Can Fat Acceptance and Food Politics be Friends?

Over on Marianne Kirby’s always excellent blog, The Rotund, she wrote a post that has attracted many comments. Like, a “Shapely Prose” number of comments. The post started with a long quote from a commenter that she responds to at length, and here’s what I see as the core of the comment:

I have only recently discovered FA and I love, love, love HAES – it was almost like I finally got a permission to focus on my health and not worry about my weight so much. But the more I’ve been reading blogs on the fatosphere, the more I felt that fat acceptance is about the right to eat whatever you want pretty much without regard for your health.

And Marianne has many excellent words to share in response, including these:

Here’s the thing: Fat Acceptance is not about prescriptive health.

Yes. And while HAES(SM) is about health, Fat Acceptance is not. I believe in both, and that they can co-exist. Fat Acceptance, as I understand it, is about the right to be. While fat. Without being hassled, harassed, bullied, mocked, screamed at from passing cars, passed over for promotions, and a myriad of other ways that fat people are put down, and kept down.

As far as HAES(SM) goes, I think Jess Weiner didn’t get the “health” part, so much as the “at every size” part.

I have been exposed to numerous and varied theories of health behavior, and in many of them, they attempt to explain the phenomenon of “denial.” I think Jess Weiner was using her idea of Fat Acceptance as a cover for her desire to not deal with her health. There are people, who, faced with the reality of a 40th birthday just around the corner, (or for some, a 30th birthday or some other milestone meaningful to them) and decide to suddenly “take their health seriously.” And then they have a desire to split off from the “pre-health-kick” self, and construct an explanation to allow themselves to be acceptable (in their own eyes) again. So, for Jess, she blamed her “borderline” numbers on her lack of self care, which she said was caused by this belief that she could be both fat and healthy. The “new Jess” rejects the ideas that she believes led the “old Jess” to gain weight unchecked, and not think about what her eating and movement patterns might lead to.

Here’s the thing — no one escapes from life unscathed. We all will die, and if we have a long enough life, we’re likely to get sick along the way. All manner of nasty, painful, expensive things can happen to us. We can choose to reject ourselves when we respond to signs of illness, or we can embrace ourselves compassionately, and not place blame.

But, that’s not what I really wanted to write about. What I really wanted to write about was the question in the title of today’s post which comes from commenter on Marianne’s post whose handle is Alexie, and in her comment she asks some intriguing questions:

But some of these foods are deliberately engineered to induce cravings and overeating. How does this fit with Health at Every Size which focuses on intuitive eating, when it’s up against a food system that is actively seeking to bypass the natural signals of your body? How does it fit with the idea that all foods are equally valid choices? I’m not raising this to disagree with you about the inherent morality of eating. It’s more something I’ve been grappling with. How does Fat Acceptance sit with food politics? Can it?

(Sometimes I really wish I were able to draw well — because I would show a dinner table with Fat Acceptance sitting down with Food Politics. But what would they both eat?)

Here are my answers to what I’ve interpreted as Alexie’s questions:

Q: Some foods are deliberately engineered to induce cravings and overeating. How does this fit with Health at Every Size which focuses on intuitive eating, when it’s up against a food system that is actively seeking to bypass the natural signals of your body?

A: I think Linda Bacon, in her book Health At Every Size is trying to describe the middle path here between the two. For an individual who has dieted in the past, coming to terms with these together can be a long process, and one that requires both compassion and vigilance. Compassion for oneself when eating foods that aren’t in line with one’s own food politics, and vigilance when it comes to not judging oneself and others for choices, which still examining beliefs about what’s best to put into one’s own body. For example, I know that some foods really do seem to make me want more of them. Take a Snickers bar, for example. I know that eating one will make me want one more. And I don’t like being manipulated that way, so I tend to stay away from them. And I suppose, if many more people did the same as me, maybe they wouldn’t manufacture (or engineer) Snickers anymore. But it’s really about what I want to put into my own body. I also tend to be the same way with excellent Thai cuisine, eating it makes me want more of it. I don’t think that is a result of trying to sell more Thai food, it’s just how I respond to an amazing combo of salty, sweet, umami, spicy and rich flavors. Since too much Thai food makes my blood sugar higher than I like it to be, I avoid it except for a few times a year (I would definitely eat it more often if my family liked it as much as I do, which isn’t the case). The foods that seem to be “unstoppable” for me are ones I need to approach with mindfulness. Not so much because they may lead me to gain weight (which they might) but because of other reasons pertaining to health and politics. If I think a food really does cause me to crave more of it, and I find that out, I can make a determination whether or not, or how often, to eat that food.

