Fat Acceptance as Counter Culture

Silentbeep posted a couple of weeks ago about fat acceptance as counter culture.

I haven’t ever really thought of myself as counter-cultural before. I mean, I’m a white woman with a family income that’s just about exactly equal to the American median. I’m not physically or otherwise disabled, I’m educated, I’m heterosexual and I identify as the gender my body was born with. I have three kids, a husband, and a safe place to live.

In other words, I have a whole trunk full of privileges. I am a pretty good representation of non-counter-culture.

I can walk into a store without being watched as a possible shoplifter.

If I contact a real estate agent, I am automatically shown houses in safe neighborhoods with decent schools. If I look at a house in a ‘bad’ neighborhood, I can expect that someone will stop me from trying to live there. (We took a trip to Carson City and looked at a rental house there. Everyone we spoke to about it, including the person who owned the house, warned us against renting it. Why? Well, one woman Kevin works with said that it’s a “gang area.” Her proof? She used to live in the neighborhood. There are a lot of Mexicans there, and they knocked on her door everyday trying to sell her mangos or corn.)

When my daughter was ill and in the hospital this winter, I expected to be treated well, even though we had no insurance. I was not disappointed.

I was able to marry the person I fell in love with. Twice. And have children with no one questioning my right to parent them.

I am not, of course, perfectly privileged. I’m a woman in a man’s world. And I’m fat.

But I’m privileged enough that even the things that might reduce my bag of goodies, like having spent several years as a poor single mother or coming from a broken family or having my dad in prison when I was a teenager, haven’t.

And then there is being fat.

Being fat comes with a set of perceived cultural obligations, right?

As a fat woman in America, I am expected to want to take up less space than I do. I am also expected to live with and take responsibility for  whatever problems come from taking up too much. For instance, if I’m uncomfortable in an airplane seat, or make others uncomfortable by encroaching on their very limited space, then conventional cultural wisdom says that I am expected to accept that it is my fault and what I deserve for lacking the discipline to be smaller.

I have a cultural obligation to believe that I’m fat because of a defect in my character. That if I just made the decision to be thin, and then was willing to do the work to get there, I would be less of a burden on society, would take up less of the country’s health care and would live forever.

I am expected to have a gym membership, but if I use it I am expected to understand that the other people at the gym will either wish they didn’t have to look at my jiggling fat so often or gush over-enthusiastic pride at me for my dedication to doing something about my body.

I am expected to cultivate behaviors that in smaller women would be causes for concern. There are dozens of books, shelves of pills, commercial programs and white-coated surgeons all dedicated to helping me do this.

As a fat woman, I’m expected to eat less than anyone else in social situations. While thin people are praised for having big appetites, I’m expected to have a less than normal one, at least publicly. Stuffing myself full of snack cakes and bacon in private is pretty much assumed, whether it is true or not.

And as a fat woman, I am expected to try to lose weight.

Arguing against the other examples of what is culturally expected of a fat person doesn’t feel like I’m really flying in the face of much. I mean, fat acceptance is full of fairly radical ideas, but they aren’t totally outrageous. But this one, that I am expected to want to lose weight, is so universal that not trying to lose weight does feel like a counter-cultural act.

It’s so counter-cultural, that I have had to work up into it myself. I can say without hesitation that I deserve enough to eat or to live my life without ridicule. But it isn’t easy to look someone in the face and say, “I’m not trying to lose weight” when you weigh 340 pounds. It isn’t even easy to say it to myself. Not yet.

The desire to lose weight underlies all the other cultural obligations I’m expected to conform to as a fat woman. It’s okay if I need to ask for a seat belt extender on an airplane, as long as I’m doing what I can to shrink. And it’s okay to expose other gym-goers to my jiggling fat when I’m doing it to lose weight.

Not trying to lose weight puts me counter to the cultural norm that says that fat people, especially fat white women, must attempt to take up less space.

Culturally, it is far more acceptable for me to complain about the oppression that fat people are forced to cope with, if I can also say that I’m fat because of a metabolic or glandular problem, or if I have an eating disorder, or anything–as long as I can say that I am doing what I can to try to change my situation.

It’s a little scary, this being counter-cultural. I sometimes get anxious that I’m doing it wrong. That I’m going to offend someone. Or that with all the privileges every other part of my life affords me, I don’t have the right to feel oppressed by being fat. And it isn’t a simple thing to unravel decades of buying into the culturally normal idea that as a fat person, I am obligated to try to lose weight.

