Today we talk about why there is so confusion regarding fat acceptance, body positivity and health at every body size.
Many people feel anger and confusion when they hear talk about fat acceptance and health, which is why groups like Overeaters Anonymous form so people can talk about their food struggles without judgment. For example, they may say:
- How can you tell me someone who weighs 400 lbs is healthy? There’s no way you can be healthy at every size!
- Why are you trying to promote obesity? There are real health complications with obesity. Saying all bodies are positive promotes obesity.
I’ll give you my opinion on the confusion regarding fat acceptance and body sizes below.
Then after I finish clearing up the confusion and leaving you with a broader perspective, I’ll switch topics to compassion and body image in the second half of this blog post within these two topics:
- “How to minimize the harmful effects of a negative body image”
- “How to use ‘the global aspect of self compassion’ to start healing a negative body image
About the author and terminology.
While writing this I am aware that I am a white, thin, privileged and grateful male. I don’t fully relate to the struggles of having a bigger body in a society that discriminates against people living in bigger bodies. I also don’t always use the most politically correct language, as I try to focus my writing for the general reader.
For example, I use the word ‘fat’ in the following piece not as a judgment but as a descriptor of body size. This may offend you, but I have talked to other people in the Health At Every size Community who don’t mind the term fat as a descriptor. I also routinely use fat acceptance and body positivity as synonyms for each other, although I do recognize they are not identical, again, this is because my intent is to write to the general reader
Without further ado let’s start with the confusion and controversy around Health At Every Size.
Why Health At Every Size Is Confusing:
At it’s heart, Health At Every Size is a fat acceptance movement that incorporates elements of social justice, activism and health reform. It was started by Linda Bacon, a researcher who noticed that overweight people are not always unhealthy.
However, the term ‘Health At Every Size’ has brought up confusion and controversy. This first section will clarify the confusion, and I totally understand where the confusion about the slogan ‘Health At Every Size’ comes from.
What else were they supposed to call the fat acceptance movement? Health At 95% of Sizes?
A slogan is necessarily overly simplified. You need a short statement to summarize a bunch of points.
If you think the phrase ‘Health At Every Size’ literally means health at every size, well, you are correctly reading that slogan right. But there’s an incredible depth you’ll miss if you take the statement totally literally and stop there. Don’t take the slogan literally, all the time.
If you take the statement ‘Health At Every Size’ literally, it’s downright confusing. But based on my 30+ conversations with Health At Every Size practitioners, this is not what the statement means.
Every professional that I’ve talked to on the Eating Enlightenment podcast agrees. Health At Every Size does not literally mean health at every size.
Here’s what Linda Bacon, founder of Health At Every Size movement, has to say:
“Health at Every Size does not claim that everyone is at a healthy weight. What it does do is ask for respect and help people shift their focus away from changing their size to enhancing their self-care behaviors — so they let weight fall where it may naturally.” -From Body Respect by Linda Bacon and Lucy Aphramor (2014)
And this is why Health At Every Size Is confusing. The founder of the fat acceptance movement herself says that the literal meaning of ‘Health At Every Size’ is not precisely what the movement stands for!
And yet, what else would you call the fat acceptance movement? Yes, it’s a bit confusing. In hindsight, maybe it would have been better to name it something like ‘Becoming Healthier At Any Size Is Possible’.
That’s a mouthful, not nearly as catchy, and boring.
For whatever reason, Health At Every Size stuck for the fat acceptance movement, and now we’re talking about it, so … let’s just accept that and move on.
Now that we’ve covered why the slogan Health At Every Size is confusing, and a bit about the origin of the fat acceptance movement, let’s explore why the concept of Health At Every Size is controversial.
Why Health At Every Size Is Controversial
Many people understandably think that Health At Every Size means ‘you can be healthy at every size.’
People then get mad thinking that Health At Every Size is ‘denying that obesity is harmful for health.’
This is also why people can get very upset about the word ‘fat acceptance’. They think the fat acceptance movement is promoting obesity for fat people.
People get mad thinking a bunch of fat people came up with this phrase because they were lazy and didn’t want to work out.
Yet nothing could be further from the truth. ‘Fat acceptance’ and ‘Becoming Healthier At Any Size’ are meant to totally shift how you think about health, weight loss and your body.
These phrases represent an incredibly different way of thinking about weight loss, health and your body. Way different.
Here’s an example of how thinking can change radically:
Only a few hundred years ago, people thought the world was flat. Then Galileo came along and showed this was wrong. While some still denied it, most realized the earth was round, which then totally changed how people thought about themselves.
