Reject the Fat Acceptance Movement
by Benjamin Studebaker
As waistlines have expanded in the western world, we’re seeing a push for “fat acceptance”. This movement takes the view that society unfairly discriminates against fat people on arbitrary grounds, that being fat is a legitimate way of being that should be no more open to criticism than being gay or being black. As the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) puts it, “we come in all sizes”. While the Fat Acceptance Movement identifies some genuine problems in our society, its answers to these problems are wholly inadequate.
The fat acceptance movement is correct that fat people frequently experience many forms of social rejection because they are fat and for no other reason. This rejection results from three widely held social perceptions:
- Virtue–fat people lack self-control.
- Beauty–fat people are not aesthetically pleasing.
- Health–fat people are physically unhealthy.
The fat acceptance movement holds that being fat is a morally neutral way of being, that people who are fat are neither better nor worse in any relevant way than people who are thin or moderately sized. For this to be true, it must be the case that each of these reasons for rejection is fundamentally arbitrary in every case in which it is employed. Let’s review each one.
The idea that being fat is not a virtuous way to live rests on the premise that gluttony is immoral and that fat people are fat because they are gluttonous. Gluttony is the practice of eating for pleasure. In societies in which food supplies are scarce, gluttony might be realistically considered anti-social behavior. If gluttonous people are eating more than their share and other people are being denied what they need to survive and be healthy, the act of eating for pleasure becomes synonymous with the act of starving one’s fellow citizens. In western societies, food is not particularly scarce, and governments routinely pay out benefits to poor people to allow them to purchase food. While there are starving people in the world, fat people could not substantially lower global food prices by reducing their consumption individually. They could perhaps do so collectively, but this would require state action to organize and coordinate the reduction. The individual fat person cannot realistically be blamed for that.
In addition, being fat is not a life choice. Fat people are generally fat because of a combination of genetic and environmental factors that they do not control, including but not limited to:
- Slow metabolisms
- Thyroid conditions
- Bad gut bacteria
- Being overfed by their parents as children
- Low food prices, particularly for unhealthy “junk” foods as compared with healthy food
- Eating for psychological comfort
Consequently, being fat is not indicative of a lack of “self-control”, it is indicative of having been influenced by these genetic and environmental factors. If these factors are pernicious, they cannot be changed by individual fat people but only by wider social policy changes.
The virtue argument fails, but for fat acceptance to work, all three arguments must fail. Let’s look at the other two.
In general (though there certainly are exceptions) most people in our society consider fat people less aesthetically pleasing to look at than moderately sized or thin people. While this most frequently manifests itself in the realm of romance and dating, employers may also overlook fat applicants for aesthetic reasons.
Aesthetic judgments are matters of taste. Two people can look at the same painting or watch the same television show and come away with entirely different reactions. Importantly, these different reactions are not morally substantive–there is no right answer to aesthetic questions. Is Breaking Bad better than Mad Men? We can give reasons for our view either way, but not impersonal reasons. One can articulate reasons why Breaking Bad might be better than Mad Men for one personally, but one cannot give a meaningful argument as to why Breaking Bad is better than Mad Men no matter who you are. The proclivities of the viewer–the viewer’s tastes–inevitably determine which program the viewer finds more enjoyable.
The same can be said when we aesthetically judge people. Emma and Laura can have entirely different views about whether or not Monty is an attractive person. Emma might think Monty is stunning, while Laura is unimpressed. Is Monty attractive? Yes and no–he is attractive to Emma but not to Laura. Importantly, neither Emma nor Laura can be objectively wrong in this because the question of whether or not one finds another person attractive is a question each can answer only by interrogating her own personal tastes.
Fat accepters often hold that “all bodies are beautiful”. But the claim “all bodies are beautiful” makes a universal impersonal judgement of an aesthetic matter. Every body might be beautiful to someone, but it is patently untrue that every body is beautiful to everybody, and it would be ridiculous to claim that every body is equally beautiful to everybody.
Fat accepters might concede this but go on to claim that even though individuals are entitled to have differing aesthetic views about people, it is wrong for individuals to discriminate against individuals on the basis of aesthetics. We would agree that in most lines of work it is wrong for a person to be denied employment because the employer considers that person ugly, though there may be exceptions in cases where aesthetics are immediately relevant to the person’s ability to do the job (e.g. cheerleaders, dancers, etc.). It is wrong to refuse to hire a fat person for a job for which a person’s appearance is not relevant.
