Fat acceptance movement
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“”This may surprise you, but you can't buy me off with food. I'm sick of all your stereotypes and cheap jokes. The overweight individuals in this country are just as smart and talented and hard-working as everybody else! And they're gonna make their voices heard! All they need is a leader!
|—Homer Simpson, King Size Homer|
The fat acceptance movement, also known as fat activism or fativism, is a social movement that works to change attitudes towards fat people, be they people who are simply larger than the thin ideal typical of modern Western society, or people who are actually obese. While advocating for realistic attitudes about body shape and size is not the same thing as addressing attitudes towards people who are obese, the two are often conflated. The 'Health at every size' (HAES) concept is often brought up in debates and discussions about the movement.
Rejection of idealized body types
The first group of "fat activism" has more to do with issues of body image in the modern world. There is a strong push to define "healthy" and "at weight" as being extremely thin, especially when talking about women. These definitions do not account for a person being larger because they carry muscle mass, and often cast healthy but larger people as "overweight" because their bodies do not conform to the maxim that one can never be too rich, nor too thin.
Further, what is a "healthy" weight is often debated, and affected by many other factors of a person's life. Though being overweight, even obese, if you gained that weight in an unhealthy way, increases your chances of developing health problems, it does not necessarily mean you have health problems at that point in time.
An added myth is that non-medical practitioners think one can diagnose health problems by looking at people's bodies. For many prognoses, this is not the case; one cannot know if another person has liver damage, is mildly dehydrated, is hypertensive, has high cholesterol, etc., merely by looking at another person's body type. Frankly, if it were true, that would make diagnostics a lot easier. Though being extremely fat warrants testing for a variety of conditions, being fat does not automatically mean one has any medical conditions, so "sight" diagnoses and unsolicited health advice are not necessarily warranted without symptoms of other illness.
The concept of thin privilege is important in the modern fat acceptance movement as a social justice cause. This draws attention to the (often unacknowledged) social advantages held by people of average size over fat people, and the prejudice and discrimination faced by overweight people. Examples include judgemental attitudes towards what fat people (and especially women) eat and wear, perceptions of fat people as greedy and/or lazy, other stereotypes about their behaviour and sex lives, and media portrayals which constantly reinforce these attitudes.
Additionally, in some countries (most notably the United States), body weight is related to classism and income disparities. Blaming people for not taking responsibility for their weight often assumes that those people have the means, the education and know-how that it can take to be aware of and make healthy food choices. Poor people and other marginalized populations may not have had the chance to learn about proper nutrition and healthy diets, or even have access to enough healthy food. Maintaining a svelte figure is easier when one has access to healthy foods and exercise facilities, which is not always the case when one lives in a food desert, is too poor to buy anything besides high-calorie, low-nutrition processed foods, or cannot afford the money and time that it costs to go to the gym. In the United States, people living in the poorest counties are the people most prone to obesity, and similar trends exist in the United Kingdom (similarly to other health risks such as tobacco smoking). With current trends in the widening income gap between the upper and working class and with confounding factors such as lengthening work hours (especially in sedentary "desk job" positions), unhealthy sleep cycles, limited time, money, knowledge, or resources to cook or prepare healthful foods (including the convenience of fast food and the misconception that it is ultimately "cheaper" to eat out), and a lack of knowledge or educational resources on what constitutes a healthful diet and lifestyle, it may not be as easy for people to reach or maintain the oft-idealized "healthy" weight. For many, poor health and obesity intersects heavily with poverty, food insecurity, and low-wage jobs. So, while obesity is a remediable problem, barriers to such remedies may be markedly higher among groups in society which are underprivileged for other reasons. While it doesn't excuse unhealthy behavior, it's something to keep in mind before automatically jumping to the conclusion of equating obesity with just laziness.
