With Us or Against Us

I’ve been thinking about something a lot lately – I receive a lot of criticism for my “underpants rule” policy, especially when it comes to people’s right to make different choices about their bodies and health than I would make.  I think that my right to choose Health at Every Size is dependent upon someone else’s right to choose weight loss.  The most important thing to me is that people know that HAES and Size Acceptance are options that they can choose and that they have access to true information.

One thing I see sometimes is an attitude that “If they’re not with us, they are against us, so screw ’em.”  In this scenario, “with us” typically means that they are already where we are on their size acceptance journey, that they aren’t asking questions that we’ve heard a thousand times, that they aren’t still thinking that they might want to change their size and shape, or that you have to be thin to be healthy etc.

I sometimes see fat activists get frustrated with people who are at the beginning of their journey, asking questions that we’ve answered a thousand times.  I can absolutely understand the frustration, but I wonder if perhaps we’re forgetting that the first time we heard many of those questions was when we first asked them.   I think sometimes in our zeal we can forget that this is a process – that the world is constantly inundating people with the opposite message and that everyone may not have whatever confluence of events, circumstances and personality quirks allowed us to get to this place.

My philosophy for my activism and this blog (which is certainly not the only valid philosophy) is that “If they aren’t actively against me, maybe they’re with me.”  Based on where we are as a civil rights movement I do not think that Fat Activism has to be about everyone choosing the same things that I do. for their bodies.  I think it’s more about everyone believing in choice and respect.  So if someone believes that people of every size should be treated with respect, should be allowed to prioritize their health however they want and choose their own path to health; if they believe in ending size stigma, oppression and weight bullying then I think there’s a place for them in size acceptance.  Even if they make different choices about their bodies than I would not make.

Rather than telling people who are curious about HAES and SA but still want to try to change the size and shape of their body to go to hell, what if we  provided access to information, patiently answered their respectful questions, modeled options, respected their choices, and in turn demanded respect for ours.  If people are interested in helping to dismantle size stigma and bullying, then I think that there is space for them, even if they don’t choose to accept their own size at this time, and I think that being involved in the movement gives them plenty of opportunities to consider their options.

That does not mean that people who choose weight loss have to be given an opportunity to talk about weight loss in every forum.  It is absolutely ok for there to be spaces that are weight neutral, Health at Every Size and Size Acceptance  based etc.   The Fit Fatties Forum, for example (which the amazing Jeanette DePatie and I founded with the help of Jayne Williams), has very specific rules against pro-diet or pro weight loss talk and I don’t apologize for that –  there are plenty of places to talk about those things and it is absolutely possible to respect people’s personal choices about weight loss and still create boundaries for your space/forum/blog etc.

I think it’s important to remember that we are up against a massive and devastatingly effective propaganda campaign perpetuated by big businesses with big profit motives for maintaining the status quo.  Many of the people who find the fatosphere and contact us with questions  are still attempting to lose weight because they truly believe that it is likely to work and will improve their health.  They are following the orders of their doctor – a medical professional who they assume they can trust to give them good information.  There are people who hate themselves because they literally don’t know that there is another choice. People face astronomical pressure to lose weight from nearly every facet of society and they receive a tremendous social reward for whatever time they are able to maintain their weight loss.

I know that health and weight are two different things, I know that you can pursue health and happiness in the body you have now because many things and people came together in my life to allow that to happen. I want to pass that along and try to help people who are where I used to be.  Yes indeedy, I wasn’t always the body loving, size positive woman who is writing this today – I took part in Biggest Loser contests – taking pictures of myself in bike shorts and a sports bra, I did every diet you’ve ever heard of and probably some that you haven’t.  Even when I learned to love my body I still believed that I could never be healthy until I was thin.

I’ve been where these people are and so when they come to me at the start of the journey – confused, questioning and in disbelief about Size Acceptance and Health at Every Size, I work hard to summon the same compassion that people gave me (or more compassion than many were able to muster…). It doesn’t matter if it’s the fifteen millionth time I’ve heard the question – it’s the first time that they’ve mustered the courage to ask it and that’s a big deal.  If they are asking questions respectfully then they aren’t against me so maybe they are with me and, from my experience, how I handle that will be part of determining whether they become an ally, an activist, or an enemy.

