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The Limits of Self Love

Scholars and activists in the field of fat studies do not believe that there is an obesity-related health crisis at all.

· 12 min read
The Limits of Self Love
October 2018 cover of UK Cosmopolitan

In Spring 2023, an assorted group of social media influencers, content creators, models, reality TV stars, fashion industry employees, and others gathered for a day-long virtual conference to promote the bold idea that “fatness is not bad,” as participant Raffela Mancuso, “a mental illness and Fat Liberation activist who uses social media to destigmatize mental health and center marginalized bodies,” put it. The participants had gathered for The BodCon2023, the latest iteration of an annual event that started in 2021, “centered around all things body confidence, body positivity and self-love.” According to emcee Alicia McCarvell it is the “No. 1 body confidence virtual conference in the world.” Its aim is simple: “We want people to feel worthy in their bodies”—whatever those bodies might look like.

The conference included presentations on “Existing While Plus-Size”; “Not Your Body, Not Your Business: Let’s Stop Weight Comments”; and “Why Boundaries are Essential for Body Confidence.” Panels covered such topics as dating, traveling, and undergoing surgery while plus sized. Though the promotional art for the conference features drawings of many fat women, the f-word itself was scarcely uttered. Instead, throughout the event, people used a plethora of euphemisms: “people in bigger bodies,” “fuller bodies,” “plus-size bodies,” “plus-size people,” “people in fuller figures,” “more diverse bodies,” “diversified bodies,” “different body types.” Participants talked about what happens when your “tummy gets a little bit bigger,” you “take up more space,” or find yourself in “a bigger body that used to be smaller.”

On the few occasions that the word “fat” was used, it was generally either part of the term “fatphobic”—intentional weight loss is “fatphobic,” claimed Mancuso, for example—or was used as a reclaimed slur, much as the word “fag” has been reappropriated by gay culture as a term of endearment. Speaker Lindsay Johnson, for example, calls herself a “fat joy activist,” who is “all about how do we learn to love our fat bodies and start taking up space.”

Such platitudes and affirmations abounded at the conference. “You are more than enough,” repeated life coach Raia Carey as part of BodCon’s opening meditation. “As a community of body positivity and body love, we just need to keep continuing to express, you are okay, you are valid,” stressed Stella Williams, a “social media powerhouse and accomplished actress” who “exploded in popularity in October 2020 after a meme went viral body shaming her.” The BodCon website puts it even more plainly: “You are worthy of loving your body (even if nobody told you so).”

The “Body Positive Journal,” which attendees received with their conference tickets, proclaims, “Remember that even if you do absolutely nothing today (or for a week or a month or a year), it cannot change this fact: You are lovable, you are just right.” It advises journalers that “your body is not the problem, the way you’ve been taught to see your body is.” It prompts them to “write a love letter to your favorite food,” and reminds them that “yes, you deserve to eat delicious things and enjoy them.” It helpfully provides a “permission slip” that “entitles the signee to EXIST FULLY, completely, and TOTALLY IN THEIR HUMAN BODY without need for shame, apology, or any other restriction on their ability to thrive. Once signed, this permission slip shall remain in effect throughout the UNIVERSE from now UNTIL THE END OF TIME.”

Unsurprisingly, the fashion industry was a major subject of discussion at BodCon. Many speakers viewed it as the source of their body issues. “This generation has collective trauma when it comes to body image when it comes to the standards we’ve been delivered,” said Kerry Justich of Yahoo Life. Likewise, Stella Williams claimed that, “some days I feel like I just can’t be my true, authentic self”—because her favorite brands won’t carry her size. Some attendees argued that the industry is now backtracking on recent progress in accommodating larger bodies and that weight “exclusivity” is making a comeback. “The return of the ultra-thin aesthetic in the fashion industry has come as a real blow,” said “body-confidence advocate” Alex Light. But, although the assembled speakers had harsh words for the mainstream fashion industry, they made an exception for their sponsors—plus-sized clothing manufacturers like Shapermint and Truekind.

BodCon was a full-scale weaponization of body positivity, a relatively new trend that involves celebrating all varieties of the human form—especially those that do not conform to conventional beauty standards. Plus-size model Tess Holiday, who appeared on the cover of Cosmopolitan UK in 2018, encapsulated the idea with her viral Instagram hashtag campaign “#effyourbeautystandards. She told Cosmopolitan that she “created [the campaign] out of frustration” because she was “angry and sad that people kept commenting on my pictures saying, ‘You’re too fat to wear that!’” Her self-affirming campaign was successful, Holliday says. “I’m at the heaviest I’ve ever been in my life now and it took me being the heaviest to finally love myself.” This idea that you can only truly love yourself if you allow your body to become the heaviest version of itself is a sentiment wholly consistent with the message of BodCon3.

But is that message right?

