Criticism of a girl or woman’s body by those whom she trusts most, with whom she is most intimate, and to whom she is most vulnerable is not only one of many ways girls and women are abused, it is one of the most common. As Dorothy Taber, a rehabilitation counselor working with persons with psychological and physiological disabilities, has commented, “Over the many years that I have worked as a counselor of women, every female client I have worked with over a period of time, of months, regarding partner abuse, has commented about the trauma caused by negative remarks concerning their body by their abusers, adding to the basic shame that most women apparently have about their bodies. One would expect for persons with disfiguring conditions to have negative bodily images. But this isn’t necessarily so. Many people with average, healthy, ‘normal,’ and often beautiful physicality believe they are ugly, homely, and misshapen.”1 The criticism can be couched in any number of ways, and whether it is presented “lovingly” as “for your own good” or brutally as “you deserve to be punished for what you have done to yourself or “what you have become,” it is always painful for the fat woman to experience and it never feels like love. Whether the words come from a husband, a domestic partner, a lover, a parent, a sibling, or a friend, they always wound.
The earlier the criticism begins in the life of a person, the more permanent and long-term the damage can be. And when the criticism begins after or in conjunction with some highly stressful event (and a stressful event can be a welcome event, such as pregnancy or child-birth as well as a catastrophe, such as illness or the loss of a loved one), the person being criticized is even more vulnerable than at other times. Wounding remarks about a person’s natural appearance delivered by those who are supposed to love you are toxic. Being told you are too anything-too fat, too thin, too tall, too short, under-developed, over-developed, too dark- not only is a blow to one’s self-esteem and one’s natural sense of being at one with one’s own body, but it undermines one’s ability to trust in the safety of anyone’s love.
In heterosexual marriages, abusive husbands frequently try to control their wives’ appearances as if their wives were pieces of furniture, possessed by the men and vulnerable to reupholstering. It isn’t clear whether the men are really dissatisfied with their wives’ bodies at a personal level or if they are just desperate to have their wives conform to current beauty ideals because their wives’ appearances reflect on them. No doubt the men couldn’t make the distinction between their own personal preferences and their career ambitions themselves.
Fat girls often experience emotional and sometimes physical abuse, bullying, intimidation, and humiliation from their peers in public settings such as school or playgrounds. There is seldom interference in this bullying by adults for all that reasons that we know: adults rarely interfere in the torturing of children by each other. Perhaps the most significant reason they don’t interfere in the case of fat children is their conviction that the abuse is deserved.
The catalogue of abusive behaviors by parents of many fat girls and fat young women is increasingly familiar to children as the unwarranted hysteria about the so-called “obesity epidemic” reaches truly pandemic proportions. Children perceived to have “too much body” are put through a common routine of shaming, blaming, depriving, and distancing by parents with means and determination to govern the bodies of their fat youngsters for their own good:2 Children as young as three months are put on diets. Food restriction and withholding is a common memory for adults who grew up as fat children. Children whose parents have means are sent to “fat camps” that are run like institutions designed to punish; some are even sent to twelve-month “fat schools” to be schooled in self-hatred, self-deprivation, and self-surrender.
Our society has a general penchant for abusing the powerless and the weak and punishing the different; it makes perfect sense that people with fat bodies will be abused. And, since appearances are markers of such significance in determining social value in our culture, it makes perfect sense that abusers will attack those bodies in every way possible, including physically, sexually, verbally, medically, and financially.3
In fact, it often doesn’t matter if a woman is really fat; if she lives in a fat-fearing, fat-hating culture and she is in an intimate relationship with an abuser, she will be told, scolded for, punished because she is fat. Even if she isn’t. This abuse is perhaps only the most literal expression of the punishment our culture imposes on bodies that dare to transgress from the socially prescribed norms.
In the world at large, the abuse of fat women and girls remains a secret, surrounded by fear, shame, and self-blame. And, like abused women in general, many fat women are likely to go on suffering in silence unless and until the larger truths are told, and blame is placed where is belongs-on the abusers, and on the culture that produces them.
