Fatphobia Hasn't Gotten Better Over Time
Kate Manne's Unshrinking challenges narratives of progress
The popular, conventional wisdom about bigotry is that it was worse in the past and that it will be better in the future. Racism, sexism, homophobia, antisemitism—our ancestors were benighted and embraced Jim Crow and pogroms. But as we’ve moved towards the future, step-by-step, we’ve learned that they were wrong. Eventually, on some not-too-distant day, we’ll move into a post racial utopia, and everyone will treat everyone equally.
Kate Manne’s Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia isn’t mainly concerned with refuting this kind of narrative of inevitable progress. But her discussion of the history of fatphobia and body-shaming makes a strong case that at least one kind of prejudice has gotten worse over time—not despite scientific advances, but in part because of them.
More, fatphobia incorporates the very concept of progress and improvement into its program of moral stigma. The idea that we are getting inevitably better is not just false, but a mechanism of oppression in itself.
Leave fat people alone
Manne’s argument in Unshrinking is that “There is no morally acceptable practice that serves to reliably make fat people thin,” and that, therefore, “Even if you…worry about some people’s fatness, there is nothing to recommend to them within the bounds of ethics.” The ill-effects of being fat are dubious and disputed; in contrast, the ill-effects of constantly losing and gaining weight are well-documented.
In addition, the evidence that diet and exercise are ineffective as strategies for lasting weight loss are overwhelming. More, one of the main health dangers fat people face is from stigma—especially in medical settings, where doctors often misdiagnose fat people, or even refuse to care for them. Given all of this, there is no ethical basis for shaming fat people or for trying to coerce them into being thin. On the contrary, we have a moral imperative to push back against fat stigma and to stop policing people’s bodies and diets.
I find Manne’s arguments very persuasive. And while many people now hate the idea of just letting fat people be fat, in the past leaving fat people alone was the default. Plato and Aristotle were opposed to gluttony—but they also were able to perform the elementary observations required to realize that gluttony is not linked to fatness in any way. Thin people can be gluttons, fat people can be abstemious. In the ancient world, and in the Middle Ages, people knew that body shape is unrelated to willpower.
They were also aware that thinness is not necessarily related to attractiveness. Many cultures linked fatness to affluence or luxury. People also just saw fat bodies as attractive—without the freight of guilt and self-loathing that is supposed to accompany desire for fat people today. Rubens didn’t hide his paintings.
The progress of fatphobia
Fatness began to be hated when it was connected to Blackness. Race scientists began to obsess over the supposed excessive fleshiness of Black women, especially—even though these bodily differences were largely invented out of whole cloth. “It is not that fat bodies were first stigmatized and then Black bodies became associated with fatness;” Manne explains. “Rather, Black bodies were first associated with fatness, and then fatness came to be stigmatized soon afterward.” White upper-class women were framed as thin, delicate, and worthy of protection; Black women’s (supposed) fatness made them sturdy and coarse and rationalized their exploitation.
What’s striking here is that the advance of “science” actually led to an active, and deliberate, loss of commonsense knowledge and even a loss of an ability to make straightforward observations and inferences. People knew that fat is not linked to appetite and gluttony—and then they forgot. People knew that fat people were attractive, and then they erased the knowledge.
People could see that people came in a wide range of body weights and skin colors, and then they created a racist taxonomy which overwrote that fact and linked fat to Blackness and whiteness to thinness, even though anyone could see that there were fat white people and thin Black ones. The Sara Bartmaan, a Khoisan woman, was kidnapped and displayed to Europeans to illustrate the supposed connection between Blackness and fat. But Manne points out, “Some gawkers,” insufficiently persuaded by the latest progressive scientific theories about racism, “were disappointed” because Bartmann was not in fact especially odd-looking or fleshy. As Manne says, “she just looked like an ordinary woman.”
Worse living through medicine
We’d like to think that things are better in our own day, and that we’ve shucked off the ideological delusions along with the race science. But we haven’t shucked off either. The Body Mass Index (BMI), still in regular use today, was developed by Ancel Keys who argued that fat was “ugly” and “ethically repugnant” with little scientific basis. He developed the measure based on the work of Adolphe Quetelet, who was deeply embedded in eugenics movements. BMI misclassifies athletes as overweight and discriminates against Black women, who have greater muscle mass and bone density on average than white counterparts. Again, advances in (supposedly) scientific precision just serve to systematize and rationalize discrimination.
Medical “advances” also create “treatments” which provide further fodder for stigma, and which can lead to significant dangers for fat people. Bariatric surgery, in which people’s stomachs are stapled or reduced in size, has increased 50 percent between 2011 and 2020, Manne says. It’s touted as a wonder cure. But in fact, as many as one third of patients gain back a significant amount of weight after surgery. Others may contract anemia, scurvy, or other nutritional deficiencies, since they can’t eat enough food to stay healthy. People experience bowel leakage, bone loss, and other serious complications. They’re also twice as likely to die by suicide—a strong indication that for many the surgery does not make them happier with their bodies or themselves.
Manne discusses the dangers of other weight-loss interventions, such as appetite suppressants. and of fasting. She herself tried both, and she provides harrowing accounts of weight loss regimes interacted with and enabled an eating disorder that was health threatening and sometimes life threatening.
Contemporary culture provides fat people with a slew of medical, pharmaceutical, and mental technologies for losing weight. These technologies are all broadly examples of progress in science and psychology. And they all combine not to help people, but to make their lives a misery of self-regulation, self-denial, and self-loathing.
Self-improvement through misery
Manne also points out that the normalization and broad acceptance of fatphobia actually undermines what we like to think of as progress in other areas. Fatness becomes an excuse to attack women, Black people, or poor people. Fatphobia, Manne says, “gives privileged—and thin—white elites a way to believe in their superiority to other groups while maintaining plausible deniability of their racism and classism.” She adds, “This is especially true in leftist circles, where such prejudices are now widely frowned upon, and would be an occasion for guilt, shame, and self-censure if admitted, even inwardly.”
Manne notes that the website “People of Wal-Mart” was popular with many white progressives she knew; it regularly posted pictures of fat Wal-Mart shoppers. “What pretended to be a comment on consumerism in America was really a way of venting racism and classism, cloaked in the more acceptable garb of fatphobia.”
The history of fatphobia, then, isn’t a story of initial human cruelty and prejudice, giving way over time to superior knowledge and superior, kinder morality. Instead, fatphobia is a form of hatred developed relatively recently, which has become more toxic and dangerous thanks to the steady advance of discourses of health and technologies of surveillance and medical intervention.
Fatphobia, in its current form, is almost inseparable from discourses of progress, especially when filtered through neoliberal ideas about self-improvement and self-help. Over time, we are all supposed to improve, cultivating our worst self in such a way that it becomes our best self. Individual progress is supposed to recapitulate and mirror social progress. Stubbornly fat bodies enrage fatphobes in part because they seem to refute the narrative of inevitable collective betterment. Contemporary humans, with our modern apps and our modern health care, are supposed to become ever more enlightened, ever healthier. Fat people, supposedly, have not gotten with the program.
Maybe the program sucks, though. The history of fatphobia shows that the passage of time, and the embrace of “progress”, in itself, doesn’t make us more moral or happier. Health, self-improvement, and enlightenment don’t have to lead us to better things. Sometimes they’re just used to torment people. There’s no guarantee of a brighter future. That makes books like Unshrinking, which try to imagine a less hateful and more abundant world, all the more necessary.
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