Home Q&A Wednesday Q&A Wednesday: Fat And Size Acceptance?

Q&A Wednesday: Fat And Size Acceptance?

by Erika Nicole Kendall

Q: I wanted to know if you’ve ever seen into this kind of attitude from the size acceptance community. Whether big or small, size acceptance is something I support, but– as someone who is trying to lose weight it hangs over my head when they don’t stop at “Diets don’t work” (because they do not, its true) and move to “Neither do Lifestyle Changes” and say if someone keeps their weight off for more than five years they are literally a lucky freak of nature.

Its a bit unsettling. Here’s an example:

Diets dont work, maintenance is difficult and I suppose even crazier to stay on for five years…but impossible? I dunno…seems a bit too nay-sayish.

A: Man, if there’s one topic I avoid like the plague, it’s this one. Not because I think there’s something wrong with women (and men too?) choosing their own goals and comfort levels with their bodies, but because fat acceptance as well as “health at every size” is lightweight wielded as a bludgeoning tool against anyone who brings up weight loss in certain environments on the Internet.

That being said, here’s the “example” that was presented in the question:

My own copy of "Health At Every Size," right on top of my "Making of a Chef" book!

We often hear people on the Fatosphere mention “set point theory” or their set point when talking about why weight loss doesn’t work for most people. This can be a very confusing term. I thought I would explain MY understanding of set point theory, one I have come to after reading the experts, interviewing Fatosphere participants and my own experiences with weight loss and gain.

Set point theory suggests that our body has a particular range of weight that it is comfortable in, usually about 10% of a body’s weight. That means, if you weight 175, you have about an 18 pound range; if you weigh 325, you have about a 33 pound range. Most people lose and gain within this set point on a pretty regular basis. They may put on a little weight in the winter and lose it in the spring. Or get busy and drop a little weight. Or gain a little when stressed. Or lose a little during an illness. Or whatever. Movement within this range is normal. However, movement outside of that range is not. In fact the body seeks homeostasis – that is the body seeks to stay within that range. To move outside of that range something must go on, something must happen to the body.

This range appears to be set by a number of factors. The strongest factor seems to be genetic, as a number of studies have found. In fact, adoption and twin studies have determined that about 75% of us have the body size we do because of genetics. For that other 25%, a number of factors can mess with your set point, moving it either up or down. Disease is one of those factors. For instance, there exists a great deal of evidence suggesting diabetes causes individuals to get fat. Thyroid disease, Cushing’s Disease, PCOS and other diseases all cause weight gain. Medications can cause weight gain or loss. Depression can also cause the body to gain or lose weight. Stress can cause gain or loss. And, the kicker, DIETING can also mess with this homeostasis – increasing body weight the majority of the time.

When something tries to change the weight of an individual, the body fights back. This is true of both up and down. In the Vermot Prison study (1964) when researchers overfed prisoners, they found that the prisoners gained about 15%-25% of their body weight, then their metabolism shifted so that they could gain no more. One guy was eating 10,000 calories a day just to maintain that gain. When they quit eating so much, the majority returned to their original weight.

When we try to lose weight, the body will let it happen for a time, but then it starts fighting back. It starts adjusting the metabolism to hold onto weight. It starts an almost voracious desire for high carb and high fat foods. And the kicker, most bodies will increase the set point range, believing that it has experienced starvation and must protect against such danger again. [source]

Okay. Meet David Kessler:

We have presumed that the wisdom of the body is maintained through a feedback system known as homeostasis. Like temperature or blood pressure, which the body also tries to keep within relatively narrow ranges, energy is supposed to be regulated by a homeostatic process that keeps the body’s energy stores stable. By closely matching food intake and energy expenditure, this biological strategy has allowed us to consume hundreds of thousands of calories every year without losing or gaining much weight.

It’s a highly sophisticated system that can be explained simply: Many parts of the body talk to one another.

The brain is the command center of an elaborate communications network essential to energy regulation. This network involves the brain, the central and peripheral nervous systems, the gastrointestinal tract, the hormonal system, fat tissue, and more. The brain’s hypothalamus receives signals from all these sources, integrates that information, and decides what needs to be done to maintain the body at a steady weight.

