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  • The Weight I CarryIntersections of Fatphobia, Gender, and Capitalism
  • Shawna Felkins (bio)

I have been fat for most of my life. A cute, fat little girl with cute, fat not-so-little legs. But there was a point when the fat wasn’t cute anymore, when it did not elicit the pinching of cheeks, but the reprimanding clucking of tongues.

And thus, my child’s body and I were given a label that I did not and still do not understand—obese. For many fat folks, this word has become a scourge, a plague, an indicator of a lack of morality and deservingness. B. Elbel and colleagues, in a public health study of “obesity,” write that “potential short-term impacts on fitness, social and emotional development (at least partially driven by obesity-related stigma), and academic success” were potential negative impacts related to childhood obesity.1 What this article—and numerous others in the public health field and medico-scientific literature—fail to grapple with is fat stigma or fatphobia that is present in much of Western society, especially within the United States. Children may experience the aforementioned negative impacts because of external factors, not just the sizes of their bodies, and how they learn to inhabit that body in spaces and around people that are often too small for them.

As my younger brother hit puberty and shot up to 6 feet, 3 inches, his body changed and his fat seemed to disappear. Mine only grew. I watched in horror as new stretch marks spread their tendrils across my hips and breasts, my arms, and the backs of my knees. And I started to realize that with each utterance of concern my family would always hand me that tiny consolation prize, wrapped neatly with the large, distracting bow people place on backhanded compliments: but you have such a pretty face. With each utterance of this seemingly innocuous phrase I began to understand that the only part of me that could ever be pretty was my face, the rest of my body a hindrance, a failure for someone to tolerate.

At sixteen, I tried NutriSystem. When I was seventeen, I started taking cans of Slimfast to school. When I was eighteen, the first signs of bulimia appeared, the result of a life full of people telling me that my body was too much. My undergraduate [End Page 180] career was tainted by the taste of vomit and the red streaks that stretched from my knuckles to my wrists. And when I confided in a friend what I was sneaking into the dorm bathrooms to do at night, she looked at me blankly and asked if I was sure I was bulimic because I hadn’t really lost any weight.

My fatness has always been seen as the failing of my parents, other family members, and later myself, even in their eyes. I would argue that these major themes of responsibility—on culture, mothers, and individual behaviors—stem from neoliberal capitalist ideology that seems to have permeated the field of public health. Like Kathleen LeBesco and Susan Greenhalgh, the geographer and food studies scholar Julie Guthman draws a connection between capitalism, citizenship, and “obesity.” Guthman argues that to be a (read: good) citizen of the United States, full participation in the capitalist economy is necessary. Therefore a balance of consumption while still staying thin is struck:

We [Guthman and DuPuis] noted a culture of bulimia, where on one hand buying and eating (being good consumers) is encouraged and on the other “deservingness” is performed by being slim, such that the good subject buys more and weighs less. . . . We then made the claim that epidemic talk itself is a form of discipline which uses the extremes as examples to warn the ‘normal.’2

While this comparison to an eating disorder is both blunt and aggressive, it is effective in describing the catch 22 for fat people in the US—you should consume a lot, but never should that consumption cause your body to grow in size. All of these scholars use the framework of “morality” that Abigail Saguy and Kevin Riley identify as a crucial component to the narrative that drives...


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pp. 180-185
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