Shame on shame: fat acceptance, fatphobia, and fitness

One common refrain of critics of fat acceptance (and the closely related philosophy of Health At Every Size) is that it discourages “getting healthy”, and encourages people to sit on their duff and scarf donuts (possibly of the baby-flavored variety) all day. According to this line of thinking, accepting fatness encourages fatness; without the prodding of self-righteous shaming, none of us would have any motivation to eat nutritious foods or move our bodies in enjoyable ways.

This is, not to be too pedantic about it, utter bullshit. I contend that it is fat shaming that makes us fatter: shame might temporarily convince some people to torture themselves and their bodies with starvation, with painful, excessive, unenjoyable exercise; but shame can never make someone love themselves, or care for themselves in either sense of the term. Starvation (colloquially known as “dieting”) which shame can encourage, damages our bodies, and yes, usually leaves us rebounding to a higher weight, with more fat, less muscle, and too often an over-strained, malnourished cardiovascular system. If fat-shaming worked, with the amount of it found in America and much of the rest of the world, we would nearly all be thin. In a society that teaches women to hate our bodies, no matter the size, and that tells us every day that we take up too much room, do you really think there would be a fat woman left in America if fat shaming “worked”?

So if fat shaming fails — which it does, miserably, at making us thinner, or healthier, or saner, or better people, none of which actually have anything to do with the others — does fat acceptance “succeed”? If by “succeed” you mean “make teh fatz disappear”, then 1) you’ve missed the whole point of fat acceptance, and 2) the answer is no. Some of us are just meant to be fat. Some of us have gone round the diet-weight gain roller coaster so often we’ve permanently reset our default weights to rather higher than they would have been before. Some of us, having permission to eat — to truly consume and enjoy and savor food, to nourish ourselves, rather than wage war with food and count calories and starve and deny and deprive ourselves — for the first time in our lives actually gain quite a bit of weight. And that’s ok, because this is fat acceptance we’re talking about. If that’s what it takes to get sane, to have a healthy, loving, nurturing relationship with food and with our bodies, that is so ok.

(I think the kyriarchy loves fat-shaming because it doesn’t work. I think it loves it because it makes us fatter, and makes us hate ourselves more, which makes us fatter, which makes us hate ourselves more… It is the self-hatred, the other-hatred, the fatphobia, the shame itself that the kyriarchy thrives on. It can continue to survive only as long as we dehumanize each other. What better way than to set up a system in which “failure” only intensifies the hatred and shame — in which being fat means you are discouraged from doing the things that would get you fit — and “success” means we have achieved our own diminution?)

So if fat acceptance (hereafter referred to as FA) doesn’t “succeed” at making people not-fat, what good is it? What does it do?

This morning, it was FA that helped me pull on my skin-tight biking shorts, do up my plus-size running bra, throw on a tank top, tie on my extra-wide sneakers, and head to my local trails to do another day of interval training designed to get me running a 5K. It is FA that tells me that I am just fine the way I am, that I am lovely, that my folds on my waist and my flab on my arms and my cellulite on my fat ass aren’t shameful, and don’t need to be hidden. It is FA that tells me that I deserve to feel good in my body, FA that tells me my body CAN feel good at nearly 300lb, FA that tells me I have a right to be proud, to move, to take up space, to exist in this world — yes, even plodding along its jogging trails. It is FA that lets me love myself, my body, my jiggly, curvy, floppy, flabby, beautiful body, enough to do the acts of caring for it: feeding it food that feels good, moving it in ways that feel good. FA is the reason I love myself enough to get fit — not because it’s bad to not be fit (it isn’t), not because I would be a bad person if I lazed around all day (I wouldn’t be, and I wasn’t before I started this), not because I’m scared of fat, or unfitness, or ill-health, or death (I’m not, except for that last one when I am alone with my thoughts in the dark, but it has no bearing on choosing to run, because we’re all going to die anyway): but because it feels good to do.

Shame can’t do that. Shame can never help us grow. It might temporarily change our behavior, but it can never nourish our souls. That is the point of fat acceptance. It’s not that “health” doesn’t matter, because it does, but weight and health have so little to do with each other, and worth and weight, and worth and health, even less. None whatsoever, in fact. Fat acceptance says I am ok — I am worthy of respect and dignity and love and space and medical care and self care and all good things — the way I am. I really am, whether I end up being able to run five kilometers or not.

And so are you.

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22 Responses to Shame on shame: fat acceptance, fatphobia, and fitness

  1. Well said! For me, FA is also an extension of my feminism in that it is a statement that only I own my body and only I get to make choices about it and only I get to determine it’s worth. I love my body. Fat acceptance (and I would love a term that is as easily accessible but deeper than “acceptance” w/o passing judgment on non-fats) is about celebrating my body, working it, moving it, not moving it, showing it, choosing not to show it, and on and on.

