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Why Fat Acceptance Movement Really Began 1000’s of Years Ago

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Last updated on July 11, 2020

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Are you ready to discover the history of body image? Want to discover why the fat acceptance movement began in the first place?

picture of fat woman with images of human evolving

In this post we will trace how the fat acceptance movement (which I am including within intuitive eating, healthy at every size, etc) began long ago in ancient history.

By seeing the historical events that shaped how our body image became so thin, you’ll be better prepared to release any negative body image you hold towards yourself and your body.

You’ll also be able to understand the cultural and biological forces which gave birth to the fat acceptance movement.

This post has been primarily inspired by my private Eating Enlightenment facebook community. They requested additional training on ‘body image and self-compassion’ and I wrote two previous pieces, one about Fat Acceptance and one about Negative Body Image, to help address these issues. 

Yet my previous 2 articles never answered ‘why?’.

My Fat Acceptance article addressed the confusion around the fat acceptance movement by clarifying a common point of confusion. That point of confusion was the notion that weight is independent from health. For example, according to a literal interpretation of ‘Health At Every Size’, a person who weighs 400 pounds could be considered ‘healthy’. 

I clarified by admitting the literal interpretation of health at every size was not correct. However, I also said that by saying the intention of that phrase was to promote the idea that you could become healthier in any body no matter the weight. For example, a person who weighs 500 pounds cannot be considered ‘healthy’. But this person can still engage in healthy behaviors like proper sleep, meditation, eating, etc. You can read that article here.

Yet my Fat Acceptance article did not address why we have a negative body image why the fat acceptance movements began. My Negative Body Image article did show how the societal norm for our body image has become impossibly thin. We also talked about the importance of compassion to help manage a negative body image. Yet again, the question of ‘why’ did the fat acceptance movement begin originally remained. 

Why did our body image become so thin?

My Negative Body Image article showed the progression of a thinning body image, but why did this progression occur?

  • What forces shaped the movement from a more curvaceous body image ideal to today’s anorexic thin body image?
  • What societal shifts had made the fat acceptance movement a necessary ingredient to counter today’s insane beauty standards?

This post answers why the progression of body image from fat to thin occurred in the first place. 

I draw much of the following from the book “Anti-Diet” by Christy Harrison. We’ll discuss the history of body image in the following sections:

  • Fat Was “In” Historically 
  • Colonizers Deem Good & Bad Foods
  • American Settlers Versus Immigrants
  • Banting’s 1864 Pamphlet Ignites Weight Loss Culture
  • Skyrocketing Print Media Leads To Gibson Girl In Contradiction To Elizabethan Era Body Norms
  • Science Politics Fuels Obesity Fears

Finally, a quick note. While writing this, I am aware that I am a white, relatively thin, privileged and grateful male. I don’t fully relate to the struggles of having a bigger body in a society that discriminates against bigger bodies. I also don’t always use the most politically correct language, as I try to focus my writing for the general reader.

For example, I use the word ‘fat’ in this article not as a judgment about a person but rather as a descriptor of body size. This may offend some of you, but I have talked to many people in the fat acceptance movement who don’t mind it when the term fat is used to describe them. 

Fat Was “In” Historically

For 99.9% of human history, fatter people have been recognized as more beautiful, healthy and desirous. 

There are many examples that show this.  Ancient statues from native tribes have been interpreted by archaeologists as demonstrating that the heavy breasts and big hips of fatter women were worshiped. Hieroglyphics also demonstrate images of bigger people holding social clout and being the center of the tribe. If this were still the case ideas like body positivity wouldn’t be necessary at all!

There also are statues of heavier people in ancient Greek.  And if you look at paintings from Europe,  you’ll see most women is heavier in comparison to modern day standards. In many of these images you also see chubby angels, symbolizing that fatness was heavenly. 

ancient Greek painting showing bigger heavier women as goddesses to show that fat was considered good

The reason ancient cultures valued heavier, bigger bodies is simple. Out of all the body types, bigger and fatter people lived longer, had healthier babies, and were less likely to die from food shortages. 

Having some extra body weight meant that you had more food, and back then food shortages (and childbirth) were the two primary causes of death. Being a fatter person essentially meant you had wealth, social status, and were less likely to die. No one wanted to be thin!

