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  • I Feel So FatThe Meanings and Uses of “Fat” as an Identifier
  • MaryAnn Kozlowski (bio)

The commonly expressed condition of “feeling fat” can be witnessed in women’s bathrooms and dressing rooms, spanning time and space. Typically, those who say they “feel fat” are not actually fat. But what then about the girls and women who are, in fact, fat? Where do they fit in, when “fat” is used as a way to signal distress over one’s body, regardless of actual size? Nomy Lamm, in her essay, “It’s a Big Fat Revolution” addressed this common phrasing by saying:

The most widespread mentality regarding body image . . . is something along these lines: Women look in the mirror and think, “I’m fat,” but really they’re not. Really they’re thin.

Really they’re thin. But really I’m fat. . . . I know that women look in the mirror and think that they are fatter than they are. And yes, this is a problem. But the analysis can’t stop there. There are women who are fat, and that needs to be dealt with.

(Lamm 1995, 84)

There seems little purpose in creating a hierarchy of social and interpersonal mistreatment as it pertains to marginalized bodies, but it is important to acknowledge the distinct differences between how one is treated when she “feels” fat and when she is “read” as an actual fat person. This distinction does not always easily correspond to the standards outlined in the body mass index (BMI) scale or any other scientific marker separating fat from thin.

Therefore I cannot give you hard numbers regarding who is in the “fat” category and who is in the “thin” category. This bothers people. They want a line of demarcation, one that separates the fats from the not-fats. The problem is: the category of “fat” is always changing. What is fat today might not be fat in a hundred years or might not have been a hundred years ago. We can track shifting body standards in books like Joan Jacobs Brumberg’s The Body Project and in projects authored by fat studies historians (Farrell 2011, Gilman 2008, [End Page 186] Stearns 2002, Woolner 2010), and we can learn from these texts that who is fat and who is not are not merely medical assessments, nor are they static and unchanging categories. But what makes a person fat, then?

Fatness is a socially, medically, and politically constructed idea, one that relies on the confluence of medical discourse, interpersonal treatment, dominant ideologies (usually specific to a certain time) as well as ideas about race, class, and gender. For example, a huge linebacker for the Detroit Lions is not considered fat, but he is very large. It’s not purely about the size of one’s body but how culture at large interacts with said body. Distribution of fat on the body also factors into this equation. Women can have huge, fatty breasts and a big, fat booty and not be called fat. Men can have beer bellies and “dad bods” but not be called fat. But once you are told you are fat, whether it is by a doctor or a lover or a random person on the street, it is a difficult identifier to shake off. In this way, fat is partly a discursive creation.

Perhaps it will be useful to use Louis Althusser’s concept of interpellation in order to understand this process. He explains:

I shall . . . suggest that ideology “acts” or “functions” in such a way that it “recruits” subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or “‘transforms” the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: “Hey, you there!”

(Althusser 1998)

The process Althusser describes can be applied to the ways in which people learn they are fat. A study done in Canada on “body narratives of diverse women who recount becoming ‘the fat girl,’” Carla Rice found:

A majority of women in this study enjoyed participation in physical education. Once identified as “the fat girl,” however...


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pp. 186-192
Launched on MUSE
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