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August 05, 2005



what an interesting post. you've made a number of very valid observations, and i'm glad you're interested in thinking about fat acceptance. i blogroll bfb "with reservations," too. [also: well done on dealing with your eating and exercise issues. those are tough ones.]

but i'd like to challenge you just a little bit. obesity is not the same as heart disease or hypertension or any of the other problems that end obese people's lives. it seems stupid, i know: oh, it's not the obesity, it's the things that go with the obesity. sounds like i'm trying to weasel out of something, doesn't it?

but no. it's not about weaseling out, it's about *what we are really paying attention to.* which is to say: if we are worried about people's health, maybe we should emphasize diet and exercise rather than thinness, heart disease rather than fatness, etc. there does exist a sizeable population of overweight or obese people who are extremely fit and healthy.

why does this shift in emphasis matter? it matters because fat people are discriminated against in every walk of life and subjected to all manner of hatred, and it is often packaged as "for their own good." it matters because fitness is not about what i look like. fat people get laughed at for exercising. does that make anyone more likely to exercise? um, no. last but certainly not least, it matters because thinking about fitness and health in terms of fatness or thinness disproportionately affects women. fat is indeed a feminist issue.


Also, the flipside. We do a disservice to people with terrible diets and don't exercise, but remain thin, when we associate healthiness with weight.

I was completely turned around in my thinking on this issue by The Obesity Myth by Paul Campos. He exposes some staggeringly shoddy science done in trying to identify a strong independent weight-to-(heart disease, lots of different health problems) link.

We're so eager to think that being overweight is bad, bad, bad, I think, because in our culture we tend to think that fat people are physically and aesthetically disgusting. That's a pretty shallow and cruel judgement, but rather than face our own shallowness and cruelness, we latch on to some really tenuous 'scientific' theories about obesity being a deadly epidemic.

(Despite my reservations about the author, I really do recommend Campos' book. I came to realize just how powerful his critique is when I read some responses from the medical community which were surprisingly unable to make much of a dent into Campos' core claims.)


On the other hand, I'm eager to find a way to accept and affirm heavy people without accepting and affirming poor lifestyle choices that usually (not always) contribute to obesity.

Oh, this again. Look, choosing to volunteer at the animal shelter instead of going to the gym after work is not a poor lifestyle choice. Living off pasta and pre-made food because your graduate stipend doesn't allow you to afford better food or the time to cook it is unfortunate, but not a poor lifestyle choice. Sitting in front of a computer for several hours every day while you write a novel instead of playing tennis for those hours is not a poor lifestyle choice. Those things are all good lifestyle choices that lead to fatness. The more you play musical instruments, the more you read, the more you write, and the more you do for others, the less time you have for exercise. People who have different priorities from yours are not making mistakes.


Sorry - forgot to close the bold tag.


Whoa, Sophonisba, I've been clearly inarticulate. I've written about this topic before, here: http://hugoboy.typepad.com/hugo_schwyzer/2004/03/obesity_poverty.html

I still stand by what I wrote a year and a half ago:

"To make choices freely, one has to have the income to afford choices. One has to have access to the choices in the neighborhood in which one lives. And one has to have the time to prepare and consume a healthy meal. Big Macs cost less than tofu. Fried chicken wings cost less than a grilled boneless breast of chicken. Obesity is epidemic among the poor in my beloved Los Angeles, Mr. Anderson, not because of poor personal decisions but because of a lack of the very choices you celebrate. Personal responsibility matters, of course. But in order to exercise personal responsibility effectively, ya gotta have access to healthy, low-cost, time-efficient alternatives to fast food. Me? I do. I can pop into Gelson's and drop $7 on sushi and a Hansen's soda. I can afford to spend hours a day working out.

I don't make healthy choices because I am virtuous. I make them because I am fortunate. Period."

That said, Sophonisba, there ARE folks who do overeat, who use food to medicate themselves, who do use eating to deal with anxiety and stress. There are folks who make poor decisions despite having the time and money to make good choices; there are folks who would love to make healthier decisions but lack time and money.

