Reprint: Why the world needs fat acceptance.

By | July 25, 2011


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Cover of Geez Magazine for summer 2010, showing the back of a fat person's torso.The following was originally printed in the Summer 2010 “Body Issue” of Geez Magazine, a Canadian publication dealing with progressive spirituality. I just learned last week that it actually won something: 1st place opinion piece in the Canadian Church Press awards. Wild, huh? Anyway, that reminded me that the full text of the piece never did make it online, so I’m reproducing it here. 

When I was in the sixth grade, there was a boy in my class who was continually trying to put his hand up my shorts.

It was like a compulsion. His desk was beside mine, in the very back of the classroom, so we were largely unsupervised most of the time. I’d be sitting at my desk and I’d feel someone touch my knee, or the bottom part of one thigh. At the time I was too young, or too naive, to know that I should report this to a teacher. I was however old enough to believe I was somehow at fault, and that his efforts to touch me were embarrassing, even shameful. I took to surreptitiously punching the boy whenever his hand inched toward me. He was small for his age, smaller than I, and why he chose to harass me in this way, I’ll never know.

One day, after many months of foiling his groping attempts, I was called on in class, and had to stand beside my desk to give my answer. As I began to speak, I sensed his hand creeping toward the hem of my shorts, and up my leg. In one smooth movement, ferociously intent on keeping this problem from becoming the public knowledge of the whole class, I stepped backward, crushing his hand between my considerable rear end and the edge of the desk. He cried out in pain, and only when the teacher inquired as to what was going on back there did I turn to look at him with a calculatedly blank stare.

He went to the nurse’s office; I believe he may have had a minor fracture. I occasionally wonder what he told them by way of explanation. At any rate, he didn’t try to touch me after that.

I spent a lot of time as a kid, as many girls do, negotiating the boundaries of my body — the ones I could set, and the ones others would try to set for me. Growing up as a fat kid made this all the more complicated, as I also had to negotiate cultural messages about the abnormality and abhorrence of fatness, and the attendant idea that fatness in a person is ultimately a symbol of a lack of self-control and/or moral character. As a fat kid, I knew my fatness made me bad, but I wasn’t clear on what I had done to deserve my fate. I’m not proud of the violence I perpetrated against that boy. It was the instinctive course of action, sparked by a rage I felt but couldn’t name. With violence, I might succeed in drawing a line. After all, by the sixth grade I’d already spent several years of my life perpetrating a kind of violence against myself, and my body, for failing to conform to my expectations, and the expectations of the culture in which I was living. My body had long been a site for battle.

I was dieting by the time I was eight years old, and though we now shudder in disbelief when we read studies in the news about kindergarteners who think of themselves as fat, and wonder what this world is coming to, it was already happening to me in the mid-1980s. Indeed, I had a keen awareness of my size even before that, but it was around age eight that I came to understand that there were few things in the world as terrible as being fat. As a child I’d sit in the bathtub, look down at myself, and envision neatly slicing away the small rolls on my belly. They were so unnecessary. Why couldn’t they just go away? I learned body-loathing early and I learned it well, well enough that it would take me into my twenties to learn to do without it. I dieted, and when my growing body unfurled knifing pangs of hunger through my every cell, I felt satisfied that I was succeeding. Certainly, the pain meant it was working. I was drawing a line.

We are all participants, willing or no, in a culture that promotes and glorifies this kind of violence against ourselves, and which revels in that violence’s effects. Even the language we use in discussing our body fat is steeped in violence; our fat parts are to be burned, blasted, destroyed, dissolved, eliminated, eradicated, or otherwise abolished. Let’s think for a moment about the broader effects of regarding our bodies—even an aspect of our bodies—with such language and imagery. This thinking divorces us from ourselves, and from the wonderful mechanism which enables us to experience the world. It creates a divide where none should exist. It turns our bodies into enemies, or antagonists, or discrete objects to be controlled and restrained. It denies us healthful connections between the thoughts in our heads, our interactions with the world around us, and the physical form that enables us to connect and communicate. It does us harm.

