The Fat Illusion

By Vivian F. Mayer

From Shadow On a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression (eds Schoenfelder, Weiser; Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1983)

If you have any doubts, a random handful of women’s magazines from any grocery store will make it clear that fat is one of the biggest issues on women’s minds. Almost every issue of every women’s magazine carries an article on how to lose weight. Fear of fat is so entrenched in the American mind that even the most radical women, who have spent years exploring and rebuilding women’s consciousness through the Women’s Liberation Movement, have failed to spot the fraud.

In gatherings of the highest revolutionary spirit, you will see right-on feminists drinking cans of diet soda to avoid being fat. That they are avoiding fat is a problem but it is not the problem: women ought to be free to choose how they will look. The problem is the belief that drinking a low-calorie soft drink enables them to choose their figures, the illusion that fat or thin is a matter subject to personal choice and control. They are locked into that old-time religion promulgated by the eleven-billion-dollar sexist industry that has made the lives of fat women a living hell.

The electrified rat has learned how to control pleasure. When it presses a button, the electrodes that scientists implanted in its head stimulate the pleasure center of its brain. Since it prefers this intense pleasure even to food, the rat will soon starve to death. –observed in a psychology laboratory

I feel good when I feel hungry. Each pang of hunger reminds me that I’m in control, so I feel proud and successful.
–a woman on a reducing diet

Women on reducing diets are not in the extreme circumstances of the electrified rat. The woman probably will not starve to death. The rat probably experiences much greater pleasure.

Figure control is one of the few forms of control most women are allowed to exercise. The fact that some men also struggle against their weight is overshadowed by the legions of woman-oriented reducing industries: the hunger clubs, the sweat salons, the pseudo-foods advertised always in the mouths of slender women. The hunger that average-sized women endure for a few weeks–only to gain back all the weight they lose–fat women endure for months, even years, only to gain back all the weight they lose. No one talks about the 99% failure rate of all reducing diets. Everyone’s too busy talking about the diets.

Even among women who, as a group, have gone the furthest toward renouncing standards of beauty and “health” defined by patriarchal culture–radical feminists and Lesbian feminists–the diet talk continues:

  • I know I’d feel better if I just lost about fifteen pounds.
  • She was fat as a way of avoiding men. Since coming out as a Lesbian, she’s lost a lot of weight, and you should see how great she looks!
  • I really like some fat women as sisters, as good friends. They just don’t turn me on sexually.

Aside from a superficial awareness that fat women are oppressed by looksism, radical women still see fat as a personal sickness: abnormal, undesirable, lamentable, and curable.

The “facts” about fat as known to the woman-on-the-street can be summarized as follows: That fat people lack “will power,” they’re fat because they eat more than thin people. That they overeat to make up for personality problems or because they’re not in touch with their true feelings. That being fat is unhealthy. That weight loss can be fun, or at least tolerable. That once the “excess” weight is lost, a slim figure can be maintained by eating as carefully as any normal slim person eats.

These “facts” are learned from doctors and therapists as well as from common knowledge. We read them in women’s magazines in articles written both by medical/psychiatric “experts” and by journalists; we also hear them in televised interviews with diet doctors and read them in the diet books that they are on television pushing into national best-sellers. All this is astonishing–because the technical medical literature flatly contradicts each of the above popular statements!

Regarding “overeating,” the fundamental sin for which fat people are constantly punished,

When food intakes of obese individuals were accurately assessed and compared with people of normal [sic] weights, the intakes were identical. There are thin people who eat excessively: “He has a huge appetite and never puts on a pound”–and there are fat people who eat too much. Likewise there are thin people and fat people who have small appetites. The average fat person is euphagic.”1

And when this euphagic (pleasant, moderate) food intake is reduced for the sake of weight loss, a United States Public Health Service
Report found that,

One well-controlled study showed that young women who lost weight on 1000-calorie diets experienced a decrease in basal metabolism rate and in [calorie] intake required to maintain their reduced weights. Follow-up studies indicated that a lower calorie intake than recorded initially must be maintained indefinitely in order to maintain the reduced weight. 2

Fat people who have endured the pain of starvation to “cure” themselves so that they can live like “normal” (i.e., slim) people find, according to a noted diet doctor, that,

