Here is the full transcript of My Big Fat Fabulous Life star Whitney Thore’s TEDx Talk presentation on Living Without Shame: How We Can Empower Ourselves at TEDxGreensboro conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio: Living without shame How we can empower ourselves by Whitney Thore at TEDxGreensboro
You may have noticed by now that I’m really fat, and that’s okay; you wouldn’t be the first.
Back in 1997 when I was in seventh grade, I heard a question posed about me in the locker room of my middle school. I sat hidden in a bathroom stall hunched over, not wanting to give myself away, when I heard a girl asked: when was the last time Whitney saw 90210? I was like more of a Saved by the Bell girl myself, and I’d actually never seen an episode of 90210. So I clenched my muscles and held my pee and waited with bated breath for the answer. And when it came, when she stepped on the scale, the girls erupted into laughter and I felt the familiar sting of embarrassment seeping into my cheeks.
It took me back to my fifth grade year on the soccer field where the boys had taken to singing a song about me called Baby Beluga that ended with: “she’s got a whale of a tale.” You might be picturing now how fat I probably was. It’s easy to conjure up a mental image of an awkward girl spilling out of her shorts, running up and down the sidelines, like hey I’m open. But if you have that mental image you would be wrong, because in 1995 when I was 10 years old, I looked like this.
And when I look at that picture now my heart aches because when I was just becoming aware that I had a body and that other people had opinions about my body, I became a statistic, like eight out of ten 10-year olds who today are afraid of being fat — 10-year-olds! That’s a real statistic. I bought the lie that diet culture sold me when I was ten years old that told me if I am thin, thinner, than enough, then I will be happy.
But at 10 years old I felt the furthest thing from happy. And so the emotion that I most connected with my body was shame. After that, shame followed me like a shadow. And after the 90210 incident, I knew I had to take action. So I grabbed the handle of my father’s toothbrush and shoved it down my throat until I vomited and thus began my nearly lifelong battle with eating disorders.
I continued to excel in school, to play sports, to dance. Shame and I won lots of awards and trophies. Sometimes, shame was like a really overbearing adult begging for a piggyback ride, and other time shame trailed a few feet behind me dragging its leash like a faithful dog never leaving my sight.
By the time I was 18 years old in 2002 and becoming a young woman, shame had solidified itself as my most faithful friend. It accompanied me to every dance performance, to every soccer tournament; it was even there in the bathroom with me at my prom as I hunched over at toilet and threw up my dinner, just minutes before being crowned prom princess.
When I moved to college that fall, I brought shame along into my dorm room, and I noticed that my body was changing. By the time I went home for Christmas break, I gained 50 pounds, and I’m thinking like, OK, I’m an overachiever, so clearly the freshman 15 is just not enough. I was getting mysterious bruises all over my body and I was like why am I bumping into door reason furniture, when do I get so clumsy but then I realized I wasn’t clumsy; my body was expanding so quickly that I had lost all kinesthetic awareness of it. My body literally didn’t know how to fit in its physical place anymore and similarly I didn’t know where I fit in the world.
To say that my weight gain was difficult would be an understatement. By the time the second semester was finished, I gained nearly 100 pounds and there was the sympathy from like the pretty girls who asked me if I like ever had a boyfriend. And then there was that one frat boy who had taken me on a dinner date in August, granted it was to Ruby Tuesday but it was a dinner date. And when he saw me emerge he looked right through me like I didn’t even exist. It was like I’d been forced into some social experiment against my will to put on a fat suit and parade about in public. The differences in the way that people treated average Whitney and fat Whitney were striking. Suddenly I was assumed to be lazy, desperate, sloppy, stupid and with every single pound that I gained my self-worth continued to shrink further and further.
So I became a different person after that. I quit my dance classes, I failed a lot of my academic classes and in a world where it felt like being a fat woman was the biggest taboo, I didn’t have anyone to talk to. Sure, there were times where I pulled myself up by the bootstraps and I said I’m going to go to the gym or I’m going to venture out to this party. But there was always a whisper, a dirty look and insult to remind me why I didn’t deserve to be in those spaces, so I would come back home to my apartment to the only friend that had never deserted me: shame. We would stay up late into the night commiserating getting drunk to no more pain. I’d order takeout for us both and do anything to avoid going out in a world that didn’t want me.
And of course, all the things that I had done to cope only compounded the problem and I continued gaining weight. In 2005, I weighed 280 pounds and my nurse practitioner swiveled her stool from in between my legs in the stirrups, checking her chart and announcing a little too cheerfully that she thought I had PCOS. Wow! My mind started reeling, because I did not remember learning about this STD in my seventh-grade sex ed class. But the more I learned as I poured over the brochures and the pamphlets — PCOS wasn’t an STD, it was a syndrome, a grouping of symptoms with no cure that affects one out of every ten women in America and is the leading cause of infertility.
