Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture
by Amy Erdman Farrell (2011)
This book was a real eye-opener for me. I read my favorite Size Acceptance and Fat Activist blogs* almost daily, but it’s usually quick. Like brushing my teeth – it seals up those chinks in my armor that might leave me vulnerable to those who want me to hate my body, so I can go out in the world and do my best to love not just my body, but every body. Fat Shame was a longer time commitment over a shorter period of time, and hit some personal buzzwords for me that enhanced my understand of the contemporary discourses around weight and modernity immensely.
Overall the book strikes a great balance between being plain and simply spoken and putting in some of those academia-power-words. It is organized well, has a handy summary of the chapters at the end of Chapter 1, and stays pretty neat and clean around its themes and points, tracing strands of related thought from the late 1800s to the present. It glossed over most of the middle 20th century, but Farrell’s analyses of everything from post cards to the suffrage movement to the Obamas are thoughtful and thought-provoking.
She really struck me when she discussed the associations between fat and self-discipline. Now, I know to my core how our culture thinks fat people are lazy, undisciplined slobs who just can’t seem to get it together to put down the french fries and pick up the baseball bat. We’re expected to bootstrap our ways through physical malady, disability, economic hardship, emotional hardship, mental illness, and any of a million other things become thin, which carries with it what for many are mythical associated properties of “attractive,” “healthy,” and “fit.” What I hadn’t managed to do was pick out the connection between discipline and modernity.
“in Europe; when we’re fat it’s because we have character.” -Dylan Moran
I’m not qualified to comment on whether or not the American obsession with bootstrap theory comes from Protestant ethics or not, but I think it’s quite clear that American culture assumes personal responsibility in circumstances where that is, at best, murky, and at worst, scientifically totally unwarranted. I don’t think Dylan Moran is wrong above. Well, I think he is wrong, but that the general cultural perception he outlines is very much alive and well in our brains. Of course, the fat European with character he conjures is usually aristocratic, probably rich, definitely white, and overwhelmingly privileged. In short: zie is the epitome of old-fashioned society, premodern, amodern, maybe even anti-modern. And to a certain extent, we’re okay with this person. Zie adds a bit of florid color to the fabric of society. (Don’t look at the working class fat people, the fat people of color, the fat people who are uneducated, etc. Keep walking.)
American aristocracy is of a very different sort, in the popular imagination. It’s a cult of fame, youth, and slenderness. It’s modern, by which we also mean disciplined, efficient, and scientific. Farrell lays out, in Chapter 1, the cultural and economic shift that occurred when economic opportunities in America began shaking up established patterns of social dominance. The aristocracy were assumed to be inherently better at handling wealth, since they had been born and bred to it, while the nouveau riche and the new middle class began expanding and consuming without check, unable to control themselves in the face of acquirable abundance. So the story went, anyway.
And so thinness became associated with self-discipline, with rationality, moral virtue, and intelligence, and fatness with the opposite. Farrell pulls no punches, explicitly teasing out the layers of racist discourse surrounding and accruing around fat bodies. They became symbols for primitive cultures and thinking, hypersexuality, poverty, and stupidity. Her examination of the women’s suffrage movement is fascinating, as the anti-suffragists attempted to discredit the suffragists as fat harpies who were too stupid and evolutionarily backwards to participate as modern citizens, and the suffragists lampoon the anti-suffragists as fat, rich, out of touch old folks who couldn’t move with the times. i really appreciated that Farrell explicitly points out how racist ideation around fatness and civilization played a huge role in the split between white suffragists and black suffragists – caricatured by anti-suffragists as heavy, mannish, domineering, and sometimes black, the white suffragists rejected ties with black suffragists and the civil rights movement to portray themselves as slim, white, beautiful modern women in possession of disciplined slim bodies that symbolically represented their disciplined minds.
