Berkeley Talks transcript: Virgie Tovar on ending fat phobia

Savala Trepczynski: This is Be The Change, a summer podcast series from the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley School of Law. I’m Savala Trepczynski and I direct the Henderson Center, the Social Justice Center at the law school. I wanted to find a way for us to stay in community over the summer and to have fun conversations with people who, in their life and in their work, are the change that we need to see in the world.

My guest today is Virgie Tovar. Virgie is an author, an activist, and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on body image, fat discrimination and breaking up with diet culture. She’s been featured in the New York Times, Tech Insider, NPR, the San Francisco Chronicle, too many things to name, and she is here with us today.

This episode deserves a little context. Virgie is not a lawyer, clutch the pearls. So, we are not going to be talking about law, per se, but we are going to be talking about the practice of law and one liberating, radical way to build your capacity for long haul social justice work.

I am not the first person to say, “Imagine what you could do if you took all the energy you spent complying with normative beauty standards around body, shape, and size and instead, devoted that money and energy to a cause in your community or the world.” That idea is out there and has been for a while, but it has major resonance for social justice advocates.

In today’s episode we’re going to explore how to make social justice learning sustainable by digging into a common denominator dealing with the oppressive and endless project to look better, prettier, thinner, etc. We’re focusing on women because that is where Virgie’s work is focused. Although there’s room for many perspectives at this table, and I hope our conversation will shed some light on to what could happen for you or for the world if women divested energy from performing and chasing normative beauty standards in service of something greater.

Savala Trepczynski: Virgie Tovar, welcome to Be the Change.

Virgie Tovar: Thank you.

Savala Trepczynski: Really excited to have you here.

Virgie Tovar: I’m excited to be here.

Savala Trepczynski: So, you teach people how to experience liberation around their body image and how to break up with diet culture. What does that mean? What are people breaking up with? What is the liberation and why are they doing it?

Virgie Tovar: Yeah, well I think of diet culture and dieting, just in general, as kind of that ex-partner who’s still sleeping on your sofa and they’re eating everything in your fridge and you know you wake up and you turn on your coffee and then you go back, you take a shower, you go back and all the coffee is gone. And, I just kind of think of dieting and diet culture as like that ex who just won’t leave your house and you know that they’re not adding anything to your life but you’ve been with them for so long that you have no idea how to get them out, you know.

And, I think that for a lot of women and people generally, but I work specifically with women, there’s something very metaphorical about that exact analogy, right? Because this is, like dieting is a very patriarchal sort of set of behaviors. Essentially it’s the way in which the culture … it’s sort of like the internalization of the idea that women have to stifle our desire. That women have to control what our bodies look like on behalf of a greater cultural imperative.

And, so it really is, in a lot of ways, like patriarchy sleeping on your sofa and taking all your stuff and then not really giving you anything and they’re just kind of there, you know. And, so I use that metaphor of breaking up diet culture because I think it’s so apt, right? You’ve invested so much and I think, again, the analogy of the relationship that’s gone on far too long is really perfect because you know, I think we invest and we invest and we invest and we get to a point of diminishing returns fairly quickly.

It’s like we can’t imagine a world outside of it. Like, I’ll use my own self and my own life as an example. For years and years and years, I dieted. I was calorically restricting. I was obsessively exercising and it was very, not only physically depleting but emotionally depleting, right? Because to me dieting is, it really is a self-annihilatory act. It’s an act that annihilates desire. It annihilates instinct. It annihilates, you know, band width and a number of other things.

And, yeah, even though I hated dieting and I knew it was unpleasant, right.? I think very few people enjoy dieting. I really could not imagine my life outside of dieting. It never even occurred to me that women had the right not to control what we eat or not to attempt to control what our body looks like.

That idea simply had never occurred to me and I think this is really important, right? It’s like a pretty, smart, self-aware person that I would never think that I had the right or the choice to opt out is evidence of just how powerful and how consistently barraged we are with the idea that we have to control what our bodies look like. And, I remember when someone finally told me in my mid-twenties. You know, they said, “did you know that you don’t have to diet?”

