Why fat-positive feminism sucks and how to reinvent it
- Published: 09 October 2010
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Fat-positive feminism has failed to consider the many ways in which fat oppression is embedded not only in sexism, but also in racism, classism, heterosexism, ableism and other oppressions. By combining the pride of pro-anorexics, the persistence of weight watchers and the fierceness of fat priders, we will be able to bring millions of people into progressive social movements, writes Emi Koyama.
10 October 2010
A while back, I went through my entire zine library to decide which zines and chapbooks I wanted to keep and which ones I should give away or recycle, since the sheer volume of other people's DIY writings I've accumulated over the years began to overwhelm me.
My goal was to consolidate three medium-sized cardboard boxes full of zines into one big box that would contain only those select zines that I am actually likely to read again.
In the process, I've come across quite a few zines addressing the topic of fat oppression and women's self-esteem written by other girls who are, like me, fat, proud and fierce.
Even though I've never been deeply involved in "fat-positive" feminist movements, I've been around them long enough to know how much they have impacted fat girls like me, and how zine-making is the perfect medium to confront and contradict the anti-fat, pro-diet biases in the mainstream media and the anti-fat industries that finance them.
Nonetheless, after skimming through several of these zines, I felt empty and ended up tossing many of them in the "give away or recycle" pile.
And I know that this is the same empty feeling I get after attending most "fat-positive" workshops and events (and I've attended many), including even the otherwise fabulous "FatGirl Speaks!" event, in which I performed a spoken-word piece several years ago.
This essay is an attempt to verbalize the shallowness or emptiness that I frequently feel in fat-positive feminist movement, and to consider how we can reinvent it.
The greatest turn-off for me at fat-positive workshops--and it somehow manages to take place in just about every such workshop--is hearing the comment that "fat oppression is the last remaining socially acceptable oppression" or that "if this was done to Blacks (and it's always Blacks, or else other people of color), there'd be an outrage."
Sometimes, this is the premise that workshop presenters (almost always white) speak from, and other times these comments are made by regular participants (again, almost always white).
And it is extremely rare that someone points out how wrong it is to rank the severity of various oppressions, or to assume that mainstream society is no longer tolerant of racism (or classism, or heterosexism, or any other oppressions, for that matter) before I do. Or sometimes don't.
The view that fat oppression is the only socially tolerated oppression negates the experiences of not just Blacks, but all people who are marginalized by various intersecting and overlapping systems of oppressions, while at the same time erasing the presence of fat people who are dealing with multiple oppressions.
Together, these factors function to limit the appeal and the membership of the fat-positive feminist movement almost exclusively to fat women who are relatively privileged otherwise.
This brings us to the second problem with the fat-positive feminist movement: the inability of fat-positive workshops and zines to address the multiple layers of meanings that society attributes to fatness.
Contrary to the idea that fat oppression functions in some sort of socially accepted vacuum, anti-fat attitudes and systems have everything to do with racial and class politics, not just gender politics.
For example, the debate over "welfare reform" has been intrinsically shaped by fiscal conservatives' manipulation of the public perception of inner-city welfare recipients as fat, Black, lazy single mothers.
Exploiting such perceptions, they managed to convince voters that the solution to the problem of poverty is to send poor mothers back to work, never mind the fact that few jobs today actually pay "family" wage.
In order to counter such propaganda, it is not enough to criticize the use of fatness or fat stereotypes as the symbol of laziness or unworthiness; we must take apart its anti-fat, sexist, racist and classist overtones piece by piece until lies and bigotry are exposed as such.
Third, fat-positive feminism must pay attention to many other ways in which human bodies are socially regulated.
For example, there appears to be natural opportunities for the disability movement and fat-positive movement to work together as both movements challenge society's definition of normal and acceptable bodies. However, this potential alliance is hindered by the fat-positive movement's oft-repeated insistence that fat people are healthy and productive.
These notions of health and productivity both assume a certain type of body to be "normal" based on its ability to participate in the capitalist labor market as it exists today, and deny basic human dignity to those bodies deemed too "crippled" to participate in the workforce.
However, it is not our physical differences that limit the ability of people with "crippled" bodies to fully participate in society; it is the lack of accessibility and accommodation based on a limited view of humanity that does.
Also problematic is the fat-positive movement's disdain of people with "eating disorders," especially members of the so-called "pro-ana" movement (i.e., women who celebrate extreme dieting and purging as personally gratifying and empowering).
Dieting and purging are often forms of self-help, two of many creative ways women cope with life and reclaim a sense of control in a society that robs from us genuine control over circumstances of our lives.
We could recognize that both fat-positive feminism and the pro-ana movement are basically made up of women who are refusing society's labeling of their bodily differences and coping methods as "unhealthy" or "maladaptive."
