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When It Comes to Fat Liberation, the Work Is Never Done

In culture writer Emma Specter’s stunning and incisive debut memoir More, Please: On Food, Fat, Bingeing, Longing, and the Lust for Enough, Specter illuminates, examines, and reports on her life spent battling and being in recovery from binge eating disorder, coming out as queer, fearing the possibility of being seen as a failure, and beginning the process of unlearning the fatphobia that seeped into every aspect of her life. The eight short chapters of the book move readers through different phases of Specter’s life through the various themes, concerns, and issues that defined those phases. Although the book is focused on Specter’s experiences as a young person and young adult, she also includes the voices of many other writers and thinkers to create a narrative that is not only masterfully but deeply, deeply necessary in our current cultural climate. Throughout More, Please, Specter reminds us of the necessity of fighting for the liberation of all people with all kinds of bodies and emphasizes the fact that this work is ongoing both in our individual lives and in our society.

Growing up fat and experiencing many of the same thoughts, feelings, and concerns as Specter and the others she highlights in the book, I had a feeling there would be a lot for me to relate to in More, Please. But I didn’t expect to learn so much more — about myself and about others — in the process. Specter generously agreed to have a conversation with me about the book, her life, and the lessons we’ve both learned ahead of the book’s release on Tuesday, July 9. Our conversation covered a lot, but you’ll find the highlights below.

Stef: How are you feeling now that More, Please is about to be in the world soon? In the last few years, could you have imagined that this is what your debut would look like?

Emma: No. I feel like at the time that I was starting to really conceive of this as a book project, people were very much having pandemic releases and quarantine releases. I think the publishing and literary communities were so creative about getting people to read at that time. But weirdly, I have motivated myself through three years of writing by being like, “There’s going to be a party and you’re going to get to wear a cool outfit.” Now that is on the horizon. I think I had dinner with a friend who’s also a writer who was like, “You seem so balanced.” I was like, “Yeah, what can I do? The book will hopefully find its audience.”

And then, I literally two days later binged. I don’t always talk about my binging as it exists right now anywhere but the book. But I feel like it’s important to say that because it’s really likely that in times of stress, even times of stress that come with so much excitement and joy, your brain and body are going to revert to the means of soothing that feel natural for you. It was a long time where I was like, “I’ve outsmarted my eating disorder. All my problems will be different because I’ve put it on paper.” And unfortunately, that’s actually not how it works.

To answer your question, I’m feeling really good and excited and just lit up by all the positivity and kindness that people are bringing to this book. And my lizard brain is very scared and constantly awaiting failure, so I’m just trying to find a happy medium.

Stef: You do talk about that in the book, and I definitely relate to that. When things are going right, you’re waiting for the other shoe to drop at any moment. I totally understand. But I’m glad that you are feeling good from the responses that people are having because I think that’s the thing about being a writer. You usually don’t feel good about the work all the time. But you feel good when people are like, “Yeah, that rocked.”

Emma: Yeah. My therapist was just asking me, “What makes you feel good about writing?” I’m really grateful that I had journalist parents for a lot of reasons, but especially because they were never romantic about writing. They were like, “It’s a job. You sit down and do it.” Maybe it can affect change or do something cool, but all writers hate writing. I feel like that is actually a very useful thing to take away.

But when you think about the actual, I think some people totally get joy out of the process and I get a certain kind of joy out of the process. But I do think, especially writing something so personal, waiting for it to connect with people, it’s a scary time. But the potential of people connecting with it is really exciting to me.

Stef: I think the joy that I get out of the process is the research.

Emma: I’m so bad at homework. I hate research. It was limited and interesting to me for this book, but I feel like people spend years on these massive nonfiction projects that revolves around so much research. I’m like, “Could not be me. I salute you.”

Stef: Actually, speaking of that, I have a question about the book’s structure because I like it a lot. The way that the chapters moved worked really well for the parts of your story that you were discussing in the book. Can you just talk a little bit about why that specific structure felt the most fitting and how it came to be?

Emma: I think I very much had an idea from early on in imagining the project for myself, even before shopping it to agents and eventually finding an editor, I never wanted to be on my own in this project. I didn’t have all the names that I ended up talking to for this memoir and interviews when I first started out, but I very much wanted to structure it around  here’s my thing, here’s some research, here’s a voice from someone else who might share parts of my experience who might have wildly different aspects of their experience or their identity or the way that they live in a body.

