How to Be a Fat Activism Ally

Dream WorldReader Julie e-mailed me a question that I get a lot  – how can a thin person best be an ally to Fat Activism?  First of all, thank you for asking – I always really appreciate when people ask about this and I want to take my best shot at answering the question.

Let me start by saying that is exactly what it is – my best shot.  I can only give you my opinion about how to be an ally to me as a fat person and fat activist.  Of course the community of fat people is as varied as any community comprised of those who share a single physical characteristic and a ton of stigma and oppression.  Unsurprisingly, that means that we have different ideas about fat activism, we ascribe to different theories of anti-oppression work and different interpretations of those theories, and we have different ideas of the best way to be an ally – and an activist for that matter.

And that’s just fat activists, there are fat people who aren’t interested in fat activism at all, including those who prefer to attempt to solve social stigma through weight loss, or believe that they don’t face stigma for their size which is absolutely their right.  I don’t say this to discourage you, I just want to be up front about the fact that if you want to be an ally it’s a reality.  It’s also not unique to fat activism – it is a situation that faces everyone who wishes to be an ally to oppressed communities. So, to recap, I’m happy to give you my thoughts, but I would also recommend asking other fat activists as well.

I believe that for those thin people who are interested in doing fat activism work there are levels that you can choose based on where you are at personally as well as in any given situation.  They aren’t hard and fast and you can totally skip around but they form a start.

Level 1 – Personal

Start with yourself, consider doing the following:

  • Listen Part 1 – listen to what fat people are saying, read our blogs, come to our talks, ask questions to those who are open to that, seek out diverse opinions – fat people of color, fat queer and trans* people, fat people with disabilities, inbetweenies and super fats etc.
  • Listen Part 2 – avoid making every conversation about fat shaming into a conversation about how thin people experience self hatred/body shaming etc.  Yes, it happens.  Yes, it sucks. Yes it’s wrong and yes it deserves to be talked about, but not in every space where fat issues are talked about.  Part of being an ally is knowing when to make the situation about the group you are being an ally to, and learning ways to empathize other than telling stories about how something like that happened to you.  ( Just so you know, this one is super tough for me in spaces where I’m trying to be an ally.  I’m a storyteller and that’s how I was taught to empathize and I still struggle with it!) Though I think that there is one, I don’t think you even have to believe that there is a contextual difference between thin shaming and fat shaming to understand that the issues of thin people do not have to be addressed in every fat activism space all the time.
  • The world bombards us with stereotypes about fat people, it wouldn’t be surprising if some of them have made their way into your subconscious so no need to freak out with the guilt when it happens.  Just notice when you have “scripts” play about stereotypes of fat people (ie:  you see a fat person at McDonalds and start to think negative things about them) and interrupt those thoughts (ie:  notice how many thin people are also at McDonalds, remind your self that this 20 second moment of someone’s life is not indicative of anything, and isn’t enough information from which to extrapolate, remind yourself that people get to eat whatever they want.) Lather, rinse, repeat.
  • Stop body snarking – stop making negative comments about other bodies, including yours
  • Stop giving attention to body snarking – don’t click on best/worst bodies lists or articles about how stars have gained weight or lost weight and don’t discuss them.  Refuse to participate in conversations about it.  Walk away, or give your opinion of Mylie Cyrus’s performance but don’t compare her body to Lady Gaga’s and point out that it’s not cool.
  • Stop engaging in diet talk  -including food moralizing (good food, bad food, sinful food, guilt-free food etc.) and a “crime and punishment” view of food (I ate a cookie so I have to do x amount of time on the elliptical…)

