Once You Go Fat, They Never Let You Go Back

27/9/2021

Radical fat activist Virgie Tovar (Picture Credit: TEDx SoMa)

I was fat, happy, and healthy for many years. Until I wasn’t. Like many other people, I gained a lot of weight during the pandemic, and though this in itself did not bother me particularly, other things did: I couldn’t climb a flight of stairs without panting like a Boston terrier, my knees and back ached, my sitting-rising test indicated I should make a will by Wednesday, and my office chair broke under me. I could have gotten a stronger chair, but instead I decided to lose weight.

 

It was not my first rodeo and I knew which mistakes to avoid. My last major weight loss — around 60 pounds — was for my wedding, but that was an exercise in self-torture born out of a desire to not be the fat bride. This time, I wanted to lose weight to improve my health parameters rather than to meet patriarchal beauty standards. I’m pretty woke that way. This time I was going to embark on a realistic lifestyle change plan that was not focused on obsessive calorie counting and measurements.

 

My search eventually led me to a 2010 book called Health at Every Size (HAES) by Linda (now Lindo, since they’ve transitioned) Bacon. The first few pages made me hopeful. Here was a way of thinking about health that promised I could regulate my appetite and learn to “eat normally without thinking about calories.” It told me I was wired to maintain a healthy weight. It seemed pretty sensible and legit, given that it cited lots of rat experiments and claimed that it was “based on a scientifically tested program.” The book also mentioned that HAES was a “movement,” and so like any good millennial I went online to see what that was all about. The first inkling that all was not as it seemed was on the front page of the HAES website, where Bacon apologized for the book I’d just started reading:

[T]he ability to make personal behavior changes is a class privilege. By not naming this in my first book, I entrenched the problem. When not properly contextualized, a self-help book like the one I wrote takes responsibility off our culture’s shoulders. The shame I carry now is that this individualized response to health and eating, which I promoted in my first book, is still strongly embedded in many people’s conception of the Health at Every Size® movement.

 

Wait, what? I was under the impression that anyone who could buy, read, and understand Bacon’s book already had enough class privilege to be able to maybe swap Dunkin’ donuts for apples, but ok. To deepen my understanding of HAES, I proceeded, of course, to Instagram and typed #haes into the search bar. I didn’t save the results from that day, but it was pretty much in line with what I got today. Here are a few examples:

I’ll return to such claims a little later, but first let’s pin down HAES and its place in fat activism/acceptance. Very briefly: fat activism first crystallized in the 1960s to challenge anti-fat prejudice and discrimination, contest dominant beauty standards, and provide a supportive community to people who were marginalized due to their weight. Right from the 1970s, the fat acceptance movement also had a vocal strand that argued that the diet industry was harmful to fat people, and that the onus for change needed to shift from individuals to society. This makes sense to the extent that no one deserves to be teased, bullied, disregarded, dismissed, or told to lose weight before they can be treated equitably and with respect at the workplace, in doctors’ offices, on planes, and in school. However, many fat activists seem to think reform is boring when you can have a “revolution”— specifically, an identity revolution.

 

In 2009, the Fat Studies Reader explicitly positioned fat activism as a social justice movement, and fatness as a category of oppression on par with race, class, gender, or sexual orientation. In her foreword to this hefty tome, Marilyn Wann sternly laid down the theoretical framework for fat activism as it exists today:

1) The assumption that “human weight is mutable and negotiable” is inherently fatphobic.

2) The belief that fat people are unhealthy is fatphobic; obese and overweight are “compromised words”, but fat is OK. (Levels of fat — small fat, mid fat, super fat, infinifat — are also OK, as where you fall on the “spectrum” influences how oppressed you are.)

3) Any promotion of weight loss is an attempt to “eradicate fat people.” (Fat, therefore, is not just a characteristic but an identity.)

4) Oh, and check your privilege before opening your mouth.

 

These mental gymnastics will not surprise anyone familiar with postmodern scholarship (which also informs critical race theory, intersectional feminism, and queer studies). In its bare essence, postmodern theory claims that there is no objective truth or reality. There are only social constructs and systems of power that create the dominant discourse, and these must be dismantled. Fat scholars claim that medical science, the capitalist diet industry, and patriarchy are the three major systems that collude to oppress fat people. The second aspect of this framework is that individuals are defined by the privileges and oppressions of the identity categories to which they belong, and so they must necessarily only be seen as part of a group. For example, I’m not someone who wants to lose weight to climb the stairs easier. I’m an intersection of cis, female, South Asian, middle-class, non-disabled, and small-fat identities. The more oppressed you — as an intersection of identities — are, the more your voice must be amplified because your position is furthest from the power hierarchy.

