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On Turning Insults Into Nicknames, Why Body Image Is Hard, and How Diets Can Kiss My Ass
By Jes Baker
Read by Jes Baker
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Jes Baker burst onto the body positivity scene when she created her own ads mocking Abercrombie & Fitch for discriminating against all body types — a move that landed her on the Today Show and garnered a loyal following for her raw, honest, and attitude-filled blog missives.
Building on the manifesta power of Things, this memoir goes deeply into Jes’s inner life, from growing up a fat girl to dating while fat. With material that will have readers laughing and crying along with Jes’s experience, this new book is a natural fit with her irreverent, open-book style.
A deeply personal take, Landwhale is a glimpse at life as a fat woman today, but it’s also a reflection of the unforgiving ways our culture still treats fatness, all with Jes’s biting voice as the guide.
Trigger Warnings, Disclaimers, and Other Things
When I asked a few brilliant minds to read selected sections from this book and send back their critiques, many left comments in the margins that went a lot like: “Holy shit, maybe consider giving people a heads-up that there is some rough stuff in here so they don’t pass out mid-chapter, okay?” That, combined with the fact that I cried all over my keyboard while typing half of this memoir, convinced me that a Hey, I’m writing about real life, and real life can occasionally be difficult, so please be gentle with your heart while flipping through these pages was in order.1
So, in the spirit of transparency, I offer you this insider tip: The book you’re holding? It’s basically one long-ass trigger.
Tough topics covered that you might want to mentally buckle up for:
Bedbugs (I’m still trying to emotionally recover) Fatphobia
Embarrassing personal failure
Diet-ey diet talk about a lot of diets
I wrote Landwhale for three reasons: 1) I wanted to give these stories a permanent home; 2) I wanted to offer my personal narrative to you in the hope that you might feel a little less alone after turning the last page; and 3) the title was too good to not be on a book cover.
With any luck, you’ll find some validation, solidarity, and humor within these pages as well.
I will also disclose that some names have been changed, not because I believe that divulging every last detail is a sin, but because many other people in this universe do.
You’re holding a story. It’s a sad one. A scary one. A common one. A happy one. A tragic one. A privileged one. An impossible-to-properly-articulate one. A relatable one. An unwelcome one. A lucky one. An alienating one. A confusing one. A brave one. A safe one. A problematic one. An unfinished one. A true one.
It is all of these things, but, simply put, it is mine.
All of that said, welcome! I’m glad you’re here. So hold on to those britches of yours, because we’re about to talk about some really important shit.
Holding your hand (consensually, of course) as we dive in,
1. I’m astounded that my keyboard still works after endless months of salty eyeball flooding. Hewlett Packard, keep up the good work.
This Was All Just a Big Mistake
I AM AN impressively terrible businesswoman.
I became “Jes, The Militant Baker: conspicuous fat chick, beauty-myth challenger, shit talker, petty blocker, Twitter amateur, and internet human with more followers than any person from Tucson deserves” by complete accident. The fact that you’re holding this book in your hands right now? Total fluke. In fact, I keep expecting someone important who is in charge of something big (Google? Amazon maybe? Even Kmart would do) to come out and say, “Sorry guys, this was all just one big mistake! Jes, delete everything you’ve written online. Everyone else, carry on.”
I’m still not ruling that out.
So, no. I never imagined, back when I started typing center-justified blog posts (I still have serious internet shame around this) on a shoddily designed Blogger site—first about vintage kitchenware *yawn* and then about my plus-size body—that it would lead to this. “This” being becoming a somewhat well-known fat person on the internet whom thousands of people praise and even more people pray an untimely death for. “This” being a future containing invitations to participate in documentaries, film corporate campaigns and offers to write Upworthy articles (which no doubt require hours of editing on their end). “This” being a creepily detailed Wikipedia page about my past written by strangers, a delightfully scathing shout-out on Breitbart, the chance to lecture at universities about why being nice is a really good thing, and the opportunity to be in the same room as (and the inexplicable privilege to be ignored by) the accomplished actress Danielle Brooks. When I started writing online, none of this crossed my baby blogger mind.
