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Before and After (The Process of Fat Liberation)

August 28, 2012

Trigger warning: Discussion of multiple weight loss attempts and weight cycling.

Dr. Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson are the husband and wife sociology team behind the excellent book, Taking Up Space, which I reviewed, while previewing their film project. Carl and Pattie have previously written a guest post on their film project, User Friendly Vegas, about the problems of public accessibility in the post-Americans with Disabilities Act world. So far, they’ve raised $1,351 on Go Fund Me, but they’re still pursuing their $5,000 goal. If you can donate even five bucks, it will help them shine a spotlight on an important issue that affects millions of Americans today, and will ultimately affect all of us. And if you can donate $15, Pattie has an amazing offer for you, which she explains.

From time to time in Fat Acceptance/Fat Liberation circles, the question of process arises. Specifically, is there a process that people go through when they move from the paradigm of “weight control is good, fat is always bad” to “fat is a natural variation of human bodies that should be regarded as neutral.” Do people sit on a continuum along this line? Or, put another way, do we go through stages in this quest?

I’ve seen some argue that such a process exists. With variations, it goes something like this:

  1. First, you understand things like how being mad at one’s body is not helping and that there are healthy, fat people in the world. You are still not sure about your own body, but you recognize the party-line on fat is not 100% accurate, so you lose the all-or-nothing language.
  2. Then, you understand that your own body may not be that bad and you start accepting that you can be okay no matter what your state of fatness. But you think you will feel better if you lose a little weight. “Not for beauty, but for health.”
  3. Then, you understand that restrictive dieting and intentional weight loss might be hurting your health, so you start emphasizing exercise and healthy eating, but secretly hope you’re one of the ones who loses weight when you do this.
  4. Then, you realize that if weight is going to be neutral then it has to be neutral, and any hope, attempts, etc. of weight loss is probably ill-founded at best and dangerous at worst.
  5. Then, you realize that if you are going to accept yourself as a whole person who has grace and dignity, you must let go of the paradigm completely.
  6. Then, you work for social justice and fat liberation because you recognize that the old paradigm was a result of social norms being imposed upon you and others.

I am not a psychologist, so I have no idea if such a process really exists or not. I tend to worry about generalizations on how human beings work. We are complex. We are the result of three specific factors that create individual uniqueness in how they are played out.

Who we are is shaped  by biology and genetics. We inherit traits from our genetic ancestors that determine our behavior and our identity. For the most part, these things are inescapable. I’m only five feet, one inch tall (really ¾ of an inch, but I try hard). I was never destined to play basketball with any kind of competitive edge. On the other hand, if I had chosen to learn it, I probably was built to be a truly competitive Judo wrestler. My center of gravity is quite low to the ground. I would have considerable advantages over taller opponents. So we are both limited and enhanced by these biological factors.

Who we are is also shaped by our social environments, specifically by who we have encountered in our life time. I live in the United States. That is a privileged part of the world and I have benefited from that privilege. My immediate and extended family, as well as most of my acquaintances, have been of European descent and in the United States that also offers incredible privileges. I’ve been taught Judeo-Christian values from my government, my media, my school, my church and my family. This colors my world. Most of what we know in this world, we learned from other human beings. The past shapes us and influences us, often in ways which we remain unaware.

But in the nature versus nurture arguments that go on between biologists and social scientists, an important factor is often ignored. The last factor that shapes who we are is choice. We act upon our worlds even while our worlds act upon us. We fight biology and genetics. We create technologies, or buy technologies, that even the playing field when biology has tilted the scales in favor of others. We also choose to either accept or reject what others tell us. Two kids can grow up in the same family environment, the same neighborhood, ethnic group, church, country and go to the same schools, even have the same teachers, and still decide to do very different things with their lives. One son can be a thief, the other a priest. We know that our choices shape us. We speak of having to live with our choices. We often are limited in the future by the choices we’ve made in the past.

