Op-Ed: Fat Justice Responds

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

Letter submitted by Nicole Sullivan in response to a recent article written by Paige Willey and published in the Swarthmore Independent. Nicole and Cora Segal helped lead the March 20th Fat Justice and Feminism workshop.

Despite it being late, I was restless. I had spent the previous night driving to Swarthmore from Boston for over six hours to to present a workshop on Fat Justice and Feminism and I just needed to move. I decided to cope with my restlessness by heading out to Tom Jones Diner in Brookhaven, PA to do some work and get a change in scenery.

I sat down in a booth alone with my laptop open. It wasn’t long before a group of men started harassing me. They called me fat. They called me a dyke. They sexually propositioned me. Though I repeatedly asking them to leave me alone the verbal harassment got so aggressive I had to leave the diner. However, instead of exiting into safety, I found more danger.  When I was walking to my car, a SUV pulled up beside me and cornered me. There were five men in the SUV and they each told me in graphic detail exactly what they would like to do with me. They eventually got bored and drove away. I was lucky that this incident did not escalate into physical violence, though that has not always been the case in my past.

That night, like many other nights before it, I did not get a choice to hide the parts of me that are confrontational to others.

I am sharing this anecdote because I was recently directed to Paige Willey’s Swarthmore Independent article written in response to the Fat Justice and Feminism workshop at Swarthmore I helped lead. I have long been committed to education and social justice and respectful dialogue with disagreeing parties is part of that commitment.   However, instead of ethical and principled disagreement, Ms. Willey’s article chose personal attacks and lazy journalism. In her article, she misquoted me and quoted statements without the relevant context and outright lied about various points Cora and I made. She even included a fake and deliberately inflammatory quotation about my sexuality. Most egregiously, she did not make her journalistic affiliations or intentions known at the start of the workshop, in direct violation of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.  Ms. Willey was in no danger in our workshop. There was no reason to hide her affiliations nor was there any ethical reason why she needed to talk about my sexuality the way she did, especially considering the ongoing violence and harassment of LGTBQ people in our communities.

In direct response to Ms. Willey’s article, I would like to offer the following corrections to her claims:

  •  BMI is an erroneous metric that does not measure any relating metabolic health. BMI is solely a ratio of height compared to weight, a ratio that was developed not to measure health, but to measure normality as compared to western European males.  Given this, BMI cannot be accurately used to assess health. This is well supported across the scientific community.
  • Adolphous Quelet was a mathematician, as well as an astronomer. The fact that we mentioned one profession but not the other is irrelevant to the larger point that the creator of BMI was not a health professional and even stated himself that the BMI should not be used as an indicator of health. This also leads us to reject the first of Ms. Willey’s claims Our evidence that the statistic of BMI was rooted white supremacy and patriarchy was not due to Adolphous Quelets race, but due to the fact the Adolphous Quelet was a key figure in the eugenicist movement and developed BMI as a way to categorize the “normal” man from the lesser man. In this time period, it was widely believed those of African descent were a lesser species than those of European descent.
  • We never said that anyone should stop celebrating the suffragists. We did speak to the historical fact that suffragists were able to gain public legitimacy by positioning themselves as moral citizens, which required a public image of thin, feminine middle to upper class white women. The suffrage movement collectively turned its backs on women who did not fit that ideal, most notably black and working class women, but fat women as well.  These tensions within the women’s suffrage movement have been written about extensively. 
  • We never claimed that all late term abortion providers refuse to give fat patients anesthesia. I used the example of one provider in Boston that has a BMI requirement for its procedures to showcase how fat bias can have grievous consequences in healthcare.  You can see another example of these consequences with the latest plan B controversy. We highlighted reproductive care to show the intersections of fat justice and feminism, just as the title of the workshop claimed.
  • Cora and I explained how body positivity (a movement that seeks to help people have more self acceptance) falls short because of its lack of analysis of social and political forces that shape fat women’s lives different than thin women’s. Despite this, we find body positivity to be an incredible important and beneficial movement.

