Taking the Fat Out of NAAFA?

NametagThe National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) was founded in 1969 and bills itself as “North America’s oldest civil rights organization working to end size discrimination.”  It seems that they are considering a name change.

I received a copy of their May newsletter which read:

Life comes with very few guarantees but one of those is that things are going to change. Those of us who have been around for a while have seen tremendous evolution in our world. NAAFA has evolved to its present form in response to the changes in the world. Whether as an individual or as an organization, we must continue to evolve if we are to survive and thrive.

Over the course of its lifetime, NAAFA has undergone name changes in order to better communicate its purpose and goal. This is not a new idea but we believe that it is an idea whose time has come again.

NAAFA’s message is often obscured by the reaction of the public to the name National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. Illustrating this point are the many rude and obnoxious comments following news articles online in which the organization is quoted. Many members refuse to read these comments because it consumes too many “sanity points” to do so.

With the pressure of society to demonize fat, organizations don’t look at common goals and interests, and disregard NAAFA’s requests for alliance because of our name. NAAFA needs to develop alliances and garner support of other organizations in order to further our goals in the civil rights and social justice arenas. We cannot continue to bury our heads in the sand and believe this problem will resolve itself. For us to affect change, we must be taken seriously.

NAAFA recently entered into an agreement with a public relations firm to seek corporate sponsorship for NAAFA’s annual convention and on-going programs. Sadly, its efforts were fruitless and, in most cases, the corporations indicated their objection, not to the mission, but to our organization’s name. This firm has recommended swift action to change the name of NAAFA.

Our mission is EQUALITY AT EVERY SIZE. The NAAFA Board of Directors believes that it is important that the organization’s name reflect its mission and goal. What do you think? pr@naafa.org

They’ve asked for thoughts, here are mine:

Full disclosure – I feel like I have a positive, if slightly complicated, relationship with NAAFA that I want to be open and transparent about.  There are amazing people in NAAFA doing excellent work and I appreciate them and respect what they do. The organization was very helpful with the Georgia Billboard Project and other projects that I’ve been involved with, and I was a super workshop speaker at last year’s NAAFA convention.  That said, I choose not to be a member of NAAFA predominantly because of the decision of the board not to hold elections at the National level.  Their chapters are required to have yearly elections and term limits, but the National Board has neither, describing themselves as member funded and board run.

While they are, of course, allowed to run the organization like this, I just don’t personally want to pay membership dues and lend my name to an organization where I have no direct way to influence policies, decisions, leadership etc., and where the National leaders don’t hold themselves to the best practices that they demand from local chapters.  Obviously the fact that it doesn’t work for me doesn’t make it wrong and I don’t expect that every organization will comport itself to my liking, and while I don’t want to be a member at this time, I do very much want to see NAAFA survive and succeed and I think that this name decision is an important one, which is why I wanted to write about it.

Mine is just one opinion and I sincerely appreciate their invitation to share thoughts before they make this major decision.   Remember that they are currently giving everyone a chance to share their thoughts about the name change at pr@naafa.org

As far as the name change, I’m a bit confused about the reason.  Are they trying to stop rude and obnoxious comments?  Is it because they want corporate money?  Or is it that organizations truly don’t want to work with them because they have fat in the name? Or maybe all three?  Let’s take them one by one:

As someone who runs websites for DancesWithFat, More Cabaret, the Size Diversity Task Force, I can tell you that, in my experience, any attempt at suggesting that fat people should be treated with basic human decency will meet with “rude and obnoxious comments” whether or not you actually use the word fat, so I’m not sure that a name change will do anything about that – for that you need to call the jackass whisperer and, try as I might, I can’t find the number.

If they are looking for corporate money I would suggest that, from my perspective based on what I read in the newsletter (and there may be information I don’t have here),  it seems that they hired a PR firm which was completely unsuccessful, who then blamed their lack of success on the name of the organization, and recommended a name change.  If that’s the case and if it were me, I would be leery of making failed salespeople into branding consultants, and might suggest that it could be worth it to try another PR firm.

