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Mental Note

42 - Fatphobia with Actress Jen Ponton

By Jen Ponton

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Jen Ponton possesses seemingly boundless energy: 
Most known as the fiercely feminist fat activist 'Rubi' on AMC's critical darling Dietland, she is an award-winning actress and body liberation activist. With a television resume that includes 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, Orange is the New Black, Law and Order: SVU, The Blacklist, and Blue Bloods, she also starred in the late Ash Christian's body-positive romantic comedy, Love On the Run. In 2020, she delivered the TEDx Talk "Hollywood's Fatphobia Problem." She also hosts All the Fucks, a storytelling podcast about caring too much.
On top of all that - she's simply wonderful to spend time with. With quick wit and relatable storytelling, she has the rare ability to communicate hard truths while also not taking herself too seriously. She sits down with host Ellie Pike to discuss Fatphobia, activism, Hollywood, and practical ways to push back against the marginalization of fat people. 

Fun Facts

  • I'm a barbershop singer
  • I'm queer
  • I was a member of the Future Farmers of America
  • I make a mean banana bread
  • My favorite thing to do is swap mortifying, vulnerable stories

Socials:
Twitter: @jenponton
IG: @jenponton
www.jenponton.com

Transcript

Ellie Pike:
Jen Ponton first started to notice she stood out from her peers at an early age.

Jen Ponton:
I grew up in a very small town where I was with the same 28 children for eight years of my life.

Ellie Pike:
She was an only child, liked connecting with adults, and most importantly, was a different shape than the kids around her.

Jen Ponton:
My body, by the time I was like seven years old, was decidedly roly poly. I was immediately pigeonholed as a total weirdo. As my body grew, I became the fat weirdo. So, school was not great, and I was constantly teased for being fat.

Ellie Pike:
This came to a head every year during summer camp, a time when it's hot and everybody's running around in swimsuits.

Jen Ponton:
There was a camp that I went to for a really long time where I was called Miss Piggy, which as an adult I think was formative in a good way. If I could live to be like anyone, it would be that martial arts practicing diva who knows her worth, regardless of what anyone else has to say. But as a child, it was devastating. It was the last thing on earth you want to hear as a kid.

Ellie Pike:
I've worked at the eating disorder space for over 10 years. During that time, I've counseled patients, taught university classes, and mentored brave individuals ready to publicly share their stories of recovery. Those cumulative experiences have underscored two bedrock truths for me. First, we cannot assume someone's health status just by looking at them. Second, complimenting weight loss is harmful. These truths seem to be easier for folks to understand in relation to skinny people, but make a stand that you can not assume a fat person's health status from their size or that it's harmful to compliment a fat person if they lose weight. Most people, even medical doctors, might look at you like you have three eyes. So, you can only imagine the uphill struggle it's been for Jen to take her advocacy to the epicenter of thin idealism.

Ellie Pike:
You see, Jen's story didn't end in humiliation at that summer camp. In fact, those same kids who called her Miss Piggy have probably seen her perform as an actress in any number of shows, from 30 Rock to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, to Orange is the New Black. But Jen's become even better known for her stance, both on and off screen, against Hollywood's deeply entrenched fat phobia, through her roles as Ruby in AMC's Diet Land, and starring, and the body positive romantic comedy Love on the Run, she's dazzling audiences with performances that refuse to back down. She's also recently delivered the TEDx talk, Hollywood's Fat phobia Problem, and hosts the show, All the Fucks, a storytelling podcast about caring too much.

Ellie Pike:
She joins me today to talk about acting, what it's like to live in her body, activism, and how to be a part of positive change in the world. You're listening to Mental Note Podcast. I'm Ellie Pike. We're so honored to have you on the show. You have so much experience working in the film industry, and then have certainly been personally impacted by fat phobia and living in a fat body. So, we're really excited to talk with you a little bit more about what that's been like for you. Can you, kind of before we jump into Hollywood and America's fat phobia problem, can you just tell us a little bit about what it's like to live in your body?

Jen Ponton:
It's pretty great to live in my body, or it has become so, because I've spent a lot of time pulling myself into recovery from my ED.

Ellie Pike:
Quick note for listeners who may not be aware. ED is short for eating disorder.

