Body Image/Body Politics

‘Fat Talk’ Compels but Carries a Cost

By JAN HOFFMAN MAY 27, 2013, 1:15 PM New York Times

Over winter break, Carolyn Bates, a college senior, and a friend each picked out five pairs of jeans at a Gap store in Indianapolis and eagerly tried them on. But the growing silence in their separate fitting rooms was telling. At last, one friend called out, “Dang it, these fit everywhere but my thighs! I wish my legs weren’t so huge.” The response: “My pair is way too long. I need to be taller or skinnier!”

The young women slumped out of the store, feeling lousy. This exchange is what psychological researchers call “fat talk,” the body-denigrating conversation between girls and women. It’s a bonding ritual they describe as “contagious,” aggravating poor body image and even setting the stage for eating disorders. Some researchers have found that fat talk is so embedded among women that it often reflects not how the speaker actually feels about her body but how she is expected to feel about it.

And while research shows that most women neither enjoy nor admire fat talk, it compels them. In one study, 93 percent of college women admitted to engaging in it. Alexandra F. Corning, a research associate professor in psychology at the University of Notre Dame, wondered whether a woman’s size would affect her likability when she engaged in fat talk. As an online experiment, Dr. Corning showed 139 undergraduates photos of two thin and two overweight women, each making either a positive or negative remark about her body. Because of the stigma against heavier people, Dr. Corning expected that the most popular option would be a thin woman who made positive comments about her body. But she found that wasn’t the case.

The most likable woman chosen by the students was overweight and quoted as saying: “I know I’m not perfect, but I love the way I look. I know how to work with what I’ve got, and that’s all that matters.” The results were heartening, Dr. Corning said, a glimmer that nearly two decades of positive body-image campaigns may be taking hold. But, she acknowledged, her experiment had limitations. “Are the students really liking these women the most? Or are they saying it because they think they should?” said Dr. Corning. “They might like them more, but would they really want to hang out with them?”

Renee Engeln, who directs the Body and Media Lab at Northwestern University, cautioned that “we have complicated reactions to confident women in general, and particularly to women who are confident about their bodies. Women sometimes see them as arrogant.” Fat talk has insinuated itself among men, too, Dr. Engeln added, though it is far less frequent than with women. In addition, men are more likely to place emphasis on different issues, like muscular bulk or being too thin, something women rarely fret about, she said.

But putting a stop to fat talk is difficult. Dr. Corning said, in part because it feels airless and scripted and seems to offer the responder no avenue to change the dynamic without threatening the relationship. She gave an example:

First friend: “I can’t believe I ate that brownie. I am so fat!”

Second friend: “You must be joking — you are so not fat. Just look at my thighs.”

The second friend’s reply, an “empathetic” self-deprecating retort to maintain the friendship on equal standing, includes reflexive praise of the first friend’s body, supposedly feeding the first friend’s hungry cry for affirmation, Dr. Corning said. But to do so, the second friend has eviscerated herself, a toxic tear-down by comparison.

Dr. Corning said that to break the cycle, a person shouldn’t engage. But particularly for younger women, it’s hard to say something like, “Hey, no negative self-talk!” or “Why do we put ourselves down?” Instead, for adolescents, she suggested, “Keep it light; it’s not a moment for major social activism. Teenagers can change the topic. They do it all the time.”

Ms. Bates, who recently graduated from Notre Dame, pointed out that “when you focus on clothes and make it about your body, you’ve put your friend in a position where she can’t say anything right. She can’t be honest, because it could come off as hurtful.” That winter day, as she and her friend drove away from the Gap feeling so deflated, her friend said, “We always get good clothes from that store, but their new pants just don’t ‘get’ us!” It wasn’t that their bodies didn’t fit the clothes; the clothes didn’t fit their bodies. Ever since, said Ms. Bates, when the friends try on clothes that don’t fit, their go-to remark has become, “This doesn’t get me!” And, taking a cue from the positive-image primer, they leave it at that.

DIFO Author Note: this story did not address sexual identities. Do you think lesbian and bisexual women are as likely as heterosexual women to engage in “fat talk?” Why or why not?