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This month’s member deals come from More of Me to Love, Jodee Rose, The Fat Nutritionist, Golda Poretsky, Jeanette DePatie and of course me. If you are a member and haven’t received the e-mail with details and passwords just let me know!

I do HAES and SA activism, speaking and writing full time, and I don’t believe in putting corporate ads on my blog and making my readers a commodity. So if you find value in my work, want to support it, and you can afford it, you can  become a member (you get extra stuff, discounts, and you’re always the first to know about things) or you can support my work with a  one-time contribution.  The regular e-mail blog subscription (available at the top right hand side of this page) is still completely free. If you’re curious about this policy, you might want to check out this post.  Thanks for reading! ~Ragen



40 thoughts on “With Us or Against Us

  1. I love the underpants rule. I have shared it with friends. It has come back to bite me in the ass when I express displeasure and said friends remind me that I am the boss of my underpants and I must accept responsibility when I make choices or accept situations for which I dislike the consequences or results. Sometimes, life’s a bitch when you’re a grownup, but the alternative, abdicating my own power to someone else is unthinkable. No one else is the boss of my underpants for good or bad. It’s all on me.

    1. Nicely said! I’ve had to bite my tongue a time or two. It never tastes good to have to swallow back a response, but it often tastes better than the guilt I might have felt afterwards. 😉

  2. I appreciate the compassion you show here, and the absence of intolerant rhetoric. You manage to be a lady AND a warrior, which is another sign of your brilliance. There are many notes in a song – why try to sing without all of them?

  3. I agree so much with this post. My own first encounter with fat acceptable left me wondering but still dieting. My second encounter held my attention for longer, but I wasn’t ready to give up the dream of one day achieving a “normal” body. It’s a gradual journey, and we don’t help our cause by alienating people who are just starting out on it. We don’t help them either. All civil rights work takes time and patience because we have so much misinformation to break down in order for our message to get through.

  4. This gave me goosebumps. As a recent convert to HAES, I try to be sensitive to people who still think they need to lose weight to be happy and healthy. A year ago I was one of them. I agree that sometimes some of the longer-term veterans seem to forget this. But I do get frustrated that my friends and family insist on doing things that I know to be bad for them and make them unhappy. I’m not in the habit of biting my tongue, but it’s a skill I’m working on. Thanks for the underpants rule.

  5. No social justice movement succeeds without its firebrands, and no social justice movement succeeds without its ambassadors. We need both to move ahead.

    Ragen, thanks for being such a wonderful ambassador.

    1. Agreed. Additionally, I think a lot of us tend to be both ambassadors and firebrands — though in different places and often in different amounts. For instance, in real life, I’m very much over on the ambassador end of things. All day, with teenagers and adults. (Yes, in high school, body image and size acceptance issues come up all day, every day.) When I get home in the evening and start my Internetting, a lot of times, there is just no more ambassador left in me for that day. I don’t always explain patiently: sometimes I’m terse, sometimes I’m confrontational (though not on spaces that implicitly or explicitly discourage it), sometimes I just scroll past.

  6. Thank you for this! It’s exactly this measured, considered approach that made me fall in love this blog. Compassion is the order of the day…and the undecided and unsure today may be the firebrands of tomorrow. You’re doing important work.

  7. You are truly an amazing woman. The brilliant Deb Lemire has been my closest friend for more than 20 years and not a day goes by that i don’t have a question for her. And just yesterday (reeally) we were talking about the kindness with which you answer comments from well-meaning but ill-informed readers. As a nutrition educator for the largest university in our state I am often in an extremely difficult situation. The curriculum I am required to use has great nutritional information but in the last couple of years the “O” word has taken over and I refuse to tell my classes that they will become diabetic or hypertensive because of their weight. Without Deb (and now you) as a resource, I would be floundering out there.

  8. Ragen, as always, you have said what is in my heart in beautiful, compassionate fashion. There is certainly a place for anger in this movement, but in my opinion that place is not in conjunction with honest questions. Thank you!