Your Body Wants Fat

Your genes and biology have designed ingenious ways for your body to gain weight and hold onto it. I’m talking about your DNA, your genetic material that’s completely independent to your lifestyle choices.

After all, food shortages and childbirth were very dangerous to humans, and having some fat helps with both. The humans that evolved ways to store fat were more likely to survive – regardless of lifestyle choices. You’d think there wouldn’t be a need to have a fat acceptance movement because of how important fat is, but here we are today.

The fact is is that fat played a critical role in saving humans from starvation.

With fat storage, if a human didn’t have access to food for a long time they could live off their fat. Fat also helped protect a human’s vital organs from damage and high impact injuries. The very idea of needing to have a ‘fat acceptance movement’ would have sounded crazy to our ancestors. Of course, social media and junk food were unknown concepts back then too.

Fat is so important to human life we have developed biological cravings for fat when our fat cells get depleted. Have you ever gotten so hungry that you quickly devoured every piece of food in sight? If so, realize you’re not alone. 

When your fat cells become depleted by not eating enough food, your desire for food increases. If you are starving (or dieting or restricting), then your fat cells will become depleted. As many people can attest, you’ll eventually binge eat. But this is just your body’s natural, evolutionary way of dealing with hunger – and does not fall into the arena of lifestyle choices. 

Big Was Still Popular In Elizabeth Era 

 Notice the typical body sizes of women in the Elizabethan era. The fashion industry back then was considerably different. Fat people, compared to today’s standards, back in those days, covered by clothing, were fashionable.

victorian era painting of women with corsets showing how body image has changed over time

You’ll notice that the women had an hourglass figure. These women here are seen covering much of their body with fancy clothes which signaled they were of high-status. Yet you can see their bodies are curvaceous, as large breasts and hips were still considered desirable, high-status, and fashionable. 

The corset, a style of clothing that made women’s waists smaller. It was only popular in the Elizabethan Era because the corset demonstrated wealth. If you were wearing an extremely tight corset, you couldn’t be working in the fields or in manual labor. The corset became a sign of social status, although the health benefits of being fatter were still considered desirable and good. 

This theme will become increasingly important – fat or lack of fat being a sign of social status. And we’ll come back to the Elizabethan Era later in this post

Colonizers Deem Foods Good & Bad 

Around the same time as the Elizabethan Era unfolded, European colonizers began to make their way across the globe. 

European settlers began to encounter different cultures, and peoples with different skin colors. As the European settlers began to enslave indigenous people, they thought of themselves as superior to the darker-colored skinned people they were enslaving. 

Of course, the religious undertones of colonization (along with the desire to obtain more natural resources) was the primary influence in their decision making. Religion, after all, was used to justify colonization to spread the message of Christianity. People who hadn’t heard of Christ were uncivilized, whereas the people who believed in Christ were holy. This view also helped separate colonizers from their enslaved populations. 

Perceptions about food also played into this segregation as well. 

Back then Europeans didn’t know that genetics determined skin color. They thought that ‘you are what you ate’. It was widely believed that if Europeans ate like the Native American or African peoples they were colonizing, then they too would turn darker-skinned and be seen as inferior. As a result, the foods the Europeans ate were ‘good’ while the other foods were ‘bad’. 

  • The black beans the natives ate were bad
  • The white cheeses and dairy products from European cows were good
  • The yellow corn was bad

By labeling the diet of the native population as bad, the white Europeans could more easily justify their land and cultural conquests. Overall, food was just one small way a group of people used to gain power over another group of people. 

Are you starting to see how food and fat have been used as a way to separate people from a social perspective? This is one of the major themes within the fat acceptance movement. That social hierarchy shouldn’t be based on weight. I believe fat activists have a point here – especially because of the incredibly harmful effects of dieting which get amplified by social media.

Nonetheless, this is a powerful theme that continues today.

American Settlers Versus Immigrants 

By this time in human history, the ancient ideal body image of a bigger, heavier and fatter person was nearly gone. In it’s place the ideal body image was starting to become thinner and whiter. Hopefully so far you can see how body size was a way to discriminate. But, historically speaking, being fat was good and there was no pressure to lose weight or reason for a fat acceptance movement.

Now in this section we’ll examine why the fat acceptance movement began in the first place. As you’ll see, the body image ideal of a bigger size shifted towards a smaller body size. One reason can be seen how immigration threatens social hierarchy.

