Edinburgh based plus size style and fat positive blogger AmandaApparel discusses the complexities of Ashley Nell Tipton’s recent weight loss surgery announcement.
CW: This post discusses weight loss, diet culture, and weight loss surgery (WLS).
Another day another disappearing woman act, huh? A quick Google search for Mama June, Gabourey Sidibe, and Ashley Nell Tipton endorses what fat women already know to be true: weight loss is viewed as a far greater accomplishment than any award, starring TV role, or career milestone we could ever achieve.
First and foremost I believe that each and every single person has the right to bodily autonomy (the right to self governance over one’s own body without external influence or coercion). I would not and do not expect anybody to make a decision about their body based on my thoughts, opinions, or feelings.
As a fat woman I understand all too well why Ashley would come to this decision. When I was younger (and before I un-learned all the deeply rooted fat hatred I had absorbed), I would have leapt at the opportunity to undergo WLS. Virgie Tovar (2017a) explains this perfectly when she says, “We all know fat people are treated like total shit in our culture, and obviously this is further complicated by where you are on the weight stigma spectrum and whether you are a person with multiple marginalised identities.”
I acknowledge that Ashley Nell Tipton is (was?) a superfat woman of colour. On top of that, she is a public figure who starred in a massively popular reality television series. As a non-famous white woman who falls just below what is usually classified as superfat, I realise that I am speaking from a position of privilege.
What I want to examine in this post is the culture that labels fat as bad, pressures people to undergo incredibly risky WLS, and applauds any form of weight loss (whether intentional or unintentional) by default. I want to be perfectly clear that this is not an attack on Ashley for deciding to undergo WLS. This merely is an analysis of the social context influencing her decision, and the statements she has made both pre and post WLS.
Doctors don’t necessarily have fat people’s best interests at heart
A key component in bodily autonomy is informed consent. People who are considering WLS will seek advice from their doctor or therapist in an attempt to become more informed, and then make a decision about what’s best for their body. As I discussed in a previous post, medical professionals often have severe anti-fat bias.
In a study of 400 doctors:
1 out of 3 listed obesity as a condition to which they respond negatively. The only conditions viewed more negatively were drug addiction, alcoholism, and mental illness.
Doctors viewed obese patients as lazy, hostile, unhygienic, lacking in self-control, non-compliant, unintelligent, weak-willed, and dishonest (NAAFA, 2017)
The nurses surveyed were just as biased:
31% said they would prefer not to care for obese patients
24% said that obese patients “repulsed them”
12% said they would prefer not to touch obese patients (NAAFA, 2017)
Can somebody please explain how I’m supposed to make an informed decision when doctors have decided that I’m unintelligent and dishonest just by looking at me? How am I supposed to trust people who are so repulsed by my body that they would prefer not to touch me even in a clinical, medical, 100% non-sexual context?
NHS Choices (2017) lists several serious risks of complications related to WLS including blood clots, wound infections, the gastric band slipping out of place (?!), leaks in the gut, blocked gut, malnutrition (!!!!!), gallstones, and death. It absolutely blows my mind that doctors are so keen to suggest WLS in spite of these terrifying risks. But you know, anything’s better than being fat, right?
Why the sudden back-tracking and flip-flopping?
One thing I have always loved about Ashley is the way she doesn’t shy away from the word ‘fat.’ Reclaiming this word that has been used to invoke pain in the past is a powerful thing for many fat people, but we don’t usually see famous fatties embracing the term. Ash from The Fat Lip (2017) points out “She had her breakout moments on Project Runway by talking about fat empowerment and self love. She had the support of the fat positive community. She built her business by using fat positive language.”
In an interview for Wear Your Voice Ashley discussed the fat activist community in San Diego. She talked about how important this form of activism has been in her personal life, and she encouraged people saying:
“Enjoy the life you have in your body. If you’re not enjoying it, then do something to change. You don’t have to change your body. You can change the energy you have about your body.” (as quoted in Tovar, 2017b)
Yes! Awesome! 100% agree. We’re on the same page. Based on the show, interviews, etc. I think Ashley’s fans could tell she was happy and confident in her pre WLS body. This likely inspired some to be happy and confident themselves.
Now, fast forward to the interview with People about her WLS.