  9. Your underpants rule is what makes me feel less conflicted about the fact that I personally have lost weight, while still advocating HAES and size acceptance very strongly. I appreciate that. 🙂 My underpants may be a smaller size than they used to be, but that doesn’t mean I think anyone else’s need to be! That’s for THEM to choose. What’s most important is that we all ensure that our own underpants are awesome and comfortable.

  10. I’m mostly a lurker but I’ll step out for this. For various reasons, I am not a supporter of FA, but I certainly agree that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect whatever their size and that your health is nobody else’s business. I would also like to state here that one of my dearest friends is very fat, and when some git in a pub made a disgusting comment to her, I stood up and threw my drink over him. So please don’t think that I believe abusing fat people is acceptable.

    While not a FA supporter, I find the movement intriguing for various reasons, but I believe many of its members shoot themselves in the foot all the time and harm their cause. You (generic you, not personal ‘you’, Ragen) may wish to consider what your purpose actually is. Is it just to create a safe space online where fat people can go to vent, and be as vitriolic as they wish towards newcomers without fear of being ‘tone policed’? Mission accomplished. You can go home now.

    Is it to bring people around to your way of thinking and eventually change the status quo? Well, if so, then repeating yourself over and over again is the smallest, easiest thing you should be doing. The world is very large, the status quo is very powerful, and you will meet newbies all the time. Serious activists for any issue expect to have to repeat themselves all the time. They don’t have to enjoy it, but they certainly should accept it as a necessary part of the job. Honestly, people, if you’re going to compare yourselves to the civil rights movement, people have gone to prison or been exiled for their beliefs. You aren’t prepared to parrot a bit to willing listeners? Telling people off for being ‘ignorant’ is completely counter-productive. All questions are, by their very nature, ignorant. And you once didn’t know the answers either. Are you going to accede to the asker’s request to become enlightened like you and perhaps join you, or complain that you have to repeat something you’re supposed to believe passionately and spend your life fighting for?

    And unfortunately, controlling yourself is also necessary if you want people to feel they are joining a sensible, well thought out and rational movement. Save your anger for the scumbags in pubs and on buses, they deserve no better. Control it when speaking to people who genuinely and respectfully wish to know more. Yes, it’s hard. That’s the life of an activist. Pray it’s the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do when attempting to reform society.

    Someone mentioned ‘firebrands’. I have seen very few people in FA whom I would consider firebrands. I have seen people who write passionate pieces in mainstream media and then complain and cry abuse when someone else makes a perfectly civil and legitimate response in the same publication. I have seen people claim that nobody should be allowed to research or comment on fat issues if they are not themselves fat. As the wife, daughter and niece of scientists, this disturbs my sense of academic integrity. If something is provable, arguable and repeatable under laboratory conditions where appropriate, the size of the scientist working on it should not be relevant. What are these people frightened of? How can they be firebrands?

    All that said, I have never argued when FA bloggers have withheld my comments from their blogs. They claim the space is theirs and they are right. I have never been rude or abusive. I have never promoted weight loss in spaces that do not allow it. I have only pointed out matters of scientific and academic integrity and harm to their own cause. I have even offered to continue the exchange by email in private if they prefer. Only Ragen has ever responded (and she has never censored my comments either, though of course she has the perfect right to do so). I accept their right not to engage in dialogue if they do not wish to.

    But it harms their cause, and it makes FA look like something that is not able to defend itself against legitimate criticism. And it stops people from joining. And for a movement that claims to want to convert society and change the status quo….that’s damaging.

    I wish you all well. Sincerely.

    1. Civil rights work is messy and it attracts all kinds of people, some of whom are angry at the injustices that have been done to them and don’t feel they need to control themselves. It’s a sign of a healthy, diverse movement that not everybody has the same goals or aspirations, and that some spaces are angry spaces, and some spaces are oases of calm where dissent is welcome.

      1. Hello Chloe.

        My feeling is that anger can be a useful and constructive emotion when it is channelled correctly. I do not believe that calling newcomers ignorant or berating them for asking questions that are new to them, as they once were to everyone, is ever going to benefit the cause, even in a defined ‘angry’ space. There are ways to express anger. Punch a pillow, not a hapless person. Figuratively, of course.