I volunteer a substantial amount of time, Sophonisba, and find time to exercise. My body is not being built by ignoring my community.


I think I've failed to be clear as well. Only one of my examples was supposed to be about economics. The rest are about the way one chooses to spend one's leisure time, and I am considering people who are as fortunate as you in having that leisure time (like me, for one.) Let's leave the volunteering issue aside for a moment, because I think it confuses more than it clarifies my point.

The way you write about exercise suggests to me that for you, exercise is a somewhere between a hobby and a lifestyle; you derive substantial pleasure and self-worth from it: pleasure from the body you sculpt, but also pleasure from the activity itself. Why you attempt to translate that into 'personal responsibility' I do not understand: why it is less responsible to practice the violin or play with the cat than it is to take a pilates class or go jogging may be apparent to you, but it is not apparent to me. (And it does have to be an "instead of" at some point, only so many hours in a day and so forth.)

The way you talk about food is fairly extraordinary as well. Food is not just fuel. It is for pleasure and company and delight. Cooking is one of the human arts. To enjoy it properly you risk fatness, and that's ok. I avoid fast food because I can afford to, and it has nothing to do with responsibility of any kind. Rather, it's for the same reason I dress in cotton or silk instead of polyester and have furniture built out of wood instead of packing crates.

What I am trying to express here is that there is more than one kind of quality of life, and more than one set of good lifestyle choices. When you talk about factors that lead to fatness, it's always about poverty or weakness or stress or genetics or emotional difficulties. You don't seem to acknowledge the ways that fat can be the direct result of making deliberate, good choices, as I have tried to show.


I don't know much about the fat acceptance movement but it seems to me that one can advocate fat acceptance without condoning unhealthful habits that may cause a person's fatness. To me, fat acceptance means that I do not make assumptions about a person's character because he or she is fat. It means that I would be just as happy to hire a qualified fat person as anyone else, and that I give a fat person the same respect as everyone else.

Sure, an overweight or obese person may have some poor health habits, but so does a thin chainsmoker. The difference is that the thin chainsmoker does not face condemnation or disrespect in all other facets of her life, the way an overweight person might.

The other thing I like about the concept of fat acceptance (as I assume it to be, again without knowing much about it) is that even the thinnest among us can benefit from it. Imagine how much happier so many of us would be if we did not equate fatness with various character defects! We could pursue healthful habits without the pressure of believing that our weight defines our whole person.


I definitely agree with cmc that everyone can benefit from it. I guess what troubles me about the term "fat acceptance" is that it's so vague. I believe strongly that accepting what is and not judging yourself or others harshly based on body shape benefits everyone involved. But I remember some TV special about fat kids (we've all seen these in some shape or form) where a mother of a grossly overweight toddler said in self-righteous tones, "My baby is BEAUTIFUL just the way she is!" The implication was that there was no need to do anything about the child's weight. I was livid. While the child may be aesthetically pleasing outwardly and inwardly, her weight raises her risk of health complications now and in adulthood stunningly in comparison to her non-overweight peers. Double diabetes is just the latest of these issues to catch the spotlight. I realize this is a different case, since the overweight individual is a minor under parental care, but the health risk is undeniable at any age. While we clearly need to de-shame weight issues, mounting a defiant celebration of being overweight or obese seems as overtly irresponsible as celebrating being underweight.


The more I learn about fat acceptance, the more I buy their arguments. Above all else, this is inarguable--being fat is shunned way out of proportion to any negative health issues it may cause. Smokers are not shunned this way, and they have a habit that is easily identifiable as dangerous. The reason that fat got identified as a feminist issue is that women are judged for it way more than men, which pretty much disproves the fat-phobic argument that they are interested in health, because it's far healthier to be a fat woman than a fat man.

As a general rule, you'll find that the rumors that fat acceptance people are encouraging weight gain are entirely false. I've pretty thin and so are other people I know who are very sympathetic to fat acceptance and we have been treated marvelously, contrary to the stereotype. I have trouble with claims that being obese isn't a health issue, but to me it's irrelevant. I have friends who smoke a pack a day and my personal habits aren't exactly all fiber and yoga. But as long as you are thin, people respect your right to your own choices.


p.s. - I'm discussing a possible extrapolation of the term "fat acceptance" without reference to BFB, since I don't know how the participants define the term (and couldn't presume to totalize what are probably multiple views). I've only witnessed glimmers of the angle I find troublesome, so I don't know how prevalent it is.