But then there is a little voice. It says that I have the right to my space. I have the right to be an athlete if I want to be. I have the right to eat enough. I have the right to stand up for myself and for other people who feel marginalized by what our cultural currently has to say about fat people. When I add my little voice to all the other voices, big and small, out there saying the same thing, it’s exhilarating. I get stronger everyday. That little voice gets bigger everyday.


Filed under body, mind, spirit

17 responses to “Fat Acceptance as Counter Culture

  1. Wonderful, thoughtful post! A couple points really resonated with me: “I am expected to cultivate behaviors that in smaller women would be causes for concern. There are dozens of books, shelves of pills, commercial programs and white-coated surgeons all dedicated to helping me do this.”

    The other is this: “It says that I have the right to my space. I have the right to be an athlete if I want to be. I have the right to eat enough. I have the right to stand up for myself and for other people who feel marginalized by what our cultural currently has to say about fat people.” Amen to both! Thanks for this!

    • I was really nervous about posting this. Some thoughts are easier for me to articulate than others. It means a lot to me that someone I respect so much commented. Thank you, Anna.

  2. Go sister! Well said. I’m doing some wellness programs for women coming soon – yoga, dance, fun exercise & movement, Ayurvedic nutrition – the words “weight loss” are banned from my program. We will aim to eat what makes us FEEL good on all levels (yes, some foods make my spirit feel lovely). I’ve been in the fitness industry a loooonnnngggg time and its high time we detached exercise from weight loss. I move cuz it feels good. Cuz I like the beat. Cuz I like the wind in my hair. Cuz the grapevine feels funky. Cuz I like to play. Cuz I’m at my best when I’m being physical. When I’m being physical my rolls move and undulate like the waves of the ocean. I am liquid. Stagnant energy flows and I feel vital.

  3. Shaunta, this is a very powerful post. Recognizing our privileges is SO HARD sometimes, especially when we have a lot of them, but unpacking them is essential to understanding not only ourselves but others. Once they’re unpacked, sharing and working with others is the next step. Rock on.

  4. Hi Shaunta, found my way here via Dr Samantha Thomas on twitter. I could almost have written this post myself, thank you for your voice.

  5. Lisa

    Thank you for writing this. It really resonated with me. I laughed out loud at “…gush over-enthusiastic pride at me for my dedication to doing something about my body.” I’m a runner, I’m fat and I’m often patronised by slimmer athletes.
    If I’m honest, I’m still struggling with saying I don’t want to lose weight. With the help of posts like this one I’m sure I’ll get there.

  6. Anna


    I never thought of it that way. But it’s so true. From the confused looks I get when I mention I’m going to the doctor for my recent weight loss, as I worry it may be the symptom of disease. When I happily eat a slice of cake in front of the girl having a diet, and she laments how bad she wants one only to get angry when I offer to get her a slice. And these are just the one’s that have happened since I got up this morning.

    It is counter cultural, indeed.

    Great post. I highly enjoyed it.

  7. Pingback: Myth One: Fat is Unhealthy | Live Once, Juicy

  8. Terry

    Great Article.

    I would argue that fat acceptance has become a counter culture. This is evident in criticism against fashion models and other unattainable images that influence our perceptions.

    comments like…
    “She should really eat something.”
    “She’s not a real women.”
    …have become universal within our society as there is a shift from the acceptance of thin and petite to the defense or the advocacy of the heavier set.

    I would imagine that this was the same sociological shift that took place when the heavier women was considered the ideal beauty not too long ago.

    • Interesting perspective. I wonder though if at least some of the time when someone makes disparaging comments about a very thin woman, it isn’t out of some kind of sense of bitterness. The instance of thin women, for instance, having people come up to them on the street (perfect strangers) and recommend a weight gaining diet is probably rare compared to how often that happens to fat women. (I assume the same goes for men, but I don’t feel qualified to talk about their experience.)

      I mean–do you really, really believe that there is a shift right now away from accepting thinness and toward accepting fatness? Really? I just don’t see it.

