Review: Fat Shame in America

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Fat Shame

Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture by Amy Erdman Farrell (NYU Press) 209 pages

This is a compelling post-feminist look at the (overweight) female body and its cultural history. It focuses on the mid-19th century, where Farrell says the present-day stigmas about obese people began. Then came the diet industry in the 1910s and 20s, and that imagery was firmly codified in the cultural mind of America, in advertising, in political cartoons and in the system of signs and signifiers.

Political cartoons and advertising campaigns were pivotal in forming the national cultural mind-set (think AMC’s Mad Men forty years earlier). “Fat mockery” is, like all other forms of prejudice, something that doesn’t just occur in a vacuum. It’s born in the minds of fools and bigots and then put into practice. The beginnings of the stigma and the systematic oppression of big people in America coincided with the rise in a consumer culture.

Capitalism always moves to fill an economic void, and the loosening of Victorian values seems to have given the business community an opportunity, and license, to exploit the physical body as a symbol of health. The advertising monster was out of its cage. American companies launched the greatest mass brainwashing campaign in human history when they built the unconscious superstructure of our system. A national identity made from scratch, as Americans began to identify with the things they were buying, in a weird kind of fetishism. We weren’t just Americans, we were consumers. Any anti-female sentiment of the early twentieth century was also subsumed into the larger social hatred of the suffragette. In the chapter, “Feminism, Citizenship and Fat Stigma,” Farrell demonstrates how the anti-suffragette movement was connected to the feeding of the cultural imagery and dislike of “fat women” that became so commonplace.

Chauvinism accounts for some of the insipid actions of the right: accusing progressive women of trying to “unsex women” in the general population, like a Stepford Wives experiment, but there is a more insidious vibe that forms the core of a general anti-female bigotry. The bigots seized on the image

of “undesirable women” to further arguments about how unattractive it was for women to vote. Only ugly or fat women voted; that’s the kind of political dialogue that developed in this society.

In the chapter entitled, “Refusing To Apologize,” Farrell deconstructs the subliminal communication in political cartoons. She fights back, and presents the forces that have stood against this oppression, explaining the origins of “fat activism,” and the formation of the National Association to Aid Fat Americans (NAAFA), founded in 1969 by Bill Fabrey. Later, a splinter group formed, called Fat Underground. There is also some mention of the merging of fat and queer activism in the “fat lesbian community.”

It is now just as socially inappropriate in civilized society to ridicule big people as it is people of color, and the primary reason for that is the political work of the “fat activist” community. It’s safe to assume there is “fat discrimination” in the workplace, just as there is racial prejudice, but, legally, employers cannot openly discriminate against anyone as part of an institutional policy. We all have the social activist communities to thank for that, all of them.

It’s easy to comprehend the immense numbers of women who struggle with body-image issues throughout their lives after reading this unseen history. Evidently, it’s in our DNA to do this to women. We have completely warped any understanding of what constitutes “attractiveness” and even pre-teen girls obsess over weight and binge and purge. This should be required reading in every high school in America.