Fat Acceptance as a concept has always seemed like a great idea to me. As someone who grew up overweight and gradually became obese, I know the sting of body judging all too well. It’s also no surprise that this movement has worked in tandem with 3rd wave feminism to break down our culture’s fixation on women’s bodies. So as a feminist, I see why it’s needed and important. Because simply by existing these people are committing two unforgivable societal sins: being fat and being female. This relegates them to the outskirts of society, unrepresented in our media beyond the headless fatties on the news with captions that read: “IS AMERICA EATING ITSELF TO DEATH?!”
We need to see fat women. Fat women exist. We need to see them living life, dressing the way they want, and feeling confident. The core of Fat Acceptance is restoring fat people’s humanity and in this way it has my full support.
I’d like to specify that I’m speaking about Fat Acceptance as expressed by white women. In my experience, the Fat Acceptance movement is made up almost entirely with women who are white and middle class. Women of color have their own brand of Fat Acceptance, but I’m not familiar with it and therefore can’t comment.
But then I see articles like this recent Buzzfeed list.
I can see that this article is well-meaning. Bikini season is approaching and it’s a time of anxiety for a lot of women. Many of us struggle to lose weight fast enough in order to fit in (literally) while others feel left out completely, accepting baggy t-shirts as their only option.
In reality, these types of articles are extremely patronizing. They infantilize grown-ass women by telling us that we’re all special and all beautiful. This is, of course, impossible. When everyone is special, being special becomes meaningless. Same with beauty.
Now beauty is complicated. Certainly no one is arguing that fat people don’t have inner-beauty. Unless you’re one of those sad sacks over at fatpeoplestories on Reddit, in which case: what the fuck are you doing with your life?
But the issue I take with this Buzzfeed article is what seems to be a growing trend within the Fat Acceptance movement. The claim that fat people’s bodies are inherently as attractive as thinner, healthier bodies. Beauty is a broad concept and is not the same as sexual attractiveness.
Obviously, there is a spectrum of being overweight. Being a little curvier or having some extra fat is trivial and rarely interferes with people’s attraction. Women are beginning to celebrate curvier frames more in recent years and that’s good. But there’s a limit. There comes a point where fat begins to overtake your body. It hangs and sags, hiding your real curves and facial features. Especially if you’re short like me, being obese can completely consume your appearance. At my highest weight I can barely recognize myself.
And that just isn’t sexy.
There is a growing denial in Fat Acceptance about beauty standards. It is difficult to argue against the Fat Acceptance claims against of traditional beauty standards. Beauty standards are problematic. Yes, our culture is undeniably hateful toward fat bodies. Yes, women are the main target of this hate and are scrutinized within an inch of our sanity. Our bodies are a social battleground and that is beyond fucked up. It has to stop.
But the answer is to take control of our bodies, not to cover up the problem with airy platitudes like, “real women have curves” or “men like something to hold onto!” These are emotional band-aids that need to be ripped the fuck off.
The hard truth is that being obese makes sexual relationships more difficult. Stamina, joint problems, blood flow – all of these become relevant. Does your stomach hang over your genitals? Doubly so. What your partner probably won’t tell you is that these are all barriers that make attraction a struggle. That doesn’t mean they don’t love you. This does mean that your inability to control your weight will make sex harder.
It’s strange to me that so many people who talk about “body positivity” do so without a single thought for the negative affects of being fat. Please don’t send me your essay about Health at Any Size as I find the entire concept to be intellectually bankrupt. If you’re looking to be the magical fat unicorn that’s perfectly healthy at 350lbs, odds are you aren’t that unicorn. Focusing on the legend of such people actually does a lot of damage to others in the long run. Because, in the real world, most people who are obese are that way due to an unhealthy lifestyle. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to rationalize that you’re healthy at any size than to reevaluate your habits. I know, I’ve been there.