When I first discovered the idea of fat acceptance, one of the most powerful aspects was the reclamation of sovereignty over my body, and the radical notion that hating myself for failing to be thin was not compulsory, but optional. The alternative was acceptance. Certainly, acceptance is not the popular choice. Being a fat person who is no longer invested in weight loss is choosing a life as an affront to nearly everything culture teaches us about “taking care” of ourselves. Fat people are accused of letting themselves go, failing to take interest in their appearance, or even, with the ultimate dramatic flourish, flirting with suicide. All of this takes place in an atmosphere in which our bodies are increasingly considered public property, open to criticism and debate by an entitled populace. People get angry about fat folks. Very, very angry. I’ve never understood the anger, but it’s there. Once you’ve thrown wide the windows and doors to this anger, the importance of acceptance becomes vividly apparent.

Fat acceptance is not simply about individual choices, though that is an important aspect, and it’s the one that tends to draw people in at first. For some of us, those who would identify as fat activists, it’s also about changing culture, and confronting the social pressures that seek to either depress us into fruitless dieting, or shame us into living as invisibly as possible. Every day that I get up, get dressed, and go out into the world, I am making the case that fat people have a right to exist, to participate in life, and to be seen.

Over the holidays last year, I was walking through the parking lot at my local mall. As I tried to hustle between the slow-moving cars to get inside and do my shopping, I was cut off by a young driver who had decided I wasn’t worth stopping for. A voice from the carful of teens shouted at me: “Jesus, you’re fat!” People love to yell these things from cars. I expect it’s the drive-by aspect that’s so appealing; even if I am of a mind to defend myself, they can deny me the opportunity, because by the time I’ve spoken my response, they’re already gone. This, too, is violence of a sort, a shot fired at my self-esteem, my right to be out in the world, unashamed, meant to take me down a peg or two, to remind me that some portion of the people whom I assault with my corporeal presence on a daily basis are disgusted by me.

This is just something I have to accept, if I’m going to go about my life being fat and persistently visible. It’s a part of my day. But because I know these comments are explicitly intended to drive me underground, they actually serve as inspiration for me to be more ostentatious.

In this case, in that mall parking lot, the teens’ escape was cut off; the car in front of them had stopped to allow a mother with two young children to cross the street, in that slow, thoughtful way that young children do. The kids in the car who’d thrown their insult had nothing else to add; once you call someone fat, you’ve played your hole card. What is there to say after that? Everything else pales. I smiled. I walked around the front of their car slowly. I swung my hips. Then, once I had my back to them I planted a deliberate and unhurried smack of my hand on my own ass. Grinning at first, and then laughing audibly, I entered the mall.

If I am to value myself, and my intelligence, and my contributions to the world, I must also value the vessel that enables me to engage with that world, and that helps me to experience everything that makes me the person I am, no matter how anyone else may try to tear me down. And if I am going to expect others to respect and value my body and my choices, I must value the tremendous diversity of all bodies in return. Fat acceptance isn’t just for me, or just for fat people; everyone needs fat acceptance, because this is a lesson that benefits us all.

Fat acceptance doesn’t simply advocate in favor of fatness. Fat acceptance is also about rejecting a culture that encourages us to rage and lash out at our bodies, even to hate them, for looking a certain way. It’s about setting our own boundaries and knowing ourselves, and making smart decisions about how we live and treat ourselves, and ferociously defending the privacy of those choices. It’s about promoting the idea that anything you do with your body should come from a place of self-care and self-love, not from guilt and judgment and punishment. It’s about demanding that all bodies, no matter their appearance or age or ability, be treated with basic human respect and dignity. That’s the world I’d like to build. For all of us.


32 Comments

ZB on July 25, 2011 at 12:23 pm.

Reading your work almost always makes me feel better about myself and the world, and this excellent piece is no exception. But this one has also made me profoundly sad. I wish I had known you or anyone like you when I was young. I wish I had read something like this when I was 15 or 17. Or even 25. I wish I had fought back, just once, against other children trying to hurt me in school, instead of somehow believing I couldn’t because I WAS fat and therefore somehow deserved it. I wish I hadn’t spent so many years hating myself. I wish I wasn’t still so afraid now, of stupid boys in cars or their equivalent. What a terrible waste. But I’d like you to know that every word you write is helping me. Thank you.

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Janee' on July 25, 2011 at 12:46 pm.

This made my morning. Thank you.

