“Individualized empowerment and fat acceptance: is it enough to liberate women?”

Milly Morris

The policing of women’s bodies is not a new notion. Many feminist scholars, such as Rosalind Gill and Angela McRobbie, have presented substantial evidence of the immense scrutiny placed upon women’s appearance via the media (James, 2014). To quote Gill, women’s bodies have historically been subject to “specific disciplinary controls through cultural images and norms” (Grogan, 2008, p.9). For example, in McRobbie’s influential study of the 1990’s British teenage magazine “Jackie”, she notes that such magazines “have been central to controlling an overarching ideology of femininity.” McRobbie contends that the idealized image of femininity perpetuated in the magazine was extremely narrow: “girls should be small, thin, have silky hair and be conventionally pretty” (Lowe, 2007, p.94). This ideal has evolved into what Gail Marchessault refers to as “the physically impossible, tall thin and busty Barbie-doll stereotype” towards the 2000’s model of a firm-looking and athletic body (Overcoming, 2008, p.81).

In contrast, female bodies which deviate from the cultural conception of “beauty” are ridiculed and dehumanized within the media and wider society. For example, the front covers of magazines such as “Hello!” or “OK!” regularly feature fat-shaming images of celebrities with red circles around their “cellulite” and “flab.”

In feminist academia, Susie Orbach’s influential text “Fat Is a Feminist Issue” notes how Western culture automatically assumes that overweight women are unintelligent, unhappy and unloved (Orbach, 2006, p.199). Orbach concludes that this is due to society’s bombardment of images from magazines, adverts and television programmes that equate the successful female with thinness. Another example is Sandra Lee Bartky’s classic text “Foucault, Feminism and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power” which covers Foucault’s analysis of “the disciplined body” with regards to women, exploring the “disciplinary practices specific to women.” She concludes that due to cultural pressure and support from medical institutions, women engage in “an endless array of weight loss and diet regimes” to achieve “slim” (McLaren, 2002, p. 95). Across the globe, fat activists have engaged in the queering of the word “fat” through the organisation of “fat synchronised swimming groups”, “fat burlesque troupes” and the “Fattylymics.” As Samantha Murray suggests, these activities are for members to “engage in a celebration of their fat bodies and their fat lives” (pg 77 (Murray et al, 2014, p. 77). Likewise, for Heather McAllister, fat liberation “could only properly manifest itself” when experienced by fat women “physically as well as accepting it politically and theoretically”. This led her to Big Burlesque and the Fat-Bottom Revue in the late 1990’s, stating that there was to be no liberation for fat women if it only applied from “the neck up” (Hester et al, 2015, p. 25).

However, is this enough?

Whilst the treatment of women who do not fit “the beauty ideal” is unacceptable, should the answer be solely based upon empowerment via the female body?

Fat activists aim to make overweight women feel comfortable and confident in their bodies in order to resist cultural norms that dehumanize the fat female body. There have been hundreds of blogs and articles from activists encouraging women to “wear what they want”, resisting stereotypical judgements that teach them to “dress for their shape and size”. For example, one fat activist blogger states how she feels “sexy, powerful and liberated” when wearing a crop-top, claiming that she is embodying an “anti-fatphobic revolution” (Al-Sibai, 2012).

Similarly, in a recent blogpost dedicated to the “#LoseHateNotWeight” tag on Instagram, aimed at destigmatizing the fat female body, adult film star April Flores stated that she was “inspired” by the amount of fat women taking to social media platforms to “demonstrate that big is beautiful.” She noted:

“With Instagram and Tumblr there are so many women who are a little bit bigger really expressing themselves in terms of how they dress, the way they look — their hair, makeup, everything — just being this embodiment of their own individuality, and they ooze confidence” (Zeilinger, 2015)

Yes, women should feel confident and be able to wear whatever they like and be completely free of judgement when doing so. Like many other fat activists, I understand that these women are attempting to rebuke stereotypes assigned to fat women by not apologizing for their apparently “flawed” bodies.