The makers of Oreo cookies (Nabisco?) and organic knock-offs are certainly trying to get me to buy their delicious products. And that’s their role in the dance. The steps I take have to do with buying or not buying, and also, trying to understand how food subsidies work, and thinking about the impact that changing those subsidies might have not only on me and the other people trying to avoid Snickers-es and Oreos, but the people who need the price of wheat and soy and corn to be affordable so they don’t literally starve.

I would like it if the foods that promoted better health for me were not more expensive than the foods that don’t promote health for me as well. But that’s where the politics come in — I might want to lobby for things to change. I might also want to make sure that people who harvest the fruits and vegetables I consider to be so health promoting are not exposed to dangerous chemicals, are subject to the same workers’ right that I am, and earn a decent wage. I might be manipulated into thinking that the price I ought to pay for tomatoes is less than $2.00/pound, when in order to get them for a low price, it means terrible working conditions for those doing the harvesting.

Ultimately, I would rather not be preachy about my values. I would rather base my decisions about what to eat and how much on my own values, not on a fear of being fat or getting fatter. Right now, I’m annoyed that a new person sits in the cubicle next to me, and he has a candy bowl full of salt water taffy that leads me to crave sweets in a way that not having that particular visual cue wouldn’t. But I’ve decided to just live next to the cube with the bowl of salt water taffy, rather than ask him to put the bowl away. It’s odd, I don’t really know what the purpose of his bowl of salt water taffy on his desk is. Is it an invitation to join him in a piece of delicious candy? Is it to say something about who he is? Is it because he needs to keep his blood sugar at a certain level that it would drop below if he didn’t have a bowl of candy at the ready? He’s new, and we haven’t become friends, so I don’t want to ask these questions. I do have the ability to work in the vicinity of a bowl of salt water taffy and not eat it, or not go out and buy my own salt water taffy to have on my own desk. (Okay, now I really want some saltwater taffy.)

Thinking about food politics reminds me that there are so many things upon which I can base my decisions to eat or buy certain things OTHER THAN fatness.

Okay, I’m sorry if this is growing incoherent. It’s way past my bedtime, but I wanted to get these thoughts out on pixels before bed. Good night!

One last thought. Maybe if Fat Acceptance sat down to eat with Food Politics, they would enjoy a bowl of salt water taffy. Which, it turns out, does not contain sea water.



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16 responses to “Can Fat Acceptance and Food Politics be Friends?

  1. G

    I’m not a big fan of Food Politics– not because I disagree with the tenets of its philosophy, but because the people who preach it tend to have a hateful rationale behind it. I can get behind paying farm workers a living wage, knowing where my food comes from, and having access to fresh, safe, sustainable, tasty food. But I don’t like having this marketed as a “cure” for bodies like mine.

    I think Alexis’ point is valid, but in the end it’s a choice, isn’t it? We get to choose what we eat, and deserve not to be judged for it. (Provided we do have access to a variety of foods, which a lot of people don’t.)

    I don’t think FA and FP need to be enemies, but I think it’s unlikely that they’ll ever be friends.

  2. I separate Fat Acceptance from HAES. I think Fat Acceptance is a political/social movement with a goal of ending discrimination and advancing equality and humane accomodation for people of all sizes. Actually, I usually say Size Acceptance instead of Fat Acceptance, in order to pull in all size different people who suffer because of social stigma and discrimination.

