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September 15, 2010 / Katie

Intersectionality: fatness and the bodies of women of color

As I am sure many of my readers are aware by now, there has been some intense fat-related discussion going on over at Feministe.  Toward the bottom of the comments of the most recent post, a beautiful reflection from Spilt Milk, there has been some discussion of intersectionality of race and fatness and how well (or not so well) the FA movement addresses this.

As a white person, I cannot adequately address this issue on my own. But I’m putting this out there because I believe that we need to start talking about these issues more.

One of the possible issues that has been posited by myself and others is that there may be different attitudes toward fat people based on their race.  At least in the US, the only region I can currently speak to, it is more expected that people of color, especially those who are poor, would be fat or at least not thin (Coincidentally, Sociological images has a post up today about beauty magazines conflating “curvy” with “ethnic” in describing women’s bodies).   Does this expectation lead to less pressure on poc to be thin?  Does it mean that there is less likelihood that a black woman and a white woman who have the same body shape and size will experience differences in their likelihood of getting hired as a result of their fatness?

I want to make clear that I do not think that this discussion is important theoretically; it is only important in practice.  I have no interest in—and I believe we would be ill advised to try—talking about who “has it worse,” in other words, playing the oppression olympics.  But perhaps this does have some bearing on just how white the FA movement is.  Whether or not POC are choosing to participate in the FA movement may be related both to white privilege and the fact that many POC simply don’t feel this issue has enough salience for their life to put forth that much energy.  They may, like Renee at Womanist Musings, create blogs that are fat-positive but which don’t overtly align with the FA movement.

Either way, the FA movement as a whole would be well-advised to pay better attention to intersectionality.  The white bloggers, especially, would be well-advised to look for ways that problems like food deserts and lack of green space have a much greater impact on persons of color and poor persons.  But perhaps we need to also accept—and respect—that for many POC, FA may just not be where it’s at.

I think I’ll leave it there today.  I have some other thoughts but I don’t want to write some long-ass entry about something that I’m really not qualified to discuss in great detail.

What are your thoughts?

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9 Comments

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  1. lifeonfats / Sep 15 2010 2:27 pm

    It may be for many of my fellow POC, battling racism and socio-economic oppression is more important than body image. I agree we do need more diverse voices here speaking out about their experiences, that’s partly why I decided to start blogging.

    But as we’ve seen, the moral panic over obesity has extended to minorities and we’re being targeted more than ever because of assumptions that we are more accepting of fatness and we’re not intelligent enough to be educated on the evils of high weight.

    As for our bodies, there seems to be a different sexual ideal, but thinness is still desired. It seems it’s OK to have a big butt, shapely thighs and cleavage, but the waist still has to be tiny.

  2. silentbeep / Sep 15 2010 4:11 pm

    I agree with lifeonfats above, especially with the ideal that thinness is still desired. Ditto for “It may be for many of my fellow POC, battling racism and socio-economic oppression is more important than body image.”

    This is my take, as a Chicana brown woman: I think some POC are attracted to ideas that will make their “otherness” far less “other.” It’s painful to be on the outside. To have to deal with being fat AND brown sometimes is too hard I think, to fight, for some people. Our culture sells the nation that if you just try hard enough, and aren’t lazy, you don’t have to be fat: this is a seductive idea for many people regardless of race and ethnicity.

    I think the “thin ideal” sometimes presents an attractive option for assimilation. What I mean is this: if you are an upwardly mobile Latina, trying to get thin, is a great way to get societal approval. You may still feel on the “outside”‘as a Latina, but you may feel “less other” if you are a thin Latina. That’s just my two cents.

  3. Chris Gregory / Sep 15 2010 5:39 pm

    The intersection of fatness and race is, well, they’re both aspects of the class category. There is nothing intrinsic to weight or skin colour that makes them socially divisive. It’s the nature of the class system that makes them divisive. So being fat, or belonging to a minority racially, puts you in a lower place on the social hierarchy.

