Caught Between Fat and Thin: When a Fat Acceptance Advocate Takes Off the Pounds

This piece was originally published on AlterNet.

Doll tape measure
I’m always going to be a fat woman.

Don’t get me wrong. At five foot three and 135 pounds, I am not, by any useful definition of the word, fat.

But I have been fat. I was fat for many, many years. And for years, I was an ardent advocate of the fat acceptance movement. I actively resisted the idea that there was any point whatsoever to losing weight. I believed that medical statistics on the health effects of fatness were exaggerated at best, part of the cultural conspiracy to make women hate their bodies at worst. I was convinced that I could be just as healthy at 200 pounds (and with the eating and exercise habits that kept me at 200 pounds) as I would be with less weight. And I was convinced that losing weight never, ever worked… or at least, that it worked so rarely it wasn’t worth trying. If there was even any reason for trying. Which I was convinced there wasn’t. (It wasn’t until my bad knee started getting worse that I saw the writing on the wall, and decided that, given a choice between losing mobility and losing weight, the weight would have to go. Here’s how I did it, if you’re interested.)

You’d probably think that losing weight would make a person stop thinking of themselves as fat. And you’d almost certainly think that making a concerted effort to not be fat would make someone abandon the whole idea of fat acceptance.

If so, you’d be wrong. I thought all that myself once… and I was wrong.

Greta fat avatar
I still see the world as a fat person. My perceptions of myself, and of society, and of how society views fatness and bodies and health, have been profoundly shaped by my years of being fat… in ways that are never going to change. And while I have huge disagreements with the fat acceptance movement — especially with its more extreme denialist edges — I still think many of its ideas are important, and perceptive, and entirely fair. I have serious disagreements with FA, but I am still very much shaped by it, and I would like to think of myself as an ally of the movement, and even as a member of it.

It’s just that they don’t feel the same way about me.

Or about other fat people who choose to lose weight.

The Thinnest Fat Woman in the World

Shallow Hal
My years as a fat woman — and as a fat acceptance advocate — have made me hyper-conscious of anti-fat hostility, contempt, and discrimination. When I hear mocking or insulting comments about fat people, I stand up for them. When I see rigid, internally contradictory, impossible- to- attain standards of physical beauty promoted in pop culture, I rant about it ad nauseum. When I hear about fat people being discriminated against in employment and medicine and so on, I get seriously ticked off. When folks call fat people “lazy slobs” and say that “as a society we should not look up to successful people who are fat. We should tell them we admire their acting or philanthropy, but look down on them for being lazy” (direct quotes from comments on my Facebook page, btw), I smack them down with every weapon in my rhetorical arsenal.

And I still take it really, really personally. I don’t hear anti-fat bigotry the way I hear, say, racial bigotry, as something to be passionately opposed but that isn’t aimed at me personally. I hear it as being about me. When someone in a comment thread on AlterNet linked to an older photo of me and mocked me for being fat, I felt the shame and the sting and the anger… before I remembered, “Wait a minute. I’m not fat.” And was left with only the anger. On behalf of myself… and every other woman who’s ever had her ideas irrelevantly dismissed because of her personal appearance.

I sometimes feel like the thinnest fat woman in the world. (Well, probably not the thinnest… but you know what I mean.) Some people say that, inside every fat person, there’s a thin person trying to get out. I feel the exact opposite. Inside this relatively lean body, there’s a fat person nobody can see. People think they can say stupid, bigoted, hurtful things about fat people to me, because they don’t see me as one of them. They couldn’t be more wrong. I am fat. Not in a body-dysmorphic way — I don’t look in the mirror and think I’m still fat — but because this fat identity shaped me for years, and it will always be with me.

Medical journals
It’s true that my feelings about fatness — my own, and other people’s — have been changing since I’ve lost weight. The biggest change is that I now acknowledge the health problems associated with fatness: problems I was in deep denial about during my fat years. So I have some concerns about the health and well-being of the fat people in my life, in a way that I didn’t before.

But I also see it as none of my freaking business.

I do think weight loss is both possible and worthwhile. But I also think that the cost-benefit analysis isn’t the same for everyone. Weight loss was really freaking hard: it wasn’t as hard as I’d initially thought it would be, and it got easier with time, but it still took some extremely hard work. And I had everything going for me: easy access to healthy food, money for things like healthy food and a gym membership, a health-conscious city to live in, a supportive partner who was going through the process with me. Not everyone has all that. And even people who do have all that still may not make the same cost-benefit analysis that I did.

