Our Place at the Table

One of my life goals is to be named to the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition.  The Council’s mission is “to engage, educate and empower all Americans to adopt a healthy lifestyle that includes regular physical activity and good nutrition.” I think that “all Americans” includes people who look like me and that Health at Every Size is a “healthy lifestyle that includes regular physical activity and good nutrition” and I think it would be amazing to be able to have influence at that level.  Especially since in 2002 the PCFSN (then the President’s Council on Physical Fitness) said “The health risks of obesity are largely controlled if a person is physically active and physically fit.”

But it’s not just the PCFSN,  there are thousands of “obesity intervention” programs going on that don’t have a single obese person as a member of their team.

Thousands of people who think that we need them to “save” us by telling us how to make our bodies look like they think everyone should look

Thousands of people and programs deciding what constitutes “appropriate” treatment of fat people in the process of eradicating us from the Earth.  Groups of thin people who are empowered by grants from federal, state, and local governments, insurance companies, public health non-profits, and their own exaggerated sense of self importance to decide what to do about, for, and to fat people..

Groups of thin people who decide, for example, that they should only use images of us with no heads, or fat kids looking depressed and dressed in ill-fitting clothes.

Then they get to dictate that the only appropriate response for fat people to have to these interventions is to agree with them that we are a plague upon the Earth and do what they think is right until we are thin and can participate in as many unhealthy behaviors as we want, as long as we don’t get fat again, and nobody will bother us.

If we refuse to obey and speak out that that those images are shaming, stigmatizing, or humiliating, then a group of people – that does not include any fat people – tells us that we’re wrong for feeling those things, and that the only correct way to feel is how they say we should.  I saw an article by a thin pediatrician who saw the Disney Habit Heroes Ride and said with certainty that “nobody’s vacation would be ruined” by seeing it.  How the hell would she know?  What is she, the fat-person whisperer? Back off lady.

It’s not that these people are ill-intentioned, or that there is anything wrong with them because they are thin, the problem is that if someone is thin then they have NO IDEA what it’s like to be fat in this society, and trying to create interventions to help people, especially people who haven’t asked for your help, without actually involving those people is horribly (and I would think obviously) misguided.

Compounding this problem is the fact that obesity has been so mischaracterized and overblown as a health problem, that people aren’t even required to show evidence that their intervention will be successful, or at the very least not more harmful.  Programs can make a guess (like “putting pictures of depressed looking fat kids in ill-fitting clothes on billboards will help kids be healthier”).  Then they throw around a bunch of scary statistics about obesity and nobody bothers to ask if they have any statistics to show that their intervention has any chance of success, or to prove that it’s not likely to harm the people it’s supposed to help.  We have studies (by Peter Muennig from Columbia University) that women who are concerned about their weight have more physical and mental illnesses than women who are fine with their size, regardless of their weight, and that the stress of constant stigma is correlated with the same diseases that are correlated with obesity.  So we are aware that public health interventions that cause people to be concerned about their weight may actually be causing the exact problems they purport to solve but somehow this isn’t important and the people who are likely being harmed aren’t given the opportunity to speak up.

This is ridiculous.  It’s a system built upon the idea that fat people aren’t the most credible witnesses to our own experiences, that we shouldn’t have a say in the way that we are treated, and that we need people to save us.  And that’s bullshit. We need to demand our place at the table.

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30 thoughts on “Our Place at the Table

  1. I agree with almost all of this, except for singling out thin people as oppressors. I am always surprised at how many of the most virulent fat-hating comments I see at the bottom of newspaper articles come from people who say they are also fat, but who add that they realise it’s all their own fault. Apparently this kind of ‘insight’ allows them to cast stones at other people.

      1. Self hating fat people. The author of that idiotic “Maggie Goes On A Diet” children’s book comes to mind.

    1. Hi Alexie,

      I didn’t intend to single out thin people as oppressors. It’s why I said “It’s not that these people are ill-intentioned, or that there is anything wrong with them because they are thin, the problem is that if someone is thin then they have NO IDEA what it’s like to be fat in this society, and trying to create interventions to help people, especially people who haven’t asked for your help, without actually involving those people is horribly (and I would think obviously) misguided.”

