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My Big Fat Fabulous Life star Whitney Way Thore always struggled with body-image issues.
“I had an eating disorder that started in middle school that I’m not sure I still don’t have,” Thore tells Yahoo Beauty. “I always had a hard time with my body and always felt fat, even when I was 120, 130 pounds — which is what I weighed until my freshman year of college, when I gained 100 pounds.”
Thore said at the time of her seemingly rapid and out-of-the-blue weight gain, she felt “so ashamed about my body already, I never thought to go to a doctor to see if something was going on.”
Making the problem even worse, she explains, is that the subject of weight is “such a taboo” topic, that those around her were uncomfortable raising it with her too.
“My family wouldn’t say, ‘You’re really fat now — what’s going on?’” Thore notes.
Making her weight gain even more complicated, she explains, was that just as she was beginning to feel that her body “didn’t fit in the physical, material world,” she also felt a loss of her sense of identity and self that left her feeling equally displaced on an emotional level.
“I had identified as a dancer, was conventionally pretty — sure I had problems, I never had a perfect life, but I was a pretty girl and that meant certain things were easy and that all seemingly went away overnight,” Thore recalls. “You know those social experiments where you put on the fat suit and see how people treat you? That became my actual life.”
Before graduating college, however, Thore finally learned just what had caused her sudden weight gain — polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS), a hormonal disorder that can often affect women’s metabolism, causing them to gain — and struggle to lose — weight.
While Thore now had answers, sort of — “I remember coming home from the doctor after getting my diagnosis and they gave me one little pamphlet, I had no information on it, really” — her diagnosis didn’t change the way she thought about her body.
After college, Thore went to live and work abroad in South Korea, where she faced unprecedented size discrimination, dealing with reactions as extreme as being spit at or laughed at to her face by total strangers, solely because of her weight.
“I knew my relationship with my body wasn’t right, but it wasn’t until something so overt and aggressive that I decided to change,” she says. “My solution then wasn’t that I needed to change how I feel and think, but, ‘I have to lose weight.’”
Thore began working out with a personal trainer in 2011, put herself on the strict diet she now recognizes as being eating disordered, and lost an astonishing 100 pounds in eight months. And yet, she noticed, “My relationship with my body didn’t change. Losing the weight was a magic panacea for everything I had been dealing with my whole life. I was in the gym three times a day and I didn’t have a job — all I did was work to lose weight. And one day as I was leaving the gym, these guys rolled down the window of their car and called me a fat-ass. And I was like, ‘These guys probably couldn’t run three miles like I just did, and they also don’t know that I just lost 100 pounds.’”
That was one in a series of game-changing moments, Thore says, when she started to feel “angry” with having been caught up in chasing a certain idea of beauty her entire life. She decided that she would no longer have a specific weight-loss goal, but just wanted to focus on feeling healthy and good — and not caring about whatever number showed up on the scale.
“At that time, I didn’t have Instagram, it wasn’t even a thing. I didn’t know about the idea of body positivity, I just came to in a personal renaissance way. And now here I am. It all happened really quickly. And I feel like I self-actualized in a period of three months.”
The “here” is as a major social media influencer, reality television star, and media darling when it comes to all things body positive. And it all seemingly clicked into place when a Thore made a video that when viral in early 2014 of herself dancing, one of the new challenges to herself in the wake of shifting her own focus about how she understood her own body.
Thore’s “A Fat Girl Dancing” YouTube video has gotten more than 8.5 million views in three years time. On the day she posted it to YouTube, her dad had dropped by to visit her at the radio station where she was working at the time and the two noticed the views going up by tens of thousands each time they refreshed the page.
“I was like, ‘Daddy — something is happening.’ It was this moment I could feel my life changing as it was happening. I will probably never feel that again in my life.”
Thore soon found herself in demand, appearing on the Today show and Steve Harvey within days of her video’s viral success.
“I felt nervous because I felt like I was being asked to be the spokesperson for body positivity, but I had just come into it on my own and had my own idea about what it meant,” Thore says.
Once again, a conversation with her dad helped lead to a crucial moment of clarity. She recalls that he told her, “You know this backwards and forwards — this is your life” and to just tell her own story and do whatever felt right.
Which isn’t to say that all conversations with her dad about her life in relation to her body had always been easy. An interaction between the two shortly before Thore’s viral fame was another watershed moment in her changing how she thought about herself and what she wanted.