I helped create the Fat Justice and Feminism workshop in order to work towards a movement that can unite all women against sexism, in all the forms it takes. Fat justice has an incredible potential to organize women against forces that seek to control our bodies and lives, whether through biased science or prejudiced views. Fat justice, however, cannot be the only path we follow for liberation. One of the main reasons behind this workshop was to build connections between fat struggles and struggles against racism, sexism and economic exploitation. My hope is that the material we presented would challenge people and provoke responses and engagement. Regardless of the nature of Ms. Willey’s response, I am beyond excited to see the level of discussion and debate that has emerged from our workshop.  Social change only comes from a deep commitment to understanding the world around us and as far as I am concerned, Swarthmore is committed.


  1. 1

    Just a few points about the links between weight and health. I will use the BMI category terms when talking about the obesity research literature because these are the ones used in the research on which this information is based.

    1. There is a clear association between extremes of weight and ill health. Nobody who understands the science, including the author of this piece, is denying this fact.

    2. In most epidemiological studies, when based SOLELY ON BMI, underweight people fare worst on all outcomes, followed by higher grades of obesity. Depending on the study, grade 1 obesity and overweight tend to be roughly the same as normal weight, or overweight tends to fare better than normal weight.

    3. Large scale studies have shown that 30 to 40% of obese people have no other metabolic risk factors (elevated blood glucose, high blood pressure, insulin resistance) and about 25 to 30% of normal weight individuals do.

    4. In most epidemiology studies based on BMI AND METABOLIC HEALTH, people without these risk factors fare best and equivalently whether normal weight, overweight and obese. Obese individuals WITH risk factors fare worse. And normal weight people with risk factors tend to fare worst of all.

    5. This finding may be due to weight profiling, where normal weight people are considered to be healthy and so any problems are not picked up until much later. This is speculation. The reasons for this finding are not clear. But if so, this would be one way in which weight bias affects people of all weights.

    6. Sticking with weight bias – my area of scientific research – prejudice and discrimination of any kind are a form of stress and are associated with poor physical and mental health and reduced quality of life. This is true also of weight stigma. In an environment in which anti-fat messages are ubiquitous, daily microaggressions are a form of chronic stress for fat people. Chronic stress is met with the body’s stress response, chronically high levels of stress hormones, linked strongly with inflammatory related health issues – visceral adiposity, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, etc.

    7. In countries where fat is considered the ideal, although they are harder to find these days as western values spread ever further outwards, the relationship between higher weight and hypertension, diabetes etc are much reduced or disappear altogether. This raises the question of whether it is the weight that is the problem or the ongoing war on fat people.

    8. The best way for ALL people to improve their health is by adopting a healthy lifestyle. Eating nutritiously, moving your body, not smoking, drinking only in moderation. All of these things are associated with better health outcomes, regardless of weight. Engaging in all these health habits levels the playing field with people of all weights faring equally well. Not engaging in healthy habits results in worse health, and in this case, higher weight does increase the risk.

    9. Engaging in these habits is an accessible goal for people of any weight, notwithstanding other social disparities, food deserts, disability and so on. In contrast, the likelihood of MOST people achieving SIGNIFICANT, SUSTAINABLE weight loss is small. Personal experience does not negate the entirety of the scientific evidence on this. Yes, some people manage to lose weight. Most weight cycle. Not just because they ‘can’t stick to their diets’, but because the body will do everything in its power to return to its set point weight – a weight that is determined predominantly by genes and DIETING HISTORY – more dieting, higher settling point.

    10. None of this fucking matters. We’re talking about basic respect and social justice here. Is that really so hard to understand?

  2. 0
    Lauri Owen says:

    Thanks for this. Too often in society a group is chosen to be labeled, marginalized, and then stigmatized. “Science” is often used, and “experts,” to validate the stereotyping. (See Foucault, passim.) Bottom line, it’s bigotry. There is no hard science that shows that fat = unhealth. This is about temperance, and fear, and bigotry. Again: thanks for your courage, and fuck the small, ignorance, and bigoted haters.

