Queering fatness

tempo di lettura: 4 minuti

“Fat people are a fact of life, part of the fabric of humanity. There is evidence that we have existed for many thousands of years. We are here. There are many who would prefer fat people not to exist, but we are here regardless of whether or not we are allowed or supposed to be here. Fate people are as valuable as anyone else and our existence reveals important things about how societies operate.” (Fat Activism. A Radical Social Movement. by Charlotte Cooper, 2016)

The fat body is looked by many with contempt. Yet upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that discrimination based on fatness has an interesting and complex history that compounds economic, racial and patriarchal forces and goes beyond simple aesthetic ideals or faux health concerns. As I completed my Masters in Gender Studies at SOAS University of London, I have chosen to focus my dissertation on the concept of fatphobia as the last accepted form of discrimination.

As a widespread and widely used instrument of division and power, fat discrimination hits every single person in the West (especially in one of its most vicious forms, diet culture). However, it works in tandem with other markers of identification – for example race, disability and sexual orientation – to create unique intersectional experiences of inequality. In my thesis, I focused on exactly these intersections; for the Symposium organized last November by the students of the Collegio Internazionale – of which I am an Alumna – I decided to highlight histories and elements situated at the crossroads of queerness and fatness.

It is important to keep in mind that, throughout my work and my everyday life, I never consider fatness as something inherently negative: I use the word ‘fat’ as a morally neutral descriptor. It has been proven that there is very little correlation between fatness and poor health: for this reason, I also agree with the rebuttal of the terms ‘overweight’ and ‘obesity’ brought forward by fat activists. Those are terms that pigeonhole the issue of fatness into outdated and racist medical concerns, while ignoring the real (infra)structural issues that affect fat people in all aspects of their public and private lives. Queer is a term that is currently used mostly with reference to non-heterosexual individuals. The word, however, has a broader and connected meaning: queer is whatever defies and rejects the norm, what does not sit within the acceptable limits and ideals of the structures of power that are taken for granted, exposing their socially constructed nature. When it comes to fatness, observing it through a queer lens helps identify multiple places of paradox which fat people face daily.

Firstly, the hyper-visibility caused by living in a larger body clashes with the under-visibility that fatness faces in institutional policies, infrastructures and clothing – for example in the inaccessibility of theatre and cinema seats, the impossibility of buying sustainable and affordable plus-sized clothing, the lack of recognition of fatphobia as discrimination in policy-making or the blatant dismissal by doctors who ignore fat people’ symptoms and prescribe weight loss without looking into possible pathologies. The second paradox at the confluence of queerness and fatness stands between fetishization and rejection: while fat women are often the object of sexual fetishes, their identity and dignity is rejected in most mainstream spaces, as well as in queer communities and dating apps. Finally, fatness itself creates a paradox between masculinity and femininity: while a body with more fat is curvier, and therefore more feminine, a larger body also takes up more space, acquiring a strongly masculine connotation.

This means that “because fat bodies blur the line between masculine and feminine, both men and women who are too fat are deemed less desirable within the heterosexual economy of desire because they fail to fit neatly into their respective gendered roles” (Hailey N. Otis, 2020, in Tess Holliday’s Queering of Body Positive Activism: Disrupting Fatphobic Logics of Health and Resignifying Fat as Fit). This particular phenomenon becomes especially interesting when we consider marginalized identities such as fat, queer, feminine people, who find themselves in a loop in which their three markers of identity don’t necessarily fit with one another according to dominant narratives. The experiences of fat trans people are also very telling: many report perceiving a difference in treatment by others before and after their transition. This proves that fatness, gender and sexuality – together with race, disability and class – play a complicated game of discrimination and privilege in the eyes of the dominant heteropatriarchy: how activism works in these peculiar and contextual situations should mix the essential utopian drive of all kind of strife for social change with a honest and nuanced analysis of lived realties.

Overall, the topic of fat discrimination and fatphobia – together with their various responses, namely fat liberation, fat studies in academia and the body positivity movement – remain often under-theorized or under-considered in activist spaces. While we are starting to see more conversations happening at several levels, it is important not to let our narrative slide into a commodified and simplified ‘love yourself’ discourse, which does not address the institutional and widespread discrimination faced by fat people. Being attentive to the demands and observations made by those living in larger bodies is an essential first step in moving beyond the idea that everyone hates their body – a statement which, thanks to an increasingly stricter diet culture, is very much true for most people, yet levels the experience of everyone to a unique, abstract feeling – and starting to notice the practical ways in which fatphobia is an instrument for structures of power to maintain their hegemony. In order to approach the topic, I suggest visiting the Essential Reading: Fat Liberation, Body Positivity & Intuitive Eating page on Sofie Hagen’s website. This is a great, extended list of divulgative and well-researched resources to start learning about fatness from multiple perspectives.

Immagine di copertina tratta da: “Nothing to Lose“, opera del fotografo Toby Burrows.


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