How cultural capital relates to fatness and fitting in
- Published: 12 February 2011
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Our bodies, as well economic status and other markers of ‘cultural capital’ can exclude us from not only certain fashions but identities too, writes Jackie Wykes.
13 February 2011
The idea of cultural capital comes from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote a lot about class, taste, and social distinction. Cultural capital is closely related to the idea of habitus – roughly, the idea that not only tastes, but also behaviours, comportment, and bodily styles are a product of social and economic class. One of Bourdieu’s most oft-quoted lines is:
taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier
In other words, what you like says something about who you are. By declaring a fondness for, say, vintage sundresses, I’m not only affirming said frocks as beautiful and valuable objects, but identifying myself as a particular type or person – alternative, but probably not too threatening; quirky in a whimsical way; indie but not rebellious.
I’m not saying that every girl in a vintage sundress fits the same mould, but that dressing in a particular style will identify me as a particular kind of person and associate me with particular attributes and ideals. That is, if I can even find a vintage sundress that fits.
Which brings me to one way that cultural capital relates to fat.
Fat bodies lack cultural capital. We’re devalued, othered, and outcast. We’re desexualised, unfashionable, and made to bear the burden of failed citizenship. We’re excluded from participation in clothing cultures through sheer lack of options which accommodate our bodies (although this is, fortunately, changing).
Being excluded from being able to dress in a particular way has significant implications for participation in the rest of the world – in work, in leisure, in exercise, in social activities.
If I can’t find an appropriate outfit to wear to a job interview, I appear unprofessional and don’t get the job.
If I can’t find comfortable clothes to exercise in, it makes it harder to go to the gym. If I can’t find bathers that fit, how can I join in with the fabulousness that is Aquaporko’s fat femme (and femme-friendly) synchronised swimming? (But find a way because it is AWESOME!).
If I can’t find a cute vintage sundress, then what the fuck am I going to wear to hang out with my friends at whichever laneway bar we’re frequenting this week? Even if I do manage to find a cute vintage sundress that fits (which is getting easier, thanks to uppity fats demanding fatshions, the internet and the relentless need of capitalism to always expand its markets), my body already classifies me as different. I’m too big and too awkward and too solid for the whimsical femininity such a frock might attempt to reference.
Not only are fat bodies largely excluded from particular styles of dress, the presence of “too much” fat changes the meaning of those styles which are available. Because no matter what I’m wearing, I am still a visual interloper. The visible, visceral difference between me and them remains an obstacle to participation in this particular bit of life.
For some people the answer might be not to care what anyone else thinks, that it’s what’s inside, etc, etc. Personally, I think that particular argument is so loaded down with neoliberal individualism that it exhausts me beyond words.
Being able to fit matters not only because I do care what people think, but because dressing in a particular style and going to particular places and participating in a particular form of cultural life of my city (Melbourne, Australia) is important to my identity, is a part of who I am, is how I make myself in the world.
My concern with cultural capital isn’t only about fat. Growing up, I was one of the least popular kids in school. I was picked on for being different – for being fat, yes, but also for being poor, for dressing differently, for eating strange food, for having a dark-skinned father, for being excruciatingly shy to the point where sometimes I literally could not speak.
At one point in early high school, my best friend decided to stop speaking to me and the rest of the group followed her lead. I had no friends for several months until we reconciled. Traumatic times.
So when I say that I’ve had a background obsession with fitting in, with understanding and cultivating cultural capital for most of my life, I’m not exaggerating. Not that I’ve been particularly successful in cultivating this capital, more that I’ve been acutely aware of my lack of success.
I’ve always known that my body (and my economic status, and my social inelegance) excludes me from not only certain fashions, but certain identities – hipster, for example, was never an option despite my “obsessive, often self-deluded, pursuit of inner-city cool” and aforementioned penchant for laneway bars.
Given my history, one of the things that never ceases to amaze me about my adult life is that I have a surprisingly large number of excellent friends. From long-term, intimate friendships to drinking buddies, I’ve somehow become…popular? I have a pretty full social calendar, anyway, and a sense that I’m incredibly lucky to be so well loved. Which is not to say that my adult social life has been without challenges. I’ve lost friends who’ve drifted away or fallen out or gotten involved and never been heard from again.
Being chronically single for most of my life was also challenging. There’s a huge amount of social (not to mention economic) capital which goes with being partnered, especially for women. Knowing how little sexual capital fat people generally have didn’t help, despite my sound disdain for compulsory heteronormative coupling and a biting analysis of the damage done by the dominance of romantic mythology.
When I started dating my partner ‘The Socialist’ a year-and-a-half ago, I was painfully aware of his lack of cultural capital. On our second date we went out for brunch, and was astonished to see avocado on toast on the menu as a breakfast food, thus demonstrating to me beyond all doubt an unforgivable lack of sophistication.
Fortunately, he’s an open-minded and adventurous type who ordered the damn avocado (and enjoyed it). A year and a half later, he’s still not very sophisticated. He doesn’t wear trackies to parties anymore, but he still says the wrong thing at the wrong time. He can be painfully awkward in group situations and he doesn’t always pick up on social cues. He doesn’t get irony and sarcasm. But he is undeniably good-hearted and loving and generous, and still willing to go on just about any adventure I can concoct, and makes me happy in the most ridiculous ways.
When we first started dating, I wasn’t sure what to do. For the longest time I was conflicted. I would warn people of his awkwardness, his lack of cool, in advance of introducing him. Trying to manage the potential impact. An old friend once described this sort of thing as “trying to cover your ass while saving face”. It’s a tricky manoeuvre.
I was afraid that by associating so intimately with someone who not only didn’t have, but didn’t care about the cultural capital I had worked so hard to cultivate, I’d lose what little I had. I was afraid that my friends would reject him and in doing so, reject me. After the trauma of highschool, it was the worst thing I could imagine.
Well, the worst thing I could imagine is actually what happened. We’ve been effectively ostracised by one group of friends; him directly, me by association. And it turns out, it’s not that bad.
It’s hard to say why without reducing it to the same individualist narrative that I find and misleading and useless. It’s not because I suddenly stopped caring about cultural capital (I certainly didn’t), or because romantic love is the most important thing (it’s definitely not, and if the rest of my friends weren’t saying how lovely they think The Socialist is, I’d be writing a very different article).
I think partly it’s ok because I was always on the edges of that particular group anyway. I didn’t have the history (one of the things about having moved cities several times is that other people will always have been around longer than me), or the indie music credentials, or access to quite the right kinds of clothes, or the ironic sense of disregard for the impact my words might have on others.
And while I still care about those things (well, not that last one), there’s some small pressure that’s dissipated.
Mostly, though, I think it’s about the fat community: the blogs and the twitters, and the fat studies conference and Aquaporko and hanging out at hipster bars with other rad fatties; with changing the context and the meaning of fat, even if only in little corners of the world (at a time); with the ways that we’re making spaces both on and offline where fat bodies are normalised and valued.
This is what we do when we write and talk and swim and dress up and dress down and move and sit and eat and hang out and offer support and make theory and tell our stories and post our photos. We are creating new ways of looking and of being. We are re-evaluating and revaluing. We are making our own culture.
Jackie Wykes is a full-fat, low-maintenance, high-femme, bisexual, self-rescuing princess. She is a sporadic blogger, sometime writer, and academic-in-training (currently working on a PhD on fat embodiment and sexual subjectivity). She also coordinates the Melbourne chapter of Aquaporko, a fat femme synchronised swim team and blogs at Fatuosity.