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First Comes Acceptance, Then Comes…?

by Dr. Jenny Copeland

I want to talk about something uncomfortable, something that I wonder if we all think about in the corners of our mind but dare not say out loud. This is not a simple question of “I’ve accepted my body, now what?” Rather, I find myself curious about what happens when elements of our identity must change. I’m afraid I have only questions and no answers.

In size diversity we talk about the importance of accepting who we are at the core of our being and all that entails whether it is our size, race or ethnicity, income, etc. But what happens once we are on this path and believe we have wholly accepted ourselves, only to change? What do you do as a size acceptance advocate when you begin at one size/shape, accept your body as it is, and morph into an entirely different size/shape? Perhaps you go to work wearing your favorite pair of pants only to realize the button holding them together has popped off (or, conversely, that they fall to your ankles because they are so much larger than you)? No matter how seasoned you are in this movement, it is natural to at the very least pause or have an automatic reaction of incredulity.

What if a veteran member of the size acceptance community who has accepted their fat identity becomes thin? There is most certainly an adjustment to be made as one moves from a marginalized group to one of privilege. Are there feelings of guilt or shame, worries that other members of the community will think we ‘fell off the wagon’ and went on a diet? Can we admit to some modicum of relief that the experience of discrimination may change? Or is it uncomfortable because for so long (some) thin people have treated you poorly and now you are a part of that group? In spite of our efforts, our community and society in general has not yet achieved our utopia of removing all value labels from weight and size indicators.

A 2012 study assessed the impact of weight change on mental health [1]. The study’s authors found that those who were labeled “overweight” at age 21 and maintained that weight status later in life were much more likely to be satisfied with themselves and their life when compared with those who were currently “overweight” but previously “slender.” Those who lost weight reported psychological distress as well, often related to the need to “wrestle with whether their identity is that of a “fat” or “thin” person” (p. 427). That is, those whose weight has been unstable struggle more with issues related to their self-perceptions. This begs the question then, of what effect involvement in size diversity and acceptance may have on one’s individual and physical well-being in an evolving situation.

I am certain there is no easy answer. I don’t know that I want there to be one. But where do we start? How do we initiate the journey in a way which honors our ideals in size acceptance, but also honestly acknowledges these automatic disquieting feelings? These are unexpected life transitions. Although the theory of the journey toward self-acceptance is the same, the experience of it would not be due to our previous membership in a marginalized or privileged group. It is more than an individual concern and must include a consideration of the different systems involved ranging from the individual to their family/friends to the community at large.

On the one hand we have the internal pressure and reactions associated with such a transition. One who moves from thin/privileged to fat/marginalized may experience surprise and resistance to the loss of their advantages. To be sure, there is an element of grief in this transition. Yet the greater threat may come from external sources and pressures, exacerbating one’s internal experience. Research outside of this community has posited that not maintaining weight loss is a “public failure” which may in fact place a greater emphasis on one’s weight or body size [2]. The investigators suggested one cannot escape others’ perceptions of you or your size. Would this hold true when shifting from a marginalized group into a place of privilege? The individual with shifting identities could harbor internal questions of wondering if this transition will be accepted and by whom, and the external reactions could very well be negative. Erving Goffman, in his seminal work Stigma[3], noted this about alterations in stigmatized identities:

 When an individual acquires a new stigmatized self late in life, the uneasiness he feels about new associates may slowly give way to uneasiness felt concerning old ones. Post-stigma acquaintances may see him simply as a faulted person; pre-stigma acquaintances, being attached to a conception of what he once was, may be unable to treat him either with formal tact or with familiar full acceptance.

It follows then, that members of this community may have similar reactions including having difficulty adjusting to a peer’s altered physical presentation and identity. What could someone expect from such a transition in the size acceptance community? Would weight loss (intentional or otherwise) be perceived as a public failure of faith in size acceptance? Are we unwittingly assigning a stigma to those in our community whose weight changes in a certain direction?

This all assumes, of course, that our personal identities and any potential shifts are dichotomous and singular in nature. As our movement and ASDAH grow, we are working to integrate a more meaningful understanding of intersectionality. For example, a transition from fat to thin (or vice versa) takes for granted that this would happen out of the air (or purposefully) rather than being associated with another factor such as physiological or mental illness. How do we balance the recognition of humanity’s complexity but also honor our natural human reactions?

It would be easy to say the size acceptance community is accepting, period, no questions asked. I agree this is an excellent ideal to aspire to, but to assert this does not acknowledge our individual human tendencies. It is unrealistic to assume one’s size accepting perceptions on individual and social levels are unbending, and that experiencing a change in size will have little to no impact on individuals or those around them. There are automatic thoughts and feelings trained into each of us over our lifetime which cannot be wholly erased. Each of us has a unique set of experiences which led us to believe and act in a certain way in this present moment. To not honor these experiences by ignoring or trying to forget them is to deny a piece of our humanity.

I believe one of the most important lessons we offer as a movement is that we are not defined by our weight, size, or shape. Truly, we are not defined by any element of our culture or identity because the human experience cannot be simplified or boiled down to that degree. Which is why ASDAH’s effort to learn and grow in the area of intersectionality is important: the growth of this movement and the personal growth of each of us must include these considerations. I am not an expert on intersectionality, but share these questions with the hope that we will all be open to the necessary journey of discovery to follow.

What will define our very character as advocates moving forward is how we respond. We have the ability to enact change only within ourselves. In doing so we could do well to consider this: the benefit of encouraging the open and free acknowledgement of our natural reactions without fear of reprisal. In this manner we can continue to grow as individuals and as a community. That journey cannot and should not end. But we are never more dangerous than when we refuse to admit or vehemently deny that a problem may exist.

[1] Carr, D., & Jaffe, K. 2012. The psychological consequences of weight change trajectories: Evidence from quantitative and qualitative data. Economics and Human Biology 10, 419-430.

[2] Jaffe, K. 2008. Forming fat identities. Unpublished doctoral dissertation. Department of Sociology, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ.

[3] Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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