It just kind of was like a break in the sky, right? It was just … I just could not, in my head it was like you are alive and therefore you diet. Especially as a fat person.

Savala Trepczynski: Tell me about one of your first memories of experiencing the need for social justice or maybe people who were trying to meet the need for social justice.

Virgie Tovar: Yeah, I mean, I’m thinking about one of the first times I stepped in, in the name of justice was when I was 12 years old. I was in the Pentecostal Church. I really, really hated the environment because I did not fit well with my peers. I was someone who interacted better with adults and some of that had to do with being a fat girl and just constantly being kind of … because my body was bigger I think I always felt alien in among people my own age.

And, I think, also, I was always kind of an over achiever and a teacher’s pet, in that way. So, as a result of all of this I ended up being the children’s church teacher, which is usually kind of a role for adults, but I was 12 and I was willing to do it. So, I’m working with all these four, five, six, seven, eight year olds and I’m teaching them all these kinds of stories and we do songs and we have snacks and it’s really fun.

And, then it kind of got to the point where I’m expected to teach them about Hell and about Satan and about kind of these really intense repercussions for sin and whatever. And, I had this moment, this kind of rub, like this dissonance inside of me that just made me think it’s not right to do this. So, I just kind of individually, unilaterally decided not to teach any of the punishment side of the Bible.

Savala Trepczynski: Minor omission.

Virgie Tovar: And, I did this for something like two years in secret, and it was just wild because you know, we’d have a really good time, and I would give them life advice. Like, I’d be like, “okay, so always wear a tie to an interview”. They were like six, seven years old. And, I just felt that it was deeply, deeply wrong to teach children shame and to teach children fear.

Savala Trepczynski: Do you draw a connection between your instinct in the Pentecostal class around refusing to teach or perform shame and punishment and the work you do now, which in many ways is about refusing to put on the cloak of shame or punishment around one’s body?

Virgie Tovar: Yes, absolutely and I think that there’s, I don’t know, I mean I’ve always kind of been hyper attuned to the things in the culture that are passed off as normal that are not. That people seek to render invisible and I’m really invested in not colluding in that act of rendering things invisible. Especially, you know, violent things, right, that kind of really effect the contours and the trajectory of our lives. So, for sure.

Savala Trepczynski: Yeah, so, yes, especially as a fat person and I self-identify as fat. You identify as fat.

Virgie Tovar: Yes.

Savala Trepczynski: Would you describe what you mean by fat in terms of your own body just so we have a sense of where you come by your politics on this issue?

Virgie Tovar: Yeah, so I am a 250-pound woman and I wear like a size 20, 22. So, the way that kind of situates me is that I have, for the most part, quite a bit of structural access. For example, I can fit into most booths and seating at restaurants. It might be a little bit uncomfortable but I can do it. I can, you know, I can fit into seats on airplanes and things like that. So, that’s kind of the structural piece.

Virgie Tovar: Where my bigger struggle comes up is around the interpersonal. I do experience fat phobia in an interpersonal and social sense. Meaning that I’ve had the lifelong effects of, you know, constantly having my body policed by others. I am, every time I leave my house, I’m deeply aware that someone might say something to me that’s really dehumanizing and stultifying. Because we’re just in that environment where people feel the right to police and speak out violently against fat women, in particular.

So, it’s kind of this interesting, I think that’s an important conversation, right? Because fat phobia happens on a spectrum and kind of there’s one end where there’s, you know, really intense body dysmorphia. Which is a cultural product and essentially creates a real sense of shame around the body.

And, then kind of on the other end there’s the structural piece, right? Where someone who weighs more than me might have really barred access to meaningful participation in society and that’s like the institutional piece so I think it’s important to make that difference and kind of situate myself kind of in this middle place, in some ways.