Totally anecdotal, but I found I had a much easier time taking care of my body when I stopped thinking about whether something would make me fat and started thinking about whether it would make me healthy. I think that thinking about fat tends to trigger all sorts of counter-productive and distracting self-loathing, even among folks who aren't particularly fat.

Ilkka Kokkarinen

Feminism and fat acceptance are obviously natural allies, since it's impossible to imagine a member of one movement ever criticizing the other movement.

But more interestingly, fat acceptance reveals an interesting hypocrisy in feminists. One thing that I have learned from reading the feminist blogosphere is that it's OK to cruelly mock people who are losers in social and sexual hierarchies and who don't accept their place but actually dare to complain about the discrimination they face and point blaming fingers to those doing the discrimination. In fact, it's hilarious to enjoy their pain and frustration from the higher position where you can throw zingers at what losers these people are.

Since morbidly obese people are plain-as-day losers in the social and sexual hierarchies (otherwise there would be no need for the "fat acceptance movement" in the first place), one would think that what's good for Jupiter is good for the bull too, right? If the fatties start getting uppity, it should be easy to put them in their place with a well-placed quip about how they can't get a job or find a sex partner. But for some mysterious reason, feminists join sides with fat acceptance and oppose people who mock the fat losers. I find this rather hypocritical.

Amanda: "The reason that fat got identified as a feminist issue is that is that women are judged for it way more than men"

Actually, the real reason why feminist fat acceptance is specifically fat women acceptance is that the feminists don't want the disgusting fat guys getting any dangerous ideas that they are entitled to anything. For example, feminists often claim that obese middle-aged women are most men's real sexual ideal (it's just that the evil patriarchal mass media has brainwashed them to prefer young slender women), but I have never seen a feminist claim that obese middle-aged men would similarly be the women's real sexual ideal. Quite the opposite, in fact: if an obese middle-aged man ever dared to hit on a young slender woman, it would automatically be disgusting and practically sexual harassment.


Ilkka said: But more interestingly, fat acceptance reveals an interesting hypocrisy in feminists. One thing that I have learned from reading the feminist blogosphere is that it's OK to cruelly mock people who are losers in social and sexual hierarchies and who don't accept their place but actually dare to complain about the discrimination they face and point blaming fingers to those doing the discrimination. In fact, it's hilarious to enjoy their pain and frustration from the higher position where you can throw zingers at what losers these people are.

Ilkka, I've seen you level this accusation on feminist blogs before, and you're off-base. Feminists laugh at the misogynists on Mensnewsdaily and soc.men because they simultaneously yearn for and despise women, and this leads them to say all kinds of foolish and nonsensical things. As for this purported discimination against social and sexual losers, you're wrong again. It's cruel to laugh at a man because he's short, fat or bald, but the Mensnewsdaily lot don't get laughed at because of that. They're a source of mirth because they harbour the absurd belief that they're entitled to female companionship, no matter how unattractive their personalities are.

Ilkka Kokkarinen

Amba: "It's cruel to laugh at a man because he's short, fat or bald, but the Mensnewsdaily lot don't get laughed at because of that."

It might not be "because of that", but for some mystical reason, the mockery always seems to be directed towards being somehow generally sexually undesirable, regardless of those actual positions. After all, the typical feminist mockery of men's rights activists is some variation of "he can't get laid".

Of course, the feminists know that this mockery is likely to hurt the average MRA simply for being true (the men who are in more comfortable social positions simply have no need for such activism), which makes it even more sadistically delicious for them. Even so, it's not a very smart thing to do in general, in my opinion (for starters, you lose your moral high ground needed to condemn people who mock the losers who can't get jobs that pay better than scrubbing toilets in McDonalds). But I'm sure it's emotionally pleasing.

