The Fat Body Visible and Beautiful

[Content Note: Fat bias; eliminationism; racism.]

Yesterday afternoon, I had the amazing opportunity to speak to a photography class taught by Shaker gwyllion about the Beauty Standard, culturally constructed norms, visibility, and transgressive/deviant beauty, specifically around fat bodies (although during the Q&A following my Skype talk I ended up talking a lot about other marginalized bodies, too, like trans* bodies, bodies with visible disabilities, etc.).

I was the second in a speaking series, following after Leonard Nimoy (!) who spoke about his photography and "The Full Body Project." I was, naturally, completely intimidated having to follow Leonard Nimoy (!), and have been referring to this talk among friends as my "I Am Not Leonard Nimoy Talk," lol. But of course I was beyond thrilled to be in such fine company speaking on such an important subject.

So I spoke for about a half hour, and then took questions for another hour, and it was SO AWESOME. The students were so engaged with the subject and asked a million excellent questions. I loved and valued the experience more than I can say. My sincere thanks to gwyllion for inviting me.

At gwyllion's suggestion, I'm posting the text of the talk below the fold. Some of the information will be familiar to regular readers of the Fatsronauts 101 series, but there's a lot of new stuff, too. I hope you enjoy it.

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I'm just going to jump right in, and I'm going to start by talking about Melissa McCarthy, who, if you aren't familiar with her, is a fat comedic actress. First I want to talk about her just because I love Melissa McCarthy, because she's talented and hilarious and generally awesome—and also because her visibility in film makes me feel like I have and deserve a place in the world. So there's that, no small thing, which is really what this talk is all about—the feedback loop between the way in which fat people are visible (or not) and the way we value (or don't) fat bodies and attraction to them.

McCarthy is the star of one of the most successful box office movies at the moment, The Heat, in which her character is portrayed as desirable and attractive and sexy to a variety of male suitors, but, for a moment, I want to back up and talk about her last hit, Identity Thief.

Identity Thief, which stars Jason Bateman and McCarthy, is about McCarthy stealing Bateman's identity; that's the basic plot, but what's relevant to this discussion is that the film is so transgressive in so many ways: Melissa McCarthy is just an amazing physical comedian, and she just crushes all sorts of stereotypes about fat bodies and what they are capable of. She is shown as physically strong and flexible and graceful in many ways throughout the story. The film is also remarkably supportive of the idea that fat women can be beautiful and sexy and desirable.

But. There is a sex scene between McCarthy and Eric Stonestreet (who is a fat actor, whom you may know from the television show Modern Family), and the entire scene (even in the "unedited" version, which is what I watched) is filmed in a way that never shows their bodies. I don't mean just doesn't show their naked bodies; I mean doesn't show their bodies at all. The way it is filmed we know they engage in enthusiastic and athletic sex in a variety of positions, but all we ever see are their faces, feet, and hand hanging over the edge of the bed (or wherever) in various arrangements.

It's so deeply weird to watch an extended sex scene in an adult comedy where no bodies are ever shown at all, and clearly the reason is because it was considered gross to show fat bodies engaged in a sexual activity. The only time we ever see either of their bodies, clothed or unclothed, is afterwards, where Stonestreet's naked butt is shown while he's sleeping post-coitus, which is played for laughs.

So, on the one hand, I was glad to see a film that did not treat fat bodies as incapable and weak and ugly. And, on the other hand, I was disappointed that even in a film that is remarkably positive on fat bodies, fat bodies having sex is just a bridge too far!

Now, in her real life, Melissa McCarthy is not just professionally successful, but personally successful as well: In a recent New York Times profile, McCarthy responded to Rex Reed's famously nasty review of Identity Thief, in which he called her "tractor-sized, a "female hippo," and a "screeching, humongous creep," by saying: "I felt really bad for someone who is swimming in so much hate. I just thought, that's someone who's in a really bad spot, and I am in such a happy spot. I laugh my head off every day with my husband and my kids who are mooning me and singing me songs."