We are currently experiencing an obesity epidemic—especially in the US, but increasingly worldwide. According to a National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, in 1960–62, 13.4 percent of US adults were obese; by 2017–18, the proportion of obese adults had risen to 42.4 percent. A 2004 study by the American Centers for Disease Control estimated that the average man weighed 166.3 lbs. (75.4 kg) in 1960, but was up to 191 lbs. (86.6 kg) in 2002; the average woman weighed 140.2 lbs. (63.6 kg) in 1960, but 164.3 lbs. (74.5 kg) in 2002. (Though there was also a slight height increase over this period.) More than 20 percent of adults in every US state and territory were obese as of September 2022, according to data from the CDC. Almost a fifth of Americans aged 19 and under were deemed medically obese by the CDC in 2017–2020.

Theme parks have been forced to impose waistline limits on rides. At least one airline has revised its estimate of average passenger weight upward by 8 lbs. (3.6 kg). The US Air Force has revised its body fat percentage requirements upward: from 20 to 26 percent for male recruits, and from 28 to 36 percent for females. Despite this relaxation of standards, more than one in three Americans aged 17–24 is ineligible for military service on the basis of weight alone.

The Covid pandemic exacerbated all these trends. Forty-two percent of respondents to a March 2021 survey by the American Psychological Association reported undesired weight gain. The median amount gained was 15 lbs. (6.8 kg). A study in the medical journal Pediatrics found that the prevalence of obesity in children aged 2–17 increased from 13.7 percent in June–Dec 2019 to 15.4 percent in June–Dec 2020. A study by the Center for Health Services Research found that approximately 10,000 active-duty US Army soldiers became obese between February 2019 and June 2021. And even as measures intended to fight Covid made us fatter, being overweight became an acute Covid comorbidity: a 2021 CDC study found that more than half of those who were hospitalized with severe cases of Covid from March to December 2020 were obese.

Covid is not the only disease worsened by obesity. Hypertension, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, and diabetes are all associated with obesity. Multiple studies have confirmed the adverse effect of being overweight on mortality, as well as on overall healthiness, measured in terms of disease-free years. One study has estimated the total annual economic cost of obesity for America at $1.72 trillion, 9.3 percent of US GDP.

But the scholars and activists in the field of fat studies do not believe that there is an obesity-related health crisis at all.

The discipline of fat studies is heavily influenced by critical theory and intersectionality. “Like feminist studies, queer studies, and disability studies, which consider gender, sexuality, or functional difference, fat studies can show us who we are via the lens of weight,” writes Marilyn Wann in her introduction to the 2009 Fat Studies Reader. It is a field that “can offer an analysis that is in solidarity with resistance to other forms of oppression by offering a new and unique view of alienation.” According to Wann, our “fat-hating culture” uses words like “overweight” and “obese,” as well as “seemingly well-meaning euphemisms like ‘heavy,’ ‘plump,’ ‘husky’” to stigmatize fat people. In the same volume, Sondra Solovay and Esther D. Rothblum describe fat studies as part of “the tradition of critical race studies, queer studies, and women’s studies … an interdisciplinary field of scholarship marked by an aggressive, consistent, rigorous critique of the negative assumptions, stereotypes, and stigma placed on fat and the fat body.” For contributor Elena Levy-Navarro, all this reifies “hegemonic power relations.” Fatness, in this view, is an immutable characteristic and thus the basis of an identity—like race or sex. The field of fat studies views fat people as an oppressed minority—even as their numbers continue to grow. Its proponents usually do not regard obesity as harmful. Carrying excess weight, for Rothblum, is no unhealthier than being tall. In a 2012 essay in Fat Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Body Weight and Society, she approvingly notes that the field “regards weight, like height, as a human characteristic that varies widely across any population.”

Fat activism can be traced back to at least 1969, when Bill Fabrey founded the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA). In 1973, Judy Freespirit and “Aldebaran” of the Fat Underground published their “Fat Liberation Manifesto.” In language evoking the spirit of the Civil Rights movement, they describe their movement as “allied with the struggles of other oppressed groups against classism, racism, sexism, ageism, financial exploitation, imperialism and the like,” and demand “equal rights for fat people in all aspects of life, as promised in the Constitution of the United States” and “an end to discrimination against us in the areas of employment, education, public facilities and health services.” The document cheekily concludes, pace Marx, “FAT PEOPLE OF THE WORLD, UNITE! YOU HAVE NOTHING TO LOSE.” It took some time for this movement to spawn an academic field. The first fat studies conference was held at Smith College in 2006.

The contents of the Journal of Fat Studies reveal the discipline’s affinity with other critical theory influenced fields. The contributions bear such titles as: “Fat as a neoliberal epidemic: Analyzing fat bodies through the lens of political epidemiology”; “Fat politics as a constituent of intersecting intimacies”; and “Toward a Fat Pedagogy: A study of pedagogical approaches aimed at challenging obesity discourse in post-secondary education.” Unsurprisingly, given the logic of intersectionality, which posits oppressions as an interlocking matrix, many articles connect fatphobia with other forms of bigotry. For example, in an article by gender studies and sociology professor Bek Orr entitled “Trans/fat: an autoethnographic exploration of becoming at the intersection of trans and fat,” the writer argues that “Being fat and/or transgender makes one an object to be acted upon … To live at the intersection of fat and transgender is to experience a specific form of intersectional objectification.”