So if some other fat person looks at the time and work and emotional effort that weight loss takes, and decides, “Nah, that isn’t where I want to put my energy”… I think that’s a reasonable decision. As long as they’re making it with their eyes open — as long as they understand the costs and risks of fatness, and decide that they’re willing to accept them — then I support them. To me, that’s the essence of fat acceptance. Their body, their right to decide.

And in a totally freaky paradox, fat acceptance has helped me lose weight and keep it off. My years as an FA advocate have actually given me essential tools for weight management.

Here’s what I mean. One of the hardest things about maintaining weight loss has been accepting the fact that my body is never, ever going to be perfect. It’s never going to be the culture’s ideal; it’s not even going to be my own. Even though my weight and body fat percentage and so on are now well within a healthy medical range, there are still plenty of things I’d change about my body if I could wave a magic wand and make it happen.

That’s been hard to accept. For years, I projected all my body anxiety onto my weight. If I was unhappy with how I looked or felt, I assumed it was because I was fat. Period. And when I was in process of losing weight, even though I was healthier and happier with my body than I’d been in years, I was still very focused on trying to change, to reach my goal weight, to make my body different. Now that my weight is where I want it… I have to accept this body. With my thin hair, my veiny hands, my droopy breasts, my funky loose skin from the weight loss, my chronic middle- aged- lady health problems. I have to accept this body, and live with it, and love it.

And my years in the fat acceptance movement have been helping me do that.

Greta on porch
The idea that I can love my body the way it is? The idea that I can focus more on how my body feels and functions than how it looks? The understanding that the cultural ideal of physical beauty is not just insanely rigid and narrow, but internally contradictory and literally unattainable? The understanding that everybody, even fashion models and movie stars, is insecure about their bodies and their attractiveness… and that becoming more secure happens, not by hating our bodies and trying to change them, but by loving our bodies and learning to accept them? The idea that there are lots of different ways to be beautiful and desirable? The idea that confidence and joy make people way more attractive than any physical traits? The idea that I can make the body I have be as healthy and happy as possible, instead of trying to cram it into someone else’s ideal? The idea that I should eat well and exercise, even if it doesn’t make my body look exactly the way I want it to, because it will help my body feel the way I want it to? The wacky notion that a “good body” is one that gives me pleasure and does most of what I want it to do?

All of this comes from my years as a fat acceptance advocate. And I can apply it to how I feel about my body now, in ways that have nothing to do with my weight: my age, my skin, my hands, my short square frame. Heck, I can even apply it to my weight… which is totally healthy by medical standards, but is still seen as grossly fat by the standards of, say, TV actresses. Even though my weight is well within a healthy medical range, it’s still not always easy being okay with it. And the ideas I learned from FA have been of invaluable help.

And I’m tremendously grateful for that. I am still very much shaped by the ideas of fat acceptance, and even though I’m not fat anymore, I would like to think of myself as an ally of the movement, and even as a member of it.

I just wish the movement felt the same way about me.

And about other fat people who choose to lose weight.

My Body, My Right To Decide

I am grateful for the FA movement. But I also have serious differences with it, and some serious anger. Among other things, I spent years buying into the hardcore FA line denying any connection between fatness and health problems. And this denialism gave me a years-long excuse to not try weight loss. I spent years ignoring the serious health problems my weight was creating for me… because I’d been persuaded by the FA movement that weight loss wouldn’t make any difference to my health, and that I’d never succeed at it even if I tried. I wasted a lot of years being a lot less healthy than I could have been. I’m pretty ticked off about that.

But that’s nothing compared to the anger I’m experiencing now that I’ve lost weight.

When I first started blogging about my weight loss, I was met with a faceful of extremist denialism, concern trolling, and outright hostility from many FA advocates, in both blog comments and private emails. The health benefits of successful weight loss were denied. The extremist attitudes of many FA activists were denied. Connections between weight and health were denied, and medical researchers publicizing these connections were called “crusaders.” I was told that all diets fail everyone. I was told that there was no way my weight loss would work in the long run; that I might succeed in losing the weight initially, but would almost certainly fail to keep it off over time. I was told that weight loss is never the right decision for anyone, and that there is no health problem that could appropriately be dealt with by weight loss. I was told that there are no serious health risks caused or exacerbated by being fat, and that health problems that appear to be caused by fatness are always really caused by something else. I was told that weight is entirely controlled by genetics, that eating/ exercise habits have absolutely nothing to do with it, and that weight management is therefore a complete waste of time. I was told that it was okay to incidentally lose weight as part of a “healthy at every size” eating and exercise plan, but that deliberate weight loss was horribly unhealthy… even if the “conscious weight loss” plan was identical to the “healthy at every size” plan in every way. I was told that even when weight loss is successful, the harm done by it — physical, psychological, or both — is terrible: so terrible that, in all cases, it completely outweighs the benefits.