I wanted that contrast to hopefully not overwhelm the format. I think everyone I talked to for this book was so fascinating. There’s 30 people who I want to hear talk about food and bodies. I think it was a challenge almost being like, how do I contextualize without falling down the rabbit hole of my own interest in a lot of this stuff?

I was also afraid of a chronological structure. At first, I think just because I felt a lot of — for lack of a better word — shame and just not great stuff about the first 18 years of my life. And that took me a long time to even say because my brain was always like, “Okay, you’re fine. You weren’t kept in a basement. You had a lucky, privileged life. You have nothing to complain about.” And I think I felt very much like, “Oh, I don’t want to revisit high school. I don’t want to revisit middle school.” But once I solidified the topic of binge-eating, I really had no choice but to go back to those places.

I’m really happy to hear you say that you like the structure. I hope the structure does feel like it’s moving forward while…I’m going to say “holding space” in a gay interview. You got to do it while holding the parts of ourselves that we don’t like and don’t necessarily want to spend a bunch of time with. It was a really weird experience going back and reading my Facebook messages with my best friend from high school and seeing how casually I was cruel about my own body. That’s rough. It is also rough to still be in that place at times. I know that people struggle with that inner critic constantly, even when they’re adults and might look to the outside world like they’ve crushed it or solved all their problems.

Once I realized the necessity and potential importance of revisiting parts of my life as non-judgmentally as I could and once the chronology started to come together in a way that felt like I could have compassion for my former self, then I didn’t have to present my current self as perfect or solved or fixed. From a purely recovery standpoint, it’s just not linear, unfortunately. I didn’t really want the book to be linear either in terms of a fixed point and then recovery.

Stef: I also think that what was really great, even though it is moving fairly chronologically and you go back and forth in some places, was that each chapter was set on a theme. I really liked the way that it moved through these various themes that impacted your life the most in those particular moments. I thought that was really interesting to see, too. It worked really well.

Just going off what you were just discussing, I’m going to pivot a little. You’re very open in the book about your difficulties with binge-eating disorder and with the recovery and also coming out as queer. You’re so honest about who you were in the past and who you are now. You don’t shy away from even the difficulties of growing up right now. How did you prepare mentally and emotionally for putting this book together? What helped you get through those subsequent publishing steps that happened after actually putting it together? I think people talk about the preparation before, but you had to read this a bunch of times, as well.

Emma: I cannot emphasize therapy enough. I wish I had a less “hot take,” and it’s not a total answer. A therapist is, unfortunately, not someone who’s handed to you at birth that stays with you for life. I also have unique access as a staff writer, and we know most people in media don’t have the ability to see the same provider for over a long period of time necessarily because they’re chasing jobs and changing insurance. I try not to take that stuff for granted.

But I think having the benefit of someone who has known me for a long time but also isn’t tied to me in a friends or family or coworker way and can be helpful. I have the gentlest therapist alive, but she’s good at calling me out and being like, “You say that X, Y, Z, but a year ago you were feeling this.” I shudder to think what the next two weeks before the book comes out would look like if I didn’t feel like I had a provider that I could also email and be like, “Hey, I’m not doing well. Can we do we do an extra session?”

A lot of, ironically, the process of recovery has dovetailed with what we might call “self-care” in terms of preparation to tell a story like this. Making exercise a part of my life and doing my best to untangle fatphobia and ableism from it, which I’m not sure I’ll ever be done doing. I’m not sure I’ll ever be kind to myself completely when I can’t do a yoga pose or whatever, or when the person next to me is in a smaller body than I am in Pilates class. I think just keeping that as a practice is also a good reminder that I’m still learning things. I’m still improving on things. I’m still getting better, in all the interpretations of the term. I think it can be really nice to put yourself in places where you are learning a discipline or learning whether it’s something formal like an exercise class or if it’s just taking a paint workshop that some of my friends are doing.

I think a big part of accepting that this book was going to come out and that I was going to be telling some really personal stuff was also being like “I exist beyond this 207 page book.” I don’t have any obligation to be the person in the book all the time, and sometimes I’m going to be bad at things. Not everything comes as easily to me as nonfiction writing, which is what I do for a living and what I’ve had the opportunity to practice my skill doing for a long time.