    So in a way they are all the same, but you can’t compare them for a variety of reasons (mostly because race is inherited). I think that fat acceptance has much more in common with gay rights than other social justice movements.

    I think there’s an issue when social justice movements try to be exclusive. You can’t further the cause of, say, white middle-class women exclusively and be just. Since it’s all related, it all needs to be changed, not just reshuffled slightly.

    • Katie / Sep 16 2010 1:08 pm

      I don’t agree that race and fatness are both aspects of class. I think there are overlaps and intersections, of course, but racism is a real oppression for POC whether they are rich or poor; same with fatphobia for fat people.

      Or wait, actually, are you using the phrase “class category” to speak of a concept like kyriarchy—our incessant need to put people into categories of “lesser” and “more”?

      I am COMPLETELY with you on your last paragraph. On the one hand, I think it’s good to put our energies in what gives us most life; what is most authentically on our heart. I focus on fat issues mostly for that reason. HOWEVER, within my blog, I make a good faith effort to examine intersections as they relate to the issues I talk about. Homophobia, disablism, racism, etc. are not welcome here. While I do think there’s value in individual people focusing more on one or another form of oppression, ultimately where we go wrong is when one movement codifies the oppression of another group. E.g. the white feminists who end up codifying racism/white privilege. Or, as I’ve posted about today, feminists who codify fatphobia.

      But as you say, it simply doesn’t work when we are divided. No problem can be seen as worse than any of the others. Kyriarchy—arranging people in classes—is the true root of all this evil. If we’re just clambering for a different place in the ladder, then we are not doing any ethically or socially responsible justice work.

      • Chris Gregory / Sep 16 2010 3:43 pm

        Well, the point is that there’s nothing intrinsically bad about being different. There’s nothing about racial characteristics that makes one person of lower value than another. Racial characteristics are just easy identifiers for social class, depending upon where you are. It’d be like dividing society up based on height. There’s nothing intrinsically about being tall or short that makes a person more or less important, but these things would be used as labels that denote your social status.

        So race isn’t an issue, or shouldn’t be, because there is no good reason for it to be an issue; all people are of equal worth in an ethical and moral sense. But the class system establishes certain characteristics as favoured and other as debased. A person isn’t looked down upon because of the colour of their skin. A person is looked down upon because their skin colour denotes them as members of a lower social class.

  4. sannanina / Sep 16 2010 8:00 am

    I am not a POC nor am I American, but I think the issue might be far, far more complex than saying one group has it worse than the other. First, I guess there might be quite different issues for POCs with different ethinic backgrounds depending on a) the stereotype of fat people of their specific ethnic background in the population in general and b) the attitude towards fatness in their community. My gut feeling is that the stereotype (and hence the attitude) of people with different ethnic backgrounds in the general population differs just as it differs for different genders – and I think those difference extend beyond strength of the “fat” stereotype.

    • Katie / Sep 16 2010 1:03 pm

      sannanina, I think you’re right and I did not explore differences among POC in my OP although I think that is very salient. The Sociological Images post that I referenced talked about the conflation of “curvy” and “ethnic” but the examples given were Latina and Black women. On the other hand, most Asian women are expected to be short, thin, “tiny.” At least that’s what I’ve seen.

  5. littlem / Sep 25 2010 6:34 pm

    “As a white person, I cannot adequately address this issue on my own. ”

    So you took it upon yourself to set yourself up as a purported authority on the issue — particularly in light of the “skew” on some of the statements you’ve made in the article you mention already — because … ?

    • Katie / Sep 25 2010 6:38 pm

      Welcome to my blog, littlem.

      I do not believe that I set myself up as an authority; in fact the line you quoted was my attempt to acknowledge that I am NOT an authority. I posted this in an effort to open up some conversation because Jadey had asked over on Feministe why FA might not be accessible to populations outside of the white, middle-class women that make up much of FA online.

      I am not following you on the “skew” comment. Are you saying I’ve skewed something? If so, what?

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