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Megan on July 25, 2011 at 12:54 pm.

Leslie, this sentence sums up what I love so much about the way you write and your blog:

It’s about promoting the idea that anything you do with your body should come from a place of self-care and self-love, not from guilt and judgment and punishment. It’s about demanding that all bodies, no matter their appearance or age or ability, be treated with basic human respect and dignity.

I feel like it might be less obvious, but even those of us who aren’t fat need that. And this. And you!

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Rebecca - we are large people on July 25, 2011 at 1:09 pm.

This is so great Leslie! I may link to it on my weekly links roundup.

Also, just wanted to point out a small typo – “played your hole card” – not sure if that was intentional!

This was my favorite part, it even made me tear up a little, as I’ve been really hating on my belly that won’t stop growing for the past 2 years. I want to stop, but it’s hard.

“If I am to value myself, and my intelligence, and my contributions to the world, I must also value the vessel that enables me to engage with that world, and that helps me to experience everything that makes me the person I am, no matter how anyone else may try to tear me down.”

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Genau on July 26, 2011 at 8:26 am.

“Hole card” as in “ace in the hole” I’m assuming.

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Sarah C. on July 29, 2011 at 9:19 pm.

“Asshole card” would work too!

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i_m_cat on July 25, 2011 at 2:26 pm.

Lesley, I’ve been reading your articles and following you on twitter for about 6 months, and I have to say that you lift my spirits every day. From giving myself permission to wear a cute dress, all the way to healing my young fat self through your articles. (with some video game & shoe fun thrown in the middle) Thank you for sharing your personal stories, they mean so much!

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Devin on July 25, 2011 at 6:40 pm.

Amazing and inspiring as always! Thanks for sharing and congratulations on your award :)

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kbryna on July 25, 2011 at 6:59 pm.

brava! brilliant, insightful and correct as usual.

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Christina on July 25, 2011 at 8:22 pm.

Congrats on the award. Very well deserved. Awesome, moving piece.

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Mercedes on July 25, 2011 at 11:13 pm.

I really respond to a lot of your posts, and I think you bring up some great points above; however, I really struggle with your idea about “should.” I agree with you that the rhetoric that surrounds how we treat our body is violence, can cause violence, and does some harm to us, but I also struggle with your conjecture that pure acceptance exists. I would be curious, not because I agree with – seriously, to see you write something where you see what that language does for us. I am a pretty new fat acceptance person, and I am a giant fat… but I went to graduate school too. Although I went for English, I did spend a lot of time looking at rhetoric. Part of that experience taught me to distance myself from the value judgements of “should” and “bad.” While I respect your perspective of this blog (after having read it and listen to Two Whole Cakes Fatcast every week – yes, I listen to the same episodes all the time because I find them reinforcing), I would be really curious to see what it leads you to look at differently. I would instead argue that we cannot completely dissengage from this dialogue as it is part of our culture from birth. At the same time, I wonder how that language acts on us – not just negatively – what do we get from it?

Along those lines, I would really enjoy having you write about what you feel you have learned. Especially having participated in a more public podcast world, I wonder how your perspectives have changed, refined etc. Thank you, as always, for a great post.

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Abbe on July 26, 2011 at 12:27 am.

That was fantastic. It was a great summation of the thoughts I so appreciate you taking the time to hash out here and on the fatcast. I’m going to pass it on to some of my friends who haven’t yet found their way to FA. And big congrats on the award.

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flightless on July 26, 2011 at 2:35 pm.

I smiled. I walked around the front of their car slowly. I swung my hips. Then, once I had my back to them I planted a deliberate and unhurried smack of my hand on my own ass. Grinning at first, and then laughing audibly, I entered the mall.

YAY. so very much YAY! You are fabulous.

It’s about promoting the idea that anything you do with your body should come from a place of self-care and self-love, not from guilt and judgment and punishment.

I’m still floored; my reaction to this was “wait, ANYTHING i do with my body?” I’m barely to the point of *occasional* self-love instead of judgment. Whew. Hard work but so effin worth it!

Thank you, again.

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thirtiesgirl on July 27, 2011 at 12:29 am.

This article made me cry because the words resonate with me so much.

