Why Is Fat a Feminist Issue?

Overweight woman

In a speech on the topic of “radical fat liberation” jointly sponsored by the Women and Gender Studies Department and the Center for Equity and Inclusion (what else?) at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, the prodigiously overweight Sonalee Rashatwar, a self-proclaimed Fat Sex Therapist, compared fitness trainers to Nazis, defined child dieting as sexual assault, attributed the Christchurch shooting to ‘thin” white supremacism, and condemned science as “fataphobic” for “promoting the idea that certain bodies are fit, able and desirable.” She wonders, rhetorically, “is it my fatness that causes my high blood pressure, or is it my experience of weight stigma?” She goes on to blame the Reagan administration for having refused to provide “social supports that also help me to subsidize my food costs.” Believe it! We have entirely transcended the realm of reason, sanity and common sense, and tossed the concept of personal responsibility into the cultural dumpster.

Rashatwar, of course, is not alone in pursuing her redemptive mission. Fat is big in the feminist Weltanschauung. Virgie Tovar’s influential You Have the Right to Remain Fat is a case in point, resting on a subtle distinction between fat positivity and fat activism. Lindy West, whose book Shrill is a feature on Hulu, tells us she had “always been a great big person,” but uses her natural condition as a kind of license for voluntary accumulation. If we are to be honest, we would have to say that we are witnessing a grotesquerie in progress—which is, again to be honest, what feminism has become.

According to Gillian Brown in a recent blog post "Why is Fat a Feminist Issue?" from which I take my title, “Fat women are an embodiment of exactly what patriarchal society does not want women to be: visible.” Heft, she implies, is female revenge against a tyrannical masculinity that wishes to erase women from the public square, to obliterate them from view. Her thesis is so counterintuitive as to be visibly preposterous. Men have been promoting the presence of women in all the spheres of public, professional and institutional life for generations, often to their own material disadvantage. Men obviously enjoy looking at women, the more visible the better. Many husbands are quite delighted with their beautiful wives—I know I am—and happy for all the world to look upon them with appreciation. Men in non-repressive cultures are not prone to lock up their women, barricade them in some version of Bluebeard’s Castle or drape them in pup tents.

Brown’s argument becomes even more ridiculous when one recalls that feminists also object to the indigestible horror of catcalling and the malevolent prevalence of the “male gaze,” which would be impossible if women were rendered invisible. You can’t have it both ways but that never stopped a feminist. Not content with glossing over a blatant contradiction, Brown goes on to claim that fat men need not worry since they “are not expected to look aesthetically pleasing”—the perks of patriarchy. The statement is manifestly dishonest. But for Brown and her innumerable congeners, fat is a feminist issue. Fat should not be off-putting. Indeed, fat is fab, if we only knew it.

Brown’s main burden rests on women’s vulnerability to fatophobia, which may account for the plethora of Fat Studies in many Cultural Studies programs dominated by feminists, deploring what is called “weightism.” St. Olaf is only one of a myriad of such institutions. Fat women “are considered second-class citizens and are treated as such in a number of different ways—such as not having as many clothing options made available to us [true for all fubsy people, male or female], not being considered as often for employment [false, especially in government service and university departments], being paid less than our thinner counterparts [patently false—and illegal], being judged and/or mistreated in doctor’s [sic] offices [only if one considers legitimate concern to be mistreatment], and being verbally and physically harassed on the streets [seldom the case, and socially frowned on]. The purpose of fat activism is to fight against these varying forms of injustice.”

A major text on the subject is the edited volume Feminist Perspectives on Building a Better Psychological Science of Gender, in which a chapter by Rachel Calogero, Tracy Tylka and Janell Mensinger dwells on “weight stigma,” “weightist assumptions” and “thin privilege.” There are no negative consequences in being overweight, these self-appointed experts inform us; besides, adiposity is not within an individual’s power to control. Medical discourses on the hazards of weight only increase weight stigma and should be dismissed out of hand. Bias against fat women constitutes a social justice and human rights issue, they conclude, lobbying for “formal legislation to protect against weight stigma and discrimination,” including the assessments of medical science. If you don’t like something, or if it goes counter to your belief system, ban it. Such is the feminist position. (See Janice Fiamengo’s mordantly droll video dismantling these absurdities, "Feminists Weigh in on Weight." “Although the authors claim to value empirical research,” she writes, “it seems pretty clear that they value their ideology far more.” We are dealing not with legitimate scholars but with “social justice totalitarians.”)

