What Is Fat Acceptance And How Can It Help Us? An Introductory Primer

What is Fat Acceptance?

There are many different definitions of fat acceptance, but the basic idea is that fat people do not deserve to be discriminated against, bullied or shamed because of the shape of their bodies. It also has a lot to do with combatting the negative stereotypes associated with fat. The association of fat with moral decrepitude is baseless and absurd, and does nothing but hurt people. Do you want to hurt people?

The fat-o-sphere is vast and diverse, and not everyone agrees on everything, but here’s a definition I like from fat acceptance blogger Spilt Milk:

  • All people, regardless of shape or size, deserve to be treated with respect. No one body type is inherently better than another.
  • The relationship between fat and health is complex and nuanced. You cannot tell if someone is healthy by looking at them, or by weighing them. The health risks of being fat have been exaggerated in the media whilst any neutral or beneficial aspects are ignored. Media rhetoric around the ‘obesity epidemic’ does little to promote healthful behaviours in the community but does fuel fat-hatred and fat-phobia. It is important to think critically about the messages the media conveys about fat bodies and about health. Fat people have the right to be critical of what is being said about us; we have the right to be consulted on public health policy that concerns us.
  • Stereotyping fat people as lazy, gluttonous, smelly, stupid etc. is harmful and actively damages the mental and physical health of people in the community. Discrimination and hate-speech is never okay. Fat people face discrimination in health care settings, employment, fashion and many other aspects of every-day life. This is unacceptable.
  • Body positivity means honouring diversity: telling a thin person to ‘go eat a sandwich’ is no better than telling a fat person to ‘stop eating doughnuts’.
  • Weight loss diets or ‘lifestyle changes’ do not work in the long term (only a tiny minority of dieters ever maintain weight loss for five years or more: the vast majority, around 95%, gain back their weight and then some within a year or two). The diet industry is harmful and exists to make a profit, not to promote good health.  A Health At Every Size approach to wellness is not only more body-positive, but more effective too.
  • Health is subjective, and health status should never be grounds for discrimination, prejudice or bullying. Regardless of whether people are ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’, thin or fat, disabled or currently not disabled, they deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. Good health or a particular type of body is not a marker of superiority or moral virtue.
  • All human beings deserve bodily autonomy. Fat people have the right to make decisions about our own bodies. My body (including my eating and exercise habits) is not your business.
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    • len132

      I do think that we have problems with obesity in this country. And, like you, I’m not really on board with all of the science behind fat acceptance. When it comes down to it, research shows that fat, like most things, should be moderate. It’s not great to be extremely thin, it’s not great to be extremely overweight.

      However, hating ourselves for being “fat” is not helping anyone. Dieting doesn’t work to make us healthier- that has to be a lifestyle change. I’m actually working toward this type of change- instead of “dieting” I’m just trying to change the way I approach food.

      I spent six weeks in Italy after sophomore year of college, and I dropped 15 pounds without trying. I was just walking everywhere and eating less. But then I came back home, over the last two years of college, I gained back 30. And no one would admit it to me! I finally to admit to myself that I was overweight, and not hate myself for it, before I could finally make a real change. We’ll see how it goes- hopefully I can be healthier and keep this up, not just to lose weight, but to be a healthier person.

    • JenniWren

      Great article. I think that Fat Acceptance is most useful when talking about body acceptance as a whole, and when used as a tool to help us think critically about the way we view bodies (and especially women’s bodies) in the media and our daily lives. The problem is that the science doesn’t always hold up and that for me the movement often drifts into being overly defensive.

      As someone who’s been on the overweight side of the spectrum and is now healthy and even sometimes considered thin, I think what’s most urgent is that we stop laying so much emphasis on bodily appearance and using it as a way to gauge moral character. Yes, being a moderate size is healthier- but most people will have their size fluctuate, often wildly, over their lifetimes. The person inside doesn’t change. Appearance is very ephemeral compared to things like intelligence and strength of character.

      At the end of the day, it’s absolutely possible for us to be concerned over unhealthy trend in our society without persecuting and shaming individuals.

