Study finds fat acceptance blogs can improve health outcomes

Kath Read, a member of the fatosphere, which has helped some people improve their health. Monash University

“Fat acceptance” blogs urging overweight people to shed negative feelings about their body image can lead to healthier diet and exercise choices, a study has found.

The fat acceptance movement, which seeks to foster a support network among overweight people, has inspired a plethora of blogs and web forums such as Corpulent, Fat Heffalump and The Rotund – an online community that’s become known as the “fatosphere”.

In a study published in the journal Qualitative Health Research, researchers from Monash University, the University of New England and the University of Canberra interviewed 44 fatosphere bloggers from Australia, the US and the UK about how their involvement in the movement had changed them.

“There’s been a lot of criticism of the movement that it promotes obesity and encourages people to give up on weight loss and makes their health worse,” said one of the researchers, Dr Samantha Thomas, a Senior Research Fellow at Monash University’s Department of Marketing.

“We saw there was a lot of opinion about the movement but very few people had actually studied it.”

Interviews with the respondents revealed many had experienced feelings of worthlessness, shame, crash diets, cycles of starvation and binge eating and laxative abuse before discovering the fatosphere.

“Having that support and feeling empowered, people slowly found that their health behaviours began to change dramatically. For example, many people suddenly felt confident to do swimming, something they would not have done before,” she said.

“People shifted their focus away from weight loss and more toward health. A lot of people started to take part in physical activity not as a way to lose weight but because they enjoyed it. Instead of pounding it out on the treadmill they start playing with their kids. It’s actually a massive shift in the way they looked at things.”

Shifting the focus away from restricting food and toward listening to the body’s needs could also lead to better food choices, said Dr Thomas.

“There are actually a lot of lessons for public health here,” she said.

“The term fat acceptance is really confronting for people. That’s why we have seen a lot of blame and criticism. Society tells us it’s not OK to be fat for a whole bunch of moral and medical reasons,” she said.

“This study shows that far from promoting obesity and promoting negative health behaviours, the movement is really positive for some people’s health.”