Women’s rights. LGBT rights. Racial rights. Fat rights? ‘Fat’ and ‘feminism’ are becoming buzzwords quicker than we can say, “pass the pancakes.” The fact that we are suffering from collective body dysmorphia—where size 0 models still rule supreme and we go to great extents to get the perfect, largely unattainable (read: Photoshopped) body—cannot be denied. Here at SheRa Mag we are strong believers in body diversity and are fed up with (most of) the media portraying one type of female body. But not more fed up than fat feminists. Although by looking at ‘fat’ through a non-health lens, are fat feminists disregarding health in the process?
The Fat Acceptance Movement originated in the late 1960s, but really gained momentum with the publication of the seminal 1978 book Fat is a Feminist Issue by the mommy of fat feminism herself, Susie Orbach. The basic premise—in Orbach’s words—is that “our idea of a healthy body is so destabilized that insecure people have come to bolster their own bodies by deeming others—those with fat bodies—less worthy, less capable and less employable.”
The biggest problem, Orbach argues, is how concerned we’ve become with our bodies, so much so that they have become commodified. We are constantly looking for ways to fix our bodies and the body has become “something that you buy.” (This is echoed by Naomi Wolf in Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women, who argues that ideals of body size have been constructed by the beauty and cosmetics industries.)
Although Orbach’s book wasn’t popular with everyone, it did give birth to other writers and scholars to start questioning what ‘fat’ really means—and to look at it from a number of different lenses (I also employ the word ‘fat’ throughout the article to match this literature). But what the majority of fat scholars did agree with is that fat is a feminist issue. As Janna L. Fikkan and Esther D. Rothblum contend in their paper “Is Fat a Feminist Issue? Exploring the Gendered Nature of Weight Bias,” fat is a feminist issue because “culture allows for much less deviation from aesthetic ideals for women than it does for men, meaning that many more women than men end up feeling badly about their (normal and healthy) bodies.”
And so for the past 40 odd years, fat feminists, fat scholars, and fat activists have been studying and fighting weight-based discrimination that they argue is so rife in our societies. And, well, they’re not wrong. According to NAAFAO, weight discrimination is the fourth most prevalent form of discrimination and the third most prevalent form of discrimination among women (after gender and age). The International Journal of Obesity reported in 2010 that weight discrimination has increased by 66% in the last 10 years, and Abigail Saguy, the author of What’s Wrong with Fat? and Professor of Sociology and Gender Studies at UCLA, told me that US studies have shown that weight-based discrimination is especially a problem for women, white women in particular.
“In the current age, it has become politically incorrect to openly say racist things or openly say ‘I hate poor people,’ but yet it’s still socially acceptable in many progressive circles to say that you can’t stand fat people,” laments Saguy.
I looked into some studies that have been done on fat people from the 1980s onwards, and time and time again, they pointed to the fact that fat women don’t get as many opportunities as their slim counterparts do. This discrimination is evident in employment and education opportunities, in romantic relationships, and in health settings. These ranged from a 2007 study by Conley and Glauber which found that ‘obesity’ is associated with a 17.51% reduction on women’s wages, to male college students in a 2005 study who rated ‘obese’ women as less attractive than women who were missing a limb, in a wheelchair, mentally ill, or had a sexually transmitted disease. According to the aforementioned paper by Fikkan and Rothblum, studies consistently show that fat women have lower rates of cohabitation and marriage than thinner women. And a 2006 study by Amy et al. showed that close to three-quarters of the women surveyed reported they experienced barriers to seeking health care, which included disrespectful treatment, embarrassment about being weighed, negative attitudes by healthcare providers, unsolicited advice to lose weight, and the use of gowns, medical equipment, or exam tables that were too small.
In the States, fat people were denied healthcare up until the Affordable Health Care Act was introduced in 2009. If you didn’t have healthcare coverage and had a BMI of over 40, you could be denied health care on the basis that you had a preexisting condition called ‘morbid obesity.’ Even now, employers can charge their employees who have a BMI over a certain amount more for their healthcare, Saguy tells me.
Body shaming is a dangerous business (pardon the pun) and in America, especially, it is even more perilous as it starts at such a young age. Childhood obesity is one of the factors being targeted in public health campaigns, which engage in a blame culture and tell children that their bodies are not good enough. Saguy tells me of a recent campaign in Atlanta that showed depressed looking fat kids with taglines such as, “Chubby kids may not outlive their parents,” “Big Bones didn’t make me this way, big meals did,” and—my favorite for all the wrong reasons—“He has his father’s eyes, his laugh, and maybe even his diabetes.” Talk about dirty tactics.
Body shaming and weight-based discrimination can also lead to disordered eating, and at extremes can lead to clinical anorexia and bulimia. The Journal of American Medical Association reports that 75% of women have disordered eating and 116 million American adults are dieting at any given time. What’s even more disturbing is that 80% of 10 year olds have already started dieting. “In this particular time and place, women are penalized if they don’t correspond to the thin beauty ideal,” says Saguy.
