Fat Acceptance Primer

Okay, the trolls are rolling in after yesterday’s post got me over 500 800 hits (normally I might hit 15-20!), so I’m going to do a very brief primer on FA and then leave it at that. This is not principally a FA blog, although it is an issue I care about a great deal. But the blogosphere is full of focused FA blogs where people have already addressed and continue to address every one of these arguments every day. So I’m not usually going to focus here on knocking down every single one of your fathating bingo points. (As the bingo cards should demonstrate, though, we have heard most of it before.) But still, I’ll give a little background and a few links.

The idea that being fat might possibly be acceptable is clearly just shocking to people who have had nothing but the opposite message bombarding them for their entire lives. Fair enough – it can be very, very hard to step outside that box and consider another viewpoint. But there is a growing group of people of all sizes who are saying exactly that: it is and should be acceptable to have a body of any shape or size without inviting intrusion, condemnation, vilification, disrespect, abuse, or a lack of dignity. The “scientific” data (I say as a scientist, though not a medical biologist) that are presented in mainstream news articles and magazines and diet books are generally distorted in one way or another, in part because one goal of those media is to sell a product (I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but it can’t be denied that the weight loss industry is a huge part of our economy). Other reasons have to do with the fact that we like to police each other, we like a good scapegoat, and we have a tendency to vilify anything we associate (wrongly or rightly) with unabashedly living and enjoying life without self-deprivation and Puritan asceticism.

I encourage you to read Kate Harding’s sum-up of some major FA points. There have been some newer studies since it was written, but it’s a good start. There are also a large number of linked studies in this open thread, including links to some other 101-type posts. So before you start wailing about the OBESITY CRISIS BOOGA BOOGA, please just read those. I have no interest in arguing about basics with the entire internet, when you could read up yourself and then we can have a more informed and respectful discussion about all sides of this issue.

If my suggestion that long-term weight loss isn’t possible OR necessary is really deeply upsetting to you, because you or someone you care about wants to lose weight or has lost weight recently, please please read the Fantasy of Being Thin. It is a brilliant post that might turn your brain inside out a little.

A few major points worth repeating here:

  • Diets don’t work, including diet-and-exercise, “lifestyle changes” with the goal of weight loss, any of it.
  • Correlation does not mean causation. Causation might be worth exploring, but it’s not automatic. Or dictated by gut feelings (“But I just KNOW fat people eat more! It has to be true!!”).
  • Attractiveness is not a requirement of living. Certainly no one owes it to you to look better.
  • People find different things attractive, anyway.
  • You are going to die. Someday. We all are.
  • Evo psych is crap. So are “caveman” arguments.
  • You can’t tell anything about a person’s habits or health just by looking at them. No, really.
  • If you aren’t a specialist in biomechanics, please don’t try to make arguments about thermodynamics or how human joints work. It’s actually not simple physics. Your body is not a bunsen burner, as they say (who first said that, anyway?). And your skeleton is a complex thing.
  • It’s generally a good rule to stay out of other people’s business, even if you disapprove of whatever they’re doing. Unless they’re beating another person in front of you, or asking for help, it’s not your problem.

Please read and consider the comment policy before posting. Disagreement and dialog are just fine. Trolling is not.


25 Responses

  1. Whoa, this is like the best primer ever.

  2. I keep editing it, so it’s getting better and better!

  3. New horizons of greatness!

  4. How can I say this?
    I got it!
    I LOVE YOU! :D
    As a person who’s fought obesity for most of my 40+ years (it’s often genetic people!!) it’s great to see another person SEE (and say) that it’s not about eating AND diets DO NOT work.

    It’s what’s inside that counts. The outside is just a shell.


