The Fat Underground and the Fat Liberation Manifesto

Women truly come in all different shapes and sizes, and consequently feminism should as well. This is why when mainstream feminism failed to include women of all sizes, there were women who came to fill in the gap through activism with groups like the Fat Underground.

The Fat Underground was an organization that acted as a catalyst in the creation and mobilization of the Fat Liberation movement. Based in LA in the 1970s, the Fat Underground did not fight to change discriminatory laws but rather discriminatory thoughts and practices in different aspects of society. These discriminatory practices included those of doctors and other health professionals who perpetuated the unhealthy habits encouraged by diet culture. This approach to reform the health profession stems from the Fat Underground’s roots in the Radical Therapy movement, which sought to reform the mental health profession. According to the rhetoric of the Radical Therapy movement, people with mental illness were not to host the burden of changing themselves. We are instead supposed to change the stigma surrounding mental health. This “change society, not ourselves” ideology was the foundation for much of the activism in the Fat Liberation movement.

With the idea to reform society and not themselves, the Fat Underground utlized this rhetoric: “Doctors are the enemy. Weight loss is genocide” (Fishman). While colleagues and counterparts in academia and others in the early fat rights movement found this rhetoric harsh and urged the Fat Underground to be less aggressive, they ultimately came to adopt much of the Fat Underground’s logic in their respective fields.

In November 1973, Judy Freespirit and Aldebran published the “Fat Liberation Manifesto” on behalf of the Fat Underground. A manifesto is a written statement declaring publicly the intentions and views of who issued it. In this case, the manifesto outlines the ambitions and views of the Fat Underground, who takes the liberty of speaking on behalf of all fat people. Judy Freespirit and Aldebaran, pioneering members of the Fat Underground, designed these seven points to solidify the desires of the Fat Liberation movement and ended with a call to action. The manifesto first establishes that fat people are entitled to what they were denied on a daily basis: “human respect and recognition.” The other objectives then outline the commercial exploitation of fat bodies by both corporations and scientific institutions. This manifesto marked a key point in the Fat Liberation movement because it is one of the first times there was a public call for unification of fat women and fat people under one common purpose. The rhetoric dictated in this manifesto set the tone for the movement.

Sources: Bracha Fishman, Sarah Golda, “Life in the Fat Underground.” Radiance Magazine Online,

Freespirit, Judy, and Aldebaran. “Fat Liberation Manifesto.” Off Our Backs, vol. 9, no. 4, 1979, pp. 18–18. JSTOR, JSTOR,

Sinister Wisdom

Sinister Wisdom is a lesbian feminist quarterly that was founded in 1976 by Catherine Nicholson and Harriet Ellenberger with two burning questions in mind: “How does a woman survive when she steps out from the death process of patriarchy?” and “How does she think without thinking ‘their’ thoughts, dreaming ‘their’ dreams, repeating ‘their’ patterns?” ( These are questions that were not being answered in popular publications at the time due to the lack of diversity in the world of publishing. So, like many periodicals of the time, Sinister Wisdom was born out of the desire to diversify. However, unlike many of its contemporaries, the founders of Sinister Wisdom strived for diversity beyond gender and created a periodical specifically for lesbian feminists. 

Founded with these values in mind, Sinister Wisdom is also dedicated to representing the diversity within the lesbian community. Sinister Wisdom has been publishing thematic issues in the pursuit of intersectionality since its second issue, which had a focus on Lesbian writing and publishing. Other issues with highlights on specific demographics include Issue 39: “On Disability,” Issue 45: “Lesbians & Class,” and Issue 54: “Lesbians and Religion” Some issues featured works by activists in the fat liberation movement, such as Elana Dykewomon who later was the editor from 1987-1994. Issue 28, pictured here, has a special focus on fatness and body image as well women in the workplace.

The cover art depicts a sketch of a fat woman, presumably a classic working woman at a diner. There is more art centered around fat women that unashamedly depicts their bodies throughout the issue. Depiction of fat women as the subject of these art pieces is uncommon in popular and mainstream art so its placement in this magazine is important because it is representation for fat women in a form of media that often denies them visibility.