When one is selecting a sexual partner, one’s aesthetic judgments are immediately relevant–physical attraction is a key component in suitability for sexual partnership. To argue that all people regardless of their tastes should not discriminate against fat people when selecting sexual partners or dates is to hold that people should pretend aesthetic judgments do not matter in an arena in which they unavoidably do. Here I am reminded of a scene from a recent episode of Louie in which the title character is scolded by a fat woman for being uninterested in a romantic relationship with her:
The most relevant bit:
What is about the basics of human happiness–feeling attractive, feeling loved, having guys chase after us–that’s just not in the cards for us? How is that fair? And why am I supposed to just accept it?
Fat people are absolutely entitled to the basics of human happiness–healthcare, an education, protection under the law, a minimum standard of living, equal concern shown by the state, and so on. Fat people are not however entitled to be viewed as aesthetically pleasing by all people and are not entitled to be treated as if they were aesthetically pleasing in instances in which aesthetics matter. No person is under any kind of moral imperative to be in a romantic relationship with a person he considers unattractive. We have to treat people we find unattractive with respect and as equal citizens, but we do not have to discount our aesthetic judgments of them in arenas in which aesthetic judgments are legitimate. It is wrong to refuse to hire someone or to be someone’s friends purely because you find that person aesthetically unappealing, but it is acceptable to refuse to date such a person.
Is it fair that a disproportionate number of people find fat people less attractive? No, but individuals are not obliged to correct this unfairness by ignoring their own aesthetic judgments. It would be ideal if everyone found everyone else reasonably physically attractive so that we could judge people exclusively by their words and deeds, but we do not presently live in that world.
Now, it’s true that we have an eating disorder problem, in which people are made to feel shame about their bodies and react to that shame with dangerous and unhealthy behaviors, i.e. binge eating, purging, abstaining, etc. The problem here is not however that everyone’s aesthetic judgments are wrong. The real problem is that many people in our societies are defining themselves by whether or not they meet the aesthetic standards of the people they are interested in forming romantic relationships with. What we have is a self-esteem problem. The solution is not to change everyone’s aesthetic judgments so that people with low self-esteem are made to feel externally reinforced, but to build the self-esteem of these individuals so that it is internally sustainable independent of external reinforcement.
If Bob is worried that Bob is fat and Bob develops an eating disorder, we have two options:
- We can lie to Bob and tell him that his body is beautiful just the way it is.
- We can help Bob to see that his body (and other people’s aesthetic opinions of his body) do not define who he is, that he is a great person independent of those factors.
The latter is the superior strategy, it respects the validity of differences in aesthetic opinions while simultaneously offering Bob an answer to the pain and sadness he feels.
It’s true that people often discriminate against fat people for aesthetic reasons in arenas in which they have no business doing so, but it’s also the case that in some arenas aesthetic discrimination is permissible and unavoidable.
The fat acceptance movement really runs into trouble on the health front. There is an effort among some members of the fat acceptance movement to convince people that it is possible to healthy at every size, but existing scholarship categorically does not support these claims (e.g. here, here, and here). Obesity is estimated to cost the American healthcare system $190 billion per year, and with waistlines expanding, this number is likely to continue to rise. The average obese man costs the system an extra $1,152 each year, while the average obese woman adds $3,613 per annum. These costs are borne by the rest of society in the form of higher insurance premiums, higher state expenditures on healthcare, and higher tax rates to cover said expenditures. These health problems are transmitted to the next generation both genetically and through parental eating habits–an estimated 80% of the children of obese parents will themselves become obese.
It is because obesity is so costly to the healthcare system that wider society is justified in attempting to deter people from becoming or staying obese. If obesity only affected obese people, it would fall under the purview of John Stuart Mill’s harm principle, which states that:
the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others
Because we have a healthcare system in which costs are shared such that my health problem increases your tax rate and/or your insurance premiums, my health is your business and your health is my business, and our health is collectively the business of the state, which is entitled to undertake policies to lower healthcare costs. The state can legitimately, in the name of reducing healthcare costs, subsidize healthy behaviors (e.g. exercise, eating healthy) and disincentivize unhealthy behaviors (e.g. taxing unhealthy foods). This also entitles us to encourage one another to live healthy lifestyles. This does not entitle us to be abusive, to bully fat people, but it does entitle us to gently encourage them to be healthier both individually and collectively. Importantly, it shoots down the core premise of the fat acceptance movement–that there are no legitimate reasons to socially penalize fat people for being fat. It is legitimate to penalize fat people for being fat insofar as obesity is a collective problem that harms both the obese and the non-obese. This, ultimately, is what defeats the fat acceptance movement.
There may be scope for a much less ambitious program focused around recognizing that fat people are not fat by choice, that they suffer from a social and genetic disease they need society’s help to combat, and that they should not be insulted, denigrated, or discriminated against in employment or normal social relations. Fat people deserve equal consideration and respect. This does not, however, entitle them to be viewed non-pathologically as a harmless form of “body diversity”. Obesity imposes real costs on society that must be recognized and dealt with, not wished away.