Body positivity is no antidote to the structural problem of fatphobia
I have a confession to make: for as long as I can remember, I have wanted to be smaller. My concerns about my weight have intruded on some of the best moments of my life. And I could tell you precisely what I weighed on any significant occasion: the day I got married, the day I defended my PhD dissertation, the day I gave birth to my daughter. It, and I, has always felt like too much. I’ve constantly felt caught between dueling motivations: the desire to shrink myself, and the desire to accept myself, given my longtime commitment to fat activist as well as feminist principles. Was I a bad feminist? How far was I willing to go to lose weight? How could I continue to teach moral philosophy, while feeling that my own moral practice was so lacking when it came to my relationship with my own body?
What changed things, for me, was the dawning realization that fatphobia is a structural, intersectional, and systematic phenomenon. I became gripped as a philosopher and cultural analyst by the way the derogation of fatness enables us to rank bodies in a neat, linear hierarchy that is as irrational as it is immoral. And, in writing my new book on the subject, I’ve finally managed to let go of the goal of weight loss—and recognized, in the process, that individual change is not the end goal. We must become unshrinking in our quest for social justice.
Right now, fat people—especially very fat people—simply don’t fit in society. We are systematically excluded from airplanes and classrooms and theaters and grandstands and most mainstream clothing stores. When we are represented, it’s as figures of fun or tragic figures. We are not just neglected but actively betrayed by the healthcare system—and systematically discriminated against in education and employment. This is what I call in the book’s opening chapter the “straitjacket of fatphobia.” It restricts our freedom, our movement, and our ability to take up space in the world. It makes those of us living in larger bodies feel defective, even broken, for not fitting the mold that’s been made for us. It provides the basis for patronizing, often faux, concern for our health on the part of smaller people.
And it’s not just an unhappy accident that society is not built for us. There’s something about weight that makes the perfect basis for the pernicious social hierarchies human beings love to construct, to our peril. Body mass is an infinitely gradable quantity that lends itself to minute comparisons and invidious distinctions between people. And we compare ourselves to our past and future self too, for example by stepping on the scale daily, thus constructing a hierarchy of selves based on our morning weigh-in.
Although fatphobia affects us all, I’ve been particularly galvanized in writing this book by the way that fat has long been, and remains, a feminist issue—as Susie Orbach has famously argued. Parents are around twice as likely to google whether their daughter is overweight than whether their son is, despite the fact that boys are slightly more likely to be so classified. And girls, women, and other marginalized genders are disproportionately affected by what I call sexual fatphobia too, wherein we’re downranked in the sexual marketplace for inhabiting larger bodies, despite the fact that there’s ample evidence that fatness is a common sexual interest. But we’re not meant to be found sexually attractive, so we’re often sexually engaged with—or masturbated to—in secret, rather than openly dated. And, as I delve into in the book, young women are uniquely subject to forms of sexual violence that have fatphobia as their basis, such as the noxious practice of “hogging” or a “pig roast”—where young men compete to bed the fattest woman. This took place recently at Cornell University, notoriously, where I’ve been teaching for the past decade.
Fatphobia also instils in many of us minute self-surveillance: increasingly we know better than to try to shrink ourselves down to size, since diets don’t work in the long term to induce weight loss (and neither does exercise, despite its many health benefits). But we are gaslit into continuing to try to make our bodies smaller—and, with it, our selves more acceptable, more palatable, more pleasing. After all, the weight-loss and so-called wellness industries stand to profit, to the tune of over 50 billion annually, from convincing us of our physical inadequacy. And that’s even before we get to the advent of Ozempic and other new weight-loss drugs that alienate us from our appetites, as well as having uncertain long-term health impacts. These drugs promise, among other things, to expose the body positivity movement as precarious and fragile, as Evette Dionne has argued: we accepted our fatness, to the extent we ever did, only begrudgingly, and because we engaged in “sweet lemons” thinking.
It is time to get more radical. We can and must go deeper in exposing fatphobia as an insidious method of ranking people morally, intellectually, and aesthetically, along with health-wise—even though the relationship between fatness and health is far from straightforward, I argue. Moreover, work by Sabrina Strings on the racist origins of fatphobia reveals that it’s not that we downrank fat bodies because we actually discovered they are unhealthy; rather, we largely decided they were unhealthy because they came to be downranked and derogated in service of anti-Blackness, in recent human history.
Combating fatphobia is thus so much more than a matter of throwing out your scales and adopting intuitive eating—although that’s a good start, and one I myself have found helpful, though the approach is also not without smart critics. Combating fatphobia requires a radical political reckoning with whom we exist in the world for, as bodies: nobody but ourselves. Our bodies are not objects for colonization or comparison or consumption. They ought not be regarded as something to be ranked aesthetically—or otherwise—in the first place.
And that’s another reason why I am not sold on either body positivity or neutrality. These movements are historically important, if regrettably prone to being co-opted by white women. And they can be a helpful entry-point: I know they were for me personally. But they treat the symptom, not the root cause, ultimately. If we really want change, we must stop assessing bodies to begin with. We can instead embrace a possibility I call “body reflexivity:” dispensing with numbers and ranks and scores—be they positive, negative, or zero—for the body altogether. That’s how my book urges us to escape a gaze that alternates between venerating and withering and indifferent. And it urges us to become, among other things, unshrinking: taking up space in the world in a way that is unapologetic, fearless, graceful.
In writing about this subject, I am honored to join a larger conversation about fatphobia and diet culture that many other authors have been undertaking and conducting brilliantly, adding my own perspective as a moral philosopher and cultural analyst of misogyny. Pre-orders make a huge difference in helping any book find a readership, so if you’re moved to do so I hope you’ll follow this link to sign up for your copy. I’m excited to continue this conversation: unshrinkingly.