Skip to main content

With friends like these…

By March 1, 2020May 22nd, 2020No Comments

Journalist, author and podcast host Bethany Rutter contributes to rogue this issue, questioning just how valid a friend’s concern about your weight can possibly be…

Tuesday, February 25, 2020. The day I went from posting a cute plus-size outfit photo with the caption “It’s fat Tuesday, bitches!”, to some kind of existential meltdown over my body and its place in the world, all within a matter of hours. That was down to an anonymous column in the UK’s Telegraph newspaper – the ‘Friendship Files’ series – where people “share their friendship dilemmas and experiences”.


The dilemma here seemed to be that the author has a friend, Sally, who is brilliant in every way. Charming, magnetic, an over-achiever in her career, a wonderful mother and a warm and attentive wife. Where’s the problem? Doesn’t sound like a dilemma, right? Wrong.

The dilemma is that the author simply cannot fathom how all this can be true. How Sally, her friend since childhood, can be all of those things and be, in her words, “massively obese”.

The letter is couched in concern for Sally’s health, citing an attack of pancreatitis – an illness not specifically linked to body fat – and diabetes, which Sally has never mentioned having.

The question seems to be, how can the anonymous author bring up Sally’s huge, life-threateningly fat body with her? How can she prevent Sally dying an early death and leaving her children motherless? Even without examining the contents of the column too closely, the premise of it, the dilemma, the central question of it, is absurd. It presupposes Sally does not know she’s fat.

It asks the reader to believe that Sally could have the drive, the mental acuity, the work ethic to be a CEO – and a female one at that – and not know that she’s bigger than many of her friends. It assumes that Sally, for all she is smart, charming and engaging, somehow manages to not live in the same world as the rest of us. Sally gets to live in this dreamland where messages about ‘obesity’, diet culture, exercise obsession, body image and pervasive beauty standards just don’t exist, and this friend simply has to be the one to shatter that harmony.

I am a fat woman and I can tell you it’s impossible that Sally needs to be told any of this. From looming Cancer Research UK billboards telling me I’m going to get cancer, to online comments any time a brand posts a photo of a plus-size influencer, to office chatter about what people are and are not permitting themselves to eat, I can barely make it through one day without being told that my body is ugly, immoral and the future cause of my early death.

Unsurprisingly, none of it was an enjoyable read, but the real reason it shook me so much was that it made me confront the true limits of self-love. You can spend years working on your body image, fighting those pernicious messages that you’re bombarded with every time you switch on a sitcom or go to a family gathering, you can push through them hard enough to ascend the career ladder, to meet the love of your life, to have a family of your own, to dance like no one is watching.

But in the end, they are watching.

And no amount of self-love or body positivity or personal development can change the eyes they’re watching you through. Sally’s friend will never truly respect her. She might love her with the affection of a decades-old friendship, but she will never respect her. She sees Sally as an idiot baby, someone who needs to be managed, despite all signs pointing to the fact Sally is intelligent, capable and resilient enough to have overcome the negative messaging around her body.

The dynamics at play in this situation show definitively that you can achieve what you want, you can be who you want, but as long as you’re living in a fat body, all of that will pale in comparison to the ugliness, the misery, the death and disease that the people around you will decide to see when they look at you.

A particularly tragic element is that the author claims this column was prompted by seeing other guests at a party “sniggering” and “rolling their eyes” at her friend. All she wants to do is defend Sally against this attitude! Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to have the insight to write a letter asking how to best support her friend in the face of public shaming. Instead, she implicitly supports the basis on which these people judge Sally, if not the way they express that judgment.

Until everyone – fat, thin and somewhere in between – learns to radically unpick the knotty mess of body image, diet culture and fatphobia that casts a shadow over our lives, self-love will always function as a plaster over a gaping wound. To push all of that heavy emotional work solely onto fat people, yet demand that we live in a world populated by others who hate us, is an imposition too great to bear.

Before preaching that I should “love myself”, body positivity campaigners of all sizes instead need to turn their focus to a radical fat-positive approach that blasts open the assumptions, fears and prejudices that keep us sedated with diet culture and an obsession with thinness, dooming relationships and ruining friendships along the way. Until then, fat women brave enough to love ourselves are just dancing on our own.

Bethany Rutter is a writer interested in clothes and bodies. She works at women’s plus size fashion brand Navabi and writes young adult novels with fat protagonists in her spare time. Her first novel, No Big Deal, was published last year and her second, Melt My Heart, will be published in July.


Leave a Reply