Savala Trepczynski: The hammer definitely comes down heavily on people who have fat bodies but it also comes down on people who don’t have fat bodies, right? I mean that’s one of the awful, sticky, messy ironies of the body image industry and the diet industry is that it doesn’t really, in some ways, matter what you look like or how much space your body takes up. In your own mind, you’re still hooked in to the cycle, right?

So, like putting aside the structural piece and how that impacts certain bodies in particular. Is that your experience too working with women that, you know, you don’t have to be fat to be caught up in the dieting Valhalla, right?

Virgie Tovar: Right, absolutely and I think that that’s, I mean, that’s the point, right? I think the point of, and this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot this last week, where dieting and fat phobia are a lot about hierarchy. They’re a lot about control, right. Like whenever there is hierarchy there is the desire to control people’s behaviors and their lives, right?

And, the truth is, for example, if I were to put ten people in a room, let’s say all of them were slender athletes, I would bet money that one of them would be the fattest person in the room and they might experience that kind of microcosmic experience of fat phobia in that group, right.

And, I think that’s where the toxicity comes in because the goalpost keeps moving, right? Like you might be in one environment where your body is situated as average and then you go to another environment and your body is situated as very large and I think that there’s something very classed about this, as well.

Like, I think about living in San Francisco, my body is enormous. I feel like I am actively violating class laws every single time I leave my house. But what’s wild is, I go ten miles south onto the peninsula or another suburb and my body is much more normal, not only in terms of being a brown person but also just in terms of being a bigger person.

And, so it’s kind of, it’s deeply disorienting to kind of go and in its own way it’s a code switching thing, too, you know. So, yeah, absolutely, I think the point of fat phobia as sort of a form of oppression is that everyone becomes subject to the reality of that oppression. Everyone is negatively affected by this because at the end of the day, you know, you’re either someone is actively experiencing fat phobia and that might look like, you know, the sense that you’re constantly feeling like you have to measure up or because you’re actively being stigmatized.

You’re either experiencing it or you’re afraid of experiencing it. So, it creates this real culture of fear around bodies, where no one wins.

Savala Trepczynski: So, how do you step outside of something that is so pervasive?

Virgie Tovar: Yeah, I think that’s the difficult question and that’s how dieting, in my mind, turns into diet culture, when it’s unavoidable and it just feels like there’s so many mundane exchanges that happen that are so deeply based in surveillance and policing.

Like, I often ask people, “can you imagine going one single day without hearing about somebody’s weight loss plan or hearing about how potato chips are evil or overhearing a conversation with your coworkers where they’re trying to decide who needs to have the smallest piece of cake”, right. And, these kinds of these things are trivialized in a lot of ways but they’re deeply based in surveillance. They’re deeply based in the performance of compliance, you know?

For, me, I feel like I’ve broken out of a prison. And, you know, and I think what’s hard, right, is what are we giving up? The structure, the consistent meals that a prison gives us, right?

Savala Trepczynski: Right.

Virgie Tovar: But, at the end of the day, I’m like, well, but those are prison meals and that’s also structure that’s coming down the fascistic pipeline, right? And, so, I think there’s something very important to recognize about not playing along and the fact that there’s a lot of forces that seek to keep you playing along.

Savala Trepczynski: Including other women, right?

Virgie Tovar: Absolutely.

Savala Trepczynski: That’s something that we, as with all kind of oppressive regimes, people who are oppressed enforce the regime against each other.

Virgie Tovar: Yeah, yeah. Well and I think that it’s, you know, and, for me, it’s like when women are sort of agents of patriarchy when they step in on behalf of patriarchy and try to regulate.

Savala Trepczynski: Ohhhh, chilling phrase. Agents of patriarchy.

Virgie Tovar: No, totally and we’re taught to be that and I think it’s really scary to say it. You know, it’s really scary to just admit it. But, you know, I remember being about 20 years old, at Berkeley learning from other feminists that that’s what women were taught to do and they rendered, again, they rendered into language of feelings that I’d been acting on for years and years and years.

But, yeah, I mean, again, I kind of, I feel like I wish that I could think of more of these costs but for me it feels like, I feel like I’ve won some like massive lottery, except that there’s no limit to like how much money’s in the pot and everybody can have some.

