Here’s What Fat Acceptance Is—and Isn’t
Fat-shaming is stitched into the fabric of American culture. In fact, it’s so embedded in our everyday lives that we don’t often recognize when we’re perpetuating fat-phobia, or the act of discriminating against someone because of the size of their body. For instance, Michigan is the only state that has passed a law that forbids employers from penalizing fat people in the workplace, which means that in 49 states people of size can be fired, denied promotions, and paid less than their straight-size counterparts.
While children are often taught to use the Golden Rule to guide their interactions with all people, especially those who are different from they, unfortunately, treating others as we’d like to be treated isn’t considered when legislators are passing the laws that govern our lives. We can see how that lack of regulation leads to discrimination: Fat applicants are less likely to be hired than straight-size applicants because hiring managers tend to associate fatness with laziness, according to a 2017 survey conducted by Fairygodboss. We can also see it in the fact that fat employees earn $1.25 less per hour than straight-size employees, which can lead to a loss of $100,000 over the course of a career. Fat-phobia doesn’t just appear in the workplace, either.
In 2003, researchers found that more than 50 percent of the primary care physicians they surveyed viewed obese patients as “awkward, unattractive, ugly, and noncompliant,” and the majority of these doctors “view obesity as largely a behavioral problem and share our broader society’s negative stereotypes about the personal attributes of obese persons.”
While we know that fat people are stigmatized in every area of their lives, it holds a different weight when doctors—not fashion designers or magazine editors—have a negative view of people of size. Dr. Lilia Graue told Healthline that doctors often “fail to provide adequate and timely diagnosis and treatment due to all kinds of assumptions, [which] affects patients along the full weight spectrum.” These biases can have a deadly impact on fat people: Patients of size are less likely to seek medical care because they’re afraid of being fat-shamed by their doctors. This in turn can lead to diseases, such as ovarian cancer, being caught later and in more advanced stages. It can also result in fat patients being misdiagnosed, as writer Rebecca Hiles explained in Cosmopolitan in April 2018. For five years she experienced coughing fits that caused her to have spasms and rely on adult diapers. Doctors told her that losing weight would alleviate her symptoms, but after a coughing fit landed her in the emergency room, she learned that she had a tumor in a bronchial tube. Her entire left lung had to be removed.
No matter where fat people go—schools, workplaces, and courtrooms—we face being ostracized and discriminated against, and that’s the reason why fat-acceptance activists have been fighting since the 1960s to make America’s policies more inclusive of people of size.
As Sarai Walker, author of Dietland, told Refinery29 in 2016, fat acceptance is believing that “bodies come in all shapes and sizes, and that all bodies have equal value. Fat activism is a political movement that advocates for the rights and dignity of fat people,” she concluded. Just as the civil rights movement has an extensive history that exceeds what we’re taught in school, the fat-acceptance movement has tangible roots that we should all be learning.
It all began in 1967 when WBAI radio personality Steve Post decided to host a “fat-in” in Central Park because he, as a 210-pound man, faced size discrimination and he wanted to “protest discrimination against [fat people].” While there has been some debate about Post’s intention for organizing a fat-in, what’s clear is that it was the first event of its kind. “We want to show we feel happy, not guilty. That’s why we’re here,” Post told the New York Times at the time. This opened the door for more radical activism that focused intensely on making the world more equitable for fat people.
During this time, activists were focused on an array of social issues, including the Vietnam War, sexism, and racism, so the fight to end sizeism didn’t gain the national attention it deserved, but that didn’t stop fat-acceptance activists from bringing awareness. While it seemed that fat-phobia wouldn’t be as big of a priority as ending an international war or upending segregation, the social and political climate provided fertile ground for all marginalized people, including fat people, to fight for equality. Two years after the Central Park fat-in, writer Llewelyn Louderback and activist Bill Fabrey formed the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance with the goal of ending fat-phobic messages in media and making the world safer for people of size.
For the past 50 years, the association has lobbied for legislation, staged plus-size fashion shows, called out media organizations that offer fat-phobic advertising and messaging, and worked to fulfill its mission, especially as more and more Americans gain weight. (It’s more important than ever to have laws that protect people of size from discrimination because 7 in 10 Americans are now classified as “overweight.”)
Fat-acceptance activists were also integral to getting Michigan to pass that size-discrimination law, forcing the fashion industry to be more inclusive of different bodies, and taking on the billion-dollar dieting industry that often tells people that they’re flawed and that products can make them perfect. For instance, in 1993 Bonnie Cook sued the Ladd Center, a facility for people with disabilities in Rhode Island, for discriminating against her in the hiring process. She claimed their refusal to hire her because of her weight violated the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, a law that is usually used to prove discrimination against people with disabilities. She was awarded $100,000 in damages, and the Ladd Center was ordered to hire her. It was a major victory for fat activists, who were lobbying for legislation to protect fat people from weight-based discrimination. That paved the way for Michigan’s law and shifted how employers treated fat people. Fat-acceptance activists and bloggers have also worked extensively to make the fashion industry more inclusive of different bodies, including transgender and disabled bodies. While fashion has long been an exclusive industry that caters to thin, White women, in the last several years designers, modeling agencies, and fashion magazines have begun offering more opportunities to underrepresented communities.