If the concern is that other organizations won’t work with them because the word fat is in the name and, as they say “we cannot continue to bury our heads in the sand and believe this problem will resolve itself. For us to affect change, we must be taken seriously” then there are tough choices to be made.  I don’t think anyone’s asking them to bury their heads in the sand and I appreciate the difficult situation they are in,  but I also don’t think that “taken seriously” is the same thing as “backed down based on outside pressure”.  There is a choice here as to whether the name issue is, in and of itself, an opportunity for activism; or if it’s better to change the name in the hopes of gaining cooperation from organizations who would otherwise refuse to work with NAAFA because of their chosen identity.  Both are legitimate choices depending on goals, but I personally hope that they at least have the guarantee of that cooperation before making such a sacrifice –  it would be a shame to change the name only to be given another excuse as to why cooperation isn’t possible.

The NAAFA Constitution states

We choose to use the word fat to describe ourselves in order to remove the negative connotations normally associated with larger-than-average body size.
So I wonder how this name change would affect that sentiment?  It’s not that the strategy might not work, but I am concerned about the statement it makes – that we started out specifically reclaiming the word fat, but are now disavowing it. Are we to understand that they are suggesting that members do the same thing – that as a community we should stop calling ourselves fat because people and corporations may not like it?  Or is this just for the organization and not for its members? That said, there are people who would qualify as “fat” based on many definitions but do not choose to identify with the word, should we choose a path that gives them more opportunities to embrace a fat identity and remove the negative connotations, or change the name to bring down the barrier?
I fully acknowledge that it’s a difficult decision.  I do believe that there is a case to be made for inclusive language.  I was one of many people involved in naming the Size Diversity Task Force and we were specifically looking for a name that acknowledged that fat-phobia hurts us all and that spoke to not only fat-identified people, but also those who want to fight for justice in this arena who don’t identify as fat.  I was also involved in naming the Fit Fatties Forum and, though we are open to people of all sizes, we specifically chose to use the word fat because we wanted to claim a fat space in the fitness world.  Both decisions were cheered by some and criticized by others, none of whom were wrong. I empathize with the Board in that, whatever decision they make, they will meet with both support and criticism.
My concern here isn’t so much about a name, it’s about a name change.  They mentioned in the newsletter that there have been name changes  – the original name I found was the National Association to Aid Fat Americans, so it seems to me like it has been tied to the word “fat” since the beginning, and I am concerned about what it says that such an old and prestigious organization would makes a conscious, deliberate, and public move away from identifying as fat.  I wonder if they might end up trading criticisms – from being criticized for choosing a reclaiming identity, to being criticized for disavowing a reclaiming identity, thus making it a wash in the end.
Of course there pros and cons to either choice, and I obviously don’t have all the answers, I’m just trying to think it through.  If it were my decision, I don’t think that I would do it.  I don’t believe that corporate cooperation is worth disavowing a fat identity.  But then, identifying as fat is important to me and I recognize that it’s not important to everyone.   These are just my thoughts, if you want the NAAFA board to hear yours, remember that you can send your feedback to pr@naafa.org   In the meantime I wish the NAAFA board the best of luck and the greatest success in this and all of the work they do.
Update: 6/14/13
The leader of NAAFA was quoted in the media saying “The reason the word ‘fat’ was kept in the structure of our communications was it was an attempt to reclaim the word so it wasn’t seen as a bad word. Unfortunately, that part of the media war has been lost.” I don’t care what name NAAFA chooses, I am very concerned  that their leader seems to think that because they didn’t get something done “the battle is lost.” It’s fine if they aren’t up to this fight, I don’t think they are obligated to fight it. I just think it’s important that they be clear that just because they couldn’t get it done, or no longer want to try, doesn’t mean “the battle is lost”.

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29 thoughts on “Taking the Fat Out of NAAFA?

  1. I am not a member, but I disagree with the name change. To me, taking the word “Fat” out of the name is tantamount to getting rid of fat people as a means of eliminating fat stigma.

    The whole reason fat is in the name is to change the script on that word and what it means, not only to fat people, but to those who would use that word as a means to discriminate.

    Taking the word “Fat” out of the name is, essentially, trying to make the organization more palatable by making “fat” disappear.

