, there is no scenario where I am too big to write. Frankly, with the exception of modeling, there is no career where my abilities are determined based on my weight and how I look. Health and fitness come in every size and mean something different to every woman. For me, being healthy means loving food, loving to be active, and abhorring being told by a stranger how that should be done.

The fitness writer telling me I was too fat was my very worst nightmare turned reality, but having faced it, I knew it was wrong. Hearing such unpleasant words from someone else made me realize how unpalatable it was for me to ever say those things to myself. If I wasn’t going to tolerate someone else calling myself fat, I should really stop doing it in my own mind.