You may think you’re sending out positive messages to those who need help salvaging their self-esteem in a world full of fat hate. And to some that’s exactly what you’re doing. But what we don’t see are the people who are addicted to food and covering with Fat Acceptance ideals. There are people in the Fat Acceptance movement who are killing themselves slowly with food and sedentary living while others applaud and tell them they’re flawless. There is- and I’m being totally serious here– an ongoing search by Fat Acceptance activists for doctors who will ignore weight problems when treating illness. Those doctors are then reviewed favorably online and passed around to others who have been “fat shamed” by their doctors.
Just in case you haven’t noticed: that’s fucking insane. If 5 doctors tell you that your weight is a contributing factor to your health problems, the answer is not to find another doctor. This avoidant behavior is at the core of where Fat Acceptance has gone off course. It’s blatantly ignoring health, to the detriment of it’s own community, in order to create an accepting environment. What’s shocking to most is the best example of this is in the Pro-Ana movement.
Pro-Ana (also called “Thinsperation” or “Thinspo”) is objectively heartbreaking to anyone outside of its community.
Young women support each other in their search to starve themselves in the name of Fashion, beauty, and a feeling of control. They give each other tips, tricks and even help each other hide their disorder from family and friends. It is both the completely opposite of Fat Acceptance and its greatest parallel. Feminists have condemned Thinspo as degrading, horrific and a symptom of living in a world where women’s worth is based on their dress size. Women everywhere cry out, “This is awful! How could she think this is sexy? Can’t she see she is hurting herself?” And they’re right. Regarding the physical component of sex drives- bodies that are physically unhealthy or malnourished aren’t as attractive as healthier bodies.
These women take their weight to extremes which objectively hurts them. Yet the Thinspo community eagerly jumps to their defense, swaddling them in a blanket of comforting platitudes, reinforcing their feelings with validation. They are enablers, just as addicts of all sorts enable others.
On the other side, Fat Acceptance communities are doing their version of the exact same thing. They create online communities that encourage people to accept their bodies without any knowledge or consideration of their health. A popular saying with this crowd is, “You can’t look at someone’s size and know their health”, which has a grain of truth but it goes both ways. No, you can’t always know if an overweight person is healthy or not. They could, in fact, be dangerously overweight. They could be only a few years from losing their mobility or even a limb to diabetes. But the need to enable each other overrides any health concerns. Perhaps it’s easier to get behind Fat Acceptance because of its foundation in feminist thought. Pro-Ana is a clear example of damage caused to women by living in a patriarchal culture. It sends the strong message, “This is what happens when men control women’s bodies.” Fat Acceptance, in theory, should be about women taking back that control.
I’ve noticed that the vast majority of people in Fat Acceptance are young women, mid-twenties to early-thirties. Very few men, unsurprisingly. These women are at an age where serious weight-related maladies may have not yet presented. The decline of their health may not be fully apparent yet. Unfortunately, the reality is that it’s only a matter of time and both Thinspo and Fat Activists need to realize the limits of the human body…
You can get to a point where you are too old and unhealthy to fix your body. People can, and do, get stuck. Some damage is unrepairable. There is nothing feminist or empowering about becoming trapped in your body. Nothing at all.
Feminists want equality. But that also includes taking responsibility for ourselves and accepting reality. We can’t demand equality while expecting everyone to pretend that someone who appears unhealthy is as sexually attractive as someone who takes better care of themselves. It’s the same thinking that leads adults to tell their children that they can be dinosaurs when they grow up. These placating white lies are meant to soothe egos but ultimately only infantilizes women, keeping us in a place of inferiority. The trade off for equal treatment is that we can’t expect to be handled with kid gloves. Thems the breaks.
I still firmly believe that Fat Acceptance at it’s core is a positive movement. I’d like to see it move away from comforting platitudes about sexuality and focus on the capabilities of fat people. I want to support those efforts to humanize and to push for representation. You have a right to take care of yourself as much or as little as you want, no one can force you to gain or lose weight. But I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that it’s sexy when you don’t care for yourself, it isn’t. We are grown ass women who can handle ourselves, and it’s time we act like it.