Fat Feminism: Can It Be Healthy? Where Does It Leave Health?


“This idea that it’s part of the sisterhood to accept someone that’s a size 22 or in contrast a size 6 is total bullshit,” was a statement made by Jenny Anderson in the Huffington Post in 2012.

Fat women’s equality, or “fat feminism” as it’s often referred to, initially emerged in the 70’s during the Second Wave Feminist Movement, and entered public consciousness in 1978 with the publication of psychotherapist and feminist Susie Orbach’s book Fat is a Feminist Issue. Since Third Wave Feminism focuses on a general broadening of the definitions and comprehensions of the female experience to include ethnicity, color, culture, and religion, it is fair to say that fat feminism is a timely extension or branch of this feminist movement.

Ultimately a backlash to the media driven “skinny” obsessed culture that became fashionable in the 60’s and that continues to reign over society and govern lives today, fat feminism’s ultimate message is that women can be healthy and happy at any size. While traditional attitudes assert that fat people must be unhealthy, fat feminists argue that being fat doesn’t automatically equate to a bad diet, overeating, or a lack of exercise. In a powerful XOjane article last year, deputy editor Lesley Kinsel revealed the prejudice she received from her doctor purely on the grounds of her body appearance: “[She] immediately tells me that I should be eating a healthier diet and getting more exercise, and that I need to watch my sugar intake because I am “probably prediabetic.” I tell the doctor, “I’m vegetarian, and I swim at least two miles four days a week, and my fasting blood sugar results have always been excellent.”

Along with Kinsel, other fat feminist writers have spoken out against the the unrealistic expectations (perpetually propagated by Hollywood and the media alike) that are placed on women about their body weight and that consequently result in sickly diets and obsessive exercise regimes. None of which necessarily translates to happiness. Bryony Gordon from The Telegraph wrote, “It is like a huge, crazy case of collective body dysmorphia, and I, for one, have had enough of this tyranny…I realised I was exhausted with trying to shed weight the whole time.” Kinsel writes, “my body’s dramatic response to starvation (and really, that’s what a diet is) makes it impossible for me to lose weight and still have a life that is at all worth living.”

With movements like the Dove Campaign For Real Beauty (of which Orbach is a co-ordinator) buxom and curvy bodies are proudly presenting themselves in pop culture and media. In just the last few years, television has experienced a cultural renaissance as far as feminism is concerned. And body shape/size diversity is at the forefront of that movement. Lena Dunham took the world by storm with her prolific and hilarious HBO series, Girls, in which she frequently gets her gear off and unashamedly showcases her chubby form. Aside from its protagonist, Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black almost exclusively portrays unconventional looking women. Many of whom are shapely. Music icons such as Adele, Beth Ditto, and more recently, Christina Aguilera and Lady Gaga are public advocates for (and practitioners of) the “fuller figure”.

Consequently, as social media is often used as a platform for slim girls to show off their beach-babe figures in bikinis, more and more fat girls have also posted pictures of themselves in bikinis. In fact, blogger Gabbi Gregg (AKA Gabi Fresh) recently started the hashtag #fatkini, and as SheRa Mag editor Victoria Kroundina explains, “fuller-figured women are posting photos of themselves in bikinis or swimsuits with the hashtag on social media and it couldn’t be more awesome.”

Granted, weight discrimination is not only an issue that effects women; men are also plagued by cultural pressures to conform to certain shapes and sizes. Yet, the demands on women to achieve and uphold standards of beauty are undoubtedly more fierce and ultimately destructively, which is why body weight is a feminist issue. Kinsel pretty well sums it up: “Body-shaming is ubiquitous and abhorrent; it happens everywhere, to pretty much everyone, at one time or another. It is especially levied against women, who are shamed for being skinny, for being tall, for being short, for having big boobs, for having small boobs, for having body hair, for being unfeminine, for being too sexy, for being too prudish, for being smart — shamed at some point for being pretty much anything while also being female, including for being ugly (and failing to serve a purpose as a beauty object) and for being pretty (which must mean they are vapid or dumb).”

Of course, fat feminism is not without criticism. The most obvious rebuttal to the movement rests on health. When a startling 70% of Americans are “overweight”, campaigns such as Michelle Obama’s “Lets Move” healthy eating initiative seem valid and worthy. Among many writers who object to the celebration of obesity, Jenny Anderson asserts that just as being underweight is a health issue, so is being overweight, and so should not be glorified or encouraged.

Kinsel concludes: “you don’t HAVE to diet, no matter your size; you can choose not to, if you want… Standing against fat-shaming ensures that everyone gets to make private decisions about the state of their body.” I support Kinsel’s stance, along with Orbach’s assertion that fat is a feminist issue. And yet as I journeyed through the many hundreds of online “fat selfies” while researching for this article, I came across a number of women whom to my eye looked unhealthily overweight. Perhaps I’m simply conditioned by a slim-obsessed, prejudice society, but as far as I see it, there is curvy and there is obese. And while I write this article in active support for the third wave feminist movement, for the cultural expansion in awareness of the female experience, and of the many dimensions, emotions, colors, shapes and sizes of that female experience, I’m hard pressed to believe that obesity (and in some cases morbid obesity) is healthy.

Out with diets, diet pills, photo-shopped two-dimensional representations of women in the media, and “fat-shaming”! But in our rejection of all of this, can we take care of our physical health (and therefore act in moderation) as well?