That we live in a dangerous, unhealthy culture of “slimming and dieting, of bingeing and purging, of ‘fat chat’ with your friends (‘I’m so chubby,” “No, babes, I’m the one who’s chubby’),” as Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett writes in The Guardian, is no secret.
I spoke to Marilyn Wann, fat activist and author of the hugely popular FAT!SO?. At size 28, she’s a proud “fat rebel.” Wann decided to become an activist when she was 27 years old. “I had what I call my Really Bad Day. Two things happened. First, I was having dinner with a guy I liked and he told me he was embarrassed to introduce me to some of his friends because I am fat. I got home, opened the mail, and learned that a health insurance company had decided not to offer me coverage at any price because of my ‘morbid obesity.’ This double whammy of exclusion—on personal and institutional levels—taught me that nothing I did to hide or avoid the topic of my weight would protect me from weight prejudice and discrimination.” After a few tragic suicide deaths of children and teens who had been cruelly bullied and teased for being fat so much so that they had ended their lives, Wann’s decision to become a fat activist was firmly cemented.
Weight-based discrimination in a social context of white patriarchal dominance, in which being thin is socially valued has tended to result in fewer opportunities, body shaming, and even death. But although the male gaze is still firmly in place in much of mass media, small strides are being made—Rubenesque bodies are making a comeback and a broader range of bodies is being represented.
With more celebrities and self-made social media stars embracing different body shapes along with the growth of the “plus-size” fashion industry, could weight-based discrimination—even to a small extent—be diminishing? Our TV screens are no longer flooded with only size 0 actresses; we have the likes of Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling, and Amy Schumer who are although not ‘fat’ by any stretch of the word, are representative of the more ‘normal’ female body—lumps, bumps, and all. The cast of Orange is the New Black has every body shape on the spectrum. And singers such as Kelly Clarkson and Adele are also providing young girls with more positive body image icons.
In the 1990s, studies showed that on TV, below-average weight women are over-represented, compared with the general population, and receive significantly more positive comments from male characters regarding body weight and shape than heavier women do. These days, larger-sized women such as Melissa McCarthy and Rebel Wilson play leading roles in Hollywood blockbusters.
Body diversity has also transcribed in the rise of ‘plus-size’ and ‘curvy’ fashion blogs that have caught steam in the last five to ten years. Tanesha Awashti, author of Girl with Curves, says that, “social media has played a huge role in showing women they can be fashionable and be proud of their bodies. Before, women only had access to magazines which show one form of beauty.” The representation of different body types in the media has also meant that the younger generation realizes “that they don’t have to fit the cookie cutter beauty ideal we typically see on the red carpet, runways, and in magazines.”
While Saguy advises to be skeptical of the “plus-size” fashion industry, which can be criticized for using women in the normal weight range as models, Wann welcomes the increasing political awareness and commitment among some of the “fatshion” companies. “I think clothing is important because what a person is ‘allowed’ to wear in society says a lot about who we are ‘allowed’ to be. So thong bikinis are political and so is the whole industry that sells clothing (or doesn’t sell clothing) to fat people. At the same time, the very term ‘plus-size’ is kinda closet-y and negative about fatness. It seems like a euphemism, to me. We don’t say minus-size.”
“The objectification of women’s bodies is so tiresome,” Wann goes on. “I think our definitions of attractiveness can expand to include all of us and we can reclaim clothing as a way to express our fabulousness.” Awashti concurs: “I think a woman’s body shape is her own personal business.”
A woman’s body shape is absolutely her own business. There’s no arguing with that. But whilst researching this piece, a niggling question was always there in the back of my mind, a question that is also the biggest hoo-ha surrounding fat feminism itself: the health question. The women who are championing the greater body diversity movement, from your Lena Dunhams to your curvy bloggers that rock a pair of culottes like it’s nobody’s business, have absolutely nothing wrong with their bodies—and highlight Fikkan and Rothblum’s point about the importance of fat feminism in stopping people feeling badly about their “normal and healthy” bodies. But what about the people whose bodies are so obese that their mobility is compromised, their risk of diseases increases, and that—as many of them attest—have a decreased quality of life?
Fat feminism aims to look at ‘fat’ through a different lens, rather than the health lens. But would it make more sense to look at fat as a feminist and a health issue—and should we be striving to find the balance between the two? Most women I know want to be healthy and strong and feel good about themselves. And I’m all for women (and people in general) of all shapes and sizes to be represented in the media, to be treated with respect, to get the same opportunities, and to not be discriminated against. That’s issue one—body shaming has to end NOW (and although I’ve never been overweight, I know what’s it like to have your body’s capacities not meeting people’s ideals, a fact I’m reminded every Pilates class when my fellow ‘sisters’ outright laugh at me every time I can’t do a backbend). Issue two is that—medically speaking—being obese can lead to a number of serious conditions, such as type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, some types of cancer, and stroke. The World Health Organization reports that 2.8 million people die as a result of being obese every year. How can we responsibly deal with weight problems without resorting to body shaming? Or as, many fat feminists claim, is it even any of our business?
