18 June 2010

The Fat Acceptance Movement: A Dangerous Precedence?

This week, I read about a woman in NJ named Donna Simpson, a 600+ pound woman whose fantasy is to reach 1000 pounds. Ms. Simpson recently applied to the Guinness Book of World Records to be listed as the world's heaviest birth mother; three years ago, she gave birth to her daughter, with the help of a 30-person medical team called in to help with her high-risk C-section. Now she's gearing up to attempt to become the world's most massive mom. She admits she has tried to lose weight in the past, but ultimately came to the conclusion “It's a struggle for me to be thin, and I've said if it's such a struggle it must not be natural, so I refuse to do the battle anymore." Amazingly, her 150-pound husband is encouraging her in this endeavor.

One of the stories about Ms. Simpson stood out to me in particular, from CBS.com, advising that Ms. Simpson has become an outspoken advocate of the Fat Acceptance movement. I had never heard of this movement before, so I decided to look into it.

A little history

Starting in the 1960's, among the civil rights and woman's rights battles, a group of people decided it was high time to fight the discrimination against the fat community as well.

(Side note here: advocates of the Fat Acceptance Movement prefer in their writings to refer to themselves – and be referred to – as fat, not overweight or obese, which they believe has a more negative connotation. So please do not call me out for being insensitive – I am merely following suit of these advocates)

Research has shown recently that people are experiencing the same levels of discrimination based on their weight and appearance that others suffer based on factors such as race, religion, and sexual preference. Unlike these other groups, however, it is not against the law to discriminate on the basis of weight or size. If anything, it's the last widely acceptable discrimination left in our society.

Initial reactions

Reading some of these accounts, I started to get on board. In truth, people are looked at and judged every day based on appearance alone. But unlike an otherwise qualified applicant being turned away from a job simply because they are black, it's perfectly legal to turn someone away because they are fat. That is wrong. There is, of course, the argument that fat people cost more in terms of health care, and that being fat (unlike being Hispanic, or black, or Native American) is a lifestyle choice. This is a major point of contention for the FA movement, who claim that people have less control over their weight than initially believed, and therefore people should not be judged on characteristics that may be beyond their control.

Questionable Advice

This is where it starts to get interesting, albeit a bit questionable. The major advocates of the movement claim that being fat is not a factor of lifestyle, but actually of genetics. The problem lies with many of their most outspoken advocates - on a blog of one of their most influential FA spokespeople, Karen Harding of Shapely Prose has the following rule for posting comments: “There will be no promotion of deliberate weight loss or talk about how awesome your diet is.” Any comments presenting an opposing point of view are not encouraged to enrich the discussion – they are deleted, and their authors often banned as trolls. Herein lies my problem with this movement. Advocates are not simply promoting self-love and acceptance (which I am totally supporting), but they are specifically handing out harmful ideas to people who, by way of a skinny-centric culture, already have serious issue with self-esteem and (as all humans tend to do) are looking for an easy answer – refer back to Ms. Simpson's quote at the beginning. They present many of their opinions as medical fact, opinions such as weight having no proven ties to type 2 diabetes, and that being fat is not a risk factor for cancer (they cite that overall rates of certain cancers have gone down, but ignore the reduction of other risk factors which also contribute to these cancers).

This is not only dangerous advice, being offered often by bloggers with absolutely no medical background, but allows for what could be a very positive message to be horribly skewed. As with any group, there will be extremists who cherry-pick what they want to hear, and just use the “fact” of genetics as an excuse to make incredibly dangerous choices. Remember Donna? To support her undoubtedly ill-advised fantasy, she consumes more than 12,000 Calories per day, spending over $750 per week on groceries. Now, it's one thing to accept that Nature may have intended you to be larger than what society says is acceptable – it's another to take that ball and run with it, in the wrong direction, and then have to stop after 20-feet and get on a scooter because your mobility has been severely compromised by obscenely unhealthy choices. I am not being facetious or cruel - Ms. Simpson actually requires the use of a scooter due to compromised mobility as a direct result of her weight.

May I also remind you that this woman has a 3-year old daughter. Ignoring the fact that her daughter is being taught incredibly poor lifestyle choices, imagine how her college fund would look if her mother didn't insist on living out an incredibly selfish fantasy, and put that money into a trust instead? I'm sorry, but there is a very big line between accepting yourself for who you are, and using genetics as an excuse to support a dangerous drug addiction – even if that drug is a legal one, like food. That would be like taking a family history of alcoholism, and pairing it with the research indicating a genetic link and saying “Oh well, better toss back another shot. It's inevitable, after all.”

Nature or Nurture: The Genetics Debate

You see, the FA movement's number one argument is supportive of Donna's quote above: everyone has a genetic set-point in weight, making it “impossible” to make any lasting changes. Why fight what nature has intended? In fact, many in the movement claim yo-yo weight loss is more detrimental than just being fat. They also contend that fat is not in itself an indicator of overall health; there are fat people in perfect health, and skinny people in horrible health, something this article from CNN supports – to a degree. In the CNN article, doctors contest it's not so much an explosion of obesity that's the problem, so much as an obscene increase in overall inactivity. Given the explosion of obesity in our society in the last 20 years (that's barely a generation, folks), I'm inclined to blame nurture over nature on this one.

