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Fat acceptance movement

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Fat acceptance movement

The sculpture Bronskvinnorna (The women of bronze) outside of the art museum (Konsthallen), Växjö, Sweden. The sculpture is a work by Marianne Lindberg De Geer. Its display of one emaciated and one fat woman is a demonstration against society's obsession with how people look.

The fat acceptance movement (also known as the size acceptance, fat liberation, fat activism, fativism, or fat power movement) is a social movement seeking to change anti-fat bias in social attitudes. The movement grew out of the various identity politics of the 1960s and campaigns for the rights of fat people to be treated equally both socially and legally. Areas of contention include the aesthetic, legal, and medical approaches to people whose bodies are larger than the social norm.

Besides its political role, the fat acceptance movement also constitutes a subculture[1] that acts as a social group for its members. Activities include conferences, fashion and arts events, shopping, swimming and other sports clubs.

Campaigning themes

The fat acceptance movement argues that fat people are targets of public education about what they describe as myths concerning fat people.[10]


Fat activists argue that anti-fat stigma and aggressive diet promotion have led to an increase in psychological and physiological problems among fat people.[3] Diet critics cite the supposedly high failure rate of permanent weight loss attempts, and the dangers of "yo-yo" weight fluctuations[11] and weight loss surgeries.[12] Since Louderback's seminal work on the subject was published in 1970,[13] several books have been published challenging the standard medical model that fat produces ill health, and highlighting instances of weight-based discrimination experienced by fat people from both medical professionals and society at large. The position of the fat acceptance movement is supported by authors such as Sandy Szwarc and law professor Paul Campos who, in his book The Diet Myth reviewed research he believed brought into question the link between obesity and mortality.[14] Fat activists argue that the health issues of obesity and being overweight have been exaggerated or misrepresented, and used as a cover for cultural and aesthetic prejudices against fat.

Proponents of fat acceptance maintain that people of all shapes and sizes can strive for fitness and physical health.[15][16][17] They believe health to be independent of body weight. Informed by this approach, medical professionals who were unhappy with the treatment of fat people in the medical world initiated the Health at Every Size movement. It has five basic tenets: 1. Enhancing health, 2. Size and self-acceptance, 3. The pleasure of eating well, 4. The joy of movement, and 5. An end to weight bias.[18]

In addition to fat acceptance movement campaigns on the theme of health at any size, there has been a surge in studies both for and against the concept in scientific journals. For instance, one study found that fat acceptance and 'intuitive eating' (i.e., when hungry) resulted in both better health and better weight loss for chronic overweight female dieters than for a dieting control group.[19]

There are mixed views within the scientific community. In recent years, medical studies have challenged the 'healthy obesity' concept. A notable study which was published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology in 2014 shows that obesity leads to an inevitably higher risk for heart disease and stroke despite the participant's current lipid profile.[20][21] A recent meta-analysis found elevated risk for all-causes mortality and cardiovascular disease in metabolically-healthy obese patients, estimating the relative risk for these patients vs. metabolically-healthy normal-weight individuals at 1.24. However, this is lower than the relative risks estimated for metabolically-unhealthy obese patients (RR 2.65) and for metabolically-unhealthy non-obese patients (RR 3.14).[22] Another review found that metabolically-healthy obesity "is an important, emerging phenotype with risks somewhere intermediate between healthy, normal weight and unhealthy, obese individuals."[23] One complicating factor is that definitions of metabolically-healthy obesity are not currently standardized across studies.[24]

Studies show that obesity can lead to a wide variety of health problems.[25] These problems range from congestive heart failure,[26] high blood pressure,[27] deep vein thrombosis and pulmonary embolism,[28] type two diabetes, infertility,[29] birth defects,[30] stroke,[31] dementia,[32] cancer,[33] asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease[34] and lifestyle changes are associated with improvement in sexual function in about one third of obese men with erectile dysfunction at baseline.[35]


Fat women

Documentary filmmaker Kira Nerusskaya released her film The BBW World: Under the Fat! In 2008.

The issues faced by fat women in society have been a central theme of the fat acceptance movement since its inception. Although the first organisation, NAAFA, and the first book, Fat Power (1970), were both created by men, in each case they were responses to weight discrimination experienced by their wives. Women soon started campaigning on their own behalf with the first feminist group, 'The Fat Underground', being formed in 1973. Issues addressed regarding women have included body image, and in particular The Thin Ideal and its effect on women.