McCarthy and her real-life husband, Ben Falcone, who played her love interest in Bridesmaids and with whom she makes out in The Heat, are in a pretty typical relationship that includes one or more fat people, which looks a lot like relationships that include zero fat people, and yet even though this fat woman, whose husband clearly finds her desirable, is happily married with a couple of kids, we have yet to see that version of her onscreen in a leading role—which is, ironically, the very role that thin actresses often find difficult to defy: the wife and mother.

Is that a problem, when so many actresses can't break out of those roles, and can't be sexually empowered onscreen without being sexually objectified? Well, yes. Because Melissa McCarthy's sexuality—and male characters' attraction to her—is routinely framed as deviant, and outside any traditional relationship structures.

In Bridesmaids, McCarthy is sexually aggressive, sexually inappropriate, and, when, in the final moments of the film, she embarks on a sexual relationship with a man who originally rejected her, their sexual escapade involves a giant sandwich. In Identity Thief, she is sexually aggressive, sexually inappropriate, and it is played for laughs that anyone would be attracted to her, no less have sex with her. In The Heat, she is sexually aggressive, rebuffs former lovers, and is not interested in any kind of long-term relationship. She also tells another character that "nine out of the ten guys I sleep with are black," which references a racist and fat-hating stereotype about black men being consolation prizes for, and accepting as consolation prizes, white women considered undesirable by white men.

As you may have noticed, I'm talking about sexual attraction, which of course is not the same thing as beauty—but it's a useful metric for determining what we consider attractive culturally, especially as beauty, particularly female beauty, is so deeply and inextricably intertwined with sexual objectification. The Beauty Standard is, in many real ways, the pinnacle atop a pyramid of what is deemed "normally" sexually desirable.

And fat is still very much considered deviant from the Beauty Standard. Fat, we are meant to understand, is axiomatically ugly.

This reflexive conflation of fat and ugly is simultaneously the easiest and most difficult bias against fat people to address, because, on the one hand, that is obviously false: Beauty is subjective, and there are people of all sizes who find individual fat people beautiful, attractive, sexy, desirable—even in modern Western culture, which is the context for this discussion. On the other hand, there are all sorts of qualifying narratives that are used to "explain" fat attraction and set it outside the rigid bounds of a "normal" spectrum of attraction, like the aforementioned stereotype around black men and fat white women, which I'll come back to in a moment.

There are all kinds of ways in which we convey that fat beauty, if it exists at all, is somehow deviant.

One of these strategies is what I call salvage-complimenting. The most common of which is a turn of phrase with which many fat women will be familiar: "You have such a pretty face."

Or, even worse: "But you have such a pretty face." Yikes.

It's a common iteration of a theme that essentially boils down, in all its variations, to: "There is something vaguely attractive about you despite your hideous fat body." These sorts of "compliments" implicitly acknowledge the narrative that fat bodies are gross and unattractive, but one part of that body might not make strangers want to barf! It's a strategy often employed by fat-haters who fancy themselves tasked with the responsibility of bestowing upon wretched fatties the gift of self-esteem via the rhetorical equivalent of salvaging a diamond from pig slop.

This sort of salvage-complimenting is deeply harmful, because it's embedded with the message that our bodies are the pig slop—which salvage-complimenters treat as so self-evident that they don't understand why their "compliments" aren't well-received. Salvage-complimenting works on the premise that fat is ugly, and identifying attractiveness in fat people is something you do out of the goodness of your heart, not because fat people could possibly be actually attractive.

This not only feeds the narrative that fat people can't be viewed as attractive by "normal" people, but also feeds the narrative that anyone who finds a fat person comprehensively attractive is "not normal."

Another strategy to convey that fat beauty is deviant is exceptioneering.