      • Jamie Peck

        I agree. I don’t think it’s necessary to argue that being fat makes you live longer to advance the FA cause. Whether or not fat people are unhealthy, they deserve to be treated like human beings. And a stranger’s health is not your business, anyway. Not to mention, being fat is much less of a choice than smoking, doing drugs, or pretty much any other health risk I can think of.

    • Ashley

      It is definitely important to treat everyone with respect and to be aware of our own prejudices in order to fight against that impulse.

      That being said, it is absolutely true that someone can be very healthy and still overweight. I have basically been on a diet my entire life, and currently eat 1200 calories a day, protein and veggies, and work out 5 days a week, but I know from past experience that this is not enough for me to lose weight unless I eat NO CARBS AT ALL, which is not really a long term solution or viable lifestyle change. Is that healthy? Not really. I have had my thyroid checked – no problems – and must just assume that I have the metabolism of a turtle, and keep trucking along, eating and living healthy.

    • Amy

      “… talk about “the obesity crisis” (these are human beings, after all, not some evil cloud descending on our country)..”

      You perfectly summed up how I feel about discussions on the Obesity Crisis and why it always seems so dramatic and not at all pragmatic.

      I am a fairly average weight, super active and I eat moderately healthy (I don’t diet and every single day is approximately 75% healthy and 25% desserts and wine). I have no interest in preaching to anyone about their lifestyle, whether they want to smoke crack or just consume more calories than their body needs in a day. Fat acceptance is a beautiful thing to me.

      A larger person is simply a larger person and there is no excuse for making ANY person feel like shit. Good manners and kindness are for everyone and where a person lands on a BMI column is irrelevant.

    • Lilac

      Instead of it being labeled the fat acceptance movement it should be the self acceptance movement. There are so many people naturally thin or very tall or very short who hate themselves just as much. Where is the Thin Acceptance movement, the Short acceptance movement the Tall Acceptance movement. It should be SELF acceptance because when we love ourselves life take a brighter glow.

      • endn

        “Fat” happens to have a very specific connotation as well as specific prejudices and issues. Fat acceptance is not so much about self-acceptance, which is important obviously but individual, so much as a social movement pushing to change general cultural norms regarding what fat means. You can love your body as much as you want and that’s great but that argument of “let people think what they want of you and don’t let them affect your inner glow” not only puts all the responsibility of the person being marginalized, but it also doesn’t do much to change systemic discrimination and injustice. The FA community however is a place where many people find a safe place that fosters self-acceptance which is great.

        Anywho I think the author did a great job summing up FA and HAES, which is great, because I get the feeling that many people I come across have no idea what it is or assume its a radical thing. But what drives me crazy is the assumption that there’s even a scientific consensus on the issue of fat. I am a researcher in human genetics and I can tell you that the gap between these prejudices (that medical doctors take up without question because they do that all the time) fostered in science media/reporting versus the actual scientific literature is just such a massive joke. The biggest part of the joke being that as people get whipped up into more and more of a frenzy about the obesity epidemic, more funding gets put into obesity research, so it’s just a big circle-jerk.

        Science and medicine are obviously great and peer review can be very effective, but holy shit is everything with obesity research just jacked right now. There is a push to publish this stuff but if you look closely at the papers there’s always at least a little disclaimer: “Of course, there’s no causative link between fat and adverse health effects…” but that part doesn’t get reported and most people can’t even read the full scientific articles.

        This is a huge problem because it fosters a trend of ignoring many other crucial factors in both health and weight. Especially environmental toxins that disproportionately affect poor people (so no it’s not all just “oh how sad for the poor people too poor/ignorant to eat anything but mcdonald’s” thank you michael pollan) and the complete lack of regulation in not just food but toiletries, pharmaceuticals, food containers/shipping, and industrial waste. It drives me up the freaking wall, it’s outrageous, but for some reason federal funding is being directed towards intervening on people without massive DC lobbies, aka the poor folks who need help planting vegetables and going to farmer’s markets and curbing their diabetes via more exercise/medication. All that stuff is great but focusing all the research and interventions on individual choices completely ignores the systemic injustice of industrial dysregulation and all the toxins and waste out there that haven’t even been tested or quantified. Eating better and exercising more seriously just puts a tiny dent in this larger problem, as the 99% of people who’ve seen no changes from diets, like the author, can attest. Not to mention the fact that it puts way more pressure and stress on people who have already been disproportionately shat upon.