Fat men

The fat acceptance movement has primarily focused on a feminist model of patriarchal oppression of fat women, most clearly represented by the encouragement of women to diet. However, Sander L. Gilman argues that, until the 20th century, dieting has historically been a man's activity. He continues, "Obesity eats away at the idealised image of the masculine just as surely as it does the idealised image of the feminine."[36] William Banting, a man, was the author of an 1863 booklet called Letter On Corpulence which modern diets have used as a model. Men respond to being overweight differently, (i.e., having a Body Mass Index of 25 or more), being half as likely as women to diet, a quarter as likely to undergo weightloss surgery and only a fifth as likely to report feeling shame about their weight.[37] Irmgard Tischner identifies this behaviour as rooted in notions of masculinity that require a disregard for healthcare: "Men do not have to care about their size or health, as they have women to care about those things for them".[38]

Some gay men have moved beyond disregard for size to fat acceptance and fat activism with movements like the chub culture, which started as Mirth & Girth clubs in San Francisco in 1976[39] and the bear culture which fetishises big, hairy men. Ganapati Durgadas argues that fat bisexual and gay men "are reminders of the feminine stigma with which heterosexism still tars queer men".[40] In a comparison of queer fat positive zines, the lesbian-produced Fat Girl was found to have political debate content absent from gay male orientated zines such as Bulk Male and Big Ad. Joel Barraquiel Tan comments: "If fat is a feminist issue, then fat or heft is a fetishised one for gay men. Gay men have a tendency to sexualise difference, where lesbians have historically politicised it."[41]

A fat heterosexual man is known as a "Big Handsome Man", in counterpart to a Big Beautiful Woman. Like gay men, BHMs have sexualized their difference and receive validation of this identity from BBWs or from straight women known as "Female Fat Admirers".[42]


In the 1980s fat people in the United States began seeking legal redress for discrimination on the basis of weight, primarily in the workplace but also for being denied access to, or treated differently in regards to, services or entertainment. The results of these cases has varied considerably, although in some instances the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been successfully used to argue cases of discrimination against fat people.[43] Roth and Solovay argue that, as with transgender people, a major cause for the variation in success is the extent to which litigants are apologetic for their size:

What is the difference between a million-dollar weight case award and a losing case? Like the difference between many winning and losing transgender cases, it's all about the attitude. Does the claimant's attitude and experience about weight/gender reinforce or challenge dominant stereotypes? Winning cases generally adopt a legal posture that reinforces social prejudices. Cases that challenge societal prejudices generally lose.[44]

The ADA act continues to be used as there is no USA federal law against weight discrimination however the state of Michigan has passed a law against weight discrimination. The cities of Washington D.C., San Francisco (2000), Santa Cruz, Binghamton, Urbana (1990s) and Madison (1970s) have also passed laws prohibiting weight discrimination.[45] In the cities that have a weight discrimination law it is rare for more than 1 case a year to be brought, except for San Francisco which may have as many as 6. Opinions amongst city enforcement workers vary as to why the prosecution numbers are so low, although they all suggested that both overweight people and employers were unaware of the protective legislation and it was also noted that the cities with weight discrimination laws tended to be liberal college towns.[46]

However, not all legal changes have protected the rights of fat people. Despite recommendations from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission to the contrary, the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit has decided that fat people will only qualify as disabled if it can be proved that their weight is caused by an underlying condition, supporting the concept that being obese is not inherently a disability.[44]

Other countries besides the United States have considered legislation to protect the rights of fat people. In the UK an All Party Parliamentary Group published a report in 2012 called Reflections on Body Image that found that 1 in 5 British people had been victimised because of their weight. The report recommended that Members of Parliament Investigated putting "appearance-based discrimination" under the same legal basis as sexual or racial discrimination via the Equality Act 2010 which makes it illegal to harass, victimise or discriminate against anyone on the basis of a number of named categories.[47] As of Dec 3 2012, Iceland's Senate is considering proposed legislation to make it illegal to discriminate against others on the basis of their body weight as part of its new constitution. Areas the proposed legislation could affect include the workplace, education and medical environments.