I like to keep an open mind, even for points I think might be ludicrous, like the “genetic set-point.” You probably know by now that I like to find cold, hard research papers to justify any point of view, even if that means the proof may contradict my own hypotheses. And indeed, to my surprise, there is research to back up the idea of a genetic set-point. However, when a movement takes data like this, and then uses it to discourage deliberate weight-loss, they are dabbling in medical advice that they are not qualified to dispense. One thing the FA advocates fail to mention to their followers though – research indicates you can actually control your set point to a degree, both positively and negatively. A young person who may have been predisposed to being thinner can have their set point negatively skewed by being fed a fat-rich diet. Alternatively, someone who's on the higher end of the scale can lower their set-point with something very simple: it's called exercise folks. In the end, it's only genetics – it's not destiny.

Any generalization can be potentially harmful – telling all fat people that they are fat purely based on genetics is not only a gross overgeneralization, it's friggin' dangerous and wrong. When you tell fat people that they aren't to blame, and they should avoid intentional weight loss – without knowing anything about their medical history or genetics – you are giving dangerous advice that can be incredibly detrimental.

A Double-Edged Sword

I found a story a woman had written about her own weight-loss journey. She is a staunch supporter of what she calls “fat-positive feminism,” spending years learning to love herself as she is. Then, a knee injury from years back started to cause her real problems. She had a choice to make: knee-surgery, or lose weight. She writes
“How do you be a fat-positive feminist who's losing weight? It's really hard not to feel like a traitor about this. When I reach a benchmark in my weight loss and get all excited and proud, or when someone compliments me on how good I look now and I get a little self-esteem-boosting thrill, it's hard not to feel like a traitor to my feminist roots, and to the fat women who fought so hard to liberate me from the rigid and narrow social constructs of female beauty.”
I would love to quote more here, because her post gives great insight, and awesome advice, but I digress.

Her story brings to light a big flaw in the FA movement's philosophies. No one should feel bad for being fat – especially if you're living a healthy lifestyle that includes proper diet and movement. If truly you feel enriched in your life, and you know you're doing the best for yourself, what size you end up shouldn't matter – fat or thin. But no one should be made to feel guilt over wanting to improve their quality of life – especially if that improvement is a direct result of purposeful weight loss. Yes, there are people who are considered “overweight” per medical definition who are actually quite healthy (I'm one of them – my BMI is 25.1, technically overweight), but it would be incredibly na├»ve to think that many people who soar so far beyond the average aren't at those extremes due to some fault of their own. And it is irresponsible to tell those people that their weight is no indication of their health risks.

My Advice

I will contend that society goes too far in its expectations for women, expectations that end up driving young women to unhealthy conclusions of how they should eat, live, and look. But I will be damned if I see an opposing, but just as wholly reprehensible idealism take hold without saying something. And I have a blog, so I can say whatever I want. So here is my message to women everywhere:

-Live healthy: Don't allow anyone – thin, fat, or anywhere in between – make you feel bad for making healthy, life-enriching choices. But don't use genetics as an excuse for an unhealthy lifestyle. Your genes are only one part of the puzzle – you, not genes, determine your own destiny.

-Enjoy your life and your body. The people that matter will love you for you. When I gained 55 pounds over the course of my relationship, I was afraid my boyfriend wouldn't think I was attractive or sexy anymore. I was at my heaviest when he proposed; if it had made that much of a difference, would he have been worth it? I think not.

-Encourage acceptance: Your children will only be as tolerant as you are. The more responsibly we act in front of them, the better a world this will be.

So good luck to the Fat Acceptance movement. I hope, for the sake of our culture and society, that you are successful in your goals of equality for people of all shapes and sizes. But maybe, just maybe, you should encourage a little more personal responsibility for your followers. While many can't control their size, just like they can't control the race they were born into, maybe health should be encouraged just as much as self-acceptance, as opposed to being just an afterthought.


  1. Interesting read! I feel I am slightly qualified to comment here... and I have to share something that just happened! I just returned from Wal-mart. Just like always, I picked the wrong line. I ended up behind a very obese woman (I'm big, and she made me feel skinny) on a scooter. She had 2 baskets full of groceries (someone was helping her). I couldn't help but notice the terribly unhealthy things she was buying. When she realized her bill was too much, she chose the few healthy things she had purchased to return. She then used food stamps to pay. Grr. I have always - ALWAYS - struggled with weight. I have a Mom who has always struggled. I could blame genetics, but where would that get me? Probably in a scooter in a few years. It's not been an easy journey, but I've learned to make healthier choices and implement exercise into my life. I'm still not skinny, and I probably never will be. But I'll be danged if I'm gonna purposefully walk down the path that's gonna be my death! Sorry for the rant... 30 minutes in a Wal-mart line will make you go crazy. ;)

  2. "it's only genetics – it's not destiny"

    Well said, I have seen too many people I care about start to develop knee problems, and back issues, and still they can't put down the Twinkie. I have a friend right now that is trying to loose weight, and thanks to the internet has 'discovered' that ounce for ounce Mozzarella is better for you than boiled chicken. So this person stopped eating meat, and switched to cheese. I wish I was kidding.

  3. @Bonnie: As long as you're making healthy choices, you can feel good about who you are and what you do. And I know you're doing good things, for yourself and others :)

    @NKYvoice: The internet can spread a lot of knowledge, but can also spread inconsistencies and flat out lies. There are worse decisions your friend could have made, and plenty of people can live very healthy without meat, but she needs to make sure she's supplementing her new meatless diet with proper nutrition. For instance, most B-vitamins come primarily from meat - these vitamins are essential for energy. My opinion is that we are meant to eat a variety of different things, and there's no reason to cut out an entire food group because another is "better." They all offer our bodies different things, and the more variety in our diets, the better off we are.

  4. It is just that there is so much more to it then these few narrow views, I am saddened.


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