The queen of feminist fat is the late Andrea Dworkin, Though he is feminist friendly and an admirer of Dworkin, British novelist Will Self, writing in The Independent on May 21, 1999, marvels at the “raw quality of Andrea’s bulk (she must weigh more than 300 pounds)” and wonders if her being so “extravagantly overweight” might have had a “desexing” effect. Dworkin believed that in the context of patriarchal domination, normative relations between the sexes were always forms of abuse. Dworkin never seemed to me a credible witness or reliable observer, claiming, with dubious and contradictory evidence, to have been the victim throughout her lifetime of multiple rapes and assorted sexual assaults. One of the most ruthless of the second-wave feminists, her reputation, more or less moribund for some years, is currently experiencing a resurgence with an omnium-gatherum of fawning articles and reviews in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books and The Guardian.

Notable manhater Roxanne Gay is a gender maven in high standing and a major figure in the corpulent sisterhood. Toxic masculinity is her shtick. Men “can come forward and say ‘me too’ while sharing how they have hurt women,” she lectures, among innumerable other such dicta. Gay is, except for skin color, a dead ringer for Dworkin: similar rhetoric, similar body type, similar single-mindedness. “Here is the burden I have carried,” she laments in The New York Times, an unintentionally apt remark.

It is instructive to note what we might call a deficit affinity between the aesthetic and the obsessive. For these uncompelling types, beauty and charm are clearly forms of ableism and privilege, and so must be fiercely discredited. This is the subtext of Rashatwar’s St. Olaf talk. Discretion is at a discount, normative desire is a patriarchal conspiracy, and the traditional relations between men and women are considered unwholesome. The entire argument revolves around all that has been forfeited to malice and acrimony.

Plainly, aesthetic norms change over time—Rubens’ beauties were demonstrably ample. Women with verve and aplomb who wear their weight cheerfully and maintain a certain hygienic control to prevent unhealthy excess need not fear the competitive advantage of the “prejudicially thin.” Nonetheless, the feminist cathexis on weight as a positive attribute is a sign of ideological excess or, if I may put it this way, of conceptual fatuousness. The LGBTQQIP2SAA consortium now includes conspicuously overweight women as well and the acronym should read LGBTQQIP2SAAF.

Lest I be misunderstood, my point is not to mock but to attest to both the mental flab that accumulates on our practitioners of gender politics, the blubber of lies intended to resist cold truth, and a metaphorical equivalent to the greater matter at stake. For one might say that the culture itself has grown fat, bloated with an overabundance of feminist theory and commuting the question of identity to, among other things, body image and a celebration of body diversity, at the expense of the many faculties, qualities, and affective valencies that make us truly and fully human. Ironically, the tendency is to reduce by inflation, recasting the rich moral and spiritual complexity of what it means to be human to the simple-minded expansion of one particular attribute.

Moreover, as we have seen, feminists have declared war not only on men—they put one in mind of sundry classical images of the Greek Furies, meant to strike fear into the hearts of men—but on female attractiveness and physical allure. It is no stretch to say that feminists are not only anti-masculine but anti-feminine. The celebration of female fat—or as they sometimes put it, of those “at the higher end of the weight spectrum”—is a heavy weapon in their arsenal. This is sizeism with a vengeance.

As noted, Gillian Brown argues that men believe “women should not take up space.” It seems that one of the ways in which many feminists are determined to fight the patriarchy, trash the ideal of aesthetic beauty, justify the bizarre and renovate the culture in their image is precisely…to take up space.