And yet when I try to stand up for my beliefs in my social circles – at work, online, with my family – I get nothing but crap for it. I will never stop believing in the importance of size acceptance. But every time I try to speak up about it, I get nothing but negativity. Short of online communities like Fatshionista or FuckyeahFatPositive, I find no safe space in my world to discuss size acceptance. And if that’s the case, I’m beginning to wonder how much difference I’m actually making.

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kbryna on July 30, 2011 at 1:30 am.

You may get nothing but negativity back, but i guarantee you that you have given those people something to think about, and that they will not ever think about/look at size matters in exactly the same way as before.

(I teach undergrads, and this past year included an essay about FA. lots of pushback, as expected, but a shocking amount of slowly dawning “Oh HEY! there might be something to this!” and later in the course, more than a few students referenced it in their writing; most weren’t totally sold on FA, but they were all saying “I never thought about this like that before” and “there’s something to what that Fattacus lady said” – it’s a piece by Marilyn Wann in which she refers to herself as Fattacus – for some reason, that stuck with virtually every student. who knows).
Anyway, crooning in my best MJ, “you are not alone” and, in my own non-falsetto voice, I would bet that your FA conversations are having more of an impact that you may think.

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Cate on July 27, 2011 at 10:31 am.

Hear, HEAR!!!

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Fatshion Hustler on July 27, 2011 at 12:00 pm.

fabulous article. undoubtedly a well-deserved award.

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clownremover on July 27, 2011 at 12:43 pm.

Congratulations! Great article.

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ConsciouslyFrugal on July 27, 2011 at 12:50 pm.

Found this via Linda Bacon’s Twitter account. The award for this piece was well-deserved. What a beautiful, beautiful essay. I love that it was placed in a faith-centered publication, as my interpretation of pretty much every religion is that we are called to love, which is exactly what your piece asks us to do. (Well, my interpretation of acceptance, anyhoo!) Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

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Maria on July 28, 2011 at 3:13 pm.

If I am to value myself, and my intelligence, and my contributions to the world, I must also value the vessel that enables me to engage with that world, and that helps me to experience everything that makes me the person I am, no matter how anyone else may try to tear me down.”

I needed to read this today and to remember it everyday. I’m getting better but still struggle – especially with dating. Thank you, Lesley.

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Sarah C. on July 29, 2011 at 9:24 pm.

Thank you so much for this.

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Judy on July 31, 2011 at 9:24 am.

Thanks so much. A well-deserved award.

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Lindsay on July 31, 2011 at 12:42 pm.

“As a child I’d sit in the bathtub, look down at myself, and envision neatly slicing away the small rolls on my belly. They were so unnecessary. Why couldn’t they just go away?”

Holy shit, I could have written this. Thank you. I didn’t know there was something “wrong” with my body until I was 6 or 7, when a bunch of older boys cornered me in the school yard to shout at me about my fat body. What ever happened to just being a kid?

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Tigs on August 1, 2011 at 11:11 pm.

Any chance you could link the jane pieces you write somewhere in the sidebar?

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Lesley on August 2, 2011 at 4:03 pm.

Yes! Done! Really excellent idea, thanks. :)

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stellanorte on August 3, 2011 at 4:19 pm.

This is such a wonderful piece of writing! I keep coming back here to read it again and again. Open-hearted and just effing brilliant, thats what you are! Thank You!

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Great Big Girl on August 3, 2011 at 7:12 pm.

I heart this article so hard. What I especiallyu love is that it really demonstrates the power of personal experience and shows that when we tell our personal stories–big or small–things change for the better.

I’ve forwarded this link to a bunch of my thinner friends because yeah, it is something everyone needs to read. Thanks!

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The Triumphant on August 11, 2011 at 4:00 am.

If only the thickheads at my school read this.

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Elizabeth on August 13, 2011 at 11:12 am.

Beautiful.

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Cecilia on September 1, 2011 at 3:34 pm.