Savala Trepczynski: Dang, that’s pretty good, Virgie.

Virgie Tovar: Yes, totally.

Savala Trepczynski: So, the other day I was buying a cupcake and I asked the woman who was working in the cupcake store, “do you ever get sick of these or do you just every day you just come in and you kind of just numb out on the cupcakes because you’re around them all day?” And she, said, “no, they still look good, but I cannot eat them because I’m trying to lose weight, not gain weight.”

How do you respond when you hear something like that? Is it just kind of smile and chuckle because everyone’s on their journey or are a revolutionary so you’re going to, you know, try to help her get free a little bit?

Virgie Tovar: Right. I mean, it depends, right. Even though I’m kind of like a revolutionary or you know on that sort of path, I have to really check in with how much band width I have that day. So, a lot of times I’ll sort of, again, this is kind of an intuitive process where I’m like, well. I might say something like, you know, “there’s nothing wrong with, like all kinds of bodies are good bodies” or I might say something like, I don’t know, like I’m trying to think of the exact verbiage that I would use.

But, I’d probably do kind of like a cheerful sort of playful push back on the idea that this person needed to lose weight. I’m not going to have like a full come to Jesus conversation with a cupcake person. And, I think what’s really wild also, bringing it back to gender, dieting is a language of intimacy between women and sometimes I notice women food police, like sort of offering these food policing sentiments as a way to kind of relate to me.

And, again, I feel like it’s like this horribly patriarchally mediated intimacy that we get to share. Because there’s kind of these, you know, four to five topic areas that women can safely navigate with each other and strangers and food policing is one of those. I’ve started, I’m starting to perfect the art of quick and loving push back, where … like the other day, for example, not related to food but I had met a new person and we were just walking to get coffee and I was kind of telling her about the particular coffee shop that we went to and I was sort of telling her about the history of the neighborhood and whatever, and the coffee shop, in particular and the role in the neighborhood.

And, she said, “I’ll tell you one thing, I could’ve done without that woman barista wearing so little clothing” and I kind of had this moment of “oh, my gosh, right, like there are people in the world who are still thinking this about other women.” It was just like jarring, you know because I’m so entrenched. I’m so curatorial about who’s around me and I’m surrounded by feminists. I just kind of said, “you know, actually, her clothing didn’t bother me. It’s her right to wear what she wants” and just kind of move on, right? Doesn’t have to be this enormous production.

And, I think a lot of times we’re really afraid and I think, again, very gendered. We’re afraid of having boundaries. We’re afraid of saying no. We’re afraid of kind of individuating rather than just kind of codependently just going with whatever the messy flow might be to just have a moment where we say, “no actually that’s not my belief system. I’m going to register my dissent but we don’t have to be on bad terms now as a result of this”.

Savala Trepczynski: Yeah, I mean I love that. I’m trying to imagine if that would work, you know, in a courtroom or something or like around a conference table with opposing counsel. Because for women, you know, there’s this societal normative values around beauty and how we look and our clothes and what looks polished and professional and all of that.

And, for women who are lawyers or aspiring lawyers, there’s the additional layer of the sort of conservativeness of the law and the world that we function in and you know, I would love to be able to go into a courtroom looking like myself as opposed to feeling that I had to costume up in this super polished way and feeling like I could offer very friendly like retort to anyone who gave me the side eye from across the room.

Virgie Tovar: Right.

Savala Trepczynski: But, it’s hard to buck these structures, you know, even if we bristle against them. It can take a lot of trial and error and courage and also the willingness to sometimes just not do it. Just to say, I am going to go with the flow in this particular moment and not try to dismantle capitalist patriarchy in every waking second of my life.

Virgie Tovar: Yeah, because that’s too much work. That’s too much work. And, I think, also one of the things I really encourage people to moving forward in like the harm reduction or the empowerment conversation is to sometimes recognize when something is a hustle, right? To just kind of walk in and be like, “guess what, today’s a hustle day and this is my hustle outfit and I’m going to hustle this situation to get the things that I want because I have to do that in this culture that encourages artifice, you know.