20+ Examples of Thin Privilege

November 30, 2012 | by Shannon Ridgway, Jezebel

Through mass media, we’ve been bombarded with messages that “normal” size is actually thin. This assumption that you need to be thin to be ok and normal gets played out frequently for people who are bigger than “normal”. If you’ve been a “normal” size your whole life, you may never have thought of the benefits of being thin. But sizeism is prevalent, and is one of the acceptable “isms” in our society. It’s time we make this “ism” unacceptable, and make the world a better place for people of all shapes and sizes. The following are examples of thin privilege.

1. You’re not assumed to be unhealthy just because of your size.

2. Your size is probably not the first thing people notice about you (unless you’re being thin-shamed – the opposite of fat-shamed).

3. When you’re at the grocery store, people don’t comment on the food selection in your cart in the name of “trying to be helpful.”

4. Your health insurance rates are not higher than everyone else’s.

5. You can expect to pay reasonable prices for your clothing.

6. You can expect to find your clothing size sold locally.

7. You can expect to find clothing in the latest styles and colors instead of colorless, shapeless and outdated styles meant to hide your body.

8. You don’t receive suggestions from your friends and family to join Weight Watchers or any other weight-loss program.

9. When you go to the doctor, they don’t suspect diabetes (or high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or other “weight-related” diagnoses) as the first/most likely diagnosis.

10. You don’t get told, “You have such a pretty/handsome face” (implying: if only you’d lose weight you could be even more attractive).

11. People do not assume that you are lazy, based solely on your size.

12. You’re not the brunt of jokes for countless numbers of comedians.

13. Airlines won’t charge you extra to fly.

14. You are not perceived as looking sloppy or unprofessional based on your size.

15. You can eat what you want, when you want in public and not have others judge you for it or make assumptions about your eating habits.

16. You can walk out of a gas station with a box of doughnuts and not have people yell at you to “Lay off them doughnuts, fatty!”

17. People don’t ask your partners what it’s like to have sex with you because of your size.

Your body type isn’t sexually fetishized.

18. You’re more likely to get a raise or promotion at work than someone who is fat.

19. Friends don’t describe you to others using a qualifier (e.g. “She’s kind of heavy, but REALLY nice, though”).

20. The media doesn’t describe your body shape as part of an “epidemic”.

21. You can choose to not be preoccupied with your size and shape because you have other priorities without being judged.

Queering Food Justice

by Toi Scott

If you’re a person of color with a low income it’s important for you to know that conversations about your ability to access foods, yes, conversations about your very well-being are happening behind your back. Even if you make a living wage, you might want to know that here in Austin (and in many other metropolitan and even rural cities), policy affecting your community’s food sovereignty is being shaped largely without your input or consent. Basically, our community, considered the “target population” of many mainstream “food movement” efforts has had little say in if we’d like farmer’s markets, supermarkets, community gardens and access to the knowledge and skills that will help us sustain ourselves.

I’m not saying we’ve never been asked. I’m saying that it’s rare. There are a lot of “allies” who tend to want to take the lead in this movement. They think they have the solutions and know what we want and need. The problem with this is the food movement operates under a few hurtful assumptions. Some are completely detrimental to the way we view ourselves as a community and as a People. Some are damaging to how we see our identity.

So, why is this important to us as QPOC [Queer Person of Color]? Because a large percentage of us have a lower socioeconomic status and are therefore more likely to be food insecure. Where we sit at the intersections of race, gender, class and sexuality makes us highly vulnerable and subject to the policing of our food and economic system. Our lack of resources, especially TIME, allows for outsiders (and sometimes even well-meaning allies) to come in and make decisions FOR us – maybe even AS us – based on their assumptions and their own personal beliefs about what will make our community better. Many of these solutions are not culturally appropriate or relevant. Since colonization, those in power have been operating under a “one size fits all” model complete with assumed assimilation. We are being recolonized.

