Virgie Tovar on Weight-Based Discrimination, Loving Her Body and The BodCon 2023

We don't know if anyone knows more about weight-based discrimination and body image than author, activist and lecturer Virgie Tovar.

Virgie is a leading expert on all things to do with body size and body discrimination, as well as the way lives change when people learn to accept and truly embrace their bodies. She's a Forbes contributor, author of three incredible books about body size and host of the Webby-nominated anti-diet culture podcast Rebel Eaters Clubsetting out to educate the world about the insidious ways weight biases play into everyday culture, and that much of the time, poorer health outcomes are not caused by being fat, but by the way society treats you when you are.

On March 5, Virgie will be leading a special live journaling session at The BodCon 2023, a virtual conference on body confidence and self-acceptance. The seven-hour conference will begin at 11 a.m. ET, hosted by Alicia Mccarvell and with panelists including Stella Naomi Williams, Dani DMC, Derek Frazier and so many more. Ahead of the big day, we got the chance to speak with Virgie about her work in weight-based discrimination and why her message is so critical. Read it all in the interview below.

Sweety High: Can you tell us a bit about your journey to becoming one of the leading experts on weight-based discrimination? Why is this topic so dear to your heart?

Virgie Tovar: I wake up thinking about how to end weight discrimination and diet culture, and I go to sleep thinking about it. I've experienced the truly dehumanizing realities that weight discrimination and diet culture create throughout my entire life: from doctors not taking me seriously to being unable to find clothes or get hired at jobs I wanted to dealing with no one wanting to date me for most of my life.

In 2009, I started grad school and decided to research how weight stigma impacted how plus-size women experience their gender. Growing up, I felt a lot of gender confusion because I thought I was too big to be a "real" girl. The confusion was created by the media I saw (where every female protagonist was thin) and cultural cues (for example, boys were rougher with me and none of the clothes in the section for girls fit me). I had to learn a lot about the history and sociology of weight stigma in order to do the research well. So some of the expertise came from that: reading every book and article on the topic that I could find.

While I was still in grad school, I started editing a book about plus-size women who were embracing their bodies and refusing to diet, and I started getting hired to lecture on the topic at universities. Since then, I've lectured at dozens of colleges, worked with agencies and companies who want to make their workplace more weight neutral, led international trips with plus size travelers, started a podcast, become a contributor for and written three books about body size: You Have the Right to Remain Fat (2018), The Self-Love Revolution: Radical Body Positivity for Girls of Color (2020) and The Body Positive Journal (2022). Whenever someone asks for help with this issue, I try to say yes.

virgie tovar image via bustle

(via Bustle)


Also read about: Model and Self-Love Blogger Zoe Chin loy Dishes on the Power of Accepting Your Body


SH: Why is weight-based discrimination so rampant? What are some ways for people to work through the prejudices they've been taught from birth, both in viewing others and accepting their own bodies?

VT: Weight discrimination is so rampant because most people don't think of their negative attitudes and behaviors toward people in larger bodies as discrimination. People don't think that this is a human rights issue. They think it is a straightforward health issue. There are two major misconceptions here.

First, most people think being in a larger body is an inherently negative thing, which it isn't. Fat bodies are amazing, rad, wonderful, beautiful and normal. In fact, around 70% of Americans are in larger bodies. Second, most people think that body size is a choice because that's what we've all been told. The science, however, really does not support this view. With very little exception, most people's weight range is determined genetically, and they will stay in that general weight range their entire life. Long-term weight suppression is extremely rare, extremely taxing physiologically and psychologically, and often is associated with some type of either disordered eating or over-exercising. There, of course, are exceptions, but overall this is what the science generally says.

I think, to begin with, people can accept what the science actually says about this issue. Yes, almost everyone has heard a doctor tell them that the quickest path to wellness is weight-loss, but that does not take into consideration what we know from weight science. Second, people can start seeing this as a human rights issue first and foremost because the case for widespread discrimination based on weight is very, very strong: plus-size women make less money than straight-size women (some estimates are as high as $19,000 less per year), there are proven high rates of weight bias among medical professionals, plus size people face hiring discrimination, romantic discrimination and fashion discrimination.

This type of discrimination leads to something called "minority stress," which is correlated with worse health outcomes. Even though you won't see researchers admit it, it's very difficult to separate the poor health outcomes associated with the stress of ongoing discrimination from the poor health outcomes that researchers over-generalize to the plus-size population. No matter how you slice it—even if health is a person's number one concern—we have to get rid of weight-based discrimination and bias first.


SH: Can you tell us about the #LoseHateNotWeight campaign? How have you worked to spread this important message, and what has it meant to see people joining you on your mission?

VT: #LoseHateNotWeight started when hashtags started being a thing. I was so stoked about it! It's really, like, the four-word summary of my mission, and it summarizes my own path to self-acceptance. For years, I really believed that if I could just lose enough weight to be thin, I would have the dignity, happiness, fulfillment and love that we all craved. I believed that because that's what everyone and everything around me told me. This led to two decades of disordered eating, obsessive exercise and extremely low self-esteem.

I didn't know about the science I mentioned earlier that said that if you're naturally larger (like me) that you're probably never going to be a thin person. After becoming fat-positive and anti-diet, I realized it wasn't weight that I or anyone else needed to lose; it was the hatred I had for my body and the hatred that society had for me as a fat woman that needed to go. I think people really, really want a pathway out of hating their bodies and it's so difficult to find that path in our culture. It's really a point of pride for me to have been an unwavering fat-positive voice online for over a decade.

Virgie Tovar smiling with mug by michaela go

(Photo credit: Michaela Go)


Also read about: Lisa Schoenberger on the Importance of REAL Fashion Inclusivity and The BodCon 2022


SH: What advice do you have for others to accept and be empowered by their bodies, no matter what size and shape?

VT: First, the culture needs to do better! I often ask people, "What would you do if you truly believed that you were precious beyond imagination?" Fight for that life, because you are that precious. We all are. We deserve to be protected against the horrible brutality of body dysmorphia, fatphobia and diet culture. So, find that protection however you can: set boundaries with people, don't look at media that makes you feel bad about yourself, recognize that your shame is actually anger at a culture that has done your body a great disservice, admire yourself, don't date people who comment on your or others' bodies, don't hang out with people who are actively promoting stuff that makes you feel bad about your body, get rid of clothes that don't fit, throw out your scale, move your body in a way that feels good, eat things you like, and spend time creatively reimagining what world you'd want to leave for your kids or your nieces and nephews or your neighbor who's in kindergarten right now.

virgie tovar wearing blue and white with red glasses by andria lo

(Photo credit: Andria Lo)


SH: How excited are you to be participating in BodCon 2023? What perspective do you hope to bring to the table?

VT: I'm super excited! I'm looking forward to bringing my whole self: my lifelong personal experience of living in a fat woman of color body and my decade-plus professional experience both advocating for the end of weight discrimination and teaching people how to have the amazing relationship to their bodies that we all truly deserve.

Want to learn more about The BodCon and its speakers? Click HERE to read our interview with host and influencer Alicia Mccarvell.