Fat scholars claim that medical science, the capitalist diet industry, and patriarchy are the three major systems that collude to oppress fat people.

As a theoretical exercise, this is fine, but in practice fat activism has taken a dishonest, dangerous, and exploitative turn in the past decade. HAES is particularly disappointing in the lost opportunity it represents. Instead of creating a supportive, inclusive, and meaningful counter-movement to diet culture as it once promised, it has devolved into a radical identity politics based on scientific half-truths (and, oftentimes, just lies) and a rigid doctrine, marketed through books and social media, that seeks to exclude any fat person who diverges from groupthink.

 

Reading Lindo Bacon PhD’s most recent book, Radical Belonging (2020), was for me a profoundly depressing and disempowering experience. The crux of the message is this: (a) fat people are victims of a cruel cultural milieu; (b) they are helpless to do anything about their weight, and should not be asked to because fatness has nothing to do with ill health (this has been comprehensively debunked by doctors, of course[1]); and (c) it is harmful to make individuals responsible for their own health because this obscures the “social determinants of health.” As some people are less “able to engage in health-promoting behaviors,” we should de-emphasize nutrition and exercise. No one, writes Bacon, is “morally obligated” to participate in a quest for health. Instead, they offer a bunch of dubious reasons why people should actually avoid losing weight. The secret hope behind all of this, perhaps, is that as more and more people become fat, they will not just be a statistical majority (about 74% of adults in America are overweight or obese) but a dominant majority, never mind the serious risks to their quality and length of life. Bacon finally promotes a message of inclusion, claiming that “the pain that comes from exclusion is social, spiritual, emotional, psychological, and acutely physical.” Yet, the gatekeepers of fat activism frequently inflict exactly this kind of pain and shame on group members who try to meet their individual needs in non-prescribed ways.

 

A fat activist declaring they want to lose weight is treated like a queer campaigner endorsing conversion therapy. Dieting or exercising for health is not only selling out to diet culture, but also racist, classist, and sexist. Staying fat, in this view, is a moral imperative. You owe it to society. When Ashley Nell Tipton, a former winner of Project Runway, announced that she was going in for weight loss surgery due to health issues, it caused an uproar. Radical fat activist Virgie Tovar was “fucking pissed” because Tipton “built a brand upon the work of fat activists, co-opted language and then threw fat people under the bus.” Tipton’s weak protestations that she still wanted to be plus size were stamped underfoot. When popular vlogger Anna O’Brien confessed she lost a smidge of weight to improve her mobility, she was accused of being a racist (don’t ask me why) and being “predatory” towards the followers that contributed to her income. Anna later pleaded with her fans to not praise her weight loss. A few months ago, there was utter confusion when plus-size model Tess Holliday declared she suffered from anorexia nervosa. Some pointed out that she, at over 300 pounds, did not meet the diagnostic criteria for anorexia, while others claimed eating disorders could affect anyone. Interestingly, there was even some speculation that the anorexia announcement was a shield for intentional weight loss since Holliday wanted to avoid a backlash from betrayed fans if she got thinner (you can’t excommunicate someone for having an eating disorder).

Dieting or exercising for health is not only selling out to diet culture, according to the gatekeepers of fat activism, but also racist, classist, and sexist.

It’s worth mentioning here that for all its moaning about capitalism and the predatory diet industry, fat activism is not above profiteering. The examples I’ve given above all reflect a preoccupation with the right marketing of fat activism, building a “brand,” maintaining a following. Influence is currency since the fat community is not just a space for spreading the good word, but also a substantial market for plus-size “fatshion,” self-love webinars, feel-good books, natural remedies, “fat and hot” mugs, reinforced chairs, and so on. Identity-driven marketing is effective, and fat people who feel left out by the mainstream and crave belonging make great consumers.

I could roll my eyes for a few more paragraphs (I have enough material to fill a book) and end there, but that would make me guilty of the same kind of intellectual arrogance that I criticize social justice theorists and activists for. Clearly, not everything about fat activism and HAES is awful and nonsensical. The elimination of weight as a factor in “health” could conceivably offer psychological benefits, including greater self-acceptance and a less contentious relationship with eating and exercise. Could people be getting anything out of the movement other than carte blanche to absolve themselves of all personal responsibility for their own weight? Is there anything in the movement that doctors and other health professionals could learn from?