Along with the art, there are several poems and essays surrounding the fat body and body image issues but there was one article in particular that connected specifically with the Fat Liberation Movement. It is a thought piece by Susanna J. Sturgis on a question she overheard at one of Elana Dykewomon’s readings: “Is this the new thing we have to be politically correct about?” The “thing” she is referring to is Fat Liberation and the discrimination fat women face. In this question, the unnamed woman who sat near Sturgis trivialized the everyday struggles fat women have to deal with. She, like many other mainstream feminists, dismissed the movement, making her complicit in their oppression. Out of this dismissiveness arose a movement of fat women to validate themselves independently of the opinion of their thinner counterparts.

Source: “History.” Sinister Wisdom: A Multicultural Lesbian Literary & Art Journal,

Sturgis, Susanna J., “Is this the new thing we have to be politically correct about?” Sinister Wisdom, Issue 28, p.16-26


“Who did that to us?: Fat Women’s Self-Perception

Published in Issue 33 of Sinister Wisdom, this 11-section poem by Elana Dykewomon, who employs the feminist tactic of using “womon” as opposed to woman to imply women are not a derivative of man, creates an honest portrayal of a fat woman’s internal struggles to negotiate their perception of themself with that of society. This struggle can be seen with the repetition of questions such as “who did that to us?,” which is a question posed in sections III and IV as well as other sections through the poem.

Section II of this poem has an invasive tone as the narrator probes “the real fat womon” with intrusive questions (line 34). Many of the questions are personal questions about the woman’s body. The invasiveness of the questions is poorly hidden under the guise of a caring friend, implying that friendship entitles someone to ask probing questions to exoticize and marvel at someone’s body like they are some kind of exhibit. The poem ends with a climactic question: When your clothes are too tight / do you feel like you’re / exploding out of them / into the street / and all you want to do is / get out of sight” (lines 70-74)? This explosive question portrays an unfiltered version of what the “friends” really want to know about the fat woman.  They are probing for her shame, at least the shame they believe her to have.

Section III is seemingly a response to the questions asked in section II. In a switch of perspectives, the narrator begins by calling the “friends,” who asked the questions earlier, assholes. The narrator clearly picks up on the mal-intent of the inquiries and indicates that the questions asked of her be posed “as if [she] were an interesting specimen” rather than another human being (line 79). This illuminates how society was dehumanizing fat women.

Section IV of Dykewomon’s poem mentions several aspects of life that people view as things that lessen the value of women such as fatness, disability, and aging.  The narrator then goes on t0 acknowledge how all of these things are conflated and equated with ugliness. The narrator again asks “Who did that to us?” Who has made women hate themselves and other women with such fervor? This is a question Fat Liberation strived to answer. 

Sources: Dykewomon, Elana. “the real fat womon poems” Sinister Wisdom, Issue 33, 1987, p. 86-87

The Fat Black Woman Remembers by Grace Nichols

While the majority of the members of the Fat Underground were white and most of the information found on the Fat Liberation movement is centered on white women, this does not mean the movement was exclusive. Fat women of color also struggled to find their voice in mainstream second wave feminism. They too used poetry as liberation.

In her 1984 book “The Fat Black Woman’s Poems,” Guyanese-born poet Grace Nichols presents the fat black woman’s body as an object of divinity despite the demonization and fetishization of black bodies. The poem, “The Fat Black Woman Remembers,” is from this poetry anthology and calls upon a stereotype of fat black women: the Aunt Jemima. The image of Aunt Jemima is a caricature that is based in the mammy archetype used in minstrel shows during and after American slavery. Nichols acknowledges the origin of the Jemima stereotype when mentioning that “the Jovial Jemima” pressed “little white heads/ against her big aproned breasts” alluding to the childcare services of a fat female slave due to her assumed matronliness (lines 4, 11-12). This legacy of slavery and oppression shapes the way black women were viewed based on their weight in a way that does not affect women of other races and Nichols uses her poetry to illuminate this fact.

Source: Nichols, Grace. “From ‘The Fat Black Woman’s Poems’.” Ambit, no. 97, 1984, pp. 2–6. JSTOR, JSTOR,