06 August 2013

Fat activism is not always about being skinny

There's been a little burst of articles recently, blog posts, pieces for independent websites as well as big media, about how thin women have it hard too, and that 'skinny-shaming' is as bad as 'fat-shaming'.

(First, a slight digression. Although I think that shame is fairly central to these concepts, I think the term 'shaming' is a bit limited here because of its individualism. I think that the interactions between people that happen at the sharp end of fat hatred are not only about that moment or the people involved, but that they are underscored by broader social values. The guy on the escalator looking at me and berating his kid for not taking the stairs because they don't want to get fat may be a fatphobe, but he's acting within a context where concepts such as 'obesogenic', 'childhood obesity,' the National Child Measurement Programme, and 'the global obesity epidemic' are in full swing, for example, and have real, material effects on people. These concepts haven't come from nowhere, either. I use fat hatred and fatphobia too, though these are also limited terms for the phenomenon. We need more language.)

I think of these articles as a kind of backlash that illustrates how arguments central to fat activism, once extremely marginal, are becoming part of the mainstream. They're by women who are disgruntled that fat activism has not stopped them bearing the brunt of hateful comments about their bodies.

I am sorry that anyone has to defend their bodies against socially-sanctioned hate. Sometimes, as these writers explain, hateful comments come from fat people who use hate to refute the hate directed at them. Clich├ęs about 'real women' being 'curvy' for example (if ever there was a word saturated with self-hatred it is the substitution of the euphemism 'curvy' for 'fat'), and the use of 'skinny bitch' or 'stick insect' as insults are part of this strategy of bolstering up oneself at the expense of others. This is certainly a problem within the movement. Creating a counter-attack that demeans thinner people is not a viable route to liberation. I don't think that thin people are the enemy. Upholders of institutional fat hatred are usually normatively-sized, but that doesn’t mean that every thin person has it in for fat people.

But it is also a mistake to think of thin as the opposite of fat, and therefore essential to fat activism. This is an easy mistake to make because of the popular assumption that anorexia/starvation and obesity are mirror images of each other, as well as the argument that the social hatred of fat people's bodies affects people of all sizes. Nicky Diamond, a feminist academic writing in the 1980s, argued that fat and thin are in an unavoidable relationship with each other, they define each other and are meaningless alone. But I think that this is becoming less so as fat community and culture become established; I see this as being about acknowledging and communicating the particular qualities and experiences of being fat. Mostly the fat in fat activism is really just about fat.

Thin is not fat. Just as my experiences of fatness will differ from others', especially those who are much fatter than me, or relatively normative, so thin people's experiencing of their bodies is different to fat. In addition, sure, most of us live in circumstances where it is difficult to feel free in our bodies, but fat people experience this in particular ways that thinner or normatively-sized people don't. Access to healthcare is different, for example, so is representation, and so on.

Perhaps it is unrealistic for thin and/or normatively-sized women, including those recovering from eating disorders where they have become very thin, to expect to find all the answers they are looking for within this movement. Fat activism may have the indirect outcome of enabling thinner women to live more freely, but that is not its primary purpose. There are a rash of, rather weak in my opinion, 'body-image' activist interventions, which thinness is much more central, and which tend to have the usual problems associated with corporate sponsorship of activism, a conservative agenda and the like. Perhaps the task here is for thinner people, including women, who want social change, to reinvigorate a body-related activism with some radical politics.

To me, there is quite a bit of irony in the idea of thin people being disappointed with fat feminist activism because fat people have been locked out of the conversation about our bodies for a long time. This is especially true in medicine and health, but also happens where you'd think there would be a more nuanced and liberatory approach. Normatively-sized feminists continue to dominate discourse about fat in academia, for example. Susan Bordo's Unbearable Weight is still required reading on curricula about the body, and Lauren Berlant and Elspeth Probyn have published articles groaning with fatphobia, yet maintain their status within the canon. Even the successful academics who are more sympathetic to Fat Studies tend to be thin.

