Is fat liberation expressly political in its aims, or is it ‘merely’ a consumer rights movement? It’s a provocative question, I know. My fatness has been at the centre of my feminism since I was a teenager; the idea that size was one among many axes of oppression was sacrosanct and separating my experiences of sexism from the weight-based harassment and discrimination I received was difficult. These are tenets I still (at least to some extent) hold to be true, but my relationship to fat politics in its current guise has been troubled by commitment to radical feminism and anti-capitalism. In this post I want to question the foci of fat politics by articulating the relationship between fatness and three feminist problems: sexual harassment and rape, pornography and transgenderism.
True fat confessions
The favoured literary form of fatness is the confessional. Everyone is familiar with it. Taking up the therapeutic and medico-commercial discourses around fatness and weight-loss, the author constructs a fat subjectivity by narrativizing the relationship between her body and the world. How much does she weigh? How did she become so fat? What horrors has she been subjected to as a fat woman? True, this process can be more or less subversive and self-reflexive, but it almost always positions the reader as prurient spectator and author as awe-inspiring spectacle. Whatever its form, the confessional capitalises on fatphobic emotions of shock, awe and disgust, and the woman it takes as object is little differentiated from the circus fat lady of yore. Sometimes she talks back, but her voice is often ventriloquised through the discourse of therapy and medicine.
In her work on fat stigma in the 19th century, Joyce Huff (2001) speaks of a ‘‘narrativizing gaze’’ to which the fat body is subjected: ‘‘The disciplinary stare to which the corpulent body was subjected reduced the body to its culturally relevant trait, its corpulence, transforming it into a legible text and inserting it into a narrative framework.’’ The confessional, even in its most radical iteration, seeks to make fat bodies legible through a similar process of narrativisation. This reduction of the fat body to its corpulence is irresistible. It’s almost impossible to articulate oneself as a political subject without speaking of fatness as an abnegation of one’s personhood or giving in to the cultural injunction to explain fatness as a trait which is voluntarily acquired and may be just as easily shed. As an early fat activist quoted in Amy Erdman Farrell’s book Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture comments “Fat was the crisis area, the area where our identification ran the highest and where we felt most strongly persecuted.”
This raises a question: how do we talk about how our fatness has shaped our lives and eclipsed our humanity without yielding to the pressure to furnish it with a narrative? For this reason I want to move beyond the confessional in this post or at the very least acknowledge and foreground its problems. While personal experience is the bedrock of my engagement with fat politics, such that it is almost impossible to talk about one without invoking the other, I don’t want to reproduce these effects in my critique.
Fat politics as consumer rights and the critique of femininity
One of the things that troubles me about fat politics is the extent to which it uses the language of civil rights to prosecute demands which fall into the category of consumer rights, and the concomitant effect of expanding industries which profit from patriarchal beauty ideals. This latter criticism has got me into trouble before. For many women the power asymmetries between masculinity and femininity are ideological rather than material; femininity according to this account is an ‘identity’, a property which inheres within people irrespective of and independent to biological sex, socialization and differing social and economic incentives to comply. For these women, critiquing femininity and feminine beauty practices is itself inherently misogynist or ‘femmephobic’. I reject this view and will expand upon my reasons why later. For now lets concentrate on the consumer rights portion of my thesis.
Radical fat critiques of the ‘body positivity’ movement abound. Many feminists have critiqued, for example, Dove’s ‘Real Beauty’ campaign as disingenuous; the brand’s owner Unilever was also the parent company of Slimfast, Lynx and Fair & Lovely skin-whitening cream. How could a company which profits from fatphobic and racist beauty standards and advertises men’s deodorant with sexist tropes about women possibly be authentic? These sort of ad campaigns are viewed as appropriating and diluting the political program of feminism for their own ends, while inevitably circumscribing, as it expands our concept of beauty. Other writers have argued that ‘body positivity’ movement excludes and marginalises fat people and their particular struggles and that it needs to be differentiated from fat acceptance and liberation.
