Carolyn Hall recently wrote an article entitled 6 Things I Don’t Understand About the Fat Acceptance Movement. She is a ‘normal sized’ American woman who recently learned about Fat Acceptance, and based on her article she clearly misunderstands just about everything a person can misunderstand about it.
I’m a fat American woman who has been a Health at Every Size (HAES) advocate for the past several years. I thought I’d try to clear things up for her. I don’t mind critique or disagreement with the things that I believe in, but I think that critique should be well informed. As such, here are Hall’s six things she doesn’t understand, and my answers to them.
1. “Americans are extremely accepting of fat.”
It’s Hall’s conjecture that Americans, as compared with people from other countries, are exceptionally tolerant of obesity. “Though there may be negative stereotypes, staring, bullying, or crude comments, the environment we live in is one that is incredibly tolerant of unhealthy lifestyles.” Her proof is that there are a lot of fat people in America. Her advice? “If anything, we need to be cracking down on it more.”
If you’ve never been a fat person in America, you might not fully understand the stigma that we live under. If you have been fat in America, especially a fat woman, you might have had the same incredulous reaction to Hall’s statement as I did.
Fat stigma is so ingrained in Americans that it often becomes internalized. Fat people start to believe that it is their obligation to hate themselves, a message that is reinforced by a multi-billion dollar diet industry, the entertainment industry, the White House, and a whole contingent of people who believe that passing judgment on every aspect of a fat person’s life is their right.
I would agree that American society is set up to practically ensure that we stay fat and get fatter, but not for the reasons that Hall suggests. We are a society obsessed with dieting and weight loss. Dr. Linda Bacon wrote in her book Health at Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, “So many of us are dieting, coming off a diet, or feeling guilty that we’re not dieting, that the word ‘diet’ has morphed from a noun to a verb. Yet here’s the thing: Not one study has ever shown that diets produce long-term weight loss for any but a tiny number of dieters. Not one.” Those same diets, however, often lead to additional weight gain.
2. “‘Body Positivity’ should include health.”
Hall wrote, “How could you be positive about something when you are, at the same time, actively damaging it?” This is minimizing and over-simplified on so many levels. It assumes that all fat people are attempting to either gain weight or stay fat, and that until a fat person is at a predefined “healthy weight,” they are always practicing self-harm. It leaves no room for the idea that a fat person might be doing what they can to take care of their physical health. Or that for some, especially those with eating disorders, attempting to lose weight with traditional methods can be a form of self-harm. And it most definitely leaves no room for the idea that a fat person might be too busy taking care of some other kind of health (financial, emotional, mental . . .) to focus on weight loss or physical health at any given moment.
Fat Acceptance (FA) is a civil rights movement that advocates for equal treatment of fat people in the work place, in the medical setting, in the world at large. On a smaller scale, however, it advocates for fat people to take a positive approach to self-image. If a person loves themselves and is comfortable in their own skin and believes that they are worthwhile, they are in a better position to take care of themselves. That means people on both ends of the weight spectrum and everyone in between.
Health at Every Size (HAES) is a weight-neutral health paradigm. Following the principles of HAES involves adopting an attitude of body acceptance. It also involves mindful, intuitive eating and getting some enjoyable exercise. For many people, adopting a HAES path is the first time in years (even decades) when they are no longer punishing themselves, at least intermittently, with hunger and excessive exercise. HAES is not a weight loss program, but one of the affects adopting it can have is allowing the body to start doing something it was designed to do in the first place: regulate weight.
3. “‘Health at Every Size’ seems physically impossible.”
It’s Hall’s belief that “We acknowledge that someone who is anorexic is clearly not healthy at their size, and needs medical intervention, but we perpetuate the idea that a morbidly obese person could pursue an active lifestyle and remain at their size, and that saying otherwise would be “shaming” them.”
The ‘H’ in HAES stands for Health, not Healthy. It would be ridiculous to suggest that there is an entire movement, which includes doctors, dieticians, and other medical professionals, surrounding the idea that no one has any health problems. I’m not even sure where this idea comes from, but it is a favorite amongst HAES and FA critics.
