The Fat-Acceptance Movement

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Stephen Chernin / Getty

People gather at the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance rally in New York City

Amid all the other tumult, causes and revolutions of the 1960s — race, sex, war, feminism — the fight of the fat is a historical footnote. But America's overweight had their cause too. 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.

On July 31, the group that congealed out of those early demonstrations — the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) — is celebrating its 40th anniversary at a national convention in Washington. The all-volunteer group, comprising some 11,000 members nationwide, will use the meeting to raise funds, lobby congressional leaders and stage a plus-size fashion show — all in the name of promoting awareness of fat issues. Critics say NAAFA, which opposes dieting and weight-loss surgery, is an apologist for an unhealthy lifestyle. But NAAFA says it does no such thing, that some people are just bigger and no less deserving of the same rights as everyone else.

Like some of its members, perhaps, the fat-acceptance movement has yo-yoed in size over the years. In the late 1960s, small groups were active on both coasts. NAAFA itself started in 1969 in New York City, although it was originally called the National Association to Aid Fat Americans. Engineer Bill Fabrey had tired of the discrimination his overweight wife faced and started the group as an advocate for the big-boned. But NAAFA remained at the periphery for years, prompting some members to argue for a more confrontational approach. Taking their cue from the radical left, several West Coast members split from NAAFA and in 1972 founded the Fat Underground — which espoused, without irony, the belief that social pressure and overwhelming medical opinion were perpetuating a campaign of "genocide" against fat people.

The radicalism was short-lived. Fat Underground never totaled more than a handful of people and was more of a nuisance than an actual threat — members gave speeches and harassed weight-loss groups but never resorted to actual violence. By the early 1980s, Fat Underground fizzled out, while NAAFA — by then renamed the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance — remained the most vocal advocate for the rights of obese Americans.

NAAFA has grown larger in tandem with Americans. According to the Centers for Disease Control, two-thirds of adult Americans are now overweight and half of those qualify as obese. There's a burgeoning blog community, dubbed the Fatosphere, where bloggers rail against antiobesity messages in the media. Although a second group, the International Size Acceptance Association, started in 1997, NAAFA has emerged as the foremost defender in the press of overweight Americans, throwing its weight around on issues ranging from Simon Cowell's fat jokes on American Idol to airlines' making obese passengers pay for a second seat.

Its message, however, has many doctors skeptical. "Virtually everyone who is overweight would be better off at a lower weight," Walter Willett, chairman of the nutrition department at Harvard's School of Public Health, told the New York Times in early July. "There's been this misconception, fostered by the weight-is-beautiful groups, that weight doesn't matter. But the data are clear." NAAFA's public-relations director, Peggy Howell, says her group doesn't encourage anyone to lead an unhealthy lifestyle but recognizes that for some people weight loss isn't possible. "We don't encourage people to get fat," Howell says. A 2008 Yale University study suggests weight discrimination is now as prevalent as race or gender discrimination, a trend Howell says is unacceptable. "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," she maintains.