I chose to diet, not once, not twice, but three major times, I lost a large amount of weight (over 75 pounds each time, the last time being close to 120 pounds). I did this from age 18 to 32. The last time I used drugs, laxatives and over-exercised. I basically abused my body, eating starvation-level calories of 800 or less a day for nearly two years. I was healthy and athletic when I started on this course. I played tennis, did long-distance running and weight training. But every time I went to a doctor I was told that I would die young. Every health indicator in my 20s was perfect, but I remained 100 pounds or more over “normal.”

I look around at my ancestors and they were mostly fat on both sides of my genetic streams. They were hard working, healthy and lived a long time (except for the smokers), but they were fat. I was bombarded with fat hatred at home, at school, at church, in the media and so forth for all of my life. My name rhymes with “fat” and “fatty,” so even before I was fat, I knew it was bad to be fat because when someone wanted to hurt me they called me “fatty-patty.” There was a lot of social support for my choice to diet. There was a lot of biology working against that choice. But in the end, I regret the choice and I now live with the consequences of it. I have forgiven myself for making the choice and knowing the pressures I experienced helped with that forgiveness. But forgiveness did not take away the consequences, so the choice still shapes who I am.

In 1993, I made some other choices. I chose to see a therapist and to figure out why my life was not going the way I wanted. I got lucky with this choice because, after fighting the system a bit, I met Cheryl. She was the first person who ever said to me directly that I might consider the social environment around fatness. I had read Fat is a Feminist Issue and Feeding the Hungry Heart, but I had read them like diet books and I had found them ineffective. Cheryl helped me see beyond the psycho-babble.

At the same time, I also chose to go back to college. I took a Women’s Studies course called Women’s Bodies, Women’s Minds with Dr. Etta Breitt at the University of South Florida. In that course, I was introduced to the Fat Underground writings. The Fat Manifesto was radical. I was at the right place emotionally when I read it. It resonated.

This was the beginning of my journey, my process. I let the idea that fat is neutral and a natural variation among human bodies seep into my thinking and it changed my world.

As part of Dr. Breitt’s course, I wrote and self-published my first booklet. It was called Before and After. In it, I identified 10 myths about fatness. I found a quote to introduce a one-page essay for each myth. Then, on the opposite page from the essay, I wrote a poem. This booklet was the basis for the first section of Taking Up Space, a memoir about my journey to Fat Acceptance that I co-wrote with my husband, Carl Wilkerson, about 12 years after writing Before and After.

The 12 years between the two works was a process. I didn’t give up on dieting or weight loss until January 2001, even though I had already started arguing for Fat Acceptance years before. The moment I finally quit dieting was like quitting smoking. It was zen. It just clicked into place. I never looked back again. Those moments of complete surrender are rare and beautiful because they represent so much struggle before just simply becoming fact.

The 12 years between the two works was wrought with many struggles. My health deteriorated considerably in my 30s after the last big diet attempt (starvation and drug addiction can take its toll on a body). I had two cancer scares which were alleviated by two major surgeries. Then in the Spring of 1997, I became mysteriously and chronically ill. I was misdiagnosed with lupus. That misdiagnosis was in part because a major symptom was ignored. I gained another 90 pounds in less than six months. In a fat neutral world, that would have been a major symptom, but because I was fat already, my doctors and I just dismissed the symptom. Now I know I had hypothyroidism and probably Hashimoto’s disease. I was treated for the wrong condition for nearly 10 years. Now I pay the price for that mistreatment as well.

I tell people I dieted my way into disability because I know the dominoes that led to my current health issues can be traced back to the time I spent working against my healthy body throughout my 20s. Dieting screwed up my metabolism and my immune system. I can’t prove that, but I know it nonetheless.

I am angry about that, but I am also accepting of it. I know that I have to live with that and with the social consequences. I can work like hell to change things, but my choices are not the only factor in play. Biology and social contexts are also in play. Thus, limitations exist.

I am writing about all this today, in this forum, because we are trying to address one of those social factors with a new project called User Friendly Vegas. The film uses Las Vegas, a city perpetually under construction, and one of the better places in the world for accessibility, as a case study for something called “Universal Design” (UD).

