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Racialized, Sexualized, Dehumanized Fatness & Getting Fat Studies Totally Wrong

I caught wind of this gag-worthy article in the New Yorker--wherein the author mostly provides a lit review of people trying to solve the problem of our existence--thanks to the wonderful Susan Stinson.

First, check out the graphic. They created a fat-woman-of-color monster just for this piece! How delightful! Really, it's completely repugnant...but it's not like the New Yorker isn't famous for it's repugnant imagery.

The implication that (all) fat people are insatiable for fast food is the least of my worries about this image. It's the monster aesthetic--huge mouth, no eyes, disproportionate body, i.e. not human--and the woman-of-color harlot allusions all wrapped together that especially bother me. The dehumanization and fear-mongering is self-explanatory. The racialization is also pretty clear. The Jezebel stereotype as part of that racializaiton really stands out to me. They don't paint the fingernails of a fat-woman-of-color monster and put her in heels for nothing. The colors they choose are also telling. This cartoon from the Jim Crow Museum online comes to mind, but there are many other racist depictions that would illustrate the overtones of this image. The "threat" depicted is more than the threat of a voracious fatty, let's just say that. It's not by chance that Fat Studies scholars are thinking about how race and racial stereotypes intersect with fat and fat stereotypes. Fat gets racialized (and classed and sexually stigmatized), especially in the war on fat/against fat people, and we have to keep our eyes out for these things and be as pissed about those stereotypes and that already marginalized groups are special targets of fat hate as we are about the stereotype that frightening, selfish fatties will kill you for some damn food.

The article itself is less noteworthy in my opinion. I was annoyed at first sight, but tried to read through it anyway. The author's use of the word "tubby" on the second page really set the tone for me. Eventually, I skipped to the part I gave a damn about on the bottom of page 3, top of page 4 where the author talks about the Fat Studies Reader.

The author has clearly done some research. She gets it right that we prefer the word fat. She even name drops the PCA Fat Studies panels and "Fat and the Academy" run by the fatosphere's Sheana way back when. The real problems start at the middle of page 4 where Kolbert clearly misunderstands the term subversive and perhaps didn't read enough of Katie Lebesco's work to understand the quote she uses in the article. (I recommend reading Katie Lebesco's work--it's fantastic!) Then, Kolbert proceeds to mis-characterize Fat Studies, and by extension everyone in the fat movement:

In contrast to the field’s claims about itself, fat studies ends up taking some remarkably conservative positions. It effectively allies itself with McDonald’s and the rest of the processed-food industry, while opposing the sorts of groups that advocate better school-lunch programs and more public parks.

How do we "end up" despite our "claims"? By what means she does not state, but only implies. That's a terrible case of conflation, not to mention that she clearly cannot fathom why anyone would want better school lunches and more public parks other than the "obesity epidemic." IT IS THE REASON FOR ALL!!!! IF YOU DISAGREE YOU ARE FOR THE EEEEEEVIL.

Then, there's this gem:

To claim that some people are just meant to be fat is not quite the same as arguing that some people are just meant to be poor, but it comes uncomfortably close.

Um, not so much. Honestly, I don't even know what to say to that it is so ridiculous. It's like we have damned all fat people to their assumed horrible existence. Why would we do such a thing!?!? Perhaps Kolbert has read about Fat Satan.

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Meowzer July 14th, 2009 | Link | Boy, I don't know if I want

Boy, I don't know if I want to read this thing, or look at what I assume will be a hideously racist illustration. If I do, Klonopin will probably be involved.

But just from the, we don't oppose better-quality school lunches or public parks. We oppose the idea that providing those things will make everyone thin, and the idea that they're not worth providing if they don't make everyone thin. And while McDonald's alone does not provide ideal dietary quality or variety, the idea that people are better off not eating at all than eating McDonald's if that's the only thing available to them is classist snotology to the nth degree.