Similarly, there is an enlightenment movement that is revolutionizing how we think about weight loss, health and your body.
That’s why I call my site Eating Enlightenment. It’s about fundamentally shifting the way you think about health.
When I use the phrase ‘Eating Enlightenment’, I’m referring to the other different movements, too, like intuitive eating, health at every size, and other philosophies which challenge conventional thinking about weight and health.
What Health At Every Size Really Means
For starters, let’s remember that these movements aren’t against weight loss. Instead, they are against the purposeful pursuit of weight loss.
Basically, trying to lose weight does more harm than good.
Here’s where things challenge conventional thinking. Conventional mainstream thinking emphasizes dieting and the goal of weight loss. Fat people, in this mindset, are seen as lazy and personally responsible for their ‘disease’.
In contrast, these enlightenment movements – which focus on fat acceptance, health at every size, body positivity, etc … They change your perspective on weight loss. They change how much weight loss matters, they challenge you on how valuable weight loss is, and this has radical implications which can help fat people re-orient themselves towards their body in an incredibly refreshing way.
And, again, this is where some people get angry at these movements. This is why there is a clash between mainstream thinking about dieting, weight loss and body image.
This is why you can have so many doubts about embracing intuitive eating.
Because one side of you is feeling pulled towards mainstream dieting beliefs, and intuitive eating is proposing a different view of reality.
But having this dilemma is also the beginning of how you can have global compassion for yourself. We’ll talk more about this aspect later, but global compassion is realizing that you grew up in an environment that was extremely harsh towards people living in bigger bodies.
As a result of living in this environment, you automatically have negative thoughts towards having a bigger body. You were programmed by society to hate your body, in essence.
Global compassion is where you realize other fat people are struggling too within this harsh society towards bigger bodies.
When you can see how you are not alone, that there are other fat people in this social media society who are just as confused as you are, this realization can help you crack open and be nicer to yourself.
Brief Summary of Fat Acceptance Article So Far:
One aspect of global compassion is realizing that there is a conflict within our society, and within yourself, about how to think about weight loss and health.
- Mainstream dieting culture will say ‘be healthy to lose weight.’
- Enlightenment movements say ‘be healthy’.
Fat activists essentially take weight loss out of the equation. And yes, this can sound crazy!
When you have grown up hearing all about weight loss, weight loss being the standard of success, hearing about these other movements can sound confusing, especially coming from fat activists. Yet, as I stated earlier, I am not what you would typically consider when you think of fat activists. The truth is the body positivity and other enlightened movements have a pretty good case.
But even when fat acceptance has a good point – it’s still pretty confusing! And that’s something that we need to realize is normal.
It’s okay to be confused, or to have a hard time understanding these fat acceptance concepts. This attitude of allowing for confusion, understanding the mental conflict that is going on, and how so many millions of fat people feel the same – this is global compassion.
The Basic Statistics of Enlightened Eating Movements
Let’s step away from compassion and come back to the cultural clash going on. The conflict going on between fat activists and the fashion industry, the cultural beauty standards and social media versus the truth of size discrimination.
In the context of this article, there are two primary ways of looking at health and body weight. The first is the mainstream dieting approach. Hopefully, in this section, I can demonstrate in a very rational way some of the basic premises of the other way, of these ‘enlightened eating’ movements.
For starters, we have to realize that dieting and body shaming is harmful. We have to realize that trying to lose weight is as deadly as cancer for most people.
We have to realize that trying to lose weight is what’s actually causing people to become obese.
That’s the first premise that all these enlightened eating movements stand upon. That trying to lose weight causes incredibly harmful health issues for most people.
(Again, this can be a shocking premise, like the earth isn’t flat. It’s hard to wrap your mind around, and because of this difficulty, we have to have compassion for our struggles and for the cultural struggle we are in right now).
Look around you.
60% of America is overweight. All these people, or at least the vast majority like 95% or more who are overweight, have tried countless times to lose weight. And they all face weight discrimination in varying degrees because they live in a media society of body shaming.
The results speak for themselves.
Dieting, weight loss programs, and intentional attempts to lose weight are dangerous, and lead to weight gain, eating disorder habits, high blood pressure and worse health outcomes.
For example, take a look at these symptoms:
- Increased all-cause mortality and increased mortality from cardiovascular disease
- Increased risk for myocardial infarction, stroke, and diabetes
- suppressed immune function
- cardiovascular disease
- increased high density lipoprotein cholesterol
- increased systolic and diastolic blood pressure
These symptoms are NOT describing obesity. They are describing the effects of going on and off diets for years, losing weight and gaining weight back.