    HAES is not a political thing. It’s a personal health choice. Size Acceptance advocates may or may not practice HAES. I, for example, describe myself as a failed HAES practitioner but a foaming-at-the-mouth Size Acceptance advocate. And as a Size Acceptance advocate I feel no conflict when I engage in food politics. Yes, I believe airlines need to be fair and accommodating to people of all sizes. Simultaneously, I believe Monsanto should cease and desist in its infringement lawsuits against farmers who re-use their own seeds and accidentally have some of Monsanto’s genetically modified product in their stock because the wind blew it there. How ridiculous! (Those farmers should counter-sue Monsanto for trespassing!)

    Distinguishing HAES from FA/SA is useful.

  3. Sometimes I really wish I were able to draw well — because I would show a dinner table with Fat Acceptance sitting down with Food Politics. But what would they both eat?

    Heehee. I’ll have what they’re having, only without the side dish of smug superiority. I eat “good” stuff because I can, and I’m all too aware that the “can” part could be snatched away from me at any time.

    In J. Eric Oliver’s book, he says that according to the USDA’s own data on the relationship between food prices and food consumption, cutting the price of fruits and vegetables only has a modest effect on consumption (something like 10% cut in price for a 1% to 2% increase in consumption), and that in order for most people to eat the “recommended” number of servings of greens and yellows (i.e. four times the amount that the average person eats), they would have to reduce their price by 289 percent, i.e. pay people to eat them . Which, in a sense, upper-income people are already being paid to do.

    • Alexie

      Hi Meowser,

      That book sounds interesting. I can’t get hold of a copy, though.

      Could you elaborate on why vegetables aren’t price sensitive in that way? is it that people don’t want to eat vegetables, or it’s not culturally part of the diet etc?

      I’m writing from outside the United States, so I’m really interested in this. I’ve just come in from shopping at the market; where I live in central Europe, eating fresh is the default because it’s the cheapest way to eat. I know that my own eating habits have changed markedly as the economics of eating has changed – I’ll get hammered here if I eat out a lot or eat much processed food, so my own choices are definitely being driven by economics.

      What’s interesting is that living in an environment where everyone eats fresh, more or less, means there is no snob value attached to eating from scratch, as there is in the US. Well, not that I can see. Elite eating here is going to a Michelin star restaurant and paying a couple of hundred euros for a single meal.

      I’d be interested in hearing more,


      • I think the studies he cites state that demand for food overall, at least in the U.S., is relatively insensitive to price. His main cite is this one from the USDA in 2003. The “289 percent” figure is one compiled by his research assistant off NHANES data from 2002.

        Obviously there is some sensitivity; if wild salmon costs five times as much per pound as cheap ground beef in frozen chubs, then yeah, that’s going to make a difference. But I think a lot of people in the U.S. who do have some degree of economic choice about what they eat, access to fresh foods, etc., eat for convenience as much as anything else, given the fact that so many are worked to death, have killer commutes, hardly any sleep, etc. If someone else wants to do the scut work of preparation and cleanup, and it’s not going to break the bank or make them too sick to work the next day, it’s fine with them. When rich people do this, it’s considered perfectly okay, as long as their frozen food comes from Whole Paycheck instead of Safeway and their takeout comes from the “better” restaurants; when non-rich people do this, they’re being naughty.

  4. Alexie

    One of the things that I think about a lot in terms of fat acceptance/ food moralising/ food scolding/ food politics is that so often the debate is framed in terms of personal choice. On the obesity panic side, the howling mob demands that obese people’s eating is policed. On the fat acceptance side, the right for people to make their own food choices without moralising is a given.