Jen Ponton:
I have spent a lot of time curating my own visual diet and helping my own mental health to not be so bombarded by fat phobia and diet culture. It helps the plus size fashion has become such a wonderful, thriving industry. All of those things helped me to feel very much at home in my body. I do also have to acknowledge my privilege, not just as a white woman, but as a small fat. The breadth of oppression that fat bodies face definitely waxes and wanes, and that's dependent upon a number of factors. As one can surmise, it would definitely be affected by race. A black woman's fat body is not going to have the same experience mine will. I will face more privilege. Fatter bodies than mine are also oppressed much more readily and much more severely than my own. That's an important thing for me to acknowledge.

Jen Ponton:
However, is it an uncomfortable place to live when people feel entitled to my space when people see me as less than, when people shove me in the middle of a street because they just don't feel like I'm worthy of taking up space? Yeah. All of that is pretty trashy, but it definitely does not happen to me as readily or with such entitlement, I think, as it does to fatter bodies, for sure.

Ellie Pike:
That's really interesting to differentiate and to recognize your privilege, because you're right. Absolutely. You have to kind of notice yourself within the levels of discrimination and oppression that happen. With that being said, it certainly has not been easy for you. You say you're a fat activist. What does that mean to you and what is your mission?

Jen Ponton:
I think the panoply of fat activism is pretty broad. Depending upon what kind of an individual you are and what you do for work, I feel like fat activism can present in any way in what you do. Whether you are in recovery yourself, and you're fighting for the representation and inclusion of the reality that fat individuals have eating disorders and that diet culture in and of itself is a promoted eating disorder, from that to somebody who works in legislation, who works in the government and can push for things like weight stigma to be included in legislation, the protections against weight stigma for employment, for medical malpractice, things like that.

Jen Ponton:
What I can do from my little make-believe cloud, I feel like I can be the mirror. I can help set the aspiration, because to me, I think any kind of activism benefits from two positions. The first one is focus on the marginalization, right? So, focus on the oppression that exists when you live in a fat body, in a black body, in a disabled body, in a queer body, in a trans body, to focus on that and the way that life does indeed treat you. Or the other flip side that I personally like to live in is what if my identity had nothing to do with my life?

Jen Ponton:
What if you just saw a fat character, a black character, a disabled character, a queer character, a trans character, and they just were living their best life, and nothing at all had anything to do with their particular intersection of marginalizations, because at the end of the day, we're all just people and we all have every right, truly every human right to survive and thrive and pursue our dreams. So, to me, very specifically, my aim of including my fat liberation in my work is to create stories that have a person like me just living. What if-

Ellie Pike:
Normalizing.

Jen Ponton:
... yes, completely normalizing, completely removing argument altogether.

Ellie Pike:
I so appreciate that. You're making space for yourself and for others who are marginalized to make it more normal. We should see anyone of any size, any color, any sexuality everywhere.

Jen Ponton:
Exactly.

Ellie Pike:
Right?

Jen Ponton:
Exactly.

Ellie Pike:
One of the things I really appreciated when I was listening to your Ted talk was some of the research that you were able to provide and some of the experience you were able to provide from the perspective of living in a fat body. One of the things you touched on just a minute ago was talking about advocating for being protected by legislation. Can you talk a little bit about some of those challenges that fat phobia causes?

Jen Ponton:
Sure. Well, I would say the primary thing to know is that being fat is not considered a protectable marginalization in any legislation, except for Michigan. Michigan protects citizens from weight bias, but literally nowhere else does. There are some States where it's been a bill in progress, but the problem is that the same way that we try and protect these rights for black folks, for women, for LGBTQ individuals, those are very real biases that exist in the workplace. There are horrible, horrible people who will not hire you, who will fire you, who will not promote you because you exist at some juncture of those marginalizations. Fatness has very, very similar stigma against it.

Jen Ponton:
When we think about the public view of, let's say, fat industriousness. So, what an employee would be who happens to be fat. If you compare them side by side with a thin individual, the kinds of bias that come up for people are going to include laziness, stupidity, sloth, waste, slovenliness. The default is that fat people are also just dirty, filthier, there's a savagery, there's a stupidity and savagery that's attributed to fatness that is reinforced literally everywhere, from Homer Simpson to the way that we treated the president who just left the office, someone whom I am all about criticizing up and down, and good riddance. However, I will say that the way people focused on his body making him incompetent is so damaging and unfair.