And the specific health concern that inspired me to lose weight — namely, a bad knee that was getting much worse, to the point where my mobility was becoming seriously impaired — was met with a callous, trivializing dismissal that I still find shocking. Many FA advocates were passionately concerned about the quality of life I might lose if I counted calories or stopped eating chocolate bars every day. But when it came to the quality of life I might lose if I could no longer dance, climb hills, climb stairs, take long walks, walk at all? Eh. Whatever. I should try exercise or physical therapy or something. Oh, I’d tried those things already? Well, whatever. As long as I didn’t try to lose weight. That was the important thing. For the sweet love of Loki and all the gods in Valhalla, whatever else I did, I should not try to lose weight.

Essentially, when I started writing about weight loss, I was treated like a traitor. I was treated like a threat. Even though I made it clear that I wasn’t advocating weight loss for everybody, the mere fact that I was choosing to lose weight myself was seen as undermining the principles of the movement. And I was told, in no uncertain terms, to knock it off.

Our bodies out right to decide
This didn’t just piss me off. It baffled me. I’d always thought of the fat acceptance movement as essentially about empowerment and self-ownership. Our bodies, our right to decide. Apparently, not so much. Apparently, the decision to manage my health by losing weight was not really mine. Apparently, my body didn’t belong to me. It belonged to the fat acceptance movement. Many of whom felt entirely comfortable telling me what I should and should not do with it.

And I’m not the only one. When I started blogging about my weight loss, I wasn’t just met with toxic denialism from FA advocates. I was also met with a hugely positive response from readers who were dealing with the same stuff. Like me, a lot of my readers identified as fat-positive, but because of serious health concerns, they were now working on losing weight… and were trying to reconcile their fat-positivity with their weight loss. And a number of these readers had dealt with the same hostile, concern-trolling, denialist reaction from the FA movement. They felt the movement had made an important and valuable difference in their lives, they felt a connection with it that they wanted to maintain… and yet they felt like they’d been abandoned by it, even pushed out of it. Margo put it best in her email to me: “The body / fat positive communities don’t seem to have any place for me, even though these are communities I’ve sought out, identified with and gained a lot from over the years. Firstly, I’ve done the unthinkable and dropped my body fat percentage intentionally, and secondly, the scientist in me just can’t deal with the faith-like basis for some of the debates on health, weight and weight loss anymore. I just wish there was a place to talk about the intersection of these issues with feminism without feeling that I’m a FA and feminism drop-out.”

What. The. Hell.

What kind of feminism is this?

What kind of movement claims to be about empowerment… but disavows people for making their own choices about their bodies?

What kind of movement claims to be about self-ownership… but abandons people who deviate from the movement’s norm?

What kind of movement claims to be about self-esteem… but treats people like traitors for loving their bodies and wanting to take care of them the best way they know how?

Full body project
I still think there is a hugely important place in our society for a fat acceptance movement. I think we need a movement that advocates for treating people with dignity, equality, and respect, regardless of their size; a movement that resists the impossible cultural ideals of beauty; a movement that encourages fat people to love themselves and take care of themselves, regardless of whether they lose weight; a movement that speaks out for fat people’s right to make their own choices about their bodies and their health.

Greta avatar
But it needs to accept that not everyone is going to make the same choices. If the fat acceptance movement is going to advocate for fat people who don’t choose to lose weight, it needs to be every bit as supportive of fat people who do.

Our bodies.

Our right to decide.


Caught Between Fat and Thin: When a Fat Acceptance Advocate Takes Off the Pounds

11 thoughts on “Caught Between Fat and Thin: When a Fat Acceptance Advocate Takes Off the Pounds