It’s hard to stay on top of decolonizing the various systems that wreak havoc on our communities. How are we supposed to do this when we’re barely surviving? We have to get back to the old ways; the ways of our ancestors. We have to support each other in ways that are sustainable to our own families and communities. It’s time to get back to community kitchens where neighborhoods come together and cook for/eat with each other. It’s time to pay ourselves for growing our own food. It’s time to establish our own black and brown-owned cooperatives where we decide what goods belong in those stores while creating our own jobs and opportunities. No, this isn’t new- it was taken from us. Then denied and withheld from us.

In the colonizer’s model and their capitalism we POC are to continue to have less and less resources yet devote more and more time to supporting these very broken systems that don’t benefit us. All the while we assimilate, losing ties to our cultures while decimating the environment and surrendering our emotional, social and spiritual well-being.

So how do we resist? No…how do we do more than resist?

Depending on our skills and resources this may look like you as a single parent feeding healthy food to your children. Yes, this is radical! This may look like participating in healthy potlucks with a group of friends. It’s bartering your services. It’s establishing collectives and co-operatives and therefore creating an alternative economy in which money continues to circulate within our community. It’s demanding policy change that deters development that displaces our community and exacerbates food deserts. It’s demanding fair wages and supporting black and brown business owners. There are so many ways we can resist and co-create change.

Transformation is occurring as you read this. The revolution is already under way. There are people like Toni Tipton-Martin, founding member of Foodways Texas and author of The Jemima Code, who are committed to reclaiming our foodways and celebrating our cultural and culinary heritage. There are organizations like Food for Black Thought who are committed to supporting local grassroots efforts in black and brown communities in organizing around food related issues in East Austin. There are also alliances forming in East Austin and in Dove Springs to co-create solutions for the lack of access to healthy and affordable foods.

There are also efforts happening across the nation. (And across the world for that matter). Check out efforts in the East Bay, like People’s Grocery, the Mandela Food Cooperative, Phat Beets Produce, the Oakland Food Connection. There are efforts in Detroit like the Black Community Food Security Network, D-town Farms, and the Ujamaa cooperative food buying club. Will Allen’s Growing Power, Inc. urban farms are located in Madison, Milwaukee, and Chicago. In NYC there are Just Food, Farming Concrete, La Familia Verde Garden Coalition, and Black Urban Growers. These are just a small number of the community efforts for food justice led by people of color.

As QPOC living at the intersections we should be aware of what is happening to address access to food because issues of food insecurity affect everyone, whether we want to believe it or not. What can we do as a community to assist in the transformation of our food system? What can we do as a community to better our economic situation? Let’s share some food and exchange some dialogue. We already have the answers.

This article originally appeared at Genderqueer Street Philosophactivist.

Toi is a gender non-conforming playwright, author, journalist, and spoken word artist. They are also a herbalist/ medicine-maker, health and food justice activist, anti-oppression organizer, and a Q/POC community builder. Toi blogs about the intersections of race and gender and QPOC/POC organizing and movement building at philosophactivist.blogspot.com and can be emailed at: gqstreetpoet@gmail.com. You can find out more about their writing at http://www.afrogenderqueer.com and more about their healing work at queerherbalism.blogspot.com.

Sized Up: Why fat is a queer and feminist issue

By Anna Mollow, Bitch Magazine, Summer 2013

Shortly after Barack Obama took office in 2009, first lady Michelle Obama kicked off the national slimming program “Let’s Move” and inaugurated an escalation of America’s already deeply entrenched “war on obesity,” seeming to interpret her husband’s campaign messages of “Hope” and “Change” in a manner fortuitous to our country’s $60-billion-per-year weight-loss industry. As with the metaphorical wars that came before it (against “drugs” and on “terror”), in the battle against fatness it’s difficult to discern the heroes from the villains—or, in terms made famous by the punitive yet highly popular reality TV program, to distinguish the biggest winners from the “biggest losers.” Those who soldier on in the war against “obesity” are at times ambiguous about precisely what (pounds of flesh?) or who (fat people captured on television eating fries?) are its intended targets. “Love the sinner, hate the sin” could be the rallying cry for America’s fight against the putative vice of fatness. The consistent butt of jokes, a handy icon of “unhealthiness” and loss of self-control, that which we feel we must protect our children from becoming—is “fat” what “queer” was a generation ago?

