Rising Obesity and the ‘Fat Acceptance’ Movement: Finding a Middle Ground

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Public health, obesity, weight gain, body shaming, Leon Kaye, fat acceptance
Advertisements have long offered solutions to help people stay thin.

As concerns over the impact of America’s obesity crisis rise, the “fat acceptance” social movement is also becoming more vocal.

Proponents of what is also called “size acceptance” say they want to end the bias society often directs toward overweight people, especially women. They also point out that it is more than possible to be “fit and fat.” Critics of this movement, including journalist Cathy Young in a 2013 Boston Globe op-ed, respond that this movement’s supporters downplay the dangers of obesity on human health and say anyone who suggests one can be overweight yet healthy is in “denial.”

This discussion is a personal one for me, as I have had my share of body image issues over the years and am close to several friends and family members who have struggled with their weight. I often think of two good friends, akin to two peas in a pod, that I’ve known for over 20 years. One of them is thin; the other, while not obese, is definitely more than full-figured. Most would assume that it’s the thin one who excelled in taekwondo and bicycled across entire countries as an adult — but it’s actually the reverse.

Hence we have a debate that stirs plenty of emotion, and even invective, on both sides, with no obvious middle ground. Indeed, it does not take much research to find the links between obesity and heart disease, as well as the risk of strokes, type 2 diabetes and cancer.

But it also does not take many Web searches to realize that overweight people are subjected to a long list of indignities. One can argue that discrimination in the workplace is the last frontier of bias, as society has made far more progress on guaranteeing the acceptance and equality of women, racial and ethnic minorities and, more recently, the LBGT community. Whether the punishment is body shaming on social media, unconscious or direct bias during the job interview process, or comments that range from the inappropriate to the downright hurtful, overweight people confront indignities day-in and day-out. And again, women shoulder most of this pain.

In recent years, research suggested that “fat shaming” does not help obese people lose weight, but instead can actually cause even more weight gain. If the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, only to expect different results, then we need to look for an approach to obesity that is not focused on humiliation and punishment. Society must confront the fact that the collective struggle with weight gain is more complex than a lack of restraint or dismissal of personal responsibility.

Opponents of the fat acceptance movement often insist the solution to obesity is simple. People need to recognize they are overweight, or even obese, and that will motivate them to transition to a healthier lifestyle. But last year, a study in the United Kingdom concluded that, in fact, such thinking often causes a feeling of stigmatization which can lead to stress eating. Add several other factors, and the fact is that finding common ground on how to tackle the challenges of weight and health deserves more thoughtful discussion. So, where does this conversation start?

True, we can point to the proliferation of huge restaurant portions, fast food and processed junk. In many communities, poverty exacts its toll. The images and ideas with which the media bombard us, which were at their most grotesque during the 1990s with the “heroin-chic” look of Kate Moss and later Erin O’Conner (who in 2011 slammed the industry and said she sometimes could not fit in to what she was asked to wear on the catwalk), also do not help. Furthermore, the stubborn science called genetics remains. But one constant obstacle that must be addressed is the often unhealthy psychological relationship people have with food.

On that last point, TriplePundit spoke with Cynthia Stadd, whose Colorado-based practice, Eat Empowered, works with clients to change their relationship with food and their bodies. Much of Stadd’s approach is based on her personal experience, which included years of weight struggles, compulsive eating and chronic health problems such as sinus infections.

Stadd believes for those seeking to change how their weight impacts their lifestyle, the key breakthrough is to gain personal acceptance of his or her body type. “Thin is not the norm,” she told TriplePundit. “So the question to be answered is: What would your body look like if you were eating correctly? Then the next question is: What is getting in the way of realizing this ‘right’ body type?”

To that end, Stadd focuses on eliminating unhealthy behaviors. Examples include the obvious culprits, such as eating while bored or under stress. She also finds herself addressing the problem of binge eating. But then the problems start to become more complicated. However if a resolution can be found, it can result in far greater rewards. “The path to success is to figure out a person’s relationship with food,” she explained. “What is that emotional connection? The answers involve an emotional process gained through enhanced personal awareness.”

It is that personal awareness where one can find the balance between living a lifestyle with fewer risks and the acceptance of one’s body size that may always be imperfect, but still vibrant and healthy. And it is in those messages of personal awareness and confidence that the oft-maligned fat acceptance movement finds its most important and strongest voice.

Read the words of these people, who again are mostly women, and you will find the vast majority of them are hardly glorifying obesity or dismissing its health challenges. But what they’re saying is that it is possible to carry some extra weight and be healthy, athletic and burst with self-esteem. They say the current narrative, which is often loud, demeaning and insists fat people have a problem, is simply not sustainable.

The larger problem is with a society that insists health and happiness are only attainable if a person is thin. If we are going to tackle the statistics suggesting that almost 70 percent of Americans are overweight, then the task at hand is to understand that solutions are more complex than diet, exercise and simplistic body mass index calculators. Those same calculators also suggest that I’m overweight, despite the fact that I cycle hundreds of miles a month.

Image credit: Classic Film/Flickr

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

2 responses

  1. I don’t think society requires us to be “thin’ to be healthy and happy. (well in some social circles, sure they require you to be thin…think catwalk modeling) I think society expects us to stay within a healthy range, one that doesn’t promote health issues. A little extra weight is one thing, but we have a massive problem where an extra 50lbs is nothing, people who believe you aren’t too overweight until you cross 150lbs or so beyond what is medically recommended. So yeah, I feel we enable people when we act like it is more arbitrary than it actually is. Some of us are bigger than others, that is not a problem, but being defensive when you see you are more than 30lbs off of the healthy range for your build is just denial and it doesn’t help society to act like it’s just fine. Smokers are often good people, just as valuable as non-smokers, but we’ve been smart enough to accept the fact we shouldn’t promote that lifestyle.

  2. I’ve wondered if society fat shames because peer pressure can help enforce healthy norms. It’s a cruel world, but sometimes conformity has a fair reason. I appreciate knowing that in the case of food consumption, raised eyebrows only hurt the situation.

    I might also add that the discussion that endocrine disruptors in our lives have been shown to diminish the body’s satiety responses. In other words, those chemicals change us to be less able to sense when we’re full. That’s one study from scientists affiliated with The Endocrine Disruption Exchange, or TedX. http://endocrinedisruption.org/ It’s just one more challenge to add to that of soda, stress, too much fast food, sedentary jobs…!

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