There are narratives of exception to the rules that fat is axiomatically ugly and fat attraction is axiomatically unnatural. BUT! These exceptions all exist in service to a kyriarchal beauty standard. For example: Women of color can "get away with" curves, or are "allowed" to be fat, in a way white women cannot. Or: Lesbian or bisexual women can themselves be fat, and also love fat women, in a way straight women cannot. Or: Men of color like fat women, in a way white men don't.

These narratives are, of course, not true. Women partnered with other women are not magically insulated from institutional fat bias by virtue of their sexuality. Men of color have individual preferences and biases informed in part by the cultures in which they're socialized, just the same as everyone else. Fat women of color are just as likely to face fat hatred and discrimination as fat white women. (Though, like other forms of bias directed against women, fat hatred directed at women of color might be embedded with intersectional hatred; that is, it might contain oblique or explicit racism, too. A trope about a voluptuous Jezebel will not be wielded against a fat white woman.)

In The Fat Body In(Visible), a documentary on being a fat woman and the moments in which you feel visible and invisible, Keena, a black woman and author of the blog Buttah Love, says, on the one hand, "I hate to say it, as ironic as this may sound, I still feel invisible today. Like I would probably say most of my life. As big and as colorful as I am I still feel invisible in a sense." And, later, shares a story of being asked to buy a second airplane seat while traveling:

"[The lady at the counter] was like I think you could use another seat. I was like so what are you implying? Well, me and a few people have been observing you and we feel that you could use another seat and so that will be $179. I was like, excuse me? How are you just going to assume that I will need another seat? Well, you know, the seat you are sitting in over there is smaller than an airline seat. So long story short, it just took me by surprise that people were watching me that they were visualizing me fitting in a seat. Maybe that was a time that I felt kinda hyper visible. Like unbeknownst to me someone watching me, judging my body frame that I need to pay another $200 for another seat on an already crowded aircraft."

For the record, Keena fit in a single seat just fine and was not forced to buy a second seat.

Like many other cultural narratives, these myths serve to monolithize and Other people who intrinsically deviate from the kyriarchal beauty standard and a heterocentrist model of partnering. They are not, as they are frequently positioned, authentic evidence of a more diverse spectrum of attraction within marginalized communities, but instead are myths told by privileged classes in order to suggest: It's okay for those people to be fat and/or find fat attractive, because they don't matter anyway.

(Which is not to say that there have not existed and do not currently exist communities, like Mauritania, in which fat bodies are admired and valued. But here I'm addressing a central fat-hating myth of the dominant modern Western culture.)

Often these attitudes among privileged people toward fat marginalized people are inextricably wrapped up in other marginalizing narratives, i.e. black women are sexually voracious jezebels, whose voluptuous bodies are vessels of insatiable sexuality, or Latino men are lustful lotharios whose sexually charged machismo renders their libidos impervious to the aesthetic discernment of cooler-blooded gentlemen. Within these frames, "women of color can have curves" and "men of color like fat women" are clearly not evidence of greater tolerance, but narratives in service to oppression.

Thus, do these narratives also reinforce the ideas that fat and "objectively attractive" are mutually exclusive concepts, and that attraction to fat is deviant.

And they also underwrite the similarly functioning narrative that straight white men who prefer fat women are fetishists.

A straight man of color who is attracted to fat women is "excused," or his attraction "explained," using one of several aforementioned tropes: That men of color universally revel in fat bodies; that women of color are "allowed" to be fat in a way white women are not; that men of color "take the white women white men don't want," which itself is rooted in the racist narrative that all men of color prefer white partners, if they can "get" them. His attraction to fat women is not treated as a valid preference, but is contextualized via fat hating stereotypes.

Men of color who are attracted to fat women might also have their preference pathologized the way straight white men's attraction to fat women typically is.

To prefer fat women's bodies is not simply a preference, as it is considered to prefer thin women's bodies. It is considered a fetishistic sexuality—which, naturally, has its roots in the premise that natural body diversity does not exist (thin is "normal," and fat is "abnormal"), so attraction to fat bodies is thus deviant.