    It’s kow-towing to the very people and concepts the organization was originally created to fight against.

    It’s a complete cop-out, pure and simple.

    They might as well start advertising Weight Watchers and posting diet tips.

    1. Thank you! I couldn’t have put it better myself. It IS a cop-out, no matter how much you try to make it sound better, no matter how much you try to fool yourself into thinking “this is for the best”. It’s telling people that you might as well go on a diet because you’ll never be accepted as you are, which is FAT!

  2. Pretty much any article on the internet results in rude and obnoxious comments, so addressing this seems inane. I agree with Jill, removing the word “fat” from the name of an organization created to promote fat acceptance is a cop-out.

    My prediction: an organization willing to even consider bowing to public displeasure with the simple word “fat” won’t be in existence for much longer. There’s something fundamentally wrong with an organization that would even voice such a move. They’ve lost all meaning of their reasons for existing.

  3. Seems like they’ve developed a “defeatist ” attitude and have succumbed to the pressures of society. That’s like taking the C out of NAACP which stands for the National Advancement of Colored People. Every discriminated against group has their “identity” in their organizations name to let people know this is who we are, this is what we want you to respect because it represents us and it is us. Having the word fat in the title of their organization is the point, so it can reduce the stigma associated with the word fat and fat people.

    And I don’t know if they got the memo or not but it doesn’t matter what they change their names to, people are still going to be jackasses, it’s the same book they hate to read, but just with a different cover.

    No I do not support the name change.

    1. Excuse me the “National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, excuse the mishap 🙂

  4. name changes are so confusing anyway, especially when we’ve all got our computers and personal memorys set up a certain way—even if (in hindsight) it was a brilliant move (DOUBTFUL) the organization will lose a lot of people and donations accidentally.

    Add to that the # of people who personally object and they will have lost something special. This flawed institution has been around for a couple of generations… and they are throwing it away on some sort of faddish groupthink.

  5. Hold on cn we stop the logic train and possibly back up? I am pretty sure I just fell off. They want to cop-out and chance the name because fat is a negative word? So what is this really about? Do they feel they aren’t reaching enough people? Or because we live in the age of technology and entitled little fucks who think they are allowed to do and say what ever they want, NAAFA is defeated?

    The word fat isn’t a negative word, it is the people who use it as a negative word that are negative.

    Cooking fat, bacon fat, beef fat. Should all of those be changed because they have fat in it? No, nor should the NAAFA!

  6. As long as we allow the word “fat” to hurt us, it will. Removing the name won’t change the fact that they work to help people who are fat. It’s just a description, not an accusation or judgment, unless, of course, we let it become those things. I think removing the word gives the critics the ability to say “AHA! Even they recognize fat = undesirable.”

    It seems like a major step backwards in their movement. I’m not a member, but if I were and they removed the word fat from their name I’d cancel my membership. It seems like political pandering, and I really just can’t stomach that crap.

  7. This is what I sent to NAAFA:

    “Our mission is EQUALITY AT EVERY SIZE”

    Well, maybe that’s the problem right there. Advocating for “Equality at Every Size” is a kind of lie. The whole rest of the world already advocates, caters and prizes those on the thinner size spectrum. There are very few organizations specifically for fat people and their specific needs and challenges of living in a thin-privileged, thin-obsessed world. It’s equality for fat people—to be treated with respect and allowed their full humanity, agency and dignity, to be allowed the right to exist in a fat body free from harassment, discrimination and abuse—that need to be advocated for. Not every size needs to have their rights to and for equality fought for because those with thin-privilege already have it. However, those on the fat spectrum do need such an organization, and the National Association to Aid FAT Americans / National Association to Advance FAT Acceptance, should not be considering disappearing the fat people their organization claims to advocate for.

    If the word “fat acceptance” has shown itself to not be helpful, then perhaps it’s time to go back to basics—to focus on AIDING FAT people by advocating and working towards change to end discrimination in its many forms that marginalize fat people.