But this homeostatic system, while relevant, turns out to be less powerful than many scientists have assumed. If we could maintain energy balance effectively, we wouldn’t be gaining so much weight. Our bodies would compensate, either by burning more calories or by shutting down our appetites. Obviously, that is not happening.

Over the past decade, scientists have tried to explain this failure by searching for defects in the homeostatic system. Their results have been disappointing. While some genetic and chemical defects have been identified, they seem to be rare and don’t adequately account for the most common forms of obesity.

Robert De Niro’s efforts to gain weight for the movie Raging Bull-and then lose it-demonstrate the limits of the homeostatic system. Hollywood celebrities may not seem to have much in common with the average American, but the extremes to which De Niro had to go for his role gave us experimental information it would have been hard to get another way.

First, he gained sixty pounds for the film by loading up on calories, and then he dropped most of that weight.

When I asked how he’d been able to do it, De Niro explained that it had been easy to lose the first thirty-five or forty pounds. “I stretched the rubber band and let it come back,” he said.

But the last twenty pounds had been much harder. His body seemed inclined to settle at a weight that was higher than it had been before his gain. Returning to his pre film weight, De Niro said, had required a vigilant mind-set. He likened the process he’d gone through to that of an alcoholic trying to stay sober.

Without knowing the biological explanation, De Niro had sensed that the homeostatic system was not acting alone.

Despite all the research focused on homeostasis, it is not the only influence on food intake. Researchers have shown that what we eat doesn’t depend solely on signals sent by the brain to maintain a stable weight. Another region of the brain, with different circuitry, is also involved, and often it’s in charge. This is known as the reward system.

And in America, in the fight between energy balance and reward, the reward system is winning.

That’s my philosophy on homeostasis. Oh, and “the reward system” is what encourages emotional eating – using the “temporary reward” that comes from eating a certain food as a means of escaping a painful or upsetting emotion. And, quite frankly, I’m of the mindframe that emotional eating is far more prevalent than we’d like to admit.

Now that that’s out of the way…

Don’t get me wrong – I have my general beefs with some of the logic the fat acceptance and size acceptance community uses, but I actually consider myself and this blog to be a part of those communities. I don’t tell anyone to diet- I’m a rabid non-dieter. I don’t tell anyone they’re insufficient as a human being because they’re overweight. I don’t discount the existence of food deserts, food scarcity or food availability issues. I don’t use shame or guilt to make people lose weight. I, now, have an understanding of the difference between losing weight and maintaining one’s weight, and those are both issues that affect all women, thick and thin. I write about being “fit”and “fat.” I tell women that the desire to lose weight should be borne of one’s love of self, not be borne of the thought process that they are less than. I write about body image. I write about self-compassion. I write about self-acceptance, self-esteem, and self-care. I think these are all important facets of size acceptance, because they are important facets of life.

And, really, I think it’s a little heinous the way people goad the SA/FA community simply because they don’t want to diet themselves to death, “get skinny” for a male-dominated society that likes its women “skinny,” or feel forced to succumb to those pressures in ways that create eating disorders. America’s culture is pretty easily manipulated by consumerism, and the way we let companies tell us that “we’re deficient and need their products to fix our deficiency” results in plenty women resorting to eating disorders to try to “get there” instead of simply developing a healthy relationship with both food and their bodies. It’s right – and sensible – to rally against that. And as a woman who is pursuing a body type that is not considered “acceptable” for women in this country (a fit, Black, female body is just as “unacceptable” as a fat one, generally), I understand that.

However… having said all that, I cannot understand why people treat “size/fat acceptance” (hereafter referred to as SAFA, because, quite frankly, I ain’t doin’ all that typing) as a last resort, because they’re looking for justification/acceptance regarding their decision to not diet or stress over weight. It’s like, “yeah, we should accept our size” but the part that’s left off sounds more like “yeah, we should accept our size… but that’s because losing weight is hopeless.” No, you should strive to love and accept your body because – as far as I know – it’s the only one you get. And if you choose to lose, that choice shouldn’t be because you’re surrounded by a bunch of jackasses who think you are “less than.” It should be done for you – no one else – and while your reasons for making that choice should be private, I can only hope that they’re healthy.

Taking it a step further, I question the logic behind demonizing weight loss and wonder if there isn’t a secondary motive behind it – a fear that if people start successfully and healthily losing weight, it’ll start to poke holes in their “weight loss doesn’t work so accept your size with us!” visage… which is why I don’t like how some connect acceptance with an inability to lose weight.

