Reflections on Abjection and Fatphobia
Fatphobia’s Violent Separation of Fat from Identity
THIS ARTICLE MIGHT BE UPSETTING OR TRIGGERING FOR PEOPLE SUFFERING FROM BODY DYSMORPHIC DISORDER OR EATING DISORDERS.
I’m pretty sure Julia Kristeva is trolling me.
What kind of Dostoevsky-reading Lacan-quoting sadist writes a paper full of French puns? Who does that? Rude, honestly. Anyway, I’ve been reading about abjection.
I have long understood the separation of my fat from my identity, whether carried out by myself or by others, to be abjection. It is an assertion of a boundary between the self and the self that is unacceptable, or as Kristeva describes it in Powers of Horror the Me That Is Not Me, the place where the boundary between self and the Other exists. But what if the Other is a part of your own body?
The message of separation of fat from identity is evident in media of all types, from advertisements to memes.
This image echoes the long-lived saying, “inside every fat girl is a thin girl trying to get out.” This statement functions much in the same way that a fat suit on a thin actress in a movie does, drawing a boundary between the body and the fat, separating “fat” from the physical identity of the “self” or the body. Fatness becomes less a thing that you are and more a thing that you have on top of what you are, a condition or disease, as reinforced by every use of the term “obesity epidemic” in the media, and every well-meaning “you’re not fat, you’re beautiful!” excision of fatness from identity. This boundary is maintained by the capitalist system of diet culture, a process through which the consumption of food is moralized in an ever changing system designed to sell not just products, but “lifestyles” to consumers. But “lifestyle” is just another way to say “social order” and those come with certain moral codes and laws. Fat bodies are seen as transgressions to these moral codes the way criminals show the fragility of social order and law, leading those who invest themselves in diet culture to instinctively frame fatness not just as Other, but as the criminal Other that represents the breakdown of social order through perceived immorality.
This is where the desire to be a Good Fatty comes from, a need to perform penance for the apparently audacious criminality of existing while fat. The argument that one deserves respect despite being fat because they exercise shows us the desire to conform to diet culture’s laws. Surely fat women do not deserve to be more likely to be found guilty by juries of men. Surely fat patients deserve to have their health concerns accurately diagnosed and treated. Surely fat workers deserve equitable wages for equal labor. However, the excusing of these injustices becomes easier when the fat body is weighed against the moral code of diet culture, because fatness itself is a sin to be separated from the body in order for the body to be purified in the eyes of diet culture.
This is fat abjection in a nutshell.
What does it mean to separate a part of your body from your Self? To look in the mirror and tell yourself you are surrounded by some alien Other thing? To treat a part of your body as some part of yourself to be removed? What does that kind of stress do to you?
The Guardian published a piece recently with the laughably dehumanizing title “Is is possible to be healthy and obese?” The article discusses recent research from UCL about stress that found higher levels of cortisol in larger subjects, and asks if stress causes obesity, and wonders, possibly, if obesity causes stress. However, there is no discussion on if, perhaps, fatphobic discrimination causes stress for fat people, which is unsurprising, given the language of the article is fat antagonistic in the casually hateful way that most everyone I come across is. After all, why should the author of the piece directly address the stress and consequences of fatphobic discrimination if the researchers aren’t really addressing that either? To them, they aren’t dealing with fat people. They’re dealing with people who have fat, two separate entities existing in the same space. They see a person and an epidemic to be cured. They see the Self and the Sin.
But in capitalistic diet culture, what has become the Self? Here we see the influence of fatphobia on the objet petit a, or that which the self desires from the Other. Through things like thinspo and fitspo, we see this intangible desire illustrated with objectifying photographs of thin women from the neck down with abjecting phrases separating fat from the self superimposed over them.
In this image, the thin woman is objectified, reduced to the consumption of her body and presented as an image of an idealized self for the subject who is then given the message that fat is a separate entity to be “killed,” its death signalling transformation into the objet a. But while many argue that people who look at this image desire to be thin, it is much clearer that what they desire is instead a kind of moral rightness, an escape from a body labelled a transgression, or a distance from the threat of abject fatness. “Thinness” is not what is desired but rather the perceived purity of thinness. The subject does not see that fatphobia has reduced the thin woman to an object, an objet petit a, a thing to be coveted but also to be othered, to define a space between self and the desire to be. How dehumanizing. How limiting. How base.
To conform to diet culture is not a crime by itself but to ignore or excuse the ways in which it harms people just doesn’t seem really that great to me, but OKAY, WHATEVER, MOVING ON.
I would often dream of pulling hunks of my flesh from my body like lumps of clay in my fists, smoothing out my newly thinned stomach like a sculptor. It turns out from my commenters that this kind of fantasy, or other fantasies involving knives or scissors, are not uncommon for fat people living in societies that abject fat bodies. Every signal we get tells us that our fatness is a separate thing from us that we must remove in order to conform to the social order. How could we be expected to not dream of it? To not find ourselves waiting, holding our breath until we’re thin enough to be allowed to breathe.
Even those straight sized people who try to support us often continue this abjection by treating our fat bodies like audacious rebellions, telling us “you’re so brave, I could never wear that/do that/etc.” The public performance of their fat acceptance exists as a signal of their virtue, an adoption of easily packaged corporate bodyposi meant to show their generosity in allowing a fat person to exist. They congratulate themselves for offering to befriend or even love a fat person. That “love” is often fetishizing objectification, a lascivious fascination with the “taboo” of our fat transgression against diet culture. Even more damaging is when the “love” is not for our whole fat bodies, but a “your fat doesn’t matter to me, I love you anyway,” which necessarily casts whatever portions of our bodies we have labelled ‘fat’ as the obstacle to our entire selves being loved and accepted. We begin to see ourselves the way society has cast us on sight, to believe that yes, they are right, we are a moral transgression.
Ideas of moral righteousness relating to body size can be damaging but also infectious. What seems a morally “right” idea, like “fighting childhood obesity”, without the critical engagement of fat studies does not take into account how to frame childhood nutrition without condoning abuse of students by classmates and/or faculty, nor does it address the gaps in educational support and financial aid. However, as fat is abjected and therefor seen as a transgression against the moral order, these concerns can be brushed aside. The injustice does not target people. It targets the fat seen as separate from people.
Abjection functions as part of a larger machine, a hierarchy, a system that devalues all bodies at birth and offers portions of that value back, but on the threat that it can be taken away at any time, the promise that eventually, for some reason, it will. It is only one piece of the larger puzzle of fatphobia. I am less interested in debating if fat people can be healthy or not; I am more interested in if our social systems can.