And then like putting together a puzzle, other stuff started to make sense. The handfuls of hair that had come out in the shower, the coarse dark hairs all over my face, my period that had visited me only twice when I was 15 and never again, and of course my sudden and severe weight gain in my freshman year of college, I didn’t have an explanation for it then, but I had an explanation for it now. I was insulin resistant.
So would life with PCOS make it impossible to lose weight? Absolutely not. Would it be even harder? Absolutely, yes. And for a woman who wanted anything but to be fat, this felt like a death sentence. And then I got pissed off, I wondered why have I never heard of this thing? I wanted to know why I’d always been dismissed when I went to the doctors, told that I was young and irregular or I was drinking or I was on Prozac. But out of all those emotions that I felt, the one I felt the most of was shame.
So after college, I packed two suitcases, my clothes and shame, and I set off for Korea to teach English. I got promotion after promotion and I traveled the world. Shame and I made it all the way to the top of the Great Wall of China. We ate sushi together in Tokyo; we vacationed in Malaysia and Vietnam; we even sunbathed in Bali. But all of these experiences, it’s so wonderful, were tinged with that disgusting and city a shame that sucked the life and the color out of my memories and left me nothing but black and white and a never-ending wish to be thin so that I could really start my life.
Now living abroad wasn’t all bad, I had some of the best experiences there but the discrimination I faced was so much more overt than anything I had at home. I got laughed at, pointed at, and called the pig every single day in the street, in the store, in the nightclub. I’ll never forget the first time I got in a taxi and the driver started at me for every mile until we reached our destination.
Then there was the guy that swerved his bicycle dangerously close to where I was walking on the street, stop pedaling, looked at me said “Pig!” and then spit. I chased him which was a futile effort especially because he was in a bike and I hurled every Korean insult that I could remember until I saw him vanish in the dark.
And then I headed back to my apartment to cry. But it wasn’t until I was assaulted in a bar, a man raised up behind me to start punching me in the back of the head that I realized hold up, I don’t deserve this. It took such an aggressive abusive action to jolt me into the realization that I was a fat human but I was human. And I told myself I’m going to go back home to the States and I’m going to prevent this from ever happening to me again. I’m going to lose weight.
So I moved back home in 2011. In 2011, I weighed 329 pounds and I lost a hundred pounds in eight months. I worked out for 12 to 15 hours every week. I counted my calories, I obsessed and I hid my shame from my personal trainer and from my family and from my friends, even from strangers who said, “You’re remarkable. This is the hardest thing that anybody could ever do and look at you doing it, I’ve never been more proud of you since the day you were born!”
Pretty soon, I was eating 500 to 1000 calories a day and I was throwing up everything I ate on Friday which was my cheat day and my eating disorder had returned in full force. One day I walked out of the gym having just run a few miles on the treadmill and a car drove by slowly and lowered the windows and they yelled at me: Fat ass!
When I climbed into my own car dripping with sweat, what happened next was nothing short of a nervous breakdown. I had literally been working my ass off to do the one thing that everybody told me would fix it, the one thing that everybody told me would make me worthy. But that guy in the parking lot didn’t care; he didn’t know who, why, where I was or what I had done to change. And I fantasized about losing the rest of my hundred pounds and thinking about my goal weight. But then all I could see was sagging breasts and loose skin and crow’s feet around my eyes and I knew intellectually that as long as I let my self-worth be determined in the eyes of others, I would never be content. But I could not disengage from the belief that I had to be thin to be happy. And so in that moment all of my hope was extinguished.
I had grown tired of the calorie counting, of the weight loss, of the obsession with everything food and exercise. I wanted something more to live for. So naturally I got a job in radio where I had to wake up at four in the morning every day for minimum wage. And like the vast majority of people who lose a substantial amount of weight in their life, I started to gain it back and within a year and a half I was the heaviest I’d ever been: I was 350 pounds and in the deepest place of depression I’d ever known.
I didn’t have any money to pay my own rent, so I moved back in with my parents. And on my 29th birthday I found myself sobbing in my mother’s lap, lamenting about the dismal direction of both my professional and personal life and I asked her: “Mom, how can anything ever change?” And my mother produced her pendant and on it were the words: “Something good is going to happen.” But in my misery I was hyper-focused on one detail and one detail only: when?