In fact, similarities between the two movements are many. Both groups are primarily made up of women who are considered sick and in need of "help" to alter who they are. Women from both groups report a strong sense of alienation and isolation prior to finding others with similar experiences. A common statement made toward someone who is anorexic is that "most men aren't attracted to fat women, but neither are they attracted to extremely thin women," as if that is all that matters in a woman's life.
Sure, dieting and purging could be, if not done carefully, harmful to one's health. But so is being fat. Why do we need to judge or fight each other?
Some fat-positive activists refer to those who diet and purge as "brainwashed" or as victims in need of our rescue, but how is that different from society telling fat women that we should lose weight for our own good?
As we criticize the anti-fat element within the pro-ana movement, we must also confront the paternalistic and pathologizing gaze our movement sometimes imposes on other women.
Lastly, if I may entertain a little snobbism, I find a large portion of fat-positive personal essays and performance art boring.
Too often, they provide such a simplistic and linear narrative of complete victimhood to complete pride that they are laughable. I find them devoid of the human complexity and contradiction that make essays and art meaningful.
The concept of fat pride is revolutionary when you hear it for the first time, but after the third or fourth time, I begin to yearn for something more real, something that I can relate to.
And most women in the United States simply do not relate to feeling completely proud and unashamed about their bodies, whether they are fat or not. It's just not realistic.
Most women in the United States, myself included, struggle with our bodies. Or rather, we struggle with voices in our heads and outside telling us how dirty and ugly our bodies are, no matter how we look, and sometimes we end up agreeing with these voices. I'm not saying that this is right or wrong, but that is how it is.
Through writings and performances like those I described above, fat-positive feminism fosters a political climate that idolizes complete pride and shamelessness as an ideal. By doing so, however, we are in effect setting up yet another unattainable set of ideals that women are somehow expected to live up to, just like the "beauty myth" itself.
In such a climate, women who feel ashamed of their bodies--that is, most American women at some point in their lives--are made to feel ashamed of their shame, and are thus doubly silenced, because an admission of body-shame or desire to be thinner is interpreted by those in the movement as proof of ideological impurity, or as evidence that a woman is still under patriarchal brainwashing and needs to be liberated further.
We need art that imitates and enriches life, not art that dictates or condemns perfectly reasonable life experiences of women living in an unjust society.
I envision a new fat-positive feminism that does more than just confront fatphobia. We need to pay attention to the many ways in which fat oppression is embedded not only in sexism, but also in racism, classism, heterosexism, ableism and other oppressions.
Instead of merely arguing that fat is normal and healthy, we need to challenge the concepts of normalcy and health altogether, and question who is arbitrating these categories and who benefits.
In addition to the army of "fat and proud" women and activists we already have, a new fat-positive feminism needs to attract, not repel or patronize, weight watchers, pro-anorexics, women struggling with eating disorders (i.e., those who are not pro-ana) and ordinary women who are concerned about their weight either somewhat or a great deal.
And I am not talking about "liberating" them from their body image "pathologies" and converting them to be just like us. I am talking about starting from the assumption that other women's ways of coping with this woman-hating, body-hating society may be just as valid as our own.
Instead of belittling or condemning the vast majority of women, a new fat-positive feminism will focus on dissecting political and cultural values imposed on our diverse bodies. It will promote pro-women and pro-body attitudes by validating creative ways in which women cope with struggles of daily life and breaking the silence and isolation that separate us.
The fat-positive feminist movement must take over the mainstream, rather than settling with the consolation of being the righteous fringe--and we can do so without compromising any of our key progressive values.
Along with rampant violence against women, fat oppression is one of the oppressions targeting especially women that is so ubiquitous that it can be readily identified once one begins to notice it.
This fact suggests that fat-positive feminism could be an entry point for millions of women to embrace a full range of progressive politics that seek to create a more just and equitable society.
So far, fat-positive feminism has been able to enlist only a relatively small number of women--and from a relatively thin socioeconomic layer of society--partly due to the problems discussed above.
If we are to change how society ranks and regulates our bodily differences, instead of secluding ourselves in the homogeneous enclaves of affinity groups who think and act just like us, we must seize this previously untouched opportunity and rally for it.
By combining the passion of pro-anorexics, the persistence of weight watchers and, yes, our fierceness and pride, we will be able to bring millions of women and men (and people of other genders) into progressive social movements.
And then, fat-positive feminism will become a new common sense in the American mainstream.
Emi Koyama is an activist, author and academic working on intersex, sex workers' rights, (queer) domestic violence, genderqueer, anti-racism, and other issues. Visit her website and check out her blog where this article first appeared.