Ellie Pike:
You're right. We saw it in the news, we continue to see it in the news, we see it in healthcare all the time. I know last night I actually was running a support group, and someone said they went into the urologist for an appointment for a UTI and came out with their BMI circled and highlighted and told that they need to lose weight. Right? So, can you speak to that a little bit? The bias that happens within the healthcare setting and the harm that's caused sometimes by medical providers, and how can we better that system?

Jen Ponton:
We need to start from the education. We need to start from the second that these people are in med school. First of all, hot take here, it is my opinion that the O word, and just to be clear, obesity, it's not actually an illness. It's not. It was pathologized. The BMI scale was created as a tool of racial sorting. It was created to prove that European white bodies were pure and more divine than bodies from African nations, basically. So, the fact that we are using that measure, that antiquated racist tool, it's about the bodily equivalent of phrenology, which is measure your head and see what you're good at. That's about where it lands in the world of real science. To know that that unit of measure is being used to deem whether or not a body is incredibly ill in their point of view is so damaging, and it's so completely off, and it's wrong.

Jen Ponton:
Obesity, the way that the medical community sees it, it's seen as a cause of so many major illnesses and conditions, as opposed to the symptom, first of all. There are many cases in which it is simply the symptom of a specific diagnosis or condition, but also in many ways, a fat body protects you from certain fates. A fat body gives you far more protection from cancer in a number of studies than it does lead toward cancer. There's very little actually pointing in that direction. Also, there are just so many studies that also show that heart health is not hobbled by being in a fat body. It's not indicative of what size you are. It is indicative of the way that you conduct your life. But if you conduct your life-

Ellie Pike:
Right, like your health behaviors.

Jen Ponton:
Yeah, your health behaviors. That's not coded for being thin at all. That's just are you taking care of your heart? Are you taking it out for a walk here and there? Are you feeding it nutrients? Are you getting enough sleep? Are you completely stressed out all the time? Heart health is a combination of that, and if you live in a fat body and you practice those behaviors, you are more inclined to be completely okay heart wise than you would be if you were in a thin body. Bariatric health should not even be a thing. I am ranting a little bit here, but all of this is to say...

Ellie Pike:
You're like, "So, my next topic..."

Jen Ponton:
Yeah, and another thing. But at the end of the day, this is my tinfoil hat, there's way too much pharmaceutical money that goes into medicine. There are too many mixed incentives, and it turns into the incentive not being about patient care, but rather about serving this particular pharmaceutical company that has a handshake deal with your hospital system to push this particular brand of drug, including this brand new trial of this new bariatric surgery, of this new weight loss medication.

Jen Ponton:
There's too much lobbying in medicine. Because of that, it turns doctors into salespeople on top of shoddy, outdated, under-researched education that they're given in medical school, which basically tries to teach the shortcut that being fat is pathology, being fat itself is a disease. It's so incredibly unhelpful, and doctors have incredible bias, the same way I just described with employers in workplaces.

Ellie Pike:
You bring up great points. Well, and on that subject too, I'm going to direct our listeners to the episode that we just put out with Meredith Nisbett on health at every size, because she does talk about some of that research and some of what it looks like in research to use health behaviors versus have a focus on weight. You're right, the more health behaviors that people showed, it didn't matter what their weight was in order to indicate if they felt healthy and were healthy. We can certainly direct listeners to some of that research if they're interested. Let me jump into a little bit more about this. What are some of the stereotypes of white fat women, and do they differ from white fat men or black fat women? Talk about some of the differences within the fat community and the biases.

Jen Ponton:
Definitely. Fat phobia and weight bias is innately racist in nature, and specifically racist against black women or misogynoir. It stems all the way from colonialization in Africa, when these Protestant colonists were observing that African culture was more sensual in nature, it was celebratory, it was sexual, it involved eating and dancing and joy and love and touch. In the meantime, Protestants had completely embraced this wackadoo culture of deprivation. Everything was somber and solemn, and there was no enjoyment. You can't enjoy food because that's ungodly. You can't enjoy sex because that's ungodly. Everything was about piety. Everything was about a self-flagellation. So, to see an African culture living the complete opposite of that was to deem them ungodly.