      The reason that I didn’t talk about internalized fat oppression, or fat people who would choose the same interventions that these groups suggest because this piece is specifically about groups that have no fat people in them who are recommending interventions without consulting with the people who the interventions are for.



      1. I didn’t read any trace of “thin people oppress fat people” into Ragen’s words. And, having read way too many dieting blogs, I would say that fat, diet-promoting bloggers are sometimes some of the biggest haters of fat people.

    2. I don’t think Ragen necessarily mean to single out thin people as oppressors, but I do think there are some thin people that do know what it’s like to be fat because they have been fat before. Obviously some fat people hate fat people, and some thin like me people have no real experience being fat so I can only go by stories I hear from people and try to imagine how fat people are treated, but I won’t ever really know unless I was fat myself, which is what I think she was referring to.

  2. Have you seen this nonsense? (Warning: headless fatty photo at the top of the article). The author seems genuinely surprised and confused that ‘expected deaths from obesity-related causes appear to have gone down over the last decade’, but seems to think it’s because we’re all on ‘drug-related therapies’ rather than because fat is just not the death sentence she thinks it is.

    1. OMG – you want to really get your knickers in a twist? Read the comments!!! (That’s ‘panties’ to you folks 🙂 )

  3. Just out of curiosity, how exactly do you know that all these groups you reference contain no fat people??

    In general, I agree that fat people could be helpful and essential contributors in any group where obesity-related health interventions are being proposed, and that more realistic approaches might result. However, do you really want to be the token fat person on a task force attacking obesity?

    1. Hi Chris,

      Through my research and the research of others, typically groups have an “about us” page that shows the leadership team with pictures for example. While I think it would be much more effective if a variety of body sizes, and approaches to health, were represented on task forces that are dealing with health and body size interventions, if that’s not possible then yes, I do want to be the token person on a task force attacking obesity because that’s better than no person at all. I’ve been the token fat person on panels that are entirely comprised of obesity=bad people and based on my section of the discussion, not only did audience members begin to question, change their minds (and in one case change their entire semester Masters of Public Health project to focus on health instead of weight), people on the panel have also started to fundamentally question their beliefs. I believe it’s always worth trying.


  4. Well horses for courses, but I’m wary of government “initiatives” to encourage people to be healthists which to me is still a belief system, not a universal basis of truth.

    We are designed to be active as part of our existence, if we aren’t or are less so, that is because things are in the way and those things are not “lack of encouragement” they are actual things to do with what we have to do to survive.

    As far as I’m concerned there is and never has been anything stopping governments from having or should I say, continuing to have Phys Ed in schools and not feeding kids stuff like “pink slime”. Crony capitalism and not wanting to spare the cash-even though fresh food is supposed to be cheaper than bad.

    Or they could pedestrianizing so that kids can own the streets again, establishing things like walking buses that is encouragement. Reversing decisions we’ve made to enjoy cars and screw the kids let them go indoors.

    The thing is, people don’t care enough, if they did, we wouldn’t have gone away from a lot of those things i.e. less cars on the road so pedestrianization wasn’t neessary, in the first place.

    People that includes slim people want what we have now and that’s mostly why we have it.

    People don’t want healthism on the whole, they want to be slim, not the same thing.

    Either government local or national should get on and reverse what they themselves have freely advanced whilst side talking about the oncoming adipocalypse or they should STHU and stop pretending something is stopping them. Apart from apathy and disinterest.

    If they really want to do something about ‘obesity’ they need to pay the best minds to actually find out how to manipulate human metabolism and have done with it. Let the people have what they want so we can all be human again.

    But please can we all stop pretending this is an issue of “fitness”, this is about experts deciding that what soceity doesn’t want is the route to achieving what it does, slimness.

    Sports activities etc., are hobbies which don’t require any more encouragement than reading books or other things people choose to do with their own time.

