With the recent growing popularity of body positivity, it may be surprising to learn that body positivity itself is not a new movement. Although most “bo-po” advocates are likely unaware of it, they are standing on the shoulders of fat acceptance pioneers. Size acceptance activism has existed since the 1960s, and is carried today by organizations such as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA).
The Origins of NAAFA and Fat Acceptance Activism
The 1960s were a turbulent time in the United States, with activism and protests over civil rights, feminism, and the Vietnam War. Peaceful protests called “love-ins” were a counterculture staple. The Beatles’ John Lennon and wife Yoko Ono even staged a “bed-in” to encourage world peace. Against this cultural backdrop, radio host Steve Post organized a “fat-in” held in New York’s Central Park in 1967.
That same year, Lew Louderback published an article entitled More People Should Be FAT in The Saturday Evening Post. In that piece, Louderback chronicled the judgment and discrimination larger people face, including colleges preventing the admission of fat students. He argued, “The waistline has in some ways replaced the accent as a handy guide to class.”
Bill Fabrey, an engineer by trade, read the piece in The Saturday Evening Post. Because he was disturbed by the way his own wife was treated due to her size, Fabrey contacted Louderback. He later helped Louderback research the book Fat Power. Fabrey went on to found NAAFA. Their website states that they work “to eliminate discrimination based on body size and provide fat people with the tools for self-empowerment through advocacy, public education, and support.”
While men were directly involved in the origins of NAAFA, feminism was also key to the fat acceptance movement. Two NAAFA members, Judy Freespirit and Sarah Fishman, left that organization to found the more aggressive group, the Fat Underground. They spoke at public events and publicly shared information about fatphobia. They were especially concerned about size discrimination in medicine.
Why Would Fat People Fight for Civil Rights?
Weight stigma is rampant, from school to work to relationships to healthcare. Unfortunately, fat people are not legally shielded from such harsh treatment, unlike other protected classes such as race, age, and disability. The Americans with Disabilities Act is not directly applicable, as large people are not inherently disabled. Therefore, fighting for basic rights and respect for people in larger bodies is crucial. Since the origins of NAAFA, it seems so little ground has been won. Currently, Michigan is the only state that prohibits size discrimination. There’s a long way to go.
How Does Fat Activism Intersect with Eating Disorders and Treatment?
Unfortunately, fatphobia and weight stigma affect people of all sizes. This plays out in both the development and treatment of eating disorders. Fear of fat is both a diagnostic criterion for some eating disorders, as well as a contributing factor. What do people do out of fear of weight gain? They start to diet, which is often one of the precursors of an eating disorder. To be sure, not everyone who diets will develop an eating disorder, but it is a significant and widely-recognized risk factor.
Fear of fat also affects the treatment of eating disorders. Most egregiously, it prevents eating disorders from being properly diagnosed in larger people. For example, it may be assumed a fat person has binge eating disorder when they, in fact, have all the symptoms of anorexia aside from low weight. This is known colloquially within the eating disorder community as “atypical anorexia.” And when treatment providers fear fat (after all, we are all exposed to the same cultural messages), it interferes with the therapies they can provide. Healing one’s relationship with food is hindered when either/both the patient and the treatment team worry about someone in eating disorder recovery gaining “too much” weight.
From the origins of NAAFA to where the fat acceptance movement stands today, there have been both progress and setbacks. Let’s work to make NAAFA’s vision a reality: “A society in which people of every size are accepted with dignity and equality in all aspects of life.”
About the Author
Barbara Spanjers, MS MFT is a therapist and wellness coach who helps people feel more attuned with food and their body. Learn more.
Bruno, B. A. (n.d.). the HAES® files: History of the Health At Every Size® Movement, Part I [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://healthateverysizeblog.org/2013/04/30/the-haes-files-history-of-the-health-at-every-size-movement-part-i/
Cooper, C. (2011, July 22). Llewellyn Louderback, More People Should Be FAT, November 1967 [Blog post]. Retrieved from http://obesitytimebomb.blogspot.com/2011/07/lew-louderback-more-people-should-be.html
Simon, S. (2019, October 18). The feminist history of fat liberation. Ms. Magazine. Retrieved from https://msmagazine.com/2019/10/18/the-feminist-history-of-fat-liberation/