My Body, My Needs and Societal Responsibilities: Responding to Fat Acceptance and HAES Critiques

Woah, holy sudden offline disappearance, Batman! If you watch my Twitter, you know that I recently started law school and I have found myself bereft of time and energy as I get used to being in university again as a total novice in my new field. I have started several posts in the past couple weeks, but I haven’t been able to pull my thoughts together enough to finish any of them. Now that things are starting to settle, I want to return to blogging, so I apologise for any post that seems like it is a couple weeks past its freshest relevance. However, I still think I have a few important points to make!

To start, I’d like to address the recent(ish) and continuing brouhaha over fat acceptance in the feminist blogosphere (see this Feministe post and the mountain of responses it has received both on the blog and off, or anything written by Tasha Fierce on Bitch lately).  Admittedly, feminism has not entirely accepted fat liberation ideals. This isn’t particularly shocking as feminism has not accepted a lot of ideas in the areas of race, sexuality, disability, gender and even feminism itself. This is the joy of having a large, supposedly all-encompassing group of people who are allegedly fighting for the same thing; the definition of the same thing changes depending on who one is talking to.

Regardless of the controversy surrounding it, however, fat is a feminist issue. There is no should, but or if in that statement. Fat can connect to so many different parts of our lives, from class to health to bodily autonomy, that it cannot be ignored. With claims of DEATH FAT and DOUGHNUTS being thrown about, I have seen many incidents of substantial failure in feminist discourse with the alienation of individuals based on inaccurate perceptions. No one is winning in this battle between different conceptions of health. However, there are many advocating for fat acceptance and HAES ideals and I’d like to add my voice to the fight and explain how I believe the ideologies could be used to ensure a healthier, happier, more equitable society.

HAES is an acronym for health at every size and the idea is highly misunderstood by its critics. What it is supposed to imply is that society should be concerned about the health of everyone regardless of size or appearance. However, being concerned about health and being concerned with strictly weight are two different things. In our current world, we see someone who is fat (which is an ever changing ideal which could relate to BMI, visual impressions or actual scale results), and we assume that there are problems with that person’s health and that they would be better off if they worked towards becoming less fat. This world view says that everyone should aim to be as healthy as possible, which means to adhere to a standard caloric balancing and exercising model. If you do enough of this, you will be healthy and that means you will be thin.

In a fat acceptance world which embraces HAES, health is measured by several indicators. It is recognised that everyone should be treated equally by the medical establishment, regardless of where they lie on the weight continuum. This means that the fattest person is treated as a full person with medical rights. Their health needs are addressed specifically and immediately, not only after they lose weight. It also means that a thinner person is not simply assumed to be healthy because they are thin. Their health is measured and their needs are addressed because health is tied to actual indicators of health rather than one’s respective pudginess or flatness of the stomach.

Furthermore, in a HAES society, health is something which is encouraged on a societal level. In today’s world, if you are fat, you are told to lose weight. You need to sacrifice your time, money, health and sense of self in order to fix yourself. Being fat is your fault. If you learn the mantra “calories in, calories out”, then you will magically become beautiful which is another word for healthy. The only health we care about is a small segment of physical health which is not necessarily related to our overall social goals.

In a HAES world, society cares about health as a holistic issue. Physical health is not nearly as clear cut as a fat hating world leads us to believe. Not everyone has the physical capacity to be thin and humanity was never meant to exhibit such a high degree of sameness. There are many different body types and their health needs vary. Currently, we base our standards of health on what the “average” Caucasian of Northern European descent needs. Do we really understand what an Aboriginal Canadian needs to be healthy? Or those of Asian or African descent? How about people with different disabilities? Or anyone who isn’t the “average” ideal? We need to look at how health needs change and this means that we cannot simply respond with “lose weight” to everyone who deviates from the weight norm. We cannot tell them to try low carb diets, low fat diets, starvation diets or whatever else becomes popular because of the weight loss industrial machine. We have to center health goals on realities for all bodies.

We must reject the diet industry as a negative and destructive agent which harms our society. We need to focus on changing public policy issues in order to encourage more equitable income standards, housing security, sustainable and accessible food production, adequate education, and reductions of violence. When we can ensure that all people have the ability to live in a stable environment, have access to food and are capable of doing more than simply surviving, health standards overall will climb exponentially and this seems like a much more effective way of dealing with the issue than telling someone to go to Weight Watchers. HAES recognises that people other than middle-income Caucasians matter and that health is tied to more than individual choices as these are shaped, constrained and even created by our surroundings and life circumstances.

HAES also tells us that mental health is equally as important as physical health. Sometimes the prescriptions for achieving thinness will destroy the mind and the emotional core of a person. Such a state is not healthy, regardless of how attractive and thin an individual can become. A body that does not have a healthy mind cannot be healthy itself. This means that sometimes we will not be able to choose the “best” choice for our physical health because there really is no best choice. This is one of the most debated parts of fat acceptance, the idea that there is no one best option for health. To be mentally healthy, I need to have the autonomy to make my own choices which are best for me. Disordered eating of any type is not healthy for anyone, but it is birthed out of a world in which food, weight and health are contorted into twisted and false understandings. Not everyone can magically fix their depression by going for a run, and eating comfort food will not cause someone to drop down dead immediately. People must work towards their optimum health levels taking into consideration their own circumstances and abilities and this means that our physical needs cannot trump our mental needs.

Additionally, in a HAES society, health is privileged over physical appearance. It is recognised that different types of bodies can be desirable. Not only is this important for fat acceptance, but it is important for all social justice areas which deal with physical difference. Expanding the definition of desirable bodies means breaking through the ideal of the thin, beautiful, blonde white women trope which is so prevalent in Western culture. It means paying attention to other types of bodies and valuing them equally. Hegemonic perspectives silence the voices of millions and no one deserves to be silenced or undervalued because of what they look like. Accepting fat means valuing people.

Weight and health are not always correlating realities. Health does not start in the grocery basket of an individual or on a treadmill. Health depends on equitable structures in society that value all people, regardless of gender, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, ability or size. To say that fat acceptance is wrong, misguided or harmful at its foundation is the same as saying that feminism is wrong, misguided or harmful at its foundation. Are there issues within the movement? Of course there are, but the fact remains that fat, thin or something in between, all people have value and all people have bodily autonomy regardless of their BMI. Fat acceptance and HAES advocates are fighting for a world in which this is a reality.

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