I just wanted a couple dozen people (honestly, I would have settled for five—friends included) to read my hastily typed fat-girl feels and the opportunity to take lots of pictures of myself using my DLSR, which I fondly named Midge. I was bored by my deteriorating relationship and needed a hobby because watching River Monster marathons every single night with a lifeless partner who only liked eating chicken nuggets, wearing Tapout shorts, and refusing to let me drive just wasn’t doing it for me anymore.
So, I sat on my bed, opened my computer, shoved an SD card into my camera, and started blogging for no other reason than to distract myself from the toothy perils that apparently lurk in every body of water (also: is Jeremy Wade even his real name? As the host of a show filmed in bodies of water, it just… seems awfully convenient) and a person who would rather stare blankly at a screen than interact with another human. Especially me.
Oh, the glamour. Oh, the life.
And somehow, five years later… here I am: two books published, innumerable conference and college lectures given, and hundreds of thousands of followers who have formed an incredible community and have taught me more about body politics, fat empowerment, and mental health than I could have ever imagined. I’m still hastily typing and taking lots of pictures, but now I am both existing and producing content under a shockingly hot spotlight that comes with the un-ditchable (trust me, I’ve tried) requirement of being what some adults like to call a businesswoman. That’s what they call someone who identifies as a lady person and makes some money doing things on their own when they’re a grown-up, right?
If so, I suppose that’s what I am, like it or not.
And the reality is that I suck at all of it.
I’ll own that the success is both startling and exciting. A large part of my visibility can be attributed to my dedication to authenticity, challenging social norms, bad jokes, critical thinking in a world that prefers the easy way out, as well as undeniable privilege and sheer luck. I’m pretty great at continuing to excel in all of these things. The business part though? Not so much.
I’m not aiming for self-deprecation. I’m simply stating a fact—one that is well known by any volunteer who has helped me run a “successful” (to others, anyway; it was a clusterfuck behind the scenes) five-hundred-person conference when I had no idea what a conference should look like or what intersectionality was.1 You can also poll anyone who has emailed me in the last five years; I would imagine that 87 percent of them would agree with my statement after having waited nine months for a reply. And I’m being generous.
To be fair, though, I do receive anywhere from 21 to 1982 emails a day, and every single one of them (besides the Blue Apron shipping update that reminds me I forgot to cancel my overpriced subscription again) contains something complicated that requires me to either write an essay in reply, link multiple items I’ve lost on my unorganized desktop, or schedule a Skype-oriented meeting. Given that the thought of having to make a phone call causes a panic attack, the Skype requests consequently leave me in a frenzied state where a benzo seems like the only way through.
It’s stressful AF. That’s what I’m trying to say here.
So stressful that it’s caused me to get a cold and break out in hives more than I ever broke out in teenage acne.
I solved this problem (though far too late in my career) by creating the best auto-response in the existence of the internet. It goes something like this:
Life is wild, isn’t it? Your inbox? Probably even wilder. (Mine, too.) So: I’m trying a little email-experiment!
I’ve rounded up the top 6 topics that most people email me about—and I’ve answered every single question, just for you! If your email falls under one of the top 6 topics, consider this note your official response. (Ta da! I’m throwing handfuls of happiness your way!)
If your email pertains to some other topic—or if you’re my grandma who’s sending me chain emails like it’s 1998, my speaking agent, my publisher, in the media, an active client, or, like, the ghost of Kurt Vonnegut—you’ll get a separate response from me as speedily as humanly possible.
Sending you ALL KINDS of love,
If you wrote to me because…
1. You’re wondering where you can find more body-positive resources. You’re in luck! I’ve compiled 340+ awesome links and wrote a book!
2. You’d love to bring me to your campus or event to speak. I’m absolutely honored! I’ll respond as soon as I can and will additionally connect you to my speaking agent. He’s a peach. (You can find basic info here while you wait for a reply.)
3. You have a question about your business, your writing, or where to find XYZ. I love inquisitive + curious people, but I also love self-reliant people! I recommend using the almighty Google (and your own intuition) to answer your own question because you are so damn smart. And also b/c responding isn’t always possible… this inbox is bananas. Truth.