        Sorry, this topic is extremely important to me, I’m doing my graduate work in public health on this shizz. Sorry for the rant! Yay environmental justice!

      • Jamie Peck

        Thanks for your long and thoughtful comment! It makes me feel a little bit better that even scientists can’t figure out what the hell is up with health, weight loss, weight gain, etc.

    • Mandy

      As a fat girl (clinically obese, but working hard to correct that) I think the fat acceptance movement is extremely dangerous. That’s why we have 300 and 400 lb young women thinking “Girl, I am FLY & I don’t have Diabetes so I’m just fine the way I am.” No. No you are not. You are unhealthy & long-term it is AWFUL for your body.

      Yes, I am 100+ lbs overweight due to numerous Thyroid & metabolism issues. Yes, I have PERFECT blood pressure &cholesterol. Yes, I am beautiful. But that doesn’t make me healthy nor does it mean I should accept this weight because “it is who I am”. Who I am is someone who wants to be healthy & have a better life. Just because I am not pre-Diabetic as of my last check up, & I have no other health issues internally doesn’t mean I am healthy. My feet, hips, & knees ache because it is impossible scientifically to support this much weight for a prolonged period of time without joint damage. The same goes for other obese women. You may think you’re fine, but it is TERRIBLE for your body to be drastically overweight for a prolonged period of time, & until we start holding ourselves accountable for personal health, our society will continue gaining weight & getting more unhealthy.

      I do fully support self-acceptance. I do not loathe myself, nor am I ashamed of my weight. I don’t think anyone else should be ashamed of themselves for these reasons either. But FAT acceptance is a dangerous road to ignoring our health & I definitely don’t condone that.

      -Clarifying that I am referring to OBESITY, not someone who is a bit over the recommended weight.

      • endn

        I kind of went off on this already but I just want to respond quickly: I wrote below that I think there is a difference between what FA is trying to do and what self-acceptance is. Self-acceptance is great, especially since stress, shame and self-hatred can exacerbate hormonal wonkiness, eating disorders, anxiety and depression (which can make you gain weight even more). But FA, I think, is more about addressing how American society views fat people. Which is a very specific, unique phenomenon of loathing and discrimination. FA is more like, do what you want with your body–be super fat and not giving a crap, or be trying to lose weight like you are, but either way, no one is allowed to come at you and say that you are disgusting or wrong or judge you as “unhealthy” because not only can you not judge health from size but it’s also none of anyone’s business. And it really isn’t. If some fat women are all “I don’t have diabetes so I don’t give a nut that I’m fat” then they’re just trying to deal with their own situation and how does it affect anyone else? (numbers about “public cost of obesity” are bullshizz by the way) (and I say all this with two critiques of FA: sometimes some FA community members can get upset when fat women want to lose weight as if they’re betraying a cause, but I think that’s more about the individual’s coping mechanisms since FA is all about do what you want with your size; and, notions of how fat and health are perceived are VERY different even within American communities but that’s something that tends to be ignored since through a white middle class person-lens, all fat people are gross and fair game.)

      • Alexis H

        In some ways I agree that we should not celebrate living in an extremely unhealthy state, but shame is not the answer. I mean, it’s not a secret that being morbidly obese is a strain on a person’s body and a person who lives like that is sure to feel the physical effects of that.

        I support getting healthy and losing weight to improve your quality of life, I just don’t support telling someone that they’re gross or making them feel like they are personally “bad.” I think a lot of fat shaming goes there and turns weight commentary into more of a personal attack and not a compassionate concern about a person’s well-being.

    • Alexis H

      I’m so glad to read this! Jamie is one of my favorite writers on the gloss and I completely agree. I’m a normal size girl who was on the small end of the “healthy” BMI scale back in college and is now on the not-as-great end.

