BeckyAll names have been changed. has been active in the fat acceptance movement for a good half-dozen years. She attends and organizes awareness-raising events, takes part in her local fat social scene, and fights to end discrimination against fat people with a powerful combination of weary sadness and righteous anger. She wears her weight like well-adorned armor, betraying no sense of regret or shame in her 480-pound body.
Becky also has an eating disorder. When I asked her how she reconciles these two parts of her life, she replied simply, “I don’t.” Becky hasn’t “come out” about her eating disorder to her peers in the fat acceptance movement and has no plans to do so anytime soon. A binge eater who uses food as a control mechanism, Becky literally shakes when discussing what would happen if she were “found out” within the movement. “That kind of stuff just isn’t talked about,” she explains. “If I actually admitted that I can’t control when or what I eat, and that I hate myself because of it…. I mean, you’re kidding, right?”
The stories of other women prove that Becky’s misgivings are unfortunately justified. Susan, a recovering bulimic, was actually kicked out of a social group for fat lesbians when she started following the food plan given to her by a nutritionist. She was called a traitor and told she was “giving up her soul” with her new regimen, since it meant that she might lose weight as a result of her changed behaviors. “I thought I was losing bad habits, not friends,” Susan laments. “What I discovered is that it’s just not okay to talk about the fact that some people are fat because they have serious problems with food. I was [called] fatphobic, but really I was just trying to save my own life.”
I’ve talked to more than a dozen women like Becky and Susan, all of whom are active in the fat acceptance movement, and all of whom identify as eating disordered. Each feels certain that she would no longer be welcome in the fat acceptance community if she were honest about her sickness.
How has the political and social climate of the fat acceptance movement become one in which its members are legitimately afraid that they will be rejected from the community if they openly acknowledge their diseases?
There is no Stonewall of the fat acceptance movement, no single moment of coalescence. The movement’s origins can be traced back to the creation of the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA), which remains the largest fat acceptance organization in the world. Founded in 1969 by William Fabrey, NAAFA’s mission was a simple one: provide support, legal resources, and solidarity to fat people struggling to thrive emotionally, legally, and physically within an increasingly discriminatory and fat-intolerant society. Its goal, as its title suggested, was to “aid” fat people.
NAAFA still exists, but with one critical difference: The acronym now stands for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. While this might appear to be nothing more than a matter of printing new letterhead, somewhere along the way NAAFA’s primary goal went from “aiding” fat people to promoting tolerance in mainstream society. Instead of supporting the needs of fat people, NAAFA advocates the “acceptance” of fat people as a class.
That strategy makes a certain amount of sense. Fat people are blamed for everything from the morass that is the American healthcare system to the rise of airline fares, and new statistics seem to materialize every day. MSNBC reports that a full 25 percent of all medical costs can be linked directly to obesity, while the New England Journal of Medicine publishes a study claiming that fat is literally contagious; having fat friends, it declares, will make you fat even if you live thousands of miles apart and never share so much as a crème brulée. The shaming of fat people has become a cottage industry through prime-time television programs like Big Medicine, Inside the Brookhaven Obesity Clinic, and, of course, the aptly titled The Biggest Loser. Meanwhile, the “I was a big, fat sinner, but now I’m svelte and redeemed” revival stories of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey (who once proclaimed that losing weight was the single greatest accomplishment of her life, despite having overcome poverty and drug abuse to become the first African-American woman billionaire) continue to make tv and tabloid headlines. In this climate, admitting that some fat people have eating disorders is like putting ammunition in the hands of everyone who seeks to “cure” obesity—to say nothing of modest weight gain—through the humiliation and shaming of fat folks. In this fatphobic mindset, thin people with eating disorders require compassionate treatment (or, more disturbingly, are heralded as icons—see sidebar), but fat people with eating disorders are lazy and deserve what they get.
