Fat acceptance movement

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The sculpture of two women in bronze, Jag tänker på mig själv – Växjö ( 'I am thinking of myself - Växjö') by Marianne Lindberg De Geer, 2005, outside of the art museum (Konsthallen) in Växjö, Sweden.[1][2] Its display of one thin woman and one fat woman is a demonstration against modern society's obsession with how we look. The sculpture has been a source of controversy in town, with both statues being vandalized and repaired during 2006.[3]

The fat acceptance[5] movement (also known as fat pride, fat empowerment, and fat activism) is a social movement seeking to change anti-fat bias in social attitudes by raising awareness among the general public about the obstacles faced by fat people experiencing the stigma of obesity.[6] Areas of contention include the aesthetic, legal, and medical approaches to people whose bodies are fatter than the social norm.

The modern fat acceptance movement began in the late 1960s. Besides its political role, the fat acceptance movement also constitutes a subculture which acts as a social group for its members.[7]


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 the following wave often unaware of the history of the movement, resulting in a lack of continuity.[8]

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 several possible models.

During the early part of the 20th century, obesity was seen as detrimental to the community, via decreasing human efficiency, and that obese people interfere with labor productivity in the coastal areas of the United States.[9] This kind of political climate was the background of the fat acceptance movement, which originated in the late 1960s. Like other social movements from this 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.[10] 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.[11]

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 organization 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'). NAAFA 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.[12] Since 1991, Fabrey has worked as a director with the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination, specializing in the history of the size acceptance movement.[13]

In 1972 the feminist group The Fat Underground was formed.[14] 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.[15] 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".[16] Shortly afterward, 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.[17]

In 1979 Carole Shaw coined the term Big Beautiful Woman (BBW) and launched a fashion and lifestyle magazine of the same name aimed at plus-sized women.[18] 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.[8]

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 US 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.[19]

The 1980s witnessed an increase in activist organizations, publications, and conferences.[20] In 1989 a group of people including actress Anne Zamberlan formed the first French organization for fat acceptance, Allegro fortissimo.[59]

Organizations 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.[21]

Campaigning themes[edit]

The fat acceptance movement argues that fat people are targets of hatred and discrimination.[22] In particular, advocates suggest, obese women are subjected to more social pressure than obese men.[19] 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[23][24] or held up as objects of pity.[25] Discrimination includes a lack of equal access to transportation and employment.[26] 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.[27][28] Fat activists push for change in societal, personal, and medical attitudes toward fat people. Fat acceptance organizations engage in public education about what they describe as myths concerning fat people.[29]


Fat people experience many different kinds of discrimination because of their weight.[6] This discrimination appears in healthcare, employment, education, personal relationships, and the media.[30][31] Fat individuals also argue clothing stores discriminate against them. For example, some women have complained that "one size fits all" stores, which offer a single size for each item, don't cater to those above a certain weight.


Fat activists argue that anti-fat stigma and aggressive diet promotion have led to an increase in psychological and physiological problems among fat people.[19] Concerns are also raised that modern culture's focus on weight loss does 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.[32] Diet critics cite the high failure rate of permanent weight-loss attempts,[33] and the dangers of "yo-yo" weight fluctuations[34] and weight-loss surgeries.[35] 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.[36][20]

Proponents of fat acceptance maintain that people of all shapes and sizes can strive for fitness and physical health.[37][38][39] 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.[40]

However, some other medical studies have challenged the 'healthy obesity' concept,[41][42][43][44] though the definitions of metabolically-healthy obesity are not standardized across studies.[45]


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 organization, National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, 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 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. Critics say NAAFA, which opposes dieting and weight-loss surgery, is an apologist for an unhealthy lifestyle. But NAAFA says it does no such thing, that some people are just bigger and no less deserving of the same rights as everyone else.[46]

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 idealized image of the masculine just as surely as it does the idealized image of the feminine."[47] William Banting was the author of an 1863 booklet called Letter On Corpulence[48] 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.[49] Irmgard Tischner identifies this behavior as rooted in notions of masculinity that require 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".[50]

Some gay men have moved beyond disregard for size to fat acceptance and fat activism with movements like chub culture, which started as Girth & Mirth clubs in San Francisco in 1976[51] and the bear culture which fetishizes 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 fetishized one for gay men. Gay men tend to sexualize difference, where lesbians have historically politicized it."[52]

A fat heterosexual man is known as a "Big Handsome Man", in counterpart to a Big Beautiful Woman. Like some fat and gay men, BHMs have sexualized their difference and receive validation of this identity from BBWs or straight women known as "Female Fat Admirers".[53]


In the 1980s fat people in the United States began seeking legal redress for discrimination based on 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 have varied considerably, although in some instances the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) has been successfully used to argue cases of discrimination against fat people.[54] 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 (with more apologetic plaintiffs finding more success):