    National Advancement & Advocacy for Fat-rights Association
    National Association Advancing Fat-rights Advocacy

  8. I wanted to thank you, Ragen, for writing such a loving, strong, and balanced discussion. It’s difficult to resist the temptation to blast your opinion and trample others with it; instead, you weighed a lot of considerations and ultimately left the door open. I admire that a lot in a person and especially in a fat supershero. 🙂

  9. Ffs they want to take out the word fat because people don’t respond to it well?! What other reason does naafa exist but to support fat people in a world that doesn’t respond well to fat people. It’s not that hard?

  10. The contents of my response to their request for input:

    Dear Sirs and Madams:

    First, thank you for asking for input regarding the potential name change for the organization. I hope that you get solid feedback and that it helps you come to a thoughtful and balanced decision.

    My opinion is that I believe you should leave the word “Fat” in the name of the organization. The original charter specifically makes the point that one of the reasons for the formation of the NAAFA is to take back the word ‘fat’ and to remove the derogatory implications that have become embedded in said word. I strongly feel that if you bow to outside pressures and remove the word ‘fat’ from the organization’s name, you are betraying that founding principle.

    I completely understand how important it is to obtain funding and corporate sponsorships, and that using the word ‘fat’ may make this more difficult, but I believe that as important as these things are, it is more important to remain true to the reasons the organization was created and to those who support it. As a fat woman and the owner of a business with fat in the name (Fat Lady Foods, LLC), I work very hard to spread the idea that fat is just a word, a descriptor, like ‘tall’ or ‘short’ or ‘blonde’ or ‘brunette’. By removing the word ‘fat’ from NAAFA’s name, the organization will be undermining those efforts and the efforts made by many others to de-stigmatize the word and the bodies that it represents.

    Please consider simply hiring a different public relations firm if the current firm is unable or unwilling to successfully market the organization as it stands. It seems to me that PR firms have managed to sell so many things that are negative by putting the right spin on them, it shouldn’t be that hard to find a way to market something that is essentially positive.

    Thank you for your consideration.

  11. I could understand changing the name if it was a shift in direction for them to focus on size diversity for all people. More and more I like embracing the idea that we all come in different sizes and that’s okay. we shouldn’t be shaming people regardless of whether they wear a size 0 or a size 30. It just shouldn’t matter. And I understand the need to brand yourself, however, it does sound like they are trying to disassociate themselves from their own goal in order to make their organization more palatable to people they want to partner with. It’s a hard row to hoe, no matter what you call it.

  12. Thank you for addressing this in the way you did.

    I’ve never had an issue with the word fat in their name. I have had issues in not knowing what work was being done, how it was being done, where donation money/membership dues actually goes, if there’s any kind of actual hands-on volunteer work that people could help with, etc. I’m being told that my donation is being used to fight discrimination. That, really, tells me nothing. People are way less likely to donate money to an organization that doesn’t tell them where their money goes and how it’s used.

    I also think that NAAFA’s lack of presence in social media is an issue. I mean, why are there dozens and dozens of Yahoo Groups in the Size Acceptance links yet not a single tumblr page? I’m not sure when the website got revamped but I’m guessing that’s part of the rebranding and happened MUCH later than it should have.

    Personally, I think these are issues that should be worked on. And none of that is going to change by renaming the organization.

  13. I think that is one thing to ask the NAAFA officials here, because they didn’t provide this detail in the newsletter. I would like to know which PR firm this is, but could back down on that desire. I would more emphatically like to know which corporations were brought for solicitation and what their EXACT feedback was. We do not know that the problem with the name is that “fat” is in it, because the newsletter article did not say this explicitly. Is some other conceptual construction of a fat-positive viewpoint what they feel more comfortable seeing? These are what I intend to ask Peggy as a starting point.

  14. I have been pondering this all day. NAAFA should give us a LOT more info. Especially to those of us who have paid oodles of dues over the years.

    Its like science, if the evidence that their firm came up with was so overwhelming that it changed their mind; I imagine all us fair-minded folks would likely feel either convinced or more sure that THIS passes the smell test.

  15. I would like to know what they plan on changing their name to, that would be helpful in deciding if it’s a terrible idea or not.