But I think there was a long part of my life that I talk about in the book where I was not willing to be bad at anything. I now do feel like I’m trying to seek out places in my life where I can improve gently. Sometimes, how gradual the process is can feel frustrating. Sometimes, I’m like, “I want a bootcamp to get me in perfect emotional shape by the time the book comes out.” But I also think that I am not tethered to being any one specific thing, and it’s actually not how growing as a person works to expect yourself to be one specific thing. That has been calming and helpful even when I feel very not calm.

I think a big part of accepting that this book was going to come out and that I was going to be telling some really personal stuff was also being like “I exist beyond this 207 page book.”

Stef: Yeah, a lot of that really resonates with me. It was really interesting to me reading More, Please as a fat person who’s always been fat since childhood. I’ve had a variety of experiences, like you mention in the book, of doing weight loss stuff in my youth, but it was more forced upon me. Your experience is a little different. You forced it upon yourself. I liked that you were equally candid about the experience of living in both a thin body and a fat body. In the book, you illustrate for a lot of people how there’s tension either way. When you’re thin, you’re trying to stay thin. When you’re fat, you’re trying to be thinner. I just don’t find many people exploring that particular issue, which I’m sure is part of the impetus for writing about it here. Why was structuring your book around both sides of these conversations so imperative to you? Not just as a fat person, but as someone reporting on this directly because I think that those are two different things.

Emma: That’s such a good question. I think that since I started writing the book, and especially since I started doing press, I’ve talked to people who would consider themselves “forever fat.” Or who are like, “I’ve been in a fat body. This isn’t new to me.” Something I’m very interested in doing in this book and in life is saying my experience as someone who became fat later in life and the experience of someone who’s more or less always been fat might share a lot. We might be able to learn a lot from each other. We might be able to find a lot of commonality and literally help heal each other, but that doesn’t mean that I have their experience. That doesn’t mean that I know what it’s like to be weighed as a kid at school, which is happening more and more in really terrifying ways. I don’t know what it’s like to live in a body that is medicalized, and, God forbid, your parents are involved if you gain weight.

I’ve just heard so many horror stories. I don’t want this to sound like a privilege disclaimer, but I think there is something very real about finding room for multiple experiences of fatness while also acknowledging when that’s your only experience of the world, especially when that’s your only experience of childhood. That is a different thing. That is just different in the way I think that society treats you. I was very much in a personal hell, especially in my adolescence and early 20s, of “fearing fat” versus “being fat.”

I was in the “fearing fat” column all the way. I took so little joy in food. I took so little joy in my life for a lot of that time, and that sucked. It doesn’t suck less because of an experience that someone else may have had. But again, I’m trying to hold space for that sucked and was really shitty for me. I still regret it. And the world responds to you differently when you’re in a fat body, and that’s something I know as someone who’s now in a fat body. But I also don’t think there’s a lot of cultural interest in finding compassion or just understanding for fat people. I just feel like we are so bad at holding nuance and interest in fat people’s lives when it’s not organized around weight loss. Yeah, it was really important to me to step fully into my experience. It’s important to me now to say, “I’m fat and proud,” or whatever sort of corny term you want to put on it. I love a corny term. It’s Pride. I’m fat, gay, and proud.

But I don’t ever want to convince myself that I know someone’s experience. That’s part of why I wanted to talk to people in interviews for this book because I just think it’s so much more impactful to hear directly from someone like Jessie Diaz-Herrera, who’s one of the people I interview. The mental load of living in a fat body and having the world place restrictions on what that body can do when you’re a kid is something that I think needs to be studied more and needs to be talked about more. I’m so glad that writers like Jessie and Virginia Sole-Smith and so many writers are exploring it. Because I’m fairly messed up from growing up as a skinny white upper middle class kid, so we should probably do a little more outreach there.

Stef: I think maybe it’s just the way that you discuss it in the book, but it made me realize that, too. We do need more research on that. We need more stuff about that out in the world.

It also gave me a better understanding of the other side. I’ll be honest, I don’t think about the tension that thin people have very much because I’m so focused on the tension of a being a fat person in the world. I’ve also thought, erroneously, that that tension is  worse than it is for thin people. It’s actually not. The tension it’s not the same. But the tension exists either way. You can’t really escape it.