4. You’ve worked on something really amazing and you’re wondering if I will share it. I’m SO proud of you! I’m also unable to share everything that comes my way, but keep on kicking ass, my friend!
5. You just want to say “thank you” or share your story. Thank YOU. I think you’re amazing and appreciate every note like this that drops into my inbox. Even if I’m not able to respond to every email, just know that your story is honored, safe, and heard. And that I’ll put it in my Permanent Happy File so I can keep it + your awesomeness forever. HUGS!
6. You’re struggling and really need help. I’m so genuinely sorry you’re going through it right now. If you’re struggling with body-image shit, click (link with body-image pep talk and resources). If you’re in crisis, click (link with mental health pep talk and resources) or call 1-800-784-2433. I’m rooting for you. You are important to this world, and I’m sending you so much love.
True to form, I just found a typo in a response that has already been sent to hundreds of influential contacts. No big deal.
See? Sure, I run a “business,” but I’m an amazing failure at it even when bragging about my best work. I don’t know if going back and fixing the typo would defeat my compelling argument that I’ve just spent twenty paragraphs writing. (Don’t count them; that was a sloppy estimate.)
However, this automatic reply has served its purpose. I’ve yet to catch a cold or break out in email-induced hives since implementing my brilliant riposte. The feedback has consisted of just a few “Your auto-reply is amazing, can I copy it?” (Yes, you can. I didn’t come up with something this clever without help) and “It’s really effing annoying to get this kick-back every time I email you” responses. I feel you, my friend; getting an email wishing you magic and a wonderful day (with genuinely misspelled, for God’s sakes) sucks.
Sometimes, I do trudge through the answering of seven thousand emails, though. Eventually, the guilt adds up, the number in bold next to the word “inbox” increases, and the dates that the emails were sent are shoved in my face by Gmail (“Hey, asshole, they sent this three and a half weeks ago. Get your shit together”), and it all becomes impossible to ignore.
On these special occasions, my custom is often to audibly sigh, dig in… and skim.
Last year, I opened my inbox and read (just kidding, skimmed) this guy:
I’m emailing from Imagination TV in New Zealand.
We are the makers of the TV series called Name I Skimmed’s “Show’s name I skimmed”—a factual travel series about health and beauty around the world. The first series broadcast in 120 countries around the world including cable in the USA, and won a New York Festivals Award.
We are shooting in NYC in August—an episode about the body—and would love to know if you might be interested in talking to us on the programme!
The episode in NYC sees Skimmed Name looking at beauty standards and body image. What beauty standards and beauty ideals are at play today? How realistic are these and how have they changed over the past few decades, not just in regards to size wise but also colour, gender, and age? Also, most importantly, how can we learn to accept and love our bodies more no matter what their shape, size, colour, and no matter what the media tells us we should look like. I have included a link to the show below.
Did I click the link? I don’t remember.
Things I did remember:
2. The invitation for this fat girl to discuss her favorite topic: why beauty standards are bullshit.
I fucking love NYC. I was in.
When the shooting day arrived, it was summer in the city, and I was walking toward the Loeb Boathouse and cursing the fact that the construction inside Central Park had forced my Uber to drop me off several avenues (not streets, avenues; there is a lengthy difference) from our lakeside meeting location. Didn’t the city planners realize it was 160 degrees, with the same amount of humidity? Probably. But they also probably didn’t care. After all, this is the magical city that never sleeps—if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere—that also had mountains of garbage lining every sidewalk and was over capacity with people who would shoulder check you for walking too slow (I’ve visited enough to become one of those proud shoulder-checking assholes). Being dropped off so far away meant I had to hustle, which didn’t bode well with the suffocating humidity, which quickly becomes messy when combined with the amazing amount of sweat I normally produce on a daily basis. The daily amount? Let’s just say it’s a lot.
Already drenched and barely on time, I met the producer (wiping my hand on my suffocating layered dress—who wears multiple layers in NYC in the summer? What was I thinking?—before shaking hers) and waited for our television host. I informed the filming team that I had a rash from an unknown cause on my right arm that I had covered up with foundation, so if they could film from the left, that would be great. I’m sure at that point the makeup had melted off, but they nodded good-naturedly as I internally groaned about how much of a glamorous superstar I continuously failed to be.3 The host arrived, seemingly twelve feet tall, svelte, with long blonde hair flowing behind her graceful frame, which was dressed effortlessly in white shorts and a knotted chambray top (didn’t she know that all chambray clothing highlights sweat? Maybe she didn’t sweat?4). We greeted each other with another (dress-wiped) handshake. I had too much empathy to force her into a sweaty hug.
