Fat and fit – Study says it’s possible, Bay Area women agree

Hear more about this story and how it developed on the Peninsula Report podcast >>

Healthy Body Image Program
Dr. Megan Jones, director of Stanford’s Healthy Body Image Program, leads college women in a discussion about healthy weight. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Megan Jones)

Can you be fat and still be fit? In 2003, the U.S. Surgeon General said that obesity is the number one preventable cause of death, beating out smoking. But a study released this month involving more than 3 million people showed that people whose body mass indexes (BMI) put them in the lowest categories of obesity were no more likely to die than normal-weight people.

Although obesity increases the risk of developing many health conditions, from high blood pressure to diabetes to cancer, this Journal of the American Medical Association study, the largest of its kind, adds to the growing body of evidence that Americans should calm the societal obsession with being thin, and focus on being healthy.

And there are many other body image advocates out there who feel the same way. Although they may address the issue differently, both Virgie Tovar, a web series host, and Megan Jones, a doctor, want people to find health and happiness at realistic body weights.

Virgie Tovar – Host of “Fat Girl Guide to Life”

On her YouTube series, Virgie Tovar unapologetically introduces herself to viewers saying, “As some of you may recognize, I’m a fatty.”

An exuberant 31-year old with a cherubic face, Tovar has been a plus-size crusader in the land of skinny, urging fat girls to love their bodies no matter what their size. In her web series, Virgie Tovar’s Guide to Fat Girl Living, the Bay Area native gives other “fatties” helpful advice on everything from craft projects that add glamor to plus-size fashion to relationships and sex (“Every guy wants to have sex with a fatty.”)

That’s not all. Tovar’s website is dedicated to all things fat, including links to her videos, her blog, and a promotion for her recently published book, Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion. (Story Continues Below.)


Over the last few years, Tovar says there’s been an ongoing battle against what she calls “fatphobia.” She says it’s a fear of “fatness” in general and society’s unwillingness to accept overweight people.

Tovar cites examples of fatphobia in everything from fewer fashion choices in plus sizes, to job discrimination and even the size of airline seats.  “That’s what fatphobia looks like,” she said in an interview.

Wearing hipster chic clothes, complete with dark-rimmed glasses and retro jewelry, Tovar has a definite presence in any space she inhabits. Sitting across from her in a petit café hidden on a San Francisco side street, it’s hard to imagine her as teenager, when her biggest ambition was to be invisible. Growing up in suburbs of San Pablo in an immigrant Mexican family, Tovar knows she’s been “fat and brown [her] whole life.”

Although she was aware of being bigger than most of her classmates even in preschool, Tovar said was unaware it was a problem. “I remember enjoying the jiggle of all my fat. Loving the way that it felt, the kind of freedom of it, and the strangeness and the performativity of jiggly fat.”

But by her teen years, Tovar could feel the stigma attached to being fat, garnering negative attention for her size.

It wasn’t until the end of her college career at UC Berkeley in 2005 that Tovar found a way to not only accept her weight, but also become empowered by it. It was through a Berkeley course in female sexuality that Tovar first encountered the idea of body positivity through the lens of sex positivity. From there, Tovar explored her sexuality. By learning to love her body as much as her lovers did, Tovar said she gained confidence in herself and in her self-worth. In 2011, she earned a master’s degree in human sexuality from San Francisco State University.

Tovar says she doesn’t remember explicitly being introduced to fat movement, but she does describe this moment of clarity when a friend asked her to write a blog about body image. “It just instantly went to this place of fatness. It ended being called ’Fatties of the World Unite’ a mini manifesto… That felt like the point where I came into an awareness of fatness,” she said.

Through her research in graduate school, Tovar describes how she was invited into these “fat spaces” where she found the movement she had always been looking for. Since then, she found a like-minded community that has encouraged her to see herself in a new way. She wants everyone to be able to embrace all bodies as beautiful, and that means giving people the freedom to choose how to live their life without judgment from others.

Although Tovar acknowledges there are health risks that come with being obese, she views it as choice people should be allowed to make. She makes the comparison between someone who eats ice cream with the regularity of a person who drinks coffee. While consuming immense amounts of caffeine daily is a health risk, Tovar said society is much more tolerant of that choice than the choice of daily ice cream treats.

“[Fatphobia] is so specifically socially harmful in such a huge way,” Tovar said. “And it takes up almost all of women’s energy. This pursuit of thinness is, like, 90 percent of what women are thinking about all the time…What would happen if we took that narrative out, what would they do, what would [women] be capable of doing?”

Dr. Megan Jones – Director of the Stanford Healthy Body Image Program

Megan Jones
Dr. Megan Jones, director of Stanford’s Healthy Body Image Program, says that some of the traits that make a high-achieving college student may also increase the likelihood that student will develop an eating disorder. (Photo courtesy of Dr. Megan Jones)

That question is also on the mind of Dr. Megan Jones, a clinical psychiatry instructor at the Stanford School of Medicine and director of the Stanford Healthy Body Image Program. She points to some startling statistics. About one percent of the nation has been diagnosed with anorexia, two-to-three percent with bulimia and close to four percent with other eating disorders. But when you look at college students, that number jumps dramatically.

“Around 25 percent of college students have some kind of disordered eating or severe body image concern,” Jones said.

“Eating disorders capitalize on some of the traits that you have to have to be a college student,” Jones explained. She cites traits like personal drive, a competitive edge and being a perfectionist. “All of these traits in moderation can be helpful,” she said. “When that kind of thinking is applied to weight, it can be dangerous.”

The Healthy Body Image Program invites female Stanford students to workshops that teach them skills to defend themselves against negative body talk and improve their self-confidence. Additionally, the program sponsors campus-wide events like the “I Am My Potential” photo campaign, which encourage students to post pictures of themselves holding signs with positive affirmations about their bodies and health. The campaign encourages students to consider how energy they spend worrying about dropping pounds can be used productively in other ways. The program also offers an online eating disorder screening and self-help prevention program.

Jones laments that, although obesity is a medical disease, not a psychological one, those who are clinically obese are treated as if they have a mental disorder. “Obesity is seen as something that the individual is doing wrong; something is disordered about the way they eat food,” Jones said.

The latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which doctors use classify mental illness, will be published in May 2013. It will categorize binge-eating as an official psychological disease. Anorexia has the highest mortality rate for a psychiatric diagnosis and has the fifth highest suicide rate.

However, Jones stresses that doesn’t mean that all people who overeat do so because they can’t control themselves. This confusion over what obesity is and what causes it only hinders people’s ability to separate health from size, she said.

Jones says she tells her students to focus on “taking care of your body, taking care of your health is really independent of your weight.”

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