    The issue I have with all of this is that by focusing solely on personal choice, it shifts responsibility to the individual, when it’s the bigger food system that’s problematic. We’re all pretty much rational people who will do whatever is best for us in terms of convenience, taste and price. If the food system is set up so that’s it’s extremely difficult to eat a certain way, then most people won’t. In the English speaking world, the food system has been constructed so that if you want to eat the ‘recommended way’ – e.g. lots of whole foods and so on, you need deep pockets. If you want to go to the supermarket and just buy stuff, you need to have a PhD in chemistry to navigate the choices – you’re expected to read back labels, calculate portions and calories, understand additives, be constantly vigilant for sugar, HFCS etc and, above all, prove totally resistant to all forms of advertising. We are required to assimilate a huge amount of public health information and then apply it in a sophisticated way to a bewildering array of foods.

    So, basically, to eat in a healthy way, you have to have a lot of time, a lot of education and a lot of will power and determination. And yet when people fail to demonstrate this extraordinary knowledge and will power, they’re vilified for it.

    If you wanted to make sure the maximum number of people in any population would end up eating disordered or bewildered and shamed about food, this is the system you would offer them.

    For me, refusing to police food choices is only part of the solution. If people want to eat a tub of lard for breakfast – as per The Rotund discussion – then that’s fine if that’s an actual choice. If somebody would prefer a tub of lard to cooking their own breakfast from raw ingredients, cool. And I really mean that. My mother grew up eating ‘bread and dripping’ because that’s what people in that time and place ate, and that lard turned out to be a perfectly nutritious choice for her.

    But if TubO’Lard (TM) is actually a subsidised product that’s the easiest, cheapest and most ubiquitous food product around, if it’s heavily advertised and marketed to children with games; if it’s adulterated with flavourings to disguise the fact that it’s the bottom-of-the-barrel lard, and if it’s a much more convenient food in all ways when compared to raw ingredients, or if it’s available when other foods are not, then how much is it an actual choice, and how much is TubO’Lard the default choice because we’re only human and eating things other than TubO’Lard is difficult?

    Economics is driving a lot of this and I’m coming round to the view that while getting rid of food policing is a necessary step, it’s the whole food system that needs to change as well. Like I said in the above comment, I live in a country where economics drives the food choices the other way, so that it’s easier and cheaper to eat so-called ‘whole’ foods, and because it’s the norm, you don’t get to score snob points for doing so.

    I have to leave here next year and I was thinking recently about going back to the madness of a world where the act of eating, one of our primary human pleasures, involves calculations and special knowledge and blah blah blah and I suddenly though, why? Why should food be difficult and fraught like this?

    • If you wanted to make sure the maximum number of people in any population would end up eating disordered or bewildered and shamed about food, this is the system you would offer them….
      Economics is driving a lot of this and I’m coming round to the view that while getting rid of food policing is a necessary step, it’s the whole food system that needs to change as well

      These two points you made really resonated with me. Thanks for making them. I agree that the whole food system needs to change, but my fear is that making changes to the system won’t ultimately make people healthier, if fear of fatness is what’s driving the change.

      I live in a country where economics drives the food choices the other way, so that it’s easier and cheaper to eat so-called ‘whole’ foods, and because it’s the norm, you don’t get to score snob points for doing so.

      While that would be my preference, that the “whole foods” are the easier and cheaper ones, and maybe there are also some nutritious “convenience foods” or at least foods you can buy on the street (like delicious fresh fruit in some places) for those people who for one reason or another have difficulty preparing those whole foods from scratch don’t suffer nutritionally.

      Thank you so much for commenting back on what your comment inspired. I agree that it’s not all about the individual, nor is it all about the collective. It’s both that need to be taken into consideration, something the country I live in at the moment (the U.S.) is particularly poor at doing.

  5. Meowser, you are so right. Convenience is key, also, not having anyone at home (grandparent, out of work brother, anyone) to do it.
    And, when you’re exhausted, and you do prepare a homemade meal, and your offspring won’t eat it, it reinforces the idea that something tastier and more convenient is the better way to go.