On the flip side, it can be argued that the usage of social justice language in the concept of thin privilege is appropriating terminology used for truly systemic and widespread discrimination based on truly immutable characteristics for use in what are arguably petty complaints by people who are otherwise privileged themselves. The complaints about thin privilege on one of the more famous blogs about it, "This Is Thin Privilege", are often complaints 1) that people think being overweight is undesirable, 2) that being overweight leads to negative effects on one's life that people who aren't obese don't experience in the sense of losing convenience or being unable to, 3) that medical practitioners want to help overweight people not be overweight and they don't want to hear it, or 4) at the very nadir, petty complaints about one's size being hard to buy clothes for compared to sizes for non-obese people, or these clothes being more expensive.[note 1] This is somewhat different from systematic and sometimes legal oppression of non-white people, the longstanding set of privileges men have over women in society and widespread discrimination against gay and lesbian people in that obesity, being largely caused by an imbalance of calories taken into the body versus calories out, is a condition that can often be remedied and is often (if not in the vast majority of cases) caused by overeating and a sedentary lifestyle, whereas skin color, gender and sexuality are completely unchangeable and have significantly greater levels of discrimination applied to them from birth.
It is also something of a fallacy to say that as some marginalised populations (the poor, etc.) trend to greater levels of obesity than the norm this necessarily means that obesity is itself a form of marginalisation. This, at best, suggests that ill health (including obesity) is more prevalent in marginalised or under-privileged populations, which is not a new phenomenon or an unexpected conclusion—similar disparities can also be seen on less socially acceptable things which are generally not regarded as bestowing any lack of privilege, such as tobacco smoking and drug use, and nobody is suggesting that the concept of "non-smoker privilege" exists despite the putative arguments for it running along the same lines.
There is also the point that given the population's shift towards obesity, with rates doubling over the past thirty-five years, it can be argued that it is now more socially acceptable to be overweight than before; so any thin privilege that may exist is lessened simply by virtue of it being more "normal" (in a statistical sense) to be overweight.
When body-positive turns negative
An uncritical acceptance of the body-positive message can have significant and potentially physically harmful negative consequences. These consequences can include such things as:
- Dismissing as trivial anorexia nervosa, bulimia, or other eating disorders when they are held by people who are underweight.
- Participating in skinny-shaming, or dismissing it as Reverse discrimination, when it's actually two facets of the same problem.
- Dismissing genuine advice from an accredited doctor or medical professional, particularly a recommendation of weight loss (such as for a high-risk pregnancy), as "shaming" or incompetence.
- Misconstruing the adoption of healthy eating habits and diets with "having an eating disorder", when reality is a touch more complicated than that.
- Forgoing medical science or disregarding medical advice from accredited doctors in favor of alternative medicine or other potentially unhealthy woo-y practices.
- Co-opting eating disorder recovery techniques (such as intuitive eating) to justify poor health decisions.
- Spreading medical myths, such as the claim that burning more calories than one consumes (also known as "calories in/calories out") does not lead to weight loss, and so forth.
- Buying into conspiracy theories or falling into conspiratorial thinking (Big Pharma is making up conditions to make you paranoid! Doctors don't care about health, but profits! I'm being unfairly denied surgery/treatment because doctors can't/refuse to do their jobs! BMI is a white supremacist idea!)
Denying that having a high percentage of body fat contributes to potential health risks, dismissing adverse health effects as mere nocebo, or claiming other denialist beliefs is a very dangerous message. While it is important that the media be cautious of how it talks about weight issues and work to undo the damage caused by creating unrealistic ideals, it remains equally important that size acceptance/body positive activists, bloggers, and journalists acknowledge the genuine medical issues associated with excess body fat, and not fall into pseudoscientific traps themselves, and (as always) for everyone to keep their critical thinking skills honed.
Also, body positive messages for adults have distinctly different consequences from pro-activity and healthy eating messages for children, such as Michelle Obama's Let's Move! campaign. For instance, Lindy West, a blogger at Jezebel who has studied and written extensively on body image, once wrote that "the government is literally waging a war on fat people", a nonsensical overreach (and terrible misuse of the term "literally", unless the military is actually sending tanks and troops to kill the overweight). The government is trying to instill values of eating healthily and exercising in children, at a time when childhood obesity is steadily increasing. This has nothing to do with a war on fat people or fatness, - since a person can be fat and have an active life and eat well, thus, be healthy - and everything to do with giving children the knowledge they need to develop healthy lifestyles.
Another claim by fat activists is that regardless of risk people have a "right to be fat". Similarly there is debate over whether people have the right to take drugs and smoke and perform other behaviours that may be harmful.