Level 2 – Your Social Circle

  • Post fat activism things on your social media
  • Bring fat activism up in conversations:  when people are discussing dieting, talk about your Health at Every Size practice, when the subject of weight comes up, bring up things that you have read or heard about in fat activism
  • Interrupt body snarking; It would be my suggestion that you do so gently, I tend to use global statements to help defray defensiveness – something like “I wish we lived in a world where all bodies could be respected” or “I wish we lived in a world where women weren’t encouraged to attack each other” etc.  Something that can start a conversation without saying “I wish you would shut the hell up with your negative body talk!”
  • Make your plans fat friendly:  Does that restaurant have tables with chairs that don’t have arms?  Does that theater have arms that raise?  When you announce the plans, put these things in the announcement subtly so that your fat friends will know, without asking, that it’s a fat friendly environment (ie:  we’ll be going to Jack’s restaurant – we’ll be at the big table in the back with the comfy armless chairs.)
  • Remember that the problem isn’t that your fat friends need these things, the problem is that the business should have planned to accommodate people of all sizes and didn’t.

Level 3 – Your Community and Beyond

  • Insist that everyone should have what you have:  If you can get on a plane and fit comfortably in a seat, ask why everyone doesn’t get that experience. If you can shop at a variety of clothing stores with a variety of styles and price levels, ask why everyone doesn’t have that option.  (This is part of the concept of thin privilege.) Write an e-mail insisting that they start providing the service that you receive to people of all sizes.
  • Join projects – when you see fat activists creating petitions or starting letter writing campaigns add your voice.  Sometimes fat activists get shut down based on the premise that our activism is an attempt to “justify our fat,”  I think the fact that thin fat activists aren’t subjected to that criticism can have real advantages.
  • Put your money where your activism is:  If a venue doesn’t accommodate fat people (doesn’t have chairs without arms, doesn’t have armrests that raise, etc.) don’t spend your money there and tell them why – insist that they fix it. Walk into Lulu Lemon or Abercrombie and Fitch and let them know why they’ve lost you as a customer until they want your fat friends as customers (yes, even though businesses are allowed to choose target demographics.)
  • Speak up against potential fat shaming at work – company “biggest loser” or other weight loss contests, wellness messaging that thin is good, fat is bad etc.
  • Work to create size-based anti-discrimination policies, ordinances, and laws. Work to proactively create spaces that are size friendly at your job, places that you volunteer etc.

So that’s a start, if you have other thoughts on being a thin fat activist, please feel free to add them to the comments. If you are, or want to be, a thin fat activist then thanks, I appreciate it.

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17 thoughts on “How to Be a Fat Activism Ally

  1. Excellent post as usual. Even if thin people just followed “Listen – Part 1” that would be a great improvement on the state of things. As with being an ally to any movement, it’s more important that the voices of those actually oppressed are louder and more prevalent (unfortunately it’s quite often the opposite). And everyone – fat people included – could benefit from allowing diverse voices into the conversation so I’m really glad you included that note about fat POC, people with disabilities, from the queer community etc. since I think sometimes mainstream fat activism rhetoric limits its scope to white cis-hetero able-bodied middle class women.

  2. Great post, thank you! I think I especially have to work on the “interrupting GENTLY” part, I sometimes tend to sound rather aggressive.

    A thing I would add about dealing with stereotypes (I hope I find the right words to properly express what I want to say):
    People have stereotypes about thin people, too. We all know silly phrases like “Real men like curves, only dogs go for bones” etc. I was rather angry about stuff like this before I realised that for some people, it can be helpful to question and challenge ideals in this way at the beginning of their own way to self acceptance. And here is the point where it’s time to recognize your thin privilege! If you feel that someone needs to vent about the current beauty ideal, just let them vent. Don’t take stuff like this personal. Don’t make it into a “thin vs. fat” war. Don’t say stuff like “thin bashing is just as bad as fat bashing” – because it’s not! Why? Because you have thin privilege!

    You need to realize that “thin bashing” is partly a kind of logical reaction to the fact that our society is immensely prejudiced against fat people. Of course, it’s not always nice. But it’s understandable, and it’s also human. In my experience, someone who has realized that the current thin beauty ideal is bullshit will soon realize that beauty ideals are bullshit in general. But the beginng of this journey can be questioning, even tearing down or mocking the current ideal, and I think as a thin fat acceptance ally, you need to respect that.

