On Health: No Compromise, No Apology

I can’t read one blog post in the Fatosphere that criticizes healthism, ableism, and fat hatred without the authors tripping all over themselves to assure everyone that they’re not opposed to health-promoting measures. I hear constate reassurances that, of course we want children to learn to cook. Of course we want to build safe playgrounds locally. Of course we want to educate people about nutrition and we go through this laundry list of health promotion measures that I can quote verbatim while unconscious.

Of course! Right?

I feel much the same way about this as I feel about constant reassurances that we’re not attacking dieters. That’s something else I often see that I’m sick of seeing. No one is attacking dieters as people. We attack those that promote a culture of fat hatred. We attack fat hatred itself and its cultural expressions. Yet I still see people falling over themselves to say that they don’t want to tell anyone what to do with their bodies. They are just promoting an alternative (non-sizist) lens through which to view lifestyle.

The problem is that fat acceptance does not have the power to tell anyone anything. We don’t have the power to force or coerce people to do anything against their will. They, however, do have the power and the (intense) desire to make sure fat acceptance is not heard. Likewise, people who challenge the wisdom and the necessity of conventional definitions of health and nutrition, the common beliefs held about these subjects, and especially the idea that health, exercise, and diet must be improved through government intervention are not given any real chance to be heard in our culture. Those of us who bother to speak out spend a great deal of time convincing people that they’re not against health. We aren’t encouraging people to gorge on processed foods or sit on the couch all day. We really share most of your goals; we just want you to ease up on the fat shaming.

Even I spend a lot of time doing this because some of my readers have made such accusations. I have never encouraged anyone to gorge on processed foods all day or spends weeks at a time carving ass grooves in their couches. I have said that being processed does not, de facto, make a food inferior to something that was cooked at home. I view commercially produced, processed foods as being equivalent, morally and nutritionally, to the alternatives in most cases (with many exceptions in both camps). It depends on the food and how it was prepared, as well as individual health needs. I have said that the link between diet, exercise, and health is overstated and that too many other variables exist that are equally responsible for poor health outcomes. I have questioned the idea that low fitness levels is a public health problem that needs to be corrected. In other words, I don’t write 101-type stuff.

Part of this is because I write most of these posts internally, to members of the fat acceptance community. I genuinely want people to know that I’m not attacking them as people. I’m not attacking whatever hobbies that they have or dismissing their personal experiences with issues of lifestyle. I concede that some of their concerns are valid. Not everyone can handle the high salt levels found in many processed foods, while other people might desperately need something with a lot of salt.

Again, the problem is I feel that we as a community spend more time doing this than advancing our message. Maybe you really do care about health promotion in some form or another. Maybe you really do want to include thin and fat alike in these measures.

So what? Why do we keep needing to say that, to reassure people that we aren’t rocking the boat too much?

I’m hardly anti-health in my personal life and I’m not totally opposed to *private* acts of health promotion, but I vehemently reject the idea that I need to concede the need for public health before my message of fat acceptance and anti-healthism can be heard. I don’t give a tinker’s dam if some concern troll thinks that I want all people, fat and thin, to be force-fed Velveeta and pork grinds for the rest of their lives while they are chained to the easy chair in front of the TV. That’s not what I promote. I would never, ever promote that and nothing I say can be fairly construed as promoting that.

I encourage fat activists to take the same approach. The next time you write about the need to end fat shaming, or the need to expand our definition of healthy, or the need to respect bodily autonomy for all, resist the urge to add qualifiers. No “I’m all for health, but for thin and fat people alike.” No “We can all agree that people eat too many processed foods.” No “Fat’s not the problem, but diseases like diabetes are.” None of that. Because it’s irrelevant to fat acceptance. Even if you feel those statements are valid. Even if you are passionate about fixing those problems. Because regardless of the status of our health or our pantries, the bottom line is that my body size, my health, and my lifestyle are none of your business. Full stop.