  1. 1

    *nod* Indeed.
    I don’t know if this is going to make sense. I’ve always been *average* – though I did get VERY big (for my stature) at one point, and am working on losing baby weight now (which is harder than the previous times, because I’m considerably older). I’m a firm believer in *body* acceptance – not just fat. Two of my best friends in the world were the “fat girls”…and I was probably their biggest defender. To me, it was who was inside of them that was beautiful (not to mention, they were and are *stunning* beauties regardless of size)…their hearts were/are what shine to me. Still do. Now, one of them got morbidly obese (and in this, I am referring to the clinical term), and she took serious and active steps to get *healthy* – she’s now thinner than I am. The other is approaching that point, and I worry for her health – but could care less about her appearance. Makes sense, I hope, so far…
    Okay — I have a couple of other friends, and these women get scorned 17 ways from Sunday. The one who is hit the hardest by this is about 5’2″…and she cannot, no matter how hard she tries, get to 100 lbs. She’s not anorexic – I don’t mean that (she has never starved herself), but she is considered clinically *underweight*. She is embarrassed by how she looks (“I can only buy clothing in the juniors section – and if I want something adult-looking, I can NEVER find anything”) — this is an educated woman with 3 kids and a wonderful husband…with whom she would like to go to formal engagements –without looking like a tween pageant contestant. Further, other health concerns exist — not the ones we “routinely identify” with obesity, like diabetes, joint pain, etc…but problems with her thyroid, kidneys, and reproductive organs. She has been to several doctors, tried several medications…to no avail. Yet her “friends” tell her…”What I wouldn’t do to have your ‘problem'”… More than the health issues, she’s embarrassed by how she looks (and she is lovely – looks about 12 or 13 honestly, despite a 10-yr old & 4-yr old twins). She is frequently asked if she’s their big sister or babysitter.
    I have worked tirelessly to help my friends (in both categories) to throw the “societal expectations” playbook out the nearest plate-glass window, and focus SOLELY on health. It’s been an exercise in frustration at times. When our hyper-sexed media focuses on impossible proportions as a definition of “perfect”…and both men and women buy into it (with men less worried about their own size than women, but not without concerns either)…we create a backlash for *all* people. Size acceptance is important…fat OR skinny.
    Thank you for posting a thought-provoking entry.

  2. 2

    I LOVE your “before-and-after” Simpsons avatars.
    You continue to be an inspiration to me as I go steaming out into the open waters of real weight loss by choice. I think of your story pretty much every day.
    Thank you.

  3. 3

    Like you, I was pretty okay with my size until I couldn’t walk down the stairs in my house without holding all my weight on the rails with my arms because my knees and ankles hurt so bad.
    Speaking of, it took me over two years to heal a sprained ankle back then, and it still gives me problems. I like being able to move and do stuff now.
    Technically, I’m probably still fat, as my BMI is right at the borderline between overweight and obese. But I look and feel pretty good. I could be lighter, and I will, because I want to have a stronger, more functional body. I can do more now, and I love it.

  4. 4

    This is a fantastic article. Congratulations on achieving your weight loss! It’s a difficult road, and it takes all kinds of will power to succeed at it.
    For a long time, I’ve had difficulty with FA that I haven’t been able to put my finger on it. I’ve been trying to write an article about it for a month now, but every time, it just didn’t came out right.
    This article says everything I was trying to say, and much more. Shame on those that are slamming your decisions. It is hypocritical and frankly discouraging to those of us that would like to champion FA as a part of a greater Human Acceptance Movement.
    Bravo. I’ll be passing this on.

  5. 5

    What Jessica said. I’ve run into the FA movement before, and liked some parts, but been completely turned off by other parts of the message. You articulated both sides perfectly. I think body acceptance is a lovely concept and can help a lot of people. Thanks for this very insightful post!

  6. 6

    “As long as they’re making it with their eyes open — as long as they understand the costs and risks of fatness, and decide that they’re willing to accept them — then I support them.”
    Maybe I’m just having a bad morning, but that sure does rub me the wrong way. Your body is your business. My body is my business. I do not need anyone’s approval or disapproval to be fat. That’s where the judgements creep in–I don’t understand placing conditions on the acceptance of a person’s size. What I don’t understand is why anyone should care why I’m fat and that I am fat. So what?

  7. 7

    Congrats for your courage (on multiple fronts!)
    I have had a very similar experience. Ever since childhood I was the chubby child. I also had chronic knee & joint problems. It continued into college when I stopped focusing on the negatives of my body and just started moving it. Started eating unprocessed foods rather than diet foods. For me, change in mindset and the added self-love paid off and slowly over the next 15 years my BMI dropped. Today I’m 3-4 clothing sizes smaller. My knee problems went away (which was a huge incentive to keep at it!).
    Since that time I’ve had women tell me that I can’t participate in a “body acceptance” support group because it was only for FA individuals and I didn’t fit the description, and I have had women make negative, self-abasing body image comments in front of me, assuming that I know nothing of what they talk about because today I look athletic.
    Thank you for speaking out about how overweight can (not always!)lead to health complications, that “thin” people can belong to the FA movement, and that no one ever, ever should be judged for their personal choices of what’s best for their bodies.