This post is not an argument for separatism. I do think there is potential for fat activism that includes people of all sizes, and not as fat people/allies, but as equals. I started The Chubsters as a mixed intervention, for example, and it's been great to see normatively-sized people get on board with that and realise that they can contribute to things too. I guess I'm asking thinner people, the kinds of women who have been writing these gripey articles, to wake up a bit and stop blaming fat activism for not fixing their lives, perhaps not to assume that it's always all about them, to notice that this might be a different way of seeing, understanding and acting in relation to our bodies.


Berlant, Lauren. (2007) 'Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency)', Critical Inquiry, 33, 754-780.

Bordo, Susan. (2003) Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and The Body, 10th anniversary ed., Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Diamond, Nicky. (1985) 'Thin is the Feminist Issue', Feminist Review, 19, 45-64.

Probyn, Elspeth. (2008) 'Silences behind the Mantra: Critiquing Feminist Fat', Feminism & Psychology, 18(3), 401-404.


Ming Seiko said...

I'm never one for separatism, however, thin people need to realize that fat activism is NOT about them. Yes, there are instances where thin people encounter bias, but they do not encounter the kind of institutionalized, sanctioned prejudice that fat people encounter literally every day or our lives, coming at us from multiple sources.
By comparison, as a white person, I can never know what it is like to live life as a person of color. I can imagine, I can sympathize, but I have not lived it. It is wrong of me to derail the conversation by saying things like "but not all white people are like that" or "but white people encounter bias too." Which I, in fact, have. But I do not live day to day with systematic, socially sanctioned bias for the color of my skin.

Ming Seiko said...

Regarding my previous reply: I'm Japanese-Chinese-Caucasian. I can "pass" for white. (Think Keanu Reeves, who is Chinese, Hawaiian and English but "looks" Caucasian.) I don't encounter the kind of bias that blacks, Latinos, or full-blood Asians encounter.

none of your beeswax said...

i can't help but see the parallels with how some men ask "what has feminism done for me?"

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks both.

Toners said...

Love this. Yes yes yes.

max power, from fat UP, berlin said...

love the article, I like to use fatnegativity, sounds a little more "overallish", the whole phobia stuff always individualises it and the phenomenons don't show the summed up charateristics of a phobie: no one was bitten by a fattie, so they now are scared of fatties, they dont always try to distance themself (see intense trolling)

Sleepydumpling said...

Another great piece Charlotte. Like any other privileged group, the old cry of "But thin people get shamed too!" is no different to men bellowing "But men are sometimes the victim of violence too!" or white folks whinging about when they are going to get their "white history month". It's tired, it's old, and it's derailing. It's just another method of those with privilege demanding that the attention is on them at all times.

Anonymous said...

This was a great article, Charlotte. I, too, have seen a number of mass media articles and blogs that mention some mythical 'fat privilege' that estranges the thin and problematizes their existence. While I don't argue that no one should be telling others they consider too thin (is there such a thing?) to 'eat a sandwich' (For some reason this is something I have read in this context a number of times. Who knew that sandwiches were considered so evil they instantly cause you to gain weight?)

It is possible to argue the point that people should not be stigmatized for their body size or shape whether they be thin or fat. However, I have also found that many of these essays include jibes at fat people by saying that they (the authors) shouldn't be penalized for taking care of themselves. When they mention this in relation to fat positivity or activism it is to point out that we fatties just do not care about our selves or our bodies.

Thanks for including the references. It is easy, especially being new to fat positive research and scholarship, to focus only on work done by fat positive writers. However, articles like Berlant's offer opportunities to expand my own thinking through critique. I have read this particular article (Slow Death) before and it filled me with anger at how Berlant has decided that we are all eating our way to death and doesn't seem to understand that bodies come in different shapes and sizes. Her reasoning seems to be that we are killing ourselves for the momentary pleasure we find in food because we can't access "the good life" we have been promised. I am still unable to think it through all the way due to the feelings of bitterness and puzzlement that someone so obviously invested in thinking deeply on subjects has decided to bypass talking to any people and just hypothesize about their lives from a distance. It is so demeaning and fat phobic and hating.

Alina from T.O.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, everyone.