I am so caught up in the day to day management of NAAFA (the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) that I don't often take the opportunity to look at the bigger picture of the historical perspective--and the effectiveness--of the size acceptance movement. Between processing memberships, fielding press calls, editing the NAAFA newsletter, answering phones, and organizing our annual convention, who has time to sit back and ruminate about the meaning of it all?
That's not to say that I've never evaluated the movement at all. For the last several years, I've given the "State of the Size Acceptance Movement" address at NAAFA's annual convention. Out of the necessity of having to prepare a speech, I've been forced to take some time and think about how the movement had progressed during the previous year and the current and long-term obstacles the movement needed to overcome to increase our effectiveness. But while thinking about the size acceptance movement in one-year increments is helpful, what's our track record over the long term? After all, the movement's been around for three decades now. Has the size acceptance movement made a difference? Can we justify the movement's existence?
I always tend to think about the size acceptance movement in terms of the personal and the political. As fat people and as FAs, we need personal strategies, personal solutions to living our lives in a world that is hostile to us.
Maybe we need to know where to buy a supersize swimsuit. Perhaps we need to figure out how to deal with locker room talk that derides the women we find attractive. It could be that we just need to connect with other people who share our experiences, so we don't feel so alone. Those are the kinds of personal solutions we need to live our lives as fat people and FAs.
But the entire community of fat people and FAs--whether they've ever heard about the size acceptance movement or not--also need political solutions. We need to create a world where, when we apply for a job, we know that we'll be judged on our qualifications rather than our appearance or that of our partner. We need a world where, if we get sick, we can be assured of receiving proper medical care. We need to create a world where our preference for a fat partner is looked upon as one variation of many sexual orientations. We need a world where we assume that we fit; that there will always be a place for us to sit. We need to create a world where fat kids are welcomed into their families and their schools with open, loving arms. Building this world requires political strategies and solutions.
Of course, the personal and the political overlap in many ways. If I demand and armless chair when I go into a restaurant (a personal solution), there is a chance that the next fat person who walks in will get an armless chair without having to ask (a more political solution). This is one incarnation of the "think globally, act locally" school of activism.
Let's grab a scorecard and see how well the movement's done over the last 30 years in both the personal and political arenas. I think that the size acceptance movement racks up a lot of points in the column marked "personal." Tens of thousands of individuals (maybe even hundreds of thousands) have benefited from the existence of the size acceptance movement, and in particular, from the existence of NAAFA.
Throughout the years, fat people and FAs have received support and information through NAAFA chapters, publications, and conventions. The networking that took place for the first 15 or so years (when NAAFA was virtually the only game in town for size-related information) created an "underground" of sorts, where people shared information about everything from where to get clothing to how to treat skinfold infections. Personal solutions were as close as the nearest phone.
Even more important than personal solutions was something less tangible--the ability of NAAFA to give fat people and FAs the tools for self-empowerment. Being freed from the shackles of self-loathing and victimization allowed people to not only improve their own lives, but to also use their talents to help others do the same, through creating size-related organizations and businesses. Today, the size-related market is burgeoning, and most of the businesses have their roots in NAAFA. For example, many of the social clubs around the country were started by NAAFA members who witnessed the success of chapter dances and national events. Likewise, many clothing designers relied on NAAFA trunk sales to get customers and sustain their fledgling businesses. Even Dimensions began as the publication for NAAFA's FA Special Interest Group before splitting off from the organization several years ago. And local or regional size acceptance advocacy organizations abound now, many of which formed after splitting with NAAFA.
I firmly believe that, because of the size acceptance movement, many, many people have found personal solutions to the challenges presented by being fat or being an FA, and the quality of their lives has improved tremendously. I also think that, for the most part, even those who are no longer active in the movement have the skills necessary to not only survive, but to thrive as a person of size. There's something about knowing that there's a whole community of people out there that shares your experience, that makes living just a little bit easier.
So the movement would have a high score in the "personal" arena, even considering a five-point penalty for not reaching as many people as we would have liked. But what is the movement's ranking on the "political" side of the equation?
I'm afraid that the size acceptance movement's score in the political arena is pretty dismal. Granted, the other side has a few ringers in the gameólike a $33 billion diet industry, Madison Avenue, and the medical establishmentóbut our real, tangible accomplishments have been few and far between.
In the early days of the size acceptance movement, the Fat Underground made breakthroughs in developing the political theory of fat acceptance. They positioned fat people as oppressed, realized that the layperson could deconstruct obesity research, and asserted fat rights in public venues. But the Fat Underground disbanded after a few years, and political progress in the following years has been incremental.
We've had many political successes as a movement. We've overseen the introduction of anti-size-discrimination legislation in three states, had a meeting with the Governor of New York, and staged a demonstration at the White House. We've convinced Hallmark to pull offensive products and a cartoonist to work through his fatphobia. We've talked to doctors and medical students at Harvard, Stanford, in the U.S., and in Europe, and at medical clinics and hospitals. We've publicly supported plaintiffs in their efforts to seek legal redress for discrimination, and were steadfast in our defense of the wrongly accused. We've given, literally, tens of thousands of media interviews asserting the message of the size acceptance movement.
Clearly, we've been busy. But I don't think we have a lot of political progress to show after three decades of effort. The dismal political "score" begs the question, Why?
Perhaps it's because we don't yet have the commitment we need to create serious political change. Recently, I was reading an excerpt from Taylor Branch's book, Pillar of Fire, which detailed the extraordinary personal dramas behind the passage of the Civil Rights Act. What struck me was the level of passion and commitment everyone from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on down had for the movement and for passage of the bill. People were willing to take all kinds of risks, and Dr. King paid the ultimate price for this commitment. Reading this account made me reflect upon the size acceptance movement, and how far removed our movement is from the civil rights movement, or the gay rights movement, or the women's movement. I think one of the reasons it's so far removed is that, for almost all of us, size acceptance is a hobby, not a civil rights movement. As a friend of mine (and a one-time dyed-in-the-wool activist) once sighed, "All I really want is a nice life."
A nice life is all that most of us want. Several times a day, NAAFA receives calls from people who need help: they've been discriminated against, or they need to find a doctor, or they are mad about the final "Seinfeld" episode. Sometimes people call in tears, because they're experiencing so much pain in their lives. What these people have in common is that they're not NAAFA members. They've known about NAAFA for years, but have no desire to support the political work NAAFA does because they don't think it affects them. They don't get that they benefit from NAAFA's (and other advocacy organizations') everyday. And that, eventually, every fat person needs an advocate.
Granted, most of us aren't revolutionaries (I know I'm not; I've always considered myself a reformer), but aren't there even a handful among us? And what would it take to ignite the kind of passion to truly politicize the size acceptance movement? Perhaps we need a cataclysmic event, as the gay rights movement had with Stonewall, in order to commit ourselves to political change.
In order to make political change, we also need to believe that we're worth it; that we deserve to be treated well. And that means we need to leave our shame on the sidelines. Fat shame is so all-encompassing, and so insidious, that it's almost impossible to ever fully eradicate. Pulling ourselves out of our shame is like climbing out of quicksand. Which brings us full circle, because the size acceptance movement has a high score in helping people climb out of quicksand. Perhaps we need to reach more people; perhaps we need to work through more layers of our own shame; perhaps we simply need to recruit some revolutionaries in order to achieve more in the political arena. Nonetheless, I think that after three decades, the movement has taken its hits, celebrated its victories, and that it has made the world a better, if not ideal, place for fat people and FAs. ß