The Feminist History of Fat Liberation

Susie Orbach said it best back in 1978: “Fat is a feminist issue.” Fat is also a queer issue, and a racialized issue, and an issue of class—because fatness is inseparable from all other intersections of identity.

But rarely do we hear conversations about fat liberation, even in today’s feminist spaces. Instead, most folks are intent on positioning body positivity as our savior from the diet industrial complex—erasing, in the process, the revolutionary power of the long-standing feminist movement to fight fatphobia.

Fat liberation’s roots are in the 1960s, when the emergent Fat Acceptance Movement aimed to celebrate fat bodies and remove stigma from fatness in a long-term and meaningful way.

It is no coincidence that fat acceptance organizing, second-wave feminist organizing and queer organizing came into the social justice mainstream around the same time, because fatphobia impacts fat people from every identity group. You can be fat and black, fat and heterosexual, fat and differently abled, fat and trans.

In fact, unpacking the work of The Fat Underground makes it clear that fat acceptance came out of queer and feminist organizing.

(Kit Stubbs / Creative Commons)

The National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, or NAAFA, was founded by Bill Fabrey and Llewelyn Louderback in 1969; both men were tired of their wives being ostracized because of their weight. Louderback had already made strides into fat liberation through the publication of an article in 1968 which encouraged people to take a stand against weight loss, and later continued to make inroads with his 1970 book Fat Power: Whatever You Weigh is Right. Although much of NAAFA’s activism was tepid at best, they did hold a Fat -In, or a sit-in meant to combat fatphobia, in which fat people gathered in Central Park, ate ice cream and burned pictures of Twiggy. NAAFA attempted to address fatphobia in schools, places of business and in media.

But by the early 1970s, Judy Freespirit and Sarah Fishman, two of the more political members of NAAFA, grew weary of the mild mannered-ness, especially as they were involved in the more rage-filled activism seen in concurrent feminist and lesbian organizing. Their radical, empowered, intellectual fringe group provided respite, but it had a lofty goal: to upend the medical industry by calling attention to its fatphobia. To do this, the women spoke at conferences and rallies, got involved with local feminist organizations and disseminated information about fatphobia to the public.

Working in tandem with these newly minted ideals, The Fat Underground unequivocally meant business. By pouring through medical journals, the members found statistics and studies which proved the rampant fatphobia in medicine. When singer Cass Elliot died, they took to the stage at the 1974 Los Angeles Women’s Day March and pointed a finger at the medical community for essentially murdering Elliot via fatphobia.

Following this incident, The Fat Underground saw an increase in membership—but soon after, members, both old and new, dropped out for various reasons. By 1983, the organization had disbanded.

Although their organizing efforts were seemingly cut short due to circumstance, The Fat Underground’s research, organizing and revelatory politics more than paved the way for present day fat liberation activism. An archived video shows viewers the kinds of radical and progressive conversations that were being had by the group, which provided the foundation for today’s Health At Every Size movement along with language and ideas to combat fatphobia in the medical industry.

In the 1980s and 1990s, fat liberation slowly became a more relevant part of the academy and the legal world. Lawsuits that made workplace discrimination illegal on the basis of weight were fought and won. In 1994, activist Marilyn Wann published the foundational zine Fat!So? Since then, multiple books, both for academic purposes and for-pleasure, have been published, allowing fat liberation to become part of the cultural zeitgeist and the fabric of academia through the fields of Women’s Studies, African American studies, Psychology, Literature, History, Sociology, Queer Studies and American Studies.

Yet today, fat liberation has become entwined with body positivity—mostly as a result of lazy organizing, the prioritization of bodies that benefit from thin privilege and individual feminists resistant to challenging their own discomfort. As Evette Dionne suggests, body positivity was initially one factor of fat liberation. But today, it has eclipsed the initial radicality of the movement and erased the very people it is meant to help.

It isn’t the body positivity is wrong, or not feminist—it is radical, after all, to love yourself in a world that benefits from your self-hatred, particularly if you’re a woman or femme, and especially if you occupy various other marginalized identities. But much like any other political movement, fat liberation began as a push back against the oppression of a marginalized group. It was a movement that gained traction because of fat people, predominantly women, organizing and mobilizing against fatphobia.

Fat people were at the center of the theory, actions and radicalism of early fat liberation. Today, however, the faces of body positivity, or #bopo, that we see on social media are too often thin, conventionally attractive, white women. By and large, body positivity has lost the edge and radical politicization that fat liberation possesses.

Activist Jes Baker speaks to this when she discusses what she calls Lisa Frank BoPo; a feel good, “stay hydrated, thank your body, and do your sun salutations” sort of thing. Baker’s call for progress urges activists to get more political and angry. I’d like to take it even further.

While turning the heat up on our respective politics will be useful for both individuals and the world at large, it’s Lisa Frank-ly not enough. What we need to actually engage with is fat liberation—an intersectional mode of thought which challenges and subverts the various ways fatphobia manifests in both day to day life and big picture oppression.

Fat liberation stems from queer unrest and rebellion. Its message differs from body positivity; it is more radical, more political, maintains fatness at the center of its narrative and goals and focuses on the ways fat people are mistreated by the system.

This does not mean there is no room for those #bopo champions: Engaging in fat liberation is the same as engaging in any political movement; if you’re not directly impacted by the oppression you’re combatting, you just have to stay in your lane and be keyed in enough to know when it’s appropriate to step up and when to step back.

Make it your business to be a resource. Educate yourself so you can take on the emotional labor of confronting fatphobia in day to day life. If your politics aren’t radical, revisit the cornerstones on which they are built. Investigate whether or not they rest on pillars of white supremacy, capitalism, classism, sexism, fatphobia, transphobia, homophobia or ableism.

In honor of The Fat Underground, let this be a call to action for all of us to do better in our fight for every body.

On the next page: Fat Liberation Resource Guide!