Here’s a question. Assume there are a group of alcoholics where we know that their drinking does not damage others. Furthermore, let’s say this group wants to stop being stigmatised. They want autonomy to make their own choices without judgement. That seems reasonable, right? Let’s add one final assumption. Let’s say this group suddenly claims their drinking is without any cost. They claim that their bodies “can take it”, and that there are no health detriments. We know that this is false. As feminists, we could look at that group and say “we respect your right to choose what you’re doing with your body, but your facts are wrong. Your arguments are wrong. Therefore, we won’t be associating with you.” This is obviously true of this hypothetical group of alcoholics. So why then does feminism associate with the Fat Acceptance Movement?
Let’s consider prima facie what a first-principles grassroots feminist response to fat. Firstly, there’s individual autonomy. Public health costs aside for a minute, it’s important to note that fat is a health issue where effectively the only victim is the person themselves. In cases where the costs and benefits have almost exclusively fallen on the individual, feminism has always been a strong advocate of autonomy. Allowing women to wear what they want, do what they want with their bodies, and not be constrained by “we know better” paternalistic attitudes are all key tenets of the movement. Moreover, society currently accepts activities like drinking to excessive levels, overwork, sugar consumption, and smoking, so long as they are conducted in ways that only damage the one conducting the action. Therefore, fat seems to just be a trade-off between benefits now (lower requirement for exercise, more enjoyable food) and health costs in the near-to-distant future, just as with the above examples – there is no obvious reason to demonise fat to the exclusion of all others.
The above hypocrisy would be enough for feminism to decry fat shaming, but the reasons behind the inconsistency are where the brunt of the argument lies. Fat shaming is, in essence, the expectation that someone should satisfy you sexually. It is the understanding that when you look at someone, you expect them to please you, and if they don’t, they deserve condemnation in the form of shaming. Fat shaming is mutually exclusive with the feminism – it says that regardless of desires you have as an individual for yourself, you should have to satisfy the (often male) gaze that falls upon you. In this light, fat shaming becomes beyond indefensible – it literally takes away all sexual autonomy and demands that individuals make (generally substantial) sacrifices to accord with arbitrary norms.
The above two paragraphs are a strong, feminist, first-principles response against fat shaming. Let’s contrast this with what the Fat Acceptance Movement (FAM) says. One major FAM site, Everyday Feminism, thinks that “weight-related diagnoses” in medicine (such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and so on) are not in fact examples of medical best practise, but are instead “thin privilege”. The desire to diet – in any way, shape, or form – is inherently tied to capitalism and therefore evil. To look at different institutions, Healthy at Every Size (HAES) claims that the status of one’s health occurs totally irrespective of size. There’s an issue here. These statements are factually wrong. We know that obesity and overweightness cause health damages. We know, equivalently, that being extremely underweight causes health damages. We also know that in the vast majority of cases, behaviours lead to these weights. Claiming otherwise is false.
There are a number of problems with these FAM responses to fat shaming and body attitudes.
Firstly, they are incredibly easy to rebut. It’s really hard to argue that being overweight is fundamentally different than binge drinking such that we can shame one but not the other. It’s very easy to rebut that fat is fundamentally unrelated to health. The consensus is (and has been for some time) that being overweight has substantial health costs. There are increasingly interesting academic rebuttals of this consensus, but it’s worth noting that they still don’t even come close to defeating the hundreds of studies prior showing links between fat and poor health. Moreover, even separately to whether the argument is academically valid (which cherry picking studies most certainly isn’t), the majority of individuals simply won’t accept that fat can be healthy. That line of argumentation inherently turns people away from movements which decry fat shaming.
Secondly, it forces a false dichotomy between being pro-fat shaming and accepting of the medical consensus. Doctors are regularly rated as one of the most trusted professions. Therefore, decrying doctors as establishment goons hell-bent on propagating thin privilege (as Everyday Feminism tried to do earlier) is unlikely to go down well. Many left-leaning, progressive people try their utmost to side with medical consensus and science. Therefore, when the consensus still lies with fat being unhealthy, positioning fat-shaming as part of that consensus means that you create a situation where people must choose between sincerely-held scientific beliefs and not fat-shaming. By contrast, as the consent movement gains more and more influence, not fat shaming just makes intuitive sense when you frame it as a sexual expectations issue. Using FAM arguments against fat shaming not only defies scientific consensus – it actively creates less compelling and falsely dichotomous arguments.
None of this is to condemn the Fat Acceptance Movement. They are right in saying that being fat is often not a choice in the easy sense of the word – in many instances, it is a confluence of mental health, low socio-economic status, natural genetic disposition and any myriad of other categories. They are right in saying that people should have the autonomy to choose for themselves how many of the substantial costs of losing weight they wish to adopt. They are right in saying that fat shaming, regardless of all else, actively contributes to weight gain. And they are right in claiming that the world exists under a paradigm of thin privilege – as a naturally thin person, I can attest. But the most effective weapons against this discrimination isn’t clutching at non-consensus studies and defying the medical establishment. Basic, grassroots feminist arguments against fat shaming still hold true. They are almost impossible to rebut. If we really want to end discrimination against fat people, we need to stop pretending that fat isn’t a health issue, and instead, recognise it as only a health issue.
Those such as parents, partners, or medical professionals with a right to be concerned about your health are not fat shaming you if they encourage you to lose weight. But equivalently, just like with drinking or overwork, you have the autonomy to refuse their advice. And if we think about it as only a health issue, then we can talk about healthy behaviours in the same way that the FAM wants us to without needing to shame fat bodies. Just like with other aspects of our health, seeing fat as a health issue can let us love our bodies – losing weight stops being about fighting the endless barrage of societal discrimination, and just becomes about improving your health.
The Fat Acceptance Movement has the right aims. It wants to protect one of the last groups against whom discrimination is still wholly acceptable. But if it wants to win this battle, it needs to go back to basics. FAM doesn’t need to prove that fat is healthy. It only needs grassroots feminism.