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Fat happiness: social activism movement Fat Panic! sees more of a social problem, and less of a medical one

By in Features

LJUDMILA PETROVIC
The Peak (Simon Fraser University)

That's one happy scale.
VANCOUVER (CUP) — As a child, Kalamity Hildebrandt was put on diet pills by her doctor in order to lose weight. By age nine she was bulimic, which progressed to the point where she was throwing up blood in her teenage years. By 19, she could barely function emotionally in the world because of her overwhelming fear of harassment.

Hildebrandt’s view on being fat was changed by fat activism, the social justice movement that believes that, just like any other discrimination, oppression of people because of their weight is unacceptable and should be fought against.

“I know for me, when I discovered fat politics, I actually think it saved my life. It was such a surprise because it was the first time I encountered the idea that maybe I was fine and society was messed up,” Hildebrandt, a founder of the political group Fat Panic!, explained.

“I spent my whole life, every minute of my life, hating myself, contemplating how I could surgically alter my body at all times, throwing up, cutting … to punish myself for being fat.”

Hildebrandt is currently working with the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group (SFPIRG), a student group at Simon Fraser University, to organize a series of Fat Happiness Days workshops that invite conversation about issues surrounding fat and society.

A social movement

Fat activism is a lesser known political movement that started around the 1970s, but has recently received more notoriety with the rise of blogging. A common reaction to the idea of fat activism is disbelief and uncertainty. Many people hold to the idea that being fat is a matter of choice or lifestyle, and that fat activism should not be put in the same category as other political movements.

Hildebrandt, however, argues that in many cases, it is not due to individual choice, but to the socio-economic environment that an individual is put in. Furthermore, those subscribing to this movement believe that oppression in any form and towards anybody is unacceptable, and that includes oppression based on body size.

Lesley Kinzel, a body politics activist, explains on her blog Two Whole Cakes: “For … those who would identify as fat activists, [fat activism is] 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.” She continues, “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.”

The movement also rejects the medicalization of terminology used to describe weight. Hildebrandt explains that by using terms such as “obese” or “overweight” (rather than “fat”), it turns the body and its weight into a medical symptom; it defines the body in a medical way. Fat activism takes the word ‘fat’ and turns it into a political term.

Michelle Allison, a nutritionist invested in body politics who advocates for “eating normally”, explains how she understands the word “fat” on her blog The Fat Nutritionist. “I call myself fat because not only am I fat … I’m also not especially bothered by it,” Allison wrote. “Because the size of my body, and your body, is morally neutral. Fat doesn’t equal lazy or ugly or even, necessarily, unhealthy. It’s just a word.”

Loving your body at any weight and size is an admirable attitude, and one that our thin-obsessed society is in dire need of. However, what about the “obesity epidemic” we’ve heard so much about? Have we not seen a huge increase in obesity rates and overall less healthy lifestyles in North American society?

According to Hildebrandt, however, the term “epidemic” is misleading in describing the trend occurring in our society. “One thing to realize is that the term ‘epidemic’ is misused in this context because what we see in an epidemic is a sudden increase,” Hildebrandt said. “What is actually seen is that there has been a gradual increase in the average weight of people in Western society. That’s not an epidemic. The term alone is being used to stir up fear … but actually, everybody is living longer.”

The health issues

Dr. Scott Lear, an associate professor of kinesiology at SFU whose research has focused on obesity and cardiology, agrees that the term “epidemic” is an overused one in terms of obesity rates. However, he said, “it is a public health concern, just like any other risk factor, just like cholesterol, just like blood pressure and diabetes, and that it needs to be treated in a professional way, from all aspects, from health professionals to society at large.”

Furthermore, fat activism strives to dispel the idea that fat is necessarily associated with being unhealthy. “Another thing to realize about the whole fat–health debate is that all studies that have looked at large populations over time … find that there’s a ‘U’-shaped curve. So, it’s not like you’re thin, and then you get fatter, and then you die faster. There’s a curve and what they find is that, actually, the people who live the longest are in the overweight category … It doesn’t make sense [to define] fatness as a health problem, [or to try and] make people thinner in order to improve public health.”

Lear agrees that there are many misguided perceptions against people carrying extra weight, and dismisses the common belief in our society that fat people should just “eat less and exercise more.”

“With that kind of thinking,” Lear said, “we’re not going to get anywhere.”

However, contrary to the fat activist belief that weight and health are not directly correlated, Lear acknowledges that there are health consequences to being overweight. “There’s undeniable evidence that it is unhealthy to be carrying excess body fat,” he said.

Possible consequences of carrying excess weight range from high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes to psychosocial stress and other societal consequences. Just as Hildebrandt is attempting to bring the political and social issues surrounding fat oppression to light, so too does Lear believe that “by ignoring [these issues], it’s not going to help anybody … the solution is as complex as the cause. It needs to be taken on from a societal point of view, as well as an individual one.”

When it comes to being overweight, there is a habit of placing blame on individuals and their habits. Lear, however, does not see this as the solution at all. “What we need to do is not so much focus on whether people are obese or not, but focus on healthy behaviors,” he said. “We all make choices, but we make choices presented with the opportunities we have … [We need to] give people the education and the tools with which they can make healthy life choices.”

Lear explains that obesity is only one of many public health issues — the only difference between obesity and most other health problems is that obesity is always visible to others.

This is exactly what Hildebrandt and other fat activists are fighting against: the oppression of those that are noticeably different from what is considered the norm, be that according to race, gender or body weight. Lear, too, acknowledges the social stigmas involved with obesity, but also notes that it is a public health issue that must be addressed on several levels.

Obesity has been addressed as an epidemic, as a public health issue, and as a personal failing. What fat activism is trying to accomplish is to address fat as a political issue — an issue of oppression like any other. What health professionals like Lear are making clear, however, is that while obesity is subject to unnecessary social negativity, it is nonetheless a public health issue that must be dealt with in a holistic manner — addressing both the individual and our society.


Graphic: The Peak

Edit 28/03/12: removed original un-funny graphic caption — our apologies to anyone who may have been offended.

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