Body image speaker embraces her “fat”

State Hornet Staff

A leading body image expert encourages Sacramento State State women to free themselves from the pressures of dieting.

From meal replacement shakes to 7-day juice cleanses, there are many diet trends out there. These fad diets often go hand-in-hand with the pressure society has placed on women to be thin.

Speaker and sex educator, Virgie Tovar, 32, intends to put an end to diet culture.

Tovar lectured in Sac State’s Hinde auditorium in the University Union on Oct. 15. During this talk, titled “Lose Hate Not Weight: 5 Ways to End Diet Culture NOW!,” Tovar spoke of her experiences in coming to terms with her body image.

“I was 20 years old, a really smart person studying political science and doing really well, and yet that was my reality,” Tovar said. “My reality was that my life, my intellect, whatever I could offer to this world, would be nothing if I weren’t thin.”

Tovar, who has a master’s degree in human sexuality, has dedicated her work to educating others on fat discrimination and promoting positive body image.

“Whenever women take autonomy over their bodies, culture freaks out,” Tovar said. “There’s this pressure on women to be cute and nice, and there’s no room for criticism.”

In the two years she has been touring and lecturing on this subject, she has received a fulfillment she never found while working out three times a day, constantly weighing herself and eating very little.

Tovar said a pivotal moment came when she realized calorically restricting herself would be a lifelong battle she could never win.

“I remember thinking, ‘How much longer ‘til I can eat some [expletive] cake?’ and in my head I was like, ‘Is it a year? No. Two years? No. Five years? No. Ten years? No,’” Tovar said. “And I kept going like that until I hit the end of my life and I realized that was the answer: I couldn’t eat cake until I was dead—and not even then! Because if I ate cake it could be an entry point for gaining weight, and if I gained weight, that would mean my life was worthless.”

Tovar said her change in perspective was rooted in her desire to be free from insecurity.

“What I realized after I stopped dieting was that I was doing it for freedom,” Tovar said. “Being thin—I was taught that’s how you get love and freedom from all the things that I’d been taught were wrong with me because I was fat.”

Over time, she realized she would not find independence by thinking dieting was the way to be socially accepted and she could not starve her way to freedom.

“I started to think about what freedom means to me and if I could create a world in which I feel completely free, I realized that in that world, my body isn’t different—my body is this body,” Tovar said. “And so I started to think like, OK, if I don’t need to change my body to live in that free world, in that utopia, then why am I doing all this? Why am I killing myself, feeling like crap, like weighing myself every 10 minutes?”

A crowd of more than 30 students listened and participated in the discussion.

“Some people diet because of the fear of being someone deemed socially unacceptable,” said sociology major Shavon Hyde, 19. “I’ve seen children as young as 8 years old dieting.”

Tovar’s words encouraged students to share their own experiences and really think about how the images in the media and factors such as racism affect body image.

During her presentation, Tovar discussed campaigns and media photographs aimed to scare people when it comes to body image. One set of images alluded to suicide by obesity; there was one image of a thin, deceased woman sprawled on the floor clutching a tube of Skittles and another of a man with sausages strangling his neck.

“I have an 8-year-old niece who is chubby like her auntie,” said speech pathology major Shyanne Benjamin, 19. “If she saw something like this, she’d think, ‘I’ll end up like this woman on the floor who did this to herself.’ Society makes obesity a joke and treats it like a laughing matter when it’s not.”

Students found Tovar to be relatable and engaging.

“I’m very inspired by her, I just love her energy,” said J’Lissabeth Faughn, director of the Multi-Cultural, PRIDE and Women’s Resource Centers.

Faughn said Tovar first spoke at Sac State last spring with Sister Spit, a queer literary touring troupe. During this tour, she read about fat-positive feminism and was brought back to Sac State by popular demand.

“She is a really quality speaker. Her eloquence makes you want to get on board with what she has to say,” said Jenn Errol, 38, Sac State aluma. “I’m kind of a panel nerd. I like to go and listen to people speak. But I find a common theme, that they’re really angry all the time and everybody uses negative language, and she uses really positive language and so it makes me want to listen from the start to the end.”

Errol said when she graduated in 2000, women and LGBT-oriented events offered on campus were limited and on a much smaller scale, and she is happy to see this progression.

“This did not exist when I was here,” Errol said. “We did not have guest speakers in an auditorium like this. Three of us just sat in a freaking classroom and went, ‘Let’s wear rainbows.’”

During Tovar’s PowerPoint presentation, she projected her five steps to ending diet culture. These included: ‘stop viewing food as the enemy,’ ‘smash your scale,’ ‘implement a my body, my business policy,’ ‘interrogating the language of dieting’ and ‘wear and do what you want.’

Tovar assured the audience her goal is never to force a way of thinking on anyone.

“My belief is that everybody is free to eat and do what they want. If people want to diet, they should diet because if it feels like the right thing to do for them, I’m not trying to stop anyone from doing that,” Tovar said. “I mean, I think that it’s definitely something that needs to be examined.”

Tovar clarified her belief that there is a difference between being healthy and dieting.

“In short, I believe diet culture compromises your autonomy,” Tovar said. “Again, I’m pro-choice before I’m anything else. I have no desire to control what you do or don’t do. At the end of the day, taking care of your body is what I’m trying to get people to do. I feel like dieting is not interested in that.”

Tovar has learned to embrace the word “fat” as a positive description of herself and others. She is one of 31 women who wrote and contributed their experiences to the book “Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love & Fashion” published in 2012.

“I have definitely reclaimed the word ‘fat’. ‘Fat’ was used for a very long time to shame and silence me,” Tovar said. “My relationship with it was at first based in fear and then later in rebellion. I think I am still trying to make peace with it. I use this word to normalize it and to reclaim my body in a culture that seeks to alienate me from it and to take back some of the power it took from me.”