Updated: Nov 3, 2022
Why body neutrality can’t exist without fat liberation.
If you’ve been reading and watching my work for a while now, you’ve probably realized that body neutrality is kind of a revolutionary and rebellious path, right?
You have to dismantle the entire premise that you can tell how worthy a person is based on how they look — and even that some people are worth more than others — in order to get there, which makes it nothing less than liberation work.
So let’s lean all the way into the rebellious act you’ve started, and talk about becoming a fat liberationalist.
Activism and fat acceptance are why the body neutrality movement exists in the first place. If you find yourself able to feel neutrally (or even positively!) about your cellulite, recent weight gain, or other “flaws,” it’s because of the work of fat activists. If you find yourself able to adopt an intuitive approach to eating and move past the fear of getting fat, it’s because of fat liberationists.
The entire self-acceptance and body positive movement of today is built on the backs of fat-acceptance activists from the nineteen sixties, and personally I believe we have a responsibility to continue it today. I simply cannot imagine a world in which we dismantle the old way of thinking about bodies and worthiness without liberation work… and while liberation work in all of the categories is important (think fighting against racism, sexism, transphobia, ableism, etc), I see the least public understanding of and support for liberation around fatness.
Through implicit bias testing, we know people living in large bodies are statistically viewed as lazier and less intelligent than people in small bodies. They face discimination on a daily basis, have a harder time getting hired, on average earn less money than thin people, are passed over for promotions, struggle with accessibility in public spaces, almost never see positive representation of people who look like them, and struggle to get adequate health care, because many doctors who would order tests in a thin patient simply blame their weight and prescribe a diet when the patient is fat.
If you can read all that and think “well then they should just lose weight,” you still have a lot of work to do to unpack and dismantle the anti-fat bias inside yourself.
Note: I want to take a moment to directly address one of the most common arguments against supporting fat liberation work: “but being fat is unhealthy.”
I highly recommend getting re-educated on the facts about weight and health, because the anti-fat bias shows up as much (if not more so) in the the health/wellness/fitness/nutrition/research spaces as it does in mainstream culture. This is to say that a lot of the messages we get about how scary, dangerous, bad, and unhealthy the “obesity epidemic” is are actually false, based on biased interpretations of research and data, and funded by big pharma and other corporations who have a stake in maintaining the thin-fat hierarchy.
Reading the research laid out in the books like Anti Diet by Christy Harrison, The F*ck it Diet by Caroline Dooner, Body Respect by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor, Health At Every Size by Linda Bacon, Body of Truth by Harriet Brown, and Intuitive Eating by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole will help drive home the following key points:
While many diets work short term, 95% of the time diets ultimately fail and cause the person to gain back the weight they lost, and around half the time, the person gains back more, ending up at a higher weight than when they started.
Fatness isn’t inherently unhealthy, and thinness isn’t inherently healthy. Certain behaviors cause increases in health (such as exercise) and certain behaviors cause decreases in health (such as being sedentary, but it’s a misinterpretation of the data to say that being fat is the cause of unhealthiness. It would be much more accurate to say that
Being exposed to wright stigma (i.e.: being bullied, judged, rejected, and erased) is much more unhealthy for a person than actually being fat.
I won’t go more deeply into these facts here, but I encourage you to read those books and get curious.
I also recommend reading and following the works of Virgie Tovar, Megan Jayne Crabbe, Roxane Gay, Jes Baker, Sonya Renee Taylor, Lindy West, Michelle Elman, Tess Holliday. Basically, fill your life with the voices, stories, and images of people living in fat bodies, and believe them. The more you learn about the fat bias in our culture and the bullshit connection between weight and health that’s repeated over and over to uphold the anti-fat mentality, the easier it is to understand that accepting your body as it is right now is most likely the healthiest thing a person of any size can possibly do for themselves.
Also, an important caveat to the question of health is that a lot of the time, people use “concern about health” to mask their fatphobia.
Talking about “health” is often a derailment from the conversation about how all bodies are worthy of respect and equal rights, and it’s way of upholding and justifying the social system of power and oppression based on body size — so it shouldn’t surprise you then that a lot of the people making this argument are thin, right?
While many fat people have internalized the anti-bias as well, the majority of the people I see arguing publicly that it’s not ok to be fat because it’s unhealthy are people living in relatively small or medium sized bodies.
This is to be expected, since people tend to be especially blind to the existence of any social hierarchy they happen to be at the top of, but it’s worth mentioning here. The conversation about fat people’s health often functions as a way of denying the existence of weight stigma and thin privilege, which means it’s actually a form of violence and oppression against fat people. It’s a way of upholding a social hierarchy (while also claiming it doesn’t exist) so that the people at the top can maintain and enjoy their position of social power and privilege.