That’s the part I find so fascinating – the intersection of fitness for citizenship with modern with thin. It blew apart part of the woodwork that hid the inner workings of fat hatred from me. Fat people are not only stupid, not only lazy, not only gross, not only throwbacks to some more primitive kind of human ruled by bodily urges, but unfit for citizenship and undeserving of a voice in a democracy. That bit hit me in the vote. Any thinking person has known since the beginning of time that someone’s appearance is no indicator of the quality of hir character, and yet since the time of women’s suffrage, and probably before, appearance has played an absolutely crucial role in the rhetorical battlegrounds of ideology. The right to vote, for me as a woman, was won in part by a campaign that actively promoted the idea that looks could tell you something about a person’s worth – and we wonder how we ended up here today, when one’s body is, in many cases, the cover by which the character is dismissed, the war on “obesity” makes war on fat people, and our “modern citizens” are encouraged to hate their bodies at every turn, no matter how well they fit the conventionally attractive mold.
[Updated to add/clarify] Although I got the fat=uncivilized (in the sense of “modern and civilized” versus “primitive and uncivilized,” not as in “uncouth”) on the the level that we’re supposed to get it (the unconscious inculcation of kyriarchical assumptions), I hadn’t teased that particular thread out of the tangled ball of fat hatred before. To be modern is to be intelligent, logical and rational, disciplined, scientific, and savvy (to have your ear to the right patch of earth and to know what to do with what you hear), all symbolically represented by thinness. To be fat conjures racist, cultural imperialist notions of primitiveness, bodily urges, irrationality, superstition, undisciplined, and stupid. I say superstition deliberately, because the way our culture discusses fat people and their actions often conjures discursive strategies and phrases used to describe medieval peasants, or really any cultural belief not belonging to upper-class white American/British society. Even some people who advocate against harmful dieting and weight-loss programs call their purveyors “snake oil salesman” and imply that fat people are just too dazzled and stupid to logically and rationally realize the truth.
There are probably indeed some people who are dazzled by the smoke and mirrors, the photoshopping and photographic techniques used in before-and-after pictures, but the root of this problem of recognition is not that fat people are stupid or irrational or “primitive” in their thinking. The problems are manifold: the extreme amount of money poured into advertising campaigns, the scientifically unsupported alarmism of so-called experts, lives to busy to be spent fact-checking, and – the largest contributor – fat hatred. Yes, fat hatred. Why do people considering gastric bypass surgery sometimes refuse to speak to people who have already undergone it? Why do people whose diets have failed them over and over again try yet again? Why are some people willing to spend the rest of their lives counting every calorie and weighing themselves obsessively in order to maintain weight loss? Because our culture hates you if you are fat, and you cannot escape the policing, discrimination, and casually dropped insinuations and insults that are all pervasive and perceived by most to be totally justified.
Even if one fails to lose weight, the attempt can win a small measure of approval – the “good fatty,” who at least properly hates hirself and is really trying, poor thing, unlike the “bad fatties” who’ve just “let themselves go.” Dieting and weight loss attempts are really attempts at self-protection, at least partially rational and very understandable defense strategies aimed at protecting one from social stigma and ridicule. And yet an insult often leveled at fat people who are dieting or attempting to lose weight is “delusional.” Delusional to think that zie could lose weight, or could gain social approval, or that, even if thin, zie could ever lose the stigma associated with zir former fat status. Saved! comes to mind – Hilary Faye is horrified to see the picture on the monitors because she knows that being thin and beautiful now cannot protect her from the stigma of former fat (which automatically means ugly, as we all know).
Fat people are stupid, irrational, undisciplined, they listen to bad science or are easily deceived by charlatans, weight loss they R Doin It Rong…fat people are too far behind modernity to be effective citizens, because they are so overwhelmed and incapable of processing informations correctly to be considered intelligent and up-to-date. That’s why “fatties should just stay home” and out of the public sphere.
That is the repulsive thread this book helped me untangle and connect to a whole bunch of other toxic narratives. As awful as it is, I’m glad I can see it. Now I can flag it, step around it, and contribute to tearing it down. Join my deconstruction crew, won’t you?
I think I just spoilered the book for you, but I cannot recommend it highly enough. It is a witty and insightful analysis of popular cultural symbols, advertisements, public figures, and political movements, with a healthy dash of racial awareness, and it finishes up with a chapter on the Fat Activism and Size Acceptance movements. I wish I had some of those post cards to send to fat activist friends for giggles.