Let’s take a look at history:

In areas that eventually would become part of the United States of America, descendants of the initial British settlers slowly expanded westward, for example into the Ohio River valley.  

However, as more and more land became available for farming (we won’t go into the history and reasons for this) and later as technology led to increased industrialization in the cities, America  needed new immigrants to help colonize the land. There was simply too much land that needed to be colonized, and later more people were needed to work at the factories.  So it’s not surprising that after the Revolutionary War, America allowed immigrants from other European countries and from Asia especially to start migrating en masse. 

However, with so many working immigrants, the existing wealthier classes needed a way to maintain the existing social hierarchy.   Immigrants were categorized in many derogatory ways, including as brutes, and opportunities to move up the social and economic ladder were limited.

This shows that the need for social status was still in play, and if you were wondering how the body image started shifting to become thinner, stay tuned, that’s what we are covering next. 

Another way to keep the existing social hierarchy was by deploying science. 

At the dawn of the 19th century, the industrial revolution and science was in full force. 

Also, as the birth rate declined due to industrialization, there wasn’t as much biological pressure to have women who were bigger (and had higher chances to survive childbirth). These and other social pressures like the ones mentioned above helped shift the body image. As higher status women and men didn’t need as much body fat to survive childbirth or starvation, their body image changed accordingly. 

Science was deployed as a part of this class system to keep the white’s in power. As the need for a heavier body decreased, science became a tool (along with many other cultural tools like outright racism) to justify weight discrimination, body shaming, and size discrimination. Smaller bodies were to be seen as being superior, and bigger bodies being inferior. This took place under the guise of ‘health’ – that smaller bodies were healthier. 

But make no mistake: a central theme of the book Anti Diet is that elements of weight discrimination, body shaming, and size discrimination came before the science.

Of course, the scientists doing the categorization were almost always white men from the aristocratic social class, which didn’t have to do manual labor for a livelihood. These men tended to use their minds, instead of their bodies, as a way to earn money. 

Unfortunately but not surprisingly, their findings always showed that there was a racial hierarchy, and that various traits like dark skin, bigger bodies which were good for manual labor and harvesting, and other characteristics were evidence of being less ‘civilized’. 

Later on as society became less racist, much emphasis shifted towards emphasizing how fat people had high blood pressure, more mental health issues, cardiovascular disease, and eating disorders.

But the key is that all fat people fell into the same category (this is how we know there were underlying social factors in play).

If you were big, you were automatically assumed to have cardiovascular disease, an eating disorder, and be a lazy, undisciplined person who essentially deserves their body size.

Science was used to justify a negative morality to bigger bodies. For example, heavier people were seen as lazy. This moral tag to being bigger was tied to social hierarchy.

Isn’t being considered lazy an argument you hear in political circles when talking about poor people? Aren’t poor people supposed to be lazy, stereotypically speaking? If someone is lazy, then they don’t deserve tax handouts. 

Well, the same thing for bigger people who tended to be poorer back then because they weren’t as privy to the same access to resources as the white people. This is why we need to stop stigmatizing others body size. If we judge other peoples’ bodies, it is both wrong on a factual level, and harmful on a person level.

Banting’s 1864 Pamphlet Ignites Weight Loss Culture

Here we are at last, the beginning of weight loss culture. 

William Banting was white, male and fat. He could hardly stand being fat, and he went to many doctors about his problem. Yet his doctors assured him that gaining weight was a natural process that was simply the result of getting older. (And remember that being heavier was, at that time, a sign of lower social status.)  

However, Banting couldn’t accept this and he started keeping rigorous track of his weight, diet and exercise. He did lose weight and would go on to write what became an infamous pamphlet. He went on to become what you could consider one of the first anti- fat activists.

Around this time too, the “penny scale” technology enabled weight scales to become widespread. Previously scales were cumbersome and too expensive to be sold to doctors, health care facilities and homeowners, but this new technology allowed prices to decrease. As a result, scales were increasingly found everywhere. 

Banting published his first pamphlet in 1864 about his weight loss success. His pamphlet sold out, and was re-published again almost immediately. Americans now started to become increasingly obsessed with losing weight primarily for social status reasons, and the weight loss industry was born. 