After all, if being fat doesn’t signal a moral personal failing demonstrating that a person is less worthy of respect and belonging, then being thin isn’t a signal of moral superiority demonstrating the person is extra deserving of those things. And that fact alone has the power to completely fuck up someone’s entire sense of self, if they base their self-worth on being thin and therefore “good.”
It’s also worth noticing that all these supposed health concerns don’t extend to the health of skinny people smoking cigarettes, eating fast food, or developing eating disorders, either.
Way more people die from eating disorders and complications resulting from being underweight than those who die of obesity and complications from being overweight
Way more people die from eating disorders and complications resulting from being underweight than those who die of obesity and complications from being overweight, by the way. Where is the outrage and “health concerns” for those people?? Why is our gut reaction to a thin teenager who is surviving on coffee and cigarettes to praise her discipline and beauty, while our gut reaction to a fat person at the gym is to be “worried about their health for their own good”?
I say all this to bring your attention to the way in which “health concerns” are just anti-fat stigma and oppression, with lipstick on. It would be considered weird to outright say you think someone is less worthy of respect, kindness, and autonomy because they’re fat and therefore deserve to be bullied and marginalized, but it’s totally normal to say you think they should lose weight for health reasons, right? But the second statement is actually the same as the first.
The truth is that while the connection between weight and health have been completely misrepresented in mainstream culture, nobody “owes you” a healthy body, and it’s really none of your business if a person is healthy or not. Being healthy does not make a person morally superior, and any attempt to defend that line of thinking is an attempt to uphold the social hierarchy which more than likely benefits you.
People in larger bodies face a variety of daily violence, and fat liberation is about fighting for their right to exist with dignity.
Body neutrality doesn’t have caveats. You don’t get to say “everyone is equally worthy, except…” You’re either working to uphold all the hierarchies, or you’re working to dismantle them, full stop.
You may be tempted to say you’re body positive as long as it “doesn’t go too far,” or that you support self-acceptance and equality “as long as it doesn’t glorify obesity.” If that’s you, check yourself. Where is the social hierarchy here? Where is the conditioning about who is worthy of what? Who benefits from this?
Becoming a fat liberationist starts by acknowledging the existence of the body size hierarchy (and therefore acknowledging any privilege that you enjoy because you’re not being at the bottom of it) and dismantling fatphobic conditioning inside of yourself. Are you afraid of gaining weight? That’s fatphobia. Do you judge fat people for eating fast food, but not thin people? That’s fatphobia. Do you assume fat people are unhealthy? Fatphobia. Think fat people are less attractive and worthy of romantic love? FATPHOBIA.
Trust me, it’s all there, and while education helps here, you’ll need to do the hard and sometimes scary and exhausting work of exploring your own judgmental thoughts, unpacking them and dismantling them bit by bit.
But being a fat liberationist doesn’t stop there.
As Angela Davis says about racial activism, “In a racist society, it’s not enough to be not racist, we must be anti-racist.” In our incredibly fatphobic culture, it’s not enough to just not be fatphobic. We must also be anti-fatphobic, which requires taking a bit more of a public stand. This is where you shift from being a supporter to a leader, from passive to active in the fight for body liberation.
What does that look like? Lots of things!
Speak up when you hear fatphobic comments, even when they were well-intentioned, aimed at someone around you.
Let people know that what they’ve just said is hurtful, damaging, and untrue — and get comfortable providing education and resources for anyone who is curious what you’re talking about.
Establish boundaries with friends or family members (or anyone else) who feels entitled to comment on your weight, food, or body.
If you have a public platform, consider using it to speak out about the injustices faced by people in marginalized bodies, the often-invisible inequality of the weight hierarchy, and the damage caused by fat stigma and bias.
Promote the voices of other fat activists and liberationists, especially those in fat bodies whose stigmatized appearance keeps them from easily gaining a big platform for themselves, and listen to those folks when they tell you how they want to be supported.
Stop engaging in fatphobic rhetoric, stop talking about your diet, and stop complimenting people on weight loss (remember, if fatness isn’t bad, then thinness isn’t good).
Stop talking about your own body in good/bad terms when it comes to weight, and stop commenting on anyone else’s body, ever.
Stop buying products by brands who use exclusively thin representation in their marketing, and stop buying clothes from companies who refuse to carry sizes above XL.
Write letters or make phone calls asking for clothing to fit all bodies, and more diverse and realistic representation in their marketing.
Start paying attention to places in which your thin privilege makes the struggles faced by a person in a large body invisible to you, and start speaking up about them, such as places where the seats are inaccessibly small — airplanes, restaurants, conferences, and other public seating.
Let the company or organization know that you’d like them to change, and vote with your dollars for the companies who promote true body diversity, positive representation, accessibility, and equality for people in all size bodies.
This is one of those “be the change you want to see” moments.
Dismantling the anti-fat bias inside of yourself is the first step. But once you’re free from it, if you have the availability to do so, I hope you’ll start doing the work to help everyone else get free too.
Sending you a huge hug this week,
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