    Always keep in mind that as a thin person, you don’t need a “safe space” to talk about your body image. Safe spaces for fat people are immensely rare, so respect them. Even if sometimes you will hear/read things you could (!) interpret as an attack on yourself.

    Maybe a stupid analogy, but this story maybe makes clear what I want to say. I am a convinced feminist working in a male dominated job. Needless to say, I experience sexism. I had some discussions with my husband about this because when I e.g. vented at home about sexist incidents – and maybe using words like “this sexist pig of coworker with his disgusting male dominance behavior” – my husband (who is the sweetest man on earth) felt personally attacked, too. Now he knows that this is not about him personally. Being a member of the “oppressor group” is just a fact he can’t help, but doesn’t make him guilty. Now he knows that the best reaction is just listening and then offering me a hug, a kiss or a cup of tea :-).

    Being thin also involuntarily makes you a member of the group that fat people are oppressed by. I think it’s absoluteley necessary to keep that in mind if you wand to be a thin fat acceptance ally.

    1. Good points, Ubarto! Our world is set up in such a binary way that it takes a lot of time and effort to reprogram minds to accept that it doesn’t have to be fat vs thin, black vs white, gay vs straight. Part of that process is often turning the dominant paradigm on its head for a while… then people can learn to get more subtle.

      The more shades of rainbows we see and accept, the better, but it can take a while.

    2. Hi Ubarto,

      Thanks so much for commenting. Maybe I’m reading this wrong but it sounds like you are saying that in some cases thin people should allow fat people to body shame them? I can agree with you that it can be helpful for thin people not to take it personally when fat people (or anyone) questions that institutionalized ideas that thin bodies are move valuable, but I don’t think that saying things like “Real men like curves, only dogs go for bones” is ever justified.

      I don’t think that questioning and challenging ideals is the same thing as thin bashing. I don’t think it’s worth comparing the two (is thin bashing just as bad as fat bashing…) I would rather say that they are both bad. I would also say that if one’s path to self that they don’t want done to them, perhaps it’s time to look for a new path.

      While I believe that it’s not necessary for every discussion about fat shaming to become a discussion about how thin people get shamed too, I don’t think that thin people have the obligation to say nothing when they are being body shamed in order to be an ally to fat people. Again, I may have read the original comment wrong but regardless I want to be really clear that having privilege (which they didn’t ask for, or create) does not make someone into a verbal punching bag. If someone says “Real men like curves, only dogs go for bones” I would hope that everyone of every size within hearing distance would address it as wrong.


      1. Hi Ragen,
        my opinion on the question “Maybe I’m reading this wrong but it sounds like you are saying that in some cases thin people should allow fat people to body shame them?”

        I’d really say it depends on the context. If someone e.g. posts this on his/her facebook page, I personally do indeed don’t always react to this in public, even if it’s a friend of mine.
        Without doubt, the very best reaction to the “Real men like curves, only dogs go for bones” on a FB page would be a simple “I think all bodies are beautiful”. But I don’t always do that.

        The reasons for this are: Sometimes I have the impression that for questioning the paradigm, for some people it’s really just helpful to turn it around, so I just let them for a while and tell myself it’s not about me. Second reason, if I as a thin person object, the thing sadly will quickly turn into a “thin vs. fat” fight, especially in social media! Third reason: I am not very good at calmly discussing things like this because I am currently working on some body issues myself and I don’t want a FB-conversation about the topics if I have “enough” curves not be called a bone or not, of if I have a “right” to feel offended etc. etc.

        My personal experience so far was that for some people bashing the thin ideal and going a bit too far is just a phase that they go through, and often enough they later say posting stuff like “Real men like curves, only dogs go for bones” on a FB page is not a clever thing to do. I’ve had people apologize to me later though I did not say a thing, and I think it’s not the worst way if someone figures this out all by her/himself. It’s just such an emotional and often painful topic, sometimes stuff just “steams over”, you know?