  5. Personally, I wish the government would get out of the business of proscribing and prescribing health, disband the President’s Council on Health and Fitness and it’s ilk entirely. It is moralism masquerading as science. What we are told to do today to be healthy is different from what they told us to do yesterday and will no doubt change into something else tomorrow. The government is not only wrong about the relationship of weight to health, for me they are very wrong about what constitutes a “healthy” diet. I would be very sick if I ate the way they tell me to eat, and I figured that out on my own, not with the help of the government and not with the help of the medical profession. So government recommendation about health and fitness, from my perspective, are both morally wrong and scientifically questionable. I say leave the regulation of my body to me.


  6. “This is ridiculous. It’s a system built upon the idea that fat people aren’t the most credible witnesses to our own experiences, that we shouldn’t have a say in the way that we are treated, and that we need people to save us. ”


    The whole notion of “community-based participatory research” is somehow unheard of for fat people, like we couldn’t possibly solve our own problems.

  7. Absolutely. We fat people need to speak up & insist on inclusion, just as those of us in the disability community have done for years. “nothing about us without us” should apply to people of all groups/types.

    1. Yes! I was talking on FB earlier about a campaign I follow (Time To Change) which aims to dispel myths around mental health issues and the people who have them. There are, it appears, clear guidelines on how this is treated in the press, and TTC has an advisory panel for the people who come up with (say) TV drama, to make sure that people with schizophrenia or bipolar are treated in an accurate and respectful way.

      I was discussing the possibility of a similar set of guidelines for how fat people should be treated in this context, but I soon realized that even where such guidelines already exist (and I’m betting organizations like NAAFA have them), the issue is making the media (and public) understand that there’s a need for such guidelines.

  8. Chris asked how we know they don’t include fat people in the discussion. In 2010 the Whitehouse held a “national discussion on the elimination of childhood obesity.” At that discussion table were academics, researchers, food and diet industry reps, TV and media, cultural, education and recreational groups, government agencies, and medical professionals. Missing from that table were anyone that represented those that actually live in fat bodies. Deb Burgard and I developed an infograph for ASDAH to illustrate this disparity. I can’t figure out how to attach it here, so I will send to Ragen and she can share it if she likes.

  9. As a person that went to Public School in Austin, Texas I can tell you from experience children who are larger are picked on. No one ever says don’t pick on the fat kid because they are too busy bullying them themselves. I had a teacher once in fourth grade who told my Mother she did not like me because of my size.( No I’m not kidding). Physical education instructors are sometimes the worst. Remember having to try to climb that rope hanging from the gym ceiling with everyone looking on and your teacher screaming get up there and try harder..Meanwhile every time your hoping in your heart you can do it this time and avoid the humiliation.The reason I’ve told you all this is because we have a new generation of children growing up thinking that their bad or that something is wrong with them. As Adults we need to stand up for ourselves because these kids are watching us depending on us to show them that they will be alright that they can be just as happy healthy and successful as the thin person. I don’t have means to make a video but I encouraged those who do to do it not just for yourself but for others.

  10. Be sure to post a link to your video, or indicate whether you’ve sent one, so we can keep tabs on how many videos HuffPo receives from us. This way we can hold their feet to the fire about posting them.


  11. I’d like to share my story about knowing I needed to stop dieting, but I don’t feel comfortable doing a video with myself or sharing my name. Ragen, do you have any suggestions on how else we can contribute out stories more anonymously?

    1. Sorry – Dawn, I think that this particular activity is of the non-anonymous variety. When thy post the videos you could leave your story in an anonymous comment…


  12. Several years ago when my local public health district started an obesity prevention intervention, I applied for the job. I was flatly told I could not appropriately represent the program because of my weight despite being otherwise well qualified. While not a professional athlete like Ragen, I had normal blood labs and in my late 30’s could do the splits (had anyone bothered to ask).

    1. Sorry to hear about that. It’s kind of mind boggling that they wouldn’t consider you for the position. Even IF you were to agree with them that being obese is inherently unhealthy, you were applying to work at an obesity *prevention* program. If they were being logical about it (which might be too much to hope for), then it would be obvious that preventing weight gain != weight loss. And an obese person in that job might be even more motivated to help prevent others from becoming deathfatz too.

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