“It’s so wonderful to meet you!” she grinned. “I have to tell you that I never research who I’m meeting, though. I love to get to know them in person.”
To which I replied, “I also have no idea who you are, but I love NYC, and although your producer just said your name, I already forgot it, but you seem like a really nice human.”
Yeah, right. I said something about how wonderful that was and how I was thrilled to meet her and thanks for thinking of me for the show.
The next hour was spent on a fucking rowboat in the middle of a goddamn lake with maximum humidity causing me to sweat so much it looked like I had fallen out and climbed back in. If she needed a single tissue blot I certainly didn’t see it, whereas I would have sold my car for anything absorbent (a bath sheet, maybe?) that I could use to wipe my neck.
As we swung our oars the wrong way for sixty minutes, the producers (also not sweating—what sort of genetic anomalies were we dealing with here? Do New Zealanders not have sweat glands?) followed us in another boat, bellowing instructions like “Talk about the fifth graders who hate their bodies!” and “You’re going the wrong way again, Jes; try rowing backward!” Somehow, we managed to chat about how harmful it is to idolize one body type.
At one point, she stopped rowing for a moment and somberly confessed, “Sometimes, I wonder how many people I harmed by being visible and part of that idealized demographic.” I surveyed her for a moment, with her golden hair slightly moving with the wind (that I certainly didn’t feel) and her long and slender arms clutching her stationary paddle.
“Well, perhaps. You are a traditionally attractive person.” I stated the obvious nonchalantly while wiping the sweat out of my eyes, trying to say it in a complimentary way. “But this has been going on for centuries and is systemic… y’know?” I added desperately in an attempt to not exacerbate her obvious guilt.
After overhearing me beg one of the cameramen for something to tie back my dripping hair with (they had nothing—nothing), the producer called the row-boating section a wrap. Whether this decision was made out of a gracious amount of pity or concern for their sweat-covered electrical equipment, I’m still not sure.
It took us an embarrassingly long time to dock the boat in its designated area, but I was relieved to be out of that hellish wooden torture device and on land, where at least I could use my hands to fan myself with the production script while we moved to the center of the park for a few more scenes.
We started filming the “beginning” of the episode, which included her theatrical entrance into Central Park. I watched as they captured the slender host delicately sauntering down the flights of concrete stairs “on her way to meet me,” and from the sidelines I couldn’t help but notice groups of people stopping and whispering to each other as they took pictures from afar. The Official TV Host Tissue Blotter (unnecessary; also, where was mine?) waved them away, and the cameras continued to film as she stopped to fix a bride’s dress while a couple was having their picture taken.
“Great!” the producer said. We moved to the fountain for another shot (at this point, I should have realized that they had no compassion for my body’s inability to cope with humidity while standing near any water source in hundred-degree heat). “Now, Jes, this is where you are meeting her for the first time. I want both of you to walk toward each other and then greet enthusiastically. And Jes—make sure you start from that corner and hug before you introduce yourself.”
I tottered (my chub rub was in full rage mode at this point) over to my designated spot, still drenched, and faced the woman who was already airily striding toward me in a way that made me think that she might be Gwyneth Paltrow’s sister. In comparison, I felt like I was capable of only lumbering in her direction, my fat body (the blessed reason I was there) seeming more cumbersome than ever. I kept a smile on my face for the camera, but I’m sure my eyes showed my growing dread about the fact that I had to wrap my salty and sticky body around this unfortunate, elegant woman.
We greeted. We hugged. We took a picture that I was instructed not to share until the episode aired, the filmographers called it a wrap, and then, with a visible air of relief, the crew left.
I too felt relief, wanting nothing more than some goddamn air myself.
I started to walk through the park, wondering why in the hell I had signed up for something like this, and then joined an awestruck crowd that was circled around a man using a rope to completely encompass himself in a six-foot bubble.