To sum up: it's cruel to laugh at a man because he's short, fat or bald, as long as he knows his place and behaves accordingly. But if he doesn't, and starts making demands of being treated more like the people high above him in the social hierarchy, or expresses political opinions that you don't like, this makes him fair game for mockery for these traits. Have I now understood this correctly?

I wish there was some highly visible men's rights activist who was morbidly obese. It would be interesting to see if the feminists mocked him for his weight.


1. not entirely germane: what on God's good green earth is the "men's rights" movement? is that some sort of analog to justice sunday -- you know, where privileged people get together and talk about how victimized they are? because, ew.

2. ok, ilkka, let's be real. i think that many people who call themselves feminists would mock fat men. they would be wrong to do so, obviously. they would also...ta DA!...NOT BE FEMINISTS in doing so. i don't understand how the empirically supported, basicallly non-controversial statement that size discrimination affects women disproportionately is in any way refuted by the depressing tendency of people who don't belong to a particular affinity group to ignore the needs of that affinity group (in this case, non-fat "feminists" disrespecting fat people). feminists are not perfect, and third-wave feminism has done a hell of a lot of backsliding on the subject of appearance politics. but i just don't understand how "feminists" as some unitary entity are hypocritical on this one.


Ilkka just doesn't like the whole fat acceptance thing. We've been there before.

I know that many of us see fat people as reminders of what we ourselves worry about becoming

Got it in one.


Amanda: "The reason that fat got identified as a feminist issue is that is that women are judged for it way more than men"

Eh, I'll stipulate that that statement is likely true but to my own experience as a "Fat Bastard" (although I'm not as bad as that movie character thankfully but I do have a large "gut") I get judged on it quite a lot from all corners of society. I also think that one of the reasons women are judged more for it, is simply because of the female gender's obsession with it. And no, I can't and won't blame it all on men because they like skinny "hotties". In general, thats just common sense across all of humanity with variances in desire etc.. The media plays its part for sure (and now target men a lot more) in generating sales though self-image/self-esteem bashing but from my experiences and viewpoint many many women do it all to impress other women in the social hierarchy.


It's not so much that "men like skinny hotties" (though I do believe men are pressured to say they prefer thin women whether they actually do or not) as it is that our society encourages a sense of entitlement to women's bodies that extends to making their appearance a matter of public concern. Saying it's done to just please men or just please women is really missing the point.

Amanda Marcotte

Like I've said one million times before, I've never seen a woman in a "No Fat Chicks" t-shirt. Not that women aren't enforcers, but let's not lie to ourselves about what's going on here.


well said, jeff. FP, you have a serious and intractable endogeneity problem with the following: "one of the reasons women are judged more for it, is simply because of the female gender's obsession with it."

right, 'cause we just *happen* to be obsessed with "it." in fact i think the causality runs precisely opposite what you have suggested, and women become obsessed with bodies because they are judged based on their bodies, which are, as jeff points out, often viewed as ornaments rather than instruments.


For what it's worth, the more I look at research outside the US, the more convinced I am we just don't understand nutrition as well as we think. For example, we've taken soy - an Asian condiment - and turned it into a staple. It replaces meat for some, and it's in virtually every food that's processed (vegetable oil usually means soy). Soy is used to fatten up livestock, and was never intended to be consumed in such quantities as we here in the west are consuming it.

Another example: hypothyroidism is quite under-diagnosed because American practitioners ignore studies indicating that you can't just compare your patient's bloodwork numbers to some magical "normal" number because normal varies from patient to patient. Hypothyroidism not only slows the metabolism, sometimes to the point where weight loss is impossible on any remotely sane diet, it causes depression, serious hormonal imbalances, fatigue and a host of other problems.

Forgive me if this sounds paranoid, but it's been my experience - and the experience of my many hypothyroidic family members - that doctors simply don't believe you when you tell them you've been eating 1,500 calories per day and still manage to stay 30 pounds overweight. That's part of why there's "no evidence" of the prevalence of disorders that cause people to remain overweight no matter how great a diet they stick to. Anecdotal evidence - patience to doctor - is part of how the medical establishment develops its body of knowledge. When all doctors are taught, "Sometimes patients make this claim, but you can safely ignore it because they must be lying", how can evidence to the contrary enter the picture?