  8. 8

    Maybe I’m just having a bad morning, but that sure does rub me the wrong way. Your body is your business. My body is my business. I do not need anyone’s approval or disapproval to be fat. That’s where the judgements creep in–I don’t understand placing conditions on the acceptance of a person’s size. What I don’t understand is why anyone should care why I’m fat and that I am fat. So what?

    Kelly W.: That’s a valid question, and I’m going to do my best to answer it.
    Ultimately, of course, you’re right. The “why” of other people’s weight isn’t any of my business, any more than the “what.” But with people I care about — primarily family and friends, but to some extent everybody, since to some degree I care about everybody — I do care somewhat about what’s motivating fat people to not lose weight. Here’s why.
    From my own experience, I know that, when I make decisions based on rationalization, denialism, willful ignorance, etc., I usually wind up being pretty unhappy about it. I feel stupid, I don’t feel very good about myself, I’m filled with regrets — and I have a hard time shaking all that off and moving on. And, because of the self- perpetuating nature of rationalization, I often get even more mired in my rationalizations, and find it hard to admit that I was mistaken and need to change my mind.
    On the other hand, when I make decisions based on good evidence, clear thinking, and a reasonable evaluation of the pros and cons, I’m usually at peace with those decisions — even if they turn out badly. I find it easier to accept the consequences of my decisions, and to live with them with some sort of peace. And I find it easier to change my mind again, if circumstances demand it.
    And from I’ve seen of the world, this is often true for other people as well.
    So that’s why I care about whether fat people who decide not to try to lose weight are making that decision with their eyes open, with a clear understanding of the pros and cons of being fat versus losing weight, and a willingness to accept the consequences of their decision. I care because I think making decisions out of denialism causes suffering — and I care about suffering. Ultimately, of course, it’s none of my business — but if I see suffering, and I think I can say or do something that might alleviate it, I’m going to.

  9. 9

    Thank you so much for opening up about this, its nice to know I’m not the only one who has been attacked about loosing weight.
    I use to be a lot heavier and lost weight for surgery, then i’ve dropped more for the health of my spine and knees. Whenever people see my modeling shots they either say I look great or I’m not fat enough.
    If I was any bigger I’d be in a wheelchair so I have the right do do whatever I can to make my body feel good.
    I’m sick of being told I’m not plus size also as I’m a size 12US. I’m curvy, real sized and proud and people have no right to judge me.

  10. 10

    I lost 40 pounds and it’s debatable whether I look “better” in the usual sense or not–my bosom went AWOL and I’ve always had a long face, which looks like a really long face now that it has less padding–but I feel better. I don’t feel better physically since I didn’t feel bad before, but I’m happy that I’m no longer abusing myself with bad eating habits; I’m modestly proud of being able to run five miles instead of 50 feet; I’ve started lifting small weights and I think my little starter biceps are cute. I’m not a better person, but I’m in a better state of mind.
    I have an ex-boyfriend who was once about 350 out-of-shape pounds. I didn’t know him then, but I’ve seen pictures. He looked awful. Not unattractive, but seeing somebody whom I liked (and still like as a friend) so well in such a dire state of health almost made me cry (and I am not a cryer in general). Thinking that he looked “better” at 180 had nothing to do with him being “hot”–it had to do with me not having to worry about him so much.

  11. 11

    I’m totally late to the party, but this is a great article. I’ve never been an an activist in the sense, but as an overweight girl these are issues important to me.
    I think you have pointed out two important things
    -what bother me about some of the FA movement
    -but that a positive attitude towards fat people is still something we should strive for.
    I think you pointed out what bothers me about some FA: denial of health issues. My mother got diabetes a few years back, and I myself, much like you, have a damaged knee that is now paying the cost of my weight – more than 10 years after my teenage self fell a few feel down a few feet, damaged her kneecap on a rock but thought she was young and strong enough not to be bothered down it…
    I know now that the weight IS making it worse and the last two years my blood pressure has been on the rise. I am now, again -with moderate success- losing weight again.
    On the other hand, I know full well the discrimination because of it and I am almost certain it is the reason I was turned down for one job in particular – possibly several.
    When having a snack in public, I have actually been commented on by passers by – One particularly rude man said that “I was never going to get thin that way”. People can be absolute asshole about it.
    So in short: I think we should be honest about the risks of obesity and promote a healthy lifestyle – but that should not be an excuse foe fat-shaming and generally horrible behaviour towards overweight people. In the end, it is our own body. And nobody ever got thin by being made miserable – on the contrary.

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