The arrogance that informs this binary is precisely why broaching the subject in a public forum is so risky. And yet, an open conversation about eating disorders within the fat acceptance movement has the potential to further both the movement’s effectiveness and its integrity. One doesn’t have to look any further than the second wave of American feminism for an example of how internal challenges can ultimately benefit a political group. Thirty years ago, mainstream feminist organizations like NOW were loath to acknowledge lesbians among their cohort, on the grounds that their presence could weaken NOW’s lobbying and coalition-building efforts. They feared the “Lavender Menace” would stall and politically isolate women’s liberation by validating the widespread media assumption that all feminists were man-hating separatists. It took way too long for the feminist movement to realize that lesbian voices would enrich, not destroy, feminism.
When I brought this example to one member of the fat acceptance community, suggesting that the movement would similarly benefit from including and inviting difficult conversations, she replied, “[Just] because we do not incorporate [eating disorders] in our performance art or talk about it to the media is not a show of denial.” Becky and Susan disagree. It is precisely because eating disorders are not openly discussed that many fat people who suffer from bulimia, binge-eating disorder, and pathorexia (defined as disordered appetite, and used to refer to an entire spectrum of disordered eating) feel they aren’t welcome in the fat acceptance movement. Eating disorders are the proverbial elephant in the room that most members of the fat acceptance community pretend not to see. Some of the hushed voices surrounding the issue may be due to the relative youth of the movement, which is still finding its footing and setting priorities. And yet it is precisely because this movement is just now gaining real momentum that the time is ripe for having these conversations. But because the otherwise-diverse movement is silent about eating disorders, it’s easy to see why these hot-button topics seem off-limits. The silence around them magnifies the shame of being both fat and eating disordered in a community that refuses to complicate itself. Quite simply, people with eating disorders are the Lavender Menace of the fat acceptance movement.
A quick look at the NAAFA website is instructive here. NAAFA lists official policies on everything from weight-loss drugs and surgery to employment and adoption discrimination, even feederism (a sexual fetish centered on erotic weight gain), but has no official policy on the treatment of eating disorders. The organization boasts groups for vegetarians, lesbian activists, weight-loss surgery “survivors,” and those with sleep apnea—but offers no forum for those with eating disorders. The only place NAAFA does give any space to eating disorders is in its selection of brochures. And unfortunately, this potentially useful and instructional document is riddled with factual errors and a defensive tone. NAAFA’s stance can be distilled to one simplistic, dangerous notion: If you have an eating disorder, it’s because you are trying to lose weight. If, therefore, you stop trying to lose weight, you will no longer have an eating disorder—easy peasy. NAAFA states that “symptoms of eating disorders are the direct result of attempting to lose weight” [italics mine], and “a major cause of eating disorders is … reduction of food intake.” Not only does NAAFA’s brochure use “dieting” and “weight loss” synonymously—a significant problem in itself—it goes on to offer insights that are as repugnant as they are misguided. According to NAAFA, recovery from an eating disorder is as simple as “stopping the weight-reduction efforts.” Try telling that to anyone who is in treatment for an eating disorder, fat or thin. To suggest that altering one’s diet will “cure” an eating disorder is manipulative and self-serving, not to mention every bit as patronizing as telling a compulsive gambler to just step away from the OTB and open a savings account.
But in what is by far the biggest betrayal of their readers’ trust, NAAFA contradicts decades of medical and psychological research and claims that while the term “compulsive overeating” implies that “binge eating has a psychological cause (i.e., compulsion),” “there is little evidence to support this notion for most fat people who binge-eat.” Now, let’s just be realistic here. Obesity itself is not listed in the DSM-IV, the listing of diagnostic codes used by psychiatrists to classify patients, because, the volume notes, “It has not been established that it is consistently associated with a psychological or behavioral syndrome.” Fair enough. But NAAFA’s claim that there is “little evidence” to support a psychological cause for eating disorders is absurd. While binge-eating disorder, probably the most common eating disorder among fat people, is frequently triggered by food restriction, it is dangerous and irresponsible to imply that there is no pathology around eating disorders. In this instance, NAAFA is willing to risk the physical and psychological well-being of individual fat people in order to protect fat people as a class from charges that they are unhealthy. Although NAAFA claims that its mission is to support members, it’s hard to see how fat people, with or without eating disorders, are being supported through faulty information used to bolster the organization’s party line.
