I am not your cautionary tale

In some ways fat bodies are our current culture’s dumping ground for fear and loathing: we are the go-to places for thrashing out anxiety about consumption and excess, death and disease, work ethic and individual responsibility, boundaries and restraint, ugliness and beauty. Fat bodies are politicised — even politicians literally use fat as short-hand for bad, wrong, excessive. Fat bodies are ridiculed, dehumanised, demonised and charged with meaning.

All of this is, perhaps, largely academic. I’m a fat activist, of sorts, but most days I’m not overtly doing activism. Most days I’m buying bread and milk and taking my daughter to playdates and watching Dexter and, you know, living.

Except my life is lived in this body, which is fat, and when I am buying my bread and milk etc. I am visibly fat and when I am existing I am inhabiting a politicised body.

Today writer John Birmingham had a column in the Brisbane Times about The Biggest Loser. He gave this nod to fat acceptance:

Obesity is an intensely politicised topic… Traducing someone’s character, or mocking them for their weight, isn’t far removed from doing the same things on the basis of their skin color or ethnic background. Grown-ups should be above it.

He also mischaracterised the fat acceptance movement, I think, as angry and somehow ‘dangerous’ as well as misguided about health. But that’s not what I want to write about. What struck me most about his piece was the admission that he views the “freakshow” elements of The Biggest Loser as useful parenting tools.

I wanted [my kids] to feel disgust at the carefully calibrated circus presented for us by the program’s producers. Why? Because as a parent fresh fruit, oatmeal for breakfast, drinking lots of water, and playing sport rather than Nintendo DS, is a hell of a hard sell. The grotesque obesity on display in Biggest Loser makes explaining the benefits of good nutrition and exercise that much easier. Harsh and ugly, but true.

You know, I have some sympathy for Birmingham’s position as a parent who is trying to instill healthful habits in children who are presumably bombarded with “junk food” advertising and the lure of screen time, like the rest of us. Bean is very active, in touch with her natural appetite, and in love with the existence of fresh fruit but she is also not-yet-three and so I willingly accept that what has been a breeze for me may require more conscious effort in coming years (although I am of course hoping that our early approach will continue to help Bean have a healthy and peaceful relationship with food and activity as she grows). I certainly don’t feel that modeling any kind of body-shaming — of her body or others’ — will ever form part of my parenting strategy. Fat-shaming children is harmful and I know I could never be convinced otherwise, despite how hard I work not to be overly judgmental about the parenting decisions of others.

But, to be frank, I find it quite chilling that the “grotesque obesity” played up for the cameras on ‘reality’ TV could be masquerading as a fable for children in homes across the world. Look kids, you don’t want to be so big and wobbly and disgusting that they put you on television, do you? Chilling because it normalises fat stigma and body shame (wouldn’t it be better to normalise diversity and acceptance?) but also because it is a reminder, to me, that some people are looking at me and feeling grateful that they aren’t like me and fearful that they could be.

I am a walking cautionary tale.

When I raised this concern with John Birmingham on Twitter, his response was

Maybe it’s not about you.

Obviously, his piece was about The Biggest Loser, a particular kind of “freakshow”. Me going to the shops to buy my bread and milk? Not so freakshowish, admittedly. But I am still there, I am still visible, I still jiggle, I still have a double chin, I still look fat enough to be a folk devil.

Fatshion bloggers sometimes find their images reblogged as thinspiration by people who are engaging in disordered eating and looking for fodder to increase their fears of becoming fat. People in public places like swimming pools snark and gossip about fat bodies around them and barely feel the need to disguise their disgust. A friend on Twitter, Jennifer Gearing, mentioned this afternoon that Birmingham’s article “reminds me of time stranger told his 5-6yo she didn’t want Maccas or she’d look like me.” That’s right, children, fear and pity that fatty over there, and thank your lucky stars it’s not you.

There are so many problems with taking that approach with children. (I shan’t list them all but, um, how about these: what if your child grows up fat? what if your child develops an eating disorder? what if your child becomes a rude and judgemental body-snarker?) One really big loser of a problem is that the fatty over there is a human being. The fatty on your television screen is a human being. Human beings have emotions and a need to be treated with respect. We also have diverse histories and reasons for being the sizes that we are; we have individual stories that you can’t read from just looking at us.