On this blog, I wrote how I originally used to go to the Bebe store with my girl (and bridesmaid!) Alyse and whine because I couldn’t fit anything in there. I wrote that I was “just trying to get skinny enough to fit into a Bebe skirt.” And I worked and worked my ass off… and while that Bebe skirt didn’t come as quickly as I’d hoped, I started experiencing things I could’ve never imagined long before I was anybody’s “skinny.” My feet stopped hurting and spreading so widely. My hips and knees stopped cracking and popping. I no longer needed to brace myself to lift up out of a car. I no longer struggled to tie my shoes (or, really, see my feet.) There are small bits and pieces of life that I overlooked as a size 28 – partly because I was growing more and more unaware, partly because I intentionally didn’t want to hold myself accountable for those pieces – that I value as a much smaller woman. Demonizing weight loss as if it brings “no good, so don’t even bother” denies the very real changes that come from working out, developing muscle. Demonizing “lifestyle changes” as if they don’t work denies the very real benefits that come from trying.

I will add a caveat, though… this “lifestyle change” thing. I am a firm believer that many people are simply emotional eaters, and either resent the idea that they don’t “have it all under control and use food to make themselves feel good” or outright have an addict’s perspective on it and say “I don’t have an addiction; I can curb it when I want.” If a “lifestyle change” doesn’t include addressing that – which many don’t – then you are bound to fail.

I understand a lot of the frustration that comes with being a woman in society; an overweight one, at that. I pursue the size I’ve got now because it helps me flip upside down on poles better, and because I’ve got an extremely energetic kindergartner (!) I enjoy racing. If someone in my position prefers to be larger, that’s her choice. If one prefers to be smaller, that’s her choice, as well. I’ll love and respect both as human beings and encourage my peers to do the same, as that’s what the “sisterhood” of size acceptance demands of me.

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Savannah August 17, 2011 - 12:47 PM

Great post! I think that most people (and you have addressed this on the blog) are reluctant to change the habits long term. We are an instant gratification society and like to take the easy way out, whether that is dieting or using SAFA as a rationalization for not trying at all.

Bianca August 17, 2011 - 3:31 PM

Great Post as usual! I would add two elements of the health at every size and size acceptance community that I feel are most beneficial. The idea that by striving to obtain a healthy lifestyle no matter your size is important. You don’t need a weight loss goal. The second idea is for people of size to advocate for themselves in a healthcare environment. They should have practitioners who don’t dismiss their concerns or complaints under the blanket idea that they are large therefore their problems are solely based on that. Or in the reverse, that because they are large they will have health issues. Treat them as human beings, address what issues do come up through regular exams or acute situations, and offer them information on how to improve the situation. I’ve had Dr.’s tell me I couldn’t get pregnant because I was fat without running a single lab, and another doctor surprised that all of my blood tests were great, but my former dancer and outwardly fit husband’s were not. This ignorance becomes particularly pertinent for women when they are pregnant, as there are several studies that show us that women of size don’t get the quality of care they deserve and it is often due to ignorance or prejudice on the part of their healthcare practitioner, not on hard facts. These are ideas that would serve anyone well no matter their size.

Thermidor August 17, 2011 - 7:27 PM

Best answer ever.

Erika Nicole Kendall August 17, 2011 - 7:33 PM

Was waiting on you. 🙂

Gloria August 18, 2011 - 10:37 AM

“My feet stopped hurting and spreading so widely. My hips and knees stopped cracking and popping”

Wow, that certainly rang some bells. In the past, i didn’t care enough about my body as I thought that I was, overall, OK. “Heck! My inner self is gorgeous, to blast those who don’t like my outer self”

However, the turning point was, well, I like walking and taking strolls, and I started to have knee pains and more foot pain that I had been used to: I realized that things could get much worse as I grew older if I didn’t do something about it.

While I’m aware that I have a long way ahead, giving up bad habits has brought its rewards: For the first time, I didn’t put on a weight by Christmas (the pounds most people assume that one must add every year without hopes of ever losing them), and have been loosing weight since, slowly but steadily. I look forward to being able to enjoy my strolls in old age! ;D

cindylu August 18, 2011 - 6:45 PM

Excellent post, it’s definitely something I think about as I’ve read FA blogs/tumblrs and those from people trying to lose weight.