Jen Ponton:
So, as time passed, the racial guidelines became fuzzier, because you couldn't simply say, "Well, this person is black, so therefore they are ungodly." What happened was now that you're having interracial babies being born, you could no longer say definitively, "Well, this person is black, this person is white," and they couldn't make that judgment call. So, with a little bit of time, it started defaulting to body size, fatness. So, if this person of mixed heritage is now a little thicker, well, that's what's making them ungodly. This judgment passed quickly to white women as a way to control them. White women were now decreed to need to maintain a slender figure to be whole, to be a worthy woman, to be unsullied, to not be a harlot. Right? So, there's a lot of purity of a white woman kept up in thinness.

Jen Ponton:
For black women, I mean, even though they had no chance of getting close to that ideal for virtue of their blackness alone, it was certainly more punishable the fatter that you were, and more worthy of praise the more that you embraced the white decree of thinness. So, knowing that history explains a ton of what we have actually internalized and why. It's not a puzzle as to why laziness, sloths, lack of willpower are all attributes that are given to fat bodies. It's not a coincidence that those are also ways in which we malign blackness. It's not a puzzle. So, when we talk about the way that white fat bodies are treated differently than black fat bodies, a lot of it is about shame versus dehumanization, if I had to put it in such simple terms. It's definitely a gender difference, without question.

Jen Ponton:
Fat males will not ever have as difficult a time as fat females, because men are closer to the ideal. So, for women, it is a decree to be closer to men, to be closer to godliness and worthiness. Men are already there, right? So, being fat is not as much of a liability for a man as it is for a woman. Between black and white women, this idea of shaming versus dehumanizing, the way it shows up is I think it very much speaks to that colonial experience. When you see a fat white woman on television or in a movie, you can almost bank on the fact that she is sad, she hates herself, there's a ton of self-loathing, there's a ton of bullying, nobody wants to date her, nobody wants to marry her, she is probably a virgin, she's a cat lady, she's sad, somebody says to her, "Oh, you have such a pretty face," or, "You could be so pretty if..." Blah, blah, blah.

Jen Ponton:
I have described almost every single plot line that includes a fat white woman. Yeah. I know this movie by the back of my hand. That is a tool to help bring white women in line. Whereas if you see a fat black woman in media, and I would go so far as to say that you see more of them, but not in a way that indicates that we're doing the right thing. That's not necessarily good. I think the fact that we see more black women in media, but in these tropes, is deeply harmful, because we're saying that, "Okay, well, you're only worth seeing in this 2D manner, and fatness is so unwanted that we would never make a white woman take it on. Instead, let's save these portrayals for black women." Right? It's already just reinforcing that racist, sexist, misogynoir standpoint.

Jen Ponton:
But when you see a fat black woman on TV, she's almost never sad, quiet, wallflower, virgin. No. She is oversexed. She is loud, she is proud, she is wearing tight, loud clothing, she is getting laid, she is flirtatious and ostentatious. When we see a body like that doing that, it's not meant to celebrate the power of being a fat black woman. It is meant to savagize. It's meant to dehumanize and say, "Well, this tracks. Here is a fat black woman. This is what that means." All of those are what are highlighted for fat black female characters versus fat white characters. They are both incredibly harmful for the way the world takes it in as well as for reinforcing those stereotypes in their own respective communities.

Ellie Pike:
Absolutely. When you talk about it, it takes me back to your Ted talk, and there was a statistic that stood out to me. I think it was that about 67% of American women are plus sized.

Jen Ponton:
Correct.

Ellie Pike:
So, talking about representation of fat bodies in media, it doesn't seem to line up with where we are as a society.

Jen Ponton:
Not at all.

Ellie Pike:
What change do you hope to see, and how do you hope to increase that visibility of fat bodies in media?

