TikTok is a platform known for launching a variety of trends that often disappear as quickly as they arise. One trend that has displayed remarkable persistence, however, is the “What I Eat in a Day” (WIEIAD) video. This trend has been critiqued for potentially promoting disordered eating and triggering those in recovery from disordered eating. While many of the videos are aimed at audiences interested in fitness and health, proclaiming to offer guidelines about what a healthy day of eating should look like, a subtrend has arisen featuring videos titled with some variation of “What I Eat in a Day as a Fat Person.”
I advocate for viewing these videos through the lens of “recuperative ethos,” a term coined by theorist Cathryn Molloy to refer to “the day-to-day discursive practices through which a person might regain credibility” after stigmatizing experiences (139-140). While the tone and approach of the videos vary, the existence of the trend and proliferation of videos constitute attempts by fat people to talk back to societies that view their bodies as evidence of moral and rhetorical deficits. The value of sharing personal dietary choices in this format may still be questionable, but the creation of a space for fat people to speak openly about diet and resist the shame many experience around public acts of consumption is worthy of greater attention.
Central to this discussion is Jenell Johnson’s concept of kakoethos, which refers to the actively negative credibility, or ethos, afforded to those who are marked by stigma. As Johnson explains, “Stigma did not subtract from a speaker’s ethos as much as it substituted kakoethos in its place; stigma did not signify a lack of ethos, but a present anti-ethos.” Johnson emphasizes the importance of visibility to stigma by evoking the Greek origins of stigma as a tattooing practice used to mark out those deemed dangerous to a community, arguing that “it is difficult to imagine how a bearer of stigma could be rhetorically effective when his very body announced the presence of a bad character” (463). In societies dominated by the anti-fat ideology within which we are raised, as Mark Graham argues, to become lipoliterate, “Fat stigma transforms the physical body into a sign of bad character: an offense to aesthetics; a threat to work ethic; a symbol of gluttony; a personal failing; and a medical threat to the future of the human species, even weakening the defense of our nation” (Miller 63).
For the sake of brevity, I will address two approaches taken by creators of these WIEIAD videos. These approaches align with two of those that Elisabeth Miller identifies Chris Christie using to counter anti-fat logic in his presidential campaign: challenging the association between fatness and poor health and utilizing humor to subvert ideas around fat (63).
In the first instance, multiple videos posted under the trend depict fat people following diets that conform to perceptions of healthy eating. User beyourjoy, for example, posted a video titled “What I eat in a day as a fat person who’s not on a diet,” featuring eggs and toast, a grilled cheese sandwich, an orzo and Greek chicken bowl, and snacks of fruit throughout the day. Her video, which opens on a shot of her almost naked body in the mirror, features no overt commentary but includes the hashtags #healthateverysize and #intuitiveeating. She thus aligns her diet and the act of sharing both it and her body with a movement explicitly engaged in countering anti-fat ideology around health, food, and movement.
Other videos take a much more mocking or humorous approach, such as emmamatthewsxx’s post, “What I eat in a day as a fat bitch who very controversially does not give a fuck that she is fat.” These videos tend to dismiss health trolling altogether, and while the content of the diets vary (from those more laden with typically demonized foods like takeout meals to those that feature more stereotypically healthy choices), the videos insist upon the right to publicly enjoy their food without capitulating to the structures of anti-fatness that would demand they hide or shrink. Emma’s video includes text that proclaims “NO MENTION OF CALORIES” and features shots of her enjoying takeout food and a large bowl of spaghetti and meatballs. She thus rejects healthism and one of the most hegemonic measures of the value of food in favor of a celebration of pleasure in eating and existing in a fat body.
Miller argues that recuperative ethos for fat speakers is still limited because “journalists and much of the public still read fatness as inability” (63), emphasizing the entrenched nature of lipoliteracy. This can be seen in the comments of videos under this trend. Fat people who attempt to disassociate fatness from poor health still receive comments expressing disbelief about their diet. Beyourjoy’s video, for example, received comments like “Sure,” “Ya right!” and “No blame but being overweight is unhealthy.” The incredulity mirrors scientific skepticism around food intake reporting by “obese” subjects in scientific studies. The longstanding difficulty in identifying a strong relationship between food intake and body weight is often attributed to underreporting on the part of fat people (Sobal and Stunkard 265).
The choice of fat TikTok users to post their diets invites criticism and reiterations of anti-fat ideology regardless of the substance of their diets, revealing the lie in claims that users are concerned about fat people’s health (something that can further be tracked in the general lack of similar comments on videos by thin TikTokers whose diets feature fast and heavily processed foods). While such reactions to the sharing of fat people’s diets highlight the limitations of recuperative ethos for fat speakers on the topic of health, the resistance shown in this trend and the choice to make fat bodies and acts of consumption hypervisible deserves greater attention and recognition.
Cover Image: Unknown author, Good Food Display – NCI Visuals Online, 1988. (https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/6/6d/Good_Food_Display_-_NCI_Visuals_Online.jpg/640px-Good_Food_Display_-_NCI_Visuals_Online.jpg)
Graham, Mark. “Chaos.” Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession. Eds. Don Kulick and Anne Meneley. New York: Penguin, 2005, pp. 169-184.
Johnson, Jenell. “The Skeleton on the Couch: The Eagleton Affair, Rhetorical Disability, and the Stigma of Mental Illness.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 40(5), 2010, pp. 459-478.
Miller, Elisabeth. “Too Fat to be President? Chris Christie and Fat Stigma as Rhetorical Disability.” Rhetoric of health & medicine, 2(1), 2019, pp. 60-87.
Molloy, Cathryn. “Recuperative Ethos and Agile Epistemologies: Toward a Vernacular Engagement with Mental Illness Ontologies.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly, 45(2), 2015, pp. 138-163.
Sobal, Jeffery, and Albert J. Stunkard. “Socioeconomic status and obesity: A review of the literature.” Psychological Bulletin, 105, 1989, pp. 260-275.