Very well written piece, and I’m very glad your perspective is reaching the hearts & minds of many who need to hear its inspiring message. I do, however, have an honest question for you – with no ill intent or ulterior motive… When does acceptance become enabling? Or is there no such thing as the latter (in your opinion) because acceptance should be unconditional? Is there a point where “accepting” an overweight person is encouraging a lifestyle which may lead to illness and possibly an untimely death? And I’m not talking about society playing a role in the health and lifestyle of complete strangers. I completely agree with you about it being a very personal, private decision (whether or not to undertake a weightloss effort). I’m talking about family & friends who care deeply for the overweight people in their lives. Do you believe that keeping silent while your loved ones continue to engage in habits detrimental to their health is “accepting” them? And always the best option? For personal reasons, I struggle very much with this issue. I’d love the perspective of intelligent, articulate people who can offer an insight I might not have considered before…

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Anon on January 7, 2012 at 8:41 am.

Thanks for this article. My cousin is 12 years old, and is visiting Australia from Korea for a few weeks. She’s a bright lovely girl, but every second moment she’s criticising her body in some way. She is not fat, at all. But one moment, it’s “my nose is too wide”, the next it’s “I need to lose weight on my legs.” Every time we go out and have chips or a burger or some other tasty treat, she starts talking about the calories and her need to lose weight. I asked her why she was concerned about losing weight, and she replied that she has to start wearing a school uniform soon, which consists of a skirt, and she has to have slim legs. What’s more, this, in her world, is apparently completely the norm- She was surprised to see larger people wearing short shorts and skirts when we went out, saying that in Korea they wouldn’t dare. All of these things she says in passing, with a bit of a giggle, and it didn’t stop her from munching through delicious brownie/ice cream goodness during the day, but God it makes my heart sink. The pressure in Korea for girls to be skinny and look like dolls I think is much greater in Korea than in Australia (I’ve had other glimpses into what it’s like). I’m sure that there are many exceptions… but It makes me want to cry.

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Emma on May 26, 2012 at 1:24 pm.

Dear Leslie,

I come to this piece at the age of 25, via a rabbit hole of links from your piece on the daily mail. After twenty years of being “fat,” I’m now a distance runner and a yoga practitioner, and I’ve grown to love whole foods in balanced quantities.* At 5’9″, I’ve been 275 pounds, and am now about 145-150 pounds, and hope to keep it that way as long as I live. It took me six years to lose 125 pounds, and it went up and down and up and down the whole time until very recently. I starved and binged, I drank and smoked cigarettes, I smoked pot every day for five years, I lost 30 pounds every summer only to gain 20 back every winter. Depression, desperation, and fear. Finally, for six months and hopefully for the rest of my life, I’ve stabilized at a weight the medical establishment deems “healthy.”

The problem is the mind, which hasn’t quite caught up yet. I’ve trained myself and practiced enough to love exercise and a clean diet, but not my body, not yet, I just don’t understand it! My boyfriend, a vegetarian and a doctor, said to me last night: “you should go out and buy a pair of shorts tomorrow, it’s going to be so hot and YOU’RE going to be so hot!” I said, “but I’ve never worn shorts before! I don’t even know where to start!!” It’s the truth. I’ve never worn a pair of shorts in my whole life because I was so ashamed of my legs and my shape and the eyes and judgements of strangers. It wasn’t anything negative anyone ever said – I was always the smartest girl in the class, the musician, the one people came to when they had things that were hard to talk about, I was *loved* – it came from within, from a place of fear. Fear is a cage I built around myself, a cage so much larger than any physical attribute could have ever been, and I suffered.

Leslie, I’m not a fat girl anymore, but I can’t tell you how much this piece has inspired me to embrace the body I have, whether it’s 275 or 140 or anything in between. I had to get over a lot to get into my groove now – and I have a lot to get over still – but what you have written today is so inspiring to me and for human beings of all shapes and sizes, everywhere. It’s just a simple human fact that self-love is freedom, and I applaud you for loving yourself and telling your story in a public forum. We are all worthy participants in the world, and we are all beautiful for our lives and spirit. We can all learn so much from you, your positive spirit, your lightness of heart.

Leslie, I’m going shopping for shorts now, thanks again!! :)

*This is not intended to be a judgement or highfalutin statements or medical advice, this is MY story, what’s best for ME. I sincerely honestly from the bottom of my heart hope that no one reads this and reflects on themselves negatively, I share only for the purpose of explaining who I am today. And if I’m happy today, it’s not because I’m a size 8, it’s because my heart is full and my mind is free.

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