Instead of focusing on weight loss, HAES focuses on health improvement as a whole through eating intuitively (what you’re hungry for, when you’re hungry, and stopping when you’re full), enjoyable movement, and not hating yourself. All of these things are ways to improve your health and your chances at a long life regardless of your weight.
No one involved in the HAES or FA communities are trying to, as Hall put it, cover up with rhetoric the dangers of being at either extreme of the weight spectrum. There is no fat person conspiracy to make the world a fatter place or to keep people who want to lose weight from working toward that goal. Both acknowledge that most people who lose weight intentionally regain, often plus more, and HAES offers a different approach if health improvement is a goal.
4. People are not allowed to be attracted to certain body types
If you go into a fat positive space, you might run into people who are upset about people who have the “no fat chicks” mentality. It can seem as though they are saying that the only two choices are be attracted to them, or be a fat shamer. That might be what prompted Hall to write, “Another weird part of the movement seems to be the idea that not being attracted to, or put off by, a large body is in some way shaming or internalized hatred of fat people.”
I have been happily married for a long time to a man who is two inches shorter than me. Prior to meeting him, I had a strict “no short men” policy. I had enough hang-ups about my appearance pre-HAES, and I didn’t think I could tolerate being with someone who made me feel even bigger. Then I met this man, and he was kind of short, but on every other level we were perfect for each other. I got over myself, my attraction to him was as a whole person, and we’re so far living happily ever after.
The moral of my little story is that people are more the sum, or size, of their parts.
Years ago I watched an interview on the Las Vegas local news with a woman who ran a dating service. She said that nearly every man who hired her insisted that they would not date a woman who was even five pounds overweight. Like anyone else, fat people want to be treated like individuals. You’re attracted to who you are attracted to, but stating outright that you’re excluding a group of people based on their weight might attract the ire of that group.
5. “Food addiction is a real medical problem.”
Hall asks, “Just as much as we would hold an intervention on someone who is suffering from a heroin addiction, or drinking themselves to death, should we not give the same attention to someone who is clearly eating themselves into ill health?”
Here’s the thing. The psychiatric community does not agree that food addiction is a real medical problem. My experience is that people who believe that food is addictive, or who believe they have a food addiction, get angry and frustrated at the idea that it might not be true. The truth is, however, that physical addiction is an actual, diagnosable problem that science has so far not concluded applies to food.
There is no entry for food addiction in the DSM-V (the diagnostic manual for mental illness, which does have entries for drug and alcohol addictions.) Drugs and alcohol stimulate the feel-good parts of the brain that are there for the purpose of being stimulated by food and other life-sustaining activities. Binge Eating Disorder, which involves eating large amounts of food in short periods of time outside of hunger, is a newly recognized mental disorder, on the other hand. Even in that case, food itself is not physically addicting.
That’s not to say that people can’t have a very disordered relationship with food, even to the point that it mimics addiction. Eating disorders themselves have diagnostic criteria and are real and dangerous mental health issues. But food itself is not physically addicting. Not even sugar. At least not as far as the scientific community is concerned.
6. “Childhood Obesity Is Something We Can’t Be Accepting Of”
This installment in Hall’s essay suggests that HAES or FA, or both, advocate for “Feeding children constant junk food, letting them be sedentary, or giving them sugary sodas instead of water,” and that this is, “something that we need to be judging harshly as a society.”
Opportunities to be active, access to a wide variety of foods, and a health dose of there’s-no-wrong-way-to-have-a-body are important for all children, of all sizes. As someone whose disordered eating has its roots in being sat down on a regular basis starting at age eight and told, “you’re not fat yet, but if you’re not careful you’ll end up just like your mother,” I can verify that the last bit, the self-acceptance part, is vital.
I’d like to ask Hall what the alternative to accepting that some kids are fat is. Do we ostracize them? Give them good talkings to about how wrong their bodies are? Send them all to government-run fat camps where they’ll stay until their bodies are the right kind of bodies? There are fat people of all ages in the world. For kids especially, helping them to internalize what is good and right about their bodies instead of panicking over what we see as wrong with them is a good thing.