Fatsronauts 101: Representation and Visibility

[Content Note: Fat hatred; invisibilizing; eliminationism.]

So, here's a thing one hears a lot during discussions of fat visibility—or, more accurately, the lack thereof—in popular media, especially on television and in films: "We don't want to glorify obesity."

"Glorifying obesity" is shorthand for the idea that even to merely show fat people is to give tacit approval of fatness.

This is an interesting, ahem, argument for a number of reasons, including (but not limited to):

1. Conversations about the "glorification" of violence and/or other unethical behavior are nuanced discussions in which every position tends to be treated with credibility. People who argue that, say, Walter White, the protagonist of Breaking Bad, glorified criminal behavior are generally treated to be making their arguments in good faith, even if others disagree and cite the context of the show and intent of the creators to defend their opposing view. But there is no such nuance nor the presumption of good faith in debates (such as they are) about fat visibility, despite the fact that, contrary to popular opinion, being fat is actually not a moral failing.

2. Those making and supporting this argument axiomatically conclude that to communicate approval, tacit or otherwise, of fatness is A Bad Thing.

Any pushback on that reflexive contention is immediately met with Statistical Concern about how 1/3 of the population is "obese" (never mind that the definitions of "obesity" are arbitrary and many of the people technically meeting the definition deviate significantly from the image an average person conjures when they imagine someone "obese"). It's irresponsible, so goes the argument, to "glorify obesity" when fatness is an epidemic.

People who talk about "epidemic" fatness and the "scourge of obesity" are primarily thinking about people who look like me. People who are my size and bigger. But I don't go anywhere where 1/3 of people look like me.

image of me taken from the side; I am standing a podium, giving a speech
[Photo by Deeky.]

I am the sort of person whose body pop culture creators are afraid of "glorifying."

But a large number of the people who meet the bullshit specifications of "obesity" don't look like me. So this is a specious argument, in addition to being a profoundly indecent one.

Still, because the people making it insist on again and again taking to fainting couches while moaning about 1/3 of the population being "obese," in order to justify their shameful lack of representation and visibility of fat people, let's just take that argument at face value for a moment. On the one hand, they are communicating that we do exist by citing that garbage statistic to fearmonger, and then, on the other, communicating that we shouldn't exist by refusing to show us, despite our being 1/3 of the population.

There's a word for the belief that 1/3 of the population shouldn't exist. It's eliminationism.

The fat eliminationists employed in content creation telegraph fear of two primary things: Of a thin person looking at a fat person and thinking their body is to be emulated; and of a fat person looking at a fat person and thinking that maybe it's okay to be fat.

Naturally, these fears are ostensibly rooted in concern for people's health, but fat is not a reliable indicator of healthfulness—although fat hatred is a demonstrable cause of a lack of healthfulness.

What it really comes down to, this handwringing about "glorifying obesity," is the same old tiresome (and only reluctantly admitted) perception that fat bodies are gross.

And wouldn't it be just terrible if someone got it into their head that fat bodies aren't gross? Especially fat people. Imagine the horror of fat people feeling okay about ourselves. Why, that might give us the idea that it's okay to be fat!

The people who worry about someone seeing a fat person and—the horror!—wanting to look like them are keenly aware that the people they put in visual media are viewed as aspirational figures. Consumers of that media want to look like stars; desire to look like them. And many of us strongly yearn to see people who already look like us.

Which is why—apart from the fact that I don't imagine greater fat visibility would result in scores of thin people suddenly wanting to be fat, thanks to the pervasive fat hatred in our culture that strongly disincentivizes fatness and privileges thinness—I am not concerned about the legions of hypothetical thin people who will be inspired to fatness by fat visibility, but about the actual fat people who are desperate to see ourselves represented.

Like thin people, we want to see styled celebrities with bodies like ours to give us ideas about how to dress and style ourselves. Especially since, for fat women, being "put together" is part of the way many of us convey to a judgmental world that we are worth caring about.

The content creators know that trendsetting and emulation is a key part of their business, and yet they want to deny it to a population for whom it is exceedingly difficult to access fashion and replicate popular style, even as our being taken seriously and given service and employed frequently depends on looking "put together," even more than our thin peers.

Visibility is about survival. It's about inclusion. And it's straight-up just about getting to see fat people doing "normal" things. Fat people need to see that to validate our lives and acknowledge our very existences, and non-fat people need to see that because they are used to seeing fat characters only when fat serves as a lazy shorthand for undesirable traits.

If only these folks were half as concerned about the consequences of demonizing fat people as they are about "glorifying obesity."

Showing fat people as typical human beings isn't "glorifying obesity," but let's say that it were: If the worst possible outcome of "glorifying obesity" is more fat people, so what? Being fat, in and of itself, isn't a problem for lots and lots of fat people.

I'm fat as fuck, and I have a roof over my head, a job I love, the greatest friends, and a partner who loves and respects me. If my body weren't used as an excuse by fat haters to treat me like a pariah and a plague and an object of ridicule, I'd be doing just fucking fine.

Which, of course, is the worst fear of the fat eliminationists.

Being fat and happy, or content, is something about which I've been writing for a very long time. It's a subject that interests me a lot, for what I'm guessing are obvious reasons.

Fat people aren't supposed to be inspirational figures. We're supposed to be cautionary tales. And hoo boy are there a lot of people who take it personally when we refuse to fill that role.

A lot of people think we should be miserable, and make it their mission to make us so. Because that's easier than the hard work of finding your own confidence and contentment.

Choosing to be fat has to be okay—and so does choosing to be fat and happy.

It remains a radical act to be fat and happy in the US. 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.

I choose to be visibly happy. Both because I have moments of genuine incandescent happiness in my big fat life, where I am meant to have none, and because it is my protest against the people who would deny all of us such visibility everywhere else.

image of me, sitting on my deck, smiling broadly

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