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Simply telling someone to be okay with being fat runs counter to every impulse in American culture today. Who would do such a thing? Fat activists, that’s who.

Another Rubens painting depicting luscious ladies. I think this one's called "Kallisto and Jupiter." In public domain.
Another Rubens painting depicting luscious ladies. I think this one’s called “Kallisto and Jupiter.” In public domain.

Fat activism, or the fat acceptance movement, is a broad-ranging, multifaceted movement meant to encourage acceptance of health and beauty at any size. A Time article documents the movement as having a 40+ year history. One group that exemplifies its tenets is Health At Every Size, which “acknowledges that good health can best be realized independent from considerations of size. It supports people of all sizes in addressing health directly by adopting healthy behaviors.” That doesn’t sound too revolutionary, right?

Apparently it is. I’m not going to link to all the vitriol out there aimed at not only fat people but also fat acceptance folks, but trust me, it’s out there. This rebuttal of some of the main critiques of fat activism can clue you in.

Part of me is like… why is this a big deal? We’ve got activists promoting different ways of viewing pretty much every way there is to be human, but for whatever reason, the fat-haters come out in droves, and say some really nasty stuff. My scholar-brain thinks that somewhere in the last few centuries, we in the West began to associate body size with not only physical beauty but also moral worth, and thus these connections run deep and get people riled up.

The episode of This American Life titled “Tell Me I’m Fat” grapples with many of these issues, with a heart-rendingly personal touch. If you’ve never just sat and listened to someone talk about the indignities they’ve experienced for the sheer reason of being fat, definitely make time to listen to this podcast episode. That, too, is an act of fat activism.

We’re also starting to see studies showing that fat-shaming doesn’t help solve “the problem”; in fact, it might contribute to overeating as a comfort mechanism. I know from my teaching experience that shame isn’t an effective tool, and so I’m glad to see that there’s starting to be evidence backing this up.

Finally, I’ll note that fat acceptance tends to be found among people who espouse body positivity more generally, which includes sex-positive circles. I’m pretty thrilled about having colleagues who teach others how to feel sexy and beautiful no matter what their body looks like – big, small, old, differently abled, cis or not, and so on. If you want to check out their work, look for:

Perhaps I’ve been swimming in the fat acceptance movement, or on its periphery, for so long that it’s started just feeling normal to me. But I recognize that others have had different life experiences, which is why I wrote this post.

Next up in this post series is a rumination on things that people can do regardless of body size.

FOXY FOLKORIST Studied folklore under Alan Dundes at the University of California, Berkeley, and went on to earn her PhD in folklore from Indiana University. She researches gender and sexuality in fairy...