musings on fat bodies and exclusion

The following is a short response paper I wrote last quarter… it’s nothing revolutionary, just some food for thought:

“The human landscape can be read as a landscape of exclusion” (Sibley, 1995, p. ix).

Just as lines are drawn on paper to map out the boundaries of physical space (and thus assert what belongs to “us” as opposed to what belongs to “them”), humans practice boundary-making at a much more local level: the body.  While this act seems fairly cut-and-dry (I am my body, and anything that is not my body is not-me), the fact that we can never securely close off the boundaries of our bodies leaves us open and thus susceptible to contamination by that which is not-us.  This vulnerability renders us incredibly anxious, and we become obsessed with maintaining these bodily boundaries and repulsed by the secretions (bodily or otherwise) that seep through them.  Ultimately, this desire to keep oneself free of contagion is about keeping oneself pure, free of disease and death.  On a more practical level, the process by which we establish what is us and not-us creates social boundaries between us and other people—in an effort to assert what is ME, I exclude what is Other to me, and this Other (Mead’s “generalized other”) becomes imbued with feelings of fear and desire, marked as good or bad, and eventually, is stereotyped in various ways so that I may “make the world seem secure and stable” (p. 15).

This process of ‘stabilizing’ or ‘fixing’ the identities of others (in an effort to define the self) is not only conducted at the level of the individual, but on a much larger scale, as well.  Iris Young writes,

When the dominant group defines some groups as different, as the Other, the members of these groups are imprisoned in their bodies.  Dominant discourse defines them in terms of bodily characteristics and constructs those bodies as ugly, dirty, defiled, impure, contaminated or sick (p. 18).

The effect of these categorizations is ultimately to define what is opposite of them: those characteristics that are considered normal (i.e. attractive, clean, pure, healthy, etc.).  In other words, it is through the classification of deviance that we construct normality.  This is especially salient with the construction of the “diseased other,” who, according to Sibley, “has an important role in defining normality and stability” (p. 24).

It is interesting to me how well this narrative maps onto the way current discourses about the “obesity epidemic” frame fatness and fat embodiment.  Although fatness has yet to be proven as the cause of any disease, and while it is in fact documented as being protective against some diseases, many in the medical community keep pushing to frame or label “obesity” as a disease itself!  From a rational point of view, this line of reasoning is nonsensical.  However, if we understand the desire to construct disease as ultimately a desire about defining what is normal, and we view fatness as being “abnormal” or “not-us,” we can begin to see why people might want to claim the fat body as a diseased body.

It is also possible that, in our obsession with controlling and maintaining tight boundaries around the body, fatness—with its excess supposedly bursting at the seams—is seen as a threat to the tightly contained body.  Fat bodies become “the abject” because they threaten boundaries of “normal” body size, because they threaten to take up space (more than is “normal”), and this space may encroach upon non-fat others (this fear manifests as anger directed towards fat people in close quarters, such as the airplane or bus).  While it seems silly to ask, I wonder if there is somewhere (in the unconscious?) a fear that the fat body will “spill out” and “merge” with the non-fat person… or that fatness is somehow “contagious”.  This seems outrageous, but a July 2007 article (“Study Says Obesity Can Be Contagious”) in The New York Times confirms it: many “obesity” researchers, in fact, concern themselves with this very question.  Perhaps as a result of this fear of contagion by fat bodies, fat people are often excluded from many spaces (usually through lack of accommodations, but also through overt discrimination against them) and through their lifetime feel exclusion in a variety of situations.  While I’ve focused primarily on fat bodies in my analysis of exclusion and construction of the self, I think Sibley’s thoughts on how/why exclusion happens are particularly helpful because they can be applied in a variety of different situations and to a variety of differently oppressed groups.

(Note: page numbers are in reference to David Sibley’s Geographries of Exclusion.)

3 thoughts on “musings on fat bodies and exclusion

  1. I really like this post – I think the idea of the abject is totally applicable to fatness and the way that fat is othered, seen as diseased, unclean, ‘not I’. Even – especially – by fat people themselves. I’m not always sure where to take the psychoanalytic aspects of Kristeva’s argument, though…

    • I know, me neither… I guess I just have a really big problem with the idea in psychoanalysis that stuff we do in infancy (learning what poop is, for example) profoundly affects how we view the world as adults. BUT I think it works, at least, as a ~metaphorical~ framework for thinking about othering.

  2. 2 Elin Diamond, Unmaking Mimesis (Routledge: New York, 1997), 4. 3 In other words, if spectators accept that the performing bodies are real and realistic and agree that performers and playwrights are attempting to present reality logically to an audience who is supposed to approach the play empirically, understanding actions and characters as indicative of their personal viewpoint, appreciation of that character differs from watching for example, the “normal sized” actress Gwyneth Paltrow wearing a fat suit in Shallow Hal. If she really were fat, the movie would not be a farce/comedy and audience interpretation of her character would differ. I suggest that most people have a visceral response to being in the presence of a real flesh and blood fat person (or to believing they are seeing a real fat person, or to witnessing the truth of a fat person’s story). A different kind of example would be the performances of heavyset Lisa Mayo of Spiderwoman Theater (or any number of lesbian feminist artists) who perform in deconstructed, fragmented texts in non-realistic modes, often appearing in drag, or undressed, displaying fat bodies and “imperfect” breasts and so on. Because this kind of theatre makes no claim to be realism, critical reception to Mayo’s performing body (race aside) is not comparable to critical reception should she play Amanda in The Glass Menagerie.

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