Future of Feminism: Freedom from Body Shaming, Regardless of Size

While I’ve already spent some time discussing the dangerous ways the media sexualizes women and girls, and how it gives the false impression that to be attractive, popular and interesting you must be skinny and hyper-feminine, today I want to switch things up little and talk about the body acceptance movement (also called “size acceptance” or “fat acceptance”), which attempts to combat the negative stereotypes around women and men who are conventionally considered overweight or obese.

One thing bears mentioning upfront: Fighting for body acceptance does not mean promoting an unhealthy lifestyle. In fact, according to Linda Bacon’s landmark book, Health at Every Size, and other recent studies, dieting is often ineffective at handling obesity, and sometimes the extreme measures used to combat obesity–surgery, liposuction, aggressive exercise programs–are more harmful than the extra weight. Not to mention that it’s far from true that all thin people are healthy. The myth that skinny equals healthy is rooted in our cultural obsession with weight and the media’s idolization of rail-thin actors and models.

Rebecca Weinstein, founder of the social networking site People of Size and author of the forthcoming Fat Sex: The Naked Truth, believes that public humiliation and “fat shaming” damage people of all shapes, sizes and genders. Nonetheless, she argues, the body acceptance movement is a feminist one:

Not all people [of] size are women. However, size, weight, fat, beauty, and the ways in which our culture deals with those issues, are clearly feminist concerns.

With women told directly by advertisers that we need body-sculpting sneakers, diet yogurt and special soups to get slim physiques and feel good about our bodies and told, more indirectly, by TV that “chubsters” and other supposedly “unattractive” women won’t get dates, the body acceptance movement is indeed an issue for all women, regardless of size.

According to Kate Harding, co-author of Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body, and founder of the incredibly popular but now defunct feminist blog Shapely Prose, it’s untenable that fat people are still publicly criticized “even in some progressive circles, which are usually known for not hating entire groups of people because of their appearances, not thinking what other people do with their bodies is anybody’s beeswax, and not uncritically accepting whatever moral panic the media tries to whip up.”

Fortunately, the fat-acceptance movement is strong and growing every day, from targeted campaigns to a plethora of great blogs, communities and other resources including the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, the Association for Size Diversity and Health, First, Do No Harm, the Big Fat Blog, Fat!So?, Notes from the Fatosphere, and many others.

Part Eighteen in a Women’s History Month series celebrating organizations and ideas that represent the future of feminism.

Photo of a model in a plus-size fashion show from Flickr user Parker Michael Knight via Creative Commons 3.0.


  1. Last time I checked, Progresso uses MSG (monosodium glutamate) in their soup. This unhealthy additive is used to increase flavor and is poorly tolerated by many people. Side effects are usually gastrointestinal, although many people also experience respiratory problems after ingesting MSG. As well, one of the side effects of MSG is increased appetite. That’s right–eating food containing MSG will leave you wanting more. Therefore, I say not only “no thanks” but “no way” to Progresso.
    Light yogurt uses a lot of additives such as gelatin and carageenan (a seaweed derivative) to give it a thicker texture. While these additives are nowhere near as detrimental as MSG (although carageenan also contains some free glutamine, and very sensitive people may react to it in a similar fashion) when I eat yogurt I want YOGURT, not gelatin. Call me crazy, but I’m trying to cut down on food additives.
    Shaming people of a certain physique keeps the multi BILLION dollar diet industry afloat, and takes the focus off the food companies, who could do a far better job of insuring that they are delivering a healthy end product to consumers.

  2. Beryle Chambers says:

    I applaud everyone working to change the cultural paradigm that thin equals beauty, sexuality, good character, strong moral fiber, health and high intelligence. Currently anyone overweight or obese is automatically assumed to be lazy, of low intelligence, gluttonous, bad/untrustworthy, non-sexual and generally unwanted – an eyesore. I worry that as the thin prejudice grows and as insurance companies and the diet industry promote the negative perceptions of fat people, that fat people will lose health care. After all, (they say) it is our own fault we’re fat. So, if we get sick, that too is our own fault. Perhaps in time a standard will be set – anyone more that 5% off the “ideal” look will automatically be disqualified from health care when it is needed. I’ve worked 40 years in health care – and I see the trend building to blame patients for their diseases and only grudgingly care for them, and discharge them as soon as humanly possible. I also think that Western society has latched on to the thin is perfection ideal for women because they do not want women taking up space, they do not want big women with big ideas and big vision and big influence or power. This cripples us. I look forward to the day when women of any size are accepted for their skills, gifts, talents and intelligence. I hope for a world where women of (my) size are not shunned and shamed and rejected from relationships. May that day be soon!