        1. I’m coming from the perspective of someone who’s been involved in feminism. When I was a student, the politics were radical. There were women who thought if you had sex with men, you were betraying the movement. One friend even joined a society called SCUM – Society for Cutting Up Men. She was just awful to well meaning males who were interested in feminism.

          But that’s the nature of politics. It attracts all sorts, for all reasons, including people who are fuelled by rage. On balance, women have benefited more than lost because those radicals existed.

          Personally, I like some of the angry ‘unreasonable’ people in FA, even though I don’t particularly agree with them. Come to that, there are lots of things people say in FA that I don’t agree with. But the anti-fat culture is aggressive and unreasonable beyond anything found in FA, to the point that for some people it’s actually life threatening. It also occupies most of the space.

          Boy, do I wish there were more angry people in progressive politics generally, refusing to be reasonable and nice, and drawing some lines in the sand, no matter how uncomfortable that would be for many people.

    2. Holly – I would LOVE to see you express or continue your thoughts in an article in a place like Fierce Freethinking Fatties. I agree with a lot of what you say.
      I believe much of the “If you don’t get it, I’m not obliged to explain it to you” attitude has been copied from some other civil rights movements. Check out the website Derailing for Dummies. While they make some good points (albeit as sarcastically as possible), I personally believe it’s more likely that people say some stupid things because of ignorance, not out of malice.
      The size of a scientist shouldn’t be relevant, but scientists grow up with the same cultural assumptions and prejudices as the rest of us. It’s not just the answers that are important, but the particular questions they choose to investigate and the way these questions are asked. Fat stigma these days is like the air we breathe, so common it isn’t even accounted for in most studies that purport to show the ill effects of fatness. This doesn’t mean that fatness is perfectly healthy; I’m just saying that you can’t conclusively demonstrate it’s unhealthy without knowing how much of that ill health is attributable to stigma.
      So PLEASE don’t disappear – even if you personally find fat acceptance a dubious or irrelevant idea, you’re still saying some things that need saying and ought to be discussed.

      1. Hi Ragen,

        I read and noted your response. Thank you very much for it.

        Certainly nobody is obliged to explain things, but I wonder how anyone can learn with no teachers. People who are not fat may feel that they have nothing to gain personally from FA, and not therefore feel any motivation to seek out this elusive information if it’s not being made readily available to them.

        I expect I shall continue to lurk, and pop up here and there. I may perhaps at some point share my reasons for not being a FA supporter at this time (in an appropriate and acceptable context and a space that permits such dissent. Contrary to some accusations, I am not a troll, nor a hater, nor an Australian man named Philip).

        As I said, the movement does indeed intrigue me.

        All the best, as ever.

        1. Certainly nobody is obliged to explain things, but I wonder how anyone can learn with no teachers.

          Except that there are teachers. Lots of them, actually, even if you aren’t aware of them. More of them than of us mean meanies who say mean things. There are also all kinds of resources that are pretty reasonably found. So: your point, it is invalid.

          We don’t say no one should answer the questions of new people. We just say we’re not going to. Stop creating straw men.

        2. I am tickled pink to be mistaken for Ragen!
          Holly, I suggested Fierce Freethinking Fatties (fiercefatties.com) because they are a very tolerant and welcoming blog, and also have frequent guest posts. Respectful dissent is entirely permissible. I for one am quite curious about why you have figuratively come to the door of fat acceptance, yet choose not to enter. And what is it that intrigues you?

          1. Hello Mulberry.

            I feel it would be inappropriate to have this exchange on Ragen’s blog, which I respect as an FA space. I also do not care to be sworn at and subjected to false personal allegations by fractious individuals who would apparently trigger severe depressive episodes by any other approach. I would be happy to talk to you by email.

            Regards as ever, etc.

    3. You (generic you, not personal ‘you’, Ragen) may wish to consider what your purpose actually is. Is it just to create a safe space online where fat people can go to vent, and be as vitriolic as they wish towards newcomers without fear of being ‘tone policed’? Mission accomplished. You can go home now.

