What The Fat-Acceptance Movement Is Really About

Photographed by: Marion Ettlinger
Late last year, I was interviewed for a magazine article about the demise of dieting. It was a great discussion; I love spreading the word that life can get exponentially better when you make peace with food and your body. Of course, I added, self-acceptance takes practice, especially when you live in a culture that says all bodies need fixing (large bodies especially). My brain is used to waking up every day with the goal of getting thinner, and I still work hard to unlearn that mental habit. Weeks later, the writer forwarded me a follow-up question from his editor, asking, “is it fair to say Kelsey sometimes wishes she weighed less?”

Well, no, I thought. But the rest of the world sure does, and I have to live here. So...

Often I am asked — confronted, rather — with questions and comments about the fat acceptance movement. Because I am a woman with a body many would categorize as fat, and because some of my work as a writer puts that body front and center, I am assumed to be an Official Fat Acceptance Activist. Really, I just thought I was doing my own thing. I didn’t start out seeking an alliance to join — a selfish attitude perhaps, because I surely benefited from their activism. The truth is, while I admired the work of the fat acceptance movement, I didn’t really know what it was. Until I faced that question — does Kelsey sometimes wish she weighed less? — I didn’t really understand that I was very much a part of it. And I think you should be, too.

Many date fat acceptance as a movement to the late 1960s, when groups began to organize and protest anti-fat bias. Though a separate entity, it’s inextricably linked with the feminist movement, both being rooted in the concept of equality and primarily driven by women. There are far more educated voices who can speak to the history of this movement, and I won’t minimize their work into a soundbite, but it is very much worth researching. The point is that today, fat acceptance is still just as radical as it was back then. While equal rights and treatment for women is now embraced by the mainstream as a vital mission (not yet accomplished, to be sure), few are willing to demand those same rights for fat people. While size is reported as one of the most prevalent forms of discrimination — up there with gender, race, and age — more people are fighting against fat people than for them. That’s why many in the movement say “acceptance” is not enough. We need to be active.

“A person in fat acceptance believes that bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and that all bodies have equal value,” says Sarai Walker, PhD, a contributor to Our Bodies, Ourselves and author of the bestselling novel Dietland (Sarai herself is fat, as is her heroine). “Fat activism is a political movement that advocates for the rights and dignity of fat people,” Walker continues, adding that personal acceptance is often the first step toward activism.

Walker doesn’t claim any expertise or leadership in this fight, yet she inadvertently spent the past year and a half on the front lines, while on an international book tour. “What I've learned is that it's virtually impossible to have any discussion about fat acceptance with the general public, because any such discussion is derailed instantly by alleged concerns about health, if not outright abuse,” she says. At each publicity appearance she was either asked to justify the acceptability of her fat body (and therefore herself) or else listen as others railed against it. Her health and intelligence were questioned, her image disparaged; one fellow novelist with whom she appeared on a radio show even cited the Holocaust as some sort of evidence about the link between food, exercise, and body size: “You never saw anybody fat come out of Auschwitz.”

This is the shark-jumping level this argument has reached, and that’s why it’s so important that everyone of all sizes gets clear on what the issues are — and what they very much aren’t. “One misconception I've heard repeatedly is that people in fat acceptance want fat to become the ideal body shape, which will mean that thin people will be considered unattractive and face abuse,” says Walker. Absurd as it sounds, it makes horrifying sense in light of other backlashes: Men’s Rights Activists believe feminists are out to destroy men. Black people demand the value of their lives and white people jump in, frantically insisting that hey, wait, we all matter, right? When our privilege is threatened, we don’t act rationally. Of course, none of these movements are against anyone or any one privilege. They are against privilege, period.

One of the reasons many see this movement differently is yet another misconception: Fat people decide to be fat. Either they’ve deliberately gained the weight, or they’re too lazy, undisciplined, uninformed, and/or stupid to lose it. I don’t know who first said the phrase, “glorifying obesity” but I see it almost once a week. Every time I publish or read a story illustrated with photos of a woman above a certain size, some commenter will jump in, outraged: “Why are you promoting this?!” and then follow up with a diatribe about the loathsome creature in the photo, a product of America’s junk-food addiction, raising everyone’s insurance premiums just because she refuses to put down the doughnuts and go for a walk.