Perhaps more than anything, what NAAFA’s stance on eating disorders proves is the level of misinformation around eating disorders in all areas of mass culture. One prominent radical fat activist (who declined to be named or quoted in this article) defined the fat acceptance movement’s take on eating disorders in a simple phrase: “Not every diet turns into an eating disorder, but every eating disorder begins with a diet.” This is, of course, blatantly false; not only does the statement focus specifically on eating disorders that involve restrictive eating (as opposed to overeating or binge-eating disorders), it highlights the very biggest misconception around eating disorders: that they are about food. Eating disorders are no more about food than alcoholism is about beer. It is widely recognized in treatment communities that eating disorder symptoms are about helplessness and control—not, intrinsically, about food. Just as a drug addict shoots heroin to avoid painful or uncomfortable emotions, an eating-disordered person either reaches for food as a way to stuff the feelings down, or turns away from food in order to try to establish a sense of control over an out-of-control life. Reducing eating disorders to a habit of dieting is grossly oversimplifying a complicated psychological process. Although fat activists might assume that their antidiet stance could discourage or treat eating disorders, this oversight highlights the exclusion of eating-disordered individuals from the fat acceptance movement and the broader ignorance about eating disorders as a whole.
Indeed, the most concrete proof that the fat acceptance movement has lost its way is its reaction to this very article. When I solicited input from members of my local fat acceptance community, I was shocked at the vehemence with which I was told, in one way or another, to simply shut up. One fat activist responded to my inquiry by saying, “I would hate to see the work that has been done [within the fat acceptance movement] torn into.” I was accused of being fatphobic and “healthist;” I was told I was going to make the entire movement look like “a bunch of sickos”; and I was literally threatened, as one woman suggested that I change my phone number and move, since the backlash “won’t be pretty.” This level of defensiveness says everything about the fear of mainstream culture that has permeated the fat acceptance movement. The dread of being judged is now greater than the desire to “aid” fat people, no matter how complicated and unattractive the truth of our lives may be.
An unintended consequence of this heavy-handed resistance is that it has forced me to examine my extremely complicated attempts to reconcile my own eating disorder with my 10 years as an activist in the fat acceptance movement. I am left to wonder if it’s possible to simultaneously struggle with my own body and be in full acceptance of others’ bodies. Is it possible to be part of a movement that either willfully or inadvertently misunderstands a critical piece of my own life, so that, like Becky and Susan, I feel welcome only as long as I remain closeted? In a fatphobic world, fat people are hated simply for daring to walk around unashamed. And in a culture that rarely deals well with complexity, it may be too much to ask that we understand that people can demand acceptance before they are perfect.
Despite this bleak picture, there may be some hope on the horizon. This year’s NAAFA conference featured a presentation and workshops by Deb Burgard, an expert in eating disorders and member of the organizations Health at Every Size and Association of Size Diversity and Health. Burgard has been working within the fat acceptance movement for 25 years and doesn’t agree that there is a deliberate silence within the movement. She nevertheless advocates what she calls “stereotype management skills” and the bolstering of an “emotional immune system,” both of which could help lower the level of defensiveness and fear within the fat acceptance movement and allow the critical space for discussions of eating disorders among radical fat activists.
While Burgard’s work at this year’s NAAFA conference was not specifically about eating disorders, I hope the inclusion of her voice is a sign of the fat acceptance community’s growing willingness to leave its collective comfort zone. So do Becky and Susan. If we have learned anything from the modern feminist movement, it is that those among us with the most complicated stories often have the most valuable insights to share. There is no excuse for the creation of a new Lavender Menace, and there should be no tolerance for enforced silence within any political movement, let alone those who claim to be radical—no matter how well intentioned their mission may be. The fat acceptance movement is too young to silence its own members, and the lives of fat people are far too complex to reduce to a few media-friendly, thin-pandering sound bites.
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