Freeing Fat: Moving Toward Fat Liberation

Picture this: 500 people gathered in Central Park eating ice cream and burning pictures of Twiggy. This 1967 “be-in” marked the beginning of fat activism, an intersectional movement that fights for fat people to attain equal rights and freedom from social stigma and responds to the widespread discrimination people experience based on their size. Studies have found that fat people earn $1.25 less per hour than the average worker, are frequently denied benefits like health insurance, often experience bias in the classroom, and more.

Fat activists — though they differ in their individual goals, ideologies, and methods — all work toward deconstructing and delegitimizing normative ideas about bodies that extend not only to size but also to domains like race/ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, and more. Ultimately, fat activism, like many other social justice movements, envisions a society that does not value people based on the appearance of their bodies.

Illustration by Sofia Robledo Rower

Not unlike first and second wave feminisms, the first wave of fat activism suffered from limited intersectionality with issues of race, class, gender, sexuality, (dis)ability, etc. Exemplifying this is the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), an all-volunteer advocacy and fundraising group established in 1969 with the goal of ending size discrimination in all its forms. Founder Bill Fabrey explains, “I wanted to make the world a safer and more pleasant place for persons of size, and for them to like themselves better, and lastly, and less important, for nobody to tell me what my taste should be.”

Disillusioned with the assimilationist nature in which the movement seemed to be heading, smaller, more radical groups separated from the NAAFA to form intersectional-minded organizations like The Fat Underground, a feminist collective that declared weight loss “genocide” and espoused Radical Therapy as a means to challenge to the oppressive medical model for weight. These fragmented and somewhat isolated groups of first wave fat activism gave way to the massive proliferation of ideas and approaches of the movement’s second wave.

Out of the intersection of second wave feminism and second wave fat activism came British psychotherapist Susie Orbach’s seminal book Fat Is A Feminist Issue. Orbach writes, “As women have fought to expand the ways in which they can act in and on the world, they have been given back a picture of femininity that is ever more homogenous and diminutive.” This book and its sentiment paved the way for the infiltration of fat activism into mainstream discourses around fashion and beauty, in general creating greater exposure for fat activist ideas. The emerging ubiquity of the internet and access to publishing resources contributed to this as well, making room for the emergence of online communities, political zines, and the fat blogosphere (fatosphere).

Third wave fat activists leverage these multimedia platforms with increased urgency and immediacy in response to medically corroborated normative social attitudes towards fatness. In 1990, the World Health Organization formally classified obesity as a disease, which has exacerbated America’s cultural and aesthetic obsession with weight. Kate Harding, founder of one of the most popular fat activism blogs Shapely Prose, explains, “One of the first obstacles to fat acceptance is breaking down the question of whether being fat is a choice. No fat acceptance advocate is saying you should sit around and wildly overeat. What we’re saying is that exercise and a balanced diet do not make everyone thin.”

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Though it’s true that Americans have been getting fatter, we have not necessarily been getting less healthy. In fact, Americans’ life expectancy (the most widely used measure of health) has increased five years in the same period that obesity rates have more than doubled. A 2013 study in the Journal of American Medicine reviewed nearly a hundred large epidemiological studies and found that all adults categorized as overweight and most of those categorized as obese have a lower mortality risk than so-called normal weight individuals. University of Colorado Professor Paul Campos points out, “If the government were to redefine normal weight as one that doesn’t increase the risk of death, then about 130 million of the 165 million American adults currently categorized as overweight and obese would be re-categorized as normal weight instead.” 

The presumptuous connections we forge between obesity and health issues serve as a deceptive cover for our widespread cultural prejudice against fatness. Analogous to the way that the homophobic label queerness a “lifestyle choice,” the fatphobic attribute obesity to individuals’ “irresponsible behaviors” like overeating. The medical model promotes fatphobia by focusing narrowly on individual behaviors for obesity diagnosis and intervention. The result is that we obscure the reality that body size is determined primarily by genetics, and we ignore the undeniable role of socioeconomic status in weight-based patterns.

Obesity is most prevalent among Blacks and Latinos as well as groups with the lowest income and lowest education. Poor Americans experience higher rates of obesity for a number of reasons, including but not limited to the high cost of fruits and vegetables relative to that of processed foods, lack of education about health and nutrition, and decreased access to physical activity. Essentially, thinness is something we are either born into or can afford to have.

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Our judgments about body size have historically correlated directly with socioeconomic status. For most of human history, fatness served as a sign of wealth; fat people were those who could afford to eat well and enjoy leisure time. Industrial revolutions in the nineteenth century changed the US (and global) economy such that food was more readily available and blue-collar work was less physically taxing, which led to a rise in obesity levels. Access to fresh and healthy foods increasingly became a privilege of the well off, thus shifting the image of wealth from fatness to skinniness.

Patriarchal stereotypes of femininity are rooted in the idea that women should take up as little space as possible, so it follows that society privileges women who appear dainty and thin. This only multiplies the normative desirability of skinniness. Children tend to internalize the skinny-as-beautiful phenomenon particularly acutely: 81% of ten-year-olds are afraid of being fat, 42% of first through third grade girls want to be thinner, nearly half of nine to eleven-year-olds are “sometimes” or “very often” on diets, and the list goes on. Americans today are more afraid of getting fat than we are of getting cancer.

Body size as an identity clearly permeates cultural and social norms and inherently intersects with other identities like LGBTQ and race/ethnicity. As author Charlotte Cooper writes in her zine on queer and trans* fat activism, “From the very earliest fat activism, fat queer and trans people have been an important presence in the movement. … A significant part of fat activism has been and continues to be concerned with assimilation, showing just how normal fat people are. Given this trend, I don’t want any of the movement’s queerness or gender nonconformity to be erased.” An important tenet of many LGBTQ movements is acceptance of and love for all bodies, with special consideration for those not conforming to normative gender- or sex-based binaries.

Queer communities often view fatness as a nonconforming identity, particularly for women. In a society that teaches women to take up as little space as possible, being fat and female can be subversive, if inadvertently so. Reconsidering fat bodies in this way has the potential to enable those who identify as fat to conceptualize their bodies as sources of personal and collective empowerment. This sexualization of bodies that are normatively desexualized and even pathologized can be an important form of external affirmation and empowerment. In recognizing the power and beauty in fatness, we can begin the process of deconstructing our assumptions around fatness and health.

Raising awareness about cultural prejudices like these is central to social justice movements. Fat activists are doing just that: raising the critical consciousness about weight-related cultural prejudice through a radical love ethic shared by social justice movements from feminism to antiracism and beyond.

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