 

When I told Ameya Nagarajan, a writer and fat positive podcaster, about my negative reaction to HAES, she did not, contrary to my expectation, tell me to buzz off. “It is dehumanizing to go to a doctor and be told straight away that you need to lose weight. A thin person presenting with the same problem will get a check-up and a blood panel, but a fat person may not, which means they don’t get appropriate medical care. HAES humanizes fat people. It teaches us to question generally accepted practices and advocate for ourselves.” Nagarajan also emphasized how weight stigma causes negative health outcomes and contributes to eating disorders. Both these arguments hold water, but what about the contentious battles on social media? Is it constructive to rage against fat people who want to lose weight? “Many fat activists have gone through a lot of trauma and mistreatment because of their weight,” Nagarajan said, “and what diet culture has put them through mentally and physically. When someone who is part of the same movement dilutes the message, it is understandably hurtful. The anger stems from there.” Nagarajan said she did not care if anyone else lost weight, but did not think it could ever be a useful endeavour since “95% of diets fail.”

 

This statistic is something of a mantra among HAES proponents, and it stems from a flawed 1959 study with only 100 participants at an obesity clinic. It’s tempting to dismiss this claim as an example of “dishonest fatalism,” but subsequent studies also suggest that most diets don’t have great long-term results. “Obesity science is complex and we keep learning new things every day,” said Iyishha Jubbal, a nutritionist who lost more than 100 pounds and all her doctor’s prescriptions in her 40s and has kept her weight within normal range for several years. “I actually believe that 95% of diets do fail. I failed 99% of the diets I tried. The one that did work was not even a diet but a change in my eating habits.” The logic is straightforward: faddish, short-term diets make you lose weight, but the pounds pile back on when you return to the habits that caused your weight gain in the first place. “The diet industry doesn’t want you to lose weight in the long term. It’s up to you to make changes you can sustain. Fat people and thin people alike can benefit from getting an education in nutrition, getting their blood work done, and working towards a lifestyle plan that suits them. It’s not easy, especially at first, but it’s simple.” Jubbal believes that it is possible to be happy and fat, but asks people to be honest with themselves. “Are you physically comfortable at your weight? If so, carry on. If you’re not, then maybe it’s time to do something. You can be healthy at many sizes but not at any size — whether that is severely underweight or overweight.”

“You can be healthy at many sizes but not at any size — whether that is severely underweight or overweight.”

Voices like Jubbal’s, of course, are not welcome in the fat acceptance movement, which in any case has little patience for former fats. This is hardly surprising since a movement that is predicated on fatness as an identity has no incentive whatsoever to mitigate it. There is no question of advocacy for fat people who suffer from the health consequences of obesity but lack access to medical support/care. If a 500-pound woman demonstrates she is happy and livin’ it up, the movement will gladly embrace her, but if she becomes immobile and wants to get weight loss surgery, there’s not much likelihood of acceptance. Even fat activists recognize that the “good fatty” and “bad fatty” types exist within the movement and outside of it, but flipped — for instance, mainstream culture sees a fat person on a diet as a “good fatty” and fat activists see the same person as a “bad fatty.”[2]

 

Fat activism has an important part to play in promoting rights and dignity for fat people and advocating for stigma-free healthcare, but the movement has unfortunately turned into a dangerous zero-sum-game between an identity group and medical knowledge. The findings of science are often denied, subverted, or falsely interpreted to feed fat people incorrect or partial information that furthers an agenda (whether ideological, political, or financial) but does nothing to help them make informed decisions. Even the concepts of health and nutrition are twisted into the undesirables known as “healthism” and “nutritionism.” I think a good subsection of fatties, me included, need something better than a movement that preys on our vulnerabilities and frustrations and tells us what we want to hear rather than what we need to. For now, I’ll just listen to my aching knees (better since I gently lost 10 pounds, thanks for asking) and eat a cucumber.

[1] Anyone interested in a detailed and thoroughly researched rebuttal of the weight-related fallacies that HAES propagates should read Conquering Fat Logic by Nadja Hermann.

[2] Ref: Thickening Fat: Fat Bodies, Intersectionality, and Social Justice

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