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.[55]

The Americans with Disabilities 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.[56] 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 anti-weight discrimination laws tended to be liberal college towns.[57]

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.[55]

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 victimized 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, victimize or discriminate against anyone based on several named categories, including size or weight.[58] The Equality Act came into force on 1 October 2010, it brings together over 116 separate pieces of legislation into one single Act. The Act provides a legal framework to protect the rights of individuals and advance equality of opportunity for all.[59]

Fat studies[edit]

There has also been an emerging body of academic studies with a fat activist agenda, called Fat Studies. Marilyn Wann argues that fat studies moved beyond being an individual endeavor 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[7] The American Popular Culture Association regularly includes panels on the subject. In many colleges, student groups with a fat activist agenda have emerged, including Hampshire, Smith, and Antioch. Fat studies are 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.[60] As of 2011, there were 2 Australian courses and 10 American courses that were primarily focussed on fat studies or health at every size, and numerous other courses that had some fat acceptance content.[61] Taylor & Francis publish an online Fat Studies journal.[62] 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.[63]

Division 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."[64] An example of the positive perspective of obesity being classified as a disability in 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."[65]

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.[66]

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.[67] Members have criticized the lack of representation in the movement from men, people of color, and people of lower socioeconomic status.[68]


The fat acceptance movement has been criticized from several perspectives. Primarily there has been a conflict over the medicalization of fat and health professionals who have criticized proponents of fat acceptance for ignoring health issues that many studies have shown to be linked to obesity.[69] Fat acceptance has also been challenged from a moral perspective and the movement has been criticized for being out of touch with the mainstream.[70]

The movement has been criticized, with Cathy Young, writing for The Boston Globe, claiming that "the fat acceptance movement is hazardous to our health",[71] and that the movement was responsible for normalizing and promoting the acceptance of a controllable disease with clear health complications, while she recognizes the value in fighting against self-loathing, she draws the line at advocating for acceptance of an "unhealthy status quo," and says that by normalizing obesity, the fat acceptance movement leads people to underestimate the associated health hazards, and that the movement has also grown intolerant, exhibiting signs of elitism and treading on personal freedom.[72]

Barbara Kay, writing for the National Post, stated that "fat-acceptance is not the answer to obesity."[73]

Lionel Shriver, American journalist and author, wrote a column in Standpoint magazine strongly criticizing the fat acceptance movement. She condemned the movements' demand for respect for fatness in itself, which promotes the same unhealthy lifestyle that she believes killed her brother, who was morbidly obese and died at the age of 55. She also criticized the movements' repeated comparison of sizeism with racism or homophobia, saying that this approach casts obesity in the light of being an unchangeable state.[74]

The movement has also been criticized for its treatment of women with eating disorders or who follow diets for health-related reasons, since they are seen as betraying the movement. In 2008 Lily-Rygh Glen, a writer, musician, and former fat acceptance activist, interviewed multiple women who claimed to be rejected by their peers within the movement and labeled "traitors" when they changed their diets. One female activist admitted to living in fear that her binge eating disorder and consequent body image issues would be discovered. Glen states, "It is precisely because eating disorders are not openly discussed that many fat people who suffer from bulimia, binge-eating disorder, and pathorexia (defined as disordered appetite, and used to refer to an entire spectrum of disordered eating) feel they aren't welcome in the fat acceptance movement." The author also claimed that while interviewing and writing the article, which was featured in Bitch magazine's Lost & Found issue, she received wide condemnation from the fat acceptance community, and was labeled fatphobic and healthist.[75]

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".[76][77][78] In 2018, the University of East Anglia released a report saying that fat acceptance, body positivity and the "normalization of plus-size" was damaging to people's perceptions of obesity, made overweight and obese people less likely to seek medical attention when necessary, and undermined government initiatives intended to overcome the problem.[79]

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 methods are unsuccessful in the majority of cases.[33] There is however a considerable amount of evidence that being obese is associated with increased all-cause mortality, and significant weight loss (>10%), using a variety of diets, improves or reverses metabolic syndromes and other health outcomes associated with overweight and obesity.[80][81][82][83][84] Barry Franklin, director of a cardio rehab facility states: "I don't want to take on any specific organization but... A social movement that would suggest health at any size in many respects can be misleading".[85] Fat acceptance campaigners also argue that current approaches to weight loss 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.[33]

Resting metabolic rate varies little between people.[86][87] Weight gain and loss are a result of interactions among genetics, diet, physical activity and other factors.[88] There is thus little evidence to support the view that some people are obese due to a slow metabolism; on average, obese people have a greater energy expenditure than their healthy-weight counterparts due to the energy required to maintain an increased body mass.[89][90]

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