Emma: Right, and it doesn’t have to be the same to be valid and linked.

Listen, if there’s a room where a skinny woman is talking about how she feels fat because she had a bagel or whatever, I’m leaving that room for my own protection. But I also remind myself I was arguably struggling the most when I was at my thinnest.

I’m trying to have a fat community and build more and more relationships with fat people in my life and in my work. I think in some ways, it’s gotten easier for me. In some ways, it’s gotten much harder, but in some ways, it’s gotten easier for me as I’ve actually been fat because now and I have no ability to deny it. It’s my body, and I can actually move forward and build community around it. But when you are thin and struggling with an eating disorder, fat is the enemy. I try not to look at it as these people are thinking I’m the enemy. If anything, I want to represent a fat person with a rich, full life. It is possible.

At the same time, we don’t have to live lives that are in service of being thin people’s inspiration. I flip back and forth. Sometimes, I’m like, “I want to show people it’s okay.” Sometimes, I’m like, “Actually, I just want to live my life and people will have to find ‘fatspo’ somewhere else.” I feel lucky to even be in a place where I could be a by-product of someone else feeling a little better about their body, but I know what you mean. It can be hard to inhabit that mind space.

Stef: In an earlier chapter, “Hope,” and then in the final chapter, “Taste,” you discussed the work of actually being in eating disorder recovery and trying to reprogram yourself away from fatphobia and how that work is a lifelong project. You’ve touched on it here a little bit, as well. Do you think that being straightforward about dispelling the myth that these kinds of stories have a definitive and entirely satisfactory endings can help shift the ways that we talk about these issues?

Emma: I hope so.

I mean, I think it’s such a weird thing trying to end a memoir about a life that is ongoing. I think the space I was in for a long time was I would see fat friends or I would see my friends on Instagram be like, “You look hot as hell,” but, God forbid, I feel like I have a double chin when I look in the mirror. It was this weird both and neither acceptance where my beauty standards really were starting to shift because of the work I was putting in, but they weren’t shifting for how I saw myself. I feel like that was a long, hard process of just doubling down and continuing to look at “body positive” Instagram, continuing to read the books, continuing to do the stuff.

Even when I felt like, “Well, this is a hopeless project and the best I can get is unpacking some of my existent fatphobia for others, but it’s not going to reach me,” I do feel like my life has gotten a lot easier since that “lizard brain” mentality around fatphobia has been a little more unpacked as it relates to my body specifically.

There’s no outfit I’m going to find that’s so slimming that it hides the fact that I’m a fat person. I feel like when I was more mid-size, a lot of my time and energy went into “What navy item can I wear to Thanksgiving that will make everyone think I’m thin?” Now, it’s not that I don’t have concerns about how my family sees me or how the world sees me, and it’s not like I never have insecurities. But I’m not a skilled enough costume artist to make myself look thin with clothes, and that’s not my priority with clothes anymore. I have a really joyful relationship with getting dressed that I don’t think could possibly exist if I hadn’t done the work to unlearn fatphobia for the world, but also for myself.

Stef: Again, a lot of that really resonates with me, especially right now. I have pretty significant osteoarthritis in my left knee and in order to combat that pain and immobility, it was like, you’re either going to not be mobile or you have to lose some weight. And it’s been a weird time the last couple of years because I worked so hard to undo all the fatphobia that I learned in my youth. I was at a place where that wasn’t really impacting me in any way, and then I had to think about it all over again.

Emma: Totally. It’s so weird when weight loss or gain is a medical issue.

I would like to say the answer is that the establishment needs to change and not my body. But the reality is that even for a fat person with as much privilege and access as me, if I decide I want to carry a child, I might have to lose weight. That’s scary and weird because as you’ve said, I’ve done all this work to accept myself as I am now. I now make work about being fat. I don’t think I owe anyone or that anyone owes me a particular body shape or weight. I’m going to do my best to live semi-comfortably in the body that I have. But it’s just so much of this is governed by things that are not in our control, and I feel like control is at the heart of so many eating disorders. It’s really hard when you feel like you’ve done the work, whatever that means, or have at least commenced the work, but at the end of the day, you might have health reasons you need to lose weight. You might have health reasons where you need to gain weight. You might have a temporary or permanent disability that changes the way you exercise. You might develop a food allergy that changes the way you eat. None of our bodies are permanent. I think we want them to be, but there can also be a beauty in accepting I am renting this shit, and I’m going to evolve.

