Putting acceptance back in the body acceptance movement

Jessica Weiner, body activist and entrepreneur, wrote a controversial personal essay that came out last week in Glamour Magazine about her wake-up call surrounding her health and how it has been negatively affected by her own black-and-white thinking regarding body acceptance. (Interestingly, the title of the piece has just been changed to “Did Loving My Body Almost Kill Me?” at Jess’ urging to reflect that it is a question worth exploring, not a forgone conclusion.) Full-disclosure, Jess is a friend and collaborator of mine, someone I’ve known since my own book on disordered eating and perfectionism came out back in 2007. As such, I have some insight into who she is that I think really puts this essay in perspective.

Jess is deeply pragmatic when it comes to social change. She believes in going to the center of where power is, and befriending it, rather than opposing it for righteous reasons. In that way, she is something of a sector agnostic–someone who will work with corporations, grassroots activists, doctors, teenage inventors, and advertisers (sometimes all in one day). Which also means she doesn’t align to any party line just because it’s the popular thing to do.

I believe that’s the context from which this piece grew. Jess writes about her decision to get healthy after realizing that she was nearly pre-diabetic and all of the inner turmoil that brought up for her, particularly as someone in the public eye and known for preaching body acceptance:

Women were more supportive than I’d ever expected, and many of them even admitted that they too wanted to lose weight to improve their health but had, like me, felt trapped by the stigma that confident, heavy women weren’t supposed to think about weight at all. Like me, they felt liberated by the idea that it wouldn’t betray their ideals to value their physical health.

As someone who has written and spoken about these issues widely and organized an international body activism summit, I see so much in this short paragraph about our movement, as it stands now, and the work still to be done.

For starters, Jess didn’t expect to be supported in the very personal decisions she was choosing to make around her own body and lifestyle–the first red flag. Too often, the collective effort to change the way the world sees weight has made feminist women feel as if they have to be closeted about their real concerns about their health. Too often, activists whose goal is to expand body acceptance have actually made women who are new to the movement and/or questioning some of its tenants, feel shamed and excluded. I can only guess that this is a reflection of the horrific shame and exclusion these activists, many of whom are fat women living in a fat-phobic society, have experienced, but it doesn’t make it right. I’ve watched, first hand, as women with a lot to gain from the fat activist movement, have left a lecture hall feeling like they weren’t knowledgeable, radical, or sure enough to be part of the club. This is not how a big tent movement gets created; this is how polarization gets entrenched.

In her interview with Kate Harding, Jess summed up what I believe is the unedited truth and the real, beating heart of why this piece is important: “I think I just spent too much time in black/white thinking (caring about appearance/weight = bad — critical thinking/shunning societal pressures = good) that I forgot to really find the middle ground for myself.”

All of us need to reflect, not just on our own personal health markers, how we measure and maintain them, but on our larger messaging and how we treat one another within this movement. Shaming people for not knowing, or not agreeing with all the facets of the movement’s accepted wisdom, leads to this kind of black/white thinking that Jess describes. It makes people misunderstand the message. It makes people feel judged, which is exactly what we are fighting against.

For more important perspectives on this piece, see Claire Mysko’s interview and Deb Burgard’s analysis.

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10 Comments

  1. Posted August 15, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for posting this, this has been a conflict I’ve dealt with for some time. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one.

  2. Posted August 15, 2011 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    I honestly take issue with her definition of “Loving one’s body” in the first place. I feel like they were skewed to begin with and still seem skewed now. Loving your body doesn’t mean you love your body’s lack of health. It means you love yourself and who you are and loving your body so much that you do what you gotta do to take care of it and nurture it. Like if it were your child or your baby. You make sure it gets the proper nutrition and exercise because you love your body so much. To me, your size is irrelevant. You can love your body but not be happy at it’s current condition. You can love your body because you’re being the healthiest your body can be despite your hips being wide or your but being too flat or too round. Loving your body despite being tall or short. But loving it so much that you want it to feel good and look good (Look good based on health standards not on Euro-centric beauty standards). I think we really need to change the definition of both beauty and “Loving your body.”