Fat studies

There has also been an emerging body of academic studies with a fat activist agenda. Marilyn Wann argues that fat studies moved beyond being an individual endeavour to being a field of study with the 2004 conference Fat Attitudes: An Examination of an American Subculture and the Representation of the Female Body[1] The American Popular Culture Association regularly includes panels on the subject. In a number of colleges, student groups with a fat activist agenda have emerged, including Hampshire, Smith, and Antioch. Fat studies is now available as an interdisciplinary course of study at some colleges, taking a similar approach to other identity studies such as women's studies, queer studies and African American studies.[48] As of 2011, there were 2 Australian courses and 10 American courses that were primarily focussed on fat studies or on health at any size, and numerous other courses that had some fat acceptance content.[49] Taylor & Francis publish an online Fat Studies journal.[50] In the UK, the first national Fat Studies seminar was held at York in May 2008, leading to the 2009 publication Fat Studies in the UK, edited by Corinna Tomrley and Ann Kalosky Naylor.[51]

Debates within the movement

One point of contention in the movement is found between those fat people who are attempting to lose weight and those who are not.[52] Some fat activists define fat acceptance as fighting for equal rights and opportunities, and freedom from social stigma, whilst remaining open to the pursuit of a reduction in a person's body mass index. Other fat activists define fat acceptance more strictly, applying that phrase only to fat people who are not trying to lose weight or diet. This form of "fat activism" requires active opposition to the concept of weight-loss. The acronym of the movement, "FA" (Fat Acceptance), may also be interpreted to encompass "Fat Appreciation", which says that fat is beautiful.

Since the 2011 amendment by Congress to the ADA to extend workplace discrimination protection to people 100% or more above the healthy body mass index range of weight for their height, the fat acceptance movement has been divided in its response to the legislation defining morbidly obese people as disabled. NAAFA board member Peggy Howell says: "There's a lot of conflict in the size acceptance community over this. I don't consider myself disabled, and some people don't like 'fat' being considered a disability."[53] An example of the positive perspective of obesity being classified as a disability on wider society is noted by one researcher: "She makes a point to tell me how impressed she is with the way many do make quite and polite accommodations for her."[54]

Another common division in the fat acceptance community is the differing attitudes towards general society, specifically thin people. The fat acceptance community generally divides into two categories. One is those who feel discrimination towards thin people hinders the fat acceptance cause. The other side views thin people as at least a partial cause of their social stigma; some cater to this group with mockery of thin people.

Eating disorders are another issue that divide opinions within the fat acceptance movement. A one-time "member" of the fat acceptance movement, Lily-Rygh Glen, wrote an article about the difficulties in discussing eating disorders in the movement and how isolated that made her feel as a long-time movement member with an eating disorder. She further stated her belief that, despite the risks of its opponents using the information against them, the fat acceptance movement would benefit from acknowledging the presence of people with eating disorders among its members. Within the article she reports being advised to change her phone number and leave town if she published the article. An update on the article notes that she no longer sees herself as a member of the fat acceptance movement as a result of the backlash to the article.[55]

Women are particularly active within the fat acceptance movement and membership of fat acceptance organizations is dominated by middle-class women in the heaviest 1–2% of the population.[56] Some men in the movement argue that the movement excludes the issues and perspectives of fat men whilst privileging those of women. William of the blog 'Fat Like Us' comments: "Fat acceptance will always be more of a social club than a social activist movement until its mission statement goes beyond 'fat women are hot and sexy'".[57]


Sociologist Charlotte Cooper has argued that the history of the fat activist movement is best understood in waves, similar to the feminist movement, with which she believes it is closely tied. Cooper believes that fat activists have suffered similar waves of activism followed by burnout, with activists in a following wave often unaware of the history of the movement, resulting in a lack of continuity.[58]

First wave

First wave activities consisted of isolated activists drawing attention to the dominant model of obesity and challenging it as only one of a number of possible models.