I chose a bench next to a young and seemingly charming family with two small children and pulled out my phone to reread the original email and see what I had just participated in.
I’m emailing from Imagination TV in New Zealand.
We are the makers of the TV series Rachel Hunter’s Tour of Beauty.”
Nonplussed and still uncertain about the show I had just filmed, I googled Rachel Hunter.
I am the kind of millennial people write disparaging articles about.
Rachel Hunter: Actress, supermodel, and ex-wife of Rod Stewart. Has appeared on the front of Italian Vogue, Elle, Harper’s Bazaar, and twice on the cover of Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. Famous for a million reasons and is only unknown by one person in the world: Jes Baker, a sweaty, fat blogger from Arizona who doesn’t read her emails.
I scrolled through images, dumbfounded. Our boat conversation and the unwelcome groups of paparazzi were starting to make more sense. On the one hand, it was pleasant to get to know someone without pretenses. On the other hand, I might have just given Rachel Goddamn Hunter bedbugs.
The toddler next to me projectile vomited all over his parents and, incapable of handling anything else that day, I took it as a sign that it was time to leave.
Lost in thought about my impressive lack of research when it came to the projects I sign up for, I slowly walked back through Central Park, narrowly missing a bicyclist. He was wearing a helmet but it felt like the both of us barely escaped dramatic deaths. “God, I should wear a helmet when I ride a bike too,” I thought as I started to rapidly run through a mental list of things fully functioning adults do that I don’t. “Yes. I’m definitely going to buy a helmet,” I promised myself. “I’m also going to get that year-long-overdue oil change, return those Amazon packages, and organize the mountain of clothes on my bedroom floor.”
“Lord,” I thought, as the list continued to grow, “I really need to get my shit together.”
Of course, I didn’t buy a helmet when I got home. I also didn’t change my oil, visit UPS, or sort the ninety-two black outfits strewn across the floor of my room. That would have been alarmingly responsible. But I did learn perhaps one of the most important lessons to date: a real businesswoman doesn’t skim through emails once and say yes.
A real businesswoman skims through at least twice.
1. Permission to burn me alive at the Activist Stake granted.
2. Lazy estimate because: terrible businesswoman.
3. I had visited urgent care a few days before to try to figure out how to make the conspicuous rash disappear and left with a handful of prescriptions to help with the swelling, prescribed by a baffled nurse. I found out months later that it was from a nightmare-inducing infestation of bedbugs. I should have been quarantined, not traveling across the country.
4. She didn’t.
6 Ways to Hate Your Body
1) Purchase your first piece of “unflattering” clothing.
Shopping alone as a thirteen-year-old felt like one of my first moments of extravagant independence. While my mom waited on a bench outside the store, I trotted into Sears; an unsupervised preteen who had a little bit of money and no idea what she was doing. I quickly assumed the air of a girl who often shopped alone because of her uncontainable amount of style expertise, and breezily glanced around, attempting to hide the fact that I had no idea where I was going until I finally caught a glimpse of the enormous sign labeled “Women” hanging from the ceiling. I slung my clear vinyl handbag over my shoulder (told you I was stylish), walked over to where the sign swayed, and planted myself directly underneath it.
Riffling through the blouses in front of me, I quickly found the top of my dreams: a light lime-green cotton shirt with elastic-lined cap sleeves covered in a pattern of miniature white flowers. I purchased it immediately. Proud of my new and very trendy selection, I wore it as often as I could, until a few weeks later when my mom pulled me aside and suggested that I consider getting rid of it because it was “unflattering” on my arms. With tears in her eyes as well as mine, she was quick to assure me that it was okay, that someday I would find a man who would love me for me and not for the way I looked. I never wore the shirt again.
2) Worship teen periodicals.