      I’m constantly hating on myself and obsessing with guilt over every unhealthy thing I eat, yet I’m a very outspoken advocate for positive body image and an anti fat-shaming crusader when it comes to anyone else. I always scold the people I know when they gossip about a freind’s weight gain, but I untag myself in pictures with those very same people when I think my arms are looking a little doughy. How can I tell girls who are bigger than me that they are beautiful as they are (and I really do mean it) when I hate myself for every pound over my self-imagined “ideal” I am? Something needs to change.

      I blame the fact that body acceptance is still not fully mainstream (I mean, we’re better off than we were 10 years ago, but come on) and that girls who think like us are in the minority. If I was hanging out in a room full of the readers of this site, I would feel pretty comfortable in my own skin, because I think we all agree on this issue for the most part. It’s when I’m out and about that I tell myself the general population/basically anyone who’s thinner than me is probably judging me silently. I think that the more articles like this we have, the closer we get to finally driving some of these points home.

      • Sam

        I feel the exact same way (and also feel that Jamie is one of my favorites, too!). I’ve struggled with an eating disorder for about a decade so I feel incredibly hypocritical trying to make everyone else not obsess over their weights. But still, it’s so important to try anyways–someday, we might end up actually totally accepting ourselves, too :)

    • Brad Hachten

      Thanks for your article and bringing attention to National Association for the Advancement of Fat Acceptance. Here at the Los Angeles chapter, join us for “Take Back the Beach” on September 29th in Huntington Beach where we’ll be celebrating body diversity and the sensual pleasures of a day and evening at the beach. More information can be found at the website http://www.naafala.org. Stay stoked!

    • Lastango

      Enough with all this “acceptance”!

      Back when we had non-acceptance of fat, we had a lot fewer fat people.

      • Alexis H

        Oh right, of course! Because every time I open a magazine, all I see are big fat fatties and not articles about how to get washboard abs for summer. Because all of my bigger friends are easily able to get cute clothes in their size and don’t have to shop at a handful of specialty shops or a small area in the back of a normal store. Because I never see ads for diet pills showing super depressed big people transforming into happy smaller people in their before and after shots. Fat acceptance is clearly all the rage, which is why so many people are rushing to gain as much weight as possible to fit in with the norm.

      • Scarlett

        Yeah, but we had a lot more bigoted people in exchange. Which is worse, fat, or bigotry?

        As for me, I’ll take being in a room full of happy, open minded “fatties” over a room full of skinny hateful people.

      • Brad Hachten

        A fair question: does the absence of a social stigma for being fat contribute to the obesity epidemic? I can say that back in the 1980′s when the social stigma of being fat was much more openly horrid, it didn’t work — people generally became fatter, in line with the epidemic. Back then, “No Fat Chicks” became a slogan, particularly prevalent around the local beaches. Particularly hateful renditions would also appear: “Save the whale, harpoon a fat chick.” A shameful period, it calls for redemption.

        Furthermore, to meet the challenges of our day, “with two-thirds of the population overweight or obese” — as the stat is commonly cited — we need people inspired, not stigmatized.

      • Sam

        #OCCUPY FAT STREET!

        No, we had a lot fewer fat people before unhealthy food was abundantly available, cars weren’t the absolute norm and necessary in most cities, and rampant poverty didn’t lead to people needing to eat cheaper (i.e. less healthy yet the only ones many can afford in order to not starve) foods.

    • Marilyn

      my stomach is fat, for years now, doctor told me my liver has fat on it and other organs, it is unhealthy even if you can’t see it. no do not accept the fat, i have cut out all fast food, for starters.

    • Eileen

      This is a really good overview and critique of the movement.

      On the one hand, I do think that the lifestyle the average American leads isn’t particularly healthy: We eat too much, especially processed, sugary foods; we spend too much time sitting down and staring at screens, etc. And that lifestyle can lead to not only poor health but fattier bodies – which can in themselves lead to other health problems (joint and back pain, as another commenter acknowledged). But, as you point out, it doesn’t always. I know plenty of thin people who couldn’t run a mile if their lives depended on it, who eat fast food all the time and drink enough Diet Coke to fill a swimming pool. And I know a couple of bigger people who can run a couple of seven-minute miles and casually eat very well.