But, of course, natural body diversity does exist, and so it is eminently reasonable that it would follow a natural spectrum of attraction exists.

Brian Stuart, a fat activist and fat man, is also a fat admirer—what used to be called a "chubby chaser." He has written eloquently about being a fat admirer, and about what it means to be a man who is attracted to fat women:

"I choose to date fat women. Not because I’m enlightened enough to 'see past' their body. Not because I think everyone is beautiful. Not because I think fat women are nicer or sweeter, and certainly not 'easier.' It is because I think fat women are hot. …The sexualized culture that caters to the traditionally straight male doesn't cater to me. If anything, it mocks and abuses me. What turns me on is ridiculed and condemned in the harshest tones. The mere idea that someone like me could think the way I do is rarely even acknowledged and almost never tolerated. If a man like me even gets portrayed, he's sick, a freak. In a fat hating society, it is simply unacceptable to actually aesthetically enjoy fat people. …Most fat admirers remain invisible, thanks to a culture that likes to keep [us] that way."

If it seems there are fewer men casually expressing their preference for fat female bodies than men who openly prize thin female bodies, that has a lot less to do with an assumed dearth of men attracted to fat women than the strong cultural disincentives against being attracted to fat women and partnering with fat women.

Let me note, for a moment, that straight women are more marginally "allowed" to be attracted to fat men, for various reasons; among them: Men are "supposed" to be bigger than women; fat men are "entitled" to thin women in a way fat women are not entitled to thin men; and we have lots of cultural images of thin women partnered with fat men, thanks to approximately one million sitcoms featuring a fat man partnered with a thin, traditionally beautiful wife.

Still, in real life, thin women who partner with fat men may be harshly judged. People might wonder what is wrong with her that she can't find a "good-looking" man (here, the reflexive conflation of fat and ugly again rears its gruesome head). Or they may wonder if she's using him, if she's a gold digger, if he has some sort of irresistibly huge cock. A fat man partnered with a thin woman is sometimes afforded, in a way fat women partnered with thin men are not, the assumption that he must be something really special for her to love him despite all that fat—another example of salvage-complimenting. Anything to avoid the conclusion that a thin woman might simply be attracted to a fat man.

While thin women partnered with a fat man may be judged, they are typically not bullied in the way thin men (and often even fat men) are who partner with fat women.

Men who partner with fat women risk being bullied by their peers, being questioned and criticized about their choices by family, being professionally disadvantaged by employers, and in other ways negatively judged, because fat attraction is seen as deviant, and because a straight man's worth is still valued in large part by the "quality" of the woman he dangles off his arm like a trophy.

Meowser, author of the blog Fat Fu, wrote a great essay about the ways in which other men judge her thin boyfriend for being partnered with a fat woman:

"Do you refuse to really be friends with him because he's with me? Or refuse to invite us over to the house or out to a meal (when you'd happily invite just him) because you think the sight of us together would gross everyone out, including you? If you are his boss, do you refuse to promote him because his partner (me) isn't enough of a trophy for you? Do you regard him as being less intelligent and less capable than he is because of me? Would you refuse to hire him if you knew he had a fat woman for a partner? And in any of those situations, if he did or said something to piss you off, would a cheap shot at his partner's body and/or his liking of it be one of the first things to jump out of your mouth?"

Thus exists a self-reinforcing cycle: To be attracted to fat women is "deviant." Men are discouraged from expressing attraction to fat women. Few men express that attraction. Their paltry number is cited as "evidence" that attraction to fat women is "deviant." Rinse and repeat forever.

As an aside: Among men partnered with men, there are similar disincentives, and to be a gay or bisexual man attracted to fat men outside the bear community can carry similar stigma.

There are men who do not fetishize fat women—that is, they do not reduce our qualities exclusively to our fatness—but nonetheless prefer fat female bodies. That shouldn't be controversial—and wouldn't be, if fat were not pathologized.

It would also be less controversial if we recognized that fat admirers, people who prefer fat bodies, are not the only people attracted to fat people.