Nevertheless, is wearing clothes that are only accepted for slim women really something that can or should be described as revolutionary? Moreover, why is a discussion of female “liberation” and “empowerment” so often assigned to what women are wearing and how they are expressing themselves through their appearance?

Whilst fat activists teach the important lesson of self-love and acceptance to a category of women who are devalued in Western society, why is there such a focus on individualized female empowerment through clothing and the body? In this sense, fat activists seem to mirror elements of post-feminist discourse, which claimed that “wearing pink” and proclaiming “Girl Power” was a method of female empowerment. “Girl power”, propagated by the Spice Girls, was loosely based on women’s right to “go out and have a good time” with emphasis on “independence, friendship and personal autonomy” (Edwards, 2010, p. 71).

Similarly to post-feminism, some aspects of fat activism appear to comply with the atomized and individualistic culture produced by neo-liberal capitalism. For instance, post-feminists claim that women should involve themselves in individualized acts of empowerment such as wearing high heeled shoes or watching “Sex and the City.” Sarah Gamble notes that post-feminists viewed fashion as a “symbol of empowerment as well as a source of pleasure” (Gamble, 2011, p. 197). To me, this mirrors the manner in which certain activists “queer fat” via individual women feeling powerful through their clothing and their body.

Thus, like other elements of neo-liberal capitalism, this method of “empowerment” teaches women to look “inwards” at their individual lives and to “liberate” themselves on an atomized level without considering oppressive and ubiquitous structures and norms. For example, why it is that these women believe that they have to “feel sexy” or “feel beautiful” in order to feel powerful? Why can we not feel powerful through our brains, wit, creativity and compassion? Thus, instead of resisting the pervasive nature of “the beauty ideal” via “inwards-facing” acts, we need to turn the conversation “outwards” in order to challenge the structures which suggest that women have to look “beautiful” in order to be respected.

Work cited

Al-Sabai, N. (2012, December 29th). On Being Fat and Wearing Crop Tops . Retrieved October 15th, 2015, from http://www.feminspire.com: http://feminspire.com/on-being-fat-and-wearing-crop-tops/

Edwards, T. (2010). Fashion In Focus: Concepts, Practices and Politics. London: Routledge.

Gamble, S. (2011). The Routledge Companion to Feminism and Postfeminism (Routledge Companions). London: Routledge.

Grogan, S. (2008). Body Image: Understanding Body Dissatisfaction in Men, Women and Children.London: Routledge.

Helen Hester, C. W. (2015). Fat Sex: New Directions in Theory and Activism. London: Ashgate.

James, N. (2014). Society’s Influence on the Perception of Beauty. Retrieved May 18th, 2015, from http://www.essex.ac.uk: https://www.essex.ac.uk/sociology/documents/research/publications/ug_journal/vol10/2013SC111_NicoleJames_FINAL.pdf

Lowe, M. R. (2007). Research into the Representation of Gender and Body Image in the Press. Leeds: University of Leeds.

McLaren, M. A. (2002). Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity (Suny Series in Contemporary Continental Philosophy) . New York: State University of New York Press.

Orbach, S. (2006). Fat Is A Feminist Issue. London: Arrow Books.

Samantha Murray, J. W. (2014). Queering Fat Embodiment . London: Ashgate.

http://www.overcoming.co.uk. (2008). Understanding body image problems: What is body image problems? Retrieved May 14th, 2015, from http://www.overcoming.co.uk: http://www.overcoming.co.uk/single.htm?ipg=8580

Zeilinger, J. (2015, October 9th). Fat Women on How Their Bodies Are a Positive Part of Their Sexuality. Retrieved October 15th, 2015, from http://www.mic.com: http://mic.com/articles/126049/fat-women-on-how-their-bodies-are-a-positive-part-of-their-sexuality

Expat wives and women’s choices

Thais Bessa

(Note: although I agree the distinction between expat and immigrant is artificial and utterly discriminatory, I will use the term “expat” exactly because I am referring to the privileged group the term is associated to).

I have recently found myself in a situation I have not imagined before: an expat wife.