We have the right to be curatorial about that. We have the right to sort of walk into these situations that are not made for our success and sort of have, I think, what I call a harm reduction approach to them. And that-

Savala Trepczynski: What does that mean? Can you just unpack that?

Virgie Tovar: Yeah, totally. I mean, I just think about, there are many situations for me where I have a professional goal, right? And, my thought is, okay, let’s say my goal is, for me personally in my work, I’d like to expand my platform and I’d also like to monetize it in a certain way, okay? And, for me, what does monetization mean? This goes back to sort of, this is a little bit more complicated, but for me it’s what’s my mission statement? What do I really want to do with this money? How am I activating my income to create a life where I have the space to heal and create the life that I want to live? Right? And, how am I, you know, intentionally allocating and pulling resources.

So, I’ll have a professional moment where maybe my internal response is like oh no, but it’s a very well paid opportunity or it’s a huge platform builder for me. So, what I’ll do is, I’ll kind of put on my hustle hat and I’ll be like, “okay I’m going to go in, this is probably not going to be a hospitable environment to me”. Like corporate environments are not hospitable to people of color, to women, to fat people, period. And, we know this because corporate environments are about creating homogeneity and so when I kind of go in and I’m thinking, “okay, I don’t like this very much but here is how I’m going to get the thing that I want so that I can create the life that I want”.

And, I’m very intentional about how that resource is getting allocated and put back. And, so, with that harm reduction model, right? I can go in and be intentional. What are my boundaries? When I go into the meeting, how much am I going to speak to other people? How much physical contact am I going to allow? Right?

So, what I’ll do is, you know if there’s a meeting, for example, I will arrive, say hello, keep, you know, three feet of distance or whatever and then I’ll sit down and kind of get on my laptop until the meeting begins because maybe I don’t want to network with these folks because they’re going to say some weird things to me.

And, that’s just an example, but kind of when you go in with a grounded understanding of why you’re there it equips you to kind of navigate these potentially really intimidating and sometimes deeply frustrating and negative experiences.

Savala Trepczynski: I’m wondering if you attribute your ability to know and hold your boundaries and to respect your boundaries and your instincts about your boundaries to dropping out of diet culture, to getting off the treadmill, so to speak?

Virgie Tovar: Yeah, in a lot of ways. Like, essentially not dieting has been an enormous part of following my intuition and I think a lot of it, I mean I feel like, I mean essentially when we do work that really matters to us we are working from the heart. We are working from the gut, the metaphorical gut, right? And, then dieting is seeking to annihilate the gut, the physical gut and I think also, the metaphorical gut, right? Because, like I was saying earlier, hunger is a sacred, ancient instinct in the same way that intuition is.

And, it’s wild, right because women throughout history for hundreds of years our practices of intuition building have been destroyed one after another and dieting, in my mind, is part of that active destruction. So, the idea is, right, for me, I think about when I was dieting, right? Not only was all my emotional energy caught up in food control and body stuff, I also had a very hard time accessing that sense of intuition, right?

And, we need to recognize dieting as this really, like in my mind, dieting is a manifestation of distress. Dieting is anger that women do have and should have towards patriarchy turned inward. And, that’s what shame is, shame is anger turned inward and again, all of these things create a very inhospitable environment to the proliferation of intuition.

And, it makes sense to me that, for me, and I think for a lot of people, as we would release that destructive behavior, that these other more sort of self love based and restorative behaviors and practices would have room to flourish.

Savala Trepczynski: Yeah, it’s not a zero sum game. Human potential and human capacity, right? Yet, at the same time, I mean, man, if I could have back every dollar or moment that I spent perseverating about how to conform to Western modern beauty ideals. I mean, oh my God, I could be the dean of Berkeley Law. You know, this has, there’s a mystical benefit but there’s a super practical benefit too in the sense that there’s only so many practices that we can cultivate really well at a time. And, if one of those practices is the endless pursuit of a better body, it’s a huge time suck, is it not?

