What is the Fat Acceptance Movement?

Recently on the blog eatingdisorderconfession, myself and the other moderator received a question about our feelings about the fat acceptance movement, and about “the people promote and glorify extreme obesity as not harmful” and who like to “‘shove their opinion’ of beauty in ones face”. This blog post is my response to that question, and meant to address common ideas about the movement.


The fat acceptance movement is a social movement seeking to change anti-fat bias in social attitudes. It serves to advocate for respect for those whose bodies are fatter than the societal norm. The social inequality the movement seeks to address is the discrimination against these populations that can affect their ability to lead functional and fulfilling lives. Some researchers have stated that they believe the stigmatization against ‘overweight’ populations is the last form of prejudice that is widely accepted by society (Swami et al., 2008). Individuals who are fatter than socially acceptable face stigma and discrimination in many realms including: employment, interpersonal relationships, higher education, and health care (Burmeister et al., 2014). It has been found that these stigmatizing experiences can have serious consequences on mental health, with findings showing that persons who experience this discrimination are at higher risk for low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, anxiety, major depression, and suicide attempts (Pearl et al., 2012).

The fat acceptance movement exists to counter the culture that makes these facts possible. The movement can be dated back to the last 1960s when a protest against anti-fat bias took place in New York (Fletcher, 2009). Shortly after this in 1969 the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) was founded, an organization that works to eliminate discrimination based on body size and provide fat people with tools for self-empowerment. It was in the 1990s that more research began happening with input from this community. In what is considered the third wave of the fat acceptance movement the movement has become increasingly intersectional, now addressing issues of body size, race, class, and sexuality (Cooper, 2016).

One ideological approach acting within the fat acceptance movement is called ‘Health At Every Size’ (HAES). This movement first appeared in the 1960s at the beginning of the fat acceptance movement, and started with advocating that “the changing culture towards aesthetics and beauty standards had negative repercussions to fat people” (Health at Every Size, 2017). Their purpose then still reflects their purpose now, which is to challenge the idea that being fat or having fat automatically equates to a person being unhealthy. They argue that fat people are often pushed to going to great lengths to lose weight when in fact this is not always healthy for the individual. Furthermore HAES argues that some people are naturally a larger body type and in some cases losing the weight deemed ‘unacceptable’ by society’s standards can be extremely unnecessary or even detrimental for their health.

There are many arguments against the Fat Acceptance Movement, but many of them come from misunderstanding the true aim and the actual values of the movement. Below are 3 common misconceptions that are used when people want to argue against the movement, and why they are indeed misconceptions rather than facts.

 

  1. “You are glorifying obesity!”

This is one that people constantly bring up. It’s the idea that the Health At Every Size movement is just an excuse for people who are obese or overweight to not have to change. Bodies do not need justifications to exist; they just do. The fat acceptance movement seeks to normalize all bodies, not glorify any one shape in particular. This means celebrating bodies as they change throughout the day, and they change throughout a lifetime. Bodies change in response to one’s environment, age, medications they use, if they choose to have a family, etc etc etc. The fat acceptance movement allows for all of these bodies to be celebrated as they are.

There is a difference between glorifying something and accepting something. What the Fat Acceptance Movement attempts is the changing of the narrative about bodies so that society can talk about fatness or fat people in any way that isn’t discriminatory, denigrating, or hurtful. If there is any evidence that parts of the movement are working to convince people to gain weight in an unhealthy way, please let me know. But what the movement is really about is accepting people’s bodies as they exist in their natural state and letting people know that they do not have to assume the roles that society finds conventionally attractive.

  1. “Being fat isn’t healthy!”

There is no way that, by looking at someone,  you can tell how healthy they are. There are plenty of people who would be considered ‘fatter’ than me but workout more regularly and eat healthier than I do. But because I am naturally thinner, I will not suffer the ridicule that they do for their bodies. I can do very little exercise and eat what I please without question simply because of my body. What the fat acceptance movement seeks to do is diminish the idea that someone who has fat is automatically unhealthy. By looking at someone you cannot tell their blood sugar levels, their muscle mass, their endurance, or their health history.

Additionally, even if someone does have fat and it affects their health, they do not owe you their health. You cannot force and should not shame someone suffering from an illness into get medical care. So why do people shame and try to force those who are overweight to lose weight? They do not owe anyone their health. It is not your body, it is theirs and if they choose to live in a way that you do not believe is healthy, they are more than allowed to do so. That is their choice and they do not need someone to comment on their ‘health’ through the avenues of their weight.

  1. “People who are fat should be motivated to lose weight rather than accepting their weight!”