A "fat-in" was staged by 500 in New York's Central Park in 1967, called by radio personality Steve Post.[59]

In 1967, Lew Louderback wrote an article in the Saturday Evening Post called "More People Should be FAT" in response to discrimination against his wife. The article led to a meeting between Louderback and William Fabrey, who went on to found the first organisation for fat people and their supporters, originally named the 'National Association to Aid Fat Americans' and currently called NAAFA ('National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance'), in America, in 1969. In 1973 the feminist group The Fat Underground was formed. It began as a radical chapter of NAAFA and spun off to become independent when NAAFA expressed concerns about its promotion of a stronger activist philosophy.[60] In the UK The London Fat Women's Group was formed, the first British fat activist group, and was active between approximately 1985 and 1989.[61]

In 1979 Carole Shaw coins the term Big Beautiful Woman and launched a fashion and lifestyle magazine of the same name aimed at plus-sized women.[62] The original print magazine closed in the late 1990s but the term BBW has become widely used to refer to any fat woman. Other first wave activities included the productions of zines such as Figure 8 and Fat!So?, by Marilyn Wann which later became a book of the same name.

The second wave

In the second wave, the fat acceptance movement became more widespread in the USA and started to spread to other countries. Ideas from the movement began to appear in the mainstream. Publishers became more willing to publish fat acceptance themed literature.

By the 1990s, input from the fat acceptance movement began to be incorporated into research papers by some members of the medical professions such as new anti-dieting programs and models of obesity management.[3]

The 1980s witnessed an increase in activist organizations, publications, and conferences. This wave also saw the rise to influence of the fat blogs. In 2009 Kate Harding of the blog 'Shapely Prose' and Marianne Kirby of 'Fatshionista' compiled themes from the fat activist bloggers into a book entitled Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere.[63]

In 1989 a group of people including actress Anne Zamberlan formed the first French organisation for fat acceptance, Allegro fortissimo.[64]

Third wave

The fat acceptance movement has seen a diversification of projects during the third wave. Activities have addressed issues of both fat and race, class, sexuality and other issues. The individual blogs of the second wave have mainly been overtaken by larger scale social networking sites such as[65] Whilst several websites have sprung up to help connect fat people with fat-friendly service providers and products, such as fatshionista.[66] Size discrimination has been increasingly addressed in the arts, as well. Performance art groups such as Pretty Porky & Pissed Off, The Padded Lilies and its touring show the Fat Bottom Revue, among others, intentionally feature fat people in their shows.


The fat acceptance movement has been criticised from a number of perspectives. Primarily there has been a conflict over the medicalisation of fat and health professionals have criticised proponents of fat acceptance for ignoring health issues that some studies have shown to be linked to obesity. Fat acceptance has also been challenged from a moral perspective and finally the movement has been criticised for being out of touch with the mainstream. Fat activism remains a marginal movement in that, according to one activist in 2008, "this movement Is just now gaining real momentum"[67] Organizations such as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) and the International Size Acceptance Association (ISAA) have relatively low memberships, and people interested in the movement tend to be clustered in larger cities and spread across medium- to small-sized web communities.

Medical criticism

The fat acceptance movement has been criticized for not adding value to the debate over human health, with some critics accusing the movement of "promoting a lifestyle that can have dire health consequences".[68][69][70] In response, proponents of fat acceptance claim that being fat in and of itself is not a health problem and that long-term weight-loss is unsuccessful in the majority of cases.[71] Barry Franklin Ph. D. director of a cardio rehab facility states: "I don't want to take on any specific organisation but... A social movement that would suggest health at any size in many respects can be misleading".[72] Fat Acceptance campaigners also argue that current approaches constitute fat-shaming which, rather than leading to weight loss, results in psychological issues like eating disorders and more often functions counter-productively, resulting in weight gain.[73][74] However, scholar Daniel Callahan sees fat shaming, or "discrimination-lite" as he terms it, as a potential cure for obesity, expecting it to reduce obesity in the same way as being socially sanctioned for smoking eventually led to his smoking cessation.[75]

Dr. Arya Sharma, a Canadian obesity specialist, has accused fat acceptance advocates of using bad science tactics – of the kind previously used by the tobacco industry to promote denial of the health risks of smoking – to suggest that there is no such thing as an obesity epidemic, or that being overweight is completely health neutral.[76] Contrarily, fat acceptance campaigners raise concerns that modern culture's concern with weight loss may not have a foundation in scientific research, but instead is an example of using science as a means to control deviance, as a part of society's attempt to deal with something that it finds disturbing.[77][78]

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