Under the guise of science and health, people today and back then crave weight loss. But the real reason people desire weight loss is social status. While health is a considerable motivation to pursue weight loss and is totally valid, we have to also talk about the considerable degree to which weight loss (or lack thereof) is used as a tool to keep different classes apart socially.

Skyrocketing Print Media Leads To Gibson Girl In Contradiction To Elizabethan Era Body Norms

gibson girl from 1920's showing how women body image is still thin and hour glass but not as restricted as victorian era

This new trend towards losing weight and not being fat continued and grew, helped by the burgeoning print industry.  For example, the Gibson Girl, as seen above, premiered in the 1920’s. This body image was plastered on newly created Industrial Revolution inventions like cereal boxes, billboards, toys, dolls, and magazines. 

The Gibson Girl represented a more free, less restrained ideal in comparison to the Elizabethan woman. The Gibson girl still had the hour glass shape, but she wore less clothes and had an athletic build which reflected high-society sports. Her clothing was more suitable for movement. 

In this era women were gaining some political power, and they no longer felt as confined socially. The Gibson Girl  image helped connect women to their increasing political power. However, this image also motivated women to continue seeking the hour-glass shape, even though the hour-glass shape was a drawing and was impossibly thin around the waist. 

Nonetheless, this type of image became plastered everywhere for the first time in human history. Never before had women encountered so many nearly identical images of this woman staring back at them. Thus began the advertising practice of marketing thin, white ladies who represented a higher status.  And in case you haven’t noticed, this continues today! 

Science Politics Fuels Obesity Fears

Science and medicine were relatively late to the thin-is-better party. Remember, when William Banting went to his doctors to find a solution to his weight problem, the doctors didn’t think weight was a problem. 

It really wasn’t until the early 1950’s and 1960’s that science too caved into the idea that fat was unhealthy. While BMI was around in the 1830’s, it was primarily used as a population statistic. Eventually in this time period, BMI became tied to health. What made scientists cave? There were several factors:

  • Cities enable insurance; life insurance promotes BMI
  • Market demand
  • Bruch argues fatness caused by emotional problems (not diets)

Cities enable insurance; insurance promotes BMI

For the majority of human history, humans lived in rural areas. Yet by 1920, there were more people living in cities than in rural areas, at least in the United States. 

When people lived in such close proximity to each other, along with advances in mathematical statistics, companies were able to gather sufficient actuarial information to be able to start offering more insurance and more types of insurance. Insurance is a collective risk.  

While insurance had been developed previously in large cities in Europe and elsewhere long before this time period, the major insurance companies in the United States were gaining incredible power due to:

  1. A higher population density
  2. A population with access to new forms of technological communication
  3. And a unique political structure (essentially, capitalism) 

These three forces, advances in technology which facilitated great communication (like the invention of the telegraph, and radio, for example) and high population density gave insurance companies a certain power they hadn’t been able to acquiesce before in earlier time periods. In addition, capitalism was on the rise which gave much societal power to companies.

Of particular relevance to this article, life insurance began to take advantage of the body mass index (BMI) model, which was first developed in the 1830s. 

This model classified people as overweight or normal based on their weight and height. 

Of course, the BMI model was based on … you guessed it … white, thin, aristocratic males.  This didn’t quickly change the way people thought about body images; that came later, with the Banting pamphlet and then the print images that we discussed above.  But eventually, life insurance companies had enough data to see a clear trend: if you were high on the BMI (aka, fat people), you didn’t live as long. Obese people became the financial target of insurance industries.

Insurance industries are what pressured doctors to uniformly denounce fat people. Obese people were now a public health problem for society. The doctors had to eliminate this ‘disease’. Ironically, the fields of health and medical care were primarily influenced with insurance companies with only second hand, unreliable BMI data.

Of course, this had less to do with weight, and more with social status.

If you have more money, access to opportunities, live in less dangerous areas, and work in less risky jobs, you are more likely to live longer. Yet, insurance companies only cared about and saw the trend, that higher BMI values were equated with higher risk of mortality.

Consequently, insurance companies began pressuring doctors to offer weight loss advice. After all, the trend was clear, a lower BMI meant less death – but due to social reasons primarily, not health!