Isn't this the same logic that caused people to believe epilepsy, depression and other mental illnesses were cases of demonic possession or a patient making up excuses for their behavior?

The bottom line is, we need some research that's not biased in favor of ignoring data that doesn't support pre-determined conclusions. It's called "science", and I think the medical establishment would do well to reacquaint itself with the concept.


Well, speaking as a person with hypothyroidism, whose hobbies are all sedentary (reading, writing, blogging, etc.), and who used to be 30 pounds overweight, allow me to point out that I've lost 24 of those extra pounds so far by, yes, dieting, but also by adding exercise to my daily routine. Some of it is 'organized' but much of it is as simple as parking at the far end of the parking lot from the door of the store or taking even just one or two flights of stairs instead of the elevator. Just taking a few extra steps every time I go to do something.

I'm not saying exercise is a cure-all for "fatness" but I am saying that hypothyroidism is a medical condition, not a disability. With medication, proper diet, and exercise, there's no reason most hypothyroid sufferers need to be vastly overweight. My desire to lose weight had almost nothing to do with aesthetics and everything to do with health risk.

And yes, exercise is the 'wise' lifestyle choice. Saying that someone has made "different" but no less "wise" choices to practice the violin or play with their cat (I believe those were two of the examples) ignores a fundamental truth.

We are all physical bodies as well as brains. Our bodies need as much attention as our brains do to function properly. Ignoring either your brain or your body isn't wise, and that has everything to do with being "healthy" and nothing to do with "fat or not."

Anyhow. I agree that our society places too high a premium on attaining a particular body shape instead of being in good health. And I agree that most of the scrutiny and condemnation for 'failure' are directed at women.


Ugh. I just found out my little sister has been posting naked pictures of herself in some of these groups. She has a binge eating disorder she has had since she was 4 or 5. She will sneak food and eat it until she is sick.
She is encouraged by these groups and mostly by overweight and obese women. They are constantly telling her she is beautiful. She is now really into fat acceptance and trying to get my parents into it too. I don't buy it, she has an eating disorder. It reminds me of those anorexics who tell each other they look good when they weigh 75 pounds. She is a beautiful person but does not look good.
If she could take a magic pill to make her weigh a normal weight she would take it and I bet all these people would too.
I don't know why people are claiming to love being fat and think everyone should love them like that.


Are you aware that weight loss can make binge eating disorders *worse*? If you'd like to help your sister, here is an organization that can provide you with accurate information

National Eating Disorder Association
Information and Referral Program
603 Stewart Street, Suite 803
Seattle, WA 98101
(206) 382-3587
(206) 829-8501 (fax)
Web: www.nationaleatingdisorders.org
Email: [email protected]

"Eating disorders arise from a combination of long-standing psychological, interpersonal, and social conditions. Feelings of inadequacy, depression, anxiety, and loneliness, as well as troubled family and personal relationships, may contribute the development of an eating disorder. Our culture, with its unrelenting idealization of thinness and the "perfect body," is often a contributing factor."

David Morrison

Interesting topic. My complaint about BFB is that it sometimes appears to stray into the notion that obesity is somehow a good unto itself and to disagree with that premise is to show disrespect to people who live with obesity.

I have been fat and I have been thin - and I liked being thin better. I liked that I didn't have to be concerned that I would start experiencing type II diabetes. I liked that I could easily wear clothes and not have to worry about splitting any out. I liked that I had more energy wasn't sick and tired of being sick and tired anymore.

Yes, I agree that a culture which puts such undo emphasis on looking a certain way can be toxic to people who don't look that way and that its messages can be particularly potent to people living with obesity and actually make the problem worse. But I can't go along with the notion that, somehow, if people's attitudes towards my living with obesity were to change overnight that somehow living with obesity would become a good thing. Objectively it would remain a bad thing. Objectively it would still put me a risk for illness and disease that could end my life - and it would do so if the zaftig ideal of the human form reigned over the entire culture.

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