Those who lose and maintain a normal [sic] weight must accept some degree of hunger and unsatisfied appetite as a way of life.3

But since prolonged hunger is a painful condition that all our biological instincts compel us to avoid,

Review of the literature since 1958 did not reveal a successful long-term study using a diet regimen by itself or in combination with drugs, psychologic treatment, or an exercise program.4

There is something grotesque about having to quote from medical sources to defend a liberation movement. Ideally the Fat Liberation Movement will be based, like other liberation movements, upon the assertion of the masses, the reality of oppressed fat people, our lifetimes spent living the contradictions that no one dares admit exist: skipping “fattening” foods like any Vogue beauty (but get an eyeful of the difference), contemplating suicide as we gain weight back after every diet (merely by eating like a slim friend–where does the fat come from?), discovering that to maintain the weight loss one must go to bed hungry every night (is this how slim people live?). But who would believe our assertions? Not doctors, who make money and build their professional status selling weight-loss treatments on a basis that is two-thirds coverup of facts and one-third appeal to emotions. Not the general public, who think we are sick, sinful, and absurd. Not leftists who use our bodies to symbolize the oppressors–the “Fat Capitalist,” the “Pigs”–and consider us disgusting and decadent. Not we ourselves, whose ability to trust our own judgment is undermined by the skepticism with which the rest of society regards us.

Fat and thin, medical and radical, intelligentsia and common people alike, we are all, as a culture, caught in the Fat Illusion. We
believe that our bodies’ sizes are chosen and reflect personal control, and we ignore or reject all evidence that contradicts this belief.
What powerful forces of social control make this illusion so dazzling that we cling to it through starvation and spiritual pain, through absurdity and failure of hopes?

We stand at the core of the Fat Illusion, looking out. Layers of confusion and cruelty are piled upon each other like the layers of a poisonous atmosphere. Let us begin with the simplest, most personal experience of fat reality, to work our way out of this illusion.

#1: The Illusion of Personal Control

  • Observation: I eat what others eat. My eating is labeled “overeating,” and I am punished for it. The others who do not get fat are not accused of overeating and are not punished.
  • Conclusion: I don’t deserve as much food as others do. I am bad, less worthy than others.

Being fat even as a very young child, I naturally saw my condition in such absolute and terrible terms. I don’t think I could have internalized such a condemnation and stayed alive. So I, like many fat women of upwardly mobile middle-class background, found it easier to break from reality and believe that the things I saw happening were not really happening. I rationalized away the sight of slim people eating more than I did with thoughts such as, “They’d skipped lunch,” or “They plan to exercise the calories off.” I did not admit to myself that I felt hungry on the greatly reduced food intake that allowed me to maintain the “normal” body-size I’d starved down to. Or when I had to admit the hunger, I’d rationalize that it was not real because something was “wrong” with my ability to feel hunger. The prolonged hunger eventually led to eating binges, and the uncontrolled intensity of these binges led me to believe that I was crazy. A whole culture’s fat-hating forced me to accept the illusion that what I felt in my guts was imaginary and unjustified. Worse, the hunger became perverted into pleasure. Every pang was a spiritual agony atoning for my imagined sin of gluttony and bringing me one step closer to being a “normal” woman. Like the electrified rat, I thought I was in control of my pleasure and pain. Will power–self-control–figure control: these are all illusions. We are manipulated by the men in white coats.

#2: The Illusion of Freedom of Choice

Regarding aesthetic and economic intertwinement as one aspect of social control, Gudrun Fonfa writes, “Looksism is the standardization of a look (body image) and the discrimination against those who do not meet or conform to the [prescribed] image. Societies set acceptable broad limitations, because it is important to create the illusion that individuals are choosing their personal aesthetics, i.e., which bone to put through your nose.”5

If you are fat, you can choose to count calories or grams of cabohydrates; to drink Sego, Slender, or Liquid Protein diets; to eat Figurines; to go for Dr. Simeon’s Human Chorionic Gonadotropin (HCG) injections; to follow the Redbook Wise Woman’s Diet; etc., etc. The range of choices hides the fact that you are compelled to choose. As for the choices themselves, no matter which you choose you are choosing pain through hunger. If therefore you choose to reject all reducing options, you are punished with ridicule and social rejection. Unfortunately, with almost all attempts at weight loss failing, the same women who are constantly using one or another diet product are also punished for looking as though they do not use any diet product!