My house didn’t believe in magazine subscriptions,1 so I was left to my own devices when it came to accumulating those beautiful and brightly colored manuals on how to become a paragon of teenage femininity. “My own devices” usually meant slyly sliding a copy of Seventeen or YM behind a plastic separator on the conveyer belt while my mother checked out at the grocery store. As she arranged the bags of purchased food in the cart, I would quickly slip the cashier a five-dollar bill after she scanned the barcode underneath Josh Hot-nett’s beautiful face and then tucked the purchase into my bag for later reading. I eventually collected a newsstand-worthy stack of teen style magazines and would pore over them every day, absorbing the tips about how to make your butt look smaller in jeans (answer: enormous pockets), nodding in knowing solidarity at the “Say Anything” advice column where that one girl got earwax on her crush’s headphones after borrowing them (sorry, but it’s over between the two of you, girl), and tearing out pages of the summer’s hottest makeup trends and attaching them to my wall.
What never seemed to be spelled out on the pages but was always evident from looking at my Scotch-taped collages was that the girls who knew and had it all… were thin. This led to years of full-length-mirror gazing and seeing nothing other than the fact that I did not have the body size of anyone you would find in a “back to school” style guide. Eventually, I started to make a mental list of other flaws that I had, the list growing each time I looked in the mirror. With tears welling up in my eyes, I would stare at my reflection promise God that I would do anything he asked if he would just let me look more like the teens I saw in the magazines. I repeated this every day for years.
3) Attend a Mormon university and leave unmarried.
"Baker is back with a captivating look at her life as a fat girl and how our culture still devalues those whose bodies have been deemed unruly. True to form, Landwhale is full of wittiness and a lot of truth."
- "It's tempting to call Jes Baker 'fearless,' but to do so would diminish her profound capacity for vulnerability and, by extension, her strength. The thing that makes Jes such a force is that she is so brave, so funny, so blazing, so herself, even in the face of fear. I do not know what we would do without her."—Lindy West, New York Times bestselling author of Shrill
- "Funny, kind, wise, generous, and incredibly real-Jes Baker's writing will have you feeling seen, heard, and held. I enjoyed every minute of reading this book, even when it made me cry. Instead of calling to us from a finish line that seems impossibly far away, Jes shares a path to self-love that she's still on with us. And in her story we can find the joy in the journey itself, even if we can't yet see the destination."—Ijeoma Oluo, New York Times bestselling author of So You Want To Talk About Race
- "With the perfect tidal wave of humor and candid emotion, Jes once again shows me how to not only love my own body, but every body around me, as well. It's as if she's written Landwhale about the daily complicated love affair I have in my skin, and I'll never stop reading it. All women, at all stages of their journey, must read this book!"—Brittany Gibbons, New York Times bestselling author of Fat Girl Walking and The Clothes Make the Girl (Look Fat)?
- "In Landwhale, Jes Baker asks the hard questions of herself and of our fat-hating culture, and she never sugarcoats the answers. Her memoir is full of humor and grace and honesty. She treats the reader like a friend, and on every page she sends the message: You're not alone."—Sarai Walker, author of Dietland
- "Jes Baker's words are ointment for the soul. I want to give this book to every person who's ever struggled with their body and its place in this world. Read this book. Thank me later."—Julie Murphy, #1 New York Times bestselling author of Dumplin'
- "Jes Baker is building a world I want to live in. In it, fat people can be beautiful, powerful, messy, imperfect, self-aware, courageous, vulnerable, real and human--just like anyone else. Landwhale is a lifeline to that world. I can't thank Jes enough for her funny, brave, empowering work to create it."—Your Fat Friend
- "Whether she is reminding how fatphobia fractures the honest memory of our childhood bodies or she is shadow walking us through the stories of shame our own mothers and father's projected onto our bodies, Landwhale is an ode to the bravery and humor it takes to live in this world in a fat body. Praise Jes Baker for this generous, tender tale and for reminding us that it is okay to go ahead and live OUTLOUD because whatever we have most feared, we have already survived."—Sonya Renee Taylor, activist and author of The Body is Not an Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love
- "Funny, frank, and thoughtful."—Booklist
- "One of the most honest and eye opening memoirs you'll read this year."—HelloGiggles
- "Baker returns with her signature blend of laugh-out-loud, self-deprecating humor and deeply personal ruminations... she attacks our sizeist, fat-phobic culture head on. A must-read for women of all shapes and sizes."—BUST
- On Sale
- May 8, 2018
- Hachette Audio