Body Positivity and Fat Acceptance – Changing the World to Suit Personal Grievances? – Catherine Drysdale

french food
Such foods are typical parts of the French diet, and perhaps don’t fit into what we perceive as healthy. Yet the French do not struggle with obesity on the same scale as the US and the UK. How much, asks Catherine Drysdale, is the issue social, cultural and political?

I originally wanted to write an article about how different diets suit different people, and how breaking away from my father’s belief in the Atkins diet and doing my own research was liberating for me. I had hoped that those reading this article would find a similarly freeing effect, and it would give them hope that they just hadn’t found their ideal way of eating yet. However, as I started to do research in order to confirm my beliefs that general mainstream advice is always trying to sell the diet of the minute, I came across videos on YouTube with click-bait titles such as “what a morbidly obese person eats in a day”. This lead me down a rabbit-hole of more television shows such as “The Fat Doctor”, which is about the patients of weight-loss surgeon. Fortunately, my research ended with something called the “Fat Acceptance Cringe Compilation”, which had been put up by somebody who did not intend to criticize the Body Positivity movement, but rather make fun of its members. I found this to be highly distasteful, and I could only justify the YouTube binge and my giving the sad person who made this compilation an additional view by writing an article to condemn such behaviour.

It had also occurred to me that, whilst my advice might have been useful, anecdotes about my personal life were perhaps quaint and unnecessary. It didn’t seem particularly useful to describe the differences between my father’s ideal diet and mine. For anybody interested, his diet is low-carbohydrate and consists mainly of meat and greens thus representing his personal food preferences. My diet on the other hand consists of naturally sweet things, such as oats with bananas, honey and yoghurt for breakfast, and calorie-light vegan dishes at main meals. This, whilst demonstrating two legitimate lifestyles, is not in itself ground-breaking. Furthermore, I think the fact that a supreme diet does not exist is becoming more obvious as the diets of famously fit celebrities such as Victoria Beckham and Halle Berry, which are exceedingly different (should I be worried that I know both of these from memory?), are becoming more accessible. I was also struck by the sheer number of videos on YouTube attacking the Body Positivity and Fat Acceptance movements. The speeches and the footage that they were criticising were relatively difficult to find. I could tell that these people had put a lot of effort into making the compilations. It looked to me like there was something psychological going on underneath the surface, so I decided to write an article exploring this.

To reassure the reader that my research was not just limited to watching YouTube videos, I will attempt to give an overview of the Fat Acceptance and Body Positivity movements. For those with a passing interest, both the Body Positivity and the Fat Acceptance movements have Wikipedia pages, but their connections to the academic world are few. I did however find a very elucidating academic article called “The Role of the Fatosphere in Fat Adults’: Responses to Obesity Stigma” by M. L. Dickens et al which goes into detail about the experiences that advocates of the Body Positive and the Fat Acceptance movements share. The term “Fatosphere” is used as a synonym for the Fat Acceptance online community.

Starting with perhaps the more accessible of the two, the Body Positivity movement is an offshoot of the Fat Acceptance movement and aims to encourage everybody to have a positive body image. It is vehemently against any type of body-shaming, since this can result in detrimental long-term effects such as anxiety and eating disorders. Therefore, a person can theoretically be body-positive whilst still being anti-obesity providing he or she relinquishes the notion that is ever a good idea to make anybody feel ashamed because of his or her body. There is a logical basis to this, because we all have a tendency to hide the things that we are ashamed of, such as bad eating habits.

The Fat Acceptance movement on the other hand tacitly assumes that fat people, women in particular, are targets of hatred and discrimination, conscious and unconscious. Alongside this assumption, there is also the idea of a societal norm evident in the mass media, for example, where fat people may be stereotypically sources of comic relief amongst an otherwise thin cast. Therefore, the issues for the Fat Acceptance movement can vary from the size of aeroplane seats to whether there is discrimination against fat people in the job market – I use the word fat without hesitation because bloggers tend to prefer this word to the more medical term obese.

In this light, the Body Positivity movement seems generally to me to be a good idea, because it does not call for the acceptance of any lifestyle that is detrimental to somebody’s health, whereas the Fat Acceptance movement does not always have my sympathy. However, I respect their trying to reverse the hatred overweight people receive on a daily basis from members of the public who feel as though it is their place to hurl insults. Such comments are often made in the fashion of playground bullying where one person is trying to get the respect and attention of his or her peer group by picking on somebody who is isolated and vulnerable. I would like to think that I have surrounded myself with people who are emotionally mature and comfortable enough in themselves to not want to make fun of people in order to play up to a third party. I also hope that the people around me would look on any kind of bullying behaviour with disgust and would not want to hang around with a half-wit who shouted “oink” at a person that they didn’t know. The person who made the internet compilations was, I fear, doing the same as the bully shouting “oink”. This person also happily conflated the two movements which, although they do not form two clear groups, are distinct in their motivations.

