This blog is the third of our series of blogs on the experience of fatness in urban India, and is written by Deeksha Tiwari.
Content warning: mention of disordered eating, anti-fat bias
Judith Butler’s theory of gender performativity, i.e., that gender is a social role performed by individuals and validated and approved by society, provided a fresh lens for perceiving gender. While their theory specifically discusses gender, it has a certain universality to it that can be applied to a plethora of other identities including the fat identity. According to anthropologist Victor Turner, repeated performances are necessary for social action. This repetition serves as both a reenactment and a re-experiencing of a set of socially established meanings; it is the routine and ritualized way in which they are legitimized.
Being fat in today’s world is like living under a microscope since every action is scrutinized with the binary lens of ‘healthy’ or ‘unhealthy’. In addition to being monitored by non-fat people, fat bodies undergo scrutiny by themselves and other fat people as a result of the internalization of this scrutiny.
For a fat person, there seem to be only two roles to play: a ‘good’ fat person or a ‘bad’ one.
Being a ‘good’ fat person involves following an elaborate list of dos and don’ts. There are rules to be followed and mannerisms to be observed. In a way, it is quite similar to being in a play. Every waking moment has to be a performance, carefully portrayed within the boundaries of the script, which in this case is the list of dos and don’ts. And just like a play, there are critics, voicing their approval or disapproval, waiting for you to ‘slip up’ so they can tell you the many ways you are not living right. Unlike plays though, the critics of fat people’s lives are mostly unwarranted and quite often unqualified.
This performance of fatness is indoctrinated through different mediums until it becomes second nature. From stereotypical media portrayals to the constant policing of fat bodies done by families and friends, it is made clear that the only somewhat acceptable way to exist as a fat person is to always play the part of the ‘good’ one. Gemma Gibson describes this performance as a “rhetoric of innocence which seeks to absolve fat people of the ‘blame’ for their fat bodies.” So as long as you play the part of the apologetic and guilty fat person doing everything in your power to change your body, you remain innocent of your fatness. Naturally, a fat person that refuses to put on this performance becomes the ‘bad’ one.
How to be a ‘good’ fat person – scrutinizing fat bodies using the ‘health’ lens
To play the part of a ‘good’ fat person, you must have certain qualities. The foremost requirement is that you live a ‘healthy’ lifestyle. Now, the term healthy has very different and ambiguous connotations for fat people than it has for non-fat people. For a non-fat person, it mostly means eating nutritious meals and getting some exercise and movement for your body. Even then this is very negotiable as most non-fat people go about living their lives as they please without raising any concerns. For a fat person though, it seems as if being ‘healthy’ is not an option. It is something that is expected of them owing to their fatness. Being ‘healthy’ for fat people includes doing anything and everything (not excluding starving yourself) to not be fat.
This obsessive need to assess the health of bodies, especially fat bodies, and then deduce their worth is extremely dehumanizing. The Body Mass Index (BMI) continues to be a widely used metric by health professionals and people to assess the health of individuals despite having been found to be incredibly inaccurate. As per this assessment, fat automatically equals unhealthy. According to researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, BMI is an unreliable indicator of body fat content because it ignores factors like muscle mass, bone density, overall body composition, and differences between racial and gender groups. An alternative was proposed by Dr. Margaret Ashwell, to assess and predict health risks like type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. She suggested that the waist-to-height ratio is a better predictor of these than BMI.
On the flip side, there is the idea that people of all sizes can be in good health, even fat people. In this case, health indicators like blood sugar, blood pressure, heart rate, cholesterol, etc. are mainly used to assess the level of health. Going by this metric of evaluation, if you’re not fat but unhealthy, you’ll be told that you can do better, but it won’t likely result in discrimination and marginalization. Consequently, if you are fat but otherwise healthy, you are somewhat acceptable but still not immune to bias and prejudice around fat bodies. But what if you are fat and unhealthy? Is being unhealthy such a monumental failure that you no longer deserve respect or rights?
Does fatness glorify obesity?
News flash: Just existing as a fat person is not promoting or glorifying ANYTHING.
If you are not a fat person, there are very high chances that you can get away with eating a pizza without people telling you that it is unhealthy or that you are ‘promoting obesity.’ A fat person in the same scenario, however, has a much higher chance of being accused of ‘promoting unhealthy lifestyles’ and even being told that they do not deserve to live at all.
Fat people simply existing outside the role of the good fat person is always seen as glorifying being unhealthy and is met with severe backlash. Remember the photo of American singer, rapper and flutist, Lizzo, in a bikini that went viral? All the unwarranted comments (mostly hateful) calling her gross, unhealthy and accusing her of “eating herself to death” and promoting/glorifying obesity was in response to her just existing unbothered on a beach as a fat person in a bikini. It is also pertinent to note that the hate and backlash that Lizzo received were aggravated by racism. In an interview, Sabrina Strings, author of “Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia,” said that health concerns are not the source of fatphobia. As per her research, fatphobia in the West was rooted in Protestantism and the Transatlantic slave trade. Black people were believed to be “sensuous and thus prone to sexual and oral excesses.” Protestantism promoted moderation in all pleasures and as a result by the early 19th century, obesity was seen as a sign of immorality and racial inferiority, especially in the United States.
Another interesting thing to note is that Lizzo wasn’t even the one to post those photos. Page six just posted the pictures on their Twitter account with the caption “Lizzo rocks tiny red bikini beachside during Brazilian vacation” and all hell broke loose.