      I have, in fact, considered what my purpose is. It’s really very condescending of you to suggest that I have not. And no, my mission is not accomplished, and I cannot “go home now.” I have to maintain that safe space. Which can be a lot of work, actually, and be really disheartening and difficult, and a lot of people give up because it involves more abuse than they can handle (which is a valid reason to stop).

      Is it to bring people around to your way of thinking and eventually change the status quo? Well, if so, then repeating yourself over and over again is the smallest, easiest thing you should be doing.

      Again, no, it isn’t. Repeating myself over and over again is not actually easy or small for me. It is in fact very difficult and frustrating and causes me to lose my temper and get depressed. It’s really bad for my mental health. Maintaining my own safe space is much easier and healthier for me. So, you know what, fuck you* for thinking you know me better than I know myself, and for thinking you get to dictate to me how to be a “serious activist”. It’s condescending and insulting. There are a lot of ways to be an activist, “serious” or not, and you don’t get to determine who is or isn’t.

      *I keep going back and looking for a nicer way to say this, because this is Ragen’s space. But no, that’s what I mean, and that’s what I’m saying, because as far as I’m concerned, this is exactly what you’ve just said to us.

      Honestly, people, if you’re going to compare yourselves to the civil rights movement, people have gone to prison or been exiled for their beliefs. You aren’t prepared to parrot a bit to willing listeners?

      Honestly, person, a lot of people in the civil rights movement refused to “parrot” to anyone, and still went to prison or got exiled, and still accomplished shit.

      Are you going to accede to the asker’s request to become enlightened like you and perhaps join you, or complain that you have to repeat something you’re supposed to believe passionately and spend your life fighting for?

      I’m going to tell them to go look it up for themselves because it’s easily googleable, just like the tone argument we’re having now is.

      I accept their right not to engage in dialogue if they do not wish to.

      Then why are you telling us not to? Why are you telling us how to engage in dialogue?

      1. Hello fatcarriesflavour.

        I am impressed by your passion for your cause. It saddens me that championing it productively to potential allies causes you unendurable personal distress.

        I remain, as ever, etc, and withdraw to my preferred position.

      2. We spend a lot of time looking for safe spaces. We need some, of course, but I believe it would be more useful to go out and aggressively tackle unsafe spaces and try to make them safer. Otherwise, we are just crowded into corners. A better answer to abuse is to flock around and fight it.
        As far as repeating yourself goes, yes it can be frustrating. (Parents do it all the time.) Good excuse to create a Fat101 post somewhere and point to it and then answer what’s not covered in it. But you know what? I figure for every question I try to answer, there are some lurkers around who also want to know the answer, and even if the original asker has an uncommonly thick head, I may get through to one of the phantom lurkers. I may at least get them thinking a little.
        Googleable? The trouble with searching around for such answers is that there’s too damn much information, and how is the innocent searcher supposed to figure out which is more trustworthy? People do need guides and filters, whether or not you (or anyone) chooses to provide such a service.
        What you personally do, FCF, is entirely your business and decision and underpants. Holly asks as a general question what we hope to accomplish AS A GROUP and how we might best do that. At the very least, we may be able to spare future generations some of the heartache and misery we now put up with, and that alone to me is worth some repetition.

  11. Excellent, Ragen! As I am more at the beginning of my journey of both FA and HAES, I really appreciate your approach! I would much rather be an ally (which is what I consider myself) than an enemy. Maybe someday I’ll even be an activist!

  12. I am active on Tumblr and follow many of the more well known fat bloggers. I have become saddened that there seems to be a line drawn between those of us that follow the underpants rule and mind our own business and respect the choices others make for themselves, and the people that are in the “not with us, then you’re against us” camp.

    The thing that frustrates me the most is the venom with which that latter group often speaks to others. I am respectful of the angry activist and the rights of the activist to be angry, but I feel like there is a line, and many of these people cross it to become venom-spitting bullies. Many times I have walked away from engaging with one of these well-known fat bloggers, because I know that a reasonable discussion will not be had with them.

    It is disheartening.

    Thank you for being a calm voice of reason in this world, Ragen!