Social control goes beyond simply repressing deviants. Fundamental means of social control affect every person in the controlled society. One might argue logically that the persecution of fat women takes away each woman’s freedom to become fat. More accurately, since there’s no way to look at a person and know, on the basis of her size, whether she eats a lot or a little, the freedom women lose is the freedom to be comfortable with our appetites.

Most slim women believe that they would become very fat if they “let themselves go.” Particularly in the middle and upper classes, this belief is exploited into an obsession by the sexist imagemakers. As a result, millions of average-sized women experience nagging terror over every bite they eat, and come to look upon their bodies as barely tamed dragons that could turn on them any moment and erupt with fat. The fact that they can gain five pounds easily over Christmas indulgence seems to confirm this danger, and also leads them to believe that fat women are women who indulge themselves all the time. But the millions of women who are convinced that only their diets stand between them and two hundred fifty pounds struggle against their appetites to no real purpose. Approximately 99% of all attempts to lose weight end in failure; consequently, no more than 1% of the women who are slim can attribute their figures to the success of a diet.6 Why are they slim? Maybe it’s genes.7 Maybe it’s magic. The mechanism is beside the point. It is certainly not the power of will or better eating habits, since most slim women are eating as much as most fat women anyway.

Many believe that lack of exercise is what makes people fat. Here again, the individual who exercises regularly tends to gain some weight when she stops exercising. Furthermore, studies show that some groups of fat women (for example, fat adolescent women) tend to be less active than their peers.8 However, the same studies show that these less active fat women also eat significantly less than their slim peers. Instead of assuming that they are fat because they are less active, researchers should ask whether they are less active because they are underfed; lessened activity and lessened productiveness are commonly observed in semi-starved laborers in Third World countries. Those who righteously harp upon exercise ignore the role of persecution in causing fat people to be less physically active. This persecution ranges from the lack of large-sized gym uniforms for fat high school students to the open ridicule that many fat people encounter when they attempt to jog, swim, or dance in public.

Furthermore, those who blame fat on laziness ignore evidence provided by social class differences. Charwomen, for example, do hard physical labor all day long and frequently are fat. They are poor, rarely have their own cars and must rely upon public transportation, which means that they must walk to and from bus stops, etc. In contrast, front-office secretaries sit in front of typewriters all day and are usually slim. Middle-class people are more likely than the poor to own their own cars. Recently more middle-class people, especially women, have taken up regular exercise—-tennis, running, etc. Before this trend they were not all fat—-certainly not as fat as typical charwomen. Jean Mayer, one of the best-known researchers in the question of exercise and diet, writes that weight loss for fat people requires “…an attitude almost stoic in its asceticism and…the deliberate setting aside of time for what will be often lonely walking and exercising.”9 Stoicisim, asceticism, lonely walking and exercising hardly describe a typical slim woman’s life!

The point of all this is that we have much less choice over our figures than we are led to believe. The suffering of women over their figures is meaningless—-and that’s hard to accept.

#3: The Illusion That It’s “For Our Own Good”

Surrounding the shame of fat women and the fear of non-fat women is a half-century of medical and psychiatric lies which the Fat Underground calls “gynocidal malpractice.”10 In this writing, I want to devote only a little space to the radical counter-arguments that doctors make fat people sick and psychiatrists make fat people crazy. The gist of these arguments rests on observations such as the following

Regarding physical health:

  1. That serious bodily damage, including that damage caused by prolonged starvation, is known to occur in fat bodies on diets.11 There is evidence that atherosclerosis, leading to heart attacks and strokes, is caused by repeated dieting.12 This fact alone would account for the high death rate of fat people from these illnesses.
  2. That all studies claiming to prove that fat is unhealthy were done on people who have dieted frequently and who live in an atmosphere of constant persecution and self-hatred.
  3. That the handful of studies existing on non-persecuted fat people suggests that they are quite healthy,13 whereas studies of persecuted groups other than fat people, such as black people, show these groups to suffer from many of the diseases “characteristic” of fat people.14

And regarding mental well-being:

  1. That compulsiveness towards food is found in almost all individuals, fat or thin, who are starved or deprived of food, or who are threatened with starvation or deprivation.
  2. That since all psychiatric theories are based on the assumption that fat people are fat because they eat more than slim people, this psychiatry contradicts reality and forces alienation upon fat people.