  3. Posted August 15, 2011 at 7:24 pm | Permalink

    I just got done reading Kate Harding’s interview, so I’m coming to this with a fresh view. My initial response to Jess’s article was shock and outrage, which I still feel is a valid response to her deeply problematic rhetoric, but adding in an analysis of the broader fat acceptance/activism movement and questioning what lead Jess to believe that taking care of her health was somehow in opposition to FA, I can understand her position much more clearly. There’s also a good analysis over at the HAES blog (http://healthateverysizeblog.wordpress.com) that talks about this.

    Really, though, the language is so inflammatory and inaccurate. “Loving [her] body” was not what “almost killed” (extreme hyperbole) Jess Weiner—it was neglect, avoidance, and misunderstanding. Call it what it is, make it a critique of some of the social aspects of a still-struggling and changing movement, be as honest as you can about what happened and why you chose what you did for your body (which is ALWAYS your right), but don’t paint self-love and resistance to fat oppression as killers-in-hiding. I understand that many who know Jess feel that this was not her goal, but I’d really appreciate a follow-up and an ongoing dialogue, not just a title change.

  4. Posted August 15, 2011 at 9:47 pm | Permalink

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, talkie while doing more walkie.
    Why the sensational title she wrote?
    This is no joke to me. According to my BMI, I’m obese (5’1 1/2″, 180 lbs). I have bad genes: my Father’s side has diverculosis, diabetes, clogged arteries, and stroke; my Mother’s side has pre-pre diabetes, gestational diabetes, leg surgery, and high blood pressure. My cousin had a surgery on her tummy as a baby because of a tumor (no small or flat stomach for her ever), she has thyroid problems, yellow discharge, and is emotionally eating because she’s depressed over the death of her dear Grandmother on her Mother’s side.
    I know Jess Weiner means well. But this isn’t sensational to me, this can be depressing for my family.

  5. Posted August 16, 2011 at 11:31 am | Permalink

    Over the past year and 1/2 or so I lost 25 pounds and went from being a size 10 to a size 4, and I constantly feel the urge to explain to people when they comment on the change that my decision to start running 15-20 miles a week was not a weight loss decision. It was so that I would feel better and not be tired after climbing a flight of stairs! I tell them. I didn’t expect to lose so much weight, that wasn’t why I did it! Pieces like this remind me that I don’t have to explain myself. I don’t have to apologize for slimming down any more than I felt I had to apologize for being larger than the size some fashion designer thought was beautiful. My body, my business.

  6. Posted August 16, 2011 at 2:27 pm | Permalink

    Just what Jess Weiner needed, thinsplaining!

    I read her article and Kate Harding’s interview, and I’m still not impressed. If you wrote it down, you need to own it. On the internet at large, I’m seeing a lot of “but what she REALLY means is–”. Not only is this not helpful, it’s not ally behavior.

    • Posted August 16, 2011 at 3:57 pm | Permalink

      Thinsplaining is a fantastic and totally underutilized word, just like mansplaining.

      On the other hand, while I don’t want to do anything to undermine your incisive critique of Courtney’s post, I feel I should probably ask for some clarification. Doesn’t thinsplaining require that someone with thin privilege steps in and speaks on behalf of people of size, expecting to be heard and acknowledged while refusing to acknowledge the fact that their own privilege largely invalidates their supposed insight? I mean, isn’t it more than just “talking about body acceptance issues while being thin?”

      Because it kind of sounds like Courtney is speaking not from a place of “thin privilege,” but rather from a place of “Jess is a friend of mine, and therefore I am in a position to offer further clarification on what she wrote.”

      I admit to perhaps having a less nuanced understanding of this issue (heck, I’ve never even considered dismissing someone’s statements solely based on their privilege or lack thereof), but to my uneducated ears this reads less like “thinsplaining” and more like “hey, I know this person, maybe I can help to clarify what she said.”

