Mia Freedman & the Debate about Fat Acceptance

NOT long ago Mia Freedman tweeted, ‘'If you have to ask, your bum does look big in that. #rulesforlife’‘.

She immediately drew fire about the sentiment and about it being made by someone who claims to be a body image activist (Freedman chaired the National Body Image Advisory Group). Some even questioned the Fairfax columnist and former magazine editor’s claim to that title in the first place.

Among those throwing bombs were fativists, or members of the fat acceptance movement. Among the beliefs of such activists – who meet largely online – is that bodies are diverse, all people deserve to be treated with respect, no matter their shape or size, and that stereotyping, vilifying and discriminating against fat people is counterproductive and wrong. Fativists advocate a social and policy agenda grounded in a ‘'health at any size’‘ approach to wellness and see the size of their body as their business – not ours. They say fat people should be consulted about public health interventions designed to reduce their size.

I’m on board with the fat acceptance message – to a point. I certainly agree, and have argued in print and on radio, that demonising obesity is counterproductive, while promoting good health engenders self-esteem and the self-nurturing behaviours that promote physical and psychological well-being. I despair at our hysteria about obesity and bullying, and our refusal to connect the two. For instance, obese kids are more likely than their thin classmates to be bullied.

I agree that our bodies belong to us, as does the right to prune, pierce, modify, sculpt and even abuse them – despite religious scolding or contrary expert advice. And yes, it is as wrong for society to stereotype fat people as lazy, gluttonous, smelly or lacking in self-control as it is to accord me the privilege of walking in public with my partner without anyone doing a double-take because I’m thin.

But I’m also a stickler for facts. While it’s true – and poorly understood – that being overweight actually reduces one’s risk of dying from any cause, it is also the case that being obese or underweight are risk factors for mortality. This undercuts the accuracy of the ‘'health at any size’‘ message, though I agree that for pragmatic reasons (its esteem-enhancing thrust, the proven ineffectiveness of dieting for most) it offers the most promising approach.

More importantly, I think some fativists may need to think more critically about their own agenda and perhaps less critically about the good-hearted objectives of others.

For fat acceptance advocates, Freedman’s tweet captures all that is wrong with society’s attitude to body weight. Said one blogger: ‘'She wasn’t making a feel-good statement about how we should accept and embrace the realities of our own bodies … she was invoking … [our] obsessive fear of fat … [Such] tropes are also misogynistic, heteronormative, and promote able-bodied & white as beauty ideals.’'

It is good that those objecting to our culture’s equation of thin and beautiful also question why older, non-white, gay and disabled folk are excluded from the beauty standard. But the sincerity of such interrogation is undercut by fat acceptance articles illustrated with photos of heavily made-up obese women posing like models. Such illustrations don’t seem to say ‘'no way’‘, but express the less radical sentiment of ’‘me too’‘.

Celebrity adds much to the profile of any social change campaign but celebrities aren’t perfect. Freedman takes her work as a body image activist seriously and has made headway. She deserves to be admired, or left alone.

Publication history

When the well-meaning end up doing a fat lot of good   Moral Dilemma, The Sunday Sun-Herald