My fat body is not your punch line, it is not your entertainment, it is not your grotesque freakshow, it is not your life-lesson.

I happen to think that many kids could learn a thing or two from people like me, beyond a cautionary tale. But until our culture starts valuing people for what they have to give and not what they (apparently) have to lose, a lot of people will fail to see that.

And exploiting that failure to see human beings instead of “the obese” isn’t edgy and it isn’t even productive. It just hurts.


Filed under Body Image/Fat Acceptance

50 responses to “I am not your cautionary tale

  1. I’ve been thinking about being fat and writing about it for a couple of weeks now, and I thought that, apart from the brilliant comments you have above, that I’d also mention the harm that fat shaming does to those who are in relationships with or who are the children of fat people. The whole interconnectedness of life and stuff… I’ll keep thinking.

    • Yes! I completely forgot to address a huge point that this raised for me which is that my daughter has a fat mum. I’ve been told before that it doesn’t matter whether I model healthful eating and activity for her because simply by virtue of being fat I am teaching her to also be fat (which, this person assumed, was a terrible thing for her to be). Some people clearly believe that there should be a weight limit on parenthood. Isn’t that disgusting?

  2. Jennifer Gearing

    Great post. I’ve been a bit “I am not your cautionary tale fuck you” this evening, which has been okay at externalising so I don’t sink into another self-hate spiral since I was already having a bit of a shit day.

    Incidentally, the stranger? Was standing directly behind me. In a bookstore. It’s not like he was just a little louder than he intended or I have super hearing. There is no way he couldn’t tell I’d be able to hear him; he just didn’t care.

    I have some recollection of saying something to the guy, but absolutely no idea once I left the store what it was.

    • I’m really sorry that happened to you. I like to think I’d have a sassy (and educational) comeback were I in that position but I suspect I would just freeze and then cry about it later.

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  4. “Grown-ups should be above [weight mockery].”

    He’s got it twisted. CHILDREN aren’t born or start toddling about with a natural loathing for fat bodies – nor do they offer smug and prescriptive platitudes and condescending concern-trolling. Children are TAUGHT these distressing and destructive behaviors, BY grownups. Grownups like Birmingham, I’m guessing.

    These attitudes are reflected in what he expresses, the “poisonous pedagogy” bit so many adults have internalized: that kids will naturally opt for the easy and lazy and immoral or short-sighted goal and it’s our Grand Poobah Grownup Job to manipulate them into our own self-validation, oops, I mean “steer them right”.

    “[A]s a parent fresh fruit, oatmeal for breakfast, drinking lots of water, and playing sport rather than Nintendo DS, is a hell of a hard sell.”

    Really? Maybe instead of speaking for ALL parents, he should speak in first person… then he might ask himself why these are “hard sells” and what is going on for himself and his family and his children. I’m a parent, and those supposedly virtuous endeavors are not “hard sells”, and I have a few opinions why. I work to support my children in their interests (ALL of them), I seek to eradicate adultism from my dealings with them, and do not shame them nor require they eat X, Y, or Z (or that they don’t eat A, B, or C). I have fit and happy and healthy kids who love foods of all sorts, love video games, love playing soccer and swimming and running. No shaming of fatties required. Really.

    But y’know, if he wants to go the whole shaming-people-for-their-own-good while teaching kids that it would be so horrible and wretched to be, that’s his lookout. Sadly, he’ll have lots of company. I just won’t be joining him… and I appreciate writings like yours and hope others can learn new ways to interact with the young ones in our lives.

    • Thanks Kelly, you are so right. I feel kind of squicky whenever people talk of in some way forcing children to ‘be healthy’. I don’t find it is necessary to be so controlling re: food choices, nor is an approach like that likely to be successful. (Quite the opposite, if ‘success’ can be measured by a relaxed relationship to food and weight not artificially increased by dieting or disordered eating). But, as I said in my post, I also don’t want to claim that I (as the parent of one young child) have all the answers or that parents are operating in a vacuum where these questions are easy. There is a huge amount of pressure on parents to ‘not let their kids be fat’ and, whilst I completely agree with you that our (parenting AND diet) culture tends to prod people into going about it the wrong way, I feel like that’s not an individual problem so much as a societal one. I suspect that Mr Birmingham, as someone who was fat (self-described as morbidly obese) feels even more pressure to police his kids’ bodies but it is probably far overstepping the mark to speculate in that way about motivations etc. I just wish people would own their own shit, basically (I try to but sometimes fail, most likely.)