  3. 0
    Eli Cohen says:

    Great points here. The conservative “rebuttal” to your workshop was ridiculous. It misrepresented your arguments in a way that struck me as intentional and malicious. It’s ridiculous that you even had to write this response, but it’s awesome that you did; you’re signal-boosting a lot of good information that’s being deliberately ignored right now.

  4. 0
    Marsha Coupe says:

    Intelligent, educated people are open to respecting opinions different from their own. Ms. Sullivan’s story is worth contemplating – and sympathizing with – even if you’re not willing to suspend with the lazy thinking.

    You can’t speak for marginalized people, unless you’re a member of a marginalized group yourself. And even then, your truth is not necessarily my truth. Keep this in mind when tempted to play the tiresome health card.

  5. 0
    Vidya says:

    This is an excellently crafted rebuttal to the (appalling) original piece, and the collection of included links is extremely valuable. The willingness of even the ‘educated’ classes to espouse ungrounded mythology around weight and health speaks to how deeply ingrained this ideology is in the contemporary world. So many people so profoundly wish that their culturally inculcated aesthetic preferences and dislikes have some ‘objective’ grounding, that it would almost be amusing if only it were not so destructive.

  6. 0
    Nicole Sullivan ( User Karma: 0 ) says:


    Thanks for the comments. I’ll try to respond as thoroughly as I can.

    As for the type 2 and 3 obese mortality risks- there are a couple of things going on there. First, the vast majority of people are considered obese fall into type 1 obese. The prevailing attitude is that all fat people are a twinkie away from their deathbeds, which these studies disprove. The second thing is those studies do not differentiate between cause of death nor does it control for other factors. People in the type 3 obese category for example often cannot get access to very basic health care, so are they dying from their body size or from lack of access? Poor people are also more likely to be fat and poverty is deeple correlated to higher mortality risks. Basically, those specific studies tell us nothing about the metabolic health of fat people, all they say is that the vast majority of people classified as obese live just as long or longer than thin people. To assume that the greater mortality risks somehow proves that being fat is uniquely unhealthy compared to other physiolgical traits is just bad science and is drawing conclusions the data was never made to support.

    Also, I never denied that there were no health risks to having a larger body size- only that being fat does not mean one is unhealthy. That is a very important distinction.

    As for diets- there is not a single study in existence that shows that significant weight loss is able to be maintained for longer than five years for the vast majority of people (most studies land around failures rates of 95%). Also, I do encourage people to read the actual data instead of just the titles of the studies, since that’s where the information is.

    Also- I will not be engaging with people who post personal insults or degrading remarks. Just an fyi.

  7. 0
    Let's not manipulate science says:

    I 100% agree that BMI is a shitty old fashioned way of gauging someone’s health.

    That being said,

    How was Quetelete a “key figure” in the eugenics movement? I think you might be conflating his concept of social physics (which was co opted by the eugencicists) as eugenics, which it definitely is not. I couldn’t find any sources linking his motivations to eugenics, which is what you imply. You also imply that his social physics was racially motivated. Do you have any evidence for that claim?

    Your links in no way disprove the scientific consensus linking obesity with health problems. In fact most of the links you provide acknowledge a relationship between obesity and disease. Read the things you listed. Most of them acknowledge or even suggest what you are denying. The first one you list concludes that obesity type 2+ has significantly higher mortality rates!! The third one concludes that all obesity is linked to higher mortality rates relative to normal weight!

    Don’t deny scientific consensus just because it doesn’t fit your agenda. It makes you look like a climate change denier, which is even less attractive than obesity.

    1. 0
      thanks says:

      Indeed, it’s never cool to spam your usually well-meaning peers with articles that purportedly say something, which they actually don’t. You realize your Swattie classmates will actually read these articles, and when they find that you actually misrepresented the content of the articles, your credibility falls to sh*t, and classmates feel like you’ve wasted their time!! Not cool!!