Many of the core concepts of recent left-wing academia—a belief in structural oppression, the denial of individual agency and the simultaneous belief in the power of affirmations to increase self-esteem—combine to militate in favor of a depiction of fat people as completely powerless to reduce their weight. In this view, fatness is largely caused by societal factors like poverty, and people remain fat for societal reasons: discrimination by the medical establishment, lack of suitable workout clothes, an unwelcoming atmosphere in gyms. While it is undoubtedly difficult to lose weight, such rhetoric makes it seem impossible—and not only impossible, but not even desirable. The wish to lose weight, according to philosophy professor Kate Manne, is “internalized fatphobia,” caused by oppressive patriarchal forces, “the forces that tell girls and women … to be small, meek, slight, slim and quiet.”

One of the most prominent popularizers of such ideas is Lindo Bacon, whose 2008 book, Health at Every Size, was frequently referenced at BodCon3. “Life expectancy [among Americans] has increased dramatically during the time period in which weight rose,” she blithely asserts—an assertion that, if true at the time of the book’s writing, is no longer true. She also claims that “there is great controversy as to whether weight loss is necessary or even desirable for improved health.” But most of that controversy centers on the utility of BMI as a measure. Some bodybuilders count as obese according to that metric. However, when corrected to account for muscle mass, this discrepancy largely disappears, according to a 2020 study. Excess weight is not necessarily associated with worse health outcomes—but excess body fat is.

It would be misleading to attribute the entirety of the rise in obesity rates to left-wing academic theories and their fat activist proselytizers. But they surely play some role—and it can’t be a healthy one.

Of course, the deck is stacked against anyone who wants to remain at a healthy weight to an extent that hasn’t been true at any previous period of history. People from across the political spectrum agree with this. When Bacon writes that “our internal weight regulation system remains ideally crafted for the environmental condition of the past—food scarcity—helping us pack on pounds and thwart hunger and has yet to evolve for the environment of today,” her words are surprisingly similar to those of Heritage Foundation scholar Jay Richards, author of the 2020 book Eat, Fast, Feast: Heal Your Body While Feeding Your Soul—A Christian Guide to Fasting. “The mother of all tradeoffs in the modern world,” Richards told me in an interview, “is the discordance between the lifestyle that we are allowed to have and the physical environment that we were actually designed for.”

Fat activists make some valid points. The fashion industry’s preference for extremely thin models probably does have a detrimental effect on some young women. Size inclusivity is good: fatter women need clothes that fit them. Bullying is unacceptable. It can be harder for lower-income people to lead healthy lives. Gyms can be intimidating to fatter people. Diets often backfire. Food manufacturers do contribute to an obesogenic environment. Guidelines on healthy eating are often confusing.

The Sad Truth About ‘Fat Acceptance’
Sydney. London. Toronto.

Bek Orr is partially correct then, when she writes that “structures and ideologies … oppress individuals and contribute to poor health.” Modern people who wish to remain slender face enormous challenges. Without support, they are likely to falter.

BodCon was a missed opportunity. Derek Frazier, one of the few male speakers, spoke of “the power of having a good solid confidence-boosting community around you.” BodCon offered that. The conference promised to give a “boost” in “self-love” to attendees. Unfortunately, however, they believe that self-love means never telling yourself no. They have chosen reflexive self-affirmation over meaningful aspiration to improve oneself. They view themselves primarily as victims and, until they escape that mindset, they will not be able to help themselves or each other.

They might turn for guidance to Tonia Hope. I was expecting her panel, “Body Confidence on the Go: Advocating for Plus Sized and Disabled Travelers,” to be a kvetch fest about how modern travel discriminates against fat people and how everything needs to change to accommodate them. Instead, she told the inspiring story of her ascent of Machu Picchu, which she called “one of the most grueling experiences” of her life. It took her eight and a half hours:

I was the last person on the mountain. I hiked the end of the trail in the pitch black, using my phone torch and my guide’s phone torch to the end of the track. And by the time I got to the end, I was like, I’ve actually done this. As much as my body hurts, as much as I thought, no no no, people like you don’t do this, you should just turn around . . . about a third of the way in, the guides were like, you can turn around if you want, and I said no, I don’t just give up like that. I’m going the full distance, I’m already on this mountain. And then when I got to the end it was like, it was not as bad as you made it out in your head. You’ve done it, you’ve asked for what you needed to be able to do it, and then you succeeded in it.

If BodCon had featured more sessions like this one, in which fat people related how they overcame personal obstacles, with help and support, I would have welcomed it. Instead, it was a forum for a form of self-love that amounts in practice to a mixture of self-pity and delusional narcissism. We need community to be healthy. But we need healthier communities than this.

Jack Butler

Jack Butler is submissions editor at National Review Online, media fellow for the Institute for Human Ecology, and a 2022–2023 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow at the Fund for American Studies.

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