We don’t have to live lives that are in service of being thin people’s inspiration.

Stef: I think it’s really interesting that people think that there is some kind of endpoint to me because there’s not. A lot of the conversations in the “body positivity” sphere make it seem like there is an endpoint. It just doesn’t exist. I really appreciated that you mentioned that several times in the book and especially at the end. I think it’s really important. People shouldn’t think it’s all done just because you read seven books and you follow a bunch of people. It’s just not. You’re going to get older and things are going to happen and you’re going to have to reorient everything that you know.

Moving into that a little bit actually, in the sixth chapter, “Gain,” you write about your experiences finding your space in the “body positivity” movement. You also mentioned briefly some of the limitations of the movement, which is important to acknowledge. And then, I was really pleasantly surprised to see that the chapter right after, “Move,” was discussing the power, importance, and pleasure of movement. I’ve noticed since finding movement I enjoy that this part is often missing in most conversations about both “body positivity” and fatness. I was just wondering if you could discuss what you hope to see in our discussions of fatness, “body positivity,” and fat liberation moving forward and what you think should be out there and be the loudest part of these conversations right now.

Emma: I think that I just wish there was a much more understanding of what “successful” movement looks like for you. I think I say at one place in the book that it could be sitting on a blanket outside. I think we’re in such a weird, fatphobic, ableist hustle culture that basically doesn’t really care about your individual process as long as you end up looking like or being able to do the physical activity of a Nike sports model.

I think I would like to see more space given to people who experience fatness and multiple experiences of marginalization while being fat. This just points to the huge appetite that there is and the huge need that there is for more writers of color, more queer and trans writers, gender-nonconforming writers, and writers whose life experiences look like any number of things to talk about fatness in the way that fatness has shown up in their lives. I absolutely don’t think there is a monolith, and obviously beauty standards can vary so deeply culturally that I think fortunately and unfortunately we’ll never be done telling stories about bodies. I just hope more of those stories can show the breadth of how many ways there are to feel shitty about living in your body, but also how many ways there are to take beauty and joy in having a body and in cooking food and in moving.

I think the fewer examples there are of fat people or people writing about fatness, the more we expect from individuals, when fatphobia is a systemic problem. What I really want to see is just all of the stories.

I feel like I’ve had a lot of thin people ask me, “How do you feel about body positivity? What about neutrality? What about this?” I am, personally, very much into the fat liberation model. This doesn’t mean that this has to be true for anyone else, but right now, I’m very interested in organizing around fatness, making the world a more safe and fair place for fat people of all different identities and ethnicities and races and genders. Also, taking some of the energy that has been put on maintaining what we believe could someday be a perfect body and using that energy to say, “How can I help my community? What can I do?” That doesn’t have to be total “savior” nonsense, but could just be watching your neighbor’s kids for a minute or picking up food for people in your neighborhood who might not have food access.

This sounds a little preachy, but I was surprised by how much my life opened up and how much more energy I had to give when most of that energy wasn’t spent on just trying to keep myself as small as possible. I would love it if —instead of debating why “body positivity” is a “slay” and the trend of today — we just thought about having a body and, especially, having a fat body as the potential to change at least the little slice of the world that we’re in.

Stef: I think also there’s definitely a particular individuality that exists in the United States, and one of the ways that gets practiced is through this debate about image. It’s a huge distraction. I’ve always thought it was a huge distraction ever since I started organizing as a teenager, so I like to hear somebody else say that because I do think that we should be expending that same energy towards making our communities better and safer and more easily accessible for any person, however they’re living.

I have two more questions. In the final chapter of the book, you touch on getting acquainted with a love of food again. For me, your descriptions of the experiences of eating and sharing meals with people you love in that chapter were some of the most beautiful in the book. I read a few of them over again because I thought they were really great. It made me wonder, do you have something special meal-wise planned to celebrate the release of this book?

