A few weeks ago, a fellow co-writer within our community’s group here at Odyssey wrote an article titled Finding The Balance Between Loving Your Body And Fighting The Obesity Epidemic . Me, Kat and Matea , thought the article was slightly problematic. We decided to have a conversation about it and write our response to the author.
To start off, bringing up the "obesity epidemic" in a conversation about body acceptance isn’t helping anyone. The only thing this does is it points out that fat people are a problem and makes a conversation between fat people and everybody else harder. Fat people don’t need to be additionally called out. The whole reason why this particular acceptance movement is needed is because there is stigma around being fat. As you must be aware, fat people are often misunderstood and mistreated. Because of this stress, many individuals' mental health suffers - which only makes it harder for them to address the problem themselves. Fat acceptance offers fat people a respite from this, and yes, it allows them to feel normal, but in no way does it “normalize,” much less “encourage,” obesity. The way we see it, this movement isn't denying that obesity is a problem – it is just choosing not to focus on it. Instead, it prioritizes the wellbeing of individuals affected by fat shaming and other ways of targeting and attacking fat people.
There is a study conducted by Liverpool University that does a good job at demonstrating the importance of the fat acceptance movement. The UK’s Independent magazine summed its findings, explaining explaining how “fat acceptance does not encourage people to be unhealthy: fat acceptance gives people the opportunity to cast off those constant negative jibes. It offers a space where fat people are allowed to be comfortable with their bodies, and to work from there – whether that means maintaining the same shape or changing it. “
Furthermore, a big but largely overlooked mental health problem arising in overweight people, is binge eating disorder. While the general population is usually familiar only with anorexia (restricted eating) and bulimia (binging and purging), the DSM-V classifies binge eating disorder as a third type of eating disorder. Binge Eating Disorder (BED), according to this handy fact sheet , includes " recurring episodes of eating significantly more food in a short period of time than most people would eat," with the person affected harboring " feelings of guilt, embarrassment, or disgust." Like anorexia and bulimia, BED is a serious eating disorder, and shaming someone for being "fat" is going to fuel it further, making their mental health state worse, ultimately being completely counterproductive to overweight people loosing weight at all.
However, we think you ( original article ’s author) might be aware of all of this, because you initially state that fat shaming is cruel, and that fat acceptance is good for affected people’s mental health. That is a good point – so why vilify a movement that is trying to stop shaming? By bringing up the “obesity epidemic” within this context, you are taking the focus away from fat people and their struggles, when the fat acceptance movement exists entirely to help them, and in that way potentially also help America’s “obesity epidemic.” You are taking the focus off the wellbeing of each individual who is struggling with accepting themselves, by talking about an obesity epidemic “plaguing” America and silencing what is a positive movement of self-acceptance. By claiming that fat acceptance condones obesity and “encourages people to continue putting their lives at risk by remaining overweight,” you’re not focusing on the problem, you’re trying to treat the symptom (obesity) instead. The root of the problem is more complex. You are claiming fat acceptance is ineffective, but how will telling fat people that they are a problem help? How about looking at whatever might be behind people’s overeating – factors that vary widely from one individual to another, but might include mental health problems, poor education on nutrition, low social and economic standing (and the convenient solution that very cheap fast food might provide), and others.
Fat acceptance is not toxic. Promoting body positivity means also promoting body acceptance, and this ideally means acceptance of all bodies, including fat ones. By first seemingly supporting the body positivity movement, but then denying the positive aspects of fat acceptance, you are contradicting yourself. The way we see it, “fat acceptance” is just another part of “body acceptance.” Or is accepting your body only permissible once we fall below a certain number on the scale?
Another positive aspect of fat acceptance is reclaiming the word “fat.” Fat is not an insult, so the movement is reclaiming the word for what it is - a description of the amount of fat someone has. The idea is that, yes, a person is “fat,” but that is not what defines them, nor is there a reason that someone should feel ashamed for having fat. You can be fat and have a Phd in freaking biochemistry , be a parent, be married, be an activist or love yoga - or all at once! So, how are people ever going to feel empowered, strong and worthy, which would result in healthier lifestyles, if you think of them as unworthy or as second class citizens? By attempting to discredit a movement whose goal is to uplift them, that seems to be how you think of those who are “fat.”
One last thought to leave you with. You cannot judge how healthy or fit a person is by the way they look. Our favorite example here is Holley Mangold, an Olympian weight lifter. While she is "fat," she is also one of the strongest women in the world. So, next time you see a person who is overweight, we encourage you to think more deeply about the harmful generalizations you are making and actively consider why your thoughts are problematic and how you could change them. If you want to learn more, here is an awesome TEDtalk on the subject.
Here’s a picture of Holley: