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In August of 1974, thousands of feminists gathered on a sunny day in a park in Los Angeles to celebrate Women’s Equality Day. During the open mic at the event, several fat women took the stage with lit candles and wearing black armbands to hold a symbolic funeral for the singer Cass Elliott. In bringing attention to the discrimination faced by fat people these women became local, feminist “sheros” in the process. The Mamas and Papas singer had died recently from heart failure. She was 33, fat, and an inspiration to many fat women. She also struggled, publicly and privately, with her weight and dieting. There was a half-eaten sandwich in the room when she died, and so was born the fat-phobic urban legend that Cass Elliot choked to death on a ham sandwich. But the Fat Underground, the organization those fat women created, didn’t believe that. They believed that Cass was a fat woman who died from complications due to crash dieting. The Fat Underground members who took the stage that day railed against the medical industrial complex for murdering Cass and promoting the genocide of fat women. These women dared to be vocal and unapologetically fat in a very public space and kicked open the door for generations of fat activists to follow them.
This crucial moment in the early days of the fat acceptance movement often garners scant mention in the historical record. If you look up a history of the fat acceptance movement, you’ll likely find a recounting of a few pivotal moments and a few key names, but these important facts are often shared without the critical context they were born in. While accurate, this history of the fat acceptance movement is incomplete and lacks the richness of a story that, by its very nature, is deeply intersectional but not always inclusive.
In 1967, a New York radio personality, Steve Post, called for the first “fat-in” in Central Park. 500 people showed up to protest discrimination against fat people. They chanted and sang, they ate, they carried signs, they burned diet books. They also burned the images of certain public figures, and praised and celebrated others. Most important, they were unapologetically, loudly, and proudly fat in public.
That same year, Lew Louderback wrote “More People Should be FAT,” one of the earliest pieces of mainstream media to defend fatness. He was frustrated by the discriminatory treatment his wife, Ann, faced as a fat woman. He then connected with William Fabrey, who was also frustrated on behalf of his wife, Joyce, and founded the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA) in 1969. Both men were also inspired by the fat-in. Louderback, with support from Ann, published Fat Power in 1970 one of the earliest books to uplift fat people and fatness. NAAFA was pioneering in its defense of fat people’s civil rights. NAAFA also provided some of the first opportunities for the fat community and their allies to network with each other and gather at conferences.
The Fat Underground emerged in 1972 as a radical, overtly feminist, leftist organization created by a group of fat women who found themselves silenced because of their weight in their so-called radical community. Dually born of an NAAFA chapter and the Radical Therapy movement, the Fat Underground took the best parts of both to create the next evolution in the fat acceptance movement. From NAAFA they took a focus on fatness and fat bias, from Radical Therapy they took the idea to focus on oppressive structures in society instead of individuals. However, the true innovation of the Fat Underground was their use of medical journals and medical research to undergird their arguments and discover the depth of anti-fat bias in medicine. The group solidified and broadcast their beliefs with the Fat Liberation Manifesto of 1973 and the memorial for Cass Elliott. They also coined the phrase, “Diets are a cure that doesn’t work, for a disease that doesn’t exist.” Later, they would collaborate with the New Haven Fat Liberation Front on a collection of essays, poems, and articles about fat activism called Shadow on a Tightrope. They also created a famous video talking about their lives as fat women and activists that captured the energy of the early fat activist movement for posterity. The group officially dissolved in 1983, but they laid an invaluable foundation for the movement going forward.
Conversations about the beauty of fat bodies—fat women’s bodies in particular—are always present in fat communities, and the early days of the fat acceptance movement were no exception. The women of the Fat Underground went on retreats where self-discovery and affirmations of self-worth were part of the agenda. They began to acknowledge and appreciate their beauty “from the neck down,” for the first time in their lives. Those retreats also included early conversations about redefining notions of beauty and worthiness which pre-figure contemporary conversations around body neutrality and the acknowledgement that beauty is a problematic standard in itself. The term BBW, Big Beautiful Woman, was coined in 1979 by Carole Shaw who created a fashion and life-style magazine for fat women that ran until the late 1990s. The magazine was not necessarily activist oriented, but it still provided opportunities for visibility and connection for fat women. While intended to be a general and affirming euphemism for fat women, BBW is now more closely associated with fat women’s fetishization and presence in pornography.
The 1980s and 90s ushered in the Fatosphere, where fat activism found a new home in zines and spread across the globe. Marilyn Wann published her seminal zine Fat?So!, which later became a book. The London Fat Women’s group was active in the late 80s, and France formed its first fat acceptance group, Allegro Fortissimo. The fat acceptance movement grew in the 80s with new organizations, publications, gatherings, and conferences. NAAFA changed their name to the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance. Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby, fat activists, collaborated on the book Lessons from the Fat-o-sphere as fat activism began to find its place on the burgeoning internet and Fat Studies began to find a home in the academy. Certainly, in the 90’s, you could find fat activists showing up and showing out on tv critiquing the diet industry, writing about anti-fat bias, protesting at the White House or gyms. While these occasions may have opened fat activists to ridicule or derision, there were those who found themselves reflected in their activism and were empowered by it.
The early fat activists of the 60s and 70s were very clearly inspired by the Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement, the disability movement, and the fight for queer rights, among others. It is obvious in the language – fat-in, fat power, fat pride – the themes, and the end goals. Like other similar struggles, there was a spectrum of hoped-for outcomes—from legal rights and protections and “better treatment” to full-on liberation and revolution.
However, their lack of understanding or belief in a shared struggle, or what we might now call an intersectional analysis, meant that many fat folks were shut out of fat activism. Let’s take a look at the impact of race as an example. Many activists associated with NAAFA and other mainstream branches of the movement tended to be single-issue activists; they were reluctant to incorporate other social justice issues into their activism as they thought it would detract from their goals. While fat, many of these activists lived with the privileges of being white, heterosexual, cisgender, middle or upper class, and/or American; they had very little incentive to incorporate other struggles into their activism. This resulted in the voices of people of color, among others, being left out of the mainstream fat acceptance movement. At the same time, they also assumed that communities of color were more accepting of fatness and so this kind of activism was unnecessary in those communities. Their lack of intersectional analysis meant that they did not understand the ways that fat-phobia showed up across racial groups. Similarly, they did not understand that fat folk of color experienced compounding oppression from white culture for not being white or thin.
Further, in the American context, anti-fat bias and fat-phobia are deeply rooted in white supremacy and anti-blackness. Sabrina String’s book Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins Of Fat Phobia argues that as color became more complicated because of rape and miscegenation in early America, body size became another way of understanding who was enslaved and who was not, and, by extension, who was Black and who was white. This product of white supremacy became intertwined with the deeply patriarchal project of keeping women literally and figuratively small. This put white women in the position of having to remain slender in order to recoup the benefits of correctly performing their gender and race. Further, this early period solidified cultural associations between laziness, fatness, and Blackness which have carried through mostly unchanged to the current day. These messages have also become internalized within Black and other communities. Even now, people of color often experience contradictory and confusing messages within their communities about an acceptable or attractive level of fatness, or “thickness,” and pressure to lose weight. We can see some of the long-term impact of leaving communities of color out of the conversation around fatness in the levels of undiagnosed disordered eating within communities of color.
Still, even in the early days of the fat acceptance movement, fat activists of color were trying to contextualize their varied identities as they advocated for change. Johnnie Tillmon, a welfare activist, said in Ms. Magazine in 1972, “I’m a woman. I’m a Black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. In this country, if you’re any one of those things you count less as a human being.” It was not lost on these activists that the oppression they experienced because of their gender, race, class, sexual identity, etc. was further complicated by the oppression they faced because of their size.