Virgie Tovar: Yeah, absolutely and I think like women are capable of thriving in extremely inhospitable environments. I mean, I think of our culture right now as exceedingly inhospitable to women. Exceedingly. And, if we just took a moment to allow ourselves to recognize how inhospitable and how we’ve managed to get up every day, put our clothes on, you know, make our, like flat iron our bangs, put on some lipstick, you know, in the midst of all of this, that is exceptional.

For me, my thought is, we don’t have to do it.

Savala Trepczynski: So, one of the pitches that I am totally up front about trying to make is that women who give up diet culture and who divest from the body image industrial complex have more energy and resources in their life and in this particular podcast, the case I’m trying to make is that women who want to do social justice work, in particular, benefit from that. Because of how trying and intense social justice learning is.

Savala Trepczynski: So, let me ask you, what kind of resources have you gained from losing the hate, as you say, and stepping out of the cycle?

Virgie Tovar: Yeah, I mean, I think sort of an infinite number of resources, primarily among them, dignity and I feel like there’s this incredibly powerful quote by a sociologist named Sander Gilman and he says in one of his books, “dieting is a process by which the individual claims control over her body and thus shows her ability to understand her role.”

Savala Trepczynski: Ohhhh.

Virgie Tovar: I know. I remember the first time I read it and I just kind of … I mean I almost fell off my chair, right?

Savala Trepczynski: Yeah. Well you should … I’m like almost falling.

Virgie Tovar: You’re almost falling. Yeah, you did. And, I just remember reading it over and over and over again and he kind of almost like flippantly mentions it in the introduction to one of his books. But, you know, and it was through that, it was through his crystallization of this idea that I really began to understand that dieting was an investment in the culture and a divestment from myself and that each time, each skipped meal, each thought spent obsessing about how to be thin was me sort of taking, you know, something away from myself and giving it away to a culture that was not invested in my success.

Savala Trepczynski: What about beauty? What about someone who doesn’t really think of themselves as fat or thin or dieting but obviously we all want to be beautiful, whatever that means. Where does beauty fit in to this Valhalla of capitalism and patriarchy and dignity and self respect and giving yourself away one little bit at a time?

Virgie Tovar: Right, I mean, I’ve started to have, I don’t know if this is exactly what you’re asking me but I’m going to offer my philosophy on beauty and I kind of, I wrote a piece about this called Ugliness is a Myth and I was kind of … one of the most sort of magical restorative things that happened to me when I stopped dieting was that I began to recall the time before I learned fat phobia, when I was a child.

Those memories were suppressed because of diet culture. I could not, my brain could not hold that there had been a time before I learned fat phobia and dieting behavior they just weren’t compatible so my brain just sort of shut that side of me down or those memories down.

And, I remembered, you know, how much I loved my body. How deeply curious I was. How every day when we got home I would take off all my clothes and I would run down the hallway and I would stop in front of the kitchen where my grandmother was always cooking and I would jiggle, you know. And, the feeling of like delight and pleasure from the jiggling was so intense that it actually created this like imprint in my mind. Like I can still access the intensity of the pleasure, even right now as I’m sitting with you.

And, you know, then I was introduced to fat phobia and all that kind of went away. That curiosity, that delight, that pleasure. But I think it’s important to remember that, you know, when we’re born into this world we’re capable of seeing beauty in all things and in all people. Everything is wondrous and incredible, right? Like a tree, I mean if you look at a child, right, the way that they look at a leaf or a tree. I mean, that sense of like overwhelming wonder that they have towards all these different things and how nothing is prioritized over another thing.

And, I think it’s unfortunate that, through cultural education and the rewards and punishments that the culture sort of metes out, our field of vision becomes narrower and narrower and narrower until, and I kind of use the metaphor of like, we’re looking at a masterpiece through a peephole. And, for me, I’ve just come to really realize and push back against that, and I’ve really begun to sort of recognize that beauty is not something that women earn, it’s something that people are.