“I felt trapped in my body.”
“I’m not telling anyone to get this surgery, I’m just telling you to love yourself enough to know what’s best for you and your health.”
“This next challenge was going to be an intense, life-changing experience that you do because you love yourself and you love your life, and you want to continue living. I knew that I loved myself enough to get help to make myself feel better.” (as quoted in Olya, 2017)
Because these interviews were only a few months apart, a lot of her fans feel confused and betrayed by the sudden change of tune. “She said she had loved her body all along. It’s just hard to hear that someone we saw as an icon for our movement didn’t actually believe in it. Was she just lying the whole time? Is she rewriting history to fit her current narrative? Because it sounds a lot like she’s trying to justify her decision to have surgery the rest of the world.” (The Fat Lip, 2017).
“Right to autonomy and right to uncritical praise (for making a private choice public) are not the same damn thing so can we stop with this nonsense.” - Ariel Woodson
The editor in chief of Ravishly is just outraged that people are having anything but positive reactions to Ashley’s WLS announcement. She says, “Fat activism is one of the few branches of social justice in which fellow activists seem to feel entitled to comment, degrade, harass, and otherwise police the bodies of their peers” (Edelman, 2017). Yeah, no. I’m gonna call BS on that. Fat activism is (shockingly) made up of mostly fat people who are daily degraded, harassed, and have their bodies commented on and policed by peers. Pointing out the complexities of these issues does not make us darned fat activists "haters."
“Is it so shocking that a fat person might not want to remain fat?” (Edelman, 2017). No. It Isn’t. Fat people are expected to be actively pursuing the thin ideal, or else. Fat people are expected to take up less space, literally and figuratively. Fat people experience social exclusion, harassment, and public ridicule every single day (Ali et al, 2013).
Is it really brave to take steps to eliminate oneself from a severely marginalised group (aka to opt out of being fat)? I would argue that it isn’t. In my opinion this is one way to perform “good fatty” which I’ll be dedicating an entire blog post to very soon.
Whether Ashley wants it to or not, the press coverage of her WLS will affect her plus size fans. People will naturally have thoughts, feelings, and critiques about this private decision which has been made extremely public. “Because we don’t all live in isolated cabins in the depths of impenetrable forests, our words and actions affect others. While we may feel empowered by our decisions to further conform to societal expectations of feminine appearance, in the grand scheme of things, we end up reinforcing those expectations, which in turn affect others” (Bouris, 2017).
I want to conclude this post with one last quote from Ariel, because I absolutely agree with her:
“My belief in bodily autonomy suggests that yes, you can do whatever you want with your body. My belief in fat acceptance suggests that I want the playing field to be level for all bodies to be treated equally regardless of what choice they make” (Woodson, 2017).
Recommended reading: 'I'm totally smart and a feminist...and yet I want to be a waif' : Exploring ambivalence towards the thin ideal within the fat acceptance movement
ALI, M. M., RIZZO, J. A., and HEILAND, F. W., 2013. Big and beautiful? Evidence of racial differences in the perceived attractiveness of obese females. Journal of Adolescence. vol. 36, pp. 539-549.
BOURIS, C., 2017. Against Choice Feminism. Overland [online].
EDELMAN, J., 2017. Ashley Nell Tipton deserves the right to body autonomy. Ravishly [online].
NAAFA, 2017. Healthcare Discrimination. NAAFA [online].
NHS CHOICES, 2017. Risks of weight loss surgery. NHS Choices [online].
OLYA, G., 2017. Project Runway winner Ashley Nell Tipton reveals she had gastric bypass surgery last month. People [online].
THE FAT LIP, 2017. Transcript: Episode 20 - weight loss surgery isn’t selling out but justifying it by fat shaming is. The Fat Lip [online].
TOVAR, V., 2017a. Dear Virgie: Ashley Nell Tipton’s weight loss surgery - wtf? Wear Your Voice [online].
TOVAR, V., 2017b. Plus-size designer Ashley Nell Tipton: “Fucking enjoy the life that you have right now.” Wear Your Voice [online].
WOODSON, A., 2017. Why won’t those pesky fat activists shut up and let me enjoy my exciting and fun weight loss hero story in peace? Medium [online].