  16. I am a NAAFA member, since the early 90’s, and I’m fat-identified. I have tremendous respect for this org., but am also conflicted about the name. Back in the day, while starting a private psychology practice, I found that I would either have to specialize in fat acceptance, eating disorders, etc completely, or not mention my affiliation at all. A lot of this had to do with the word “fat,” which conferred instant discredibility. I longed for a NAAFA name change then. I chose not to specialize in FA, because I was already committed to (generic) trauma work, and I had to circle around later, when AHELP was formed, to integrate FA into my practice, which was well-established at that point. I can definitely see how the name thing could still be an issue for an early career healthcare provider.

    That said, I am delighted that NAAFA has come as far as it has with “Fat” as part of its name. The *ideal* of course, is to get to a world where the word has been de-stigmatized. The question of concessions and sacrifices along the way is complicated.

    The closest similar situation I see is the NAACP. Surely there must have been times that members debated the use of “colored people” in the name? Personally I’m glad they perservered, and took the power back from those words. I’d like to hear what some of the elders at NAACP might say about this issue and the related dynamics of history, language and stigma. I think there must be a lot of wisdom there.
    (I am white).

  17. If NAAFA was looking at a name change in order to reflect their “we come in all sizes” philosophy, I could get behind it. Fat people aren’t the only ones who are disgusted with size bigotry; civil rights are an issue for all people. However, it’s lame that they’re mainly trying to silence internet trolls. Why bother pandering to losers who substitute being hateful for having a life?

  18. My fist reaction to reading this post was extremely “defeatist”, I thought:
    In this day and age where the idea of a “much larger than average” person evokes mental images of disease, ugliness, laziness, gluttony, immorality, etc, in the minds of the average person, it’s going to be very unlikely that ANY company or organization is going to want to sponsor or back an oginization that promotes acceptance of “much larger than average” people, regardless of if they use the word “fat” in their name or not. Not when it is so deeply ingrained in our society and something that “everyone knows” that being larger than average is a CHOICE and that it’s also just “wrong” to be that size.

    But I realize that, as as the size acceptance movement grows, we are slowly changing attitudes and slowly chipping away at those deeply seeded assumptions. It IS possible that we can and will gain allies and backers on the corporate level. More and more scientific evidence is helping to make it possible to challenge the cultural assumptions.

    As far as if it is a good idea or not for NAAFA to change it’s name, it is going to be a hard choice either way and there are consequences for either choice. Right now, in our current culture, the word “fat” carries with it so many meanings that have nothing at all to do with the Actual meaning of the word. It is natural, IMO, for an organization to want to disassociate from that word. Thin and fat people alike have come to view that word as an insult (wrongly so, but that doesn’t change the fact). Haw many fat people have said “I’m fat” only to have their family and friends gasp and emediately and firmly say “no, you’re not!” (when obviously, they are fat -in the traditional sence of the word). To those people, and much of society, the statement of “I am fat” actually Translates to “I am ugly and lazy”. I don’t think NAAFA, nor it’s members, should give up the good fight to reclaim that word for it’s previous meaning, as I too associate as a fat person. Only, in regard to the name, it might be a good idea (in order to help open more doors) to use a word that hasn’t become a deep insult in our society and no longer, culturally speaking, means what it used to mean.

    It is too bad they can’t use NAASA (National Association to Advance Size Acceptance).

  19. Personally I would have been okay, if they wanted to change to something NAASA (National Association to Advance Size Acceptance), like Stacy recommended to make it sound more inclusive, but the fact they are thinking about changing the name because the corporations that they approached do not like the word “Fat” in their name, seems ironic, and disheartening.

    I agree with the sugar monster that NAAFA’s lack of presence in social media is more of an issue that it’s name.

    By the way, I am a little surprise that they could not even get support from companies like DXL and IGIGI, since people like us are their bread and butter.

    1. Just a light little thought, but if they take “Fat” out of NAAFA, doesn’t it become lean? Sort of like a “diet-NAAFA”.

