Think of the Hippopotamus: Rights Consciousness in the Fat Acceptance Movement


  • This work is only possible because many people were willing to take the time to be interviewed, and I thank each of them for their time and willingness to open up about sometimes painful experiences. I would like to gratefully acknowledge generous funding for this project from the University of Michigan Institute for Research on Women and Gender (IRWG). My graduate research assistant, Carla Pfeffer, did extensive interviewing as well as transcribing and site observation. I am grateful for those many hours and for her thoughtful feedback on the initial interview protocol and on previous drafts of this article. Kathy Wood also provided excellent transcription services. Tom Burke, Paul Campos, Elizabeth Cole, Kjerstin Elmen-Gruys, William Haltom, Don Herzog, Ann Lin, Abigail Saguy, Tobin Siebers, Jeffrey Sobal, Peggy Somers, Miriam Ticktin, Marilyn Wann, Elizabeth Wingrove, and several anonymous reviewers at Law & Society Review offered helpful feedback at various stages of this project, improving it very much.

Please direct correspondence to Anna Kirkland, 204 South State Street, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-1290; e-mail:


All the recent attention to the so-called obesity epidemic provides a fascinating context for understanding interactions between civil rights consciousness and the ordinary lives of fat people, who both deploy and resist the ideological formations that make up our most basic presumptions about who deserves rights protections. This study of fat acceptance advocates asks how stigmatized people who are excluded from legal protections muster descriptions of themselves as deserving inclusion in antidiscrimination laws. Analysis of in-depth interviews with fat acceptance advocates from around the United States reveals elaborate techniques for managing social life and enacting legality that coexist with more narrowly framed and contradictory arguments for rights. Culturally dominant logics for reasoning about what persons deserve prefigure what is possible to say in defense of fat people, in many ways even for fat advocates themselves. And yet in their struggles to overcome the limitations of the presumptions they are given, fat advocates reveal deep tensions in our antidiscrimination ethics and hint at a new way to think about difference.