    • Great comment. I agree 100%. I think body shamming works both ways, and this new “trend” of saying that curvy woman are real woman, and that skinny equals bitch is as harmful as the other way around. But I agree with you, this obsession with slimness is a way to make us smaller, more controlled, to standardize femininity. And we, as women, are the ones who suffer most from body shamming, but also the ones to perpetuate this cycle. We must also be the ones to break it! Body shamming is anti-feminist, the sooner we learn this, the sooner we’ll be free from the shackles that cripple us.

  3. Hopefully one day we can fully recover from body shaming.

  4. And clothing manufacturers are doing nothing to improve size acceptance. I am a not-small woman about to have my first daughter, and I worry about the message that clothing sizes are sending to young girls and young women… 10-20 years ago, a size XL might have been a 12, 14, or 16. Now I’ve met girls who are a size 8 and an XL size is too small for them. So girls who ARE thin are being told they’re ‘extra large’ and girls who are more robust (and not necessarily unhealthy!) are being told they’re LARGER than ‘extra large’ (and are therefore not important to clothing manufacturers). I look forward to the day when women of any size can feel comfortable in their own bodies, and not measure themselves against ‘industry’ standards.

  5. I totally agree with everything said above in this article. Yes, we need to love (and nurture) our bodies. But as a passionate feminist, I dare to confess that I also worry about accepting bad health. The article is right. Take it from someone who knows: diets don’t work, and neither does being overweight.

    I’ve buried family members to heart disease, colon cancer and still see many struggling with health issues attributed to an unhealthy weight. I hear my relatives at the dinner table worry about “terrorists” and being mugged in the mall parking lot…all while they are eating mac-n-cheese, fried chicken and all the other foods we southern people “love.” They don’t have to worry about someone else killing them. They are killing themselves. It saddens me to see their life and the quality of their life cut short because they can’t love their bodies enough to feed it what it does need. I see the sweat and get exhausted walking from the car into the house. They are always hot, tired and ill.

    I was 204 lbs and to be honest, I got that way eating cheesecake and pasta with no abandon. All the while, I was a feminist who preached “body acceptance.” But the truth is I was refusing to accept that my body could not function in a healthy way on the crap I was feeding it. My body needing me to accept that it needed to move and work on a daily basis (some call that exercise, I call it natural). I needed to accept that I could not live a long, quality feminist life at such a weight. I would wind up like some of my family; dead by 60.

    Data also shows that if we don’t change the way we eat, more American girls born after the year 2002 are going to have diabetes by the age of 40. I don’t accept that.

    I know I will get crucified for saying this. But I love my fellow feminists…and want us to live long, healthy lives. Yes, accept your body. And love it enough to take care of it. Being skinny isn’t healthy, and neither is being overweight.

    Ok, now let me have it…

    • “Yes, accept your body. And love it enough to take care of it. ”

      I think this is exactly the point the article was trying to make. The article and, from what I can tell, the whole fat acceptance movement is about taking care of your body. The problem is that your family (no offense meant, just using your example) is eating unhealthily. But this kind of poor diet would be bad for someone whether they were 120 pounds or 420 pounds. It’s not about swearing off “diet” as in eating well, it’s about not “dieting” as in eating a certain prescribed set of foods specifically to lose weight and fit the current beauty ideal.

      Eating well and exercising are definitely good for us, but so is accepting that, no matter how hard we try, we will probably not ever be a 6-foot-tall, 100 pound supermodel. We may as well let it go and learn to love ourselves for the way we are.

    • But the relevant point of health at every size is that you can be healthy without being thin. Certainly, those people who live on junk food and have their posteriors stapled to the sofa are not healthy, but that doesn’t describe everyone who isn’t “normal” weight. Some of us eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, get plenty of exercise, and are still well over 200 pounds.

