Author, Activist Virgie Tovar Debunks Diet Culture at CGSS

During her talk, Tovar spoke about the origins, manifestations, and impacts of diet culture, particularly on marginalized communities and women.

By Caroline Kubzansky, Managing Editor ('20-'21)

The Center for the Study of Gender and Sexuality hosted author and activist Virgie Tovar for a seminar on fatphobia and diet culture on Monday afternoon. She discussed her own experience with size discrimination and the origins of western culture’s attitude toward food, body size, sexuality, and gender.

Tovar is the author of the manifesto You Have the Right to Remain Fatand was one of Bitch Magazine’s 50 most influential feminists of 2018. Her talk covered her experiences with dieting and her eventual rejection of diet culture, before she defined and deconstructed those terms in order to elucidate their history and evolution in the contemporary era. 

Tovar used the term “diet culture” to refer to a culture that sees losing weight through manipulation of food or movement as an individual solution to the “problem” of fatness, which carries a negative moral valence.

“We understand fatness as a product of immorality, of excess, of an uncontrolled relationship to hunger, to appetite, and that thin people represent the opposite of that, that thin people represent control, and moral enlightenment,” Tovar said.

In discussing her childhood realization that being fat was a social impediment, and her subsequent efforts to become thin, Tovar emphasized the relationship between her dieting projects, her femininity, and her race.

“I felt more feminine when I was so hungry that I felt faint or when I couldn’t think straight,” she said. “My understanding of my bad body was deeply, deeply informed by my utility to men.”

She summarized the messaging that led to this association as, “You are fat and fat is bad, because boys don’t like that. I don’t want to marry you, and so I deserve to be mean to you. I don’t want to have sex with you, and therefore you deserve to have cruelty thrown at you. Not being fuckable is a punishable offense.”

Tovar also referenced Sander Gilman’s theory, which states that dieting “is a process by which the individual claims control over his or her body and thus shows their ability to fulfill their role in society.” She said dieting has a more profound symbolism. “It is showcasing that you understand it is your expectation [as a woman] to control your weight, which is part of the gendered contract with society.”

Tovar highlighted how she learned that weight loss was a way to “assimilate” into the more powerful parts of social hierarchies, such as whiteness. She mentioned how, after eating only lettuce and toast for a summer in which she also performed step aerobics every day, her doctor told her that if she lost more weight, she might be able to date one of his sons. 

“My doctor is this white man… Even though I didn’t understand [back then] what whiteness was, I understood his whiteness as a manifestation of his superiority. And the possibility of being invited into his family was huge,” Tovar said. 

Later in her talk, Tovar circled back to this theme, saying that people of color can be particularly prone to diet culture as a way of being a “less threatening” person of color to white people.

She said that diet culture is partly a product of white men’s efforts to create a narrative of hegemony over colonized peoples. She claimed that Sylvester Grahamand John Harvey Kellogg, the inventors of Graham crackers and cornflakes, were two figures whose products came out of their desires to promote self-control and to create a contrast between European attitudes toward food and those of colonized people. 

“I was introduced to both of them when I was studying the history of sexuality, because they were both very intense anti-masturbation advocates… and all of [a] sudden, when I was working [on] fat studies, they came up again, around the history and construction of food and diet,” she said.

Kellogg and Graham thought that eating bland foods would repress strong sexual desires among Europeans and incline people toward hyperrationality and lessen “animalistic” inclinations toward food, sex, and other sensual experiences.

“Cornflakes were part of a bland diet… meant to be low flavor,” Tovar explained, “because he felt there was a connection between eating delicious things and having sexy feelings. [Graham] founded the dietary reform movement in the 1830s. The Graham cracker, which was even more flavorless than it is today, was part of his proselytizing that unleavened bread led to suppressed sexuality. He thought that a low-flavor, low-calorie, unleavened diet was a way to control sexual urges. His followers believed that, through food, you could control morality.

Tovar claimed that Europeans used these differences in diet as a justification for colonization.

“I began to sort of ask myself, why are these men so preoccupied with control… and why do they see food as such a big part of this? And I began to think about the eras in which they existed. These were men who were in the midst of this colonial period, and these were white men of influence, who were part of the intellectual zeitgeist that encouraged the belief that it was totally fine to enslave or kill or steal from people of color or any people who had less self-control than they did. They created control as the moral basis for rationalized violence to rationalize colonialism. And the argument was we… can control when we have sex, how much we eat, how we dress—we are civilized. These people from whom we are stealing and whom we are exploiting… have this animal relationship to sex, an animal relationship to food. We are enlightened; we get to do whatever we want. And I see their fear and anxiety in the way we talk about food, and sex, and body size today,” she said. 

The quantification of food into caloric values, macronutrients, or other metrics is also a “a very kind of colonial tool, creating a myth of control over things,” Tovar said. As a result, she continued, food in a diet culture is not just food, but a moral positive or negative.

She reinforced the idea of food as a moral object by pointing out the biblical language that often surrounds foods, including “sinful” and the frequent addition of haloes to low-calorie food.

Resulting from this moralized language, she said, is a cultural association between high weight and low moral value, which justifies treating fat people as second-class citizens.

“We as a culture understand success and failure as individual pursuits. If you’re fat, you deserve to be treated poorly because you didn’t try hard enough. If you’re thin, it’s because you did it on your own,” she said.

Tovar will release her next book, FLAWLESS: Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color, in March 2020.