Fat and Happy:
In Defense of Fat Acceptance
by Mary Ray Worley
If you’ve grown up in twentieth-century American society, you probably believe that being fat is a serious personal, social, and medical liability. Many Americans would rather die or cut off a limb than be fat, many believe that fatness is a serious health risk, and many are convinced that it is a simple matter to reduce one’s body size and are so offended by body fat that they believe it is acceptable to shun fat people and make them the butt of cruel jokes. Those who are fat quickly learn to be deeply ashamed of their bodies and spend their lives trying to become what they are not and hide what cannot be hidden. Our society believes that thinness signals self-discipline and self-respect, whereas fatness signals self-contempt and lack of resolve. We’re so accustomed to this way of thinking that many of us have never considered that there might be an alternative.
Nevertheless, a growing number of people believe it’s possible to be happy with your body even if it happens to be fat. In August 2000 I attended the annual convention of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) in San Diego, and it was like visiting another planet altogether. I hadn’t realized how deeply my body shame affected my life until I spent a glorious week without it. I’ll never be the same again.
The first time I had that "different planet" feeling was at the pool party on the first night of the convention. Here were all these fat people in stylish swimsuits and cover-ups, and whereas on my home planet a fat person was expected to feel apologetic and embarrassed about her body–especially in a swimsuit–here were a hundred or so fat people who were enjoying being in their bodies without a shred of self-consciousness. They were having so much fun it was infectious. I felt light-headed and giddy. I kept noticing how great everyone looked. They were confident and radiant and happy–and all sizes of fat. Definitely not my planet.
One of the features of NAAFA’s conventions is that they invite vendors who sell stylish large-size clothing. So whereas on my home planet, you’re lucky if you can find a swimsuit that fits at all, on this planet you have choices and can find a swimsuit that’s made from beautiful fabric and looks absolutely smashing on you. Where I come from, you’re grateful if you can find clothes that you can actually get on, and forget finding clothes that really fit you. But on this planet there were play clothes, dress-up clothes, you name it. Choices galore. Beautiful fabrics with an elegant drape and a certain panache. I’d never before had so many choices. The clothes I tried on (and bought) not only fit me but looked terrific. As the week wore on and everyone had visited the vendors’ booths, we all looked snazzier and snazzier, and the ones who had been to past conventions looked snazzy from the get-go.
The next night at the talent show those of us who didn’t get a part in the high school musical because we were too fat had a chance to play the lead for five minutes. (I sang a snappy little number by Stephen Sondheim called "The Ladies Who Lunch," from Company, and hammed it up big time. I had a blast!) Top billing was given to a troupe of belly dancers called the Fatimas. Now, I had read about this attraction in the literature I received about the convention, and I have to admit that I thought it would be some kind of a spoof or a joke. I just couldn’t conceive of a group of fat women doing serious belly dancing, but it was no joke. These women were indeed serious–and excellent–belly dancers. They wore the full belly-dancing regalia–that is, gauze and bangles and beads and not much else. When they first looped and bobbed their way out into the middle of the room, I think my chin must have dropped through the floor. They were exquisitely beautiful and voluptuous and graceful and serene. I thought that anyone, no matter how acculturated to my home planet, would have to be just about dead not to recognize how beautiful they were. And they were all so different from each other. We are accustomed to seeing mostly thin bodies that look more or less the same, but these bodies showed an amazing degree of delightful diversity. Body fat does not distribute itself on every fat person in the same way, so there’s lots of variety. Plus they weren’t all young. A couple of them had to have been past fifty, and they were so beautiful. And exotic, and mesmerizing. I had always assumed that as a fat woman I could never do that, and especially not as a fat woman past fifty. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I felt a jolt as my old assumptions were jettisoned out into space. Bag that old paradigm. This one is definitely a lot more fun.
