(JTA) — Do you want to know one small but powerful way we could make Jewish life more inclusive?
Stop telling fat people about your diet and asking if they’d like to join you.
Last year I launched Fat Torah, with the aim of confronting weight stigma in Jewish communal life and deploying Jewish tradition in ways that are liberatory for all bodies.
At the time, I assumed that I would be providing advice to individuals who were eager for an opportunity to “Ask the Fat Rabbi.” And you, my dear Jews (mostly Jewish women) have not disappointed. It has been my pleasure to connect with people in Jewish communities who are tired of diet culture interfering with our full enjoyment of traditional foods and appalled by the enshrinement of weight loss as a Jewish value.
They are deeply concerned about how the pervasiveness of disparaging attitudes toward fatness and fat people harms not only the largest among us, but also those who are struggling to recover from eating disorders (among the most deadly of mental illnesses).
My inbox is blessedly full of their righteous anger, genuine sadness and deep love of the Jewish community, despite its failure to protect its own from fatphobia and the many oppressive forces that so often intertwine with it, including misogyny, ableism, healthism, homophobia, transphobia and white supremacy.
But one problem has only recently occurred to me, 10 years in the rabbinate and 30 years as a fat activist notwithstanding: Working with individuals has its limits when what we are seeking is systemic change. The people who most need a fat rabbi’s advice — about how to “know better so you can do better” (to paraphrase Maya Angelou) or how to confront weight stigma within themselves before they continue afflicting others with it — are the ones least likely to seek my counsel.
We want our communities — synagogues, schools, summer camps, programs for elders, Hillels and more — to be places that welcome us as whole human beings, created in the Divine image. Anyone who has been even a little bit fat for more than five minutes in our fatphobic culture is already deeply familiar with the sense that they don’t fit in.
When you suggest a diet to us, you reinforce the message that this space is one in which we cannot or ought not belong in the fullness of who we are. If you truly feel that your offer is a kind one, and are taken aback when we do not respond with gratitude, please know that we have already received too many of these offers and your “new” diet (or “program” or “healthy lifestyle”) only reminds us that we have heard it all before.
Often this urge to share your diet comes from a place of being “concerned about health.” But you cannot properly assess anyone’s health just by their size. If you insist, nonetheless, on believing that all fat people are automatically unhealthy, ask yourself: What does Jewish tradition teach us about how to care for the sick? One thing it teaches is that we need to pay attention to a person’s actual needs and desires, and not the needs that we are projecting onto them. When the Talmud (Berakhot 5b) has us follow Rabbi Yohanan, a famed healer, as he visits the sick, we learn that his very first question is “are your sufferings welcome to you?” We can all follow this model of first assessing whether our “help” is wanted.
You do not need to give up your own diet. But please be mindful of how your relationship with your body — and how you talk about it publicly — impacts those around you, especially when that relationship aligns with oppressive stereotypes rather than disrupting them. Ultimately, however, the right to body autonomy extends to you, my dear dieter, as well: Your body is yours and you should do what’s right for you. No one is coming for your cauliflower.
An important caveat is called for here: I have been horrified to learn about the pervasiveness in Jewish communities all across America of multilevel marketing (MLM) diets. MLM salespeople, who are sometimes called “consultants” or “coaches,” are encouraged to sell to the people closest to them in a technique known as “relationship selling.” In what many regard as a quasi-legal Ponzi scheme — in which the vast majority of participants lose money — these salespeople make commissions not only from their own sales but from others they recruit to sell.
This combination of the relational nature of MLM sales, the tremendous pressure people feel to lose weight and the closeness we aspire to in our Jewish communities creates an enormous risk of exploitation. In cases of unequal status, in which the “coach” is also someone with a large amount of social capital in the community, we have the makings of misuse of power.
Jewish communal life should not be a breeding ground for these exploitative and unethical businesses. If the diet you are dying to share with others is connected with this kind of “program,” I would urge you not only to stop recruiting others, but to find a way to get out of it yourself.
I yearn for a world in which our Jewish communities can be places of belonging for bodies of every size. There is no shortage of work to be done to get there — from making sure we have seating that can accommodate the largest among us, to breaking ourselves of the habit of using fatness and fat people as the targets of “humor.” But please know, my dear dieter, that simply holding yourself back from trying to recruit others to your diet plan would truly be a wonderful starting point for making a world of difference.