During New York Fashion Week’s spring 2019 showings, 49 plus-size models walked in 12 shows, which is a vast improvement from the 27 models of size who walked in fall 2018’s shows and the 34 who walked in Fashion Week’s spring 2018 presentations. Plus-size models, including Ashley Graham and Tess Holliday, are also appearing on magazine covers and in fashion campaigns, and Graham even received her own Barbie in 2016. Yet, the goals of fat acceptance are still misunderstood. In every way, fat acceptance is a movement designed to promote dignity so that people of size have equal access to opportunities. Despite this clear definition, fat acceptance is woefully misunderstood. This is best exemplified in an April 2018 column published in the Guardian by writer Lizzie Cernik. “Fronted by plus-sized models and social media influencers, the fat acceptance movement aims to normalize obesity, letting everyone know that it’s fine to be fat,” Cernik writes. “With terms such as ‘straight size’ and ‘fat pride’ proliferating, some influential figures are now even likening the valid concerns of health officials to hate crimes.”
“Glorifying obesity” is a common misconception associated with fat acceptance. Asking for equality is not the same as “glorifying obesity,” as writer Rachelle Hampton explains in a scathing rebuke published in Slate: “Of course, fat people aren’t trying to encourage more people to become fat; they’re trying to live a life with dignity. If you’ve never been fat, it’s hard to understand the various ways in which your body stops becoming your own once you reach a certain weight. It becomes an object for public consumption and comment or ridicule. Strangers feel obligated to tell you you’re going to die early or give diet tips or scrutinize your every meal under the guise of patronizing concern for your health.”
“Of course, fat people aren’t trying to encourage more people to become fat; they’re trying to live a life with dignity.”
Fat-acceptance activists also want a world where people of size are on screen in narratives that don’t center on their weight. A study conducted by Dr. Stacy L. Smith and the Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative at USC Annenberg for Refinery29 found that of the top 100 films released in 2016, only two women larger than a size 14 were cast as a lead or a co-lead. Of the top 50 TV shows in 2016, 43 percent of women characters were thin, and only three women leads were larger than a size 14. In a country where 67 percent of women are considered plus-size but that majority only represents 2 percent of images, it’s crucial to have a movement that promotes fat inclusion and acceptance. When fat people are unable to see themselves on screen and straight-size people never see fat people on screen, it fuels the idea that only thin people are deserving of representation. That has a lingering impact on self-esteem and, of course, trickles down into how we interact with fat people in our lives. Fat-acceptance activists envision a world where children aren’t bullied because of the size of their bodies.
In 2010, researchers at the University of Michigan released startling findings about how size intersects with childhood bullying. The researchers followed 800 children in 10 cities across the United States and surveyed them, their teachers, and their mothers about the children’s experiences with bullying. They found that “kids who were obese were 65 percent more likely to be bullied than their peers of normal weight; overweight kids were 13 percent more likely to be bullied.” In order to create an equitable world for plus-size people, it has to begin in childhood, and that requires a confronting of how plus-size children are maligned because of their size. Nowhere are these objectives rooted in “glorifying obesity.” Instead, fat-acceptance activists want a different world where fat people can work, have relationships, be on screen, grow up safely, and simply exist without facing discrimination.
I’ve been considered overweight since I was 8, and unfortunately I was surrounded by people who encouraged me to lose weight in order to gain dignity and respect. The idea that I was worth less because of the size of my body seeped into every area of my life; I didn’t wear a swimsuit on a beach until I was 20. It wasn’t until I was 22, in graduate school and scouring the internet, that I stumbled on communities of fat-acceptance bloggers and activists who’d developed better relationships with their bodies and were fighting for a more equitable world. You, dear teen reader, shouldn’t have to wait that long. You can become involved in the fat-acceptance movement right now, and it really starts with you.
You can become involved in the fat-acceptance movement right now, and it really starts with you.
It’s imperative that you find your voice and wield it as loudly as possible. If you think you’re being discriminated against because of your size, call it out. If you see your friends speaking negatively about someone’s body because it’s larger than theirs, call them out. A simple, “That wasn’t kind. You shouldn’t talk about other people’s bodies in that way” will suffice. If you go to the doctor for a sore throat and the doctor immediately tries to weigh you, don’t be afraid to tell them you’re uninterested in being weighed or knowing your weight at this time.
And most important, find friends who believe as you do—all bodies are good bodies, no matter their sizes, their shapes, their abilities, their ethnicities, or their genders.
There is nothing wrong with wanting to be affirmed by people who understand how crucial it is to love your body as it is. In fact, there’s an entire history of people who’ve done exactly that and fought for the dignity of fat people. You can learn that history and then carry on that legacy. In fact, the movement has been waiting for you all along.
Adapted excerpt from the forthcoming The (Other) F Word: A Celebration of the Fat and Fierce, edited by Angie Manfredi, appears by permission of Amulet Books, an imprint of Abrams © 2019.
Evette Dionne is the executive editor at YES! Media, where she leads YES! Magazine. She is the former editor-in-chief at Bitch Media, and an award-winning journalist, pop culture critic, and magazine editor who covers culture and politics through the lenses of race, gender, class, and size. Her newest book, Weightless: Making Space for My Resilient Body and Soul, will be published in December 2022 by Ecco. She’s also the author of Lifting As We Climb, which was longlisted for a National Book Award and won a Coretta Scott King author honor. Evette is based in Denver, and speaks English.