Tag Archives: fat

Imagining a Body-Positive Future

Laurie and Debbie say:

Anna North’s recent article in Vox, “The past, present, and future of body image in America,” is an interesting experience for the two of us to read. We have recently completed an academic article, on submission to a special issue of Fat Studies, which is surprisingly similar in its scope and outlook to North’s piece. Assuming it gets accepted, we’ll share that here when it is published in 2022; meanwhile, North’s piece is a different trek over much of the same ground, well named as “the past, present and future of body image.”

North’s conventional journalistic opener quotes a directly affected person (in this case, Elena Ariza, now 21, talking about her experiences with body-shaming as a Latino student in a predominantly white California middle-school and high school.

bullying over weight and appearance is far from a thing of the past. In some ways, it might be worse now: The sheer number of images young people have to deal with every day has multiplied a thousandfold, and those images are often manipulated with Photoshop or filters that create a homogeneous appearance that’s unattainable for many people. “They manipulate your features to become Eurocentricized,” Reanna A. Shanti Bhagwandeen, a freshman at Bates College, told Vox. “It gets rid of, I guess, me.”

Meanwhile, many young people today say the term “body positivity” has been coopted by thin, white, or light-skinned celebrities and influencers — the same people whose looks have been held up as the beauty ideal for generations. What’s more, some of those influencers celebrate features once stereotypically associated with Black women, like full lips, even as Black women themselves remain discriminated against for their appearance.

She goes on to discuss the Facebook/Instagram issues which Debbie wrote about here last week, and later some of the public reaction to the leaked documents.

young people and educators say what’s needed most at this particular stage in the body image wars are guides to help people navigate the torrent of information they now get about their appearance. Teens and kids especially need regular education about “social media and what healthy relationships look like, and what body image means,” Pascale Saintonge Austin, who oversees the Just Ask Me peer education program at the New York nonprofit Children’s Aid, told Vox. “There just needs to be more of a conversation with our young people.”

North then takes us back into a very brief history of the roles of thin-ness and fatness in earlier centuries in Europe, and a somewhat deeper dive into the history of the fat acceptance movement. She is scrupulously careful to keep reminding her readers of the links between fatphobia and racism:

[In the early 1970s,] Black writers and activists were also linking weight discrimination and racism, as Briana Dominici notes at Zenerations. “I’m a woman,” welfare activist Johnnie Tillmon wrote in 1972. “I’m a Black woman. I’m a poor woman. I’m a fat woman. I’m a middle-aged woman. In this country, if you’re any one of those things you count less as a human being.”

“If you are a fat Black person, particularly a fat Black woman, you are more likely to receive worse medical care, you’re more likely to be discriminated against at your job,” [Sabrina] Strings [author of Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia] said. “There are all these ways in which having more than one identity characteristic that Americans deem to be coarse will put you in a position for facing greater amounts and different forms of oppression.”



In the last ten years, North recounts, things have begun to change:

Nothing happened overnight — in 2012, when writer and influencer Gabi Gregg posed in a “fatkini” and wrote about it for xoJane, the image of a size 18 woman proudly modeling swimwear was still unusual enough to go viral. And swimwear options for women Gregg’s size were still few and far between. The winds of change were blowing, however, as companies realized they could make money selling to the millions of American consumers who were being ignored or alienated by ultra-skinny models and restrictive size ranges.

In 2016, Sports Illustrated put its first plus-size model, Ashley Graham, on the cover. In 2019, brands like American Eagle and Anthropologie began expanding their sizing. The rise of direct-to-consumer brands advertising on Instagram also meant a wider array of sizes and a more diverse group of models appearing in customers’ feeds.

As both our forthcoming article and North are very aware, social media, of course, is a major driver of all the different things that are going on at the same time:

Maybe the biggest difference between the media environment today and in the ’80s or ’90s is that there’s just more now, of everything. Growing up, magazines were dominated by super-skinny models, but “you could take a break,” Austin said. “There was no Facebook or anything like that,” and “it’s not like you had Netflix or DVR.”

Today, by contrast, “it’s so much information,” Austin said. That information can include body-positive messages, but it also, increasingly, includes images of people who have had plastic surgery or use filters or Photoshop to look a certain way. “Everything is so enhanced,” Austin said.

And North and the two of us end on very similar positive notes. While the problem remains huge and the damage being done every day is real, nonetheless there are new kinds of paths through and resources to draw on:

In the wake of revelations about Instagram’s impact on young people, Congress has shown an appetite for increased regulation of social media platforms. Frances Haugen, the former Facebook employee who helped bring the company’s internal research to light, has suggested a number of reforms, including increasing congressional oversight, greater scrutiny into Facebook’s algorithms, and increasing the minimum age for users from 13 to 17.

It’s too soon to tell whether such reforms will pass or whether they’ll have a meaningful impact on the kinds of messages young people get about their bodies. But in the meantime, young people themselves are navigating the confusing sea of contemporary body image discourse, offering guidance and inspiration for others along the way.

Ariza’s advice is to “unfollow accounts that make you feel like you need to compare yourself or you need to change,” she said. “Follow people who are going to influence you to go on a 30-minute walk or read a new book or go visit this exhibit.”