  5. whenwhy

    Live and let live. What other people choose to do with themselves and their bodies is their business and theirs alone. It’s nasty to shame people, and destructive too.

    Mind you, I don’t like smoke in my face when I’m eating a meal, I don’t like sharing a lift with someone who doesn’t wash and I don’t like sharing a small seat with a large person.

    But live and let live.

    • Living amongst other people leads to all kinds of things like, um, compromise! And sharing! And sometimes smells! I suspect that if you are squished into a small seat with a large person, they are even more uncomfortable than you. A world with fewer small seats and more emphasis on sharing would be nice.

  6. This is a fabulous post, so well balanced and thought out.

    I can also sympathise with him about the trials of convincing children to eat well, and choose good nutrition – and more importantly enjoy a wide range of foods. I’ve got one kid who eats really well – eats a huge range of foods, keeps trying stuff he didn’t previously like, makes sensible food choices most of the time, but is also more than happy to patronise the cake stall. I’ve got one who eats 3 vegetables only at any given time, but I can never guess which 3, and one who …. I dunno, eats randomly and unpredictably. But I’ve found the two most successful motivators are modeling good eating (with a side order of “eating a wide variety of foods is a grown up thing to do”) and reminding them that they need to eat well to grow up big and strong and to feed their brain. I just don’t need to threaten them with anything.

    • I think also we overplay the role that eating the ‘right’ foods plays in either weight or health outcomes sometimes. Different bodies have different nutritional needs and those of us privileged enough to have access to an abundance of food are likely to get what we need without too much stressing about it. So, yeah, I agree that a child never eating vegetables might be cause for concern it isn’t necessarily the end of the world (depending on what else is going on). I mean, I have a relative who never, ever eats fruit and she is perfectly healthy. Her body sources what others get from fruit from other aspects of her otherwise-varied diet. Which is a very long-winded way of saying I agree with you, and I feel that “good eating” is much broader than most “healthy eating plans” and the like would have us believe. This may be particularly the case for children, who are obviously growing at different rates and whose need for certain micro nutrients might be seriously small anyway (and for others quite large, obviously).

  7. whenwhy

    True. Well said.

  8. Thank you for this awesome post. It reminds me of this comic: http://www.somethingpositive.net/sp01132009.shtml

  9. Jan

    Thanks Elizabeth :) Once again you are able to express yourself clearly, something I struggle to do when dealing with this emotive subject.
    I am so glad that there are people who are able to put up a great defence for the fatties amongst us. I belong to a forum where some of the members love to fat bash, although when called upon they vehemetly deny that this is what they do.
    I have tried a couple of times to present another picture but as we know there are many people who are not prepared to question their long held beliefs.
    I am rambling so will shut up now.

    Keep up the great writing Elizabeth. And for the record, I bet you are a great mum to Bean.

  10. Thank you. I have been in no frame of mind to take on this particular juggernaut again. I did it a year ago and have been steadily trolled by a few that think because Birmo said it, (and it was their interpretation of what they thought he said) they can just hate on and bully me because I respectfully spoke up and challenged his assumptions.

    As I said on Twitter in response to his tweet to you, it’s about all of us who live in bodies that the media/culture deems unacceptable. We’re the ones who have to walk through life with that aimed at us, with the assumptions made about us, with the shit slung at us.

    It *IS* about all of us.

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  12. Ugh, how horrible. There are just so many things wrong with the concept of using Biggest Loser and the like as fear-based television. Not even touching the humiliation experienced by the people ON the show.

    I have to wonder what does happen if those kids start to put on weight, having lived their whole childhoods in fear of being the person on the TV. I wonder whether they’ll be told that it’s normal, and natural, and healthy to put on weight at puberty, and in fact probably UNhealthy if they don’t. I wonder if they’ll know that regular exercise doesn’t prevent someone from putting on weight if their body wants to; and conversely, that exercise has health benefits other than weight control. I wonder what those kids will think if they gain weight despite eating the same as they always have, once they’ve been taught that you only become a TV-Fatty by being lazy and overeating.