Jen Ponton:
It's a timely question, especially because I believe quarantine and whatever the culture is like post this most acute pandemic life that we've all been living, a lot of people don't have access to the ways in which they used to maintain thinness, because thinness is inherently classist. You know what I mean? It takes so much to maintain a body that is sculpted in the ways that thin, vaulted bodies are sculpted that maintain the exact angles and proportions that we laud in this culture. It takes a lot of resources. It takes a ton of money. It takes a ton of free time. It takes trainers and nutritionists and personal chefs. You know?

Jen Ponton:
Bodies in general, even if not everybody is meant to be fat, certainly are not meant to naturally be that thin and that cut, et cetera. So, now that even some of the wealthiest among us and some of the most privileged among us don't have full unfettered access to the ways in which they used to protect their thinness, I think we are seeing more real discussions about what your body does when you leave it alone. I hope, I believe and I hope that there is a humanization there, that there is a self-reflection on a grand scale of, "Oh."

Jen Ponton:
The way that I've seen it play out with a lot of people, especially closer to the beginning, like June last June or so, is that there was this terror of, "Oh my God, this is not my summer body," which even just saying that makes me want to vomit. But even that assessment and turning just in terms of normal recovery points of view, turning that from, "Oh, I don't recognize my body anymore," into, "This is a body that is surviving a killer virus." That there's strength in that.

Ellie Pike:
Yes, and radical acceptance acceptance. Right?

Jen Ponton:
Radical acceptance.

Ellie Pike:
My body is serving me well right now, and it may not look like what culture says it should look like.

Jen Ponton:
Yes.

Ellie Pike:
But my body is doing something good for me. It's surviving.

Jen Ponton:
Yes.

Ellie Pike:
That's pretty incredible.

Jen Ponton:
Yeah, 1,000%, 1,000%. Our bodies know better than we give them credit for. But also, what I really think the focus has to be on, at least in media, is truly a from the writer down. We should be seeking to subvert expectations in every single step. Even if I'm talking about normal, thin actors, right? When we get really excited about a TV show, it's expected that the best friend is the black character. Of course the luminous black woman is not going to be the person who's actually starring in it. Of course she's the one who's going to be second banana. Can we subvert that? Can we start just empowering the least empowered voices among us to start telling stories?

Jen Ponton:
We need cooperation from the top down, because there's only so much that I can do as an actor. There's only so much that the casting directors that I work with can do from their position, because they need the encouragement and willingness from the producers, who in turn need the encouragement and willingness from the writer's room, who in turn need the encouragement and willingness from the studio executives and network executives. So, we all honestly need to be on the same page, because if just one of the smaller fish is trying to make that argument, change is not going to happen, which is why we actually see real change happen when social outcry becomes unignorable.

Ellie Pike:
I completely agree with you that it's a whole system change, right? It's like cogs in the wheel. If one piece moves, all the pieces have to move in order to crank this whole system and change the direction that we're going.

Jen Ponton:
Right.

Ellie Pike:
With that being said, I remember at the beginning of this episode, you said that you've curated your visual diet. I'm curious for our listeners who are like, "Yeah, I want to consume better media. I want to be more inclusive in what I consume." How does someone do that, and how could someone curate their visual diet, whether it's social media or Hollywood?

Jen Ponton:
Social media is definitely the easiest place to do so, for sure. For sure. I mean, that becomes as simple as following some hashtags or seeing somebody who occupies a radical body whom you admire, and maybe seeing who they follow and finding other radical bodies, whether that presents in terms of fatness or queerness or blackness, or a combination of all of those, disability, and adding a lot of bodies of alternate empowerments, I'm going to say. That has made such a world of difference for me. I mean, I have thin friends, so I follow theme, but I, by in large, do not follow thin strangers. I seek out to follow radical fat marginalized bodies, specifically from different ethnic bathroom backgrounds than mine, in order to help continue to stretch my mind and continue get the kind of visibility for a body like my own, for an unwanted body like my own, the same kind of visibility as I gave to 17 Magazine, or YM, or commercials, where I constantly just saw the same angular, thin pretty white girl over and over and over and over again.