    As a kid (and still today), I loved cheap deli turkey on whole-wheat toast with mayo and maybe even some sliced tomatoes. But my daughter won’t eat any sort of sliced deli meat (probably better for her overall) or even peanut butter and jelly, and she’s not a fan of most sandwiches, including burgers and hot dogs. When she was younger, I had a foolish pride that she didn’t like “kid foods” but now, the only “convenience food” she’ll eat is fried chicken strips, not mcnuggets but the identifiably chicken breast kind. It’s quite inconvenient, and while her dad cooks a mean chicken shnitzel, it’s not all the time she gets it homemade.

    I want it all — convenient, cheap, delicious, nutritious, satisfying. Something has to give, and for me, it’s usually “cheap” that I sacrifice, but mostly because I can afford to. I’ve taken to picking up the lunch things they offer at starbucks because they leave me feeling less guilty, but they aren’t cheap, or “green” or homemade. They are convenient, and taste pretty good, and I could make something similar at home for about 1/3 of the price — if I didn’t insist on getting 7-8 hours of sleep.

    • Alexie

      Interesting about your daughter. Does she say why she doesn’t like the sandwiches?

      • She does eat one sandwich: whole wheat bread or baguette with mild cheese and dill pickle slices. Although, when we pack it for her in a lunch, it often goes uneaten — it’s sort of floppy, as sandwiches go. She requests this particular sandwich once or twice a week when we are preparing informal (grab what you want from the fridge) lunches or snacks.
        I think it’s too big for her mouth, and I think she also likes to eat one food at a time, or mix them herself (she loves to mix brown rice, vegetarian refried beans from a can, and shredded mild cheese) and then eat it all together.
        Her dad and I eat sandwiches, so it’s not for lack of exposure. I think she prefers to not have as much food in her mouth at once as most sandwiches cause there to be, but I’ve never really tried to figure it out, since there are so many other things she likes to eat that we also eat.

  6. Alexie

    Yes, convenience is definitely an issue. Mind you, in many, many cultures it’s possible to eat perfectly well without having to do it yourself; the hawker food in Asia, the cheap meal options in Europe. We have lunch deals here where you get a two course meal at lunch in most of the local restaurants for under seven euros. It’s prepared by someone else from scratch, it’s pretty hearty – job done!

    I was in France for work in June, at a big conference centre. Some restaurants had been set up in tents outside. The food was delicious and cheap. But there’s been outrage in France at the findings that such restaurants prepare the food off site and then just heat it up and serve it to you – which is absolutely normal in the English speaking world. But for them, paying for warmed over food is a rip-off. Yet here’s the thing – when they DO prepare food on site, it costs the same as a typical restaurant meal in the US or UK. So although my first reaction was “yes, but it’s not economic to have a cook on site preparing everything fresh”, my second thought was “why not? If the French and the Spanish can do it, why can’t we?”

    There is a social issue underlying the convenience/time poor issue as well. Before I moved here, one of the reasons I never prepared food myself was because I didn’t have time. I worked long hours, skipped lunch breaks, worked into the night, grabbed something on my way home etc etc.

    That now seems abominable to me. I was sacrificing my life and health for corporate interests. The mere fact that we are all putting work in front of something as fundamental as our right to eat – or that we HAVE to put work in front of our food – is another sign of how badly the system is screwed. To be honest, it’s an outrage. What are we, serfs living in a feudal society?

    • The mere fact that we are all putting work in front of something as fundamental as our right to eat – or that we HAVE to put work in front of our food – is another sign of how badly the system is screwed. To be honest, it’s an outrage. What are we, serfs living in a feudal society?

      This is the question. And this is food politics. And workers rights. I suppose the question is — is fat acceptance a “natural ally” when fighting against serfdom?

      In my day job, one of the things I advocate for is access to healthier foods for employees. And I also advocate people being able to take breaks, making sure there is a refrigerator for the food people bring from home, a variety of choices in vending machines (not only “junk food” but slightly healthier shelf-stable options, like trail mix, which might not truly be all that better nutritionally but is less processed, if that’s what people are looking for), and for people to eat lunch away from their desks — some worksites don’t have any space other than a conference room, from which people could be bumped — to eat their lunch.