Ever since radical feminists Judy Freespirit and Aldebaran founded the Fat Underground in 1973, fat activists have worked to make visible the inseparability of homophobia and anti-fat prejudice. Today, a thriving fat and queer community is foregrounding similar intersections. But queer communities more broadly have not yet embraced the cause of fat liberation. “I don’t think that, in general, gay and lesbian attitudes about body size make fat people feel accepted,” queer fat activist Julia McCrossin remarks.

As an example, she points to weight-loss programs promoted by the Mautner Project (the National Lesbian Health Organization) that are premised on the belief that being fat is unhealthy. This is the first parallel between fat oppression and homophobia: the widely accepted cultural assumption that we’re dealing with a dangerous disease.

In 1966, Time magazine described homosexuality as a “pernicious sickness.” Today, “a deadly epidemic” is the cliché about “obesity.” The terms “obese” and “overweight”—favored by a medical establishment that receives generous endowments from the pharmaceutical industry (makers of weight-loss drugs) and the diet industry (funders of most major studies on “obesity”), and which itself has much to gain from the pathologization of fatness (bariatric surgery is big business)—give the impression that higher-than-average body weight is an illness. But the correlation between body size and health is actually minimal. Risks associated with being “morbidly obese” are no greater than that of being male, and “overweight” people live longer than people of “normal” weight. What’s more, the claim that fatness is a health risk ignores a basic principle of statistical analysis: Correlation is not causation. The small differences in life expectancies between average-size and very large people are most likely not caused by being fat but are instead the result of factors correlated with fatness: social stigma, economic discrimination, and the harmful effects of weight-loss dieting and diet drugs.

Conservatives blame the media-hyped “epidemic of obesity” on failures of individual will, while liberals point to McDonald’s, high-calorie school lunches, and sedentary jobs. But it’s unlikely that any of these factors is making us fat. After all, thin people watch television and eat fast food, too, and fat people have never been proven to consume more calories, or more “junk food,” than others. And as numerous excellent books have demonstrated (see Paul Campos’s The Diet Myth and Gina Kolata’s Rethinking Thin for detailed explications of some of the scientific information presented in this article), we are not in the midst of an “epidemic” of fatness. Since 1990, Americans have experienced an average weight gain of about 15 pounds. Hardly cause for alarm, especially since this modest increase in our collective size may be a good thing: A decline in smoking rates could be a factor (quitting smoking typically results in weight gain), as could the increased popularity of weight-lifting and other muscle-building exercise (statistics on “obesity” are based on BMI charts, which classify Matt Damon as “overweight” and Tom Cruise as “obese”).

Nor is fatness, as conservatives often claim about homosexuality, a “lifestyle.” Body size is determined primarily by genetics, and while diets and exercise programs may produce short-term weight loss, they have a 95 percent failure rate over the long term. Yet like queer people living with hiv or aids, fat people are stigmatized for a condition that is imagined to be their fault. They are hectored by conservatives such as Mike Huckabee, mocked by liberals like Jon Stewart (who, of course, would never dream of making lesbians or gay men the butt of his jokes), harangued about their weight by medical professionals, and subjected to a barrage of advertisements promising “cures” for their supposed disorder.

Does this sound familiar? Remember psychiatry’s attempts to cure homosexuality? Our culture’s hand-wringing over the “obesity epidemic,” its hawking of one breakthrough diet or miracle weight-loss product after another, and its moralistic shaming of those it deems “too fat” are as conducive to self-hatred as “gay conversion therapy.” But while the harmful conversion therapy that religious conservatives practice on lgbtq people has rightly been the target of political protest and legal intervention, the medically sanctioned use of weight conversion therapy (a.k.a. dieting) has provoked far less outrage on the Left. Let’s Move, as McCrossin observes, is essentially “a child-focused, government-sponsored fat version of conversion therapy.” If we would ban the use of gay conversion therapy on children (a practice now condemned by the American Psychiatric Association), then why do we foist similar programs on fat children—subjecting adolescents, most recently, to the humiliation and health risks of vying for the title of the Biggest Loser?