  5. […] the way, if you have issues with fat people go read Volcanista’s blog. Her Fat Acceptance Primer and On thin privilege posts are great! I just found her today through AlphaInventions. She said […]

  6. I know, seriously, let’s just replace our blog with this.

  7. I must disagree with your first point. I, myself, have lost over 120 pounds through diet and exercise (though I don’t consider it a “diet” so much as I do a permanent lifestyle change) after being obese since childhood. Like most folks I tried every diet on the market (Atkins, South Beach, Weight Watchers) with typical results, losing a few pounds, gaining many more back… After years of this, I finally decided to just start small, making changes I knew I could live with, like cutting out soda and eating more fiber. I gradually progressed, making more changes to my eating habits, learning to cope differently with my emotions, taking up running after a while.

    After two and a half years I lost over 120 pounds and started running in races. I feel better than I ever have in my life… I no longer get winded easily, I can shop anywhere, I fit into any chair or booth with room to spare… I have some loose skin on my abdomen, but not a big hanging belly that gets in the way. My blood pressure is now normal and I’m no longer pre-diabetic. I can honestly say this is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself, and I’m truly glad that I didn’t let people discourage me from doing this.

  8. Okay, Alison, I see your point. I wasn’t really clear enough about the “diets don’t work” point, because it was an abbreviated list to hit the main issues in play here.

    I’m truly glad you feel great, that’s wonderful. I’m a little confused by what you mean when you say “learning to cope differently with my emotions,” though. It kind of sounds like a reference to “emotional eating,” which is kind of a catch-all these days to enjoying food, eating foods that are comforting when you’re having a rough time, all kinds of stuff. Is there even really any such thing as unemotional eating?? If in fact you’re implying that you have worked to overcome an eating disorder like BED, I think that’s more than just emotional eating, and if so it’s wonderful you were able to do that. People of all sizes can have BED, of course, and it doesn’t necessarily cause everyone to gain weight above their setpoint, but if you were actually above your natural weight range because of disordered eating it’s possible that you returned to your setpoint now. But I have no idea if that’s the story for you.

    On the other hand, the studies about long-term weight loss to which I was referring operate on time scales of 3-5 years. The majority of people who lose something like 60 pounds or more (my memory isn’t perfect on that detail) gain it back in 3 years, and 95% or more of them gain it all back within 5 years. This isn’t because they couldn’t stick with their diets or lacked willpower – it’s because no matter how much a person exercises, the body does compensate and adjust its metabolism to return to its setpoint. A person can temporarily perturb the system from how it operates under optimum conditions (and by optimum, I mean eating enough to feel satiated and get varied nutrition, and moving your body a reasonable amount), but for almost every human being, the system will eventually return to its equilibrium. In the shorter term, 80% of factors contributing to body size are hereditary and you can’t do anything about them; the rest is environmental, but many environmental factors are beyond your control – so any severe changes to the body’s size and shape by sheer force of will seem to be temporary for most people, and there are other, overwhelming competing factors that might be preventing long term changes.

    So I don’t know if such large weight loss, preserved over 2 1/2 years, actually disproves those data. It hasn’t been long enough to test it. And maybe in five years you will have kept the weight off; 95% means there are exceptions to the 5-year finding, as well. But the exceptions are just too rare to extend to the rest of the population or on which to base health policy.

    For what it’s worth, there are plenty of fat people who can run races without getting winded. And the inability of fatter people to easily find clothes that fit or comfortable seats is the result of a society that isn’t accomodating of all its citizens, not an indication of a failing on the part of those people.

  9. After years of this, I finally decided to just start small, making changes I knew I could live with, like cutting out soda and eating more fiber. I gradually progressed, making more changes to my eating habits

    Also, I want to address this. The studies of long-term weight loss have to be controlled, so for there to be any accuracy the subjects need to test one diet and stick with it without changes. Making progressive changes is, as far as I can tell, not as well studied, because each regimen would need to be tested against a control, and each one would take years.

    However, most weight loss programs deal with the “plateau” and weight regain effect, which kicks in after a while for almost everyone, by continually reducing the amount and changing the types of food, bit by bit, to force you to continue to lose weight. I’m not sure what aspects of your personal diet have changed, but I’d be surprised if it did not involve some calorie restriction to have such large weight loss sustained. That definitely is a diet, and considering the number of WW failures out there, I don’t think that method is a sure thing, either.