In other words, dieting and purposefully trying to lose weight is harmful. The media is starting to incorporate more body positivity messages, but for decades obese people have been vilified.
Imagine an obese person trying to lose weight, blaming themselves for not losing weight, and then facing weight discrimination by society on top of that. That’s a horrible thing to consider, and then you realize this has been people’s entire life.
Here’s something perhaps even worse: people who lose weight most of the time gain back even more weight.
In terms of being measurable, these negative impacts are just as real as learning that the earth revolves around the sun. Back hundreds of years, Galileo got mainstream Church culture really mad when he said the earth revolved around the sun. But he had the numbers, he had the evidence, and so he couldn’t be denied.
The same is happening these days with intentional weight loss in society. It. Just. Doesn’t. Work.
Ok, so that’s the first point, rethinking about how you lose weight; the enlightened eating movements challenge your traditional assumptions about weight loss. Does dieting to lose weight even work, or not?
Is it skillful or appropriate to attempt to lose weight in the first place? If your intention is weight loss, these movements propose that you’re on the wrong path.
Intentional weight loss … Just. Doesn’t. Work.
Ok, you get the point. This goes contrary to mainstream assumptions in so many different ways.
Now let’s examine the second point, about how enlightened eating movements challenge your traditional assumptions.
Is Weight Loss Pre-Occupation Unintentionally Causing Negative Health Outcomes?
Now that we have established that intentional weight loss is harmful, we have to question our existing value system, especially in regards to obese people.
Our existing system says, essentially, that only the bottom left corner ‘Thin’ is healthy. Obese people and even overweight people are all lumped together and seen as bad. This is why body positivity is so important.
Surely, we can recognize that there are naturally bigger people. Yet, for the most part, big is bad.
Now we know for a fact that people have genetically different body types:
You can be a bigger person, just by your genetics alone.
So this begs the question, are we putting undue pressure on people who are bigger and healthy, to lose weight and potentially harm themselves? There is a difference between overweight people and obese people. For overweight people, some research has indicated they might be healthier than more thin people! Certainly, at a minimum, overweight people need to have less stigma because they could even be healthier than their more skinny peers judging them!
Imagine a girl who is just entering high school.
She’s naturally a bit curvier around the waist due to her genetics. Her doctor then tells her to lose weight, as do her friends and family. Yet because of the impossible body standard, she thinks of herself as fat and unworthy.
She then goes and tries to lose weight for the next 20 years, and ends up even heavier, less confident, and extremely, horribly … existentially, frustrated. None of this would have happened if no one cared about weight, or belittled fat people.
Yet because no on in society realizes that fat people can be healthy, all fat people are seen as lazy, weak willed, make stupid lifestyle choices, are immoral, and inferior. Of course people are going to try and lose weight, even if it harms them, to avoid being discriminated against!
Furthermore, is it also possible that thin and healthy people are deathly afraid of fat, are putting pressure on themselves to lose weight and become too skinny, like anorexic thin?
This is the top left square. Is it possible to be too thin? Are there dangers in promoting thinness at all costs? We now that eating disorders are much more likely to develop in people who are obsessed with being thin and fearful of fat.
If we can see how this cultural body image of thinness is causing more harm than good, then we can begin to open up to other ideas, like fat acceptance. Again, this is not a health statement saying ‘obesity is perfectly healthy’ but rather a moral statement and a social one (which also challenges how we think about fat people in terms of health too).
This is where the movement to advance fat acceptance, and the development of compassion, begin to come in.
How To Minimize The Harmful Effects Of A Negative Body Image
Here’s where compassion is very important, because the truth about fat may hurt:
This quote from Melainie Rogers says it all, “the saddest thing about weight cycling, is that you may have permanently damaged and slowed down your metabolism.”
This statement is important to internalize because it totally shifts how one relates to fat.
Most of the time, one despises their fat, and to a degree rightfully so in the sense that their fat is causing them shame. Other people are judging one person’s work ethic, social status, and character because of their bigger body.
This person could be in the bottom right square square, ‘healthy’ and ‘bigger’. Yet they are negatively judged because of their body size, regardless of their health.
It’s easy to hate your fat.
But when you hate your fat, you just want the fat to go away. You just want weight loss. (This is what the media, and weight loss industry want, by the way, so you buy another diet program.)