Many fat feminists acknowledge that the weight gain which comes from food addiction is a mental health issue, and that people can become fat if they have medical issues that either cause weight gain or make weight management difficult. But others seem to be making excuses or outright denying the health/medical aspect. Fat activist Jes Baker, for instance, argues that fat was only considered a health concern from the 1880s, when something called the “Obesity Parasite” was made up by the upper classes in order to differentiate themselves and reclaim their social power over the lower classes (a Google search will uncover that it is only Baker who references this “Obesity Parasite,” although I can neither deny or confirm its existence).
Saguy confirms that there is a linear association between obesity and type 2 diabetes, but just as quickly points me to a body of literature about the “Obesity Paradox,” which shows that among people who have type 2 diabetes and heart disease, those with a BMI of over 30 are actually less likely to die than people in the normal weight category (there have also been a bunch of studies done that disprove the Obesity Paradox—I suggest you read up about it and decide for yourself). “The relationship between weight and health is much more complex than we tend to think,” she says. Agreed. “The health risks of those underweight are actually much higher.” Sure, being anorexic is not where we want to head. “People across the body range spectrum develop illnesses and all of us are going to die from one thing or another.” Um…yes.
“The ideas you mention are part of a worldview that is shaped by negative stereotypes and attitudes toward fat people,” says Wann when I pose the health question to her. “In that worldview, any and every health concern that any fat person ever gets must be caused somehow by our fat. This is not science; it’s stereotype and superstition. If we look at the same data without a fat-hating worldview, we might conclude that some fat people have slightly higher risk of some diseases because we face stigma and the stress of discrimination, because we’ve likely tried to lose weight lots of times and seen our weight go up and down which is not good for health, because we are less likely to be able to access medical care, and we’re more likely to encounter caregivers who have a lot of weight bias and who refuse to treat us for our real concerns and instead target us with dangerous and ineffective attempts to make us thin. We’re less likely to feel comfortable or welcomed in fitness environments. Fat people are also more likely to live in poverty, which is known to contribute to health problems.”
A correlation does seem to exist between poverty and higher body weight. Hyper mass production of every single food group we eat has left us fat and sick. Big corporations like McDonalds target families who are both financially poor and time poor and offer large meals for $3 a pop—which is considerably cheaper than a small head of organic broccoli. Saguy believes we should be having conversations about food distribution and production to address obesity. “There are serious political and economic issues [at play]…and we should be discussing issues of public resources, how certain foods take a lot more water than other foods.”
I’m interested in what other solutions there are for dealing with weight-based problems and discrimination and raising a generation of girls who are not so obsessed with their body size. Telling people to lose weight and celebrating underweight models is absolutely not the answer. So what is?
A popular initiative among fat activists is Healthy At Every Size, developed over the last 25 years by health, psychology, fitness, and nutrition professionals who say the inherent harm is focusing on weight and who wanted an approach that is better for health, happiness, and social justice. The approach was designed “to celebrate weight diversity, not having weight-loss goals, and as part of whatever health goals one might choose to have, reclaiming a weight-neutral way of relating to food and physical activity, and any other self-care behaviors,” points out Wann.
Orbach works closely with the British government to try to change the attitudes of mothers so that they don’t pass on their body issues to the next generation. She also believes attention should be diverted to commercial companies so they can understand what’s really happening. “We have to work with young women to enable them to have the confidence to contest and transform the narrow definitions of femininity and beauty.” The psychotherapist has also helped create Dove’s Real Women campaign (which was a catalyst for the many more diverse body campaigns that we’re seeing now) and also launched AnyBody, a website that encourages women to accept their bodies.
Wann thinks another solution is changing things about the fashion industry and implementing workplace safety laws for fashion models, as well as seeing a variety of body sizes being hired. “I am opposed to fashion or entertainment content that presents only one body type as attractive or valued. I would be opposed if only very fat people were presented as worth watching or caring about in media and advertising. I disagree with legislation banning fashion models below a certain weight.”
Fat shaming only makes us fatter and bodies are beautiful in different weights. But should bodies that are morbidly obese be celebrated as role models, just like should underweight bodies be? (And I understand the frustration and defiance of fat feminists who see the latter happening, with not much attention being paid, while everyone is telling fat people to lose weight). Beauty is not about weight, but health is. Let’s stop with the collective body dysmorphia, let’s chuck labels such as “plus-size” out the window, and let’s find proper solutions to deal with complex weight and health issues that don’t engage in body shaming.
Main image courtesy of Katie Soze Photography.