Many fat liberation groups have argued for the protection of the rights of fat people from a framework of weight immutability. Weight immutability relies on science, citing research that investigates possible genetic and environmental causes for fat and weight gain(1), and highlighting that an overwhelming majority of attempts to lose weight over the longer term are unsuccessful. While exceptions exist, the fact that diets fail at such a high rate suggests that even people who want to lose weight will be unable to do so. As a result, some fat liberationists argue that weight is an immutable characteristic, and like other immutable characteristics should be protected as a class under extant anti-discrimination laws.
We recognize and celebrate the good work done by fat liberation groups in brilliantly applying this analysis to weight to materially benefit the lives of fat people. Even in 2022, only one state and a few municipalities provide any substantive anti-discrimination protections with explicit language around weight, and so the analytical framework of weight immutability, successfully applied, opens up desperately-needed protection to fat people who could otherwise be discriminated against in the contexts of employment, housing, public accommodations, and healthcare, among others.
Feedists for Fat Liberation is a fat liberation group, but we are also feedists. Part of our identity as people and as sexual beings is inextricably tied to the celebration of weight, and often (but not always) weight gain. Therefore, the idea that weight is an immutable characteristic is in some ways inherently at odds with our identities as feedists. We acknowledge the science behind weight immutability, and in no way suggest that our approach to the subject invalidates the good work that’s come before us.
However, we feel that the discussion has heretofore incorrectly been focused on the immutability of weight, and should be refocused on the immutability of rights. In almost every context, fat people are discriminated against because of their weight in situations wholly unaffected by weight. As firm believers that there is no size at which a human being ought to be deprived of their human rights, Feedists for Fat Liberation asserts that sizes change for people for all sorts of reasons, from diets to medication reaction to aging to voluntary weight gain. In none of these instances do people deserve to be discriminated against, and in all of them people should be treated with respect by virtue of their inherent humanity, not because they want to lose weight but can’t.
As fat liberationists, we seek the liberation of all bodies, at all sizes, and look forward to expanding the discussion around weight mutability within the fat liberation community and beyond.
Background: Weight Immutability
In the United States, the weight loss industry has grown to $71 billion annually, despite a body of scientific evidence(2) demonstrating that weight loss attempts have, at most, a 3-5% success rate over five years. Researchers(3) have theorized that humans have weight setpoint ranges, which is why weight loss attempts fail. The theory posits that weight cycling – repeatedly losing and regaining weight – has a ratchet effect that results in a higher setpoint over time. Anecdotally, those who have engaged in weight cycling report an increase in weight over time, undercutting the argument of weight immutability(4).
Historically, the fat liberation movement has relied on research proving the failure of weight loss diets and genetics research to argue for the protection of the rights of fat people from a framework of weight immutability. From the court of public opinion to courts of law to the offices of elected officials, advocates for fat people have found refuge in the argument that fat people are fat not by choice, but by genetics or by dieting history.
As of 2022, only two states and a few municipalities provide substantive anti-discrimination protections with explicit weight-related language. In all but one instance (Michigan), success arose from the analytical framework of weight immutability. Weight immutability arguments have been foundational in successful applications of the Americans with Disabilities Act to fat people.
The identities of those in the feedist community are inextricably tied to the celebration of weight, and often (but not always) weight gain. Anecdotally, those who successfully gain weight over the long term implement a variety of strategies, ranging from calorie counting to pharmaceuticals.
It is the position of Feedists for Fat Liberation that:
- Regardless of the cause of fatness, fat people are discriminated against in employment, education, housing, access to public accommodations, and access to adequate medical care.(5)
- Discussion of and advocacy for legal protections for fat people have heretofore incorrectly been focused on the immutability of weight, and should be refocused on the immutability of rights. In almost every context, fat people are discriminated against because of their weight in situations wholly unaffected by weight. As firm believers that there is no size at which a human being ought to be deprived of their rights, Feedists for Fat Liberation asserts that sizes change for people for myriad reasons, from diets to medication reactions to aging to voluntary weight gain. In none of these instances do people deserve to be discriminated against, and in all of them people should be treated with respect by virtue of their inherent humanity, not because they want to lose weight but can’t (6).
- Relying on weight mutability for protection against weight-based discrimination is, for the time being, both practical and effective.
- Fat liberationists should seek opportunities to add weight as a protected class at federal, state, and local levels, without using weight immutability as a rationale (7).
- Additional research on weight mutability should be federally funded. Research dollars should be directed to scientists who have no ties to the weight loss industry. Feedists for Fat Liberation believes that research on the intersections of feedism, setpoint, and metabolic changes could shed light on the question of whether weight is mutable.
- The fat liberation community should come together to map out a strategy to achieve anti-discrimination goals that center those who are most marginalized. This is an issue that intersects with other issues, such as bodily autonomy, and so fat liberationists should be aware of the positive implications for multiple marginalized groups that achieving these goals can and should have.
- The right to live in a fat body is an issue of bodily autonomy, and the fat liberationist community must acknowledge this regardless of their position on weight mutability. We recognise that bodily autonomy is the foundation upon which other human rights are built, and therefore it plays a central role in fat liberation.
(1) Speliotes, E., Willer, C., Berndt, S. et al. Association analyses of 249,796 individuals reveal 18 new loci associated with body mass index. Nat Genet 42, 937–948 (2010). https://doi.org/10.1038/ng.686
(2) Garner, D. M., & Wooley, S. C. (1991). Confronting the failure of behavioral and dietary treatments for obesity. Clinical Psychology Review, 11(6), 729–780. https://doi.org/10.1016/0272-7358(91)90128-H
(3) Ernsberger, P. & Haskew, P. Rethinking Obesity. 1987 Human Sciences Press. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/327475628_Rethinking_Obesity
(4) ‘…measures of attempts at dietary restriction predict weight gain rather than weight loss and measures of dieting are more robust predictors of this gain than measures of restrained eating.’ -Lowe M.l, Doshi S., Katterman S., Feig E., (2013) ‘Dieting and restrained eating as prospective predictors of weight gain’ Available at:https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00577/full
(5) ‘Weight discrimination clearly has the effect of impairing „the enjoyment or exercise of human rights and fundamental freedoms.“ Furthermore, it is actively marginalizing fat people and thus contributing to structural inequalities in society. There is ample evidence that weight discrimination contributes to poverty, social downward mobility and ill health of fat people through a variety of mechanisms.’ Schorb, F. (2020) ‘Crossroad between the right to health and the right to be fat’ Available at: https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21604851.2020.1772651?src=recsys
(6) ‘The new immutability is focused on determining whether individuals have made choices that ought to be protected aspects of their “personhood,” rather than asking how workplace policies limit equal opportunity by perpetuating systemic biases. Such biases may include the ideas that thin is always good, criminals are always bad, and pregnancy is always special. The promise of employment discrimination law is its ability to disrupt the stereotypes, stigmatizing practices, and superficial judgments that contribute to systems of inequality. This exercise will ultimately require more empathy and understanding, not revisions of the theory of immutability.’ – Clarke, J., (2015) ‘Against Immutability’ Available at https://www.yalelawjournal.org/article/against-immutability
(7) ‘…immutability enables society to continue to “punish” those considered to choose not to subscribe to its norms, such as fat people. Weight discrimination is apparently acceptable due to the widespread belief that fat is mutable and thus fat people have only themselves to blame.’ – Solanke, I, (2021) ‘The anti-stigma principle and legal protection from fattism’ Available at https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/21604851.2021.1879537