How Fat Acceptance Could Encourage Health for All Bodies

“The media tells me that I’m fat because a weird sandwich exists somewhere with Krispy Kreme donuts instead of buns. But I’m sure that’s not it. I would definitely remember eating that sandwich.” -Lindy West, Shrill

intuitive eating, fat acceptance, body positive, health at every size. How fat acceptance could advance health for all bodies.

 

Fat. Obesity. Everybody’s got an opinion, including yours truly (I know you’re surprised.)

YOU LOOK SO HEALTHY

Whether it’s spoken directly or insinuated, health has a singular look -- interchangeable, I'd argue, with the Western beauty ideal. It’s thin, white, straight, cis, and, yes, probably wealthy. It's usually blonde, lean, and shredded. Health wears $100 tights, drinks coconut water on the reg, and likes green smoothies.  

Health looks like glowing skin and regular detoxes, cleanses, and charcoal lemonade. Like marathons, the weight room, and lunches that may cost more or less the same as some people's weekly groceries. 

It is soy-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, sugar-free. 

I’m not saying these things are wrong (though some are questionable); many of them are nice-to-haves, including expensive pilates classes and refreshing cold-pressed juice. And I'd be remiss if I didn't include myself in there, too, since I partake in many of these things denied to so many others. 

But what’s the subtext to all of this healthism? 

What if you can’t afford pricy leggings? What if the people in charge of manufacturing those leggings think fat people shouldn’t wear their clothing? What if you’re not white, straight, thin, or cis? What if the health ideal, like the beauty ideal, is totally and relentlessly oppressive? (PSA: it is. AF.)

What if you’ve been battling eczema all of your life for reasons your naturopath, doctor, nutritionist, and Well + Good have yet to unearth? What if you think coconut water tastes like sweaty armpit? What if your regular person life doesn’t include enough time or energy or thought for daily 2-hour workouts and mani-pedis or kale massages? 

And why does health have to “look good”? What does “looks so healthy” even mean? 

THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL AND THE POLITICAL IS PERSONAL

Lately, I’ve fielded a number of questions about intuitive eating and the non-diet approach by practitioners, fitness professionals, and myriad other people who are equal parts excited and terrified by my (radical yet sensible?) recommendations. And because of its ties to Health at Every Size® and #allfoodsfit, I’m equal parts nutritionist as I am social justice advocate and fat acceptance activist. I can’t (and wouldn’t) uncouple myself from these issues. Promoting health for fat people, for marginalized people, for poor people, for mentally ill people, is political. 

And in the same way that fat people need to “come out” as fat (as in, announce they are opting out of diet culture) and keep coming out — because “society” believes every person can be thin, should be thin, and ought to "keep trying" until they are thin, as though this is the only acceptable goal a fat person can have — I’d also argue fat acceptance advocates need to come out. And keep coming out. Because when we “tolerate” fat phobia -- by offering "healthy weight loss", by endorsing flat stomachs, by talking about how we ourselves need to lose weight, by marketing diets -- we are complicit in its acceptance. 

And if you ask me -- and even though you haven't -- it’s not okay, full stop. 

Frankly, I find it intolerable to dehumanize and shame a population of people, especially when the “obesity epidemic” we like to talk about “healing” or “overcoming” or “dealing with” is really code for a host of biosocial issues. And socio-economic problems. And challenges that extend so far beyond pizza and beer. 

I want to admit I was slow on the uptake. If you're new to HAES or IE or any of this -- if you've never heard of any of it -- it's okay. We all start somewhere. I've never thought fat shaming was okay, but what about health? But when you read through the studies -- really read them -- it's impossible (IMO) to see things any other way.

WEIGHT GAIN AND WOMEN

Nope, I don’t want to talk about “getting the weight off” of cis girls going through puberty and no, I do not believe a diet in the answer. I want to talk about how weight gain at that age is very normal. How it supports safe ovulation and growth and development. I want teenagers to feel safe. I want them to enjoy being teenagers. 

No, postpartum women just trying to raise a mini human or humans don’t need micro-aggressive rhetoric about “getting their bodies back” (way to objectify and sexualize). If you want to help, we could start with dismantling “breast is best”, advocating for quality mental healthcare, and showing up in all of the ways we can, armed with empathy and support and unconditional love and maybe some laundry detergent and a tray's worth of coffee. 

And no, I don't think menopausal women trying to cope with a complex constellation of symptoms and diminishing estrogen production need help “dropping the spare tire” that they may have developed to, in fact, deal with above said problems (Margo Maine talks about this in The Body Myth). Maybe they just need to know it's OK. 

