Civil Rights are for Every Body: Celebrate 'Love Your Body Day' with a Discussion about the Size Acceptance Movement

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Is the current "war on obesity" really a "war on the obese"? Psychologist Dr. Deb Burgard urges women of all sizes to appreciate and nurture the bodies they have now in a two-part discussion airing October 5-18 on the "Size Matters Too" online radio show with the Velvet Voice of Diversity, Veronica Cook-Euell. "Change your mind, change your culture, and let your body be!"

Building on previous movements for equal rights, the size acceptance movement is gaining strength. In this two-part interview with Dr. Deb Burgard, noted eating disorders specialist and Health at Every Size advocate, Veronica Cook-Euell explores fat and feminism, and fat civil rights.

Dr. Burgard's work with women across the weight spectrum has given her a unique perspective. "I realized early in my career that running an inpatient eating disorder program and also teaching fitness classes for women over 200 pounds meant that I was working with the sickest thin women and the healthiest fat women." Seeing the two groups that are least visible to the public has shown her that no one can tell by looking at a person's body what they are doing with food or exercise. "You can die of starvation even at a very high weight if you don't eat enough. If I could change one thing about the world, it would be that we stop assuming things about a person based on their body size or BMI."

Fat people are stereotyped as overeaters, underexercisers, lacking self-discipline, about to keel over from health problems, and drains on the national economy. This stigma causes a great deal of distress and discrimination for vast numbers of people. In most areas of the country it is perfectly legal to discriminate on the basis of weight. People with higher BMIs face more discrimination obtaining work, insurance, medical care, clothing, exercise opportunities, and have even faced challenges to their ability to adopt, foster, or retain custody of children. The physical scaling of our shared environment denies some fat people comfortable access to public places, and the stigma associated with being fat causes many people to avoid activities they worry will be humiliating. The worry about being perceived as fat affects most American women, whether someone else would see them as fat or not, and growing numbers of men. It is affecting children at younger and younger ages.

Indeed, fat stigma can cause profound problems even for people who are not fat. Dr. Burgard contends, "Eating disorder prevention and size acceptance are intimately linked. People with eating disorders are desperately trying to avoid what they perceive as the mortifying humiliation of being perceived as fat. We won't be able to prevent eating disorders until it is socially safe to be a wide range of body sizes - the real body sizes that represent healthy human beings, fat and thin."

Even the so-called "war on obesity" stigmatizes fat people by calling for the prevention of fatness. Interventions aimed at "preventing obese children" target the children with higher weights for even more weight-related teasing and bullying. As an advocate of the "Health at Every Size" approach to weight concerns, Dr. Burgard points out, "If we are concerned about the quality of nutrition or the opportunities for physical activity for our children, why wouldn't we be just as concerned for the thin children? Why does the nutrition argument have to be made on the backs of fat people? The public attitudes that stigmatize fat are politically useful for nutrition activists, who exploit fat prejudice to further their cause." The public attitudes that stigmatize fat also make it useful for Big Pharma and other corporate interests to define "obesity" as a chronic disease requiring lifetime medical care. "The fact that poorer people and people of color are fatter means that you can effectively discriminate without being labeled a heartless bigot. The public perception that 'fat people bring it on themselves' and 'they could lose weight if they tried' allows this discrimination to go unchallenged. If you are an insurance company wanting to get rid of your obligations to poorer people and people of color -- people who may cost the insurance company more because being poor and discriminated against is hard on people's health -- you don't get called on it if you frame it as 'those fat people who are costing us millions.'"

There are some fat people who have health problems, and all of those problems are found in thin people as well. There are fat people who are healthy and will die of old age. There are many roads to becoming a fat person or thin person, and some of them are natural destinations of healthy processes and some are not. Dr. Burgard notes, "No one can tell by looking at someone what they need for their health; we have to get to know them as individuals. Even if everyone ate and exercised perfectly, a population's weight would follow a bell curve of weight diversity, so the goal should not be to prevent natural variation in body size. Trying to prevent health problems by 'preventing obesity' is like trying to prevent AIDS by preventing gayness. Public health messages should focus on the decisions that people can make about their day-to-day practices. You have to practice safe sex if you want to minimize your chances of getting AIDS, whether you are gay or straight. You have to nurture your body if you want it to be healthy, whether you are fat or thin."

Dr. Burgard and her colleagues have created a research project to investigate the ways that ordinary people, fat and thin, have integrated regular health practices into their lives. "We are interested in the seemingly obvious, but underresearched, question of how people who are successful have done it. We need to stop focusing on weight loss and look at how people who are actually exercising regularly or listening to their bodies regularly in eating decisions, or regularly wearing seatbelts, or whatever, have achieved that, despite all the distractions about weight." The project is called the Sustainable Health Practices Registry, and can be accessed online at

"Love Your Body Day" October 18th offers an opportunity to think about how fat is a feminist issue. Women continue to gain their primary social power from their looks. Dr. Burgard says, "If you blame your body for the poor treatment you receive from other people, you will be more vulnerable to the seductions of the ‘Body Project' and more likely to obsess about trying to perfect it. You invest in the myth that if you have a perfect body, you'll have a perfect life." But the tasks of body perfection often drain money, energy, and time from the real investments women could make in their education, development, financial security, and so forth.

Dr. Burgard notes that the size acceptance movement uses feminist insights and the experiences of other people who have been stigmatized to see patterns and solutions. "It is interesting that a somewhat similar set of traits gets projected: laziness, out of control appetites, lacking in discipline, etc. These traits have been part of stereotypes about group after group. Why have dominant groups our history targeted a body feature of a group of people (skin color, gender, weight) and pathologized it? The members of the targeted group then have to somehow get the leverage to see that they are not those things, or at least any more than any other random group of people; and to believe in themselves and their own worth. We need to understand much more about how this is achieved -- it is the story of resistance to oppression." Love Your Body Day is an opportunity to participate in this noble tradition.

To listen to the show, tune in to and click on "listen to this week's show." Part 1, "Fat and Feminism" airs 10/5-11; Part 2, "Fat Civil Rights" airs 10/12-18.

To find out more about Dr. Burgard's work, visit

To participate in the Sustainable Health Practices Registry, go to

To find out more about Love Your Body Day, visit

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