  8. 0
    Alum '08 says:

    In the bullet starting

    “Ms. Willey’s assertion that we claimed that there is no scientific consensus on the harms of obesity is correct. There is absolutely no scientific consensus that obesity is responsible for a diabetes epidemic, heart disease, shorter life span or any of the other hundreds of diseases that have supposedly been linked to obesity.”,

    The first clause in the first sentence of the abstract in the first link is “Although a clear risk of mortality is associated with obesity, …”.


    Also, as someone that lost 50lbs through diet and lifestyle changes, “Diets do not result in weight loss. Lifestyle changes do not result in weight loss.”? From the first clause of the title of the first link, “They all work…when you stick to them”.

    Jesus Christ, when did walls of links (that don’t even support your argument!) become a replacement for adequate citations?

    1. 0
      James says:

      If you keep reading, you’ll see that the risk of mortality was greater for skinny people (BMIs < 18.5) than for even the fattest people (those in obesity class II+). Being "overweight" was associated with a "significantly decreased risk of death."

      1. 0
        Alum '08 says:

        Be that as it may, the quoted claim is about obesity, not “overweight”. (The two are not the same.) The linked article clearly countermands the claim about obesity.

        If the author only wanted to argue that the BMI conception of “overweight” is not accurate* and not as unhealthy as being underweight, that would be supported by the data. However, that is not what the author claimed.

        *: In my own case, I am BMI “overweight” despite being pretty fit. Almost every gym-going person I know thinks the BMI is silly.

  9. 0
    Anon says:

    This is a minor point, and I didn’t read all of the links cited. The few I read, though, did say that grades 2 and 3 obesity were associated with significantly higher health risks. That doesn’t take away from the overall argument that health risks for overweight people are overblown, but it does seem like an important destination to make. Since there is a point at which it can become a health risk.

  10. 0
    Swattie '14 says:

    Thanks for writing this. It seemed like you were making some very basic points about intersectionality, and yet they were completely misrepresented. I could definitely stand to learn from the patience and openness of your response, so thank you also for being a good role model in that regard. Just to share some of the thoughts I had, mostly in response to Willey and supporters:
    -Eating a high fat diet has been well documented to lead to various dysregulation. Much of this reaearch is in mice, and much of the human research is correlational because of obvious ethical considerations. What exactly counts as a “high fat diet” varies. Mostly, this tells us that eating lots of deep-fried butter is probably a bad idea. There is a difference between eating lots of fats and being fat – thin people can eat lots of fat and fat people can eat small amounts. Reasonable amounts of fats have health benefits, and some types are better than others, but there isn’t a consensus on exact quantities, and it probably varies from person to person.
    -Most medical research is conducted on white people. There are obvious historical reasons for this. There’s a lot we don’t know about the biology of various groups (including sub-groups of white people), especially those traditionally under-represented in medical research. There are a lot of cultural biases people can bring to designing and carrying out medical research. It is completely valid to question how much the biased averages of research findings apply to your particular biology. Questioning science doesn’t automatically make you like an evolution-denier; scientists question research a lot.
    -Socioeconomic factors are important, because chronic stress leads to many of the same effects as obesity. Being poor is really stressful. Being stigmatized in other ways is stressful too. Many species show a baseline higher stress response that comes with lower status.
    -Developmental factors are important. My mom grew up with much less access to food than me when she was young, so her body reacts to food and exercise differently than mine. There is evidence that these factors can have effects across generations.
    -Most societies have local diets that they spend at least hundreds of years developing and adapting to; the western diet is an anomaly, and I think it’s fair to conjecture about the role that advertising and capitalism have had in developing and spreading it.
    -For me, fat struggles have always been related to shadeism and sexism, because I was constantly told to be thin and light-skinned in order to attract men (especially men with high earning potential, so throw in classism too). So I really appreciate your bridging the discussion of various types of oppression, because for a lot of people they are linked.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *