The case for a separate FA movement
by Sally E. Smith
Over the last several months, there has been a great deal of discussion about the role of allies in the size acceptance movement. The topic has generated dialogues, debates, and arguments in forums ranging from casual conversations to electronic mail to the pages of publications such as Dimensions. It has caused bruised feelings and political controversies. But throughout the process, there has been little acknowledgement that the vast majority of the allies to the size acceptance movement possess a strong common denominator that makes their relationship to fat people unique and makes them different from allies to other movements.
Acknowledging that the majority of allies to the size acceptance movement are FAs changes the premise of such a discussion. While there may be different degrees of "FAness," with some people on one end of the continuum experiencing a mild preference for the larger figure, the experience of most of the FAs in the size acceptance movement is at the other end of the continuum. Theirs is not simply a sexual preference, but an orientation that defines not only their sexuality, but to a significant extent, their self-concept and their lifestyle. Having fat people in their lives contributes to FAs' sense of completeness and fulfillment. Recognizing this means understanding that the support of the majority of allies to the size acceptance movement is not based merely on an intellectual understanding of the issues or the wish to support a loved one; rather, their support of the movement is a reflection of their personal issues about their FAness just as a fat person's support of the movement is a reflection of their personal issues about their fatness. For this reason, FAs' allegiance to the size acceptance movement is very different from, say, a sighted person's support of the blind movement or a white person's support of the civil rights movement.
It's healthy for movements to do some introspection, and recognizing that FAs as a group have their own issues and needs is a good springboard from which to examine whether or not the size acceptance movement effectively serves the FA community, and if not, whether FAs need to create their own organizations and movement.
There are several arguments why the FA community is not well-served by the size acceptance movement. First, because the size acceptance movement was created to end size discrimination and to empower fat people, FAs are by definition a corollary to the movement, and their issues are relegated to the back burner. At NAAFA events, for example, there are many workshops and discussions about issues affecting fat people, and usually only one for FAs (which usually draws a higher attendance of fat people than FAs).
Most of the publications in the size acceptance movement rarely acknowledge FAs or their issues. With the exception of Dimensions, which speaks to the range of FA experiences and serves as a bridge between the FA and fat communities, the most widely-read FA publications are almost exclusively sexual in nature. Ironically, these magazines are produced by non-FAs who generally don't understand FAs' sexuality.
Very little of the movement's efforts in public education are expended on behalf of FAs. There are currently no informational pamphlets for FAs nor on the topic of the sexual preference of FAs. FAs are rarely, if ever, mentioned in public speeches and other educational endeavors. While dispelling myths and stereotypes about fat people ranks high on the size acceptance agenda, there has been no concerted effort to reduce the social stigma against FAs. In the media, FAs are seen only in the context of their sexual preference, and then are mostly treated as sideshow oddities. In the last five years, only one newspaper article has legitimately discussed the FA orientation. Likewise, the movement's efforts in influencing research and public policy have virtually ignored the FA community.
While the size acceptance movement has not met the needs of the FA community, it does not follow that the movement should be castigated. While FAs' issues and needs are related to those of the fat population, they're separate, and a strong argument can be made that FAs should develop their own movement.
In thinking about the elements of a hypothetical FA movement, the first step would be to define the central issues and needs of the FA community. Are the primary issues for FAs finding fat partners, or are the issues deeper than that? It seems that, although it is rarely acknowledged and discussed, FAs experience significant social stigma and discrimination, and as a result, can have a great deal of internalized oppression.
Although there is a dearth of theory and research about FAs, anecdotal evidence suggests that early on, FAs are given the distinct message that their preference isn't acceptable. As a result, many FAs' first explorations into their preference are accompanied by a mixture of excitement and shame. Over time, many FAs learn to separate their FAness from the rest of their lives, and either learn to deny that part of themselves or to isolate themselves. Due to social stigma and the denial of their preference, many FAs have relationships with and marry average size partners, relegating their preference to shame-filled fantasies.
For those FAs who come out of the closet, the road is equally difficult, as they are often judged for their preference by their friends, families, and co-workers. They may find themselves or their partners shunned by their families, and they may experience a "glass ceiling" in a corporate world where executives are as judged by their choice in spouses as they are by their abilities.
Even for FAs who find and embrace the size acceptance movement, there is no guarantee that they will escape stigma and internalized oppression. Ostensibly, the movement is the one place in our society where FAs can be who they are, unselfconscious and free from ridicule for their preference. Yet FAs often find that they cannot express the full range of their experience without exposing themselves to disparagement for many of the very qualities that make them FAs. Ironically, it often seems that fat people can't truly accept FAs' admiration of their physical attributes and size; rather, the essence of FAness is something many fat people would rather minimize. As a result, FAs often walk a tightrope in expressing an "acceptable" level of FAness, trying to strike a balance between avoiding ostracism for who they are and completely denying their nature.
If there was an FA movement, what would its efforts encompass? If we agree that FAs experience oppression and discrimination, it would not be unreasonable to apply the paradigm of the size acceptance movement to the FA community. If the goal of an FA movement was to end discrimination against and empower FAs, this could be accomplished utilizing the same mechanisms used by the size acceptance movement: support, public education, advocacy, and research.
For every FA who is a part of the size acceptance movement, there are probably hundreds of FAs who are still in the closet. An FA movement could do outreach to those FAs-in-hiding, providing them with the tools to work through their internalized oppression, to come to acknowledge their preference, and, as a result, to lead fuller, happier lives. Such a movement could sponsor conferences to provide a forum for the discussion of issues affecting FAs, and could join with the size acceptance movement to dialogue about issues that arise between FAs and fat people.
As the size acceptance movement has discovered, public education is a good mechanism for doing outreach and reducing social stigma. Publishing articles in mainstream magazines, networking with both size and non-size related organizations, and working with the media would serve to dispel the myths and stereotypes about FAs, educate the public, and legitimize FAs' preference.
There will be strength in numbers as more FAs come out of the closet, and an FA movement could engage in advocacy. The advocacy agenda could encompass a number of different components. For example, research about FAs is virtually non-existent, and it might be helpful to discover if the FA population is homogeneous or heterogeneous, or if FAness is genetic or environmental. Information is power, and so an FA movement might advocate that the National Institutes of Health fund research about FAs.
Similarly, an FA movement could decide that a priority should be to influence our society's definition of beauty by expanding ideals to include the larger figure. This could be accomplished by staging demonstrations at the editorial offices of mainstream men's magazines, by urging museums to include art depicting the beauty of fat women, or by inundating Madison Avenue with letters protesting the exclusive use of slender models in advertising.
Certainly, there is currently an embryonic FA movement, and Dimensions has been a leader in the work to legitimize the preference of FAs. It seems clear, however, that there are sufficient issues and needs in the FA community to warrant a more formalized movement, needs that the size acceptance movement may never adequately address. One would hope, however, that if such an organized movement is launched, the fat community would reciprocate the dedication and support it has received from FAs, who constitute the majority of allies to the size acceptance movement. ß
Sally E. Smith is executive director of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. If you would like more information about topics discussed in this article, or information about joining NAAFA, email NAAFA at PMCG10C@ prodigy.com, or write to NAAFA, P.O. Box 188620, Sacramento, CA 95818.