We are also culturally invested in the myth that no one is attracted to both thin people and fat people. Except for all of us who are, of course. I have been with thin men and fat men. Those men have been with thin women and fat women. I don't believe I've ever had sex anyone who only liked fat women, or who only made some wild exception for me in order to cross "fuck a fatty" off their bucket list.

This myth is deeply entwined with the myth that only fat people are attracted to fat people. Except for all the fat people who are happily partnered with thin people who find them attractive, of course. Naturally, we're meant to believe that thin people who are partnered with fat people are just grody fetishists, or aren't really attracted to their partners, as if the world is just one big game of musical chairs and those poor skinny folks just ended up without a skinny chair, er, partner when the music stopped. That's not how it works.

(There are, I will briefly note, people who prey on fat people with low self-esteem, and that is not really about attraction at all. That is about exploitation and control.)

There are people who prefer thin bodies, and people who prefer fat bodies, and people who don't really have a preference—who find individual thin people and individual fat people attractive.

Again, an idea that shouldn't be controversial—and wouldn't be, if fat bodies weren't treated as though they were grotesque, instead of the different presentation of the same parts that they actually are.

There is nothing aesthetically unpleasing to me about a fat body—not other bodies, and not my own. There was a time when I did not like what I saw when I looked at my own fat body in the mirror, but it was not because I thought it was ugly; it was because all I could see was how different it looked from what I believed all bodies are supposed to look like.

I was assessing my own body the way we are culturally taught to assess fat bodies (and most bodies)—not on their own merit, but in comparison to an ideal. And my fat body was always going to be found wanting, using those criteria.

Once I believed, truly believed, that it was okay to look the way I look, I found I was pretty damn happy with the curves and dimples of my fat body. I was not "misshapen," as goes the narratives of fat bodies. I was me-shaped. And nothing made me unhappy about the aesthetics of my body except for external biases.

The truth is, until we make thorough examinations of how thin privilege and internalized fat hatred inform what we find beautiful, we can't truly know what we find unattractive, and what we simply find aesthetically transgressive.

I'm not making the argument that everyone would find fat bodies beautiful if only they didn't subscribe to fat hatred. But undoubtedly a lot more people would—because what we find beautiful, what we are drawn to and privilege, is only partially innate preference.

Beauty is a cultural construct—and so are the boundaries that define what is deviant, boundaries which are created and maintained by all of the narratives I've been describing, in combination with fat hating stereotypes and an institutional lack of visibility of fat bodies.

Generally, we acknowledge that the Beauty Standard is a construct, but we still treat as wholly organic and fixed that to which we are attracted, as opposed to something shaped at least in part by our culture, by pervasive imagery of thin bodies as beautiful, by ubiquitous messaging that attraction to fat is deviant.

We are exhorted, in a constant barrage of subtle and blatant messaging, to find fat ugly. And then we are obliged to pretend that that doesn't matter. That, instead, it's that fat is just objectively ugly.

And that, really, is what the myth that fat cannot be beautiful is all about—the routine misrepresentation of prejudice cast as biological imperative. "Norms" are socialized. Failure to exist as a kyriarchetype is not "ugliness." It is deviance ascribed by privilege.

Beauty and attraction, we are told, are in the eye of the beholder. And of course that is true. The argument that fat bodies should have the same opportunity to be admired should not be mistaken for an argument that every person must find fat people attractive.

Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. The thing is, our eyes don't exist in a void.

They exist in a culture where fat people are shamed, where it is considered acceptable to police what fat people eat and what we should and shouldn't wear, where strangers feel comfortable shouting fat slurs out car windows. They exist in a culture in which thin actors donning fat suits is not greeted with the same contempt as blackface (which, don't get me wrong, is itself still tolerated to an alarming degree). They exist in a culture where the most visible images of fat people are the "headless fatties" accompanying news reports about the "war on obesity." They exist in a culture where there is a "war on obesity."