        It’s a different thing in a real life conversation or in a direct attack on my person, in this cases I don’t allow anyone body-shame me.

        I think noone has to allow anyone shaming them if he or she is not comfortable with that. I generelly don’t want to tell people what they should do or not. It’s just that I personally have made good experiences with not commenting some stuff that’s not a direct attack against me personally.

        So, in summary: Yes, I personally someone let fat people indirectly body-shame me, e.g. if I see thin-bashing on their facebook page and decide not to respond. But I don’t think anyone should have to do that in order to be a fat-acceptance ally. So no, you did not read me entirely wrong – though I’d say, letting someone body-shame me is just an option to consider, not an obligation.
        But I understand and respect if you or other people think that any body-shaming should always be responded to.

        To speak in should-terms I’d say: When thin people who want to be a fat acceptance ally encounter thin-bashing, they should keep their privilege in mind, do their best not to take it as a personal attack, don’t start to justify themselves, not play the “thin people have problems, too” card, but try to stay as calm as possbile responding that all bodies are beautiful and that any beauty ideal of any kind is just wrong. And they can also decide not to react at all, which is a thing that I personally often to, but would not consider a general advice.

        Thanks for asking, I hope I made myself clear! (and sorry I answered so late).

  3. I’m surprised at the question. Last I knew, you didn’t have to be the person you support.

    For example, I support gay rights, but I’m straight. I feed the hungry, but I’m not hungry. I also cloth the poor, but I’m not poor. I am Christian, but I support all peaceful religions. I am not artistically talented, but I appreciate art. I am liberal, but I love my friends who are conservative.

    I am fat, but I have many friends who are of average size for their bone structure. We support each other in many things, and size is only one of our differences. Together, we make the world better.

  4. Much of what you said can apply to a fat person who is just beginning to get involved in the fat acceptance movement (or someone who has been involved for awhile). In our journey to accept ourselves, we are learning to accept others too. The journey can go the other direction, we first accept all sorts of fat people. We love them, respect them and believe in their rights. Then, we look at ourselves and think, “maybe I ought to accept myself too.” So, I think ally, fat ally, it’s all a process. Good to remember guidelines to keep on track.

  5. Wow – on that “Listen Part 2,” I think you just nailed something for me. I am also a storyteller. I think that word just conjured up for me a recognition of how I might be perceived when dealing with other oppressed populations and wanting to inject my own understanding. I suddenly get why they might think I think it’s about me. I know that’s not my intent, but that might be how I’m perceived on the other end. I’m gonna have to sit with this thought. It’s definitely something I need to be aware of! Thanks for that eye opener!

  6. I totally agree with this, except for one small thing: I don’t believe that it’s a good idea to walk into an establishment like Lululemon or A&F and tell the floor employees how you feel. It would be great if they had real input, or if all of us could choose to work for enlightened companies. The fact is, front line employees get the most flak and are least empowered to change things. They may hate the company’s policies as much as you or I do, but may not be able to get another, better job. It would be more effective to call the company out on social media or on petitions.

  7. I have a question about word use. I’m not trying to be pedantic, and I would really appreciate this community’s response: what does ‘thin’ mean? It seems often to mean ‘not-fat’ although for me the word thin has connotations that differ from not-fat. I consider myself not-fat. I feel average, neither fat nor thin. Here I consider myself an ally because I do benefit from thin privilege and am not oppressed due to my size. But ‘thin’ is such a loaded word for me, I just shy away from it as a description of myself. What do you all think?

    1. in my understanding, “thin” and “fat” represent the “outer sides” of the spectrum. I wouldn’t say that a person who is not fat is thin – there are many body sizes between these two (at least that’s how I see it). English connotations are a bit difficult for me here as it’s a foreign language for me. I’m German, and I think the most accurate translation for “thin” is “dünn” which has a neutral connotation. Because of that, I personally don’t have a problem with describing myself as thin/ “dünn”. For me, “slender”, “slim”, “petite” or “skinny” (and their German equivalents) are very loaded words which I don’t use to describe myself (please correct me if I’m wrong, Im always very interested in these kind of linguistic details :-)).

