On Fat Representation and Thin Privilege
"We fatties have very little that is made by us, for us."
- Sofie Hagen, from the book, Happy Fat
Recently, I read three excellent books that I would recommend (and have) to others interested in fat studies, fat activism, and/or fat liberation. I enjoyed reading these books and have no doubt they make important contributions to their respective fields. However, I’m not going to say I wasn’t disappointed when I found out all three books were written by scholars and practitioners who are thin or straight size because as a fat person, I want to see greater representation of fat scholars, activists, and practitioners who are engaged in this work. I want to see fat people speaking authoritatively about their lived experiences as only they can. I want to see fat people embracing and calling for fat liberation and challenging the status quo. And as a fat person who is also a feminist scholar, I want to see those who are creating knowledge about fat people situating themselves in relation to their work; as fat studies scholars like Charlotte Cooper and Cat Pausé remind us, who creates knowledge about fat people is important.
I have been a fat person practically my entire life. In fact, I was only nine-years-old when the negative comments about my weight first started. Sometimes these comments came from well-meaning but extremely misguided family members, one of whom warned me early on, “If you don’t lose some weight, you’ll never have a boyfriend.” Not only is this comment completely heterosexist, but it taught me from a very early age that whether or not people liked me was determined by how I looked, and if society didn’t like the way I looked, I should work to change my body as opposed to work to change society.
Over three decades later, I can see the numerous ways that my lived experiences as a fat person influence my research in fat studies and my participation in fat activism. I recognize at a deeply personal level the importance of and need for fat representation. Yet, the voices of fat people are often marginalized or excluded altogether when it comes to knowledge production that impacts their own lives. This marginalization and exclusion of fat voices is what prompted Dr. Darci and I to co-edit an upcoming special issue of the journal Fat Studies. This special issue takes up questions like: (1) what does it mean to do fat studies as a fat scholar and activist?; (2) how does our social location or positionality as fat scholars and activists influence the types of research we conduct and the types of activism we engage in?; (3) how do we situate ourselves in relation to our work?; and (4) how do we connect our work back to our everyday lived experiences?
We asked the contributors of the special issue to consider these questions using an intersectional lens that takes into account the impact of race, class, gender, sexuality, ability status, and/or other systems of inequality and privilege on their work and in their lives. And we did so, to be clear, because fat representation must be diverse, inclusive, and intersectional. As a practical illustration, consider how the identities Dr. Darci and I hold impact our work as fat scholars and activists. Darci and I engage in this work not just as fat people but as white, straight (Laurie), queer (Darci), able-bodyminded, cisgender womxn. It is fair to say that our experiences of being fat in a fatphobic, thin-obsessed culture impacts the ways we make sense of and navigate the world around us. It is also fair to say that because of our other intersecting identities and the systems of inequality and privilege they are rooted in, our perspectives will differ from those of other fat people who occupy different social locations. In fact, as Dr. Darci pointed out in a previous blogpost, even deciding who gets to identify as fat can be contentious at times. This is why fat representation should include the voices and perspectives of fat people from multiple positionalities.
Further, calling for greater fat representation does not mean that only fat scholars and activists can engage in work that impacts fat people’s lives. Nor can only fat people promote body liberation and fat acceptance. Non-fat scholars, activists, and practitioners have made important contributions to fat studies and fat liberation movements. Indeed, they are often afforded far more credibility and authority than fat people doing the same work – that’s one of the many ways thin privilege functions. Which is why non-fat folx who want to be better allies (or, preferably, accomplices) should (1) promote fat representation by amplifying the work of fat scholars, activists, and practitioners; and (2) acknowledge their own thin privilege. This means more than just saying, “Yeah, I know I’m thin...” or "I realize I'm straight size..."; it requires wrestling with what it means to be thin or straight size when it comes to engaging in work that impacts fat people.
I can’t speak for all fat people (as referenced above), but I appreciate when a non-fat scholar engaged in this work acknowledges the importance of their own positionally. Dr. Darci and I just attended the 7th Annual International Weight Stigma Conference in Canada and one of the keynote speakers, Dr. Jennifer Guadiani, I think did a good job of providing examples of how their privilege shows up at times in their treatment of eating disorders. Unfortunately, none of the authors of the recent books I read really grappled with the impact of their identities as non-fat scholars and practitioners. The practice of calling attention to one’s own privilege is still too often the exception rather than the rule. We need to break this rule, and we can’t just stop at thin privilege either; we need to acknowledge the impact of all forms of privilege when it comes to research about fat people, body positivity, and fat liberation including white privilege, cis privilege, straight privilege, socioeconomic privilege, etc.
In the conclusion of the introduction to our special issue, Dr. Darci and I vowed that we would continue to elevate the voices of fat scholars and activists, so I think it’s only fitting to close this blogpost on fat representation and thin privilege by doing just that. I was introduced to Ellise Smith, a graduate student at Indiana University and CEO of Fatness Fiction, just over a year ago. If you’re not listening to her podcasts on Plus Size Magic Radio and following her work on social media, you should be. Also, be on the lookout for the upcoming book, #INTERSEXYFAT, by University of Nevada, La Vegas (UNLV) sociologist, Georgiann Davis, an amazing scholar-activist I met when we were Ph.D. students in Chicago a number of years ago. Georgiann’s new book explores the intersections of being fat and intersex. Georgiann, along with Torisha Stone, a graduate student at UNLV, also contributed an article for our upcoming special issue. And, speaking of, I would encourage you to follow the work of all our contributors if you are not doing so already, including Natalie Boero, Layla Cameron, Lacey Davidson, Melissa Gruver, Natalie Ingraham, Kelsey Ioannoni, Cat Pausé, and Kendra Pospisil. I share the names of these scholars and activists with you because, as Charlotte Cooper argues in Fat Activism, "fat people should be recognized as important knowledge producers," and "academics and policymakers of all sizes should support fat people in claiming space to produce that knowledge." It is in this spirit, that I invite you to elevate the work of other fierce and unapologetic fat scholars, activists, and practitioners you follow in the comments below.