I never really cottoned on to the SAFA community. Initially, it seemed very white and middle class. I’ve read a lot more now from women of color and don’t see it that way. Now I realize that I didn’t relate to those womens’ experiences being fat. I was fat for all of my teens and 20s, but never felt like I was mistreated, I wasn’t teased by my peers, I’d never dieted (especially no yo-yo dieting), I had a good sense of self esteem, my doctors mentioned weight loss to me but never harped on it and ignored other issues I brought up.

Still, now after I’ve lost weight it makes more sense than what I read from “thinspiration” blogs and some healthy living bloggers who won’t be happy until they see a certain number on the scale (even if it’s just a 5/10 pound difference). I contrast the self-hate of some of these bloggers and SAFA seems a lot more attractive.

D. August 30, 2011 - 6:07 PM

“I am a firm believer that many people are simply emotional eaters, and either resent the idea that they don’t “have it all under control and use food to make themselves feel good”…”

It’s not surprising that people resent being told that someone who is not them knows better than they do what their issues are. It’s unfair of you to dismiss most of them as being in denial about their own eating habits because they don’t share your view.

I’m guessing the lifestyle change question came about as a response to the FAQ on Shapely Prose (the wording is almost exactly the same…So if I’m wrong, then this paragraph clearly doesn’t apply and please disregard). It did not say that lifestyle changes, as in eating well and exercising, are in no way beneficial and that no one should attempt them; it DID say that calling diets “lifestyle changes” doesn’t make them not diets, and diets mostly fail.

Erika Nicole Kendall August 30, 2011 - 7:18 PM

“It’s unfair of you to dismiss most of them as being in denial about their own […] habits because they don’t share your view.”

Dismiss… uh huh, because that’s exactly what I did. This logic is hilarious. I pulled out the word “eating” because, if you swapped in any other accepted-as-harmful-habit (like liquor, like drug abuse), this quote would sound downright ludicrous… and would only further my point.

D. August 31, 2011 - 7:58 PM

Yes, but that’s talking about abusing substances. How do you know that the people you speak of abuse food and are emotional eaters?

You said you think many people are emotional eaters who won’t admit it because they’re addicts in denial and/or resent the idea because it means they’re not in control and using food as a way to cope. If they (and by “they” I mean the many people) agree with you, you’re right. If they disagree with you, well, they’re just in denial. How is that not dismissing their own thoughts and/or feelings?

Erika Nicole Kendall August 31, 2011 - 9:38 PM

I equate food abuse to substance abuse, particularly because the same reactions happen in the brain for both sugar and cocaine. The two, to me, are interchangeable and because of that reason, it applies. I’m at a stalemate, D.

My “dismissal,” though it may exist, stops at the disagreement. If someone comes to me and talks to me about their issue and I, after having been asked my opinion, say “I think it’s this,” if they disagree? Then that’s it. If you want to consider that a “dismissal” of their thoughts of themselves, that’s fine. To me, an immediate unwillingness to consider an option – an immediate “dismissal” of my suggestion that I presume it could be “this” – sounds pretty damn similar to what I said in my post. A person who has no desire to consider the issue and didn’t ask for my opinion would never hear my opinion. But if you ask and dismiss my suggestion without consideration? That’s a problem to me. If you consider it and come to a different conclusion, then we disagree. Not sure why I’m getting the feeling that I’m being painted as someone walking around pointing people out and saying “Youre an emotional eeater! And YOU’RE an emotional eater!” but I stand by what I said. It’s glorified in media, on tv…I was sent a photo of bookmarks that said “I solve problems with cupcakes!” and get advice to “feel better about losing your boyfriend with a tub of ice cream!” but I’m the bad guy for putting it out there? LOL Okay.

Disagreement, dismissal.. meh.

D. August 31, 2011 - 10:40 PM

I misunderstood what you meant originally, thank you for the clarification.