Actually, “our own good” is not the real reason for persecution of fat people. The real reason is looks. When was the last time you saw people who smoke cigarettes denied employment, laughed at when they complain about discrimination, ridiculed throughout the media, rejected as friends and as lovers?—-and they are endangering their health and other people’s as well.

Looks are always the reason for women’s dieting, even when the reasons spoken out loud, and often believed, are health. There is no way that a woman can feel good in this culture if she sees herself as fat. Feelings of sluggishness and of being “weighted down” are at least partially a reaction to the culture’s fat-hating, internalized and expressed in the “overweight” person as self-hatred. Keep in mind how many of us had fat grandmothers, and how hard and vigorously those fat grandmothers worked.

Among many women, health is not even a pretence of an issue when it comes to getting rid of fat. At a meeting of fat women in Los Angeles, April 20, 1973, one fat woman admitted her secret fantasy: “I wish I could get cancer or some other wasting disease so I could die thin.” The increasing popularity of intestinal bypass surgery reflects this desperate attitude. In this surgery, all but a few feet (sometimes inches) of the small intestine is surgically shunted aside, so that most of one’s food passes out the gut undigested. Weight losses of a hundred pounds are typical. In the months or years while she is wasting away to a slim (if jaundiced) beauty, the patient endures explosive, foul-smelling, painful diarrhea, malnutrition, and related damage to organs. The death rate for this operation is estimated conservatively at 6%, 15 and since it is still new and experimental, the long-term effects are not even known. Yet at least 5,000 intestinal bypass operations are done annually in the United States, about 80% of them on women 16 (and at an expense of typically $6,000 apiece paid for by the patient—-who, of course, is too fat to qualify for health insurance.)

To alter her organs as if they were so many cogs and circuits is the natural duty of a sex object. Usefulness (sex appeal) is the only virtue; pain is irrelevant. The relation between doctors and fat women is sado-masochistic. Believing that she is inadequate to manipulate herself as a sex object, the fat woman finally gives up her power to the doctor to manipulate (mutilate) her. Her jaws get wired shut. Her guts get cut apart. Her submissiveness approaches a passive ideal. This is the extreme fat version of the masochism inculcated in almost all women by sexism. We are brought up on the old principle that “you have to suffer to be beautiful.” The amount of pain is a matter of degree. According to the rhetoric of sado-masochism, through submission to pain, Woman obtains absolute power. What she really obtains is the illusion that she is in control.

The power that doctors hold to perpetuate or end this misery is not an illusion. Doctors continue to plead that they are puzzled by the contradictions of the obesity literature—-but their puzzlement doesn’t stop them from practicing as if obesity were just a matter of caloric bookkeeping. As long as doctors practice this way, they are using their power to abuse us.

The discovery that doctors can be women’s political enemies is not new to feminism; the self-help movement, the radical therapy movement, and writings such as those of Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English on the history of women as healers17 represent a taking-back of power by women over our bodies and minds. Fat liberation is the next stage in this women’s liberation process.

#4: The Illusion of Self-Limited Achievement

”If you really want something, you can have it—-it’s all up to you.” How many times we hear this double-edged cliche! On the one hand the cliche urges people not to give up in despair. On the other hand, it is a paralyzing excuse for the status quo, implying that the “haves” deserve their privilege and that the “have nots” are “have nots” because they are not sufficiently motivated to work for and obtain the privilege. By this trick, politics are made to look like personal psychology, and the victims bear the blame. Most doctors are deeply hooked into this self-righteous attitude. How could they respect themselves, how could they avoid demoralizing guilt, unless they believed that there was justice in a system that deprives so many and rewards so few, happily including themselves?

Under “The Illusion of Freedom of Choice” I described how the Fat Illusion tricks individual women into meaningless struggles for “figure control.” At the level of the Illusion of Self-Limiting Achievement, those individual struggles become meaningful, making up a system that controls the energies of masses of women.