I truly believe that NO fat acceptance activist wants to tell anyone what to do. No one wants to shame anyone or force them to do anything. That’s utterly beside the point. It doesn’t matter if you, as an individual, are not healthist or sizist. When you agree to make common cause with people that consider healthism a moral virtue and the elimination of fat a priority, for any reason, you contribute to healthism and sizism alike. They are using you for their ends. They are not our friends. They don’t care how reasonable you think your goals are, or how good your intentions may be. When they listen to you, they think, “Look, even the fatties agree with me!” It’s not nice, but it’s the truth.

Another serious problem with health promotion as it is currently practiced is that we make the improvement of the lower classes conditional on their acceptance of health principles. I’m always seeing, even from people that ordinarily are anti-healthist, that if we really want to improve health, why don’t we enable people to work fewer hours so they have time to cook at home? Pay parents more so one parent can stay at home and have time to cook? Give more funding to public schools so they can spend money on more phys ed? Renovate inner city neighborhoods so they can have sidewalks to walk on and playgrounds to play in?

If fat and disease are mostly functions of stigma, poverty, age and genetics, why are we always advocating for lifestyle oriented solutions to these problems? What use are more vegetables and safer neighborhoods to a genetic condition? Somehow that doesn’t compute. Such “solutions” reinforce the prejudice that people who are fat and/or ill became that way because of an unhealthy lifestyle. You cannot, cannot, cannot challenge prejudices while reinforcing ideas that lead to the stigmatization of disadvantaged people.

Why do I never see “Let’s renovate urban neighborhoods, pay workers more, and improve the status of the poor because it’s the right thing to do?” It’s always “Why don’t we do this so they have the option to be healthy?” Making statements like that indirectly concede the idea that a certain definition of health is something we can and should aspire to. It assumes that we all live, that we all used to live, or that we all want to live, a popular vision of a middle-class American lifestyle. Not all cultures or classes share the same dining customs, cooking customs, work values, family values, or mode of living.

Nor should we.

What if I don’t want to live in a household with a stay-at-home mom and a nine-to-five job? What if I don’t want to have family dinners ala Normal Rockwell or live that lifestyle. No one is telling me that I have to, but at the same time, it is prejudiced in and of itself to assume that the majority of people want to live that way or that they should. Improve the well-being of the poor and minorities and let them decide for themselves how they want to live. Don’t assume that a person’s station in life prevents them from living a certain lifestyle. All too often, people make statements like “Well, of course Mom can’t stay at home and cook healthy food! She’s a poor minority and has to work!” This seemingly inocuous statement makes a highly biased assumption, unintentionally, that favors classic middle-class American culture over all other ways of doing things.

Regardless of your beliefs about health, lifestyle, or fat, I encourage you to take this challenge. The next time I write, I will not:

  • List all the things we should encourage people to do
  • Advocate government involvement in private behavior
  • Talk about all the ways that I encourage people to be healthy
  • Talk about the things we have in common with people that oppose us

You don’t need to try it, of course, if you don’t want to. But just for the hell of it, why not see what happens? How do people react to pure, undiluted, unapologetic anti-nannyism?

Because, in reality, we have nothing in common with them. Some of us might have superficial things in common, i.e. a love of cooking or gardening, a passion for sports and mentoring young people, a career in a helping or health-oriented profession, etc. but our goals and our orientations are fundamentally different from theirs. A fat- accepting, home-cooking, pro-autonomy vegan might share certain traits and lifestyle goals with vegans that promote sizism, healthism, and politically active. Otherwise? They are worlds apart. Without an explicit openness to change on their part, finding common ground with such people is fruitless and reinforces their agenda moreso than ours and the two agendas simply aren’t compatible. There is no compromise.

Sound radical?



  1. bigliberty · April 28, 2012

    This post rocks hard. This goes in the fat liberty hall of fame (remind me to actually start this some time).

  2. Iva Ghauri · April 28, 2012

    The justification I have heard from some Fat Acceptance activists is that focusing on health – a la exercise and supposedly healthy food choices- helps some former dieters bridge the gap between leaving dieting and starting to accept their fat bodies. It gives them more of (the illusion of) control. I often wonder if this emphasis on a component of “health” does indeed constitute a bridge for former dieters, or if it sets them up for further unease and dis-ease with their bodies and lives.

    • joannadeadwinter · April 28, 2012

      “I often wonder if this emphasis on a component of “health” does indeed constitute a bridge for former dieters, or if it sets them up for further unease and dis-ease with their bodies and lives.”

      This is insightful on your part and I thank you for writing this. I personally fall into the latter camp, that this approach is not helpful. Fat activists should not be reinforcing the idea that one must be scrupulous about their bodies, because of weight, health, or any other reason, especially to people with a history of body image issues or problems with internalized healthism. Fat acceptance, as well as ED recovery, banks on the idea that your body is not your enemiy and that it need not fit someone else’s standards. Health promotion of the variety I’m talking about is no better than pimping Jenny Craig or school anti-obesity programs.

  3. Patsy Nevins · April 28, 2012

    This post does indeed rock hard. It is one of the few posts that I have read around the fatosphere with which I can agree totally & wholeheartedly. I do not believe that living, eating, or exercising in certain ways is necessarily right for everyone, that it solves all health problems, or makes all fat people thin. I do not believe that it is possible or necessary or even for the best to try to make all fat people thin & especially to equate being ‘healthy’ with being thin, or morality with body size or food choices. I hate nannying & healthism with a purple passion. Healthism has always been an issue in fat acceptance (one of the founding mothers of the Fat Underground told me that they were fighting this fight, hearing people tell them that in order to get acceptance or deserve acceptance, they had to prove they were healthy, that they ate ‘good’ foods, they exercised, that in fact they tried their damnedest to be thin but couldn’t be, way back in the early 80’s). I too am so fed up with reading posts or comments by people with whom I agree on many things which always find their way down that path, “But eating x or y is bad for EVERYBODY, & we need to provide room & safety for regular exercise for EVERYONE, get ALL the kids of ALL sizes off that computer & playing more, provide access to GOOD foods, etc.” “Yes, Michele Obama (or whoever) has a good basic idea, but don’t single out fat kids, do this for ALL kids.” You can’t turn on a kids’ show on PBS or Nick or the Disney Channel without at some point, in some way, being lectured on a ‘healthy’ lifestyle. Ye Gods, the people who make Nutella, the spread whose main ingredients are skim milk, ground hazelnuts, & cocoa powder, have had to pay out a big settlement because of an idiotic lawsuit brought by some woman who claimed she fed her kid Nutella under a false impression that it was ‘healthy’ (& I am still trying to wrap my mind around how skim milk, hazelnuts, & cocoa powder are ‘unhealthy’, unless you are allergic to those foods.)

    And don’t get me STARTED on ‘processed’ foods. To begin with, every time you cook, freeze or can food, you are ‘processing’ food. In the second place, many of us, perhaps most of us, certainly most I know here in Maine, have had processed foods as a pretty large component of our daily diets, sometimes for many years. I am 62, & my mother, who lived to be 85 & HER mother, who lived to be 90, both ate a lot of things such as hot dogs, bologna, Spam &, once they become available, things such as canned pastas, soups, instant pudding mixes, etc. My mother baked her own bread for years, it is true, & usually baked at least one pot of beans, sometimes two, every week, but we didn’t suffer noticeably when we ate bakery bread or canned beans. Products such as Vienna Sausage or deviled ham were well-known in my house, as were Velveeta & processed American cheese. We were poor, usually below the poverty line, as were my husband, children & I when my kids were growing up; foods that we could get to keep us all from starving, things which were on sale in quantity, were popular with all of us. My husband & I recently went through a couple years of searching stores in Bangor (we have no car, neither of us has a license & we walk almost everywhere, getting a ride for big shopping trips from our son) for our favorite kind of cold cut, macaroni & cheese, which has come back recently due to high demand, but which they were for awhile trying to eliminate from the deli counter because “processed” cold cuts are supposed to be ‘unhealthy’. I am an adult & I hold the radical belief that what I eat is my own damn business & no one else’s!

    I spent a lot of years on fat acceptance sites doing what has been popular over the past 10-15 years, expounding on my healthy habits, healthy eating, exercise, my ‘healthy numbers’, on & on, in the process causing a lot of good people to leave the fat acceptance community or at least go underground because they were ‘bad’ fatties. We all deserve acceptance, we all deserve respect, we all deserve full access in the world, & we do not owe anyone explanations or apologies. People of every size, every shape, every lifestyle, people who eat all foods, & even people who exercise several hours per day & are superfit athletes, ALL get sick & ALL die, & all of these people die at any age, up to & over 100. The same lifestyle may well not be healthy for everyone, a ‘healthy’ lifestyle does not guarantee perfect health or a long life, &, most of all, it is nobody’s business how anyone else lives. Can’t we find more interesting things to talk to each other about, online & in real time, than how many servings of fruits & veggies we eat or how many miles we run? And can’t we understand that it is more important to help poor people get ENOUGH to eat than it is to ensure that they have organic broccoli & never touch a Twinkie?

    Anyway, Joanna, great job & dead on. I wish more people & I mean including the majority of those who write on fat acceptance/fat rights could understand & truly believe this. And I wish that we, as a society, could learn the value of giving help WHEN & HOW it is actually NEEDED, & especially the value of minding our own damn business.

    • joannadeadwinter · April 28, 2012

      I can always rely on your comments to give me a pick-me-up.:)

      I am continually amazed to see people on the fatosphere admitting to the genetic nature of fat and of many lifestyle diseases, yet in the same breath advvocating lifestyle-oriented solutions to the problem. If fat is genetic, what difference does it make it urban neighborhoods are run down? If you can’t eat your way to diabetes, why all the hubbub about HFCS?

      Obviously, I agree with every last word and I want to make a request. I *desperately* would like to hear your thoughts on the history of healthism in FA, how you came to be anti-healthist, or whatever else you want to talk about. Write one. Write several. Write what you want and send them to me. It’s an open invitation.

  4. Patsy Nevins · April 28, 2012

    I meant to write that macaroni & cheese LOAF is the cold cut we especially love & have had to search for. My parents bought it for over 60 years as well.

  5. Jean Risman · April 28, 2012

    I am always glad to read a post on this blog. It might be the only place I find someone in the fat acceptance world with whom I agree. Whatever anyone does for the benefit or detriment of their health (and how are we really to know what’s best and best for what, have we really reached a point of perfect wisdom on this?) is their own business. It is not a moral requirement to be healthy. Fat acceptance is a human rights issue, acceptance should not have to be earned through the pursuit of “healthy” habits.

  6. Patsy Nevins · April 28, 2012

    I will organize my thoughts & send them to you, Joanna, as soon as I can. I have been involved in fat acceptance for over 32 years personally & have also learned a lot more from people who have been doing this for 42-43 years or so, so there is a bit to organize. It is a pleasure to exchange thoughts with someone who will not practically fall over in a dead faint if I admit to liking fried bologna for dinner on occasion or not being in a lather over whether or not my food contains HFCS. We do seem to be in the minority.

    And, speaking of the fact that diabetes is indeed mostly genetic, including Type II, & that we cannot ‘eat’ ourselves diabetic, I am just so THRILLED every time I read some reference, including in fiction, to someone nannying a family member or romantic partner about eating sweets, telling the person that, even if doing so does not result in the much dreaded weight gain, ‘you will eat yourself into a diabetic coma.’ You be sure to tell me now, the first time you actually see someone doing that. If you ARE actually diabetic, you can indeed go into a coma if you do not properly balance your intake of food & medication; however, if you are not diabetic, eating what you like is NOT going to ‘put you into a diabetic coma.’ And may I also say that, while ‘Diners, Drive-ins & Dives” is one of the few tv shows I will watch, I do not find it helpful when Guy says, as he watches a chef preparing something, “I can feel my arteries clogging & my heart seizing up just looking at this.” There is so much aggressive promotion of so many myths about food, health, etc., especially in the media, even in programs which are supposed to be about having fun & enjoying food. It may be the reason why I bought myself a “Bacon is meat candy” t-shirt. I am trying to inject a little balance & sanity into my life & maybe occasionally into someone else’s.

  7. Lynne Murray · April 28, 2012

    Great post on conditional versus unconditional acceptance. Speaking (and applauding) as a card-carrying member of the fat, elderly, disabled and thoroughly undeserving poor, I love what you’re saying here!

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