Despite all the words I have spent on this topic over the past decade or so, there are still a lot of misunderstandings about what Health at Every Size is and what it isn’t.
People often conflate the Health at Every Size philosophy with the fat political movement, assuming they are one and the same thing, while simultaneously framing Health at Every Size as completely opposed to current weight and health science.
In truth, Health at Every Size does intersect with both fat politics and weight science, and yet it is neither of these things. It incorporates parts of both to form a bridge between them.
Health at Every Size developed as something of a response, or corollary, to fat politics. The principles of HAES arise from a foundation of (personal, and maybe political) fat acceptance, while not actually being the fat acceptance movement. It is a different, but attached, thing.
Health at Every Size is also not in complete disagreement with current weight science — or at least, not any more than weight science is in disagreement with itself much of the time. Health at Every Size acknowledges the data of weight science, but interprets its methods and context critically — sometimes agreeing, and sometimes disagreeing with its conclusions. It is a different, but compatible, thing.
I’d like to offer a more in-depth definition of these terms, and describe how they relate to Health at Every Size, starting today with the fat political movement.
1. Fat Politics
Fat politics is sometimes termed “the fat acceptance movement” or “fat liberation,” but it goes by other names as well. The goal of this movement is political and social: to address societal power imbalances affecting fat people, and, hopefully, to restore balance through political actions like agitating for legal protections from size discrimination, and advocating for change in how fat people are treated in settings ranging from the sidewalk to the workplace to local businesses to the doctor’s office.
People who benefit from thin privilege may feel excluded from fat politics and from the social milieu that has developed around the fat acceptance movement. That is because fat politics is primarily a movement for fat people — even though fat stigma affects people of all shapes and sizes, even though a reduction in fat discrimination and inequality is likely to benefit everyone as a side effect, and even though, fundamentally, the problem of fat oppression is not located in the fat body itself, but rather in a hierarchical social order that is pathologically devoted to defining certain people as worthy, and others as garbage to be thrown away.
Because it is intended expressly to help fat people, the fat acceptance movement is one of the few areas of our thin-centric culture that does not prioritize the needs, viewpoints, and feelings of thin or average-sized people. This can make it an uncomfortable place for thin or average-sized people to be, especially if they are not well-versed in these concepts.
That’s okay; as a thin or average-sized person, you can still educate yourself and be supportive of people of all shapes and sizes without needing to access fat politics or fat social spaces for your own personal use. I know it hurts to feel excluded on the basis of your body size, trust me. You will survive.
Within fat politics, sometimes people talk about the science of health and weight, but that science is presented to make a political and moral argument: that fat people are worthy of rights and equal respect, and that negative stereotypes about fat people (most of which centre around health because, in our culture, health is used as a proxy for moral goodness and deservingness of basic human rights) are both inaccurate and morally wrong.
I actually wish that the conversation about health within fat politics would shift more to a social model of disability perspective — which means affirming that people naturally come in a diverse array of different bodies, and rather than labeling some bodies “right” and other bodies “wrong,” and setting up societies to only accommodate “right” bodies, and then seeking to address the resulting inequities by forcing the “wrong” ones to more closely resemble the “right,” it is actually the responsibility of society at large to ensure that all bodies are accommodated, valued, and given equitable access to the human world.
I also wish the conversation would focus more on social determinants of health and less on individual health habits, and also less on stereotype-busting to prove that fat people can be “healthy” by what I think is an exclusionary, unrealistic, and ultimately oppressive definition of “health” — but you can’t always get what you want.
When people discuss health and science within fat politics, you must take those points in context, for what they are: they are tools to serve an ultimately moral, not scientific, argument — that fat people are human beings who belong in the world, and who deserve basic rights, compassion, and dignity. They are not intended, in the context of a political discussion, to be engaged in a search for the ultimate medical and scientific truth about body weight (interesting as that subject is to me), nor are they being used with clinical detachment. This doesn’t make the scientific arguments inherently untrue, but it does mean they are secondary to the moral agenda.
There is always some bias in using scientific evidence to service what is fundamentally a moral argument (as opposed to a political argument that arises from scientific findings.) The truth is, regardless of what the science says about weight and health, the moral argument will always stand: fat people exist, they are in the world, and if human history is any example, they will continue to exist — and therefore, they must be afforded the same rights, access, and dignity that other human beings enjoy. Regardless of their health.
Within fat acceptance, some people do a better job at scientific accuracy than others, and many fat political arguments using weight science have been published in peer-reviewed journals. But when you enter the world of fat social gatherings, Facebook status updates, message board grudge matches, Twitter and personal blogs, you are going to witness wide variation in the accuracy and subjectivity with which science is presented to service the moral argument. Some arguments will be painstakingly accurate. Others will highlight one truth while displacing another to make a larger point. And some will be hopelessly garbled, or oversimplified to the point of uselessness.
There is also going to be heat and defensiveness and loss of temper — because people are not really fighting about whether science shows that fat people can be healthy, they are fighting to be treated as human beings.
That is true for any political movement. Politics are emotional. Politics are important. But they are not science, and they are not exactly Health at Every Size.