    Dp and I are doing the 200 sit-ups thing and I recently updated my FB status to say “Bethany did 147 sit-ups” and I got a shit storm of “likes” and “you go girl!” comments. I have to say, that felt so gross because a lot of the comments were from people that I don’t ever “talk” to at FB (or anywhere) and I knew a lot of those comments were coming from fat-shaming. Not ok. I ended up deleting the whole thing. Earlier that day I had updated my status to say I’d finished my IHIPs (Individualized Home Instruction Plans) and got, like less than 1/3 the comments/likes. The sit-ups took like 5 minutes and are fucking situps for Maude’s sake. The IHIPs took WEEKS and are year long educational plans for three children! So easy to pat a woman on the back for sit-ups but getting a “great mothering job!” is like pulling teeth.

    • FA and feminism are deeply intertwined: although men definitely do experience oppression due to size, fatphobia is often expressed in misogynistic terms, and is often just another tool of the patriarchy to express and enforce misogyny.

      There are a few people in my life I’m sort of dreading telling about starting to run, because of the overly-effusive reactions I’m anticipating. These are the same people who judged me when a medication caused significant weight gain, and praised me when getting off it resulted in weight loss — even though I did nothing different either time. (I did deserve major kudos, but not for the weight loss: getting off that drug, and doing so safely and sanely, was a major accomplishment. But to so many people, that hard-won achievement was worthless, and the effortless weight loss the accomplishment. The injustice there still makes me want to scream.)

      On the subject of language, I sometimes use “fat positive”, just for the more, well, positive implication than mere “acceptance.” I actually prefer and more frequently use the phrase “size acceptance”, because it’s not just about accepting fat, but about accepting whatever size and shape one is, and accepting the wide variety humans come in. It’s about saying that very thin women are just as much “real women” as curvy women, are just as much “real women” as fat women, are just as much “real women” as trans women masculinized by androgens, are just as much “real women” as ANY woman of whatever size or shape, because we are ALL “real”, and are ALL human, and are ALL worthy of the basic rights of respect, dignity, access to health care, and so on. None of us deserve size discrimination, whether the “frivolous” but soul crushing “jokes” (“she sits around the house”, “turns sideways and she disappears”) that serve only to objectify our bodies as much as being the subject of cat calls and sexual gaze, or the life-threatening dismissal in doctors’ offices because health care is withheld until we become smaller (and we thus learn to avoid doctors altogether) or because we’re not fat so nothing could be wrong with us. It’s all size discrimination, it’s all evil, and it all serves the kyriarchy.

      (Acknowledging that size discrimination happens at all points in the size spectrum does not dismiss the very real thin privilege that those of smaller size experience to greater or lesser degrees, and acknowledging that privilege doesn’t negate the discrimination the thinner can experience. Further, people can experience both fatphobic discrimination and some degree of thin privilege: I have been jeered, belittled, and denied health care due to my fatness, but I also have some thin privilege, in that I fit within the size range most seats are built for, I have access to fairly attractive clothes in my size range, and so on.)

      • I do use fat-poz and I like that term, in that it’s accessible and simple. Body positive is also grand. I’d like to promote separating loving our bodies and appreciating their abilities from diet and exercise. I like to use fat in a loving and real way as often as possible. Especially at work. ;) My co-irkers had a field day when I went to Fat Girl Flea. They could not believe so many women would embrace the word “fat.”

        That said, it really bothers me that I do have to be so private about my (non-sexual) physical activities because I am having fun with this program and I’m pleased with the increased core strength I’m feeling. My back feels better and my posture is better when sitting at the computer.

        As I do nearly every summer, I lost a few pounds in June (from seasonal increased physical activity) and, as they do every summer, people felt free to comment on it. Which, whatever. But I’ve started answering “Did you lose weight?” with “No, why? Did you find some?” That exchange says a lot (why is it ok to call me thinner if I can’t call you fatter?) and generally that person doesn’t ask again. So, really, I know that in most of my social circles, talk about an exercise is going to turn to fat shame and fat hate. The diet talk at work is already so rampant and I have no desire to add fuel to that fire.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I was having a moment of shame after eating something smothered in chocolate for breakfast; reading this was just what I needed.

  3. Excellent post. I walk over three miles every day. Sometimes I do extra, with a baby on my back. I eat fairly healthily, although I don’t go out of my way to do so. And I’m fat.