However, I then asked myself the question: could the Fat Acceptance movement – which is a response to this sort of bullying behaviour – be simply the amplification of personal grievances to a phenomenological scale? I thus posited the following statement: “The Fat Acceptance movement is based on a number of activists who are geographically spread out coming together to fight the discrimination that they feel on a daily basis in a society where the societal norm is relatively thin.”. Furthermore, Fat Acceptance movements are not generally found in areas where being fat is the norm, such as Tonga. This could be extended to saying that the largest Fat Acceptance movements do not exist in places with large numbers of overweight people; for instance, Copeland in the UK where 75.9% of the population are obese probably finds little need for further fat acceptance.

In my experience growing up in the Black Country in the West Midlands, obese people do not necessarily stand out to me as abnormalities. However, where I live now in Paris, an overweight person is far more noticeable. Gabrielle Deydier recently wrote a book documenting her lifelong experience of combating ‘la grossophobie’ in France called On ne naît pas grosse, which literally translates to “We are not born fat”. In this book, the pressures that French women face to fit an ideal are documented. I find personally the phonetic translation into English, i.e. ‘gross-o-phobia’ to be particularly unforgiving to my English ear, and I can see how the phenomenon of “la grossophobie” would be worse here. My only experience of it has ever been in France at Orly airport when a woman commented that I should wear black instead of my colourful leggings which she thought made my thighs look bigger. I am a relatively curvaceous size eight, and was rather taken aback by this woman’s intervention in my dress sense. Thankfully, I am quite robust in my emotions and therefore didn’t take her comments to heart. She possessed after all a delusional self-importance that allowed her to badger people in airport queues, so, between us at least, I was the sane one. However, had I been perhaps younger or more insecure, it is likely that her comments would have had consequences.

In the article by Dickens et al, the process of how a person’s “fatness” shapes the attitude of those around them is described. This attitude can be described culture of criticism subscribed to by family, friends and even strangers. However, for the majority of the bloggers contacted in the study, their first experiences of negativity regarding their weight occurred when they were children, with one person saying that she had been on a diet “since she was five”. Dieting tended to be the first response of a fat individual in order to alter the way his or her immediate circle viewed them. However, because the diets were extreme in nature, they would often fail and begin a cycle of yo-yo dieting. To then explore the fat acceptance movement was equivalent to wanting a new style of living that wasn’t governed by trying and failing to fit the thin ideal.

It seems to me that in the case of the bloggers who were overweight as children, their parents were more prone to criticising them as opposed to working out the cause of their overeating. These parents should have been asking themselves “whether or not they have given their child a bad attitude towards food” at home or “is their child eating as a form of escapism?”. However, it is so entrenched in our society that a person’s weight is an individual problem that parents will criticise rather than support their children with whom they are providing food. One of the tragic things that I learnt during my research is that as the information available to overweight people increases, the stigma against them also increases because of the idea that “there should be now no excuses”. And this is matched by the generally-held contradictory view that: “It is an individual problem until I have advice that this fat person would surely benefit from. Let me shout it at them loudly!”. I am sure that most comments made to an overweight person stem from wanting to make the speaker feel better and not from a genuine concern for the other person. If the stigma were not so strong then perhaps people would look for long-term solutions instead of the quick fixes that do not work in their attempts relieve societal pressure, and therefore would not be driven to fat acceptance.

Finally then, if obesity is such a big problem, and advising people doesn’t help, what is the general solution? I would maintain that the problem here is not categorised correctly. We have, on the one hand, geographically-situated endemic obesity caused on the whole by the availability of cheap calorie-dense food, food deserts, aggressive advertising to children, etc. and then, on the other, obese individuals who have developed an unhealthy relationship with food for much more personal reasons. It is a shame that those in the second category are a lot more vocal than those in the first despite being considerably fewer. If we remove the option of giving advice where it isn’t wanted, we are still left multiple options such as being individual examples of good food culture; campaigning for things that can help engender good food culture such as the sugar tax and meat tax (after all, processed pork products are known to be carcinogenic); and by signing campaigns to stop takeaways filling local highstreets. Here, we would be fundamentally acknowledging that things that are bad for fat people are in fact bad for everybody as opposed to targeting obese people whose responses may not be beneficial for their health or the health of society as a whole.

 

Catherine Drysdale grew up in Birmingham to a second-generation Indian mother and an English father. She completed her undergraduate studies in Birmingham and is currently a PhD student studying Fluid Mechanics at the École Polytechnique in Paris. Since moving to France, she has become fascinated by different cultural perspectives, and the mechanisms of normalisation that exist in modern society. 

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