19 September 2011

Is FatBooth always fatphobic?

Double chin created without the jiggery-pokery of FatBooth!
100% non-digital! Hilarious! Exciting!
FatBooth is an iPhone app that adds a digital double chin to a picture of your face and makes thin people look sort of fat.

I've avoided this phenomenon largely because I don't own an iPhone, and I already look fat because I am fat. Some of my thin online friends have been playing with it recently and posting their pictures on Facebook, so now it's suddenly become a lot more present to me.

I was offended when I first saw the pictures and the comments after them, all consisting of onomatopaeic laughing and what looked like people choking with mirth. The digital double chins remind me of fat suits, more specifically Marisa Meltzer's article comparing fat suits to blackface. It's also a weird reversal of the headless fatty, where fat people are just as absent from the discourse surrounding the image as with pictures where our heads are cropped away. I felt that FatBooth is an appropriation of ersatz fatness, of people like me, and that a digital double chin tells you nothing at all about what it's like to be fat, it just turns it into a joke.

I went on to wonder if my authenticity as a 'real' fat person mattered. I was once told in the past that I was not fat enough to have a stake in fat politics (by an author who lost weight, wrote about it and still maintains their own stake in the matter, ahem). Anyone can talk about fat, I don't have the last word on it, it's important that people of all sizes engage. What makes this tricky is that fat people are very often made silent by obesity discourse and that fat hatred has widespread negative material effects on the quality of people's lives. A group of thin friends making a joke of a pretend double chin will never replace my lived embodiment, you could argue that it's not supposed to, a joke is just a joke, but I think a joke says more than that.

Seeing people's FatBooth pictures was like witnessing thin people's prurient obsession with fat embodiment. I thought: "This is how they see us when they can't conceive that we would see them doing this, or feel implicated in their actions, they are so profoundly immune to our daily grind." Imagining flesh on your bones is a real thrill when you don't have much of your own. It's a dangerous thing to imagine.

Following this, I tried to think of FatBooth as a tool that people use in different ways. I never thought of my Facebook friends who used FatBooth as fatphobic, so I tried to think about how non-fatphobes might use it, or if it was possible to use FatBooth without being fatphobic. I wondered if FatBooth could be something that enables people to think about fat in radical or progressive ways. Could it inspire empathy? Could it enable thin people to imagine themselves fat with no moral connotations? Could it enlighten?

If people using FatBooth lived in social contexts where there was no war on obesity, or endemic hatred of fat, then these things might be possible. But FatBooth appears to me as entirely a product of fatphobia, the way it frames the act of imagining oneself fat is intimately tied to dominant obesity discourse. FatBooth presents fat as funny, pitiful, fearful and Other; fat is something pathologically added-on to authentic slenderness; fat people are not recognisable as humans with agency, thoughts and feelings of their own, let alone politics, community, creativity or rage. If there are radical applications for FatBooth, I want to hear about them – but I won't be holding my breath.

Meltzer, Marisa (2006) 'Are Fat Suits the New Blackface? Hollywood’s Big New Minstrel Show', in: Jervis, L. & Zeisler, A. (eds.) Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 267-269.

PS. This post got some diet company spam which made me laugh because it missed the point of the post heroically. Here's the text: "Nowadays people who have normal weight seem unnatural and not normal! Obesity is considered almost as a normal condition! And this thing with the iphone is just not cool!" Keep going spam-drone...


maggiemunkee said...

the sudden appearance of fatbooth pictures in my facebook feed was one of the big reasons i decided to delete my facebook. i just hate it so so much. i cannot think of anything positive that can come from fatbooth, other than freeing me from facebook.

Heather said...

I hadn't heard about this new phenomenon. I don't have an iphone and I haven't had any friends post anything like that (and i'd give them a stern talking to if I did!). I could almost say that I'm shocked.. but I'm not. What I am is saddened. Maybe today is just a bad day but sometimes it feels like all of the fat activism and fat acceptance and education that we do is completely futile. I'm sure all activists feel like this at some point but really? digitally making yourself fat so people can laugh at how horrible it would be to be fat? *sigh*

Anonymous said...

I imagine it being used by thin people to shame and scare each other. Somebody doesn't like you? Boom! You're fat (even if only pretend-fat) and your fat picture gets plastered all over the internet. Ha ha ha.
Does your lover want more control over you? She or he fattens up your picture and declares that if you ever start looking like that, (s)he will leave you. The coach at your local gym makes a fat picture of you and a muscular picture of you (must be some app for this too) and asks you which you want to be.
I can't imagine this app being used for much that's fat positive but perhaps you're a tad less cynical or more imaginative than I.


Jennifer said...

a joke is just a joke, but I think a joke says more than that.

Yes, was talking about this just the other day and remembered a quote, "By their jokes ye shall know them". (I encountered it in a novel by Aline Templeton, though I don't know if it existed before that or if it was made up for the novel.)