So I started to re-evaluate my life, I thought back to when I was ten years old and 90 pounds and now I’m almost 30 and over 300 and it hadn’t mattered. I’d never been happy. I’d never loved myself, I’d always carry the weight of shame. So I decided to try an experiment and I made a promise, I said “Whitney, if there is something that you get asked to do and your only reason for declining is to say, ‘because I’m fat’, then you are going to do that thing anyway.” The universe was listening, because you better believe three days later I got a message from a local photographer who told me, she wanted to take some boudoir photographs of me for free. I wrote back to her immediately, “Sister, I would never in a million years take my clothes off in front of a camera, so when should I meet you?”
A bottle of wine and a designated driver later, I got an unexpected result. When I looked at this picture for the first time in my entire life, I didn’t dissect every flaw, I didn’t cringe and in fact I thought I was beautiful. So I decided to keep the experiment going. My co-workers at the radio station were trying to ask me to do a dance video and call it A Fat Girl Dancing and put it on YouTube and at first my reaction was absolutely not, because no one has seen me dance since I was 18, fat girls don’t get to do that. And I’m still balking at the word fat and I had to ask myself: Whitney, of anyone on the planet, don’t you know that being fat isn’t synonymous with worthless, lazy, stupid, undeserving? I wasn’t sure that I knew but I wanted to find out if I did, so I said yes.
And I posted this video on to the internet and a few days later I started getting a lot of phone calls but they weren’t the normal phone calls like from my dad asking me if I toilet paper and stuff, it was like Steve Harvey and CNN, Good Morning America and the Today Show and they all told me they wanted me to come on their programs, talk about my dance video and explain this new lifestyle, this new body positive lifestyle that I was leading and I couldn’t understand like what is so special or subversive about a fat woman dancing. But I went on the shows and I did my little dance and then the letters started coming in.
I got an email from a boy, a teenage boy in Lebanon and he said, “Whitney, it’s illegal to be gay here and I’m gay but when I watch your videos, I feel like my life is going to be okay.” And I said okay — and then after that some more letters started pouring in. This one was from TLC and they asked me if I would consider doing a reality show and I molded over and I thought about all the ways that could like ruin my life and my reputation and all the ways it still might. But then I thought about that boy in Lebanon and for every other person who would never turn on a TV and seen someone who looked like them, who struggled like them, and so I said yes.
It wasn’t before long that even more letters started pouring in, and many of them were from fat women but just as many of them weren’t. I was talking to little girls, anorexic women, people with different abilities, grandfathers that had always hated their noses and then I realized like it’s not about the fact that I’m fat, it’s about the fact that I am living a shame free life in spite of a society that tells me I don’t deserve to.
We all have something that society tells us we should feel shame about. For me it’s visible in a world where thinness is championed above all else, where we tell women in no uncertain terms if you are not young enough, thin enough and pretty enough, you’re disposable. Living in that world, deciding to love my body had become a radical act and doing what I love in that body had become powerful, and then became the inevitable questions from everybody: how is this doable and I never used to know how to answer this question, because I didn’t know how to tell someone to be like me.
But now I think I know how to tell people to be more like them. We think that we have to magically have confidence before we do something but this is backwards. Confidence is a product of action, not the other way around. If I had to wait to have the confidence I’d never get out of bed to do anything. I had to do the hard stuff, in my case, posing half naked and dancing. And then the confidence came as a reward and the confidence came as a building block.
But living authentically shame-free is not sunshine and roses. Every day on the internet and in my real life I’m told that I am disgusting, delusional and I should probably hurry up and have that heart attack I’m bound to have so the world will be rid of me. But living shame-free has also brought more joy into my life than I ever could believe existed, it has connected me with millions of people I would have never met face-to-face and injected the color and happiness back into my life.
And I often think of one of my favorite quotes from my favorite feminist Audre Lorde, she said, “I am deliberate and afraid of nothing”. And then I think back to this picture, 1989. Five years old before my first dance recital, this little girl was deliberate and afraid of nothing, serving up all the face and sass in the world, completely unapologetic about what she knew, she was put on this earth to do. And I think we get discouraged because we’ve all been that little girl but then the world beats and breaks us down. We think that being confident, being happy should be as easy as putting on a light switch, right? Just do it, just be happy, just love yourself. But it isn’t that easy and I know that. It’s not like a light switch.
Living authentically free of shame is more like stumbling toward a motion sensor light in the dark. You have to advance forward to a target that you can’t see but trust that you’ll ultimately get there. And the universe is funny because the only thing that will turn that light on is your movement and your action. And if you live this way, if you know that every time you’re stumbling and spinning and scrambling you are actually doing the hard part, you are actually doing the work even if you can’t pinpoint your progress, if you make a commitment to live a shame-free life and know that it’s an undertaking that you have to do every single day day-in and day-out and you are deliberate about choosing that life, you will find yourself illuminated. And if you’re like me it’ll probably be when you least expect it.