Savala Trepczynski: So, let me ask you about race and the intersection of race and your process. Do you think it’s made it easier or more difficult to get free, so to speak, as a woman of color? And, I ask because on the one hand, you’re not white, so you’ll never be white. You’re never going to look like, you know, anyone on the cast of Friends, and there’s … it’s true.

There’s a certain liberation in that, right? Like, I will never achieve that and there’s also something that can be very demoralizing, like no matter what you do, you’re never going to be that white beauty, so how has that played out for you?

Virgie Tovar: Yeah, I mean honestly I will say, I think as a woman of color, it’s been easier to get free because sort of I think that, in a lot of ways I think that I was aware, made aware of my body before I was racialized because I grew up in a primarily a community of color, of mostly immigrant kids and you know, their parents, our parents were immigrants.

But, I will say that before I was radicalized around body I was radicalized around race. And, again, it was a very intuitive process, in the sense that I knew something wasn’t right. You know, I went to college and I started undergrad at UC Davis and it was the first time that I was in a majority white space and it was, it felt deeply, emotionally inhospitable and sort of hostile and alien to me.

And, I couldn’t understand what it was. I didn’t even have a racial identity until I was introduced to whiteness, which I think is very common for people of color. And, it’s so ironic, isn’t it, how there’s like this obsession on behalf of white supremacy to suppress racialization but it’s white supremacy that creates racialization. This is the great irony and the crazy making, this is kind of like the gaslighting that the culture does.

Anyhoo, I kind of thought, I had this inclination that maybe it was racial so I started to seek out like critical race theory resources and things like that. So, and I’ll admit it was that kind of static, that tension in the air that felt, that I could feel that tuned me in to other things that were going on with the culture.

And, so I think it was very, very powerful for me to have like a critical race theory language and framework going into anti-dieting work. Because I already knew something wasn’t right. Something wasn’t right on a different front than my body, you know.

And, so in that way I kind of began to see myself as sort of on the periphery before and I think what’s interesting, it wasn’t until I was introduced to feminism that that periphery became a celebratory place and because I was introduced to a very specific brand of queer feminism that was deeply resilient. That was deeply campy and I’m so campy. You know, and I think there was this kind of permission granted around this almost like very provocative expression of gender and anti-assimilation in our politics, right?

And, really it was almost like walking out of the coffee that follows a business meeting into a full on underground party. And, I think it was my sensitization as like a racialized woman to the idea there were these really rad underground parties that made it much less difficult for me to just go deeper into that party.

Savala Trepczynski: So, for listeners who want to come to this party or hosts who want to come to this party, what are the first few steps for somebody whose imagination has been captured and wants to play with this idea of creating a little more space in their life for the pursuit of something greater by stopping to invest so heavily in body image culture and diet culture? How do they start?

Virgie Tovar: My first sort of piece of advice is actually to audit, right, like, and I know that sounds so boring. But, one of the first things I have-

Savala Trepczynski: It does sound a little boring, Virgie, I can’t lie.

Virgie Tovar: But, you know, you kind of go in and I think that the practice of intention is so important. And, auditing is a practice of intention, right? And, then because it is one of the first things I do when I work with people, I have a program called Babecamp, one of the first exercises we do, the activities we do is I have them for two days, audit the people, input, resources, whatever, who make them feel really badly about themselves. And, we kind of go in and I ask them what time of day? What was it? Was it a conversation with a particular person? Was it magazine you have a subscription to? Is it a show that you watch?

Is it like a moment in the day when you just have, like the first thing in the morning when you look in the mirror or whatever? Whatever the moment that create the difficult feelings inside of you and to just kind of … and even that, the auditing process is a space creating process. It’s literally giving yourself the time to reflect on what’s happening. What input are you letting in? And, then taking a little bit of time to go in and ask yourself, what is the low hanging fruit I can get rid of? If I know this show always makes me feel really badly, you just need to stop watching that show.