      I remember when I was very young, there was talk of three body types, and the fact that no amount of dieting would change your basic build. How did we lose this knowledge?

  6. Kelly, I think you’ll find that most fat/size/body acceptance advocates and activists are also advocates for Health at Every Size. You know, that thing where people get enjoyable exercise and eat intuitively and well to be in the best mental and physical health that’s realistic for them because deliberate weight loss attempts are a bad idea. So, you stopped eating cheesecake so much and lost some weight. Good for you. Please don’t spread your faux concern around based on the self-centred idea that every other fat person is a cheesecake binger. (Your relatives’ health is their own concern and none of my business.)

    Also, being fat is not inherently unhealthy. Being fat places you in a demographic which is slightly to some more likely to develop certain health conditions – a correlative relationship, not causative, influenced by many many co-factors such as genetics, socioeconomic status, age and *drumroll* stigma and stress and discrimination. There’s also that pesky research which shows that if you get the recommended 30-60 minutes of exercise most days of the week, you have minimal health risks regardless of your weight.

    You’ll do much more for the health of women if you focus on eradicating poverty than worrying about their weight.

    • Thank you so much that was actually what I feel needed to be said. I found Kelly’s comment generalizing and elitist. My mom and sister are both big but they get lots of exercise and eat well. Lots of things can cause weight gain including thyroid issues and medications.

  7. Thank you for this article! I would love to see more coverage in Ms. on weight prejudice and its affects on women.

    I am a size 26. This is where my body naturally settles when I eat a variety of minimally processed food, avoid chemicals, and do regular exercise that fits in comfortably with the rest of my life. I was once a size 10, but I got there by having gastric bypass surgery, taking diet pills, living off of artificial protein powder, and smoking. I didn’t have a period for many years during this time. Even though you could see every rib and every vertebra and I was constantly cold, my doctors did not consider that this may be because I was underweight. In fact, they advised me to lose more weight because I was still technically overweight according to the height/weight charts.

    Amenorrhea contributes to heart disease, as does smoking. I am pretty confident that if I develop heart disease, it will be blamed on my current weight rather than on what I did to get to a “healthy weight”. I dream of a time when the term “healthy weight” is replaced by “healthy behaviors”.

  8. Thank you for this article. I remember being in high school and watching girls only eating a candy bar for lunch because they could only eat 300 calories for each meal. They thought that this would keep them skinny, which meant that they would be healthy. I always thought that this was strange logic. Many people don’t realize that these diets can be worse for your bodies. We need to continue educating young women as well as men on loving thier bodies they way they are no matter what shape or size they are. Just think of all the things we could be doing with our time if we didn’t have to worry about our weight and appearance. We could be enjoying and experiencing life instead of floating though.

  9. Truth speaker says:

    Without raining on your parade, let me make this clear: obesity is unhealthy. As a matter of fact, it has recently been added to the list of diseases. This in effect means that anyone who is obese is actually considered sick, and needs treatment.
    The medical issues arising from being excessively overweight are humongous. Hypertensioon, sleep apnea, diabetes, arthritis, heart attack, cancers, falls, etc are but a short list.
    So, before you begin to make it look like speaking out against obesity is some conspiracy against women, think about the health consequences.

  10. Problem with the “diets don’t work. Exercise doesn’t work” crowd is that they readily seize onto these excuses so they can say they tried. You’ve equated a “diet” as some kind of deprivation scheme but a diet is literally the totality of what you are eating and it can be a bad diet or a good diet. Be sure to eliminate trans-fat, that’s one of the biggest pitfalls there.
    As for exercise, time to bust your bubble, walking or running around the block is not going to do it. Walking on the treadmill for 45 minutes isn’t going to do it. Even if you did these things everyday it would not show for a long time. You need to lift weights also and I am not talking about the soup cans or 5 pound “girlie-weights”. Go to a gym, find someone who is knowledgeable (not easy, and just because someone looks good doesn’t mean they know the proper way to exercise), and pound out heavy reps. Once you increase your lean muscle the fat-burning increases exponentially.

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