      I don’t know if it is my role to try to advocate within the fatosphere for workers rights, or for improved health for workers. I know it’s something I advocate for in my real world life. And the beauty part for me as an advocate is that I don’t use blaming or shaming tactics around fatness to message about what a healthy workplace ought to look like. I don’t emphasize obesity rates — I talk about what the evidence says employers can do to support their employees to have a healthier work environment. I focus on systems (example: a sufficient number of bike racks or lockers so employees who ride their bikes to work have a safe place to store them), not individual behavior.

      Thanks again for the provocative discussion!

      • Alexie

        Well done for what you’re doing.

        I don’t know if the Fatosphere is the right place for these discussions, though. This discussion has made me think a lot about it over the weekend. Workers rights and food politics butt up against a discussion that’s problematic within the Fatosphere: food choices. At an individual level, what you eat is what you eat and I’m completely on board about the no body policing, and no looking at food just in terms of fat/weight. To me that doesn’t even need discussion.

        But at a macro, population level, what look like individual choices are being driven by a system that delivers the worst possible outcomes to just about everybody. There are some styles of eating that – and again, this is at a population level – produce poorer outcomes than others. Abandoning the family dinner, for example, is linked with higher rates of eating disorders in teenage girls.

        Eating on the run as a default way of eating is another problematic food behaviour at a macro level, because if enough of the population do it, then it signals that food isn’t really that important, and it soon becomes expected that people eat at their desks, rather than taking time out to eat.

        Maybe the Fatosphere isn’t the place to have those discussions, though, as so many people find any discussions about food very triggering.

        Anyway, I’ll stop writing novels on your blog. Thanks for allowing a respectful discussion.

      • Alexie

        I just wanted to add: I think you’re absolutely right about focusing on systems rather than individuals. That’s very much what I believe, too, but you said it much more clearly.

  7. Can any two social-justice foci be friends?

    It would depend on whether they take a narrow “identity politics”-type stance, privileging their own axis of oppression over other axes, or an intersectional stance in which all axes are interconnected and none can be isolated from the others and addressed separately.

    And on how much they go in for prescriptivism, but I’ve noticed that seems to have a strong correlation with identity politics – prescriptivism is a way to measure who is “x enough” to be part of the identity group (feminist enough, queer enough, PoC enough, fat-accepting enough, disabled enough, etc, etc – funny how often that works out to “privileged enough on other axes” even when the prescriptions aren’t overtly referencing privilege).

    I love that the convo here has centred the way that food injustice on the systemic level interferes with the informed choice and bodily autonomy of individuals of all sizes – intersectionality in action.


  8. I love that the convo here has centred the way that food injustice on the systemic level interferes with the informed choice and bodily autonomy of individuals of all sizes – intersectionality in action.
    Me too! I love this conversation, and I’m glad you brought intersectionality into the conversation. A while back, I wrote about being in favor of taxing “junk food” and had the opportunity to rethink my stance when a fellow blogger pointed out what my beliefs meant for people with limited means to buy food.
    I am in favor of a systems approach, but with “practice runs” through proposed systems to see how different individuals (or sub-systems) fare in each. Those are interesting thought experiments, and it’s entirely possible to use computers to create models of different systems (but beyond my individual qualifications and capacities) — but we really need humans to test out these hypothetical scenarios with intersectionality in mind.

    There are “food justice” people and there are “right food/slow food” people — and I’m not sure they talk all that often. I wish they would. I tend to err on the side of wanting to make sure people have enough food to survive today, and that the food they are eating is safe — not spoiled or contaminated or poisoned.

    Are you familiar with the work of Dr. Adam Drenowski? I think he works at the intersection of those two, concerned about health and the price of food. I actually got up the nerve to call him on the phone one time, shocked that he answered, and we had a great discussion, and it illustrated to me how much research dollars impact what gets studied.

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