I want to tell everyone about a book I am obsessed with- Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture by Amy Erdman Farrell. In this amazing book Farrell goes back two hundred years into the history of what she calls ‘fat denigration’. In other words, being ‘fat’ has become a way of dismissing people for a variety of reason that have nothing to do with health. Even more interesting she examines the history of the diet and anti-obesity movements to show how the have always been about profit rather than health.
The Goodreads description summarizes the book well:
“Tracing the cultural denigration of fatness to the mid 19th century, Amy Farrell argues that the stigma associated with a fat body proceeded any health concerns about a large body size. Firmly in place by the time the diet industry began to flourish in the 1920s, the development of fat stigma was related not only to cultural anxieties that emerged during the modern period related to consumer excess, but, even more profoundly, to prevailing ideas about race, civilization and evolution. For 19th and early 20th century thinkers, fatness was a key marker of inferiority, of an uncivilized, barbaric, and primitive body. This idea—that fatness is a sign of a primitive person—endures today, fueling both our $60 billion “war on fat” and our cultural distress over the “obesity epidemic.
Farrell draws on a wide array of sources, including political cartoons, popular literature, postcards, advertisements, and physicians’ manuals, to explore the link between our historic denigration of fatness and our contemporary concern over obesity. Her work sheds particular light on feminisms’ fraught relationship to fatness. From the white suffragists of the early 20th century to contemporary public figures like Oprah Winfrey, Monica Lewinsky, and even the Obama family, Farrell explores the ways that those who seek to shed stigmatized identities—whether of gender, race, ethnicity or class—often take part in weight reduction schemes and fat mockery in order to validate themselves as “civilized.” In sharp contrast to these narratives of fat shame are the ideas of contemporary fat activists, whose articulation of a new vision of the body Farrell explores in depth. This book is significant for anyone concerned about the contemporary “war on fat” and the ways that notions of the “civilized body” continue to legitimate discrimination and cultural oppression.”
I don’t know if I an explain it any better. It is brilliant book and has validated many feelings I have held since I was a little girl. I can’t agree with Farrell more when she says:
“we often associate certain diseases with specific types of personalities, blaming the victims and shaming them into silence. In a similar vein I would argue that we have imposed equally dangerous cultural meanings onto fatness. Fatness in the United States ‘means’ excess of desire, of bodily urges not controlled, of immoral, lazy and sinful habits. Much more than a neutral description of a type of flesh, fatness caries with it such stigma as propels us to take drastic extreme measures to remove it”
She then goes into various dangerous measures some go to rid themselves of their ‘fat shame’. “Clearly, fatness is a discrediting attribute for which people will go to extraordinary extremes to eliminate. One has only to think of tape worms and arsenic of the early 20th century or the debilitating gastric bypass surgery of today to recognize these extreme measures. It is a physical stigma or an ‘abomination of the body,’ one that is clearly visible. Fat people cannot hide their stigma…Because our culture assigns many meanings to fatness beyond the actual physical trait- that a person is glutinous, or filling a deeply disturbed psychological need, or irresponsible and unable to control primitive urges- it also has the traits of a ‘character stigma’…fat people are treated as not quite human, entities to whom the normal standards or polite and respectful behavior do not apply.”
There are so many examples from pop culture of fat stigma it is hard to know where to start. Everything from Chris Farley to Homer Simpson reiterate that fat=stupid, lazy and incompetent. (I love the Simpsons btw). Even a child’s film like Walle reinforces that fat people are irresponsible, lazy and idol.
Now there may be some of you who think ‘she’s reinforcing unhealthy obesity’ but she’s not. She is meticulously chronicling the history of what it means to be fat in America. Our society puts all kinds of limits and stereotypes on overweight individuals including ‘the unfair treatment they receive in employment, medical care, and social life.”
She also shows a number of studies that argue with the direct link between fatness and ill health. “They (diet establishment) argue that studies with headlines that tout the ‘dangers of obesity’ usually demonstrate that a sedentary lifestyle and a diet of processed food result in ill health; and that a diet rich in fruits and vegetables and an active lifestyle will improve health, but it may or may not result in weight loss”
Even presentations that on the surface seem to encourage the right kind of weight loss, like the show ‘Biggest Loser’, subtly make the connection of weight loss and increased health. They also subliminally imply an individual who does not lose weight is a ‘loser’ in their quest for health.
The most impactful part of the book for me is a study she mentions by UC Davis.
“In this study, a group of fat women was divided into 2 groups, one receiving coaching in restrictive eating (diet) and exercise, the other being encouraged to eat a healthy diet, listen to their bodies cues, to foster ways to engage in fun exercise and take part in a fat acceptance discussion group. Significantly group 1- the traditional diet/exercise group- initially lost weight, but by the end half had dropped out; most had regained weight; blood pressure, cholesterol, and other metabolic measures had not improved and self-esteem levels had dropped. In contrast, group 2 hadn’t lost any weight, but most stayed with the 2 year program; their blood pressure, cholesterol, and other metabolic measures had improved dramatically; their self-esteem levels increased substantially; and they exercised regularly. Encouraged to pay attention to their bodies, to stop restricting calories, to fight the discrimination they experienced as fat people, and to enjoy their bodies through physical movement and eating well- the non-dieters showed significant health improvements. But, and this is the key point, they never became thin.”
Please forgive the long quote but isn’t that fascinating? I was blown away. It reminded me of why I started this whole journey. Losing weight was part of it but a small part. I wanted to have more energy, to be able to do more of the athletic activities I saw around me. I may still weigh over 250 lbs but there is no doubt I am healthier now than I was a year ago. This was such a great revelation for me because I was becoming too focused on the weight loss- seeing it as the full marker of my success. The fact I hadn’t lost the 100 lbs in one year, despite practically killing myself, made me feel frustrated and a little depressed. (I might add that these feelings were entirely self-imposed as I have received nothing but praise and encouragement from family and friends).
For some reason I have always found it comforting to read about the history of philosophies and trends. Through understanding how our culture got to where it is helps me understand those around me and my own feelings at the same time. It was this sense of understanding the world that caused me to eat up philosophy and political science books in college and it is something I still love to this day. Farrell’s book helped me to understand my own feelings of inadequacy in a new way and to finally get why a nation saw me as a fat person through a particular lens. After all, they’ve had over 200 years to develop these bad habits and judgements!
It also makes me want to prove the haters wrong and be a shining light to those who feel depressed over their weight. I want them to know they do have value, even if society says they are worthless. I see the worth. I know how hard it is to get healthy, but getting healthy should be the goal and if weight loss comes with, so be it!
Here’s a clip of Amy Farrell on the Colbert Report talking about her book.
I couldn’t embed it because of comedy central’s copyright.
I know this is a long post but I really wanted to get the word out on this book. It is a bit academic (incredibly well researched) but I wish that everyone would read it.