Consider for a moment what it means that the most visible images of fat people are those where our heads are cut off, ostensibly to preserve our anonymity, in a culture where an eliminationist campaign is being waged against us.

That the "war on obesity" is eliminationist is not hyperbole: It only sounds like it is because its warriors aren't honest enough to call their crusade what it really is—a war on fat people.

The "war on obesity" is contingent on profoundly dishonest rhetoric which wrenches apart fat people from our actual bodies—"We're not waging a war on you, heavens no! We're just waging a war against your disgusting fat body!"

This is precisely the same sort of reprehensible semantic game that underwrites needle-threading "love the sinner; hate the sin" identity-policing. When you seek to wrench apart the components of people's whole selves and throw away pieces of their identities, or our very bodies, it's just eliminationist rhetoric dressed up as Concern.

Last month, the American Medical Association classified obesity as a disease. (Don't worry—the CATCHFATS isn't contagious via Skype!) Without getting into a whole digression about the many and varied reasons that fat people are fat—although, for the record, there are many and varied reasons that fat people are fat!—I will simply note that I cannot overcome my very physiology and make my body do something that it is simply unable to do. The only "cure" for my "disease" is to be a person I am not and cannot be.

That is eliminationist garbage.

I ask you: Do we typically seek to eliminate beautiful things?

Here, then, is the first of two challenges with which media creators, like photographers, are tasked: To challenge the eliminationism directed toward fat people, and the reflexive association between "fat" and "ugly," and the pathologizing of fat attraction, by giving fat people, and our fat bodies, the same opportunity to be admired as anyone else.

To cast a gaze that neither exploits nor shames.

To understand, intimately, that when you create media inclusive of fat people who are putting themselves out there as subjects, you are capturing the image of a person who is engaging in a radical act.

It remains a radical act to be fat and happy. If you're fat, you're not only meant to be unhappy, but deeply ashamed of yourself, projecting at all times an apologetic nature, indicative of your everlasting remorse for having wrought your monstrous self upon the world. You are certainly not meant to be bold, or assertive, or confident—and should you manage to overcome the constant drumbeat of messages that you are ugly and unsexy and have earned equally society's disdain and your own self-hatred, should you forget your place and walk into the world one day with your head held high, you are to be reminded by the cow-calls and contemptuous looks of perfect strangers that you are not supposed to have self-esteem; you don't deserve it. Being publicly fat and happy is hard; being publicly, shamelessly, unshakably fat and happy is an act of both will and bravery.

It is the artists who find that will and bravery in their fat subjects who achieve a radical gaze. It is those artists who dare viewers to not find something beautiful about fat bodies.

And this is the second challenge with which media creators are tasked: To understand that fat bodies are different.

To return to Melissa McCarthy for a moment, I want to share something I wrote in my review of The Heat: McCarthy is just so willing to be fat onscreen. There is a scene in which she sits up after getting down by an explosion, and when she sits up, her shirt is tucked under her boobs. I LOVE THAT SCENE. That is what happens when a body like hers, a body like mine, sits up. Your shirt gets stuck under your boobs! And there it was! Onscreen! A real fat body doing a real fat body thing! And it wasn't remarked upon or focused on for laughs. It was just there. It was there.

Fat bodies are different. That doesn't have to—and shouldn't—make them less than. They deserve a gaze all of their own, that accommodates their difference.

I mentioned earlier that fat bodies are construed as ugly because of the instinct to draw a comparison with not-fat bodies, to judge them based on what they're not, instead of what they are.

This is a consideration that media creators must center while producing images of fat bodies. Maybe, to paraphrase Rose's iconic line from Titanic, a fat woman should not be drawn, or photographed, or filmed, like one of Jack's French girls, but instead like a fat girl.

The challenge with which media creators are tasked is understanding fat bodies and appreciating them in a way that honors their difference.

That means not forcing fat bodies into compliance with a Beauty Standard that exhorts disdain of them, in order that fat bodies may be gifted the right of a beauty all their own.

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