(And even today, the fat acceptance movement is not proposing insurance covers all people equally. What is proposing is a more comprehensive way of measuring health. As of today, there are many ‘fat people’ who have perfectly health indicators like blood pressure. Yet, all fat people are considered to be unhealthy, for the most part. This of course leads to dieting, and dieting is actually very bad for all sorts of people, including both thin and fat people!)

Market Demand

Doctors have to pay bills, too. After the penny scale was invented, popularized, and distributed, and Banting’s ideas began to infiltrate society’s thinking, doctors began to recommend that people lose weight. 

People would go to see a doctor and be offended if the doctor didn’t recommend that they lose weight. Weight loss was popular, and doctors had many patients who wanted to lose weight. Why not help them?  So weight loss recommendations became increasingly common, which further contributed to the idea that fat was unacceptable.

Isn’t it sadly ironic that the market demanded weight loss, and now we have a problem with childhood obesity? It’s like dieting, but over a generation. In dieting, people try to lose weight, and then they gain the weight back. It’s almost as if this incredible desire to lose weight caused the future generation to gain weight. This is just my personal thought, I don’t not know what fat activists think in this regard.

However, it’s important to note, and is emphasized many times in Christy Harrison’s book “Anti Diet”, that prejudices due to social status towards fatness came before there was much information on the supposed health dangers of fatness. 

Fat caused by emotional problems (not diets)(?)

Nowadays we know scientifically that diets actually cause weight gain in the long term, that relying on diets and weight loss is notoriously difficult if you want to see long-term results. Practically no one ever loses weight long term, although about 5% of people who do try dieting do succeed. And of course, these are the images you see in print media magazines and social media.

But because of the trends described above, and because it still is possible to see short-term weight loss with a diet program, diets and weight loss were unquestioned in society in the 1950s and 1960s. There was no such thing as body positivity back then, although the fat acceptance movement to advance fat acceptance was beginning. For example, National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) was founded by fat activists in 1969. Overall though, the mentality was clear: if you couldn’t lose weight, diets weren’t the problem, you were the problem.

When you combine the individualistic, frontier spirit of America, along with the Protestant work ethic, you get a culture that says ‘you are the reason diets don’t work.’ Thankfully these days we have a much broader understanding of ‘fat people’ and what fat acceptance really means.

But back then the idea of fat acceptance was the opposite.

Fat was bad. Body love made you lazy. Society valued a thin body size and media reflected this. This concept was pushed further by the work of  psychiatrist Hilde Bruch in the 1950-60s.  Bruch’s research found that overweight kids have mothers who don’t love them, and instead feed their children instead of loving their children.

While Bruch’s notions have been since debunked, the media in the 1960’s took her notions and amplified them. Diet failure was an emotional issue, rather than a problem with dieting itself. Once again, “you are the reason diets don’t work.”

This in turn contributed to the development of Weight Watchers in the 1960s, and the modern diet program. Weight Watchers incorporated accountability, support groups, and portion control system to take away the emotional problems of weight loss and dieting: 

  • Feel alone? There’s a Weight Watchers’ support group for you. 
  • Having struggle keeping up your motivation? Let’s have you weigh publicly in front of people so you don’t lose motivation. 
  • Feeling confused? Here’s a simple point system (a precursor to calorie labels everywhere) so you don’t have to think for yourself. Just follow the system.

And here we are today … 

And here we are today. 

  • Marketers continue to use thin, white women as advertising (why not, it works from an advertising perspective).
  • The body image is thinner than ever, and borderline dangerous
  • Most women believe their body is inferior
  • America is more obese and overweight than ever before (in large part because of relying upon dieting for so long, which typically leads to weight gain)
  • Health is more confusing than ever before, with a label for everything

It’s no wonder why having a negative body image is so common! And while healing and negating the effects of a negative body image is difficult, I hope this article helps clarify why we have ridiculous body image standards today. 

The body image standards of today, while different than those of the Elizabethan era, are still tied to social status. But this wasn’t always the case, back thousands of years ago being fatter was the ideal body image.

Yet primarily for social reasons, food and body image have been used to keep power structures intact. Eventually, science got co-opted into the movement, and gave people the moral judgment that ‘fat is bad’ and gave a rational argument that ‘fat leads to death’. 

Ironically, though, for most of human history, having some extra chub has been a good thing. Let’s remember that going forward.


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