One of the featured speakers at the convention was Dr. Diane Budd, who spoke about the medical and scientific communities’ take on fatness. Although the data gathered for most current studies indicate that body size is primarily determined by one’s genetic makeup, most researchers conclude–in spite of their own findings–that fat individuals should try to lose weight anyway. There are no data that indicate (a) that such efforts are likely to be effective (in fact, more than 90 percent of those who lose weight gain it back), (b) that a person’s overall health would be improved by losing weight, or (c) that the effort to lose weight won’t in fact turn out to have lasting harmful effects on one’s appetite, metabolism, and self-esteem. Our assumptions about the desirability of thinness are so deeply ingrained that scientists find it next to impossible to align their recommendations with their findings; apparently they cannot bring themselves to say that since body size is largely a result of one’s genetic makeup it’s best to get on with the business of learning to live in the body you have, whatever its size.
Moreover, none of the studies take into account the physical implications of the social ostracism and body hate that are a regular part of most fat people’s lives. Fat people are often taunted in public and are pressured by family members to lose weight. Complete strangers feel they are not out of line to criticize the contents of a fat person’s grocery cart, and family members may evaluate everything a fat person puts on her plate. Fat people need to be active and strong enough to carry their body weight comfortably, but they may feel ill at ease exercising in public because of unkind stares and comments. They may feel that they can’t wear shorts or sleeveless t-shirts or swimsuits for fear of offending the delicate sensibilities of others and inviting rude comments, and so they will be too hot and too embarrassed and will give up on regular exercise because they don’t have the support they need to continue. Now that is a health risk.
Moreover, fat people are often reluctant to seek medical attention because health professionals are among the most prejudiced people around. Regardless of the ailment you are seeking treatment for, if you are fat, your doctor may put you on a diet before she treats your cough, and attribute whatever complaint you have to your weight. Pressures like these must certainly contribute to the shortening of many fat people’s lives, quite apart from any physical risk resulting from a preponderance of body fat.
The upshot is that it’s very likely that the health risks of being fat have been highly overestimated. In combination with other risk factors, being fat may occasionally contribute to compromised health, but not nearly to the degree that many people think. When a fat person goes to a weight-loss clinic, the goal is usually to lose weight as quickly as possible, as though to snatch the poor fat soul out of the jaws of imminent death. And often the harsh methods used to effect that weight loss are in and of themselves much more harmful than being fat is. In fact, it is my understanding that statistically a person is much less likely to regain weight that is lost very slowly. So what’s the big rush? The big rush is that we hate fat and want to put as much distance between ourselves and it as quickly as possible. Quick and dramatic weight loss sells; slow and gradual weight loss does not. There’s nothing compassionate, rational, or scientific about it. We just hate fat.
Many fat people have made numerous efforts and spent thousands of dollars throughout their lives to lose weight and each time regained the lost pounds plus a few more. Have this happen to you enough times and you will be apprehensive at the prospect of losing weight for fear of gaining back more than you lose. On my own account, there’s no way I want to diet again, because it will just make me fatter in the long run. Help like that I don’t need, and I sure as spitfire don’t need to pay through the nose for it.
After years and years of dieting it slowly dawned on me that my body rebelled when I tried to restrict my food intake. All those years I figured that it was me who was failing, and then I began to realize that it was the method that was failing. I began to wonder whether the problem itself was being incorrectly defined. I began raising new questions just about the time that researchers were discovering that, rather than being a simple intake-outtake equation, body weight resulted from a complex interplay of set point (the body’s tendency to stay within a certain narrow weight range), appetite and satiety cues, metabolism, and genes. Moreover, our bodies are designed to protect us from starvation and have some powerful defenses against it. They react to dieting just as they do to starving. They don’t know there is a McDonald’s around every corner. For all they know, we’re still living in the Ice Age, when the next meal may be hours or days or miles away. So when we decrease the amount of food we eat, our bodies slow the metabolic rate to fend off possible starvation. It’s a great system, really. In my case I’m convinced that as determined as I have been to become thin, my body has always been more determined to save me from starvation. My body is more stubborn than I am. Amazing.