  10. volcanista, my weight loss occurred over 2 1/2 years but I’ve since kept it off for almost seven. The most I’ve ever regained is about five pounds (since my weight fluctuates a few pounds through the month).

    My weight loss has certainly involved some calorie restriction. I was eating around 4000 calories per day when I started (at 270 pounds) and I eat about half of that now. Ten years ago I would probably be hungry and have cravings at this calorie level, but my body has adjusted to it. Personally, I believe my body has created a new equilibrium… I don’t buy the argument that we all have an immutable set point. If that were the case we’d have to believe that Americans have a different natural set point than the French, and truthfully I think that’s a little silly.

    The emotional component was also important, because I had relied on food so often to make me feel better, to comfort me, but the effect was always fleeting. I’ve now adopted running as a way to handle stress and negative emotions… it clears my head and makes me feel good physically in a way that eating never really could.

    My whole point is that weight loss is certainly not impossible, and I think it’s wrong to tell people that it is. Of course, it’s not easy… I spent twenty years on diets (starting at the age of three, as I was an overweight/obese child) and still got fat. But I finally figured out a way that worked for me, and it’s been the best thing I’ve ever done for myself.

    No, losing weight hasn’t solved all of my problems, but it’s made my life a lot easier. I can do so many more things now and have less to worry about. I don’t have to worry about whether or not I’ll fit into the airplane seat or restaurant booth, I can run marathons (and by the way, the only races where I’ve seen obese people have been shorter distance ones, like 5K), I can shop for clothes anywhere I want, I can bend over and tie my shoes without having to hold my breath, I don’t bump shoulders and hips with other passengers on the bus, my knees are no longer in pain, I can fit comfortably in plastic patio chairs, my inner thighs don’t painfully rub together anymore… and there are many more examples like this. My life is definitely better now, and I’m glad that I’m not obese anymore.

    I have to say I’m glad that I didn’t run into any fat acceptance sites before now, because I might have been discouraged from changing my life. In my view, fat acceptance groups should be fighting against overweight discrimination, not weight loss.

  11. Thanks for filling me in. 4000 calories is unusually high (though Olympic athletes certainly eat that much!), and I’m not a doctor and don’t know your body, but maybe that’s why you found it relatively easy to achieve longer-term weight loss at lower caloric levels… not as long term as those studies, again, but at least for a couple years.

    You may not personally believe in a set point, but I don’t think your one data point disproves all the science suggesting they exist. And maybe Americans and French have different genetic population make-ups, but overall their weights are statistically barely any different, so I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make there. There are plenty, plenty of fat people in France. The hype about Americans being and becoming sooooo fat has distorted the actual data in an extreme way.

    I am suggesting that the things you find “easier” are not necessarily goals for everyone, and they shouldn’t HAVE to be people’s goals. Restaurants and airplane makers should make booths and seats that can fit and support people of all sizes. Clothing manufacturers can make styles and clothes for people of all sizes. Lots and lots of fat people would fit comfortably in public places if public places were made to be accomodating of everyone. Those things are examples of weight discrimination, which is what you would apparently prefer to see fat activitists focus on. And regardless of what you have seen, plenty of fat people can run long-distance (and have no knee pain). Did you see the awesome triathlon runner on the BMI project at Shapely Prose? I can fight anecdata with anecdata! (You did read SP, right? Because some of the arguments you are making have been pretty heavily debunked at some of the links I listed.)

    A bigger point is, I think, that no one should be pushed into changing their lives just because you think they should do so. What makes you happy doesn’t make everyone happy. And it’s not dangerous to suggest that a person can in fact accept themselves and love themselves as they are, instead of hating their bodies and feeling like failures for simply existing. Fat acceptance groups recognize that the massive social push for weight loss is actually dangerous for many people. Having a better self-image is hardly a bad goal.

    Have you read the Fantasy of Being Thin post? Did you just think it sounded like crap or something?

  12. I thought 4000 was shockingly high too, I didn’t realize I was eating that much. I think most overweight people would be surprised by how many calories they actually eat in a day. A bite here, a bite there… it added up more quickly than I ever imagined.