    The effect of the Obesity Panic on adults is bad enough. It breaks my heart to think of its effect on kids.

  13. Rhiannon Saxon

    Thank you for the post. ‘Maybe it’s not about you’ is disingenuous and verging on passive aggressive. It’s a good way to make someone feel vain and self-obsessed. More shaming, really! But we ALL identify with stories in the media about PEOPLE LIKE US. If I read a story vilifying married-mothers-of-two-children-who-have-depression-and-anxiety-and-fear-issues, who are scared of the big-wide-world-of-employment, who…whatever – I’m going to feel personally targeted..somehow!
    It’s kind of as ridiculous as talking about ‘what WOMEN do’ or what WOMEN want’ or some other large (or majority!) demographic – and then saying, ‘present company excepted, of course.’

  14. Having a bit of a commenting-is-hard slump at the moment, but I wanted to say how much I appreciate the work you put into these posts. You always seem to hit the nail exactly on the head. Thank you.

  15. My daughter was in our local bakery this weekend with my husband. The baker was a tall man with a large belly. “You have a big tummy” my daughter said to my husband’s horror. “I” she continued, pulling up her tee shirt “have a big tummy and so does my daddy”.

    I have been fat and I have been thin and now I am (for the most part slim). In the fat phase of my life I drank too much alcohol, ate too much, smoked and did not do any exercise. In the thin phase of my life I drank no alcohol, ate very little, exercised a lot and smoked. Now I drink a bit, eat as nutritiously as I can (hides sweetie wrappers), exercise moderately every day and don’t smoke.

    I teach also teach yoga and pilates and have learned to look at bodies as being bodies that function well or bodies that don’t. Size has become irrelevant to me as I now look at people trying to figure out where they carry injuries or pain.

    If your body functions well should it matter if you are fat? If your body does not function well how does being thin help you?

    • Thanks for this. It reminds me of a post RaisingBoychick wrote about massage therapy and body acceptance. I miss yoga. I used to go to a class with a lot of older women, and pregnant women etc. and we all had different types of bodies. It was a very accepting space without being explicitly about size acceptance.

  16. lilacsigil

    Maybe it is about me. Maybe I was a child who ate only “good” foods, got lots of exercise, was limited to 30 minutes of TV and computer time a day…and was still fat. Maybe the cautionary, scary tale is like women saying “that woman dressed like a slut so SHE got raped” when what they mean is “if I do everything right no-one will rape me”. This is a lie.

    I would be interested to hear what John Birmingham would think if one of his kids did, in fact, become fat, while eating and exercising in just the same “hard sell” way as his other kids. Then what?

    • That thought breaks my heart. I wonder how many people continue those kinds of attitudes (towards any marginalised people) when it directly affects them?

    • It has been pointed out to me that drawing an analogy between rape apologism & fat-shaming may be read as being flippant about rape and rape culture. I suspect that wasn’t your intention here (but rather that your intention was to illustrate how harmful cautionary tales can be). But I’d like to assure readers that I obviously don’t endorse treating rape frivolously. Perhaps you’d like to clarify what you meant here lilacsigil?

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  18. Kate

    Oh god! Thank you, hugs ((()))

  19. Rachael

    I love your post. And I would never ever sit down with my family to watch TBL. Ever. If they are ever fat themselves he has just taught them self hate not to mention intolerance. I’m pretty sure that’s not his intention but I’m surprised he’s not bright enough to figure that out.

    • I’m sure it’s not his intention to harm his kids in any way. I wouldn’t want people to think I am claiming to know anything about Birmingham’s family life or that I think he’s abusive. But yes, I do take issue with this being endorsed in the mainstream media as a positive strategy for parents!

  20. Charlotte

    I just happened upon this post at a time I was thinking about these issues. Just wanted to say well said! And a good reminder to me of why I shudder when people speak negatively about their bodies to my son.