    I’m starting very slowly to come to the conclusion that I might always be this way. I guess the next step will be accepting that. And then even not beating up on myself for it.

  4. Right the fuck on. :D

  5. I struggle with the concept of fat acceptance with the reality that if I feel the cloud of diabetes looming. While losing weight may not keep it at bay, I feel like there could be a chance.

    Is it more about body acceptance (which includes fat)? Loving my body so I avoid foods that could poison it and exercise my body so it efficiently handles blood glucose?

  6. As I talk about above in response to Bethany, it is about size acceptance, not “just” fat acceptance, but more to the point of your question: FA is about saying no matter our size, no matter our health, we do not deserve discrimination, oppression, attacks, ridicule, etc, and we DO deserve respect, dignity, appropriate medical care, and every other should-be-fundamental right. It’s also about saying that, contrary to popular belief but well-supported by scads of scientific literature, we cannot significantly and permanently change our body weight, and certainly not by “dieting” (even if called “lifestyle changes”). It just doesn’t work. Fat people can’t become thin through calorie restriction, excessive exercise, drugs, or anything else — not for very long (over 95% of people regain — often and then some! — any weight lost through those means within 5 years; this is not a case of “poor will-power”). And thin people can’t become fat permanently — except by repeated dieting. So we can either futilely fight against whatever size we are, or we can accept it. That’s size acceptance.

    Now, while there’s overwhelming science saying we can’t change our weight (and it’s a Very Bad Idea to try, often causing long-term damage to our health), there is (ahem) AMPLE evidence saying we can change our health — if we recognize that health and weight have nothing to do with each other. We can eat better foods, nutrient-dense foods, slow down and savor our meals, and practice intuitive eating. We can move our bodies frequently, in enjoyable ways, build muscle mass, get enough sleep, and practice stress-reduction. And ALL of this, or any of this that we manage to do, will help our health. But it’s very unlikely to significantly affect our weight. HAES is about saying don’t look at the scale — look at how you’re feeling, look at your blood pressure, look at your blood sugars, look at your mood and your sleep and your lab results. Because we can’t do anything about the number on the scale, but we can do lots about those other things.

    (Size acceptance further says that even if you are not “maximally healthy”, even if you eat junk and are sedentary and don’t take good care of yourself: you are still entitled to respect and dignity and all that jazz. Size acceptance points out that a fat person, of any health, gets a MUCH different treatment in the doctor’s office and from Random Stranger than does a thinner person of objectively miserable health, and that this is Very Much Not OK.)

    Does that address some of your concerns?

  7. Awesome post. And so true. The FShame is ridiculous and ubiquitous. And I absolutely see its relationship to kyriarchy; it allows people to feel superior (physically, intellectually, ethically) and promote a limited vision of acceptability in which all other forms are less *alive*. Thanks for writing so passionately and eloquently.

  8. Rachel – Kate Harding (one of the spearheads of the fat-acceptance movement) once linked to a post about how being overweight actually protects people from many illnesses – “fat can protect against “infections, cancer, lung disease, heart disease, osteoporosis, anemia, high blood pressure, rheumatoid arthritis and type 2 diabetes.” Yeah, you read that right: even the goddamned diabetes.”

    The post she linked to says: The Seven Country Study, for example, which has followed 13,000 men over the last 40 years, has found that the risks of dying from cancer and infections decrease with increasing weight. In long-term prospective studies, complications (like retinopathy) and mortality rates from type 2 diabetes are three times lower among heavier people. And people are much more likely to survive a hospitalization if they’re “overweight” than if they’re thin.

  9. Having been overweight my entire life aside from the past 6 months or so, I get what you all are saying. Maya Angelou talked about being being phenomenal, not because of what she looked like, but because of who she is.

    Being fat comes from taking in more food than the body uses. Bottom line. If we consistently do so in crazy, uncontrollable amounts, for some of us, it’s because we’re biologically programmed to do so. Just as an alcoholic is programmed to drink uncontrollably when they have their “just one”. There’s no such thing as one browning in my book. There’s such a thing as one pan and the pain, agony, and craving for more.

    All I truly know is that when I eat like that, I get a certain sort of “fix.” It helped me cope with a lot. These days, I know there’s a different path, one that, despite the scariness of a world without too much food to anaesthetize myself from the terms life hands me, there’s help and hope. Daily, I can choose to reach out, pay attention, and eat within guidelines if I can simply trust that whatever I need will be there to keep me from overeating. And, I’m working on cleaning up the messes I’ve made that keep me in that horrible, wretched box of shame that overeating tried to cover up. Some days I still get so scared that my needs won’t be met and I shove extra food in my mouth. It only adds to the mess, because then I know I’ve indulged in my addiction.

