If you’ve read any criticism of Fat Acceptance or Fat Liberation or Health At Every Size, you’ve probably heard the term “denialism” come up. People in these movements are compared to creationists, anti-vaccine activists, or, most frequently, climate change deniers.
Fat Acceptance proponents range from those who think that the link between fat and “obesity-related” diseases is overhyped and not looked at critically enough, to those who flat-out say that fat does not cause any diseases. (One problem with the latter statement is that just as correlation does not prove causation, it doesn’t disprove causation either; saying we don’t know for sure that fat causes* something does not mean that we know for sure it doesn’t cause something.) A good example of the former is Thing #2 from The Fat Nutritionist’s post, Stuff People Assume I Believe vs. Stuff I Actually Believe:
2) That there are no health risks associated with being fat.
Obviously, there are, or, once again, my blog and the entire “obesity epidemic” concept would not exist. However, even though research shows that there are health risks with being fat, especially extremely fat, the research also seems to indicate that 1) we don’t know for certain whether all those risks are caused by a direct physiological mechanism of adipose tissue, 2) that trying to lose weight does not work permanently for most people, 3) even if it did work permanently, we still do not know whether a formerly-fat person would enjoy the same lowered risk as a naturally-thin person, and 4) that “obese” people with good health habits have less risk, even though they are still fat.
Also, having a condition that means you have more health risks doesn’t make you a bad person or an intolerable burden on society. Lots of different categories of people have elevated health risks (like men), but we don’t stigmatize them in the same devastating ways we do fat people.
Another good quote comes from Barry Deutsch/Ampersand at Alas, a Blog:
I don’t think you could fairly say that people like Linda Bacon, Paul Campos, Kate Harding, and myself say “that there’s no link” — although others have caricatured my views that way. A fairer summary of the HAES view on fat and health is that the strength and certainty of the link is vastly exaggerated and oversimplified; that people can be fat and healthy; and that for fat people who want to improve their health, weight-loss diets almost never work, but HAES does.
Probably there are HAES advocates who say there is absolutely no link, full stop — I think I’ve seen people argue that in comments. But it’s cherry-picking to ignore the most sophisticated arguments in favor of the least nuanced.
As for “minimizing the link” — minimized compared to what? Compared to NPR claiming “being even a bit overweight can potentially kill you”? Or the Surgeon General declaring “obesity is a greater threat than terrorism”? Compared to the mainstream, hell yes I’m a minimizer. I hope Amanda is, too.
Kate Harding has a good summary of her thoughts on this in Don’t You Realize Fat is Unhealthy?! The only one of her 10 points you could maybe sorta call denialist is #3; I think there is some evidence (I’m not sure exactly how many studies have been done) that on average (not to be confused with every single individual) fat people exercise less and eat more than thin people. But there are caveats: there are definitely exceptions, even among very fat people; it’s not clear whether there’s a very big difference in eating or exercise, and there are some studies that don’t show any difference; and it’s hard to disentangle cause and effect here: are people fat because they don’t exercise, or do people exercise less because they are fat and there are barriers to them exercising? Or both? Even putting aside the effects of stigma, if someone identifies as fat and they are told that fat people eat more and exercise less than thin people, it may influence them to do just that. (In any case, I don’t think it’s a big deal if fat people eat more than thin people.)
The Well-Rounded Mama is also a good example of a blogger who writes about fat and health (specifically relating to pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing) who talks about complications for which higher BMIs are a risk factor and how to mitigate the risks, as well as pointing out where iatrogenic effects can lead to worse outcomes for high-BMI women (for example, non-evidence-based practices like using a vertical instead of low transverse incision for Caesareans and ideas like soft tissue dystocia), and standing against radical exaggerations of those risks (which are often used as a threat to try to force women to lose weight or to not have a baby).
All of the above are examples of bloggers who simply do not fit the definition of “denialist”. Yes, I see occasional overstatements in FA, but nothing as bad as “obesity is a bigger threat than terrorism!” I also see wording like “a supposed epidemic of ‘obesity’” that leaves unclear whether the author believes that there has been no increase in obesity rates, or believes that the increase is not great enough to apply the word ‘epidemic’, or feels that the word ‘epidemic’ is inappropriate given that obesity is not a disease. And yes, I do see the occasional statement that can fairly be labeled ‘denialism’. But I think it is inaccurate to say that the Fat Acceptance or Fat Liberation movements as a whole are denialist.
*I’m not completely happy with the “causes/doesn’t cause” wording. “Contributes to” might be better. “Causes” gives people the impression that if that factor (fat) is there, X will happen, and if it’s not there, then it won’t. In reality, several factors might need to be present (e.g. genes that predispose us to a certain disease, stress, working a desk job) before X occurs. As Sannanina explains in comments here, even known carcinogens will not always lead to cancer, and some people who were not exposed to the carcinogen will still develop the cancers associated with that carcinogen.