I confess I was full of preconceptions and prejudices about it. The judgemental image I had of the so-called “trailing wives” was of women who abdicate everything to follow their husbands and turn into classic “anti-feminist” clichés to occupy their time: intense homemaking, socialising (The Ladies Who Lunch) and exercising.

As I began to meet fellow expat wives, I could not refrain my own judgment. As I learned that virtually all of them had given up on their careers to be expat wives and in “former lives” (in their words) they were architects or lawyers or psychologists or physicians, I could not help but to think “What a waste”.

You imagine my horror when I realised that this was exactly the same thought that went through the minds of my family, friends and former colleagues when I told them about my decision. I could see it in their eyes, I could hear it in their voices behind the half-hearted congratulations and comments about how “at least the weather would be nice there”. “What a waste”. Even my 5 year-old daughter expressed that in more than one occasion. She was raised by a working mother (though I was lucky to have a flexible and understanding employer who enabled me to be as present as a non-working mother) and we try really hard to raise our children in an environment critical of gender stereotypes. So I understand it was very hard for her to suddenly have a mom who “stays at home”, even if that was just over the summer. She kept asking me why I wasn’t working, what the heck was I doing all day long and even drew a picture book with job options for me in America. Bless her.

I tried to analyse the “what a waste” reaction – mine and of others. My own case shows that nothing is so cut and clear. My decision was well discussed and thought out. My husband had done career sacrifices before and now it was my turn. Even though I gave up a nice and meaningful job, I still had career plans to keep me busy (doctoral research shall keep me busy, right?). Considering the conditions and opportunities in that moment it was the rationally right choice to make.

This led me to think about feminism and women’s choices – and in particular choices made by expat wives. Let me make a caveat here: I know this all sounds and actually is very much First World Problems. Expat wives are part of a small privileged group that is able to make this type of choices. The majority of women in the world are not able to even consider giving up their jobs, taking a break from their careers or going on sabbatical.

From my experience most expat wives left their good education and careers behind to focus on areas that are considered to reinforce the patriarchy: childcare, homemaking, beauty care and socialising mostly with other women. My initial prejudices towards the expat wife image were closely associated to liberal feminist thinking: how dare they concede to traditional gender roles and set the fight for equality backwards? But as I experienced it myself and actually got to meet and talk to many expat wives I realised it was a conscious choice. In that sense, it would be easier to frame it under the non-judgemental lens of choice feminism, according to which the mere fact that women are allowed to make choices – whichever they are – is a feminist act.

However, whilst respecting women’s choices, it is possible and necessary to critically analyse them, their context and the myriad of influencing pull and push factors. Are women’s choices entirely theirs? Are they arrived at autonomously? Labour legislation in the US is incredibly strict and harsh on workers. Working hours are long, annual leave sparse and benefits such as maternity leave practically inexistent. The few working expat wives and mothers I met so far rely heavily on the work and/or exploitation of other women as domestic workers, which from a feminist standpoint does not mean greater gender equality in the bigger picture.

But the main reason why women are compelled to make such choices of taking breaks or leaving their careers (and this refers to expat wives and many other women worldwide) is gender inequality in the labour market and in society in general. Expat opportunities usually arise for senior positions in organisations, which means that in the majority of the cases they will arise for men, who are still the majority in leadership positions in any industry. Childcare and domestic work are still largely perceived as women’s responsibility. Women progress much slower in their careers, earn less and hit glass ceilings more often (meaning their careers are economically “less important” or more dispensable).

Understanding that these – and many other – choices women make happen in scenarios that narrow the possibilities eliminates a binary logic. As Katherine Cross states, individual choices and acts are not inherently feminists but neither inherently anti-feminists. It is important not to assign positive or negative political values to individual woman’s choices, but to explore them in context. After all, our choices are how we navigate through patriarchy and the same applies to expat wives, even if they navigate it from a more privileged standpoint – and over a glass of wine.

“I thought you were doing feminist stuff?”