This argument, of course, is just as ridiculous and just as entrenched in fear and prejudice as those that say feminism means stripping men of all their human rights. If you think fat people just haven’t tried hard enough, just don’t know what to eat, or are just too unmotivated, you are simply, categorically wrong. There is no shortage of motivating factors to be thin, and no lack of people to remind fat people of them. But if you are hurling the health argument, you are missing the point.
Courtesy of Virgie Tovar.
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“People have this idea that fatness and health are the same conversation, and in fact they're not,” says Virgie Tovar, prominent author and activist, who often lectures on the topic from a historical and cultural perspective. “I'll do an hour-long lecture about social media or ideological diversification in the fat movement or the history of feminism and the discussion of fatness, or any number of things — a deep, rich conversation, not having mentioned health one single time. And almost always I'll have a white skinny dude ask me a question in the Q and A about health.”

It’s not that Tovar isn’t aware of the health angle (again, all fat people are aware, to say the least). It’s just not her angle. “I haven't spent 10 thousand hours researching this issue from a medical perspective. I've spent like thousands of hours researching this issue from a social science perspective, so I can speak at length about that with authority.”

Tovar and other activists speak on very real issues of bias: the fact that fat women are more likely to be found guilty in court and subject to harsher sentencing; they earn between $9,000 and $19,000 less than thin counterparts; they are significantly less likely to be admitted to college and receive less educational financial support from their own families.

If we are so outraged and concerned by fat people’s health, shouldn’t we be outraged and concerned by these things too?

Thus far this rhetorical question has been met with dead air. And since the general public seems stuck on the health issue exclusively, that has become a cornerstone of the fat acceptance movement. Health At Every Size has become a movement unto itself, the general premise being that research doesn’t uphold many of the claims made about size and health and therefore there is undue emphasis on weight in this arena. To be clear: The scientists and medical professionals behind this concept aren’t denying there may well be connections between weight and certain health factors. They’re pointing out that research actually paints a far more complex picture than the one typically depicted in mass media. It’s a movement about asking important questions rather than adhering to the popular narrative — one that fits tidily into our existing bias against people of size.

Tovar appreciates Health At Every Size for its value in the medical community, but she doesn’t agree with it as a tactic for the fat acceptance movement. “Axiomatically, in our society as humans, there will always be people who are considered unhealthy. So, it's logical to say there will axiomatically always be fat people who are not healthy. That’s why I don’t think you can win with that banner, because you're automatically leaving people behind.” She points out that, “the only way that you could win on health is if you could prove that every single person who's considered fat in our culture is healthy. I think that invites a lot of surveillance and interrogation and the invasion of a person's privacy. But more importantly, it's impossible.”

It’s also worth noting that bias in the medical community undoubtedly plays a role in the overall health of fat people (and the perceived health), as many studies indicate: In the U.K., 54% of doctors polled wanted the right to withhold treatment from the obese; in a review of studies on anti-fat bias, researchers cited multiple reports that found that medical staff assume them “lazy,” “unsuccessful,” “over-indulgent,” and plagued by “unresolved anger.” One study found that 24% of nurses polled were “repulsed” by obese patients and 12% preferred not to touch them. As Tovar points out, this treatment creates a feedback loop where fat people are subject to this medical bias and therefore don’t return to the doctor unless they are truly in a dire state of health. Therefore, “doctors only see fat people in these acutely distressed medical states, and their bias is confirmed.”

Personally, I think health is of great import here because of how clearly it reveals our prejudice. Imagine it’s all true: that fatness is a matter of will, and fat people are all unhealthy, regardless of lifestyle, genetics, history, diet, physical activity, and other medical conditions, simply because they are fat. Do we, as a culture, demand perfect health of everyone? Do we threaten and disparage those of other sizes who make reportedly unhealthy choices — who never exercise, imbibe socially, drink more than 400 milligrams of caffeine daily? People with gum disease are almost twice as likely to have coronary artery disease. Should those who don’t floss be subject to longer prison sentences too?

In no other circumstances do we grant basic rights, equality, and access based on a person’s physical health. And that’s what the fat acceptance movement is demanding — not that everyone become fat or that fatness be “glorified.” Simply that fat people be treated as people, worthy of education, health care, a fair trial, a life without stigma. “Shame is one of the biggest influences on the trajectory of people’s lives,” says Tovar. And societal stigma sits firmly on a foundation of individual shame and prejudice. “It's easy to change an opinion,” says Tovar. “A framework is much bigger than that.”

That’s why this can and should be everybody’s fight — not just those who look the part.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here.
It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.
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