The Fat Acceptance movement has been around for decades and relatively little has changed. I don’t mean this as a slight against the many women and men who have worked very hard to advance the true facts about fat. But the prevailing ideas, feelings, myths and misunderstandings about fat are so deeply rooted in most of the cultures of the world (parts of Africa and the Middle East are the primary exceptions) that fighting against them is a virtually insurmountable task. Add to this the fact that America’s annual $40 billion diet industry is busy 24 / 7 / 365 reinforcing anti-fat beliefs (and fears) and it’s a miracle that any shred of a movement exists.
The fact is, we spend most of our time commiserating with each other. Our efforts to communicate with the non-fat world fall on deaf, hostile ears. I believe that a good part of the problem is that what we say flies smack in the face of most people’s experience. And it’s not what we’re saying that’s the problem so much as how we say it.
“Fat Acceptance” is a very off-putting term. Most people, women particularly, would rather accept a cyanide pill than fat. Most people don’t even want to hear the word fat. They think it’s a slur – and we throw around the word fat the way contemporary gays use queer – as a deliberate confrontation, meaning, “we reclaim this word so you can’t use it against us.” We would be better served by the alternative terms already in place, like body acceptance, size acceptance and body autonomy.
One of our main battle cries is “diets don’t work.” I believe a battle is lost every time we say this, because millions of people, the ones keeping the diet industry flush, the ones who live on salads and rice cakes and cabbage soup and no carbs and no fat and all fat… they know full well that diets do work. What doesn’t work is maintenance. The strongest, truest statistic on our side is “98% of people who lose weight gain it back within one to three years.” Everyone who diets knows that regaining weight is a fact, it’s just that they’ve been made to believe that the fault is theirs: they didn’t try hard enough, they didn’t have will power. So they continue the cycle of yo-yo dieting that creates the health problems they’ve wrongly been taught to attribute to being fat. We would be better served by a term like weight loss isn’t permanent. That will, hopefully, resonate with most people long enough to continue the conversation.
Also in this category is “Fat Rights Now!” This sounds more humorous than serious, particularly since we don’t have an established, broad-based constituency. Rather than demanding, we should be imploring. I don’t mean begging, I mean helping people to see things differently – just that, for starters. Slogans like Fat Hate Hurts Everyone, Fat People Are Not the Enemy, People Come in All Sizes and Fat is Not a Crime would serve us better.
Then there is the message that obesity is all about genetics and other physiological factors and has little or nothing to do with food. This is preposterous and challenges the direct experience of everyone who watches the scale rise and fall with french fries one week and celery the next. Obviously, what we’re trying to communicate is a complex piece of information that doesn’t lend itself to sound bites and slogans.
We’re talking about factors such as genetic predisposition to obesity, compounded with yo-yo dieting that generates new fat cells that never leave, set points that will not be over-ridden for long, and very real thyroid and metabolic malfunctions, not to mention the fucked-up internal “thermostats” that don’t let us know when we’re not hungry, and interpret the hours between meals as starvation. And, there’s the wealth of missing knowledge that science has yet to accumulate. In truth, very little is known about how weight operates.
This is all very involved and extremely difficult to articulate. But by taking the short cut to “fat isn’t a choice” and “we can’t help it,” we immediately lose credibility among the millions of non-fat people who see us chowing down at the mall. They don’t know that the heavier you are, the more fuel you need, or that some of us can eat like birds and still gain weight. They don’t know and they don’t care. They’re hungry! And as far as they can see, they’re depriving themselves and we’re not. We would be better served by slogans such as fat isn’t just about food, or food is only part of the story, something that might motivate a reasonable person to listen to what we have to say next.
Finally, speaking for myself, I love food, I love to eat. I love to shop for food, I love to cook, I love to watch the food network on cable, I love to talk about food, I love to eat with other people who love to eat. I will not undo years of struggling for self-acceptance and become a closet eater again. Since I no longer diet, I’m not obsessive about food the way I was back in the day. But I won’t deny my passion for food. Food is one of the few great joys of my life. If people – fat and non-fat – are put off by this “excessiveness,” that’s just too bad. I pay for my own food. I’m not ripping chicken legs out of the trembling hands of starving children. When this country ceases to be a decadent food court, wasting more food than most nations consume, then we can talk about having a food system of equitable shares. Meanwhile, the market is open and I’m going shopping.