Although heterosexual women, and men, both fat men and those men called “fat admirers,”4 have participated in the founding, development, and maintenance of the fat acceptance movement on many fronts, the most radical literature about fat oppression and fat liberation has come from the lesbian feminist fat liberation movement. The literature of fat liberation (or size acceptance, or the fat civil rights movement) is a bravura literature ranging in tenor from pugnacious to lyrical, ironic to heartbroken, furious to comical. It includes the genres anticipated in such a literature: moving memoirs, heart-breaking confessions, declarations of love and alliance for those like the writer, white-jawed rants, murderous tirades, well-reasoned arguments, angry manifestos, three point sermons-and poetry that reflects all of these sentiments and more. As a body of literature, it is relatively new, seeming to begin with writing by the Fat Liberation Underground in 1974.
After these early publications, there has been a steadily increasing river of books and articles and periodicals addressing women and fatness. That more and more of these publications were feminist and represent something truly new in literature, that is, the voice of the fat woman herself, the fat woman as agent rallier than object, is a consequence of many factors.
During these three decades, fat people have begun to find our authentic literary voices and used them to portray and protest our outsider role in society, to question the science used to condemn us, and to assert our determination to define ourselves and live on our own terms. During the same period of years, eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia, exercise addiction, binge eating, and compulsive overeating, seem to occur with greater frequency and the attention focused on these conditions has increased.
Whether a woman is a radical fat liberationist, fat, proud, defiant, and bound and determined to claim her rightful share of joy, to have her say, to take up space on the dance floors of life, to look you in the eye and say, Fat! So?5 or a size acceptance advocate who believes passionately in the all-rightness, the normalcy, the beauty of women of all shapes and sizes, or a woman who is stil in hiding, still wearing that black raincoat in summer, who hasn’t been swimming in decades, who spends her days and nights waiting for her life to begin once she “does something about herself- all of these women are telling their stories, writing poems and essays and manifestos and novels and short stories that say, “this is how it is for ME!”
I am grateful for their stones.
This piece appeared, in slightly different form, in The Strange History of Suzanne LaFleshe and Other Stories of Women and Fatness; edited and with an introduction and afterword by Susan Koppelman, preface by Alix Kates Shulman, published in December 2003 by the Feminist Press at the City University of New York (Order: 212-817- 7920 or www.feministpress.org).
The abuse of fat women and girls remains a secret, surrounded by fear, shame, and self-blame.
“The most radical literature about fat oppression and fat liberation has come from the lesbian feminist fat liberation movement.”
1 Personal communication, September 15, 2003.
2 An exploration of the overlap between disability issues and fat issues is beyond the scope of this essay but I do want to mention here one particularly poignant characteristic in the childhood histories of people born with disabilities or chronic illnesses, those who become disabled or chronically ill as children, and fat children: namely, they tend to be anomalous, “others,” in their families of origin. The grown-ups in the world of these children, parents and professionals alike, who do not share the condition of these children, whatever it is, are the ones who set the standards, establish the goals, and make the determinations about “what is to be done” for the “poor” child. The similarities between the experiences of childhood recorded in the autobiographies and memoirs of fat children and disabled or chronically ill children are unmistakable.
3 Dieting industry “will be worth 64bn.””The market in diet food and drink products \is expected to increase to 64 billion over the next four years, new research shows.” The complete article is available at: www.ananova.com/news/ story/sm_599092.html?menu=
4 Another term for men who prefer fat partners is “chubby chasers.” This term is disrespectful of both parties to the relationships, while “fat admirers” is an attempt to simply name in a neutral manner a group of people whose only similarity is a particular kind of preference in their choice of romantic or sexual partner. The most interesting thing to notice about these terms is the absence of similar terms for those who prefer very slender partners. There are terms for heterosexual men whose sexual preferences reveal fixations on particular female body parts, such as “leg men,””butt men,” and “breast men” (and yes, these terms refer to sexual preferences rather than culinary preferences!), but there simply are no terms for men whose preferences are for women whose bodies approach the current cultural ideal-except, maybe, “trophy wife.”
5 FAT!SO? is the title of both the periodical and the book published by Marilyn Wann. The full title is FAT!SO? Because you DON’T have to APOLOGIZE for your SIZE!, Ten SpeedPress, Berkeley, Ca., 1998.
Copyright Off Our Backs, Inc. Nov/Dec 2004