    As for your empirical support, it’s incredibly easy to cherry pick scientific studies and spin them to support your personal views. Truthfully, though I sincerely mean no disrespect, I think that’s what you’re doing here.

    Yes, I read the Fantasy of Being Thin post. Some of it sounded like crap, some of it didn’t. Again, my point is that weight loss is possible (though certainly not easy, I’m not sure why you claimed I had an easy go of it in your previous response), and it can definitely improve one’s quality of life. To assert otherwise is just plain dishonest.

    Thanks for your time.

  13. It’s not cherry-picking, it’s actually just a somewhat more balanced look at the actual studies. The degree to which I’m possibly cherry-picking is as much as any scientist does when they read the studies in a field and decide whose methods were the most reliable and robust and least biased. Meanwhile, the data reported in popular media actually are drastically misrepresented and distorted, making them far more cherry-picked and extremely biased.

    No, most people who are overweight really truly are not eating that much. And actually, some rare people do eat that much and are healthy – it’s just not the case for most bodies. The things I linked are very clear on this – no study has ever been able to show that fatter people eat any differently than thin people – the statistical distributions are the same.

    So wait, I was joking about it sounding like crap. Seriously?? What, that people have limitations and changing your weight isn’t going to change your personality?

    Weight loss is possible, in the short term. I never disagreed with that. That weight loss, though, likely causes more health problems than it’s worth for most people. And it lasts beyond 3-5 years in almost no one. and I’m sorry if I implied it was easy – I know it isn’t, and that wasn’t something I meant to say. I was going somewhere else with that I’m not sure it came across, so it came out sounding wrong.

    Improving one’s quality of life by no longer being a target of bigotry is a goal that I can’t in any way blame people for, but individual people’s weight is NOT THE ACTUAL PROBLEM there. The problem is the bigotry, plain and simple. I think it’s essentially victim-blaming when it’s suggested that anyone ought to lose weight to improve their quality of life, if the reason that quality improves is because society is intolerant and discriminatory. (Note that I know you haven’t tried to speak for anyone else and what they should do, so this is more about the messages we get everywhere in our culture all the time.)

  14. As someone who has lost weight and is also pro-FA, let me weight in (ha!).

    First off, I’ll say that no it has not been 5 years, but that’s not really relevant to my point.

    OK, yes, weight loss is possible. For pretty much everyone I suppose. But only to a certain extent. Whereas one person could spend a long time at, say, 120 pounds above their body’s minimum at 270 pounds, someone else could be only 10 pounds above theirs or even right at it at the same weight. For those people the same weight loss will not be possible. Or will at least not be permanent.

    There’s also this – there are people out there whose weight “issues” are a result of lifestyle. And yeah, for them making changes will probably result in some weight loss. But for many, many people a higher weight has nothing to do with lifestyle. There are tons of people out there who exercise regularly, eat pretty healthful diets and generally take care of themselves but are still considered “obese” by that out-of-date crapfest known as BMI.

    You can’t assume that your specific situation and outcome will apply across the board.

    And for the record, I love the FOBT post.

    Here’s my version:
    -At any weight, finding a partner is difficult.
    -When I finish school and work hard, I’ll find the job I’ve always wanted, or at least get a bitch job and work my way up.
    -When I take my Wellbutrin, I’m not depressed anymore. When I forget to take it, I get depressed. Independent of weight.
    -When I was the fattest I’ve ever been, I went to China, which I suppose made me a fat world traveler.
    -When I am lobotomized and have a completely different personality, maybe I’ll be outdoorsy. As I am, I am a city girl who considers Central Park to be more than enough nature and gets a little freaked out by how quiet it is upstate.
    -I have become more extroverted and charismatic because I have done many things in my life that has helped my confidence. Weight and health changes are a small part of it, but definitely not all.

  15. Liza, I agree overall – each person’s body is very different. But this:

    There’s also this – there are people out there whose weight “issues” are a result of lifestyle.