You become obsessed with weight loss. As a result, you end up dieting. You end up trying to control yourself around food, denying yourself from ‘unhealthy’ foods. Then of course, some junk food catches your eye, you binge eat, and quit your diet. It’s all your fault, and you need to diet again.
Oh, and maybe you’re not a dieter, but are you a clean eater? Now these days ‘wellness’ is in vogue, and the terms ‘clean eating’ are popular. Yet it’s the same thing that’s just going by a different name.
This. Just. Doesn’t. Work.
You have to first accept your fat, your body, the way it is. If you can practice fat acceptance, and embrace a compassionate attitude towards your body, then you can approach health, nutrition, exercise and other health behaviors from a different perspective.
With a different perspective, one can succeed at health.
Let’s now talk about developing compassion, which is the key to developing a new perspective.
How To Use ‘the Global Aspect Of Self Compassion’ To Start Healing A Negative Body Image
Let’s return to the idea of compassion, developing compassion for our bodies. This is different than body love! Body love seems too romantic, and be hard for people to imagine loving their body. Yet compassion is an ancient practice that pre-dates the need for body positivity and body love. Hundreds of years ago, people didn’t hate their bodies like they do nowadays. Now that’s crazy, right?
Traditionally, there are three aspects of compassion – mindfulness, global compassion, and loving phrases. In this section we’ll tie the above information into the second aspect of compassion.
This second aspect of global compassion is about having compassion for yourself, because your struggles are normal. Many others are struggling with the same problem. Many others have it worse than you.
Normalizing your struggles is the key to the second point about compassion.
(Please remember, this is not giving up. This is not saying weighing 400 pounds is healthy.)
Normalizing your struggles simply means that you recognize others are stuck just like you. Others are hurting over their fat, just like you.
What this normalizing does is help shift your inner voice from criticism to compassion.
For example, if you have been lied to, made fun of, had incessant comments thrown your way, tried weight loss a thousand times, and are filled with bitterness…
Realize that you are not alone.
60% of America is right there with you.
And millions of others are in the same boat as you. This does suck. And you are not alone.
Is there a voice in your head calling you a worthless piece of shit for not losing weight? Do you really need that voice, especially when so many other people are struggling with the exact same problem?
This is the element of global compassion.
When you see that other people are struggling with the same problem you are, you’ll be more likely to treat yourself with compassion instead of criticism.
When some one sees themselves as alone, this one person will judge themselves harshly. Yet when one sees they are in a similar situation as other fat people, this one person will be kinder to themselves because they don’t feel excluded.
And if you can treat yourself with compassion, instead of criticism, you’ll end up being a whole lot more healthy in the long run.
This is why fat acceptance is so important. Fat acceptance is simply changing your attitude towards your body from criticism to compassion. You have to accept the situation you are in sucks, and realize millions of other people are also stuck too.
And what about childhood obesity? These children don’t even have a chance. What about them?
Global compassion opens you up to see the incredible suffering caused by the mainstream weight loss industry. When you can see how horrible it is for people who are trapped in bigger bodies, you can then start to be nice to your ‘fat’ body.
And then, as you start to be nicer to your ‘fat’ body because you realize you are not alone in your struggle, you can also practice compassion for how incredibly difficult it is to fight this internal battle.
But , if you have a bigger body, initially reading these words is probably going to upset you in some way (I bet). Some of these words are going to get under your skin.
The eating enlightenment movements do stir up these anxieties. They stir things up. They challenge conventional assumptions about health.
It’s inevitable that you will struggle to be nice to your body. And that freaking sucks that you have to struggle to like your body! That’s a horrible struggle that you shouldn’t even have in the first place!!!!
But, the struggle for body image is real.
Oftentimes we think can avoid the struggle by rigidly focusing on losing weight as a way to channel our frustration. Yet focusing on weight loss, oftentimes, is a simple way for us to delay facing this reality.
It’s easier to work really hard at losing weight, than it is to change our body images. And social media these days is making it harder for fat people.
But just know you and over a billion other fat people have to fight this battle. I’m fighting it too, my battle with shame is ongoing. Admittedly, I am a white, privileged, male and I don’t fully relate to all fat struggles. Yet addictive tendencies, my own disordered eating habits, my own struggles with body image, and my own struggles with shame are real.
I wish I didn’t have these internal problems, but I do. And I can see that many other people do as well, and not just fat people. Because many other people struggle with anxiety and emotional turmoil, I realize that it’s normal that I do as well.
Being okay to struggle, being okay to suck, I can then open up, and soften. I can lighten up.
This type of opening up does wonders for your mental health.