But I also understand — not as well as others, but well enough to write this — that real change is slow and hard-earned. That advocating for a cause comparatively few believe in or understand will take everything you have and then some, and then some more, so be sure to budget your sleep accordingly. 

Because, I would argue, we care more about preserving thinness than promoting health. 

Because probiotic companies today are promoting themselves to consumers not by speaking about the immune-boosting effects of a healthy microbiome, but about how our guts are making us fat -- so be warned

Because we automatically assume a thin person is fitter than a fat person.

Because it’s easier to poke fun of fat people and work toward #bodygoals (degrading as hell, by the way) than it is to dig deep into our own insecurities and up level our self-worth. 

Because it’s easier to drink low-calorie shakes than it is to cultivate body autonomy and self-acceptance, or perhaps to discuss the ways our current lifestyle is not serving us. 

THIN PRIVILEGE IS A THING

I’m thin. I’ve never been subjected to the systemic and institutionalized vitriol hurled at fat people. I’ve always fit easily into airplane seats. I can shop for clothes at any popular retailer. I fit in places most grown people don’t. 

No one tells me I  "shouldn’t be eating that.”  

No one has ever warned me that I will not find love because of how my body looks. 

Nobody questions where I “get my confidence” or has refused to kiss me in public. I don’t need to wonder whether weight stigma will prevent me from scoring a dream job or earning more money.

But the truth is, I am thin because I came into this world as a small human with access to quality healthcare, education, and enough money to keep things comfortable. 

It’s not because I restrict (been there, got the t-shirt, burned it.) 

It’s not because I spend hours working out, “detox” or “cleanse”, or possess superpower nutrition tricks. 

It's important to highlight these differences because they demonstrate just how much easier my life is -- how much more easily my body is accepted -- because of my privilege and genetics. And just how terrible we, as a culture, are toward fat people, many of whom are, in fact, "doing everything right." 

“The media” would like us to believe “obesity” exists because we like cheeseburgers too much and kale salads too little, because we prefer to play video games and binge watch Netflix than run marathons or rollerblade. 

This short-sighted hypothesis fits nicely into a little box and sells a lot of books, but is actually a tiny sliver of the iceberg salad. As Lindy West so eloquently states, “it’s easier to mock and deride individual fat people than to fix food deserts, school lunches, corn subsidies, inadequate or non-existent public transportation, unsafe sidewalks and parks, healthcare, mental healthcare, the minimum wage, and your own insecurities" (Shrill). 

I’m convinced, based on my experience working with people and reading books and studies, that sometimes people are fat because they are fat, the way some people are gay or black or Asian or third gender. Sometimes fat people are fat, for reasons that have nothing to do with a thyroid condition or medication or toxins or liking nachos. 

Sometimes people are fat for reasons that have nothing to do with dairy, grains, gluten, sugar, or trans fats. That have nothing to do with food.

Sometimes people are fat for reasons our privilege so often blinds us to. 

HOW FAT ACCEPTANCE COULD ADVANCE HEALTH

For those looking for extensive studies: one day, there will be more. Let's throw these ideas around first and see how they stick. 

And as a fat acceptance advocate, I also believe fat acceptance would do more to advance health — for every body — than weight loss prescriptions ever have. Than "health", as it's depicted, is doing. 

Here’s why:

Because fat acceptance promotes health for all bodies, full stop. Instead of promoting weight loss through whatever means necessary, including extremely restrictive diets and dangerous surgeries, we’d create space for conversations around health habits and behaviours. Self-care is challenging to foster in an environment of self-control. 

I'm not saying this is easy work. I'm not suggesting it will happen overnight. I don't believe by going all yay fat bodies! everyone will, by default, be well, that we'll resolve all issues. Of course not. But it would allow for a more dynamic view of wellness. We could focus on measurements offered by blood work and talk about ways to improve these markers.

And while not everyone will choose to be healthy (it's not a value everyone shares, regardless of how any of us feels about that), it will create space for kindness. For gentle nutrition. For authentic health. 

We, as professionals, would have the opportunity to teach about how fermented foods are amazing without “and weight loss”, as though to be healthy we must always be thin (or maintain or work toward becoming thinner.) As though meeting a weight requirement is a health imperative. There's a ton of things you can do to improve your health that don't involve losing weight. 

Rumour has it fat bodies also experience sub-par medical care. I don’t have stats to show (if you do, please leave ‘em in the comments), but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a fat person recant how they went in for a serious health issue and were basically dismissed with the default "you're overweight" explanation. Health problems are health problems are health problems, and there's usually a whole lot more to them than "lose weight". 

