By: Josh Lamers
Well it’s that time of year again where fatphobia and fat oppression are the content of many conversations in the gay world, but unfortunately in all the wrong ways. With Pride season about to hit in full swing, many men are taking up the war against their own bodies with much more rigor and openly doing so. Accompanying this are the articles demanding body positivity and shifts in self-image, like clockwork. While preempting “Pride season”, one such article appeared in teenVogue written by Elly Belle discussing Mina Gerges’ Insta-fame of posting body positive images, and his own experiences with body image issues.
I want to be clear that in no way am I trying to take away or attack his individual story. In fact, what I want to do is add to it, to complicate it, and to also address some of the implications of having narratives like the teenVogue article live on its own in the world.
Body positivity is an important aspect to us being able to love our bodies in the many ways they look (gender, race, etc.). What I worry about is this consistent conversation around individual feelings and representation in media, because while these are important aspects these can’t be the only sites where we embed our conversations about our bodies. When embedded only in these places I see words like “stigma”, “mental health” and “recovery”, where I wish to see other words that bring us deeper to the problem of why we are often at war with our bodies.
This is where I find fat activism and fat oppression as two terms, and ways of viewing the world that move us away from these surface-level conversations that have yet to substantively shift realities for those marked as, and deemed outside of “normal” body size.
Fat oppression refers to the distinct discrimination directed towards fat people, where there are economic, spiritual, social, cultural, and political ramifications for being fat[i]. Fat activism seeks to address these ramifications while also pushing an agenda for body positivity, so it’s not just a term but also a form of practice. This is important because it goes beyond discussions of attitude, and makes us think about other realities.
Fat activism makes me think about and see who is getting hired in our clubs and bars, and for what. Why are most bartenders in the village fit, muscular (typically White) men, and the bouncers/security are bigger, fatter (racialized, Black) men and women? What does this say about who gets to have cash in their pocket, while someone else risks experiencing violence and vitriol?
Take a look at Pride, RuPaul’s DragRace, and other LGBT mainstream media while considering all the money, time, and space that rarely gets extended to fat folks. Take a look at the porn sites with fit, slim, and muscular men in every category and fat and chubby men reduced to one or two places, and so what does this say for this line of sex work and who is valued?
What about the ways fat people are often just talked about and experience this fat oppressive world in other ways? Fat people are often constructed as lazy, incompetent, undesirable, and only valuable when funny or trying to burn away the fat. Meanwhile, fatness can often stand in as a sign of poor parenting, and/or self-control/management[ii]. And yes, let’s look too at the ways in which we internalize fat oppression that lead to the very individual struggles that we take upon ourselves and that we see in our placing too much value in the gym, “healthy eating”, and looking a particular way. However, these modes of thinking, and actions signal our existence in a pervasively fat oppressive world.
I place these thoughts in conversation with Belle’s article and Gerges’s narrative because we have to move past just talking about shifting attitudes, and need to use means that cause actual change. I also think it’s important to properly name what’s operating, which is fat oppression, and the means of challenging it to also indicate a history of fat activism. A history of fat people, in particular Black and racialized women, Trans and gender non-conforming folks from whom I’ve been taught by and read, are taking up the mantle of challenging fat oppression. A history of fat activism/body positivity for men, can even be seen in the works of Biggie Smalls through the ways in which he pushed for his fatness to be a fundamental aspect of his work, image, and sexuality[iii]. Even more recently, there was Kim Chi’s song: No Fats, No Fems, No Asians, which I specifically remember many gays singing along to. So to be blunt: this shit ain’t new, even for men.
I say this because what Belle’s article can end up doing is erasing the history of fat activism and the work put into it, along with the individuals who did, and continue to do this work. Especially considering that we are in a time where people often want to personally benefit from taking on social justice positions, we have to be vigilant in the narratives we hear and read, as well as do the work in reading and researching. Through thorough research, one can add narratives and work like Mina’s to this history to compliment, challenge, and trouble it because fat activism isn’t perfect either.
I say this knowing that the only reason why I have the capacity to challenge and be critical of the teenVogue article is due to the labour of Black and racialized women, Trans and gender non-conforming people who teach me, direct me, and challenge me. I honour their work, and will continue to do so by being vocal about some of the gaps and dangers I see in Belle’s article in the hopes of pushing fat activism onto and FOR gay men. To draw a history to the present, because if not, like clockwork we will continue to imagine our words as new, meanwhile fat activism has been around…y’all just need to get into it.
[i] Friedman, M. (2012). Fat is a Social Work Issue: Fat bodies, moral regulation, and the history of social work. Intersectionalities: A Global Journal of Social Work Analysis, Research, Polity, and Practice, 1, 53-69.
[ii] Friedman, M. (2012).
[iii] Sullivan, M. J. (2013). Fat Mutha: Hip Hop’s Queer Corpulent Poetics. Palimpsest: A Journal on Women, Gender, and the Black International, 2(2), 200-213.