In a society in which everybody pays for healthcare it may be legitimate to restrict or seek to modify behavior to reduce healthcare costs. Being fat can be compared to other lifestyle choices that may (debatably) incur healthcare costs, although it may be balanced against other rights such as the right to healthcare. But such societies have a highly inconsistent attitude to "unhealthy" or "dangerous" behaviour: some behaviours like drug-taking and smoking are frowned upon while others like mountain climbing or horseriding are considered acceptable. Almost nobody complains about meeting healthcare costs of someone who falls off their horse, although it has been argued that horse-riding is more dangerous than taking MDMA; the moral attitudes to the two are very different. However, reducing healthcare costs is not the only reason for discouraging unhealthy behaviour, and additionally, there may be a value to society in horse-riding (mounted police, sport, or exercise) that can be argued to outweigh the risk of injury.
- Although there are some very valid complaints on that blog, typically those of thoughtless or cruel behaviour, or people who do have legitimate medical or mental issues leading to their obesity, these are very much in the minority.
- Low, K. G.; Charanasomboon, S.; Brown, C.; Hiltunen, G.; Long, K.; Reinhalter, K.; Jones, H. (2003). "Internalization of the Thin Ideal, Weight and Body Image Concerns". Social Behavior and Personality: an international journal 31: 81–89. doi:10.2224/sbp.2003.31.1.81
- Perceived Weight Discrimination and Obesity. Angelina R. Sutin, Antonio Terracciano. July 24, 2013. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0070048
- Perceived weight discrimination and changes in weight, waist circumference, and weight status. Jackson, Sara E, Rebecca J. Beeken, and Jane Wardle. Obesity, September 11, 2014. DOI: 10.1002/oby.20891
- James A. Levine "Poverty and Obesity in the U.S.," Diabetes, November 2011; 60(11): 2667–2668.
- Wider income gaps, wider waistbands? An ecological study of obesity and income inequality
- Black Girl's Guide to Weight Loss
- "Is Junk Food Really Cheaper?", New York Times
- Why Low-Income and Food Insecure People are Vulnerable to Overweight and Obesity
- This is Thin Privilege Tumblr's blog posts that are tagged with: thin privilege.
- Meghan Trainor Says She Wasn’t “Strong Enough” To Have An Eating Disorder, Demi Lovato Responds Idolator
- Why is skinny-shaming OK, if fat-shaming is not? The Guardian
- 4 Reasons Why We Need to Stop Thinking of Skinny-Shaming as ‘Reverse Discrimination’ Everyday Feminism
- Thin privilege is not getting hassled at your OB appointment This is Thin Privilege
- Some months ago, I asked a question to the social justice blog, This Is Thin Privilege, regarding my sleep apnea veup's tumblr
- A tweet from @living400lbs. It says "Dieting and weight control strategies are associated with the onset of eating disorders. #notyourgoodfatty nationaleatingdisorders.org/get-facts-eati..."
- Five Subtle Differences Between Diets and Anorexia Everyday Feminism
- HAES and the Naturopathic Doctor
- Intuitive Eating 101, BodyLoveWellness
- Ragen Chastain: Calories In/Calories Out? Science Says No (if you have a faulty understanding of thermodynamics)
- "Pre-Diabetes: a Fake Disease?", Big Fat Blog.
- "Why the War on Fat is a Scam to Peddle Drugs", Salon
- "The War on Fat People: Doctors Enlist", Daily Kos
- This is Thin Privilege Tumblr, question by user itissteph about losing weight for surgery
- They’re telling my friend she can’t get routine cancer surgery… withasmoothroundstone's Tumblr
- University-sponsored 'fat justice' event claims Ronald Reagan 'f*cked' fat people over, CampusReform
- This Is Thin Privilege Tumblr Someone asks about how to encourage healthy weight loss in a family member, This is Thin Privilege replies nasty back; claiming that obesity doesn't causes illnesses.
- This Is Thin Privilege Tumblr This is Thin Privilege claims that obesity doesn't cause health issues.
- Thin Women: I've Got Your Back. Could You Get Mine? Jezebel
- "Prevalence and Trends in Obesity and Severe Obesity Among Children in the United States, 1999-2012." Ashley Skinner. JAMA Pediatrics
- Association of All-Cause Mortality With Overweight and Obesity Using Standard Body Mass Index Categories A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis.
- The Guardian
- Is choosing an unhealthy lifestyle a human right?, Asian Development Blog
- Ecstasy 'no more dangerous than horse riding', The Telegraph, 7 Feb 2009