Erika Nicole Kendall September 1, 2011 - 8:37 AM

It’s okay – I think I know where the misunderstanding came from, and I completely understand you asking what you did. 🙂

Star Waters August 31, 2011 - 11:52 AM

Wow…. thank you for breaking down the whole piece of the ‘set point.’ I have certainly heard about the ‘set point,’ but never have I mulled it around in my head this much to actually ‘get it’ so completely! I have complained about being in a 9 year long plateau. I’d get on a regiment, start ‘releasing’ weight and then, something would happen, an injury most of the time, and I’d stop exercising and all the excess pounds lost would find their way back to my body again. Or, I’d go on vacation, and all of my positive resolve of eating the right foods, flew out the window and the old eating habits came back within the week of ‘throwing caution to the wind’ and eating desserts, carbs, drinking alcohol (I’m really a non-drinker) and find those lost pounds, ‘found’ again in my belly, on my hips, and so. Thanks to you, I now see that by any means necessary, my body was doing its set point duties to take me back to status quo. Thank you, thank you, thank you! With a brand new eating plan, where I feel no hunger, no cravings, I have broken that plateau, now known to be set point, to have released 15 pounds from where I have been for the last 9 years! My lifetime’s ultimate goal of weighing 135 IS going to be actualized soon!

Savvy's Mom September 7, 2011 - 9:33 AM

Good post! You handled this “touchy subject” very well because there is so much “confusion” from the medical establishment, the diet industry, the alternative medicine industry and “BIG” companies .

Dr. Oz is a Medical Doctor and “America’s Doctor” as he has been touted and he is in this month’s “Men’s Health” I think and he says, “YOU CAN BE IT AND FAT”. Dr. Dean Ornish says, “Vegan” diet is the only way for health and you see Bill Clinton has adopted that lifestyle. You have Drs. Taube, Davis and Mercola all saying the American public is being sold a “bill of goods” by the Medical establishment and sometimes in cahoots with lobbyists for Big Business to feed American “franken food and lies”…So, how does the average “Jill or Joe” know what is right, healthy and is the goal to be “skinny” or “healthy”?

I for one think that folks should look honestly in the mirror at themselves and ask if being 20, 30, 40 50 or more pounds overweight the “BEST” you can be for yourself? Is this extra weight just a countdown before high blood pressure, diabetes, and a list of other ailments associated with obesity around the corner? Isn’t good health a blessing and doing all that you can to make sure it stays that way..make sense? On a philosophical/spiritual level, when we know folks are not eating not only in this country but starving across the world, how does eating and carrying all this weight impact your thought processes as a citizen of the world? With all you have access to and if you took that money and spent a quarter less and ate less..could you make a change? On a vanity issue, “yes” you have a pretty face, but how would you look if you got rid of the rolls and were able to not have to overcompensate with bigger hair, more jewelery, make up and accouterments to show “you got it going on”? If your body was smaller, more toned and “lookin right”…just throwing on a pair of yoga pants and a fitted tank would have men “HOWLING” as you walk by.

So, I think “weightloss” begins on a deeper level than the newest craze..It begins with a person being honest with self and then moving forward. Because if you do a self assessment, most people will realize as you eloquently put it, “Emotional Eating” is the root cause and “quick fixes’ that never address that will only end up with this roller coaster of starts and failures…I have been there and done that….It is all about SELF LOVE and believing you DESERVE better than being obese..

kami December 15, 2012 - 6:58 AM

Thank you for this post. In the past I had people tell me I was meant to be big and my body set point is fat and the only way was a short time diet. This would consist of diet soda and no fruits. I ignored the ignorant statement now I am on the lifestyle change bandwagon. Now I began to workout 4 to 5 times a week and change my portion control habits.

Nneka, Working Mystic February 26, 2014 - 10:03 PM

Well said as usual.

Ironically, it was when I gave up on “dieting” that I started to get my body back. I really had to build the relationship with my body from the ground up. I had to start LOVING myself – all of me, including my body.

And yes, emotional eating is HUGE!!!!

In my opinion, that’s why diets don’t work. Once you take away the food, you have to deal with all the crap you are feeling. What do you do then?

South Beach, Atkins, gluten free, Weight Watchers, and all the other diets in the world won’t help you.

When you feel like screaming at the world and you know that a quart of ice cream will knock the edge off and good girls don’t scream. What do you reach for? Where do you channel that anger and the additional frustration of not being able to eat what you want? What do you do with that fury?

That’s the problem that you need to solve.

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