Sara Salem

I recently gave a presentation on my PhD work, and found some of the questions afterwards fascinating, especially the one I seem to get every time I mention what I’m doing my PhD on: “Oh but I thought you were doing feminist stuff?” Because my PhD is on the 2011 Egyptian revolution and political economy in general, there is always the assumption that it has nothing to do with gender, and that by extension I am not doing anything on feminism. This seems to surprise people because they know me as someone who “does feminism/gender” or who at least has written on those subjects before (Facebook rants included).

When this question comes at me, I find myself pausing. Should I take the easy route and answer that no, my PhD is not on feminism or gender; or take the difficult route and point out that everything is gendered, that no piece of writing can really exclude gender, even if it technically excludes it by not mentioning it. I could point out that my PhD, while not explicitly on feminism or gender or women as a lone subject of analysis, actually uses quite a bit of theory that comes from feminism and feminists. I could also point out that any analysis of the 2011 Egyptian revolution should and has to look at how gender and gendered bodies were part and parcel of events that we usually assume as only political or economic. In other words, the political and the economic are always gendered.

When I first started out my PhD, I was dying to do something “on gender.” But I also wanted to do something on the revolution itself, and thus found myself at a crossroads. I eventually realized that gender is everywhere, that any good feminist will “do gender” even if her (or his!) topic of research is not a glaringly obvious gender topic. And that is exactly what I hope I end up doing – incorporating feminist tools and theory into areas of analysis that usually pretend they are not gendered (ahem, political economy, ahem).

All of this raises the important point that understanding feminism as a field or discipline has also had the side-effect of isolating it, making it easier for other disciplines to ignore what feminists are saying, as well as to ignore the methodologies and tools being developed by feminists. On the other hand, there are clear benefits of understanding feminism as a discipline – it provides a much-needed “safe space” for feminists as well as the kind of solidarity needed to develop the research that has been so important to the development of social science in general. And yet I wonder if the price has not been very high; that the ease with which feminism-qua-discipline has been isolated has made the process of bringing critical gender analysis to other disciplines much more difficult.

It seems to me one way out of this is to apply the research and tools developed by feminists to other disciplines, to questions that may not appear to be the normal topics of feminist research, to research problems that have usually ignored the question of gender. Certainly not an easy task, but I have found that using feminist IR scholars, for example, has been invaluable to my own research on how global capitalism operates, how women and men are made part of this system on different terms, and how gender has been instrumental in creating an international division of labour. I have also found feminist work using intersectionality (as problematic as the concept remains) to be useful in conceptualizing gender in the Egyptian context as not simply being about men and women, but about multiple social categories that are always intersecting. Finally, I have found Marxist feminist work extremely enlightening in showing the ways in which class and wealth are not only gendered, but that the coercion that is part of the capitalist system also plays out in gendered ways.

So to answer the question about me not doing feminist stuff? Everything a feminist works on is “feminist stuff”!

Number crunch

Nicki Smith


So, to quote Kath Browne, I’ve sold my queer soul and gone statistical. With Sarah Kingston from Lancaster Uni, I’ve compiled a report on key statistics on the UK sex industry. This report consists of a whole ton of numbers, and – yes – they are presented as ‘facts’. 

“Why in the blazes are you doing this??” I hear myself cry. Such numbers are the devil’s work! Or, worse, they do the work of neoliberal capitalism for it. To reduce actual people to numbers is exactly what Foucault warned us about! (And he was right).

But, like it or not, numbers frame sex work debates. Whole regimes are created – and lives impacted upon – off the back of numbers. And many of those numbers are simply made up. Debates about sex work continue to feed on dodgy numbers, while I noisily seethe about the stupidity & violence of ‘the’ stats. And then I thought: numbers are powerful beasts, and it’s no good just shutting the curtains while they rage outside. The absence of counter-numbers is actually a presence – it’s a space that just gets filled with other numbers. So, Sarah and I – we’ve decided to fight numbers with numbers.

We’re doing this as a counter-discourse – the numbers are tiny narratives that we’re trying to put out there, in the hope that some might wiggle through the gaps, like little worms, and sit there growing fatter. It’s a risk: we don’t know quite what they’ll grow into. But we thought that it was at least worth a try.