  20. Ragen, for the record, when NAAFA called for input, I responded the same day (May 16) as follows (long):

    To the Board:

    Yes, NAAFA has undergone lots of handwringing about its name. Even at the beginning, on June 13, 1969, my original proposed name, NAFA (National Association of Fat Americans) was not accepted at the very first Board meeting, and so we became National Association to Aid Fat Americans and I had to retype the Constitution and Bylaws. Since then, every word in that name has been objected to over the years, and not just the word “Fat.” National? Why not worldwide? Association? Too wimpy–how about Committee or Union? Aid? How patronizing can you get? Americans? What about Canadians?

    In the past, when it was proposed to take out the word “Fat” due to its stigmatization, and pain for so many people, activists objected, saying that one of the goals of NAAFA should be to reclaim the word, much as African-Americans did for the word “black”. Prior to the civil rights era of the 1960’s, it was considered an insult to refer to someone as being “black.”

    A contest to rename the organization in the mid-1980’s took two years, and resulted in the present name. Some priority was given to the goal of preserving the acronym “NAAFA” due to its being in so many reference books, articles, and so forth. And that was before the Internet and Google. Nobody every came up with a replacement for “fat” that started with the letter F that didn’t offend someone, especially activists who wanted to keep the word.

    Now a public relations firm feels that it should be replaced–which means that we in the size acceptance movement have failed to make “fat” a non-painful word, one that might not offend potential corporate support. How much of a priority to give that advice must be up to those currently in charge of NAAFA. I suspect that many of those active in NAAFA in the past might think that removal of the word “fat” might be too high a price to pay to obtain corporate support.

    I suppose that I and the co-founders could have solved the whole problem if we hadn’t used the word “fat” in the beginning–but Lew Louderback’s book Fat Power and Marvin Grosswirth’s book Fat Pride didn’t mince words in their titles…

    One suggestion from the 1980’s was to keep the name as “NAAFA” and expunge the full name in all paperwork that would require use of the word “Fat”. That actually might be the simplest solution to a knotty problem.

    As for myself, I think that NAAFA’s message alone is radical enough to deprive it of widespread popularity. Getting rid of “fat” might appease some people, but the next step might be pressure to alter its message as well.

    As a life member, I will, of course, publicly support whatever you decide.

    Bill Fabrey
    Founder, 1969

  21. I agree with your thoughtful comments, Bill. As a fledgling psychologist, I had to disassociate myself from the name to get myself established in general. I’m not saying it’s right, but it really was an either/or. I could’ve continued as a “fat acceptance specialist” but not as a “trauma specialist” which was my primary goal. It took me out of the movement for a few years.

    I also think we could continue to *use* the word fat in every way we do now. Just not in the name of one of our primary organizations.

    Also I like the ASDAH thinking that “size diversity” is more inclusive of all people. It speaks to the double edge on the sword of all the issues.

    But fully understand and support those who feel otherwise, And i see that’s about 90%.

  22. I was thinking that if NAAFA needs to change their name because the word fat hasn’t been accepted…they haven’t really been doing their job all these years. What have they been doing?

  23. Maybe they really do need a new PR firm. I’ve thought of ideas for great billboards and I don’t even have all the degrees that these “ivory tower” think tanks do. I could see having a photo of a fat woman (or man) holding a size extra small shirt and looking kind of disgusted or sad, with the tagline “Feeling like you don’t fit in? Join NAAFA.” Or a group of exercisers of all sizes flexing their muscles with the tagline “Health comes in all sizes! Join NAAFA.” My third idea (and my favorite) is having representatives of all sorts of groups that were discriminated against at one time or another, holding signs such as: an African-American man with a sign saying “Separate but equal is wrong”, a woman in 19th-century clothing holding a sign that says “Not having a voice is wrong”, a lesbian couple with the sign “Not being allowed to marry the one I love is wrong”, and a disabled person with “I can do the work if you’ll give me a chance”. Finally, a fat person with a sign saying “Being stigmatized for my body is wrong.” I can always tweak it, but I feel like I would give these ideas to NAAFA if it would help them stay true to their original purpose.

  24. I’m a (fat) stranger happening upon this discussion, and I hope it’s okay to share some thoughts about this.

    If the NAAFA lets some consultant shame them away from identifying with me as a fat American, then I’m just not going to be able to trust the NAAFA to do the “support” it claims it will do.

    It’s that simple.

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