Women are divided into those who fear getting fat and those who are ashamed of being fat. Through buying weight-loss ideology and products (saccharin, diet soda, Weight Watcher’s Magazine etc.) slim women assert that they are motivated to be slim and beautiful. They are rewarded with male approval and with permission to feel superior to fat women. By the same actions, fat women assert that they want to be approved of by men—-that their hearts are in the right place, that they accept domination by the Patriarchy-—but their reward is only a future promise of male approval, since as long as they are fat, even if they are dieting, they suffer persecution. However, they do get to feel superior to some mythical person who is fatter than they and who goes on eating without shame.

The value and power of male approval is increased by the suffering women go through to earn it.

I have emphasized male approval to show that this is a sexist situation keeping the mass of women dependent upon the mass of men for self-esteem. The same situation exists among Lesbians in a more subtle way.

Money and support which women pour into the weight-loss industry is turned into a whip that persecutes fat women-—creating jeering diet and fashion advertisements whose message is that only slim women are worthy of love. The resulting spectacle of fat women’s suffering terrifies women into continuing to support the weight-loss industries. This is an extortion racket where each penny we pay to the reducing industry increases its power over us. Women’s power is stunted not only by competition to be slimmer than the next woman, but by hunger and by preoccupation with food. The ultimate anti-revolutionary message is that what feels good for us—-such as eating what we want-—is really bad for us.

The Fat Illusion, in all its levels, must be eliminated from women’s lives. There must be no support, and no condoning, of the reducing industries, since these industries degrade fat women. Every can of diet soda that you buy—-no matter how much you may “prefer the taste of it”-—hurts fat women, and by extension, all women. As women liberate knowledge about fat from the medical monopoly, fat women will come out of the closets of our minds to realize that there is nothing wrong with us. It is time to struggle with the implications of thin privilege and fat punishment the same as we struggle with other social injustices that we’ve recognized for years. We cannot wait for help and advice from doctors. Aside from the fact that few doctors will risk their careers to debunk a popular medical racket that is, after all, mainly a women’s issue, the truth in this case is just not good business.


  1. A. M. Bryans, “Childhood obesity: Prelude to adult obesity,” Canadian Journal of Public Health (November 1967), p. 487.
  2. U. S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare.Obesity and Health (Washington, DC: 1966), p. 60.
  3. W. L. Asher, “Appetite suppressants as an aid in obesity control,” in Louis Lasagna, ed., Obesity: Causes, consequences and treatment (New York: Medcom, 1974), p.73.
  4. Joseph A. Glennon, “Weight reduction: An enigma,” Archives of Internal Medicine (July 1966), vol. 118, pp. 1-2.
  5. Gudrun Fonfa, “‘Looksism’ as Social Control,” Lesbian Tide (January I!175),
    p. 20.
  6. Alvan Feinstein, “How do we measure accomplishment in weight reduction:'” in Lasagna, ed., op. cit., p. 86.
  7. Jean Mayer, Overweight: Causes, cost and control (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968).
  8. Mayer, pp. 125-126.
  9. Mayer, p. 165.
  10. Fat Underground, “Health of fat women … the real problem,” 1974.
  11. Aldebaran, “Fat liberation: A luxury?” State and Mind (June-July 1977), pp. 34-38.
  12. Obesity and Health, p. 40.
  13. Clark Stout, et al., “Unusually low incidence of death from myocardial infarction,” Journal of the American Medical Association (June 8, 1964), Vol. 188, pp. 845-849.
  14. Jack Slater, “Hypertension: Biggest killer of blacks.” Ebony (June 1973).
  15. “Current status of jejuno-ileal bypass for obesity,” Nutrition Reviews (1974), Vol. 32, p. 334.
  16. From a telephone conversation with an office assistant of Dr. J. Howard Payne (an M.D. who pioneered the intestinal bypass surgery for obesity), August 6, 1975.
  17. Many books have been written by feminist women on the subject of women and health. A good introductory bibliography (omitting, of course, information about fat women) is found in the Appendix of The hidden malpractice, by Gena Corea (New York: William Morrow, 1977). The specific book referred to in the text is Witches, Midwives and Nurses by Barbara Ehrenreich and Deirdre English, published by The Feminist Press, Box 334, Old Westbury, NY 11568.