      Regarding the not-thin-not-fat people: I often hear the term “normal” – which I dislike because it implies that everything different is unnormal and not meeting the standard. So I often use the word “medium-sized”, or “average-sized”.

      1. ubarto, thanks for your reply. I agree with what you say, esp. regarding the term normal. I don’t think ‘thin’ translates exactly as ‘dunn’ (sorry no umlaut) at this time because the word ‘thin’ is used so pervasively in this culture to connote health, status, morality etc. Skinny is bad too, but whereas no one would say to me that I’m skinny (that would be rude), they would say I’m thin (as a weird kind of compliment although we would both know it isn’t true).

        So I guess I’m a not-fat fat activist at level 1+2.

  8. Dear Ragen, I like your blog for many reasons, but the one of the most important is that you create a safe space for people who suffer from fat (often interalized) prejudice, and you are the voice of the sanity on the web. I read your blog when I want to chill out and take a rest from all the negative feelings about myself.
    Greetings from Poland, and best wishes!

  9. Make your plans fat friendly: Does that restaurant have tables with chairs that don’t have arms? Does that theater have arms that raise?

    This one has great meaning for me. I remember going to a work lunch at a restaurant with a large group of people. Because I was generous enough to give another co-worker a ride, we ended up being the last two people to arrive. The co-worker I arrived with is a lanky individual – tall but slender. Using your terminology, I’m in the super fat category. There were two seats left – the end of the table, and a seat made rather cramped by a support post.

    The co-worker I arrived with saw nothing wrong with taking the end seat. Fortunately another co-worker, one of my supervisors, saw my distress and offered me his roomier seat. I can never express my gratitude that I didn’t have to explain that this body would never fit in that small space in front of a table full of co-workers.

    As an introverted individual, that wordless perception meant the world to me. I was already fighting the urge to bolt rather than confront the situation. As an introvert, that will never be the form or forum for my comfort level when it comes to fat activism. I’m more comfortable tacking such issues one on one or in writing.

    It’s the little things that are the most meaningful. Having the seat that can pull out a bit further from the table. Asking for a table, rather than a booth, in a restaurant. At a party or gathering in someone’s home, having a hard dining room style chair as opposed to a low soft chair where getting back up will be an issue. (I also have knee problems.) At an event with stadium seating, having the seat at the end of the row.

    Since that event my knee problems have grown worse. I have a handicapped placard and walk with a cane. Knowing how close parking is, whether an event is on the ground floor, and whether there will be a bench if we have to wait before being seated are also considerations that are automatic for me, but may not occur to someone with no mobility issues.

  10. Thank you! Thank you! for this post. I have been reading your blog for about a year now and have learned so much about fat activism and health at every size (and have gone on to read a couple books on the subject also!). I was actually going to write you an e-mail requesting a “how to be a better ally” post so I was very excited to read this. I never realized how pervasive thin privilege is in our society until I saw things from your perspective. It breaks my heart how ingrained the dieting and weight loss industry is in this country and how many false beliefs people have about being fat. Sometimes it feels like I’m fighting a losing battle by trying to advocate for HAES so I can’t even imagine what it must feel like to have to live it every day. All I have to say is you must be one persistent, strong woman!

    I look forward to learning more!

    Your thin ally,

  11. I believe that fat people should live their live free of ridicule. We are what we are. I have had a weight issue on/off my whole life. Ridiculed if fat or thin. Now I am just being me. I have always been attracted to fat women since I was a child. I was told I was weird and had a mother complex. I just was an early fat admirer and not afraid to say it. Love these sites to see the pride others have in the nude bodies and their fashion forward ones. Love all of you.

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