It has been argued that weight bias and weight stigmatization is actually a positive thing for overweight populations to experience, with some citing that negative portrayals of obese people will encourage overweight viewers to lose weight and ‘live a more healthy lifestyle’ (Puhl, Corine, Moss-Racuson, Schwartz 2007). This idea is based on the belief commonly perpetuated within the media that individuals who are overweight are overweight on their own accord. Overweight individuals are held responsible for their body size, and this belief of responsibility and ideas about weight controllability are what allow weight discrimination to be more socially acceptable than other forms of discrimination (Ata and Thompson 2010). If it is an individual’s fault that they are fat then it must be in their control to become ‘un-fat’, the logic then follows that stigmatizing them will in some way help them to achieve a socially acceptable weight.

In reality many studies have found that weight bias has many detrimental consequences for those on the receiving end. Discrimination in terms of employment, interpersonal relationships, and higher education have all been found to affect overweight individuals (Burmeister and Carels 2015). When it comes to health, multiple studies have found that individuals who experience weight stigmatization have increased risks of binge eating, exercise avoidance, and are less likely to access health care services as a result (Pearl, Puhl, and Brownell 2012, 821). Weight bias has also been proven to affect psychological health, with findings showing that obese persons, particularly women, are at higher risk of suffering from low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction, anxiety, major depression, suicidal ideation and suicide attempts (821).

What the Fat Acceptance Movement seeks to do is meet people of all body sizes where they are and celebrate the size of their body as it is. You can take much better care of your body when you like it. You can take much better care of your body when you feel it has value. You can take much better care of your body when you believe it has purpose. Your best weight is not the lowest possible weight you can be at while still being medically considered ‘healthy’, your best weight is the weight you at when you are living a healthy lifestyle that you enjoy.


All in all, people who are fat deserve to be happy, they deserve to feel beautiful, they are not unhealthy, and they do not owe you their health. The concept that happiness is only achievable when you are thin is so grossly misguided it’s almost painful when you consider the alternative that you will actually only achieve happiness when you accept your body.  

The Fat Acceptance Movement is vital to true body positivity. Body positivity is unlearning the idea that only certain bodies are worth acceptance and praise, instead of recognizing that all bodies are equally valuable. It means deciding what feels healthy and good for you, and allowing others to make those decisions for themselves as well. It is understanding that you deserve to live in your body without being subject to prejudice from others, which can come in many forms (rude comments, inadequate health care, less economic opportunities, etc). As well as understanding that others deserve to live in that same world, even when their body is different than yours. Body positivity is working towards a world where nobody’s body makes them to target of such bias.

References:

Ata, Rheanna N., and J. Kevin Thompson. (2010). “Weight Bias in the Media: A Review of Recent Research.” Obesity Facts: The European Journal of Obesity 3, no. 1: 41-46. doi: 10.1159/000276547

Burmeister, Jacob M., and Robert A. Carels. (2015). “Weight-Related Humor in the Media: Appreciation, Distaste, and Anti-Fat Attitudes.” Psychology of Popular Media Culture 3, no. 4: 223-38. doi: 10.1037/ppm0000029

Burmeister, Jacob M., and Robert A. Carels. (2015). “Weight-Related Humor in the Media: Appreciation, Distaste, and Anti-Fat Attitudes.” Psychology of Popular Media Culture 3, no. 4: 223-38. doi: 10.1037/ppm0000029

Cooper, C. (2016). Fat activism: a radical social movement. Bristol, England,: HammerOn Press.

Fletcher, D. (2009, July 31). The Fat-Acceptance Movement. Retrieved November 24, 2017, from http://content.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,1913858,00.html

Health at Every Size. (2017). Health At Every Size Community Resources – HAES Community Resources. Retrieved November 24, 2017, from https://haescommunity.com/

Pearl, Rebecca L., Rebecca M. Puhl, and Kelly D. Brownell. (2012). “Positive Media Portrayals of Obese Persons: Impact on Attitudes and Image Preferences.” Health Psychology 31, no. 6: 821-29. doi: 10.1037/a0027189

Puhl, Rebecca M. M., Corinne A. A. Moss-Racusin, and Marlene B. B. Schwartz. (2007). “Internalization of Weight Bias: Implications for Binge Eating and Emotional Well-being.” Obesity 15, no. 1: 19-23. doi: 10.1038/oby.2007.521

Swami, Viren, Adrian Furnharm, Reena Amin, Jahanara Chaudhri, Kiran Joshi, Shyman Jundi, Rebecca Miller, Julia Mirza-Begum, Pateha Misha Begum, Pinal Sheth, and Marin J. Tovée. (2008). “Lonelier, Lazier, and Teased: The Stigmatizing Effect of Body Size.” The Journal of Social Psychology 148, no. 5: 577-593. doi: 10.3200/SOCP.148.5.577-594

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