PSA: for those “but health!”-ers out there, I’d like to reassure you that correlations between health and weight are exactly that — correlations. All research is filtered through a fat phobic, “obesity crisis” lens, as many studies are funded based on what they’re going to achieve for “obesity.” Um, that’s not what I would consider objective science, but whatevs.  

Maybe if we accepted that people are sometimes fat, we could also advance mental healthcare. Too much to ask? I don’t know why we think we can shame people into “healthier habits”, but regardless of whether or not we believe it, we do. And this shaming and the perpetuation of fat phobia can (and does) lead to eating disorders of all kinds, which are not exclusive to the thin and privileged, but in fact manifest in people of all walks of life (including fat people.) We can’t ignore the reality that treating the body as currency and status hurts all of us. 

I’ve met a number of individuals recovering from Anorexia Nervosa who felt bingeing and purging were definitely problematic behaviours, but their restriction was not. Why? Because we glamourize eating disorders in North America. We ask people recovering from EDs what they’ve been doing to “look so great.” 

How can someone recover from restriction if they believe their behaviour is “healthy”, if it leads to congratulations and compliments? If their mothers and friends and co-workers and strangers on the street are dieting, non-diet dieting, or talking about “slimming down”? 

And I imagine fat acceptance would promote a healthier and more positive body image for all, as we could stop comparing our bodies against an unobtainable ideal and begin to take the steps necessary to heal our relationship with ourselves and our own unique bodies.

Fat acceptance has the potential to encourage a healthier relationship with exercise, too. While regular movement can be a wonderful and beautiful thing (fit people, statistically, experience better health outcomes), exercise as a compensatory behaviour is very real and very destructive. 

If we didn’t feel pressure to select exercise based on its calorie burning properties, it might free us to find movement we actually enjoy. Maybe we’d practice more yoga, or learn salsa dancing. Maybe we’d take bike rides with our kids or play beach volleyball.

Fat acceptance makes space for diverse narratives. When we repeat oft-said falsehoods such as “it’s all calories in, calories out” or reduce health to diet and exercise, we effectively obliterate the myriad socioeconomic, biosocial, and other factors that impact health outcomes and inform our relationship with food, body, and exercise/movement. 

Not only that, but we insist we must all conform to the Western beauty standard without regard for all the ways we, genetically, can’t. That some of us are born into larger bodies, that some of us have varying curves because of our lineage, that some of us have no curves. All bodies, as is oft said, are good bodies. 

When we say “it’s so easy” to be healthy, what we’re really saying is that it’s easy for wealthy, cis, straight, white people with access to everything these privileges afford. It is not easy. 

In speaking about fat shaming, I can’t very well skip thin shaming — a problem in and of itself. How are we promoting wellness in thin-bodied people if we repeatedly tell them they can “eat whatever they want” because they’re thin or question why they’re working out when “they don’t need to”? Or push them to gain weight when their bodies are naturally intended to be smaller? A focus on body endangers the health and well-being of us all. 

Fat acceptance encourages self-care over self-control. 

Fat acceptance could encourage more positive and dynamic representations of all bodies in the world. 

Fat acceptance would free up time to focus on things other than diet, exercise, and weight. Intuitive eaters are usually astonished by how much more mental energy they have when they stop worrying about weight (it’s freeing.) 

Fat acceptance would promote the full expression of 4th wave feminism. Dieting, as Naomi Wolf said in The Beauty Myth, is the most potent political sedative there is. Dieting is anti-feminist. Weight loss culture is anti-feminist. They’re anti-feminist because they are not pro-health — they’re pro-oppression, pro-objectification, pro-you owe it to the world to be sexy. I can’t and don’t accept that. 

Fat acceptance might allow us to talk about health, real health, vs. weaponizing foods. There are no “good” or “bad” foods. There are foods we eat to feed our bodies and minds, and foods we eat to please our senses, our spirits, our experiences. There is room for both. Why can’t a kale salad co-exist with a bowl of potato chips? Why must we choose between “being healthy” vs. "having a life"? Must we always make the “best” choice to be healthy? 

And right now, in our culture of fat phobia, we continually prioritize “physical health” over mental health, over psychological health, over emotional health. Perhaps fat acceptance could create space for more dynamic healthcare, too. 

Fat acceptance could — and this is personal — put a stop to shameful television shows and networks that profit from of fat phobia. You might argue that people sign up to be on those shows (free choice!), but I would argue the contenders are victims of fat phobia and weight stigma. Maybe they view a show as their best option, or as giving it “a shot.” But if you ask me, using fatness as “inspiration porn” (thanks Lindy West) is not an okay practice, however socially accepted it has become. 

Now, back at you: what do you think? 

 

Sarah Berneche

Sarah Berneche, 14 Denison Square, Toronto, ON, M5T 1K8