We have just had an interesting year in fatness. Mayor Bloomberg decided New Yorkers were too fat and too stupid to be allowed to purchase large sodas, the American Heart Association noted that obesity-related health-care costs could hit $957 billion by 2030 (that’s 18 percent of projected national health expenditures), and another report suggested that half of American adults will be obese in less than 20 years if we continue along the current trend.
In other words, it seems safe to say that we have a little bit of a weight problem. But one group of progressives rejects that idea the way most of us reject geocentricism. The fat-acceptance movement, a little-known fruit of the Sixties social upheaval, will probably gain more clout as the number of fat people grows. So its odd takes on individuals’ rights and basic science merit attention.
A subgroup of this movement is fat feminism. If that sounds made up, you can check out its very own Wikipedia page, which provides readers with a lot of interesting factoids. For instance, we learn that 46 percent of overweight or obese women view their physicians as “uncomfortable” with their unhealthy weight. Egads! We also learn that “women who are naturally larger than the norm would be forced into a cycle of spending more money on health care just to compensate for being overweight,” which sounds less like oppression than a matter of reality. Perhaps the most interesting bit is that some adherents of fat feminism hold that sizeism, as it were, is a societal evil comparable to racism and sexism. Look how far we’ve come, I guess.
When hippies started staging “be-ins” to protest the Vietnam War, the first fat activists co-opted the idea: they staged their own event in New York City’s Central Park, dubbed it a “Fat-In” and ate ice cream while burning posters of über-thin model Twiggy. Viva la revolución.
It’s undoubtedly true that American society frowns upon obesity (a term, by the way, that many fat feminists prefer to put in dismissive quotes), and it’s well documented that overweight kids often face crueller bullying and have lower self-esteem than their normal-weighing peers. And the bizarre nature of contemporary America’s relationship with the human body (especially the female human body) is largely unparalleled. A high percentage of Americans are fat, but we rarely if ever see fat people in advertisements or movies. More and more people are fatter and fatter, which you’d think would breed societal acceptance, but anorexia and bulimia are also on the rise. Food is cheaper than ever, but many girls and young women literally starve themselves to death.
But the fat-acceptance movement, fat feminism, and their weird brand of progressivism don’t seem to offer many serious answers. There is a plethora of examples of unfathomably odd ideas from the fatosphere (the term fat-activist bloggers use for their online community):
• Over at VoluptuArt.com, you can buy Yay! Scales, which display compliments like “Gorgeous,” “Sexy,” and “Perfect” where most scales show numbers. Is $45 too much to pay for a solicited compliment every morning? You decide.
• At FatBodyPolitics.com, a self-described fat activist named Amanda argues that many “fat-positive spaces” are inadvertently oppressive because they only very rarely “break . . . away from the normative standards of sexual experience, which deems relationships between two people to be the best kind of relationship to be in.” In other words, praising sexual relationships between two people but failing to praise one person’s relationship with him- or herself equally warmly basically makes you a Victorian.
• Fat!So?, an influential fat-feminist blog, describes itself as “about ending weight-based prejudice and discrimination — and all other forms of oppression — because we’re all in this together and we’re all fabulous!” I feel like a terrible person saying this, but good luck with ending all forms of oppression. Let me know how that works out for you.
• And at Dances With Fat, one blogger argues that as long as the federal government tries to reduce obesity, she’s a victim. Presented without comment:
As long as my government is waging a war against me (the War on Obesity) a war in which they are actively trying to involve everyone from employers to restaurants to healthcare and insurance companies — and as long as there are people who assert that we should all hope for a world where people who look like me don’t exist — I will assert that I am the victim of oppression.
• Radiance Magazine, the flagship publication of fat feminism, chronicles the history of the feminist Fat Underground, which was active in the 1970s. “The Fat Underground employed slashing rhetoric,” reports the magazine with apparent approbation. “Doctors are the enemy. Weight loss is genocide.” Comparing the diet industry to Hitler’s regime might sound a touch extreme, but Radiance adds that “mainstream-sympathetic academics . . . ultimately came to adopt much of the Fat Underground’s underlying logic as their own.”
These kinds of comments and arguments seem to be the rule, not the exception. Fat-acceptance advocates and fat feminists will fight for equality no matter what, the entire mainstream medical establishment be damned. And a hallmark of that fight is opposition to dieting and weight loss. They argue that your weight has nothing to do with your health, and that telling overweight and obese people to slim down is tantamount to malpractice.
But the most troublesome aspect of the movement isn’t its antipathy to science, its naïveté, or its unusually high comfort level with super-offensive rhetoric; it’s that the movement is based on a fundamentally skewed understanding of what rights are. One common refrain throughout these arguments is that fat people just want their rights protected. For instance, Peggy Howell, a spokesperson for the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), told Time that “as a citizen of the U.S., just because I carry more weight on my back doesn’t mean I should have any fewer rights than anyone else.” Similarly, a writer at Fat Body Politics holds that “as fat people, we have the right to talk about our experiences without being bullied into validating the experiences of thin people who feel like we don’t talk about the similarities among us.” NAAFA describes itself as a “civil rights organization.”
Here’s why this is a problem: Rights come in two forms, natural rights and legal rights. Natural rights are inborn — life, liberty, and property/the pursuit of happiness. We all have them; they come from Nature and Nature’s God, as the Framers put it, and government’s responsibility is to protect them. Legal rights exist because of the law. In America, I have a legal right to the shoes that I bought with my own money. I can wear them, cut them into little pieces, stick them in my closet, and forget about them, whatever. The right to vote is a legal right (there is no serious argument that all people are born with a natural right to check off a box on a ballot to decide who will lead them). So is the right to marry. Some societies give their members more legal rights than other societies.
There’s a lot of debate about how to define rights, and the best way to explore all this is probably in grad school, not in a few paragraphs in an article on the Internet. That said, it’s pretty silly to argue that people have a right not to get their feelings hurt. It’s equally silly to argue that everyone has a right to pay for only one seat on an airplane, even if he takes up two. And it’s even sillier to argue that fat people have the right to safe spaces where skinny people won’t invalidate their experiences, and that if they can’t find such spaces, they’re oppressed victims in need of redress. Now, that’s not to say such spaces are a bad idea; it’s just to say that they aren’t a right inborn in fat people — nor (yet) are they a right granted by law. In America, you have the right to freedom of speech, but you don’t have the right to a supportive group of non-judgmental listeners who will never call you out. If you have such a group, wonderful. But it’s a privilege or a blessing, not a right.
As long as progressives can with impunity erode and broaden the definition of the word “right,” they’ll be able to justify an ever-increasing scope of government intervention. The more rights you have, the more government you need to protect them. The fat-acceptance movement, like most progressives, seems to assume that you have a right to a comfortable, pleasant, judgment-free life. You don’t. You have the rights to say what you want, to spend your own money, to practice the religion of your choice (or no religion), to buy a gun, etc. But no one is violating your rights by giving you the stink-eye if you take up two seats in a bus.
— Betsy Woodruff is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.