As the body positivity and fat acceptance movements spread, lots of folks are dipping their toes for the first time into advocacy and activism. This is wonderful! We need every single voice to help change our fat-hating and racist culture. Here’s what it takes to convince people to stop dieting or being fatphobic.
I’m combining two similar questions today (lightly edited for anonymity and clarity):
Reader H. asks, “How would you stand firm in your words if someone told you fat oppression doesn’t exist?”
And reader K. writes, “I’ve been learning just over the past year about how to advocate better for people living in bigger bodies, how to have healthy discussions about intuitive eating and fat liberation, and how to approach situations like this with appropriate boundaries and knowledge.
As you well know, social interactions are already quite intimidating and hard sometimes being neurodivergent, but it’s even harder when you’re still learning and vowing to be a good ally and do your part in dismantling fatphobia and diet culture.
I saw an average sized woman, calling herself overweight (which is already an UGH word) and claiming that weight loss through her dieting would somehow cure her health issues. She was speaking about her current diet and I jumped in with the effort to encourage her against dieting, claiming that her overall health wasn’t solely dependant on her weight, and she shouldn’t deprive herself. She didn’t care to hear what I had to say.
My only intent was to let her know that it was SOCIETY’S ingrained ideals for her, and that the medical practices make profit off the oppression of fat people and women/folx that have this inherent belief that they need to shrink or do the next diet fad to attain happiness and health.
I simply wanted her to know that she was worthy as she was, that her body was good enough, and she deserved to take up whatever space her body called for. So since reading this email of yours, I’m wondering if a different response/approach on my part would have been more beneficial or allowed for better reception on her part.
Was I unintentionally dismissing her feelings about her body? (Granted she was a complete stranger to me) Was I dismissing the greater scale of impact for folx in bigger bodies when I claimed that her weight wasn’t the problem?”
Just like the advice that’s given to writers of “write what you know,” a lot of folks who are newly involved and enthused start with activism where they see problems around them — but then feel like they’re running into brick walls.
Here’s the bad news: Ultimately, you can’t change hearts and minds that don’t want to change.
Just like you probably don’t want a stranger or acquaintance trying to recruit you into their multi-level marketing business or convert you to their religion, those strangers and acquaintances probably aren’t interested in your take on bodies, no matter how right you may be — and they may not be ready to stop dieting. Body acceptance is a new, intimidating concept for a lot of people.
(As is, alas, not hating and fearing fatness and fat people.)
Here’s what change requires.
Changing minds on an individual level requires three things:
- Some sort of existing relationship
- Openness to change
- At least a minimal level of mutual respect and trust
That’s why debating trolls in comment sections is rarely successful; you have no prior relationship with that person, they’re not interested in being open to change and they don’t like or respect you enough to listen anyway.
That doesn’t, of course, mean that people can’t change, or that they won’t ever change based on what they see online; people change their minds all the time based on what they read (or see other people arguing about).
It just means that if you’re going to do public advocacy, you’re mostly doing it for the people on the sidelines, for two reasons: it’s important that oppressive or bigoted words/actions are pushed back on, and you might convince some lurkers who are reading along, even if you never change the mind of the person you’re talking to.
So is there value in publicly debating about bodies and the merits of ending diet culture and weight stigma? Possibly, as long as you keep in mind that you’re doing it for the reasons above and not hoping or expecting to change the mind of the person you’re actually talking to.
Stay in your lane
A detail I left out of reader K.’s question because I wanted to discuss it separately is this: K. is white, and the stranger K. approached was Black.
As white folks, not only do we hold privilege over Black folks, but Black women and femmes are subjected to body image pressures we can’t even imagine.
It’s never our job, our responsibility or our right to correct or question Black, indigenous or other people of color (or people with other marginalizations than ours).
Here’s what to keep in mind to avoid stumbling into a situation where we’re doing more harm than good:
Every human being has bodily autonomy.
Ultimately, every person should have the final say on what they put into and do with their bodies. When we approach other people from a place of correction or of knowing better than they do what’s good for their specific bodies, we’re replicating the same oppressive systems that created diet culture in the first place. When we as white folks tell Black people to stop dieting or to change their fatphobic views on bodies, there’s a power imbalance.
It’s fine to push back on misinformation you see, in person or online, but remember that if someone wants your opinion on their body or how they treat it, they’ll ask you.
Is working with people directly on ending diet culture and weight stigma the right activism for you?
I know people who really enjoy taking on trolls in comment threads and commenting on newspaper articles to try to push back on fat hatred and do education for the sake of all the other people who will read those comments.
If that lights you up, go for it! It’s a valuable service.
But not only is that not the only type of activism there is, you get to choose what lights you up and do that.
I don’t do 101 education any more. Trying to convince random people on the internet that fat oppression is real drains me and makes me miserable, so I just don’t do it. My calling is elsewhere, in creating beautiful images of fat folks + stock photos and doing targeted consulting to help individuals and businesses avoid weight stigma in their work and spaces.
If you’re not yet sure what kind of activism you enjoy or find fulfilling, experiment! Remember that activism doesn’t have to be loud or public or confrontational to be effective.
Here are some places to start advocating for body and fat acceptance in your own sphere:
- Teach your kids to love and appreciate bodies, their own and others’
- Work through your own internalized fatphobia and weight stigma so you treat others well
- Ask your favorite clothing store to carry inclusive sizing (through at least a size 40 U.S.)
- Ask your doctor’s office to add armless chairs to their waiting room
Level up your ability to convince others to stop dieting and end fatphobia
Here’s some fantastic reading on the art of persuasion if you’d like a higher chance of success when you advocate for body liberation. The topic is a bit different, but the techniques are the same:
- How to Organize Your Friends and Family on Thanksgiving
- The Art of Navigating a Family Political Discussion, Peacefully
- Talking to your friends and family about Trump
Want advice on your specific situation? I have more than a decade of experience in the fat activism and fat liberation movements and I’m happy to help you find your path. Get in touch and you can grab a spot on my calendar.
Image description: A woman with short curly hair, wearing a purple short-sleeved top, stands in front of a colorful mural with a neutral expression.