Fat Politics
To hear “fat activists” tell it, the only problem with being obese is societal oppression.


Betsy Woodruff

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.