And about "a certain amount of people are meant to be poor"...yes, they are, relatively speaking. Unless you create a society that's strictly socialist and everyone has the exact same amount of money and property, some people will always be at the bottom of the ladder economically. The idea is that the poorest among us shouldn't have to be relentlessly punished for the crime of having earned less money, especially in a society where upward mobility has pretty much ceased to exist. Just, funnily enough, like fat people shouldn't have to be relentlessly punished because we don't burn calories as fast as our peers.

rachelr's picture
July 15th, 2009 | Link | On the subject of school

On the subject of school lunches and fat acceptance, here's an interesting anecdote. I was an active member of my local Earthsave group several years ago and one of our initiatives was to try and campaign Cincinnati Public Schools to offer healthier lunches. I went on Fox's The Morning Show with Mike and Juliet last year in which I debated MeMe Roth. In a videotaped, post-show greenroom interview, I tried to make the point to Roth that we actually share some of the same goals and that we should find ways to work together to effect real change and I used my Earthsave healthy lunch activism as an example. The clip was posted online in its entirety -- except for my specific mention of the healthy lunch initiative. I found it very strange that the show's editors would choose to delete only this part of the interview, but I wonder now if a fattie advocating for healthy lunches simply didn't fit the image they were trying to project of the fat acceptance movement. Better to let people think that we all shove Big Macs down our throat with a milkshake chaser, I guess.

Charlottery July 14th, 2009 | Link | These kind of fatphobic

These kind of fatphobic people suffer from the same logical lapse as those 'religious' (I use the term loosely) people who think that there has to be religion because otherwise there would be MURDER and CHAOS and ANARCHY.

To those people there apparently is no reason to do a good deed unless you believe you're getting a celestial reward for it, or to refrain from a bad deed unless you think it will be punished.

Similarly, to fatphobes there is no reason to advocate for better nutrition information, better healthcare, better access to physical fitness options (parks, gyms, safe spaces to run), better welfare, or yes, better fucking school-lunch programmes, other than to fight THE DEMON OBESITY. Because if you're not doing those things to stop people being fat, why do them?

I mean, *I* would argue that we should do them because health is important, and access to nutritious food and joyful exercise are important, and people are important, no matter what size they may be. But apparently if it's not being done to fight OBESITY BOOGA BOOGA, it's unimaginable that such measures could have any other value, because better health and nutrition is not a valid goal in and of itself.

Yet *we're* the ones who aren't concerned about our/our society's health? What. the. hell.

Charlottery July 14th, 2009 | Link | "To claim that some people

"To claim that some people are just meant to be fat is not quite the same as arguing that some people are just meant to be poor, but it comes uncomfortably close."

Also, what the jesus fuck?

rebelle July 14th, 2009 | Link | I don't oppose advocating

I don't oppose advocating for better lunches and more parks space, what I oppose is doing so on the faulty rationale that doing so will eradicate faaaaat. Again, again, and again, I try telling people that exercise and nutritional food is good for anyone regardless a person's weight, or whether those things change a person's weight. Why do people like Kolbert have such difficulty understanding that?

pani113's picture
July 14th, 2009 | Link | In writing "Why Are We So

In writing "Why Are We So Fat" perhaps Elizabeth Kolbert is shooting for that prize that pharma gives journalists who write about obesity is a way that is favorable to them. Read a way that helps them sell more pills. Someone actually brought it up on BFB, what was the name of it again?

The school lunches remark was pathetic. Sad that our opposition has to set up straw men because they can't argue against us with logic. Whether there was a hidden agenda or not, Elizabeth Kolbert and the New Yorker are as clueless as they come!

"Fat can be beautiful. Intolerance is ALWAYS ugly!"

levye July 15th, 2009 | Link | Don't want to read her whole

Don't want to read her whole article, but she doesn't really position herself or her body anywhere that I can see. She is the disembodied expert that reserves the right to judge our bodies according to a watered-down science. Her discussion of fat studies is laughable, and of course, she can't engage at all in the cultural studies and/or theory portion of critical fat studies.

D-Man's picture
July 15th, 2009 | Link | Superiority complex is in

Surely the title of their article alone shows you just how deep and insightful the author can be. It's not like this question hasn't been posed and answered a million times already in ways that I'm sure the author would dismiss as "apologetic."

