Amid the Beyonce ‘gap’ controversy Suzanne Harrington throws a wobbly and offers the F-word to fat shamers.
The goddess Beyonce was recently revealed as having both feet of clay and gap of thigh. Except she did not really have gap of thigh – she photoshopped it in.
Let us pause a moment and reflect on this. Thigh gap is a recently invented body part deemed desirable in a woman; it is the inverse to another recently made up body part, the cankle, which is considered undesirable.
Thigh gap (good) and cankle (bad) have been served up to women as we run out of female body parts to fetishise, criticise, demonise.
So Beyonce, for reasons best known to herself, fiddled with her holiday snaps — allegedly on more than one occasion — before uploading them for her adoring public, to give herself less thigh and more gap. What this is saying about women — even goddesses— is that a triangular gap of air is more desirable than the reality of warm female flesh.
Oh boy. Where do we even start with this one? Most of us have thigh slap, rather than thigh gap. Thigh slap is the norm, while thigh gap is mostly the preserve of teenage runway models who live on Haribo and Marlboro; yet such is the overall cultural intolerance of female flesh that even women like Beyonce feel the need to digitally tamper with their bodies in an effort to conform to the dominant beauty ideal of thin.
This isn’t just about thighs. It’s about how women’s bodies are dissected and ridiculed, part by part, as often by ourselves as by the wider culture.
Turkey necks, bingo wings, muffin tops, jelly bellies, side boobs, thunder thighs, saddlebags, cankles. Bums and tums – note the infantilising language we use – that need nipping and tucking, slimming and toning, starving and shaming, if we ever want to remotely resemble a photoshopped Beyonce.
We won’t, of course, but we keep on, like Sisyphus, rolling the eternal gym ball up the hill . (And that’s before we ever move onto vaginas, which are now the wrong shape too, and subject to labiaplasty – “intimate surgery from just £2,950” reads one advert - but at least they’re not fat).
Fat, fat, fat. It’s not just fat that is a major F-word – so are ‘female’ and ‘flesh’ as well. Fat shaming is considered legitimated — if you’re fat, you’re fair game.
From Karl Lagerfeld calling Adele fat to Louise Mensch tweeting negatively about fat ladies in bikinis, it’s open season on fat. Maybe we need to reclaim it, and make the word fat the heterosexual lady version of queer.
I am fat. Not massively fat, size 16, but at my fattest I was much fatter and yes, people treated me differently. There was an invisibility, or an unspoken sense of pity or dismissal, depending on what sort of person you were.
People I knew, while entirely well-meaning, benign and without malice, felt they could ask any kind of food- and body-related questions they liked — how’s the diet going? Have you lost any weight? What size are you now? Then, when I was less fat, people would greet me with congratulations. They would tell me how I looked, as though I didn’t have any mirrors indoors. As though my body size was all that I am. And yes, it drove me mad.
Frustrated and invalidated, as though being fat devalued me. Which, in the eyes of the majority, it did. We are terrified of fat. We cannot even bring ourselves to say it. How do you describe a fat woman? She’s big, she’s large, she’s heavy, she’s overweight, she’s carrying extra poundage, she’s beefy, porky, meaty, chunky, curvy, portly, tubby, plump, rotund, rounded, well-covered. She is all of those things, but don’t mention the F-word. The more obese we become as a society, the more we fear and loathe fatness. The words we use instead of fat are, writes fat activist Marilyn Wann in her book Fat!So?, “are all synonyms for fear.”
Yet fat-phobia and fat shaming are nothing new. US academic Amy Erdman Farrell locates the origins of our denigration of fatness somewhere in the mid 19th century, long before the onset of any obesity epidemic, and before the diet industry, which didn’t take hold until the 1920s. “What is it about fat that makes it so stigmatised?” she writes in Fat Shame: Stigma & The Fat Body In American Culture. “What are the connections between fat denigration and ethnic, class and gender discrimination?”
She continues, “We are an extraordinarily fat-aware culture, yet little attention is given to the cultural meanings attributed to fatness or the fat person.” We’ve written you off, fatso. You don’t exist in any culturally meaningful way. You are not cool.
Until the 19th century, fat was still considered a symbol of both wealth and health, while thin equalled poor and diseased.
Yet fat anxiety was beginning to take hold as early as 1860, so that by the 1920s there were all kinds of products on the emerging market – like Dr Jeanne Walter’s Famous Medicated Rubber Garments to rid users of “superfluous” and “unnecessary” body fat.
Fat was becoming, writes Farrell, “a sign that one was not able to manage the prosperity and resources that came with upward mobility.”
And nowhere is more upwardly mobile than the entertainment industry.
Today, there are almost no prominent fat females in mainstream culture. Roseanne Barr got thin, and vanished. Fat Monica, the Courtney Cox character in Friends, was the butt of jokes, then got thin. The fat character in Shallow Halcon, Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit rather than an actual fat woman, was also the butt of jokes.
The genuine celebration of fat heroines is almost unheard of; John Waters did it with Ricky Lake and Divine in the original Hairspray, but generally fat women in film and television are there for laughs. At them, not with them.
In Bodies, published 30 years after her seminal book Fat Is A Feminist Issue, psychotherapist Susie Orbach writes about how “the individual is now deemed accountable for his or her body and judged by it. ‘Looking after oneself’ is a moral value ... In our epoch, the body has grown as complicated a place as sexuality was for Freud’s.”
A place where fat is considered perverse, dysfunctional, a personal failing. This is not, however, about cheerleading for obesity or diminishing the impact of serious weight on our long term health.
We all know about the physical implications of carting far too much fat around. No, this is just about being fat— not morbidly obese — and owning it.
Marilyn Wann urges us to “Just say no to diet drugs”, to “wear horizontal stripes”, and to go “chunky-dunking”, the fat equivalent of skinny dipping. “Don’t worry if you wiggle,” she says.
Except we do. We worry excessively if we wiggle, wobble, or fail to conform with prescribed body size. We not only gawp at very fat people on telly via reality shows like The Biggest Loser, we internalise our own fat shame, feeding horrid feelings of inferiority and self-loathing. When people like Beyonce are photoshopping their bodies in a bid to conform to a preposterously unrealistic ideal, where does that leave the rest of us? Fat, that’s where.
For me, that’s fat and proud. I love my body — every fat inch of it. It’s never let me down.
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