      I fully admit that I may be missing something relevant; perhaps you could explain how Courtney’s commentary constitutes thinsplaining? Thanks!

      • Posted August 18, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

        Courtney can’t help speaking from a place of thin privilege. It’s not her “fault” (any more than it’s my fault I’m white or my boyfriend’s fault he’s a dude), but it does mean that as an ally she needs to be extra-careful to step back even as she steps up (to borrow a convenient phrase from Hugo Schwyzer).

        Jess Weiner’s byline is on the Glamour article. Changes made by her editor(s) have been acknowledged elsewhere on the internet, and Weiner herself suggested changes that were adopted (the title, as noted above). So why the rush to defend her as if she can’t speak for herself? It becomes thinsplaining the moment a fat person’s words are directly disgregarded in an attempt to explain them away.

        For me, at least, what Courtney reveals about her friendship with Weiner provides no insight whatsoever into the Glamour article. Courtney writes: “. . . she doesn’t align to any party line just because it’s the popular thing to do .” So . . . what? Weiner’s years as a body acceptance activist certainly fly in the face of conventional wisdom. Courtney can’t possibly mean that HAES and weight-neutral policies are popular in the US at large (heh heh).

        What Courtney seems to be saying is that the fatty fatty two-by-fours are being Awful Mean to Poor Jess Weiner, and it hurts her feelings because Jess is her friend. To which I say: tough.

        Courtney writes: “Too often, activists whose goal is to expand body acceptance have actually made women who are new to the movement and/or questioning some of its tenants [sic], feel shamed and excluded. I can only guess that this is a reflection of the horrific shame and exclusion these activists, many of whom are fat women living in a fat-phobic society, have experienced, but it doesn’t make it right. I’ve watched, first hand, as women with a lot to gain from the fat activist movement, have left a lecture hall feeling like they weren’t knowledgeable, radical, or sure enough to be part of the club. This is not how a big tent movement gets created; this is how polarization gets entrenched.”

        She can only guess why fat ladies “shame and exclude” other fat ladies (not being a fat lady or shamed and excluded herself), but she knows it needs to stop. And the first place it needs to stop is the critiques of Jess Weiner’s piece in Glamour, right?

        I’m not sure if that answered your question, Unequivocal–please let me know! (Also, Courtney, if you’re hanging around feel free to say something. I feel weird writing all “Courtney sez” instead of sayin’ it to your face, as it were.)

        • Posted August 18, 2011 at 11:12 pm | Permalink

          That answered my questions Fellmama. Thank you for taking the time to reply. I don’t know that I agree with your assessment, but I’ll be taking some time to consider your words.

          Thanks again.

    • Posted August 17, 2011 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

      “Thinsplaining” is a great term. Basically, it means that someone with thin privilege is presuming to chastise fat activists about how we should handle our own movement. There’s also “whitesplaining,” “mansplaining,” etc.

      The title of this post is profoundly insulting to the fat acceptance movement. The “prevailing wisdom” does not dictate that people who want to lose weight should be shunned. The problem that fat activists have with Weiner is NOT her decision to lose weight, it’s the damaging rhetoric that she uses and supports.

      The title of Weiner’s piece isn’t a “question worth considering.” Loving or accepting your body can’t kill you. The title is pure sensationalism, and both it and the rhetoric that follows it fall into the old, harmful trap of conflating weight/body size with health. That’s why fat activists are taking issue with it, and our criticism shouldn’t be dismissed as “polarizing” or intolerant. Weiner is buying into and contributing to powerful cultural forces that cause overwhelming emotional and physical harm to fat people, especially fat women. The knee-jerk defensiveness of people who claim to support acceptance but who spout off support for fat-hatred shouldn’t be equated with the marginalization and silence faced by those who are constantly subjected to that hatred.

      Fat and health are not the same, “health” isn’t objective, and in any case neither body size nor health is something we should be policing.

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