Frontiers Roundtables offer space for conversation on a key issue or concept. Not Tragically Fat! grew from a chance meeting on a train between Wanda S. Pillow and MaryAnn Kozlowski. The editors appreciate MaryAnn’s time and efforts to see this conversation into print and value all four authors’ participation.
Not Tragically Fat!—a title inspired by Cheryl Hopson—includes four essays that detail through memoir, prose, and critique what it means and feels like to be labeled “fat” and together produce a refusal, paraphrasing Susan Bordo, to live a life doing battle with one’s own body. The word “fat” is a highly marked designation not only because what is considered to be a fat body is variable—historically, racially, culturally, and class-wise—but also because of the moral, social, and character associations attached to the term. Fat figures not merely as medical assessment but as a socially, economically, and politically constructed idea that relies on the confluence of health discourse and dominant ideologies of race, class, sexuality, and gender. Fat has materiality; fat holds materialities of substance and invokes constructed dualisms of wealth/poverty; healthy/unhealthy; industrious/lazy. Being fat is never purely about the size of one’s body but about how society interacts with materialities of that body. Being called fat and treated as such is as important in identity formation as a number on the BMI (Body Mass Index). Similarly feeling fat creates experiences and materialities of a shame-filled or undesirable body.
How does one survive being fat? The authors note having to be the funny one, the one fat friend, the one with the pretty face, while continually navigating family, social, education, medical, and sexual spaces with apologies for not fitting in. Susan Bordo’s narrative describes how family lore defines early identities and contributes to shame, in this case Bordo as the voracious overeater and lazy under-achiever, identities that followed her into school and social [End Page 174] events. Linking happiness with being slender led to cycles of weight loss and weight gain, but as Bordo hauntingly writes, “once you have been fat the shame never leaves you.” Her contribution is a breaking of silences and a love letter to the authors in this roundtable.
Being made to feel fat underscores all the essays. Growing up with this feeling becomes engrained—it never leaves you—and navigating survival during girlhood becomes necessary. “Don’t feed me!”—Cheryl Hopson’s essay reflects on the affects and effects of that message, placed on her back by a seventh grade classmate. Hopson evocatively describes how as a “fat Black girl” she found that shame develops, works into one’s body and mind, and festers there. Shame brought on by society reactions to and assumptions about fat Black women and fat women’s bodies. Reading Hopson’s essay, we are forced to ask, “But whose shame is this?”—should it be a young girl’s? Or a woman’s? Or the shame of a society that, as Hopson lists, surveils, vilifies, mocks, erases, denies, and effaces fat bodies?
Across the essays is the journey to and necessity of unlearning society attitudes toward and treatment of fatness—recognizing injustices of fat shaming, detecting misinformation in health care, and reclaiming one’s body. Bordo’s refusal to live a life doing battle with one’s own body, Hopson’s understating of living “Not tragically fat!,” Felkins’s recognition of “state-sanctioned labeling” and “morality attached to physicality,” and Kozlowski’s embracing of the grace of her whole body speak to how women in their thirties to seventies are challenging society’s gaze by living, as Hopson says, “our absolute best (fat) lives.”
While survivance is key, what could be done, what needs to be done so that girls are not subjected to the violences and trauma of fat moralizing and misinformation?
Shawna Felkins echoes Bordo’s and Hopson’s narratives, offering personal reflections while critiquing gaps in health research; gaps that produce a predominant health discourse focused on “responsibility, blame and morality.” Felkins discusses how this trifecta is experienced by the individual and family and argues that this approach has only intensified as fatness is redemonized through research and social media health discourses. Fat has thus become a legitimized societal concern—for example, your fatness is costing me, thus I have the right to comment on your fatness. Felkins reviews how fat stigmatization and responsibility are placed most on communities already experiencing marginalization, while also calling out a lack of engagement with fatness in feminism. Noting her own experiences of dismissal, Felkins challenges readers to consider how feminism can include fatness as an intermeshed, intersectional identity.
Practices of dismissal and cooptation are further detailed in MaryAnn [End Page 175] Kozlowski’s essay, “I Feel so Fat.” Kozlowski considers what the common female refrain “I feel so fat” does and means when one is not fat and to women who actually are fat. Refusing statistics and BMI, Kozlowski focuses on social constructions of fat impacted by gender, race, and class. She argues that “fat is a discursive creation” while always being about the “physical body in a physical world.” Here Kozlowski’s essay evokes the writings of Audre Lorde and Franz Fanon on what happens, what it means—the material effects and affects put into movement—when a person is discursively named “other.” Similar to the friend who “does not see race,” Kozlowski describes how girlfriends say, “Oh, you’re not fat.” Both are moves that erase and deny physical realities and experiences and histories of social stigmatization and violence. Kozlowski further argues that “I feel so fat” is code for women to signify that they feel gross or ugly and can also be linked to language that absolutely cuts and dismisses women and women’s sexuality.
This roundtable forefronts that fat is a feminist issue. And it is a responsibility for us all to hear and think with lived experiences, theorize with complexity, and address materialities of all lives. The essays have challenged us as editors to think about our own gaps and assumptions, and we encourage readers to do the same by beginning to think with “fat” across research, policy, pedagogy, and praxis and in our relationships. [End Page 176]