If it’s a magazine, just cancel the subscription, right? You know, and then we get into the second level where let’s say it’s people, like our family members or even our partner who are creating these really difficult feelings. We begin to divest from them, so I often tell people to be very, it’s very methodical, right? Like if you sort of find there’s a person in your life who’s consistently making you feel a certain way, you divest 50% of the energy you’ve spent on them.

Savala Trepczynski: But, I’m going to interrupt just to ask. I mean, there’s some people in our lives we cannot phase out.

Virgie Tovar:  That’s true.

Savala Trepczynski: To say nothing of our own inner voice.

Virgie Tovar: Yes. Yes, absolutely.

Savala Trepczynski: So, what do you with that?

Virgie Tovar: Yeah. I find that in interactions, even when we don’t feel like we can sort of fully phase out that person, there are often little spaces where you can kind of pull back, you know. And I think what’s important is, and this goes back to something I was saying earlier, maybe in the meeting, right? We have to have a meeting with this person every single day or every single week and there’s no way out of it because they’re our boss or our coworker or whatever. Maybe that looks like you know, not offering stuff when it’s their time to converse. Maybe it looks like not having as much physical contact with the person.

Often there’s little things that you can kind of pull back on it and modulate. And, it’s hard, right? A lot of times women work in, because of sexism, heavily female dominated industries where their entire office is filled with women who are all on a diet.

And, again, this goes back to like the intimacy, and the team building weirdness the patriarchal sort of mediated intimacy. And, a lot of times what we’ll do together is we’ll come up with grounding exercises for them. So, maybe before work they’re going to take five minutes to do this like self care thing or they’re going to take five minutes of silence or, I mean, for me, I’m kind of like, whoa, so I’m like, maybe you need a touchstone. Maybe you need like a stone that symbolizes this kind of energy or whatever. You can like have it on your desk, right or it’s in your drawer and you kind of know that you have this thing.

And, that touchstone might be a stone. It might be a book. It might be, I mean we’ll have all kinds of things but just kind of something that reminds you, yes, I’m in a hostile environment and also this is not going to last forever and also I have the right to take a second to pull back from this and to be grounded.

One thing that’s really important to me is to allow yourself to be angry. Anger is a really sacred practice and I think it’s a deeply, for women, anger is one of the least feminine of behaviors that we can do and so there’s a big taboo around anger. And, this goes back to the idea that oftentimes we will metabolize anger and we’ll turn it into shame and that’s just internally directed anger. And, I think it’s really important for women to actually be able to feel anger and express anger.

You know and I think you have to be, unfortunately, again, you have to be strategic about what that looks like. But, I really think, I really want to encourage women not to stifle that anger. Even if it’s something that you know you’re not going to be able to go off on the person who’s the target of the anger, who’s the inspiration for the anger. That might not be something you can do professionally or personally or whatever. But, to not allow that anger to fester into something that becomes self destructive.

So, I really want to encourage women to remember that part of the restoration of our full humanity as women, which we all deserve, is that we experience the spectrum of human emotion that involves anger and sadness and grief. Things that, in our culture, are scripted as deeply unfeminine, right. Because like our role in society is to put a smile on it and caretake everybody, right? Make you a sandwich, wipe your nose and keep everything light, right?

And, I want to encourage women to push back against that expectation because it’s deeply, deeply dehumanizing, it’s deeply depleting, it’s gendered labor that gets invisibilized through sexism, essentially. So, to kind of recognize like how much work you’re doing and to recognize, you know, is the behavior I am investing in something that is restoring my humanity or something that is depleting my humanity.

Be curatorial. Give yourself permission to be intentional. Give yourself permission to pursue things that nourish you and to recognize and if you can, step away from things that deplete you.

Savala Trepczynski: Virgie, this has been radical in every sense of the word. Thank you so much.

Virgie Tovar: Yes. Thank you for having me.

Savala Trepczynski: It’s been great.

That was Virgie Tovar. You’ve been listening to Be The Change. I’m Savala Trepczynski and I hope you stay tuned. We’ve got more conversations coming with social justice thinkers and doers.