Is it that our collective psyche needs a scapegoat? Perhaps as LGBTQ people are beginning to gain legitimacy, a fill-in must be found, and fat people (along with other “outsiders,” such as Muslims, immigrants, the homeless, and the mentally ill) fit the bill. If there is a deeply rooted psychic urge within us all that impels us to make a disempowered “other” the object of our anger and dissatisfactions, then how can we resist acting on this impulse? These are questions we should be asking ourselves; but instead, it seems, we prefer to make psychological pronouncements about fat people’s supposed inability to resist their urges. We speak confidently about the causes of overeating (which, we readily assume, fat people must engage in): “emotional eating,” “food addiction,” fatness as a “shield” against “normal” sexuality, food as a “substitute for love.” These pop-psychology explanations are as specious as past theories about “overbearing mothers” and “distant fathers” as the causes of male homosexuality, or “bad experiences with men” as typical precursors to lesbian identity. Yet they have the status of accepted truth, even among many feminists and queer activists. Fat, we have long known, is a feminist issue; but Susie Orbach’s bestselling 1978 book of that title has a decidedly fatphobic thesis. Readers are invited to achieve “permanent weight loss” by learning to “conquer compulsive eating.” Queer theorist Lauren Berlant also contributes to the stigma of fatness—and perhaps, inadvertently, to race and class prejudice as well—as she worries over “subproletarian Americans” and people of color succumbing to a “slow death” from obesity.

Death, slow or fast, is what we are really afraid of when we obsess about the “obesity epidemic.” As the liberal, gay rights–supporting columnist Leonard Pitts puts it, “We are a lard butt nation waddling toward demise.” Besides being cruel, this statement is inaccurate: Americans are living longer than ever before. However, Pitts’s remark is valuable in that it clarifies the function of the concept of obesity in our culture today. Obesity parallels and intersects with homosexuality, both terms serving as proxies for Americans’ anxieties about death, disability, and disease. In discussions of aids, conservative commentators inveigh against the “disease” of homosexuality and call gay male sexuality a “culture of death.” According to the right wing, queer sexualities are a threat to our children, a risk to our national security, and a blight on our future. Similar claims are routinely repeated about “obesity,” on both the Left and the Right: Fat people are charged with “eating themselves to death,” weakening our military, overburdening our healthcare system, and promoting disease among children.

Clearly, the politics of homophobic hate are inseparable from our culture’s fear and hatred of fat people. The slur “fat, ugly dyke,” used to police women of all sizes and sexual orientations, exemplifies the deeply rooted intersections between fatphobia and homophobia. Sure enough, a new federally funded study plans to determine why lesbian and bisexual women and girls are among the “hardest hit” by the “obesity epidemic.”

Queer women are not the first group to be singled out in this way: Disproportionate levels of “obesity” among Latino/a and African-American populations have been the focus of public health interventions for decades. In her chapter in 2009’s The Fat Studies Reader, Bianca D. M. Wilson describes what it feels like to hear “fat-is-bad” statements applied to her communities: “I am reminded that I belong to the ‘target populations’ of fat black or lesbian people…. Their talk about my impending early death due to my body size is juxtaposed with my experiences and work in black gay communities, which demonstrate that there are far greater enemies to the health and well-being of black lesbian and bisexual women than the fat on our bodies, such as violence, poverty, and psychological oppression.” Anti-obesity programs directed at people of color and queer women will only exacerbate the problems that Wilson names—by reinforcing anti-fat prejudice, they ensure that these groups will face more violence, economic discrimination, and hostility from mainstream culture. As fat queer Latina activist Margarita Rossi observes in an interview with Julia Horel of Shameless magazine, “Fat hatred is often used to uphold racism, and vice versa.”

Anti-racist, feminist, and queer activists must make fat liberation central to our work; we need to explicitly and unequivocally reject the notion that body size is a “lifestyle choice” that can or should be changed. And make no mistake: It is in the interest of people of every size to become fat people’s allies. I am a thin woman, and yet my life gives me many reasons to want to fight fat oppression. Like most women, I have spent years in terror of being, or becoming, “too fat” (the same years, not coincidentally, during which I was most afraid of being, or becoming, a lesbian). My partner (and wife-to-be) is a fat woman. My experiences with a chronic illness that is often dismissed as “psychosomatic” have taught me what it is like to be blamed for a physical condition over which I have no control. One day I may be fat myself. And I am tired of oppression of all kinds: I refuse to participate in the mistreatment of an entire group of people simply because the way they look does not conform to hegemonic ideals of “normality.”