Fig: An example of one of the several hate comments under the photo, which individually, has garnered close to 3,000 likes.
Anti-fat bias and popular culture
Another significant characteristic of a good fat person, is their willingness to happily accept any and all comments, criticisms, and opinions regarding their bodies at any given point in time. It is irrelevant if these are opinions shrouded as health concerns, constructive criticism, or straight-up hateful comments telling you you’re worthless. As a good fat person, you have a responsibility to take it all as feedback.
A ‘good’ fat person must also have a sense of humor about being fat to take jokes about their bodies in ‘good spirit’. We have often seen fat people being the butt of the joke, like in FRIENDS with ‘fat Monica’ or more recently in Avengers, with fat Thor. In the media, writers can do better than using the old, “I used to be fat, ugly, and sad,” storyline like they did for Monica on FRIENDS or Schmidt on New Girl. The shift from the ‘ugly and sad fat person’ happened to result in the ‘fat sidekick with too much personality to make up for their looks,’ like fat Amy from Pitch Perfect. In all these iterations, fat people are just expected to be laughed at and laugh with the person making the joke. A study in 2010 shows that fat people feel pressure to be charismatic and funny to compensate for their ‘failed’ bodies. Like Amy from Pitch-Perfect, some fat people feel like they have to use humor to make fun of themselves and their bodies to prevent others from doing so.
Surveillance of Fat Bodies
Fat bodies are discussed and monitored from a young age. In some schools, children are publicly weighed during their physical education period and depending on the weight, are asked to ‘take action’ (lose weight) accordingly. This creates an early awareness that weight is a ‘problem’ and needs to be fixed.
Non-fat people feel like they have the authority to monitor fat people and it is disguised under concern. The holiday season can be a minefield of uncomfortable feelings and awkward interactions as it is filled with diet culture, food guilt, and anti-fat bias. It’s a lot harder to eat, drink, and be joyful when dealing with people commenting negatively about weight or food choices. On the one hand, we become obsessed with food and at the same time, social attitudes towards calorie counting and weight loss are at an absolute high. The idea that fat people, in particular, should be especially careful not to consume ‘too much’ food is usually at an all-time high.
Fat people also try to compensate for negative stereotypes by working harder to make a good impression at work. In a study by Amsterdam and Eck conducted on people who self-identify as fat, they found that fat people had to work the extra mile for their work to be seen as more legitimate. Many fat people feel the need to overcompensate for the stereotype of the ‘dumb, lazy and unkempt fat person’. By putting extra effort into their work performance and appearance, fat people try to show others that fat people are indeed capable of delivering outstanding output and can look professional. This can be via spending extra time on their appearance, working extra, and performing harder for lesser rewards.
Another way that fat bodies are monitored is via social media. According to the Vice President of the Adult Performers Actors Guild (APAG), “Instagram has an algorithm that detects and flags photos featuring over “60% skin.” The intention may have been to censor images that are inappropriate but the algorithm negatively impacts larger-bodied Instagram users. It inadvertently monitors fat bodies and makes them inaccessible. Refinery29 and Getty Images launched their 67% Project in 2017, which acknowledged that although 67% of women are plus-size, they make up less than 2% of the images we see.
All this external monitoring can lead to fat people developing the habit of self-monitoring as a coping mechanism so as to not be judged or commented on by people externally. Self-monitoring is a very common practice that has been made a part of the fat culture as a weight loss method. When fat people self-monitor, the one quality that they have to show is restraint. Whether it be in their personality, food choices, or clothing and lifestyle choices. Any and all decisions have to be influenced by the need to get thin and be ‘healthy’. Studies show that self-monitoring, when born from a place of shame and judgment, negatively impacts the individual.
The irony is that most of the time, being a ‘good’ fat person also isn’t enough. It’s as if our existence until then has been a waste of space because we’ve been taking up so much of it. We are constantly made to explain ourselves and our lifestyle choices. The more fat people give of themselves, the more society wants to take. This give and take is never-ending. The reality is that the more we compromise on being ourselves and not performing, the more rules-explicit and implicit, trends, advice, concern, and unsolicited help, are going to be aimed at us.
These demands reveal much more about our society’s expectations of, projections of, and entitlement to fat bodies than they reveal about fat people ourselves. These demands are overwhelmingly created in a vacuum, away from the actual lived experiences of fat people, or any of our stated needs. Too often, fat people shoulder the burden of navigating these many, complicated, conflicting demands. It is therefore important for fat people to have communities and spaces where they can feel like they can freely be themselves without feeling like they have to perform and be a certain kind of fat. These communities can not only offer the much-needed solidarity but also a space for fat joy, fat love, fat pleasure and the entire gamut of fat experiences.
Thank you for reading this blog, which is the third of our series of blogs on the experience of fatness in urban India. This blog series is a part of our upcoming research study on Fatness in Urban India, focusing on building counter-power narratives on the experience of fatness in Mumbai; as well as developing an evidence base for documentation of the discrimination and oppression faced by fat people in urban India, with a focus on
(1) built environments
(2) health and medical infrastructure
(3) careers – educational institutions and workplaces
(4) intimacies and interpersonal relationships
Further, we hope to document the ways in which fat people embody different physical-emotional conditions. Finally, we hope to use this research study to co-create recommendations for changing norms, policies and infrastructure to meet the needs of fat people in urban India.
To become a part of this study, please consider participating in our data collection process by giving us 30-45 minutes of your time in an interview. To learn more about the process, check if you are eligible and to sign up, please visit: bit.ly/OFC_Fatness_Study.