      But thinking that poor health, poor lifestyles, and obesity are problems doesn’t have to mean that those people we judge to be suffering from those problems need condescension. I’m not sure I’m on board with the Fat Acceptance crowd, but I do think that we should, well, accept fat people as people deserving of respect and NOT of constant judgment on their bodies.

    • Sam

      I’m a huge fan of this article. Of course having an overall healthy diet and exercising is important, but focusing on scale numbers and clothing sizes and guilt need not be part of that, and I think the acceptance movement is great for that purpose. When people say that it’s a dangerous thing to tell women they’re beautiful regardless of size, I get frustrated–it’s not that the fat acceptance movement is telling people to be unhealthy. It’s just expressing a desire to stop making people feel fucking terrible and ashamed of their bodies, and for people to stop making others feel terrible and ashamed through bullying, cattiness, and judgmental attitudes. Ceasing that sort of cruelty isn’t dangerous; it’s necessary. I gained twenty pounds in the past six months due to health problems, finishing college, and living in places with terrible public transportation so I spent hella time in the car. And at first, I was really upset about it even though I’m not technically overweight still (I’m on the cusp, though). But then I realized how many other health things, school things, and friend things I would rather spent my time focusing on. We all have better things to focus on.

      So anyways, after my silly ranting, I’m basically just giving a big woo woo to this article! <3

    • Steve P

      Beauty comes in all shapes and sizes. My late wife was a plus size woman and the most beautiful woman I have ever known. She had concerns about her health and struggled for a while, but certain hereditary factors made it impossible for her to keep weight off.
      The youngest of my three daughters is a plus-size woman like her mother. When she was in her early teens, and troubled because she was not a sylph like her older sisters, I took her to one of our countries better art museums that was nearby where we lived, and showed her the different paintings that showed the different standards of beauty in different eras. It was a real eye-opener for her. She was especially impressed with the beautiful full-figured nudes of Peter-Paul Rubens. I showed her how standards change over time but with one thread always running through them: The standards are always set by men, women have little or no say in setting them, but they are expected to measure up to them or face the consequences. That trip to the art museum was quite an epiphany for my little girl and her self-acceptance dates from there.
      When you “call bullshit on all the people who claim to be shaming fat people ‘for their health’” I second you loud and clear. I acknowledge that being overweight can lead to health problems as it did with my wife, but people who shame and deride people for being fat are part of the problem, not part of the solution. I doesn’t do a bit of good for anybody and is nothing but a big ego trip for the shamers! It is also significant that with all the emphasis on the health issues dealing with being overweight we have are hearing less about the danger of eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. These disorders have a great deal to do with the narrow paradigm of beauty that is so prevalent at this time.
      As a person whose chosen field is special education, the acceptance of all people for who and what they are is a matter of great interest to me and especially close to my heart. Your article does much to further this, and accordingly I am posting the URL of your article to the Facebook page, “The Body Is Not An Apology.” I will serve as a much needed inspiration to many people there. If you are a Facebook member, you might want to check it out. The URL is https://www.facebook.com/home.php#!/pages/The-Body-Is-Not-an-Apology/201907573156278.
      Incidentally your “5’4″, 140 lb body” is beautiful and I can tell from your writing that you are just as beautiful on the inside as you are on the outside, which is the most important thing of all. Keep up the good work.

      • Alexis H

        Best comment ever. You also sound like the best dad ever. Continue being awesome, sir.

      • Steve P

        I meant, “IT will serve as a much needed inspiration…”

    • Camilla

      I believe that wether you are too thin or too fat, no one has the right to comment on your looks. Saying some one is somehow wrong because of their size, well, that is wrong. Sure, being underweight or overweight is not healthy but it’s also none of our fucking buisness.

      I do however have a slight problem with the fat acceptance movement, and that’s all the skinny bashing that’s going on. We should be promoting acceptance of everybody, cause we are all women and all beautiful in our own way.