The war against fat, like efforts to “cure,” “convert,” or “repair” queer sexualities, will fail. And so—we must make certain—will the war against fat people. If you want to say you were on the right side of this fight when fat liberation becomes mainstream (as it no doubt will), there is much you can do. First, stop dieting. (And if you say you are not dieting but are merely subscribing to a “healthy way to eat,” then ask yourself: Would I continue to adhere to my dietary restrictions if I knew they would make me both healthier and 50 pounds fatter?) Desist from all dieting talk: Recognize that remarks like “I’ll have to work off these calories at the gym tomorrow” or “Do these pants make me look fat?” are as phobic as fears that the wrong clothing or accessories might make you look queer. Rather than complimenting people for being “petite,” “slender,” or “svelte,” find something else to praise them for instead. Eliminate the words “obese” and “overweight” from your lexicon, and substitute the simple word “fat.” Start looking at large people in a new way; notice that fat folks are as beautiful and sexy as anyone else. If previously you have ruled out fat people as potential sexual partners, rule them back in, and rule out fatphobes instead. Discover the fat blogosphere (or the “Fat-O-Sphere,” as Kate Harding and Bitch contributor Marianne Kirby call it, in their sexy, scintillating anti-dieting guide). Enjoy blogger Tasha Fierce’s reflections on race, sex, and “fatshion,” and learn about the unearned advantages of thinness at the This Is Thin Privilege blog. Join a group that fights racism, fatphobia, and queer oppression together (check out NOLOSE or It Gets Fatter). Support the “I stand against weight bullying” campaign, which protests government-sponsored shaming of fat children. Eat a cookie. Or some pie. Skip the “guilt.” And spread the word—many people don’t know about fatphobia or fat liberation, but once they do, they, like you, will know to do the right thing.

Anna Mollow has published essays about feminism, queerness, disability, and chronic illness in the Disability Studies Reader, Women’s Studies Quarterly, Social Text Online, and other journals. She is the coeditor of Sex and Disability.

Butch and Body Positive

Another great piece on body positivity and butch lesbian identity:  http://buzzcutsandbustiers.com/2013/10/09/empty-mirrors-the-importance-of-queering-body-positivity/

4 thoughts on “Body Image/Body Politics

  1. I don’t know how to comment on individual posts here. My comment is about the Fat Talk article. I think this is an example of messaging that’s geared to gender-normative femme women. In my experience, butches and people somewhere on the butch/transgender continuum have a different experience.

    Personally, I have plenty of ambivalence about my body, but I don’t see myself reflected in this article. I would never bond with a female friend by going shopping for clothes! (Tools, gadgets or stationary — maybe.) Ever since puberty, clothes shopping has been an overwhelming and depressing experience. I almost NEVER find clothes that “get” my body, because my internal image of myself is much more androgynous/masculine than my body shape is perceived to be.

    Also, I believe that fat oppression does affect butches, but differently. My insecurities toward my own body tend to be that I don’t look “masculine enough” or that I have large breasts when I want to have almost no breasts at all (I have often considered radical breast reduction surgery.) I may feel insecure about not being muscular enough, or of being perceived as a femme — a girl! — because of my body shape. The icons and archetypes I tend to compare myself to are male ones.

    All this means that I am very unlikely to feel insecure about “my fat thighs” and more likely to fret about whether my fat makes me look too feminine or whether it makes me less physically powerful or capable.

    I do understand that all these issue have deep political and social nuance and resonance. I have been struggling and sorting these most of my adult life, so I am not spouting mindless prejudice here — just being honest about what goes on for me and, I believe, other butches.

  2. Jonnie, you raise some great points here, and I agree that femmes and butches have different experiences around body image. I hope we can discuss that in group this week. There are many ways that lesbian/bisexual women are diverse, and gender expression/identity is one of them.

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