So I stopped dieting and began to make peace with food and with my body. I slowly stopped being afraid of food. In 1999 I became a vegetarian, and somehow that change–and the culture that seems to go with it–put food in a new light for me. Food was no longer the enemy; it was a gift and a source of joy. I began to slow down and relish my meals, to enjoy food and be grateful for all the ways that it nourishes me.
Over the last fifteen years or so I’ve made many attempts to become more active on a regular basis with varying degrees of success. I often would go swimming three or four times a week for two, three, or four months followed by a hiatus of several weeks or months. About two years ago, I realized that I always felt better when I was being active. So why the long hiatuses? Because I was exercising in hopes of losing weight. After months of dogged discipline with what I considered to be meager results at best, I would naturally become discouraged and stop. Within a few weeks I would stop feeling the surge of energy and well-being that comes with regular exercise.
So what would happen if I just exercised because I felt better when I did? How about moving just for the fun of it? So I gave up the notion of losing weight and consequently gave up feeling hopeless, and as a result the hiatuses have become fewer and shorter in duration. I began to vary my workouts more, so that I got less bored and enjoyed myself more. Who knew that moving, even in a large body, could be this much fun? I’d never allowed myself to have this kind of fun in my body before.
I discovered to my delight that the more physically competent I became, the better I felt about my body. My husband, Tom, and I go for long hikes in the woods, and some of those hikes have been challenging for me–not too challenging, but just enough. Two years ago we visited Yosemite National Park, and we hiked partway up to the top of Vernal Fall. It was a demanding hike, and pretty much every body was huffing and puffing. We made it up to the bridge that’s just shy of halfway to the top. It was good to know when to stop, but it rankled me that I didn’t have the energy or stamina to make it all the way. So I decided that next time I will. Next spring we’re planning another trip to Yosemite, and I’m going to make it to the top of Vernal Fall. I don’t care how long it takes me or how much I have to huff and puff. My only stipulation is that I have to be strong enough to have fun doing it. I don’t want it to be a torture session.
I’ve been training with that goal in mind for months now. Instead of avoiding stairs, I look for them. I’m no longer ashamed of huffing and puffing–I’m proud. I’m pushing myself just enough so that I’m becoming stronger and have more endurance all the time. This summer I discovered that I can hike all day long. What a thrill! In July, Tom and I hiked in Copper Falls State Park from 12 noon until 8 p.m. (we stopped to rest three times). And in August I traipsed around the San Diego Wild Animal Park from 9 a.m. until 8 p.m. (again with three rests). How wonderful to have a body that will carry me through an entire day of fun! I never realized before what a miracle my body is, its glorious ability to build muscle and save me from starvation. I’m only beginning to discover what a marvelous gift it is.
After years of fighting our set points, our metabolism, our genes, and our hunger, after decades of being ashamed, hating our bodies, and trying to manipulate them into being something they’re not, after spending mountains of money and energy trying to conform to someone else’s ideal, it isn’t surprising that some of us question whether this is the best way to for us to live. A few of us brave adventurers have found another way, and it involves much less agony, costs much less money, and is much more fun.
We’re not giving up, and we’re not letting ourselves go. Rather we’re forging a new relationship with our bodies, one that doesn’t involve self-loathing, one that appreciates the miraculous bodies we have, one that brings joy. There’s plenty of room on this new planet, and here you needn’t apologize for your size. You’re entitled to the space you take up. You can find clothes that show off the gorgeous person you are, you can play and dance without self-consciousness, you can be proud of yourself and never dread unwanted attention, you can be a brave pioneer and a friend to those who have suffered on planets less kind and less joyous than this one.
I just thought a lot of the above made sense. maybe just because my head is rebelling at the moment. What I like is she is not saying ' just eat what you like and be as fat as you can' she is talking sense. Try to be happy and healthy without the primary objective of everyday being weight loss, seems sort of reasonable to me. Love to hear others thoughts! Sorry it's a bit lengthy but I liked all of it and thought some of you would too!