You’re Not Fat, I’m Fat.

On Performing Gender Through Body Hate

This piece discusses body dissatisfaction, eating disorders, and dieting.

In episode 33 of Futurama, two alien Amazons lament their bodies together while the character Bender listens in. The giant women (both endowed with what is traditionally called the hourglass body type) bemoan their fatness and Bender reacts with tired exasperation. While the moment has been widely castigated as one of the show’s failings of their women audience members, the scene has also been gif’d, meme’d, and otherwise shared, immediately recognized. So what’s the deal? How is it this feels both authentic and like a failure?

In her essay Talk from Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession, Fanny Ambjörnsson describes this kind of interaction between women, especially teenage girls, as fat talk, and asks the reader to consider how it organizes and regulates social bonds between some women (p 112). Though Talk focuses on Swedish teenage girls, we can see this pattern of fat talk in the United States as well.

So how does fat talk work? Ambjörnsson explains it as one girl opening with a negative comment about her own body and another girl responding in kind (p 112). However, it should be noted that a girl can’t participate in fat talk by talkin about a body other than her own (p 113). It’s also important to remember that if a girl is actually fat, she cannot participate in fat talk at all (p 114).

What does actually fat mean? Well, let’s start with what fat means. It varies from place to place and time to time. In one place, it might be a woman who is a size 20, in other place it might be a woman who is a size 14. What may seem fat on one woman will seem “normal” on a man of the same height in some places. And what may be fat on one race may be thin on another, depending. For a student, however, there are certain logistics to consider: if a student is actually fat, they will likely be facing problems fitting into provided seats or desks; they will have to purchase an extra seat without guarantee of seating on airlines; they will have difficulty having a seatmate on the school bus. Ambjörnsson points out that fat girls also will have difficulty connecting with other girls through fat talk, and draws a connection between this and what Pierre Bourdieu called symbolic capital, or certain qualities or characteristics that allow you to be acknowledged as someone worth talking to about something (p 116).

There’s all sorts of problems with symbolic capital when you stop to think about it. It bleeds into racist and gendered stereotypes that harm all people but here the problem is simple. Ironically, to have the symbolic capital necessary to participate in fat talk, you cannot be fat, especially not actually fat (p 116).

I’m fat. I’m significantly fat. I started thin and blossomed into the fat, luscious cupcake you all know and love when I was in high school, but middle school was an odd, odd time for me in which I had to navigate the bizarre world of fat talk and performative body hate among my fellow girl classmates. We weren’t limited to fat in any way. One girl hated her acne, another the thickness of the hair on her arms, yet another the shape of her nose and eyebrows. Body dissatisfaction, it seemed, came in a variety of options for us all, and we needn’t be limited to one. Everything from freckles and fat to the shape and color of our nipples was open to our criticism. Our bodies were battlegrounds and we were at war with ourselves. As in all wars, there was a certain camaraderie between us, an understanding that comes from the exploration of so much pain together, surviving the cull that is pubescent girlhood together.

Together, we felt out our positions within a social hierarchy through self-criticism and mutual support. One thing Ambjörnsson doesn’t spend much time on is the fact that it is important when a girl says a part of her makes her ugly, she must be refuted by her friends. When she says: “I’m fat,” they must respond, “no, you’re not fat!” before they can finish, “I’m fat.”

We experimented with dieting, our coffeehouse orders changing from hot cocoa to Americano with soy or skim instead of cream. We chatted diets we read about in fashion magazines. We watched media where women dieted and talked about dieting constantly. We loved cigarettes. Cigarettes suppressed your appetite we had been told and we repeated it to each other like gospel every time we lit a cigarette and posed like a starlet in a black and white glamour shot. Cigarettes stolen from my mother’s purse where she’d hidden them in the hopes I wouldn’t find out that she was smoking. My mother was dieting, running away from her body as quickly as she could even as my own began to fill and then expand to fill the shadow she left behind. My mother was my first celebrity, my first hero. I wanted to learn everything about and be exactly like her, to the point where I have subconsciously trained myself to match her inflection on certain words as if my own voice is just a hollow impersonation of hers. She dieted and she was the pinnacle of womanhood to me, the absolute of it.

To quote Ambjörnsson again, “Because the girls expect others to share similar concerns about their bodies, the experience of worrying about fat is normalized; it is something you face because you are a girl. Expressing dissatisfaction with one’s body becomes, in this sense, an important way of performing one’s identity as a girl.” (p 117)

I performed body hate because I had been shown, by television, by magazines, and my own mother, that it was the way women were supposed to behave. In a way, this performance allowed me comrades in a deadly conflict against my body. However, in another way, this performance conscripted me into the side opposing my own body. As my body grew fatter, this battle only grew more bloody, left scars on me that I don’t know will ever heal.

Let’s discuss what some of those scars are, and some of the scars you might recognize on yourself. In 2016 the American Academy of Pediatrics released new guidelines for talking to kids about their weight that basically said: Don’t. Talking about “health” seemed fine to the AAP, and I’m like sounds ableist but OK but they specifically noted that weight talk and weight teasing contributed to unhealthy body images that are a risk factor for disordered eating.

Disordered eating is dangerous. It’s a deadly condition that results in more deaths than any other mental illness.

What I experienced was binge eating disorder, a condition where I would try to deny myself food for as long as I could until I would binge uncontrollably and then throw up. It’s estimated that 2.8% of American adults experience binge eating disorder in their lifetime, which I don’t find reassuring in the slightest.

Because I was fat in high school, I didn’t participate in the fat talk that took place between the thinner girls there, but while Ambjörnsson says that without the symbolic capital one cannot engage in fat talk, there is a kind of miserable performance one can engage in as a fat girl, which is self-hate. To make a fat joke about oneself is to erect a shield, to draw a line in the sand and then cross it. It is aggressively passive without being passive aggressive, which is to say it aggressively stakes a place within a social hierarchy, but towards the bottom of it. It’s a hard trudge through a dark place and I don’t envy the girls who are still there now, struggling through it.

Strangely enough, my performance of self-loathing never gained me a position among the girls, but among the boys, where I simultaneously posed no threat in the eyes of their girlfriends (because of how my fatness ungendered me to them) and provided the expected feminine emotional labor of constantly listening to and emotionally supporting men. A performance of some kind of self-loathing is important for women in the eyes of society. She who does not denigrate herself, who does not hate herself at least a little, is often seen as too confident, even arrogant.

All of this is communicated to us girls indirectly through media and women we emulate as child, who learned it from media and women they emulated as children, who learned it from so on and so forth, back and back and back. When we have the symbolic capital that allows us to take part in fat talk, we are allowed some camaraderie in the misery. Without that symbolic capital, we may participate in performance of self-loathing but only as an acknowledgement of our fatness in an attempt to protect ourselves from negative comments. Where a thin girl may say, “I’m fat,” and get a woman saying, “no, you’re not fat, I’m fat,” a fat girl is often received with peals of laughter. This complicated navigation is one fat women learn early on in their fatness, usually with an easy shield (if I say it first, it’ll lose its power before they can say it). In a way, this performance of self-loathing becomes a performance of gender identity, a sheepish owning up to a failure as a woman. Humor is the only reliable armor in a world that will laugh no matter what.

I know I tried it. I’m sure you’ve tried it, too.

I’m trying to write a book and if you tip me, I won’t starve while I do that. Do so here, here, or here.

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Kivan Bay

No one of consequence. Brave compared to some. Writes stuff on twitter. A guy now.