What Is Fat Acceptance?

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Fat acceptance is the recognition that bodies of all shapes and sizes, particularly larger ones, are inherently worthy.

Advocates of this movement work to improve quality of life for fat people and fight discrimination against them in industries such as healthcare, fashion, and employment. Fat acceptance activists have also been described as "fat rights" or "fat liberation" advocates.

The history of fat acceptance dates back decades. Get a better understanding of this movement by reviewing its origins, legal challenges against fat discrimination, and the barriers fat people continue to face today.

Defining Fat Acceptance

An outgrowth of the political movements of the 1960s, fat acceptance is a form of activism that exposes and challenges the barriers fat people face in society.

National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance

Regarding fat acceptance, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) states, “We envision a culture where all fat people are free, celebrated, and liberated from every form of oppression."

Just as people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, low-income people, and individuals with disabilities face institutional discrimination, so do fat people. In fact, it’s not uncommon for fat people who belong to the marginalized groups listed above to experience overlapping forms of discrimination. NAAFA works to protect the rights of fat people, also called “people of size.”

Although fat acceptance is often used synonymously with terms such as "body positivity," it is not the same. The political roots of the movement distinguish it from the body positivity movement, which does not explicitly fight against anti-fat bias in society.

Here's how body positivity and fat acceptance differ:

  • The body positivity movement strives to empower people to value and appreciate their bodies, but this includes bodies of all weights as well as concerns such as scars, cellulite, stretch marks, facial features, and height. Such characteristics are not necessarily linked to fatness.
  • Moreover, body positivity has been overtly commercialized by fashion and beauty brands, with the hashtag #bopo often used on social media to reference the movement.
  • In contrast, fat acceptance remains primarily a political movement that has seen activists mount legal challenges to combat anti-fat bias. 

Meanwhile, proponents of body neutrality focus on the function of the body rather than on its appearance. These individuals might express gratitude that their bodies have allowed them to move from one place to another, bear children, or survive a serious illness. Like body positivity, this movement does not share fat acceptance’s political roots.

The History of Fat Acceptance

In 1967, 500 people, some fat, some thin, gathered for a “fat-in” in New York City’s Central Park. They held signs proclaiming “Fat Power,“ “Think Fat,” and “Buddha Was Fat." The demonstrators also burned diet books and a photograph of Twiggy, a supermodel of the era known for her extreme thinness. The organizer of the event, local radio personality Steve Post, said that he’d weighed up to 250 pounds and stood at 5 feet and 11 inches. He noted that he had been shamed for his size.

Instead of shame, Post said that fat people should feel happy and proud of their bodies. This is in direct opposition to what society tells us to think about larger bodies.

The following year, the fat acceptance movement got a boost when Llewelyn Louderback wrote an article urging people to oppose diet, or weight loss, culture. In 1969, Louderback and Bill Fabrey founded NAAFA, in part, because they had witnessed the size discrimination their wives faced. To advance the cause, Louderback penned a 1970 book called Fat Power: Whatever You Weigh is Right. The group also spread its message in the news, schools, and workplaces.

Some fat activists, however, wanted the movement to yield real-world results. So, NAAFA members Judy Freespirit and Sarah Fishman developed a feminist effort known as the Fat Underground and began to challenge fatphobia in science, specifically in the healthcare industry.

An examination of medical journals led these women to discover how prevalent anti-fat bias was in medicine. They also accused the medical establishment of failing to give appropriate healthcare to singer Cass Elliot, who died in 1974 from heart failure at the age of 32 amid a very public and long struggle with her weight. 

While the Fat Underground grew in popularity over the years, it dissolved by 1983. The efforts of its members and of NAAFA, which still exist today, have been credited for playing pivotal roles in the fat rights movement.   

Bonnie Cook v. Rhode Island

In 1993, the fat acceptance movement celebrated a major legal victory after Bonnie Cook successfully won a weight discrimination lawsuit in the United States Court of Appeals. At 5 feet and 2 inches and 350 pounds, Cook said that she was denied a job at a state-run Rhode Island center for people with mental retardation because of her weight.

Cook had a proven track record in the industry, but the state of Rhode Island rejected her application based on the rationale that her weight would stop her from clearing out patients in an emergency and would make her more vulnerable to developing serious health problems. Cook claimed that she was being discriminated against because of a “handicap.”

Ultimately, the judges who heard the case did not determine that obesity alone was a disability. However, they argued that the state discriminated against Cook because her obesity limited her activities in the workplace, or there was a perception that her weight was disabling, whether or not it actually was. 

Barriers Fat People Face

When Bonnie Cook won her case, it was unclear if other people in similar situations would follow suit because of the likelihood that they would be humiliated about their weight in court. But in the 21st century, people of size are increasingly speaking up about the discrimination they endure, and scholars are steadily researching fatphobia:

  • Fat women, for example, receive harsher criminal sentences than thinner women, earn salaries up to $19,000 lower than others, and are even less likely to receive college admission.
  • Fatphobia is a global problem, with more than half of doctors in the United Kingdom admitting that they’d like the right to withhold treatment from people with obesity.
  • The assumption that fat people are simply too lazy or too indulgent prevails in healthcare settings, many of which also lack the proper furniture, tools, or machinery to give patients with larger bodies suitable care. 
  • Fat people also say that doctors routinely dismiss their legitimate health concerns, blaming any problem they have on their weight. These microaggressions can lead larger people to skip medical visits altogether until an emergency arises. 

Some health care providers and fat acceptance advocates encourage the medical industry to take a more nuanced approach to the impact of weight on a person’s health. They question the validity of the commonly used body mass index (BMI), which calculates “weight in kilograms divided by height in meters squared” to determine if a person’s weight falls in the underweight, normal weight, overweight, or obese categories.

Critics say that BMI leads to flawed diagnoses from providers, as it doesn’t take into account muscle mass, ethnicity, and other factors. Moreover, they argue that having a BMI in the normal range does not mean that an individual is healthy. On the flip side, an individual may have an overweight BMI and still be healthy overall. 

The COVID-19 pandemic that forced much of the world to quarantine in 2020 and 2021 has only drawn more attention to BMI, as reports circulated that people with obesity were more likely to die or suffer serious complications from the coronavirus. Fat activists argued that such findings were used to further stigmatize the bodies of fat people.

Fat people also experience bias outside of the doctor’s office. They encounter discrimination while engaging in mundane activities such as trying to shop for clothes at mainstream retailers that carry apparel in limited size ranges. This requires fat people to patronize specialty plus-size retailers instead.

Although the plus-size clothing market has grown in recent years, some stores have sparked controversy by charging customers more money for larger sizes than for smaller sizes. Critics say this constitutes a “fat tax.” In addition to clothing stores, fat people have encountered this tax everywhere from nail salons to airplanes that require them to pay more money for services than thinner people do. 

More than 50 years after the fat acceptance movement began, fat people still face a number of barriers in society, a primary reason the movement lives on well into the 21st century. 

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