    And finally, I do agree with the original post. Eating too much is not a moral issue. Neither is the consequence. It’s a chemical one.

    • “Being fat comes from taking in more food than the body uses. Bottom line.”

      That is incorrect information. Bottom line.

      I have put off approving your post, because I wanted to respond to it fully, with complete rebutting links, and frankly it was casting a pallor over my whole day, but then I remembered: this is my blog. Something is wrong if I am avoiding it because I am feeling attacked in my own space.

      I will put this as gently and as lovingly as I can: you are, simply, misinformed. The “overeating is the sole cause of overweight” myth is just that: a myth. It is a lie put forth by the kyriarchy. And again, I truly do not mean this maliciously, but there are about 20-1 odds by 5 years from now, you will have regained much of the weight you have recently lost (at least 2-1 odds you’ll have gained even more). I hope for you that you are able to heal whatever emotional wounds you have. I hope you are able to come to a healthy, friendly, easy relationship with food and with your body. But you must pardon me for taking the side of statistics when I remain skeptical that your weight loss will be permanent.

      I have no desire to dismiss your experience. You may very well have been overweight because of an unhealthy relationship with food; you say that is why, and so I extend to you the respect of taking you at your word. I also ask that you extend to me that same courtesy when I say: overeating is not why I am fat. Because I do not overeat. Yes, the entire kyriarchy, in addition to your own experience, is telling you that fat = lazy, overeating, damaged, low will power, stupid, sedentary, and so on. But I, a real person, am in front of you, telling you that is not my truth. I am fat because I am fat. Because it is my body type. Because this is simply where my body is happy and healthy.

      You now have a choice: you may embrace your dogma over my lived experience, and disbelieve me, or you may accept what I am telling you, and rethink your worldview. It really doesn’t matter to me which you choose; I would be happier if I were believed, but I don’t need you to. But if you, or anyone else, are to remain and continue to post here, I do require that you choose the second option. My body, and my experience, take precedence over your theory.

      That’s the bottom line.

  10. Courtney Wilder

    This is why I love you, Arwyn. And I love that you’re running, despite knowing that there will be people who will congratulate you for all the wrong reasons and people who will judge you, also for all the wrong reasons. You have a gorgeous body, and running is such a fun thing to do with one’s gorgeousness.

  11. Arwyn, thanks for the explanation. It makes sense. I can wholeheartedly jump on the “shame on shame” bandwagon. It’s a message that needs to be shouted. Still thinking through optimal health and fat’s impact on metabolic processes. But your approach to health makes sense.

  12. yep yep yep yep yep…all of it…all of it so many times over! I’ve been over, under, around and through this territory absolutely ALL of my life, from size 8 to 24 and everywhere in between and all the while struggling to love myself as so much more than an object, an ideal, a representation of something I don’t even respect, namely patriarchy…or kyriarchy if that suits you…doesn’t matter to me because I know where I’ve been living…

    which is all to say that now, at age 55, I am yet coming to terms with my biology as, frankly, being quite inevitable and kinda cozy with my destiny…I know how to get thin (starvation) and how to stay thin (more starvation plus obsessively exercise)…can I just say I’ve Had Enough? I’ve Got More Important Things to Do!!!!!!!

    I’ve lost the weight–all of it–and put it all and then some back on–more than I lost–too many times. I’ve had doctors tell me that I’m insulin resistant and to eat 6 small, lo-carb meals instead of the usual 3/day. Don’t eat anything white! Several members of my family have died from diabetes and, by and large(pun intended), everyone in my family has been FAT FOR GENERATIONS. During a thin period I met up with a relative I hadn’t seen in many years who commented: You’re thin for our family!!!…which was true, because according to all the charts, I still had 50 lbs. to lose!!!!!

    At least I had the smarts to marry a FAT GUY! He loves me up or down, thin or fat…but his love doesn’t substitute for self-love and there have been many times, too many times, when I’ve ruefully confessed to hating myself for hating myself! How’s that for a double-bind????

