“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

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