Emma: Okay, I was going to make my own cake for my book party, and then probably my partner or some other reasonable person in my life was like, “What if you didn’t add a cooking project to one of the biggest, most exciting days of your life?” I’m going to be in New York and my book party’s going to be at a bar. So, at first I was like, “Is there a way I can host a meal?” And then I realized that was nuts.

I am leaning on cooking in this weird time before the book comes out where I don’t have control over a lot. But I have control over food to the extent that I can make a meal. I think I’ve given up on having control of food in other ways. Tonight, I’m making steak that’s been marinated in Coca-Cola and some crazy asparagus with coconut and peanut because I have asparagus from the farmer’s market. There’s a zucchini I need to use in my fridge somehow. I’m having some hot fat girls and theys to dinner.

If you had asked me last night, I would’ve been like, “I don’t know. Binge-eat pizza?” This is just very good timing, but I really am trying to find those things that ground me when I’m feeling depressed or anxious. I’m just trying to remind myself that food can be so celebratory.

One thing that was important to me — my mom very generously offered to help throw my book party — I was like, “Let’s go. Let’s serve shrimp.” I come from a generation of media where we did not go to book parties with the free food and the free shrimp and the champagne. Let’s make it happen. It’s nice to be surrounded by literary people.

Stef: So finally, just considering the moment we’re in — and I mean the moment that you touch on in your book a little bit, the fact that this “Thin is in” maxim is coming back in a big way and the fact that we’re struggling to have any impact on the progression of the genocide in Gaza and many other global tragedies, the many that are going on on a constant basis — what’s giving you the most hope these days? What’s keeping you moving forward?

Emma: Thank you for this question. It’s something I think about a lot, and it’s hard not to feel like there’s something disconnected about promoting a book about my journey to loving and appreciating food in a time where we know that Gazans are eating grass and animal feed to survive.

I think a part of me was like, “Don’t talk about that in press,” but I think we should all be talking and thinking about this. Because hunger and horror and misery going on anywhere in this globe affects us all, and I personally feel like I’ve been given a lot. I think when it comes to activism and organizing, it’s not worth complaining about all the things you aren’t doing. I think it’s like you pick one thing and start from there.

Some friends and I were bringing food to the Gaza solidarity encampments, and it’s certainly not going to touch every problem or maybe even the main problem. But anytime we can spiritually and literally feed each other, it does feel a little bit like some community has started. That is honestly what has given me a lot of hope, seeing students stand up for what they know is true even when liberal media is blasting them and seeing students staying so tethered to the idea of justice for everyone and life and freedom and water and food for everyone, which should be so basic that I can’t believe I’m saying it.

But as we know, it’s not. I think it’s a very common thing to be like, “The kids are all right,” and then do nothing when you’re a little older. But I do think in terms of inspiring my longer term activism and my hope to be part of an inevitable reckoning, seeing that has been the only thing that has the ability to get me out of my head and onto the streets as it were. Sometimes, it is protesting, but sometimes, it is cooking for the encampments. Sometimes, it’s trying to hold space for friends who are going through it a lot more than I am. I think dialing into the energy of the kids and many adults who really changed the narrative around the genocide in Gaza in this country helps. I don’t think anyone in Gaza has time for incremental change right now, but in terms of what is motivating me and what is giving me energy and hope, it’s that kind of bravery.

Stef: I feel you entirely. Just like everything else that we do, saying “I have hope” feels so cheesy, and I think saying this is overused, but having hope is part of our discipline of living.

Emma: “Discipline of living.” That’s a really good way to put it. I think the first step in having hope for the world is to have hope for yourself to be a member of the world who is fully present, at least to the extent that we can be. I don’t think any of us necessarily benefit from being glued to our screens, taking in horror after horror. But I do think it is our job to stay in it to the extent that we can and then take that energy and do what we can.

More, Please: On Food, Fat, Bingeing, Longing, and the Lust for Enough by Emma Specter comes out July 9.

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Stef Rubino

Stef Rubino is a writer, community organizer, and student of abolition from Ft. Lauderdale, FL. They teach Literature and writing to high schoolers and to people who are currently incarcerated, and they’re the fat half of the arts and culture podcast Fat Guy, Jacked Guy. You can find them on Twitter (unfortunately).

Stef has written 95 articles for us.


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