    I’m not so sure about. I don’t think that’s usually true except in the short term, either. Unless that “lifestyle” is constantly changing, or there are other health complications involved (like thyroid problems, for example).

    The thing about statistical data like these (like the 95% after 5 years data point) is that there are rare exceptions – maybe like Alison if her weight continues to be lower, maybe like you. But the exceptions don’t disprove the overall results – if you and/or Alison stay at a lower weight for 5 full years, you then would just fall into the 5% of the population which seems able to lose significant weight long-term.

  16. i think what liza might be saying is that, just as there are 5% of people who can loses a significant amount of weight and keep it off for 5 years or more, there is a small percentage of people who are at the weight they’re at because or a reason other than genetics (in which i include diseases related to that such as pcos, thyroid issues, and diabetis). what i think is important, and i think the point your making here, is that those people are diserving of respect and dignity anyway. it’s not ok to say “you can’t help your fat, it’s genetic, but you over there you fail because yours isn’t.”

    the point i think alison is missing here is that FA is about more than weight loss and allowing people to be fat. it’s about recognising that people have a variety of body shapes and sizes, and that any number of them are healthy. and regardless of their shape or health every person should be treated with dignity and respect for no reason other than they are a person. i’m happy that alison is happy with herself and her choices and her life. i’m happy that i found FA and it allowed me to make certain choices (like letting go of the idea that since dieting kicked my hypoglycemia into overdrive i was made of fail for not pushing through it and dieting anyway).

  17. Oh, YES yes, firefey. I hope it didn’t sound like I was saying people who are fat for reasons other than heredity are failures. This is a great point.

  18. In my view, fat acceptance groups should be fighting against overweight discrimination, not weight loss.

    My god! Why didn’t we ever think of that?

  19. SM, your expectations that people will read things are just so unreasonable!

  20. ..Is there even really any such thing as unemotional eating..

    My personal eating habits are pretty close to 100% unemotional! I do regret that I don’t enjoy food, but there are worse quirks to have.

  21. Fair enough, Bonnie! Some people are that way, it’s just easy for me to forget. :)

    Alison, you should probably go read Fillyjonk’s new post at Shapely Prose, because it is brilliant and answers your comments better than I did.

  22. Hiya! Saw this from your SP link.

    I just want to point out that if 95% of dieters gain it back, then 5% don’t. That’s 1 in 20, which is not good odds to gamble your life on, but also makes it reasonable enough that someone who claims to have done so isn’t necessarily lying. I’m one of the majority so far, myself. Lost 15kg, it came back in 3 years. Dang. I am not an exception. MY MOTHER LIED I AM NOT SPECIAL!!!

    I think one of the difficulties in this area is that weight loss and health are so mixed up. By adopting healthier habits, long term weight loss can sometimes happen for some people. And that’s great for them, but it doesn’t apply universally. I get so sick of those bloody tips telling me to lay off the soda and chips and donuts. Right. I’d have to actually start before I could stop. I follow most of the saner “healthy eating” tips anyway, simply because I like good fresh food, and I like to cook, and I have the luxury to be able to afford it.

  23. 1 in 20 means it’s not reasonable to base healthcare methods or policies on it, either, and yet every person with a BMI of 26+ can be handed a script for WW when they go see their doctor for a cough. There’s also no control in those estimates for how many of the people in the study had suddenly gained a lot of weight within the previous couple of years, so that they were possibly well above their body’s setpoint range and would have a relatively easy time losing and keeping off weight. If those 1 in 20 people represent that group, then the percentage of people who can permanently lose weight is really more like 0, and I don’t think that’s unlikely.

    By adopting quite unhealthy habits, weight loss might also be possible for some people. We don’t really know what kinds of habits would lead to that change in that 5%. And it’s just not worth it. There’s no really strong health reason why it should even be desirable to do so.

  24. (And I am aware that the argument many people would make in response to that is that everyone who is fat is above their “natural” setpoint range, because they overeat, or something. And in response to that I say, well, no. You’re wrong.)

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