However, these developments might be seen as a partial taking up of the movement’s demands: the part most palatable to and easily assimilated by neoliberalism. Fat politics from its inception, has been, at least in part, a consumer rights movement. One of its founding documents, the Fat Liberation Manifesto, written by members of The Fat Underground Collective, Judy Freespirit and Aldebaran in 1973 lays out a seven-point program that foreshadows the contradictory relationship between fat women and commercial interests.
The Fat Underground was an explicitly feminist organisation whose members sought to “reclaim power over [their] bodies and [their] lives.” Conceiving of their struggle as “allied with the struggles of other oppressed groups against classism, racism, sexism, ageism, capitalism, imperialism, and the like,” The Fat Underground was explicit in rejecting the commercial interests which profited from fat stigma, which they connected to sexism and patriarchal beauty ideals:
“2. We are angry at mistreatment by commercial and sexist interests. These have exploited our bodies as objects of ridicule, thereby creating an immensely profitable market selling the false promise of avoidance of, or relief from, that ridicule.”
Anti-capitalist, the Fat Underground singled out “so-called “reducing” industries, such as diet book, appetite suppressants, diet foods and drugs as the enemies of fat women, arguing that science colluded with medical and financial interests to continue the oppression of fat people. However, although some of this was expressly political (one member interrupted a conference of psychological and medical professionals to claim the effect of these industries was tantamount to “genocide,”) much of it falls within the domain of consumer rights. For instance, the group called for diet industries to be carefully and publicly scrutinised, to take responsibility for their false claims and the potentially deleterious effects on consumers. Members took as a central demand “equal access to goods” and singled out discrimination by insurance companies and the fashion and garment industries.
In a country (USA) where provision of essential goods and services is almost the exclusive domain of private industry, this positions fat women in a contradictory relationship to consumer culture, repudiating some elements but advocating for the expansion of markets to accommodate women’s everyday needs. In spite of this tension, The Fat Underground managed to explain fat women’s oppression as being at the confluence of patriarchy and capitalism, including a substantial critique of “reducing industries” as a feminine beauty practices nested within a complex matrix of social relations. However, fat politics has increasingly become a consumer rights movement, focusing on transparency in advertising and evidence-based medicine (albeit uncoupled from pernicious commercial interests), equitable access to public spaces (for example airplane seats) and the fashion and garment industries, and sympathetic media representation and this development is consistent with neoliberalism
This is not to disparage fat politics. Many of these things, although imbricated in a series of commercial engagements that reduce political engagement to individual market transactions, are connected to the satisfaction of basic human needs (in the Marxian sense)- for example clothing, food and medical care. Moreover, the incapacity to meet these needs directly affects fat women’s ability to participate in the public sphere and perpetuates discrimination. We do need to be critical, however, if these demands become less expressly political and isolated from analysis of categories of race, class and sex. I think this sometimes happens with respect to fat women’s relationship to the fashion and beauty industries. However, rather than blaming fat women who fully and enthusiastically embrace femininity and promote and lobby for a fashion industry more responsive to the needs and desires of consumers, I think we need to understand this trend in relation to fat women’s complicated, paradoxical relationship to sexuality and sexualisation.
In the second part of this post I want to argue that fat women are simultaneously desexualised and hypersexualised in our society, and that sexual attractiveness is tied to women’s compliance with certain beauty norms embedded within a culture of compulsory heterosexuality. Building on this analysis I will talk about fat women’s particular, specific experiences of rape and sexual harassment and the abject fat woman. The abject fat woman is the woman who resists feminine beauty practices and heterosexuality and, in doing so, confirms and embodies negative stereotypes around feminism.
Further, I will address fat women’s representation in pornography and how fatphobia is reinforced by the pornographic logic of sexual specification which marks women who deviate from an increasingly narrow range of sexual attractiveness as somehow ‘other’: doubly dehumanising them in the process. I will also argue that popular media representations of fat people- what Cooper terms “headless fatties” and Morrison Thomson calls ‘‘spectacular decapitation’’ (the practice of depicting the obese body without a head) – is akin to reductively sexualised, dehumanising images of women in pornography and sexist advertising.
Finally, drawing on the work of philosopher Cressida Heyes I will tentatively examine continuities between the diet industry and medical transition.