Martin Shkreli (Daraprim Hedge Fund guy) emailed me and here’s what I said

Sophie Harman


My approach to blog writing is this: get annoyed about something, bash out a blog post in around 30minutes, usually while still in pyjamas, ping off to super Nicki who steers this ship, and then decide it’s best not to go to the gym as intended but proceed to shower and University. It is lovely if Nicki likes the post, even better if a few friends on Facebook do, but I never think anyone other than my good friends and feminist academic colleagues read this. So it was quite a pleasant surprise when so many people shared this letter to Martin Shkreli. It was then quite a shock when Martin emailed me on Monday. Friends, social media works: we did it, we got to him.

At first I thought this was most likely a set up from my brother, until I realised for a man who tried (and failed) to buy a doctorate from the internet before I got my PhD, setting up a fake email address may be beyond his technological capacities (love you Normie!). This may actually be the real Martin. So I replied and we entered into ‘dialogue’ via email (I lost my voice after some dancefloor work/shouting with friends that we-loved-each-other-and-really-should-see-more-of-each-other at a raucous wedding last Saturday which ruled out a phone call).

As you can probably guess Martin did not agree with the complete content of my blog. I suggested he may want to write a reply and post it here. He may be thinking about it, but let’s just say we’ve both now moved on from the dialogue. So for the few friends who texted me asking what happened, and to save my poor voice explaining it over the phone to them, here are my emails below. I haven’t posted Martin’s as he has one of those disclaimer things at the bottom of his email address. I understand this is akin to a teenager getting a Jackie Collins (RIP) book out of the library with all the sex bits being crossed out, but what can I say, I’m scared of litigation. So here you go:

Monday 28th September, 4.19pm:

Dear Martin,

Many thanks for your email and taking the time to read my blog. What did you make of it?


Monday 28th September, 4.27pm:

Hello again,

Email correspondence would be good (at least for this week as I’ve lost my voice). I’m interested, how will increasing the price increase access? And how much have the FDA costs you cite been? Likewise, I would be happy to clarify any of the points I raised.



Tuesday 29th September, 8.44am:

Dear Martin,

Thanks again for getting back to me. I found your email most interesting, but I am afraid I remain unconvinced that putting the price up helps patients access treatment.

I may have got the wrong end of the stick here, but from what you’re saying you are justifying the price increase because of enhanced adherence strategy and a boost in investment in the sales and marketing teams of Daraprim. This is what justifies the cost – selling to Doctors rather than boosting R&D?

When did you introduce the co-pay assist program? I think this is an important oversight the media did not note. However putting the price up to $750 is going to have consequences for the insurance premiums of people taking Daraprim and therefore in the long-run their ability to pay.

It seems from what you’re saying, that the increased price is so that you can invest in selling and marketing Daraprim, thus your customers are paying for your marketing strategy. Do let me know if you think I’ve got this wrong.

I also spoke to my colleague who manages the FAC blog and said we’d be in contact. If you would like to post a reply to my letter on the blog you would be very welcome – we want to ensure that the forum promotes open dialogue, so you of course have right of reply.

Thanks again,



Tuesday 29th September, 1.00pm:

Dear Martin,

I get from the tone and the content of your email that we see these issues in very different ways. I appreciate your correspondence all the same but also have more understanding of the pharmaceutical industry than you think I do. Let’s keep in touch.



Martin, if you’re reading this, do please consider posting a blog. I think this is important for two reasons. First, this is an open forum that intends to promote dialogue, it is important that you have the opportunity to reply. Without this I would feel like someone who shouted something at you in the street with all my friends behind me without you having the time to think of a witty comeback. Second, fair play to you for emailing me directly. Lots of people in your position wouldn’t have done so or would have got someone from their press team to do it. You are clearly doing things differently and this could be an opportunity to engage with a wider academic community outside of the natural sciences and pharma. If you decide not to (or you’ve now hired a PR team who decide best you don’t) then I understand, but thanks again for reading.