    I’m sick of the shame. I’m sick of needing to look in the mirror to decide whether or not I’ll have a good day. Ain’t gonna do it no more. I’m going to pull off maybe the most rebellious act I’ve pulled off yet: I’m gonna LOVE myself as I am. Period. That means fat or ample or big or whatever, that means gray hair, that means wrinkles, that means in-your-face OR go-away-I-don’t-like-you…you know, one of these days, it might turn into meaning that I’ll have to learn to love myself when I can barely lower my butt to the toilet and wipe it. See what I’m sayin’ here? It’s up to us…

  13. well said!!!
    having recently had a surgery i was asked to crash diet for and enduring said diet of 900 calories a day (of good nutrient dense healthy filling foods, just not full of calories) and moving around more, this subject has been on my mind.
    two of my sisters, and my mother, are large women, as i am also a large woman. instead of being happy with who they are, they are constantly working at calorie counting, ridding as many carbs from their diets as possible, talking about it ALL the time. etc.
    its really hard for me, as someone who DOES accept her body for its size and shape, and actually LOVES every single roll and curve and dimple on my rotund body, to watch them do this to themselves. their goal isnt to eel good. to enjoy their bodies. its to shame THEMSELVES into looking how society says they should look. instead of wrking on moving their bodies more, to be strong, and fit inside their curves, they would rather deprive themselves of nutrition, and foods they enjoy, all for the sake of the endless quest for skinny.
    also, as a mother of two young girls who are around their aunts and nana very often, it infuriates me to no end for them to constantly talk about calories, carbs, BMI, weight, “skinny”, FAT FAT FAT (insert serious stern face here)… etc, the list goes on and on.
    i can ask over and over til i am blue in the face for them to not talk this way infront of my girls, one of whom IS a larger child. that instead, we should talk about moving our bodies in positive ways that we enjoy, feeling fit and strong and healthy, and eating foods that are tasty, and good for us, but not shaming ourselves or eachother if tasty, yet not so nutritious foods are eaten. (“omg do you KNOW how many carbs are in that granola bar?1 how can you feed your child that?!” never mind the fact that its whole grains, driet fruits, naturally sweetened, full of protein rich nuts and seeds, and in general is a wonderful on the go snack for growing children)
    there is NOTHING WRONG with being fat.
    and NOTHING WRONG for loving your fat body.
    thank you again and again and again for putting my thoughts and feelings (once again) into words that are so eloquent and make a strong point.

  14. Another great post, Arwyn. I particularly like the terms “size acceptance” and “fat positive”. When I was young, my mom over and over gave me (and my little sister) the idea that not only was being overweight bad, but being skinny was good. Cue years of eating disorders for me (and also, I believe, my sister), filled with comments about weight from strangers and medical professionals alike. The idea that one cannot be healthy unless their BMI is under a certain number or their weight fits into a small range of different numbers boggles my mind.

    I believe that as a society we *can* get to a place where size does not matter, where one is not denied health care or scorned or made an example of because of their size. I believe that this possibility begins in cases such as this, where people speak up and say, “this is not okay. You can’t treat me this way. I am a person, and I won’t stand for being treated as less than one”. Thank you for speaking up and saying what many people are thinking but cannot say.

    I would be honored to sometime go on one of your runs with you. <3

  15. FA is what I need right now, because I’m battling with FS. After having my twins, it seems that I’m really struggling with my weight. On one side I have people saying “you look good, you just had twins. On the other side there are those that say, “If you don’t get the weight off within the year, it’s there for life.”


    A constant battle…

    Hugs and Mocha,

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  18. Monika Ederer-Mosing

    I have always liked my body and I don’t know why I shouldn’t. The jokes about my body don’t bother me very much either. What hurts me terribly are these people who preach moral sermons on me, although they don’t even know me much. Why do they condemn me to permanent hunger? They say it’s not hunger but appetite but after fourteen diets I know it’s terrible hunger, right in my stomach. They sent me to diets consisting only of tea, for three weeks. How can they say this is healthy? From my last diet, consisting of fruits and vegetables, I got a gastritis. I had tried to silence my hunger by the necessary amounts of salad, which, according to my doctor, was the cause of the gastritis. The worst experience about this last diet was that my colleages at work preached me sermons to regain weight because, as they said, I had an anorexia. Four doctors didn’t detect any anorexia, but my colleages continued to tell me to eat more. When I said my weight was normal they replied “But you were fat first”. After half a year, it was just too much for me. One person reproached me of having regained weight, some days later another admonished me to eat more. I was desperate now, I just threw my diet away and I will never enjoy losing weight again, if such mean treatment is the “success” of all this hunger! I’m doing exercise daily one hour but people keep on lying that exercising would make me lose weight, just as they lie when they decrete that I feel no hunger, although this pain in the stomach is most obviously hunger. I am now fifty-seven, and my hunger started at eight, after a tonsils operation. I hate all these people who interfere with my personal affairs and who tell me all the time what to eat. Since one is helpless against them there is only one good solution: avoid them! And the Fat Acceptance Movements are a wonderful liberating help against all these heartless and harassing people. Their constant desire of getting control over the weight of others, that’s what’s really the bad thing.

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