Fat acceptance movement

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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. It displays one emaciated and one obese woman as a reaction to body fixation.

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.[1] 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.[citation needed] Areas of contention include the aesthetic, legal, and medical approaches to people whose bodies are fatter than the social norm. The movement, however, has been criticized, with Cathy Young, writing for the Boston Globe, stating that "the fat acceptance movement is hazardous to our health",[2] and Barbara Kay, writing for the National Post, stating that "fat-acceptance is not the answer to obesity."[3]

Besides its political role, the fat acceptance movement also constitutes a subculture[4] that acts as a social group for its members. Activities include conferences, fashion and arts events, shopping, swimming and other sports clubs.


The history of the fat acceptance movement can be dated back to 1967 when 500 people met in New York's Central Park to protest against anti-fat bias. 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.[5]

First wave[edit]

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.

There are many possible reasons for the development of weight discrimination.[6] During the early part of the 20th century, obesity was seen as detrimental to the community, by means of decreasing human efficiency, and that obese people interfere with labor productivity in the coastal areas of the United States.[7] This kind of history and visibility gave rise to the fat acceptance movement[original research?] which originated in the late 1960s, although its grassroots nature makes it difficult to precisely chart its milestones. Like other social movements from this time period, the fat acceptance movement, initially known as "Fat Pride", "Fat Power", or "Fat Liberation", often consisted of people acting in an impromptu fashion. A "fat-in" was staged in New York's Central Park in 1967.[8] Called by radio personality Steve Post, the "Fat-in" consisted of a group of 500 people eating, carrying signs and photographs of Sophia Loren (an actress famous for her figure), and burning diet books.[9]

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'), was founded in America, in 1969, by Bill Fabrey in response to discrimination against his wife. He primarily intended it to campaign for fat rights, however a reporter attending the 2001 NAAFA conference notes that few attendees were active in fat rights politics and that most women came to shop for fashion, wear it on the conference catwalk or to meet a potential partner.[10] Fabrey currently works with the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination, specialising in the history of the size acceptance movement.[11]

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.[12] The FU were inspired by and, in some cases, members of the Radical Therapy Collective, a feminist group that believed that many psychological problems were caused by oppressive social institutions and practices. Founded by Sara Fishman (then Sara Aldebaran) and Judy Freespirit, the Fat Underground took issue with what they saw as a growing bias against obesity in the scientific community. They coined the saying, "a diet is a cure that doesn't work, for a disease that doesn't exist".[13] Shortly afterwards, Fishman moved to Connecticut, where, along with Karen Scott-Jones, she founded the New Haven Fat Liberation Front, an organization similar to the Fat Underground in its scope and focus. In 1983, the two groups collaborated to publish a seminal book in the field of fat activism, Shadow on a Tightrope, which collected several fat activist position papers initially distributed by the Fat Underground, as well as poems and essays from other writers.[14]

In 1979 Carole Shaw coined the term Big Beautiful Woman (BBW) and launches a fashion and lifestyle magazine of the same name aimed at plus-sized women.[15] The original print magazine closed in the late 1990s but the term BBW has become widely used to refer to any fat woman.

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.[16]

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.

Second wave[edit]

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.[17]

The 1980s witnessed an increase in activist organizations, publications, and conferences.[citation needed] In 1989 a group of people including actress Anne Zamberlan formed the first French organisation for fat acceptance, Allegro fortissimo.[59]

Organisations began holding conferences and conventions, including NAAFA.

Third wave[edit]

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. 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 increased in the 2000's, with the creation of the "fatosphere" and the "Fat Liberation Feed", providing online communities of blogs and social media dedicated to the fat acceptance movement.[59] Notable fat activists within the "fatosphere" include Marianne Kirby of The Rotund and Kate Harding of Shapely Prose, who co-wrote the book Lessons from the Fat-o-sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body.[18] Additionally, the Fat Studies listserv was created by Marilyn Wann as a place for scholars to find more fat positive information.

The individual blogs of the second wave have mainly been overtaken by larger scale social networking sites such as PeopleOfSize.com,[citation needed] whilst several websites have sprung up to help connect fat people with fat-friendly service providers and products, such as fatshionista.[citation needed] Size discrimination has been increasingly addressed in the arts, as well.[citation needed]

Campaigning themes[edit]

The fat acceptance movement argues that fat people are targets of hatred and discrimination.[19] In particular, that obese women are subjected to more social pressure than obese men.[17] The movement argues that these attitudes comprise a fat phobic entrenched societal norm, evident in many social institutions, including the mass media; where fat people are often ridiculed[20][21] or held up as objects of pity.[22] Discrimination includes lack of equal access to transportation and employment.[23] Members of the fat acceptance movement perceive negative societal attitudes as persistent, and as being based on the presumption that fatness reflects negatively on a person's character.[24][25] Fat activists continue to strive for change in societal, personal, and medical attitudes toward fat people. Fat acceptance organisations engage in public education about what they describe as myths concerning fat people.[26]


Fat individuals experience weight-based discrimination in a number of avenues within their lives.[1] This discrimination is experienced in healthcare, employment, education, interpersonal relationships, and in media. Discrimination can impact both the physical and psychological health of those experiencing it.


Fat activists argue that anti-fat stigma and aggressive diet promotion have led to an increase in psychological and physiological problems among fat people.[17] Concerns are also raised that modern culture's focus on 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.[27] Diet critics cite the high failure rate of permanent weight loss attempts,[28] and the dangers of "yo-yo" weight fluctuations[29] and weight loss surgeries.[30] Fat activists argue that the health issues of obesity and being overweight have been exaggerated or misrepresented, and that the health issues are 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.[31][32][33] They believe health to be independent of body weight. Informed by this approach, psychologists 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.[34]

However, the consensus within the scientific community is that obesity has a negative impact on the health of an individual. Some medical studies have challenged the 'healthy obesity' concept.[35][36][37][38] One complicating factor in these studies is that definitions of metabolically-healthy obesity are not standardized across studies.[39]


Fat women[edit]

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[edit]

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."[40] 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.[41] 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".[42]

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[43] 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". 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."[44]

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".[45]


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.[46] 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.[47]

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.[48] 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.[49]

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.[47]

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.[50] 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[edit]

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[4] 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.[51] As of 2011, there were 2 Australian courses and 10 American courses that were primarily focussed on fat studies or on health at every size, and numerous other courses that had some fat acceptance content.[52] Taylor & Francis publish an online Fat Studies journal.[53] 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.[54]

Debates within the movement[edit]

The fat acceptance movement has been divided in its response to proposed 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."[55] 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 quiet and polite accommodations for her."[56]

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.[citation needed]

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.[57]

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.[58] Some men in the movement argue that the movement excludes the issues and perspectives of fat men whilst privileging those of women.[citation needed]


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 many studies have shown to be linked to obesity[citation needed]. 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[citation needed]. Some believe that fat activism remains a marginal movement, with one writer stating, in 2008, that "this movement is just now gaining real momentum"[59] 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[citation needed].

Medical criticism[edit]

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".[60][61][62] 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.[28] 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".[63] 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.[28]

See also[edit]


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Other publications[edit]

External links[edit]