      That being said, I do think that there is a segment of the female population (again, this probably goes for the male population as well, but I’m not sure how to address it) that is on the other end of the continuum. The very, very thin. I remember on the last season of America’s Top Model, for instance, where the winner was 6’2″ and didn’t look like she weighed much more than 100 pounds. Her thinness went beyond current cultural beauty standards, although I have a feeling it wouldn’t have caused her so much trouble if she wasn’t also extraordinarily tall (even if she was still tall. 5’9″ and 120 pounds, for instance, would be considered very thin, but that girl would be less likely to be ostracized.) I remember this girl talking a lot about how difficult being so tall and so thin was for her. Her saying–I’m okay the way I am. I eat enough, I don’t obsess about my weight–this is just how nature made me–might be considered counter culture as well. The continuum of normal, between the two markers of too thin and too fat is skewed way, way to the thin. Way.

      Consider this. The woman I’m talking about, despite there being tons of hoopla about how thin she was, and how a man could span her teeny waist with his hands, and how horrible it was that Tyra encouraged this sort of thinness–won a supermodel contest. Through out the competition, she was praised hugely for her beauty by not only the show staff, but other people in the modeling world that she came in contact with.

      • Terry

        Well I am not 100% on the shift happening, but I have noticed a lot of popular defense for the heavier women rather than the thin women. The majority of women in the U.S. are “overweight” by social standards. So this shift in empowerment of flaws that are relative to the majority could easily influence the social preference or rather the mentality of our society.

        We are obsessed with fitness, but it is a concept easier said than done. When that cannot be achieved; many would rather come to peace with their state and live life as happily as possible. Others would be more aggressive and push this acceptance upon others. Hostility against the opposite could and have occurred in the form of harassment and passive resentment. This trend catches on and the crusade for fat acceptance is embedded within the minds of the casual citizen.

        So now it has become more noble to uphold the rights and dignity of the fat woman/man. This sense of nobility in the wrong minds encourages negative opinions of the latter. The fat individual is now neither genuinely respected nor accepted, but the illusion of moral defense for the sake is now present in our modern society.

        I argue that fat acceptance is a form of counter culture that is succeeding.

      • If your last sentence means you believe fat acceptance is a form of counterculture that is becoming mainstream, I say from your mouth to the world’s ears. It hasn’t been my experience so far–except in an arena where most people are already part of the counterculture. I’m afraid that saying it’s “succeeding” is like a hippie in San Francisco in 1969 saying that the peace-love-and-marijuana counter-culture is succeeding.

        Thin women don’t need defense in our culture, do they? They are assumed to be healthy, largely considered socially acceptable and fit with our culture’s idea of conventional beauty. I disagree that as a society we are obsessed with fitness. Our society is obsessed with thinness. There is a big difference.

        You are suggesting, I think, that fat acceptance means finding empowerment in our flaws, which suggests that we are flawed. Here’s the thing. Being fat is not a flaw, any more than being short or tall or white or black or Hispanic or having curly hair or straight hair–it just is. I don’t think Fat Acceptance is about finding empowerment in our flaw of being fat, it’s finding empowerment by saying “my body is not flawed. Nobody’s body is flawed.”

        This right here:

        We are obsessed with fitness, but it is a concept easier said than done. When that cannot be achieved; many would rather come to peace with their state and live life as happily as possible.

        Is exactly what I’m trying to combat here. You are equating fitness with thinness and saying that fat acceptance means trying to get fit, failing, and so learning to be happy as unfit, right? But that’s just not the way it has to be. Fat acceptance is about working with the body you were born with and taking really good care of it, without trying to make it shrink.

        Read the comments on a news article regarding some facet of obesity, and you will see loud and clear that there is still a lot of work to do before Fat Acceptance moves away from counter-culture to mainstream.

        (Thank you for this conversation, BTW. I disagree, but I love that you’re reading and participating!)

  9. Terry

    You are correct. I have made a grave mistake by stating that fatness is a flaw, it sure is not, but that is also based on the opinion of the individual.

    I do not agree that society is obsessed with thinness. It is rather obsessed with fitness and the capability to be able to perform strenuous physical activity with vigor.

    High fashion with petite models is a culture in itself, but it does not define our society as a whole, which has a number of venues that portrays the heavier set women in non demeaning roles. We are not as obsessed with thinness as one would think. Recently there has been an increase in the criticism of skinny models, actors, etc.

    I do not mean to offend anyone in any way, but I just feel optimistic about the change in society and their growing acceptance of us heavier people. I just do not enjoy the manner in which it is achieved.

  10. Pingback: Body Loving Blogosphere 03.27.11 | medicinal marzipan

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