Ahhh, just another day in paradise, amirite?

The Obama "illustration" (and I regret using that term to describe such bigotry) made me sick.

worrier July 15th, 2009 | Link | "Why do people like Kolbert

"Why do people like Kolbert have such difficulty understanding that?"

I don't think they want to understand it. I think people like that have the underlying aim of demonising fat people.

This article is added confirmation for my belief that many people have adopted fat people as one of the scapegoats of current times, and that it's getting worse. The original poster made a comparison to racist stereotypes made against African Americans. I have often thought that the demonisation of fat people have similarities to the demonisation of Jews in Nazi Germany.

There's another thing that disturbs me about this article, that it was printed as a legitimate article in the main stream media. I'm from New Zealand, so I'm not familiar with the tone of the New Yorker, but I'm presuming it's considered part of the main stream media. That adds to my belief that the demonising of us fatties is getting worse.

Hasta la vista, baby!

spinsterwitch July 15th, 2009 | Link | I'm so glad that you took

I'm so glad that you took that image apart. It is so startlingly horrifying that I almost couldn't read the article.

As for the negative connection mentioned between being impoverished and being fat, I'm flabbergasted. Because we do not accept that most poor people are societally compelled to remain poor, we end up having moral judgements about those who do remain poor...and certainly about those who become poor. Indeed, do you imagine anyone who is actively advocating for more public parks or better school lunches is going to take up the cause of fighting for those things in neighborhoods that are not their own.

semantique July 20th, 2009 | Link | I'm actually kind of

I'm actually kind of surprised by the reading of the cartoon as racialised, It didn't feel coded that way to me when I encountered it. The image was offensive, to be sure, in its dehumanising portrait of the fat eating machine-- feminised because there is nothing more monstrous than the woman who dare feed herself before others. But I didn't see it as distinctly racialised. The 'darker' skin was part of a general abstracted colour scheme that is typical of that artist.

I'm not saying it's not the case, but I didn't see it.

Then again, I may be one of the only people on this board who didn't have a problem with the Obama cover, which to me, read as clear satire of the right's worst fears. It illustrated what everyone (save for Coulter, Limbaugh, Savage (Michael), O'Reilly et al) had pretty much disregarded as ludicrous fearmongering with no basis in reality. What was missing was the recent flatearthers move to claim Obama wasn't born in the US. It may have been wrong-footed in that the irony wasn't immediately evident but hardly a move of clear hostility nor overt racial antagonism. The New Yorker may be too much an elitist rag (that has fallen in quality, I think), but its alignment is so clearly leftist that even if one read the image as offensive, it was clearly an error in judgement and in need of greater critique than simply 'It makes me sick'. How this image fails merits discussion, if only to better understand how to more effectively produce the commentary the cartoonist sought to make. How to avoid racist expression whilst engaging with discussions that inevitably bear upon race is something more Americans (and Europeans) need to learn.

All that said: A weak article in that the biases were so drawn that the fat studies and fat rights movement did not receive the attention they deserve. Instead, they were dismissed for lack of science and for potentially problematic alliances whereas the obesity studies were treated as somehow objective, a pure science that transcends patronage and complicated relationships.

Also, just a poor review article, if that's what it was aiming to be (coming in the books section).

I've not posted in ages, and may not be able to visit soon, so apologies if this comes off as a 'drive by'.

withoutscene's picture
July 20th, 2009 | Link | semantique, it's possible I

semantique, it's possible I may have jumped the gun by reading it as a woman of color---I have been a bit embedded in reading about fat Black women and the intersections of fat and race, particularly Andrea Shaw's work, lately. My reading could have a lot to do with that and being hyper-sensitive, or it could have to do with an internalized tendency to read fat bodies, especially ones that hint at sexuality, in mainstream white culture as non-white, in part because that fits with the overall hyper-sexualization of Black women; it [reading fat--or even not-huma--"women" as Black] could also be a learned technique I have picked up, one employed to separate our(white)selves from the abject. My reading probably has to do with all of the above, but aesthetically and in my conscious mind it has to do first with the hairstyle (which I don't see many white women wear, unless they are going for a vintage look) and the dark lips, and probably also because it evoked a racial sexualization for me given the colors, the fingernails, and the high heels. In my experience you don't see a fat "woman" portrayed in such a derogatory manner who is allowed feminine traits without there being some catch. Since I read the other traits as racialized I interpreted that catch to be the mingling of fatness with the hyper-sexualized stereotype of Black women. You are not the only one who didn't read it as a woman of color, but neither am I the only one who read it that way.