And if I can lighten up, I can learn to love the process. I can learn to fall in love with healthy behaviors, just for the sake of health!
It really sucks to have to fight this fat battle, but if you can lighten up and be compassionate to yourself, you’ll find ways to be healthy that are enjoyable to you. I know this may sound crazy. Love myself? Love the journey? What the hell is he talking about?
Well, compassion opens your mind up. You can figure out these ways of love, or at least ‘self-respect’ if love is too strong a word for you.
And once you find ways of being healthy that are enjoyable to you, you’ll stick with these new habits. As you stick with these new habits, you’ll gain skill.
Health is a skill. In most types of medical care, they give you a pill or a surgery or a program to follow – but no one ever emphasizes building skills. Yet skills are the key, and as you improve at your skill in health, you’ll become far healthier than you otherwise would have been.
Instead of constantly hating yourself, or your fat body, through weight loss attempt after weight loss attempt, fat acceptance and enlightened eating movements offer an alternative.
How To Love The Process
If you can practice compassion, you can learn to love the process.
And by ‘love’ the process, I am not saying you are deeply in love with the process all the time.
But you are seeing progress. You are meeting your emotional needs for respect, comfort, and learning. You are taking care of your mental health by resting, finding support and expressing yourself.
In your old way of thinking, for example, you go on a walk one day. You’re very tired afterwards. In your default state, you criticize yourself. “You weak piece of shit.”
And then you don’t like walking, because you felt bad after walking. Walking highlighted the fact that you were weak.
Perhaps you took a stroll around the neighborhood and saw all these thin people walking. You compare yourself to these people and feel horrible.
Your fat is an evidence of failure.
But with global compassion and fat acceptance, you see a different alternative.
You see that you ignorantly dieted in the past, and live in a culture that is harmful to bigger bodies. You know that millions of other people have this same problem as you, and knowing this, you find a sense of inner strength.
Now, instead of criticizing yourself for how weak you are, you give yourself a gentle pat on the back. You made it around the neighborhood!
Now you see you made progress, and recognized your progress. You were gentle with yourself, and hopefully now you feel good, or at least a little better.
Now walking has made you feel good. It’s not done for weight loss because you’re a fat person and need to lose weight. When you think of yourself as a fat person who needs to lose weight, and is walking to lose weight, all the joy of walking disappears.
It’s hard to make healthy lifestyle choices when you are relating to yourself as a ‘fat person who is lazy and needs to walk in order to be healthy’. Within this thought is the implication that you are inferior, and people won’t stick with lifestyle choices that imply they are inferior.
If you repeat this process of slowly trying new health behaviors like walking and giving yourself plenty of compassion along the way, you can learn to not-hate the process.
And if you don’t hate the process, if it’s just ok, you’ll continue. And seeing continued progress will build your confidence.
After a few weeks of walking, you’ll be ready to walk twice around the neighborhood. After a few months of walking, maybe you’ll be ready to run if that’s what you want..
Previously, self-criticism would strike you down and you’d never continue. The process made you feel bad about yourself because you were comparing yourself to other people.
But with compassion, your standards and ideas about fat have changed.
You’re accepting of your fat as it is. You’re not beating yourself up most of the time.
You realize that you grew up in a culture that body shamed fat people. So because you grew up in this fat phobic culture, you automatically internalized these ways of thinking about fat.
While having these thoughts is a huge, huge bummer, other people have these thoughts too. Now, knowing that it’s ok to struggle, you’re able to see the progress you’ve made.
Instead of struggle or fat being a sign of failure, struggle is a sign of progress through the lens of compassion. Progress leads to more progress. Eventually, progress leads to confidence. And confidence leads to more self-love, respect and esteem.
Fat Acceptance Conclusion:
Fat acceptance, intuitive eating, and health at every size (enlightened eating movements, as I like to say) are not against weight loss.
They are about realizing the limitations of weight loss. More important, they are about shifting your internal dialogue so that you relate to your body and health om a much kinder way.
And the best thing is, if you can shift your perspective and ‘let go’ of weight loss – you’re paradoxically much more likely to discover long term healthy behaviors that you enjoy. These changes can lead on their own to weight loss.
As you focus on progress, compassion and more compassion, you’ll stick with these behaviors for the long term.
That’s what leads to weight loss anyways, right? The simple things done over and over again.
But instead of forcing yourself to do these simple things – like walking or eating – you’ve now discovered your intrinsic motivation to do these things on your own.
And that is much more likely to lead to lasting weight loss in the long run anyways, by giving up on weight loss in the first place.