16 March 2016

Roots of fat activism #5: Stigma

I'm pretty sure that Erving Goffman was not a fat activist. It's been a while since I picked up a copy of Stigma, and I'm not sure if the book even specifically mentions fat people. Did he ever meet any fat activists? If so I haven't been able to find any documentation, though I love to imagine it. But I'm including this work here because it was a foundational text for early fat activists, and worth a read for anyone interested in the movement.

Goffman is one of the big names of sociology and, yes, he is another dead white guy, so there are a few strikes against him already. But Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, first published in 1963 towards the middle of his career, is surprisingly readable and relatable in a field often noted for its impenetrability.

In this book Goffman explores what it is like to be a stigmatised person. He identifies different kinds of stigma based on character traits, physical difference and group identity. He writes about how stigmatised people manage their stigma, for example through compensation, passing, or through hypervigilance. To Goffman, stigma is a means of social control; by creating a group of shameful outcasts, societies use stigma to keep people in line. He writes about people, he talks to people and reflects their experiences, although he theorises his work, it is built on the people's lived experiences and that's partly why the book is so accessible.

It's not hard to see how fat activists looking for theory and evidence to support their experiences would find this book very powerful. Judy Freespirit mentioned Goffman as an influence on the Fat Underground when I interviewed her in 2010, and there are a great many Fat Studies texts that refer to Stigma. The book is also one of those texts that bridges fat and disability, Goffman writes about impairment quite a bit in Stigma, and it is easy to see that there are many overlaps.

There is an emphasis on reducing stigma in quite a bit of the more progressive scholarly literature on fat and health but I think that this sometimes misses the point by making stigma too much of an individual experience, possibly confusing it with shame. The literature on fat activism is quite patchy as well, and scholars often argue that stigma is the primary concern of the movement. Stigma is important, but there is more to fat activism than that, as I explain and sometimes, unfortunately, the movement has a hand in reproducing stigma.

Stigma remains relevant today as a way of understanding the scapegoating of fat people, or anyone really, as a social mechanism that keeps power in place. No wonder the normals (Goffman's term, a beauty!) get so upset when stigmatised people refuse the mark they have been handed. Stigma is a book of its time (it pre-dates punk, for example, which has been a useful touchstone for me in transforming stigma), its more scholarly than activist though there is a concern with the unfairness of stigma, but one of its enduring effects for me is that powerful though stigmatising may be, it is not inevitable. There's an unrealness about stigma, even though it is often deeply felt, that means that there are possibilities for relinquishing it and of taking back power. This is a point that I try to make in my own book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement.

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