  21. lilacsigil

    Re: Spilt Milk

    Yes, I’m not talking about rape vs fat-shaming, and I’m certainly not saying they’re equivalent – sorry about being unclear. I’m talking about the myths that people construct to feel safe, and the damage that they do to other people. The original article you quote by John Birmingham – using fat people’s body as a horror story to attempt to scare his children into thinness – is an example of this. He thinks that if they’re scared enough, they’ll do everything right and they’ll be safe from fatness.

    • That’s how I interpreted your comment. Thanks for clarifying.

      I also think, as was pointed out to me on twitter by someone but I’ve managed to forget who!, that these are both cautionary tales about bodies and they are rooted in body-policing. And they are often gendered. So I understand that people are sensitive about bringing rape myths into the discussion but as part of a broader conversation about the dynamics here, it’s not irrelevant.

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  23. Lebay

    Maybe it IS about me. Maybe its because whenever the Biggest Loser airs, I get morons yelling at me from cars that I should be on the show. And its not just that show. Lets check our cable guide. Too Fat for 15, Thinthervention, Bulging Brides, Big Medicine, the list goes on and on and on.
    Maybe its about my husband, who is rake thin (and I think very cute) We have been married for 20 years, and for all of those 20 years he has been hit on by other women ‘why are you with HER, shes so FAT’, questioned by people (same question) and at one stage, by a medical professional, accused of having a FETISH! Why is it so hard to imagine he loves me for what is inside, why is it so hard to imagine that he even loves whats on the outside!
    I hate these shows, there for the sniggerfactor. There for the Thank God its not me factor….. I could rant and rant, but fuck it, Im off to enjoy my life and an icecream cone!

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  25. Jess

    Has anyone looked at how screwed up kids get when they have diet-obsessed parents who espouse conformity and ‘YOU MUST FIT IN TO AVOID BEING PICKED ON’ as some kind of life goal?

    I’d rather my kids grow up fat and confident people who enjoy their screentime and who don’t hate themselves, always blame themselves when someone treats them like dirt, and who realise that the media and the “specialists” have their own agendas and aren’t pushing this stuff without an agenda of their own.

    And maybe it is about me, too. For being a human being who feels for others when she sees them hurting and hating themselves and behaving as though the responsibility for their victimisation is on THEM, rather than lying with those who are ill-mannered and intolerant from what they perceive as flaws in others. Is it acceptable to pick on someone for having any other genetic quirk or appearance-related thing? Nope.

    I’ve spoken of TBL as a cautionary tale to my own kids: “This is what crappy reality TV looks like and what it does to people and why the media shouldn’t be trusted.” And when there have been segments of the show shown– “Imagine how BORING it is to hate yourself so much that all you want to do is diet and exercise in the hope that you might like yourself after awhile.”

    The stuff these shows promote as the “solution” isn’t just stupid, it’s physically and psychologically unhealthy. And it emphasises the idea that being thin is more important than what you’re doing to be thin or how much you’re obsessing over it or despising yourself to lose weight or stay thin.

  26. And isn’t it just setting them up for failure if they happen to be one of the unfortunate who’s metabolism is shot, or like me has PCOS which makes it incredibly difficult to maintain or lose weight? I work out four times a week, I watch every mouthful of food I put in my mouth, and I lose 300 grams a week if I’m lucky. I was doing really well, and then I got Cancer. I was sick, and then I was post-op, and even now I can’t do everything I’d like to do in a work-out. That meant my weight-loss was halted.

    If John Birmingham wants to be honest with his kids, and not just use fat people as boogey men to frighten them, how about letting them know that sometimes, a person can be dedicated, disciplined and do all the right things, and still be fat. And having people judge us when we are sick and working out ever-loving arses off to be healthy is heartbreaking. I work far, far harder to be healthy than he or his ilk will ever know. To charactarise all fat people as too lazy and stupid to be healthy is just a lie. He’s lying to his children.

  27. Marianne

    Hello! Frequent lurker, first time commenter, but I wanted to let you know that this post reminded me of a facebook status I once did, wherein I was ranting about the woman who happened to be on the treadmill next to me at the gym and who spent her entire workout alternately looking at my treadmill and looking at me in that sort of “wow, that is just SO GREAT how the fat lady is exercising, what an inspiration!” kind of way. It was infuriating to me and is a frequent occurrence at the gym (whereas when I am running on the street, I am far more likely to get something thrown at me or be shouted at). Both experiences are infuriating! And it is for the very reason you point out on this blog. My body is NOT public property! It is not your cautionary tale or your inspiration!

