For starters, it's hard not to fall for My Big Fat Fabulous Life because its star, Whitney Thore, is downright lovable. First a YouTube sensation for her viral Fat Girl Dancing video, she is whip-smart, funny, open and kind, but at 380 lbs., she also represents something that does not exist on reality TV: A fat person who is truly happy with herself, just the way she is.
Thore, 30, spoke to PEOPLE about life as a newly minted reality star – whose show was renewed for a second season, we have learned exclusively – the biggest misconceptions about her (no, she's not promoting obesity) and how she learned to accept herself.
Your critics say you're promoting obesity.
Any fat person who's just living and not miserable is apparently promoting obesity! If I'm pro-anything it's simply pro-loving yourself in this moment because it's all we have. And I do want to lose weight. I'm not naïve to the health risks that are going to come to me at almost 400 lbs. But does that mean I'm going to hate myself in the process? No. People seem to think that as I go about my daily life, just living and existing, that I'm trying to get some reaction out of people. When I'm at the beach, people say, 'Well Whitney, of course they're going to call you Shamu, you're putting yourself out there, you're asking for it.' No, I'm living like every other person on this beach. And what's the alternative? I'm going to sit in my house?
I think people are very threatened by happy fat women. We have an idea that thinness leads to happiness. But to see a fat woman living her life and being happy in the moment now, I think people feel slighted: 'Well, she just cut in line! I've been buying gym memberships and starving myself and buying wrinkle creams and who is she to get to feel happy?' And I'm like, 'No, sister, jump outta line. You can do it too.'
You talk about PCOS (polycystic ovarian syndrome, an endocrine disorder) being responsible for your weight gain. But is it completely to blame?
No. I am totally about personal responsibility. My initial weight gain in college was 100 lbs. in eight months. I absolutely blame that on PCOS. It happened out of nowhere, I had no control over it. But since then, of course, I've continued to gain weight. What made me fat was a combination of PCOS and the shame and the stigma that you face being a fat woman in America. When I gained weight, did I want to leave my house? No. When I walked to the gym and people called me a fat ass, did that make me want to go work out? No. Did I want to take really good care of myself? No. But if anybody thinks that I just blame the fact that I'm 380 lbs. on PCOS, that's clearly wrong.
I've lost a little bit, and I have been working on eating better – that's my biggest challenge because I love exercising. It's not that I eat really unhealthy all the time. I've had eating disorders when I was younger. I am definitely focusing on getting a plan in place but it's got to be something that's more sustainable. When I lost 100 lbs. [two years ago], I became totally obsessive. I was eating 500 calories a day sometimes, and I was purging, too. And I'm proud to say that I haven't engaged in any disordered eating behavior in two years. That's big for me because that's lasted my whole life. When I lose weight this time, I want it to stay off. I only have a goal of 100, maybe 150 lbs. I'm okay with being fat for the rest of my life as long as I'm healthy and happy.
But you haven't always been happy with being fat.
Lord, no. It was actually always not this way, even when I was thin. I can't even explain it, I just feel liberated now. Like I broke out of a prison. I made the viral video when I was 350 lbs. I said, I'm just going to do it. I'm just going to dance anyway. And that's all I ever had to do, I just didn't know it. For 10 years when I was fat I was able to project a happy face, but I was absolutely miserable. Up until two years ago it was, 'I gotta lose weight, I gotta lose weight,' in a panic almost. This idea that life can't start until I'm thin. Life won't be what it should be until I'm thin. And I don't believe that any more.
You say on the show that you love the way your body looks right now.
I always cringed at my body, no matter what size it was. Now, the only reason I want to lose weight is for health and lifestyle. I am happy in my body as it is right now. But if my stomach gets any bigger I won't be able to bend down and tie my shoes. I love to be active, I like to dance. So for me to live my most fulfilled life, I need to drop 100 lbs. But I honestly love the way that I look. I look at myself naked all the time and I'm like, all right, sister, that's what it is.
For me, confidence is a product of action. It's not like you have a certain amount that you're born with, it's something you have to work on every single day. People have it backwards. They think, 'I've got to have the confidence to do it,' whatever 'it' is. But I don't think that. I think, just go do it, and then it's okay. I mean, how often do we do something and think, 'Why didn't I do that 10 years ago?'
What sort of feedback have you gotten from the show?
I hear from just as many anorexic women as I hear from fat women. This is a universal problem about being a woman – it's not exclusive to fat people. We're indoctrinated from a very young age that thinner is better, that we can always be skinnier. That the worst thing you can be is fat – especially if you are a woman.
I hear from people dealing with society-induced shame, people with chronic illnesses, mental illnesses, disabilities. I heard from a boy in Lebanon, this one just killed me: He's 16 and he wrote to me and said, 'I'm gay, and it's illegal to be gay here. But I watched your videos and I feel like my life can be okay.' I mean, I can't even. [Cries] I don't go read the negative stuff, and not because it hurts me personally. It doesn't. I hear so much positive, and I think the world is changing and things are getting better so I choose to just focus on the positive. But can't nobody touch me. I have the most amazing family and friends. I'm happy for the first time in my life.
My Big Fat Fabulous Life season one concludes with two back-to-back episodes Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET on TLC (see an exclusive clip below), followed by My Big Fat Fabulous Life: The Skinny, an intimate sit down with Thore. Season 2 will premiere this summer.