This is a follow-up to my post on the things I love about the Fat Acceptance/HAES movement. Though I am new to learning to love my body, and I certainly find many aspects of the movement extremely empowering, I find a few things about it problematic. Though I may get some hate for saying these things, I think that it is important to view social movements critically and not necessarily drink the proverbial kool-aid.
When I come across the following ideas, I am wary of associating myself with the movement and I wonder if these ideas are just outliers (if they are, I would really like to know, as it would help me to have a much more positive outlook on the whole thing). Though I remain supportive of the movement in general, in reading around the Fat Acceptance blogs, I have encountered the following concepts that I find problematic:
-Genetic Set Point/The Fat Gene
I’ve come across this one on several blogs. It is essentially the idea that every person has a weight where his or her body wants to be, whether that is 95 pounds or 395 pounds. It can be true that after significant weight loss, a person’s body will try very hard to return to the initial weight (millions of deflated fat cells will be screaming to be refilled for the rest of the person’s life), but the idea of a naturally obese person makes little sense to me. Some indigenous peoples in the arctic have evolved to have shorter fingers and retain more fat, but that is one, limited, genetically specific population.
Think of it this way: when was the last time you saw a severely obese animal on a David Attenborough special? If we were chimpanzees in a zoo, we would not be eating processed grain, sugar, salt, and fat. We would be eating vegetables, fruits, and insects.
A person’s story about his or her genetic set point usually begins with them saying that they exercise six days a week and only eat 900 calories a day (or something similar) but they all still morbidly obese. Short of a severe thyroid condition or other serious medical problem, this just doesn’t add up. If obesity was innate,healthy, and natural, not the result of food and lifestyle changes over the past century or the modern industrial food complex, wouldn’t we see similar rates of obesity across all countries and across all demographics?
-Denying the connections between illness/pain and weight
This one hits close to home for me. When I see people saying, “I have severe arthritis, but it has nothing to do with my weight,” I am appalled by the level of denial involved in that statement. I even saw one post by a woman insisting that her diabetes could be controlled without medically recommended weight loss (she believed that the recommendation that diabetes patients lose a small amount of weight was a conspiracy). For many people who are susceptible to chronic illness and chronic pain, weight reduction or maintenance is crucial for symptom reduction. For those of us with muscle and skeletal problems, including joint and spine problems, having excess weight can lead to increased pain and future injuries.
With the denial of the health problems associated with obesity comes the denial of the increase in the incidence of overweight and obesity in the US.
-Judging other people’s motivations (“If you don’t want dessert, you must be fat-phobic!”)
“So, who are you doing this for?” my neighbor asks. I tell him I’m doing it for me. “I think your husband wants you to look different. He thinks you have to have a different body shape.” Rather than believing me when I say I am exercising more and eating clean to improve my own health and well-being, or even believing me when I say that I am feeling better both mentally and physically, he continues to lecture me. “You do realize that no matter what you do, you are never going to look like a model?” When I tell him that that is not my goal, he refuses to believe me. He is certain that my goals are not my own and my ideas about what kind of body I want to have are not my own.
If our goal is to change people’s views on a diverse array of bodies and to stop people from making moral judgments and character judgments based on weight, it needs to be a two-way street. Not everyone who exercises, eschews sugar, or counts calories is doing it to look like a bikini model or to make themselves more appealing to the male gaze. For many people, keeping off the pounds is essential to physical well-being. Extra weight means extra pain or extra susceptibility to illness. For many people, it’s about being in control of a body that hurts us, about feeling stronger, and about taking good care of ourselves.
My mother is on a low-fat diet due to a medical condition. When she turns down items like high-fat dairy products or eggs, she often gets “oh, you only live once!” “You should let yourself have indulgences! Don’t deny yourself!” “Oh, don’t be like that!” before she even gets to explain her situation.
Rather than label people who watch what they eat and exercise regularly as “fatphobic” or “giving in to societal body norms,” can’t we just respect each other’s choices and be understanding rather than judgmental?
-Feeling Victimized/Comparing Fatness to Being a Racial or Ethnic Minority
I’ve talked a lot on this blog about the problem of the victim/martyr mentality and how to overcome it. Much of the Fat Acceptance movement seems to embrace the idea of being victimized. I wonder if this sense of victimization (being made fun of, mocked, made to feel uncomfortable in certain stores or social settings) makes people more defensive of their lifestyles (every food-related action is scrutinized).
Overweight people certainly face discrimination, but the comparison to racial or gender discrimination is an over-reach. A person’s weight can change; most people go through some fluctuations over the course of their lives. A person who is identified by others as Black, Latino, Native, or another minority group deals with aggression and stereotyping based on something that cannot and will not change. I think it’s reasonable to say that thin privilege is real, but there are different levels and kinds of privilege.
Anyway, those are just some thoughts I have on bits of the Fat Acceptance movement that get to me. These things don’t make me think the movement is silly or wrong-headed, only that these factors could lead people to negatively judge the movement or lead some people to justify not making changes in their lives.