Although she never says it in so many words, North’s article implies that she believes, as we do, that nothing can change if we can’t imagine it changing–and if we aren’t willing to work to convert our imagined future into reality.

All photographs (c) 1994, Laurie Toby Edison, from Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes.


Follow Debbie on Twitter.

Follow Laurie’s new Pandemic Shadows photos on Instagram.



“A Great Time to Be Fat”: a view into Texas Fat Men’s Clubs

From left to right, A Rockwitz (312lbs), comedian Eddie Carvey (250lbs), David Burns (475lbs) and F C Kupper (351lbs) at a meeting of the Fat Mens’ Club in New York. Eddie Carvey is the president and David Burns the secretary. Photograph by General Photographic Agency/Getty Images.

Laurie and Debbie say:

Writing in Texas Monthly a few years ago, Laura Doan gave is Baseball, BBQ and Dead Ponies–A History of Fat Men’s Clubs in Texas. This fascinating corner of fat history came as a surprise to both of us.

From the late 1800s to the mid-1920s, fat men’s clubs flourished widely across the state. To enter, members had to be a minimum of 200 pounds, and turn over at least $1 (the equivalence of about $25 today). The clubs’ purpose? According to an address by the president of the budding Fat Men’s Association of Texas, W.A, Disborough, the goal was “to draw the fat men into closer fraternal relations.”

The social clubs had calendars as packed as their plates. They networked at balls, sports events, and banqueting, and before many of the events, they held competitive weigh-ins where the largest members heralded their size. … Men were so invested in the outcome of club weigh-ins that they were prone to cheating by stuffing weights in their pockets, as the Weatherford fat men’s club was reported to have done before a 1920 baseball game. According to Kerry Segrave’s Obesity in America: 1850-1939: A History of Social Attitudes and Treatment, one fat men’s club in Ohio used the weigh-ins to decide their club’s next president, and whoever sent the scales’ numbers flying highest immediately earned the honor.

We are so accustomed in this time and place to hearing only negative commentary about fat that it’s both useful and fun to imagine people (men) vying to be the fattest, or being elected to office just by weighing the most. In that period, fat was also associated with personality traits. We’re used to seeing fat people (of both sexes) described as “jolly.” Doan frames it a little differently:

Men of large girth were also thought to be a kinder, more sociable sort than those without meat on their bones. The Mineola Monitor ran an op-ed in 1899 about why women should like fat men: “It may be observed, without intentional offence [sic] to any young lady who might be enamored of some skeleton-like young man that, as a rule, fat men, besides being the most jolly and convivial of the male species, are also apt to be the most considerate of and charitable to others.” The column concluded: “The fact still remains that seven out of ten fat men make excellent husbands.”

History has probably never contained a group of men 70% of whom made “excellent husbands,” no matter how low you set the bar for excellent. Rich and powerful men, who were most of the members of these clubs, are hardly likely to raise that percentage. The perception is still interesting, however.

Another facet of these clubs which may be surprising to the modern reader is the activity levels, because this was not a period when fat was associated with being sedentary. Doan describes a 1920 baseball game:

The average weight of a player from the visiting Mineral Wells Team was 205 pounds, the Weatherford boys averaged a respectable 200, and the competition was tight. There was a flurry of drama when Mineral Wells accused Weatherford’s crack catcher of not being sufficiently fat. Weatherford had to think fast. Their defense? “What he lacked in weight he made up for in height.” The crowd was satisfied with that rebuttal and gameplay soon began. Though baseball is not usually thought of as a contact sport, the two fat clubs were so prone to sideline tussles that “moderators” were planted around the field to break up brawls.

But what about the women? The men of color? The poor men?

… a few female fat clubs did exist, but fat women’s reduction clubs were much more common. Body standards for women were much more restrictive than those of men. In 1923 a writer for the Brownwood Bulletin wrote, “Fat men may be popular but the fat lady is always awkward.”  The fat men’s clubs were also not places for the impoverished or those with physically demanding jobs. These were clubs of men with enough money to sustain themselves and then some, as their massive culinary indulgence required a fair bit of funding.

We are always reminding people that that fat people don’t necessarily, or even probably, eat more than thin people, which is a long-proved fact. However, the Fat Men’s Clubs were very likely different, because they were engaging in competitive gluttony for status: not just how much they weighed, but how much they could eat at a sitting were markers for how powerful and successful they were–and you do have to be rich to be a glutton.

Doan’s points about gender and class are well taken. It would be useful to have a quote about fat women from earlier than 1923, since Doan pegs 1920 as the point when the tide began to turn. Certainly, the celebratedly beautiful actress Lily Langtry, who died in 1929 at age 75, weighed at least 150 pounds and probably more like 200, although her extremely tight corsets make that difficult to see. When she was talking about women and poor people, we wish she had taken the time to address race.  You can be sure that the Fat Men’s Clubs were White Fat Men’s Clubs, and that Black and Brown fat men weren’t welcome.

We can’t ever forget about race, class and gender — and we don’t. Nonetheless, we get pleasure from thinking about these Texas fat men finding community, activity, and connection from a characteristic that has been almost exclusively framed as shameful for just about a century.


Follow me on Twitter.

Follow Laurie’s Pandemic Shadows photos on Instagram.