Fat Feminism: Politics and Perspective
by Karen Stimson

A Harvard Public Health study published in the fall of 1993 in the New England Journal of Medicine found that, compared to other women, those who are fat in their teens and early twenties:

    • Have household incomes averaging $6,710 lower than other women (who themselves earn an average of 60 cents to every dollar a man earns)
    • Are 10 percent more likely to live in poverty than other women
    • Average four months less schooling
    • Are 20 percent less likely to get married

It used to be a feminist consciousness-raising slogan that every woman is one man away from welfare. For fat women, stripped of the "benefits" of male chivalry, this is all too often literally true, as the Harvard study shows. The larger the woman, the more likely it is to be the case. The same study found little economic, educational or marital disparity between men of average size and those who were fat. This is not to say that fat men do not suffer size discrimination--they do, but at higher weights than women do. These findings, which the researchers themselves attributed to discrimination, for the first time document, in the study's own words, "that overweight (sic) may be an important determinant of economic status of women in the United States." In other words, as fat feminists have been saying for years, being fat is downwardly mobile for women. Because fatness is an inherited trait, it both causes poverty and results from it in a chicken-or-egg cycle. And since virtually all of the oppressed groups in this country--African American, Latino, Jewish, Native American--share a genetic propensity for fatness, it is clear that size discrimination, in addition to being sexist, is racist and classist, too. Since people naturally gain weight as they age, it carries links to ageism as well.

The origins of this economic and social determinism for women of size can be traced back to the 1960's. As the second wave of feminism began, a new tide of anti-fat propaganda was also reaching our shores via Twiggy-esque fashion models. The new fashionable clothing required a woman to suddenly acquire the body of a (stereo)typical adolescent boy--no bust, no waist, no hips. The fact that women's bodies are biologically programmed to contain a higher percentage of fat than men's do, and that women who artificially lower their weight below their body's setpoint often become incapable of sustaining pregnancy--not to mention other less complicated tasks, like getting through a day of normal physical activity--directly contradicted the new cultural imperative. For feminists, this should have been a rallying cry: instead, the mainstream women's movement embraced the anti-female body style as avidly as Madison Avenue did. If women were to be accepted into the male power structure, the theory seemed to go, we needed to remove the visible signs of our femaleness.

So Gloria Steinem's Metrecal and Jane Fonda's daily lunch of half a banana became the legends (and goals) of feminists in this new age. For all women--and fat women in particular, unable to torture our bodies into each year's desirable configuration, no matter how hard we tried (and we did try, over and over again)--this amounted to a betrayal of some basic feminist principles. In the early 70's fat feminists, outcasts in both the established women's movement and the fledgling size acceptance community of NAAFA (the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance), began exposing the sexist basis of size bias, the deadly fallacy that makes women see our weight as personal failure and allows our bodies to be abused for the profit of multinational corporations. As Vivian Mayer (formerly Aldebaran, now Sara Fishman) wrote in Shadow on a Tightrope, "Fat is not a feminist issue; fat oppression is." Fear of fat, programmed into women by a fatphobic and gynophobic culture, keeps all women, regardless of size, in a panic about the size and shape of our bodies. It is used to sap our energy, divert our attention, and create artificial barriers among us to prevent effective political action--as Flo Kennedy, the iconoclastic 60's feminist of color and size, dubbed it, D&C (Divide and Conquer).

In the years since the 70's, as the definition of "thin" (read: acceptable) has become progressively more unattainable, generations of women of all sizes, and their daughters, have been ravaged by epidemics of eating disorders, distorted body image and negative self-esteem spread by Hollywood, fashion pornography, and a $33-50 billion dollar diet industry. Until recently the mainstream feminist movement did little to renounce this tyranny of thinness, identify it as gynocide, or work to end it. Rather, it has been fat feminists who have reminded our sisters that women's bodies naturally come in a variety of shapes and sizes, all of them strong, healthy and beautiful. At the same time, we have been reminding our size activist colleagues that sexism oppresses ALL people of size; that everyone committed to ending size discrimination needs to recognize its sexist roots; and that fat activists need to work on eliminating sexist biases in our own back yard.

Fat feminists have been step-sisters in both movements for too long. Fortunately in the mainstream size acceptance movement many committed feminists now sit in positions of authority, and in the feminist movement fat women's issues--civil rights, health care issues, public access--are beginning to be heard. With NOW (the National Organization for Women) on record as opposing size discrimination--a hard-won victory made possible by the efforts of many determined women from NAAFA's Feminist Caucus, the Body Image Task Force, and others--feminism's front line has finally embraced our struggle, at least on paper*. And with Ms. magazine finally rethinking its position on fat**, change is clearly on the agenda.

We need to continue educating, continue dialoguing, continue pressuring, in both the size activist and feminist communities. Now that Jane Fonda has come out of the bathroom to own her history of bulimia, and the anti-diet movement begun by mostly non-fat feminists is adding strength to our numbers, radical fat feminism is coming of age, coming full circle, and coming into its own. The door is now open. It's time for us to step through.

**Since this essay was written, Ms. magazine has been strongly criticized for its schizy (at best) attitude in print toward fat politics.

Karen Stimson is a writer, poet, graphic designer and long-time radical supersize activist who serves as Co-Director of Largesse, the Network for Size Esteem.

This information is a public service of Largesse, the Network for Size Esteem [http://www.largesse.net/] and may be freely copied and distributed in its entirety for non-commercial use in promoting size diversity empowerment, provided this statement is included.

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