After a local photographer had gotten in touch with Thore and asked if she could do a boudoir shoot at no cost having been inspired by the way Thore regularly discussed being a fat woman on live radio, Thore found herself shocked to see how beautiful she felt looking at the final images, despite how uncomfortable she had felt throughout the shoot itself.
“I was living at home, completely broke, and had no way in terms of upward mobility in my job at the radio station. … But I was getting turned on to something, some new idea that I could love myself and that I was fine as I was. It was around then that I told my dad I didn’t want to focus on weight loss anymore. I posted a photo of myself with my stomach showing with the hashtag #NoBodyShameCampaign — which didn’t even mean anything then! I didn’t have a campaign!” Thore shares.
She continues: “And my dad said to me, ‘I don’t think that’s a very flattering picture. And when he said that, I told him I was so angry and hurt and that he was like every asshole man I had ever met. And he’s always been my biggest supporter, but this was also a moment of defiance for me. Of saying, ‘If you don’t get it, that’s fine. You’ve been brainwashed to think this way and that any other way of thinking is wrong — but I don’t want to think that way anymore.’”
Indeed, Thore says, stepping into the spotlight to talk about positivity ended up being her “calling.”
“It was easy, it was natural, I had answers — I didn’t have to plan answers for my detractors. I didn’t read about this in a book. No one taught me how to think about this in a class. I lived it. It was the most powerful, amazing feeling — it was as though I had been an oppressed person and I had realized I had the power to be free,” she says.
So Thore quit her job at the radio station in a move of “blind faith,” waiting for whatever better next thing was to come. And shortly thereafter, she found an email in her spam folder from TLC, asking her if she would be interested in collaborating. And My Big Fat Fabulous Life was born, premiering in 2015, with the fourth season having just aired this past year.
Today, Thore says, she describes herself as “hardcore feminist” — yet notes that she probably wouldn’t be if she hadn’t “been exposed to discrimination and oppression living as I fat woman.”
Which is why she says that while surely she would want her 16-year old self to know that she was beautiful as she was, she would want to tell her something more important first.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re beautiful,” Thore says. “I’m not fighting for a world where fat women can be considered beautiful, but for a world where it doesn’t matter if you’re beautiful. It doesn’t matter if you are beautiful and you should strive for something or anything else other than achieving that goal of beauty. You should strive for achievements far beyond your body, because what you look like doesn’t dictate what you can do in life, who can love you, and who you’ll become. Your body isn’t the only factor for happiness and success.”
And Thore says she’ll be driving that message home at theCurvycon, engaging with attendees on what being body positive really means to her — and what they might not know about her, and her #NoBodyShameCampaign, despite what they see in her reality show.
“I want to focus on telling women how-to information for themselves on how to live their day-to-day lives. Not necessarily what outfit can you put together or what to do about online dating, but real day-to-day life things you can do to feel confident and sexy and happy and successful,” Thore says. “Also, I want to talk a lot about dating. I mean, I did write a book called I Do It With the Lights On. I really want to talk about what it’s like as a marginalized person to be dating.”
Another topic Thore plans to discuss during her panel conversation — which Yahoo Style will be live-streaming — is whether you can be body positive and be a person who does want to lose weight and whether you can be fat and still be healthy. Oh, and also plenty of behind-the-scenes peeks at the making of her hit reality show
The latter being an especially important topic to Thore as her celebrity, visibility, and influencer status create a “double-edged sword” where “people think they know everything about you and they don’t. It’s TV — it’s edited.”
That said, Thore is also acutely aware of the power and privileged her star power carry — and because of that, she says she feels hyperaware to let others know that “I really don’t think I’m in the business of telling people about anything about what they should and shouldn’t do. I think it’s cool to have this opportunity to just let people watch my life. I don’t necessarily have to sit down and say to people, ‘Here’s a checklist for how to shop for your first bikini.’ I just live it.”
And to that point, Thore also says that what she sees as her — and the show’s — biggest success “is that there’s a fat woman — a really, really fat woman — on internationally, on a reality show being broadcast on every continent but Antarctica. And this really, really fat woman has friends and people who love her and she is joyful and normal. [The show] normalizes a fat woman. It forces people to see that I’m just like them — and when they do, I’m happy.”
Which is why Thore says she tries to not sweat the small stuff when it comes to scenes that were edited in ways she doesn’t always love or the kinds of loss of privacy that come with reality TV fame.
“It’s amazing to have a fat woman star on her own show about her own life and it’s not a weight-loss contest and it’s not me crying about being fat. It’s just me and that’s where the importance of it really lies.”
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