UD is something will benefit everyone. It will benefit healthy people, as well as the sick. It will benefit able-bodied people as well as disabled. It will benefit thin people as well as fat. Simply put, UD is user-friendly design. It seeks out a design that will be useful to the widest array of users possible. The guiding principle is the diversity of human ability, embodiment and experiences. Instead of deciding we live in a one-size-fits-all world, UD creates spaces, buildings, products and concepts that fit all people, including all sizes.

It is with great pleasure that I have found a way to close the circle on my own personal journey with both Fat Liberation and my current campaign for a more inclusive world. In our recent move to a new home, we discovered 25 copies of the Before and After booklet I wrote for my class back in 1993. It is a piece of Fat History both personally and for the fat movement.

We have 22 of these copies left and, until they are all distributed, I am offering to send an autographed copy to anyone who donates $15 or more to User Friendly Vegas fund raising campaign.

If anything about my story and/or our project resonates with you, I hope you will help us. Universal Design is the key to creating environments that are inclusive. Your support of this project will help “Make the World a Nice Place to Visit.”

6 Comments leave one →
  1. Duckie Graham permalink
    August 28, 2012 12:36 pm


    I think everyone has a process they go through when a change is made…you did a good job of describing yours, but I did not share the same process. I sure didn’t come to size acceptance or HAES all at once like walking through a door, there was definitely a process but it was very different. I want to honor that everyone has their own path to this.

  2. August 28, 2012 3:44 pm

    The outline I made was not my process. In fact, I was working for social justice long before I gave up dieting. I suspect that a “process” is more constructed than real, in the sense that all roads lead to the Tao. I too honor that there are many paths to follow and I also would add that we can never be sure that we would all end in the same place. There may be new things to experience down the road that a person cannot conceive in their present position.

    I do believe, however, that when we share what we went through we strengthen others. I’m sharing this part of my own journey in the hopes that others will find strength and offer strength to overcome challenges along the way. No prescription intended.

  3. Katie permalink
    August 28, 2012 7:13 pm

    Pattie you are still one of my idols. You take crap from noone, you stand up for yourself and others. I wanna be like you when I grow up. You were the only thng that kept me going when I was in W-S. Give Carl a giant hug but keep the biggest one for yourself. Love you, Katie

  4. Diane permalink
    August 29, 2012 12:55 am

    Pattie, your process sounds like a specific example of “Stages of Change” theory. The details are different for each person, and for any given issue many people decide they do not wish to make a change–or do not choose a change that others approve of. For those who do wish to change there is a process of moving from not being aware of the “problem” (a thing/belief/condition, etc. that the person might benefit by changing), to thinking there may be a problem, and eventually to a process of taking action to change the situation. As with grief, there can be a lot of back and forth between stages. It’s a way of conceptualizing a process that some find useful, rather than a set of rules. You’ve got Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in there too (your advocacy work as self-actualization).

    As for the social sciences, I began studying Psychology (way back in the 80s!) but was unhappy with what I felt was a deficit-based approach. There have been efforts in Psychology to focus more on positives, but I found a “home” in Social Work. Social Workers spend a great deal of time learning about systems and how the elements interact, as well as a basic approach of looking for individual strengths and self-determination within an environment.

  5. August 31, 2012 11:11 am

    The sooner we can get people through that process, the sooner they can do real self-care that makes a difference. You’re an inspiration to us all, Pattie! I can’t wait to see this movie!


  6. November 17, 2013 10:34 pm

    I know this is really late, and probably entirely irrelevant, but I hate, hate, HATE the use of the term “Judeo-Christian.” I don’t know what you’ve been taught at church or school, but I can say for sure that the media has not taught you Judeo-Christian values. It has taught you Christian values. And I’m fairly certain that the values one gets from church are Christian, not Judeo-Christian.

    Aside from that, I loved your book and the Universal Design sounds wonderful.

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