    As a large individual, I cannot simply go to my gym and exercise, go to the grocery store and buy food (as you pointed out), or do any public activity without my body informing other people’s opinions about whatever activity I happen to be engaged in.

    Anyways, I guess I don’t have anything to really SAY about it, but I really appreciated your post and thank you!

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  30. gillebro

    bit of a late comment i know, but great response to the article. I made the terrible mistake of reading some of the comments below. Never a good idea.

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  32. Great post. I don’t have children, but I do look after friends and family’s children and listening to what their understanding is has me concerned. They have picked up very quickly who to like and not like and being fat is a no no for them. They even speak of fat and skinny food. I have even had one child ask if her bum is big. So sad. Much of this is thanks to the Biggest Loser and other thin ideal focused media. When I explained that the show is designed to make you like or not like some of the people and that they try to get people to be angry and fight with each other. That yelling at people was to make them cry or throw a tantrum which was good for tv, the children were shocked and I was able to explain more which I am hopeful they will at least be more educated and objective when viewing media.
    The more people speak out and share with others, the more chance we have to create a society that accepts and encourges diversity, not just in token conversations, but daily deeds.

  33. I think you raise some really interesting points here. I agree with many of them. Dare I say however obesity is an epidemic in this country and it is public business because of the COST it has on our society. And not just in monetary terms. I think Birmingham’s original article brings up some pretty relevant points regarding the dichotomy between fat prejudice, and the need for our society to be cogniscent of the problem obesity presents.

    A lot of your commenters seem to think that it’s okay to be be fat/overweight/obese. For them I wish them the self respect to look after themselves a little better and give themselves the greatest gift of all – health.

    Personally, I don’t like the high theatrics of The Biggest Loser. But I do think what the show does over its season inspiring. Just look at the transformations in the contestants – not only physical but emotional and psychological. Why? Because to lose weight effectively you have to deal with the demons that got you fat in the first place.

    • Hi Katie, welcome to Spilt Milk.

      “A lot of your commenters seem to think that it’s okay to be be fat/overweight/obese.”

      Maybe because it is. I am fat. Obese. I am ok. Please don’t tell me (or my commenters) that the existence of fat people – our existence – is not okay. May I refer you to both the Fat Acceptance FAQ and the Comment Policy (tabs above) for this blog before reading/commenting further. It’d be fabulous if you interrogated some of the beliefs you have about fat and health. I actually find some of your suggestions (that fat people all have ‘demons’, that fat people are a drain on society’s resources, that fat people don’t take care of themselves or have self respect etc.) to be offensively narrow-minded although I suspect your intention was not to offend.

      As for people needing to be cognizant of the ‘problem’ of obesity — I find that quite laughable, given the near-total media saturation of obesity-is-bad messages we get daily. I think people know. If there’s a ‘problem’ it’s not that we don’t know or care about weight ‘issues’, it’s that we put the emphasis on weight over wellbeing to the great detriment of individual and collective health outcomes. (To paraphrase Dr Rick Kausmann).

    • Katie, you seem to think that you know fat people’s health better than they do their own. You assume that we have no self respect, don’t look after ourselves and don’t have health. It’s a very patronising tone to take.

      Firstly, good health is not obligatory. There is no law that says anyone has to live a healthy lifestyle. Secondly, nobody is immune to ill-health, be they fat, thin or somewhere in between. Every human being has times in their lives when health dips or falls. Some long term, some short term.

      But finally, as someone who is fat, and who has just been to her doctor and been given a glowing bill of health (cholesterol, blood pressure, blood sugar, thyroid, the whole kit and kaboodle), you need to know that you CANNOT tell someone’s health by just looking at the size of their body. You also cannot tell someone’s mental health by just looking at the size of their body.

      As for self respect and looking after oneself, it is of the greatest self respect and self-care to stand up and say “This is my body and it is none of your business. I will care for it as best suits me to MY standards and treat it with respect, rather than starving and punishing it to suit society’s false standard of acceptable.”

      You look after your body, and keep your business out of everyone else’s.

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