Jen Ponton:
That is so subliminally damaging because from a very literal point of view, it makes you feel like you are not the default. If you can make yourself feel like the default, and specifically, if you can make fat bodies feel like the default, even if you yourself do not occupy a fat body, that's going to help you de-stigmatize the way that you see the world. It's going to help gently break up those little sheets of ice that create biases. If you can create a little social media oasis where all the bodies that you see are radical, rebellious bodies, you're going to have more empathy for marginalized people in your day-to-day life. You're going to have a greater awareness, you're going to have a greater care, you're going to have a greater appreciation of your own body in whatever way it differs from the social celebrated norm.

Jen Ponton:
It is a win-win across the board for everybody, everything, and society. I would say as a consumer of media, your views and your dollars and your voice matters. So, the same way I just did that whole giant little fish to big fish system that went all the way up to studio and network executives, those are the people who are listening to the viewers, because they want the viewers. So, when viewers are condemning or refusing to watch certain shows because they are non-inclusive enough, because they're perpetuating the same old stereotypes and casting that we have long suffered from, they're going to start second guessing the way that they cast the next one, or whether they want to keep this while in the air, or add a new character who happens to satisfy the viewing base, whatever it is. They listen, and the squeaky wheel gets the grease.

Jen Ponton:
So, if you can be a viewer whose voice longs to be heard, that is only going to help. Where you direct your attention is helpful. So, right off the real, I mean, some radical places to watch subversive TV would be, I'll pitch my own show, Diet Land on Hulu, Shrill on Hulu, Wendy West and Aidy Bryant's show, Claws, Pose. These are all great examples. Nicole Byer doing anything is always very important. These are all great examples of ways to support and put your views, i.e dollars, behind radical representation in culture. You do have that power as a viewer. En mass, that is definitely an engine for change, for sure.

Ellie Pike:
Jen, thank you so much. You have given us such a broad view and then such a specific view of how we can start to change the system just one person at a time, for ourselves, but also for media and for the greater culture at large. Thank you so much for your input and your insight. If people want to follow you and check you out on social media, how do they do that?

Jen Ponton:
I am on Twitter at Jen Ponton, at Instagram at Jen Ponton. If you want to check out my podcast, it is nested on my website, which is jenponton.com, and that'll take you to all kinds of wonderful things in the archives of the stuff I like to make.

Ellie Pike:
Wonderful. Thank you so much just for your insight and for your positivity. I'm excited to continue the conversation with our listeners as they listen and grow alongside of myself.

Jen Ponton:
Yes.

Ellie Pike:
So, thank you so much for your input.

Jen Ponton:
Oh, my pleasure. Thank you so much for having me. This has been great.

Ellie Pike:
Thank you for listening to today's episode with Jen Ponton. As she pointed out, a great way to start your journey of positive change is by curating your media diet to include fat people and other personalities that challenge the status quo of who is normal. So, head over to Jen's website, at jenponton.com, J-E-N-P-O-N-T-O-N, .com. You can also find her on Instagram and Twitter by searching for @JenPonton. Mental Note is a creation of Eating Recovery Center and Path Light Mood and Anxiety Center.

Ellie Pike:
If you'd like to talk to a trained therapist to see if treatment is right for you, please call them at (877) 850-7199. Eating Recovery Center and Path Light Mood and Anxiety center are also hosting their annual conference as a virtual event this summer. Join hundreds of professionals on August 24th and 25th for the 2021 Path Light conference, Transformative Solutions in Mental Health Treatment. It will include 10 research based presentations on the complexities of mood, anxiety, and trauma related disorders. Attendees can earn up to 15CE credit hours, as well as learn practical skills to identify, assess, and treat patients with mental health disorders.

Ellie Pike:
Sign up at pathlightbh.com/event/pbh-conference. If you like our show, sign up for our e-newsletter and learn more about the people we interview at mentalnotepodcast.com. We'd also love it if you left us a review on iTunes. It helps others find our podcast. Mental Note is produced and hosted by me, Ellie pike, and directed by Sam Pike, with editing help on today's episode from Ian [Kelsa 00:39:11]. Till next time.

 

Presented by

Jen Ponton

Most known as the fiercely feminist fat activist 'Rubi' on AMC's critical darling DIETLAND, Jen is an award-winning actress and body liberation activist. With a television resume that inc...

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