Considering all of this, it should not be surprising that the more radical fat activists who were focused on liberation and understood anti-fatness to be linked with other oppressive systems came to their fat activism from feminism, LGBT(QIA) activism or disability rights. Because they had other identities to contend with, these activists were able to make the necessary connections between their oppressed identities. Like the women who founded the Fat Underground, they understood from their background with Radical Therapy and feminism that fat oppression is linked to other forms of oppression. In fact, the third point of the Fat Liberation Manifesto says specifically, “WE see our struggle as allied with the struggles of other oppressed groups against classism, racism, sexism, ageism, financial exploitation, imperialism and the like.” The contributions of queer and lesbian fat folks really came to prominence in the 80s and 90s. In 1989, the Fat Dykes Statement came out of the Fat Woman’s Conference in London. Later notable zines, such as FaT GiRL, the zine ‘For Fat Dykes and the Women Who Want Them’ and Nomy Lamm’s zine, i’m so fucking beautiful, focused on the intersections between fatness and queerness. Later NOLOSE, the conference and organization, saw its earliest iterations within the fat lesbian community. The 90s brought the disability and fat movements together in important ways. The activism of disabled folks and ideas like the social model of disability had huge impacts on the fat activist circles. In the legal arena, fat folks began to see a few legal victories by aligning themselves with disability rights—though this was and continues to be controversial and the distinctions between fatness and disability continue to be fraught.
When we take a linear historical perspective, we often focus on one or two main threads and might therefore miss an incredibly rich tapestry. In her blog, Obesity Timebomb, Dr. Charlotte Cooper writes,
… I can easily draw a line from The Fat-In through the beginnings of NAAFA, The Fat Underground and beyond to things happening today. But thinking of the Fat-In as the beginning also obscures fat feminist roots in the civil rights movement. This may be one of the ways in which people of colour could have been hidden in fat activist histories. There doesn’t have to be one starting point, there can be many concurrent roots.
Cooper’s idea of many concurrent roots is a more authentic understanding of history and how things actually come about. Similarly, we might wonder what pieces of history were lost or never documented in the first place, especially when it comes to the contributions of those from historically marginalized groups. Even so, the issues that were of the highest concern (diet industry, medical bias, anti-fatness in our culture, etc.) to the early fat activists are nearly identical to the most critical issues of today, and many of their pioneering ideas have only proved to be more correct over time.
We owe an incredible debt of gratitude to all of these pioneers of the fat acceptance movement. To the men who were able to leverage their proximity to power and privilege to have their voices heard as advocates for fat bodies. To the women who dared to challenge society’s hatred of fat bodies. To the feminist and queer activists who provided much of the radical thought that the movement needed. To disability activists who showed us how to navigate the legal system. To the activists of color who eventually forced mainstream activists to acknowledge that some are more deeply impacted than others. Without any of their contributions, the fat acceptance movement would have stalled in its tracks. We would not have Health at Every SizeⓇ (HAES), Body Positivity, or Fat Liberation without all that these early leaders brought to us. We thank them for all they have provided; we could not have possibly made it to this point without their courage, wisdom, and perseverance.
Sirius Bonner is a passionate social justice leader and a noted presenter and facilitator who co-facilitates the Body Trust Certification Program with Dana and Hilary. Sirius’ work focuses on the intersections between social justice issues such as racial oppression, reproductive justice, queer rights, health equity, anti-fat bias, educational equity, poverty, sexism, and liberation; recognizing that as we begin to untangle one issue, we can untangle them all. With a background in higher education and nonprofits, she is currently an executive in healthcare where she leads equity and inclusion efforts.
Bas Hannah, S. (1974) ‘Naomi Cohen Choked on the Culture’, Sister, September, 1.
Cooper, C. (2016) Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, Bristol: HammerOn Press.
Fishman, S. G. B. (1998) ‘Life In The Fat Underground‘.
Louderback, L. (1967). More People Should Be FAT. Saturday Evening Post. Philadelphia, PA: The Curtis Publishing Company. November 4, issue 22. 10-12.
Louderback, L. (1970) Fat Power, New York: Hawthorn Books.
Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B. (1983) Shadow On A Tightrope: Writings By Women on Fat Oppression, San Francisco: Aunt Lute.
Strings, S. (2019) Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia, New York: New York University Press.