  13. Thank you for your patience and compassion in dealing with people wherever they are in their journey to fat activism. Decades ago the question was posed by a member of the Fat Underground – “how do you keep going back and bringing people through the door?” You are able to do just that, and it is one of the most important jobs in the fat community.

  14. When we focus on our differences and not on what brings us together then we do a disservice to ourselves. That is why I agree with the underpants rule. We all learn differently. I so appreciate the work you all do with FA. I am with you. I tend to focus on the scientific approach. Cant argue with evidence. I am proof of a fat person who will never be thin. We still need to embrace those who are not where we are. I am not where you are Ragen, I have a lot to unlearn about hating my body and learn loving my body, but I am with you on the FA part for sure. It is a process for me as well as for others. Thanks again,

  15. I sometimes see fat activists get frustrated with people who are at the beginning of their journey, asking questions that we’ve answered a thousand times.  I can absolutely understand the frustration, but I wonder if perhaps we’re forgetting that the first time we heard many of those questions was when we first asked them.

    I wonder if perhaps we’re forgetting what frustration actually is.

    Frustration is a loss of patience. Nearly everybody loses patience with repetitive tasks sometimes, like answering the same questions over and over. Even the best math teachers can lose their patience with answering the same question about what a hypotenuse is, when they’ve answered it twice each in six previous classes that day. Getting frustrated does not mean not understanding why someone is asking the question or that learning is a process, it means getting tired of answering it over and over again.

    Some of us don’t have a lot of patience to begin with, and some of us who don’t have much patience choose, therefor, not to answer those questions at all because we will always get frustrated. Not everybody needs to be available to answer those questions, either on a consistent or an occasional basis. It’s not our job. You choose to take it on, and that’s awesome, go you. But not all of us need to do that. And that, too, is the underpants rule. We get to be in charge of our own educating-others underpants.

    And sometimes even people who choose to answer those questions will lose their patience, and return a short answer or get snappish. And they get to be frustrated. They get to have that feeling. They even get to be snappish.

  16. All I can say is that the loving way is the best way. I so appreciate Ragen’s levelheadedness with answering questions, because I know that that’s an approach that works.

    For instance, I once was a homophobe and my heart only began changing when a gay boy I was in a play with in college one day patiently and calmly answered every question and accusation I threw at him. He never once got defensive or stooped to my level, deflecting untruths that had been hurled at him a zillion times. My thoughts didn’t change overnight but he definitely planted the seeds that would give my outlook a complete 180 eventually. I can’t imagine what kind of person I’d be right now if he hadn’t handled me with grace and love.

    I understand being angry at the injustices of fat stigma…I’m pissed off at least once a day. But I think taking it out on those that are searching is never a solid idea.

  17. Like x 10000!!! I am extremely thankful for Ragen’s approach. Not saying any other approach is wrong but this is the only one I personally can handle. I spent the first 18 years of my life with someone who was angry at everyone about everything all the time. I got in trouble for questioning things and I’m a person that asks a lot of questions because I’m interested in most anything. Seriously – I used to read the encyclopedias & am addicted to clicking through Wikipedia links. The angry approach turns me off & shuts me down because of childhood trauma. It’s just a defense mechanism that I haven’t been able to change so far. It’s a work in progress. I just feel incredibly uncomfortable reading angry blogs. I’m so glad those blogs are there because we’re all made differently & some people need that. I’m just not one of them so this is the blog for me.

    I am new to the size acceptance way of thinking. I literally had no idea it existed until 6 months ago. In my defense I live in a backwards part of the country. I like the way Ragen explains things. Her method of teaching works with how I learn best I guess. And I appreciate her being able to repeat stuff. The “fat is bad” attitude is so prevalent that I like the repeating. Helps drill it in my head that my body is actually ok because Lord knows I don’t hear it anywhere else. Anyway I guess my long-winded point is Ragen’s approach is best for me & I’m thankful for it!

    BTW my 5 year old twin boys LOVE the underpants rule. They’re bossy like their parents & hear it a lot! :o)

    1. I agree! (And I love the comment about your twins! I just bet 5yo’s love a rule called “The Underpants Rule”!)

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