As for its reflection of the artist, I just now found the artist name (at the very bottom) and Googled it. I tried to find it before, but couldn't (I am not familiar with the layout of the NYer). You are right that those images are similar. The artist uses color in similar ways without racial implication and much of his/her work is centered on the monster (of sorts) aesthetic. For me, there is a different context in this image because of the regular dehumanizing of fat people and because the image is created and placed in a way that moralizes the body. However, given that I've viewed little of Zeloot's work and had even littler time to analyse it, there may be other moral themes in that body of work. I have noticed a few other of Zeloot's depictions of fat women that are perhaps more valorizing, but notably white.

I'll save my thoughts on the other NYer image for another day.

chondros July 21st, 2009 | Link | Semantique: I thought the

Semantique: I thought the New Yorker cover with the Obamas was doubly offensive: it perpetuated racist stereotypes and gave some people the frisson of enjoying those stereotypes while at the same time it encouraged them to feel morally superior to the people who were presumed to hold those stereotypes (but in fact may not have). Plus, the cover was so far over the top that it wasn't going to cause anybody who opposed Obama to examine his or her motives -- because the only people who are anywhere near that racist aren't ashamed of it.

A few years ago on this blog a woman posted asking for anecdotes about how fat people hate and resent thin people. I called attention to the fact that she'd been part of -- or organized, I can't remember -- an online project to write really over-the-top anti-fat short stories. She was upset (and Paul also seemed unhappy) because it turned out that the anti-fat stories were supposedly "satirical," making fun of people's anti-fat prejudices. But the thing was: there was absolutely no way to tell if you didn't know this woman personally. The only thing that seemed certain to me was that these weren't the sorts of stories a actual fat person would write: they were the sorts of "satire" that allow someone who's not a victim of discrimination to feel superior both to discrimination's victims (poor objects of easy ridicule!) and to poorly understood perpetrators of discrimination (disgusting monsters!). At the time I described such satire as "dangerous," which was an attempt to be polite. I think it stinks. I can hardly imagine a greater obstacle to the eradication of prejudice.

Likewise, I wouldn't have any sympathy with a defense of the Zeloot cartoon that claimed it portrays popular stereotypes of fat people (even though I think it does).

semantique July 21st, 2009 | Link | Withoutscene: It's important

Withoutscene: It's important to arrive with questions and critical engagement. Always. So nice to have a discussion about the issues anyway, because it should always sharpen our approaches to the world.

chondros: While I appreciate you've taken offence at the image of the Obamas-- and yes, when stating the annoyance of the complacent chortle it delivers to NYer readers, I suppose offence seems logical. That said, the image was based in political stereotyping of the Obamas rather than racial stereotyping (even if the two, it's true, are enmeshed) that I still can't take offence. Of course, one should still critically engage with the images, always.

I am not sure how it is that you read my discussion of the Zeloot cartoon as a defence of anything beyond questioning the racial coding. Wondering about that is hardly excusing the depiction of fat people. So allow me to make it clear to you: I was not saying it was not offensive as a cartoon, but rather questioning whether race was also a factor in the condemnation.

chondros July 28th, 2009 | Link | I am not sure how it is that

I am not sure how it is that you read my discussion of the Zeloot cartoon as a defence of anything beyond questioning the racial coding.

Because you devoted about half of your post to a defense of the Obama cartoon on the basis that good intentions or partisanship excuses the use of images that would otherwise be offensive. That's what I was concerned about. I believe the willingness to accept an excuse of "oh, I was depicting how *other people* think" harms the cause of anyone who's the target of such offensive depictions. I've seen this play out more than once in the case of fat people.

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