Fat acceptance acknowledges that all bodies, including large ones, deserve respect and have inherent worth. Fat acceptance has roots in social liberation, with a focus on dismantling the oppression that people face due to their size. In a society that’s filled with anti-fat rhetoric, fat acceptance is about feeling proud, loved, and cared for in one’s body.
What Is Fat Acceptance?
Fat acceptance (also known as fat activism, fat pride, and fat empowerment) has a simple premise–everyone deserves respect, regardless of their body shape or size. This movement, therefore, is about raising awareness of the obstacles fat people face and advocating against discrimination.
The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) is one of the main leaders in this movement. This nonprofit organization seeks to liberate fat people from fat shaming and body shaming, and advocate against all forms of fatphobia.
Fat Acceptance vs. Body Positivity
Body positivity focuses on the core principles of self-love and acceptance. Someone who embraces body positivity often challenges diet mentality and aims to appreciate their body for what it is.1 While body positivity is important, it doesn’t focus on the widespread oppression or discrimination associated with fatphobia.
Body positivity tends to be a common trend in marketing campaigns, social media, and among beauty and fashion brands. Fat acceptance, by nature, is more political. It isn’t so much about people feeling good in their skin–it’s about giving people the rights they inherently deserve.
Fat Acceptance vs. Body Neutrality
In recent years, some people have shifted away from body positivity to a body neutrality approach. Body neutrality refers to acknowledging and accepting your body for what it is. The focus is on how your body functions rather than how it looks. This movement is also important, and is personal rather than political.
History of the Fat Acceptance Movement
The origins of the modern fat acceptance movement date back to the 1960s. In 1969, Bill Fabrey, a New York engineer, felt enraged by how people treated his wife, Joyce. Around that time, Lew Louderback published, More People Should Be Fat, the first mainstream article that denounced dieting and weight loss.
Louderback and Bill later formed NAAFA. In 1970, Louderback published the book, Fat Power: Whatever You Weigh is Right. Soon after, some NAAFA members began the Fat Underground movement, which focused on discrimination in science and medicine. The fat rights movement continued to grow, with NAAFA forming chapters across the country. Today, NAAFA is the world’s longest-running organization focused on achieving equality at every size.2
Criticisms of the Fat Acceptance Movement
Some critics of the fat acceptance movement argue that advocates downplay or ignore the medical concerns associated with being fat. The medical industry and other health advocates are among the movement’s main critics. However, the fat acceptance movement suggests that the medical industry perpetuates stigma.
Challenges Fat People Face
Fat people face oppression and difficulty in many walks of life, including the workplace, public spaces, healthcare settings, and their portrayal in mainstream media. Fatness often coincides with microaggressions and assumptions about laziness, poor willpower, unintelligence, or overindulgence.3 This is harmful, as stereotyping people who are overweight based on their looks causes others to miss out on getting to know an individual’s unique personalities and traits.
Unique challenges that fat people face in modern society include:
- Healthcare discrimination: Fat people often feel dismissed, judged, or shamed by doctors for their health concerns. This discrimination can make seeking healthcare treatment feel incredibly anxiety-provoking, and it may contribute to medical trauma.
- Workplace prejudice: Weight discrimination is a rampant issue in the workplace. A 2009 survey found that 93% of employers would choose a normal-weight applicant over an equally-qualified fat applicant.4
- Fat tax: Plus-size clothing and items for fat people may cost more than the same items for straight sizes.
- Travel difficulties: Cars, planes, and trains do not always accommodate fat people. Extra comforts typically require extra fees.
- Direct bullying: Many fat people are bullied due to their size. Children can be especially prone to direct bullying, violence, and group exclusion.5
- Dating difficulties: Fat people often report challenges with dating. Valid fears about feeling dehumanized or fetishized pose significant barriers when meeting new people.
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Effects of Anti-Fat Bias
These challenges can take an enormous toll on someone’s mental health and emotional well-being. Discrimination can exacerbate issues like depression and anxiety, and ongoing oppression can become its own form of chronic trauma. Likewise, anti-fat rhetoric often contributes to a toxic dieting mentality, which may fuel disordered eating and eating disorders.
Anti-fat bias can lead to:
- Low self-esteem: Being criticized for your body time and time again can cause deeply-rooted shame.
- Depression: Fat bias can lead to depression, as it can cause someone to feel hopeless, worthless, or even (in serious cases) suicidal.
- Higher risk for physical illnesses: People may avoid going to the doctor or other healthcare providers due to fears of discrimination.
- Occupational problems: Fat people may have a harder time securing employment or receiving promotions at work.
- Financial difficulties: Research shows that fat people generally earn less money. Fat women, in particular, pay the “obesity penalty,” which refers to a 9% drop in earnings for a 65-pound increase.6
- Social isolation: Fat people may isolate themselves from others because they fear being judged or ridiculed in social settings.
- Disordered eating: Attempts to control or lose weight may result in disordered eating habits, which can have significant effects on someone’s overall health.
Why Is Fat Acceptance Important?
Inclusivity is inherently important, and this applies to people of all races, religions, sizes, and physical appearances. When we discriminate against someone for how they look, we automatically risk making false assumptions about their behavior or values. These implicit biases can have devastating consequences for individuals and our society at large. Fat acceptance allows for more compassion and respect for this marginalized population.
How People Can Advocate for the Fat Acceptance Movement
Regardless of your size, you can be an ally for fat acceptance. Remember that small changes can make extraordinary differences. Being a positive role model may influence others to think in a different direction.
You can help advocate for the fat acceptance movement by:
- Exploring your own biases: It’s possible that you have internalized fatphobia. Consider how this affects you in everyday life and potentially leads you to treat people differently.
- Educating yourself on fatphobia and fat liberation: Read up on or follow activists promoting fat acceptance. Learn about their struggles and the steps they’re taking to improve our society.
- Calling out biased comments: When you know better, you do better, so don’t be complicit to anti-fat bias. Let people know that you don’t condone their criticism, sarcasm, or mean-spirited jokes about fat people.
- Being inclusive with friends: Consider activities that accommodate your fat friends and family. Ask for their input and be mindful of choosing places that have more accessible options.
- Stopping diet talk or lamenting about body image issues: When people get together and bash their own bodies, they don’t make themselves feel better. And many times, they simply alienate fat people by perpetuating a stigma against their body types.
How Therapy Can Help
The negative impact of fat shaming and bias can be devastating. Therapy can help people recover from their internalized self-loathing or negative self-talk. Consider working with a therapist who embraces inclusivity and works from a Health At Every Size (HAES) approach.
Therapy options include:
- Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT): CBT focuses on challenging negative thoughts and reframing them into more realistic, functional beliefs.
- Group therapy: Some people find that group therapy provides a safe place to feel supported and validated. Groups may follow a structured format through a curriculum or be more of an open format.
- Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR): EMDR can help people struggling with trauma, and it can promote a greater sense of healing and self-esteem.
- Internal family systems (IFS): IFS supports clients in healing wounded parts of themselves. This can help restore a sense of balance and bring forth more harmony.
We still have a long way to go with fat acceptance in modern society. But, change starts one person at a time. You can be an advocate moving forward. And if you struggle with negative self-image or mental health symptoms due to anti-fat rhetoric, you deserve to get the support you need.