This article explores how fat women protesting challenges norms of womanhood, the place of women in society, and who has the power to have their say in public spaces. We use the term fat as a political reclamation; Fat Studies scholars and fat activists prefer the term fat, over the normative term “overweight” and the pathologising term “obese/obesity” (Lee and Pausé para 3). Who is and who isn’t fat, we suggest, is best left to self-determination, although it is generally accepted by fat activists that the term is most appropriately adopted by individuals who are unable to buy clothes in any store they choose. Using a tweet from conservative commentator Ann Coulter as a leaping-off point, we examine the narratives around women in the public sphere and explore how fat bodies might transgress further the norms set by society. The public representations of women in politics and protest are then are set in the context of ‘activist wisdom’ (Maddison and Scalmer) from two sides of the globe. Activist wisdom gives preference to the lived knowledge and experience of activists as tools to understand social movements. It seeks to draw theoretical implications from the practical actions of those on the ground. In centring the experiences of ourselves and other activists, we hope to expand existing understandings of body politics, gender, and political power in this piece. It is important in researching social movements to look both at the representations of protest and protestors in all forms of media as this is the ‘public face’ of movements, but also to examine the reflections of the individuals who collectively put their weight behind bringing social change.
A few days after the 45th President of the United States was elected, people around the world spilled into the streets and participated in protests; precursors to the Women’s March which would take place the following January. Pictures of such marches were shared via social media, demonstrating the worldwide protest against the racism, misogyny, and overall oppressiveness, of the newly elected leader. Not everyone was supportive of these protests though; one such conservative commentator, Ann Coulter, shared this tweet:
Image1: A tweet from Ann Coulter; the tweet contains a picture of a group of protestors, holding signs protesting Trump, white supremacy, and for the rights of immigrants. In front of the group, holding a megaphone is a woman. Below the picture, the text reads, “Without fat girls, there would be no protests”.
Coulter continued on with two more tweets, sharing pictures of other girls protesting and suggesting that the protestors needed a diet programme. Kivan Bay (“Without Fat Girls”) suggested that perhaps Coulter was implying that skinny girls do not have time to protest because they are too busy doing skinny girl things, like buying jackets or trying on sweaters. Or perhaps Coulter was arguing that fat girls are too visible, too loud, and too big, to be taken seriously in their protests. These tweets provide a point of illustration for how fat women protesting challenge norms of womanhood, the place of women in society, and who has the power to have their say in public spaces While Coulter’s tweet was most likely intended as a hostile personal attack on political grounds, we find it useful in its foregrounding of gender, bodies and protest which we consider in this article, beginning with a review of fat girls’ role in social justice movements.
Across the world, we can point to fat women who engage in activism related to body politics and more. Australian fat filmmaker and activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater makes documentaries, such as Aquaporko! and Nothing to Lose, that queer fat embodiment and confronts body norms. Newly elected Ontario MPP Jill Andrew has been fighting for equal rights for queer people and fat people in Canada for decades. Nigerian Latasha Ngwube founded About That Curvy Life, Africa’s leading body positive and empowerment site, and has organised plus-size fashion show events at Heineken Lagos Fashion and Design Week in Nigeria in 2016 and the Glitz Africa Fashion Week in Ghana in 2017. Fat women have been putting their bodies on the line for the rights of others to live, work, and love. American Heather Heyer was protesting the hate that white nationalists represent and the danger they posed to her friends, family, and neighbours when she died at a rally in Charlottesville, North Carolina in late 2017 (Caron). When Heyer was killed by one of those white nationalists, they declared that she was fat, and therefore her body size was lauded loudly as justification for her death (Bay, “How Nazis Use”; Spangler).
Fat women protesting is not new. For example, the Fat Underground was a group of “radical fat feminist women”, who split off from the more conservative NAAFA (National Association to Aid Fat Americans) in the 1970s (Simic 18). The group educated the public about weight science, harassed weight-loss companies, and disrupted academic seminars on obesity. The Fat Underground made their first public appearance at a Women’s Equality Day in Los Angeles, taking over the stage at the public event to accuse the medical profession of murdering Cass Elliot, the lead singer of the folk music group, The Mamas and the Papas (Dean and Buss). In 1973, the Fat Underground produced the Fat Liberation Manifesto. This Manifesto began by declaring that they believed “that fat people are full entitled to human respect and recognition” (Freespirit and Aldebaran 341).
Women have long been disavowed, or discouraged, from participating in the public sphere (Ginzberg; van Acker) or seen as “intruders or outsiders to the tough world of politics” (van Acker 118). The feminist slogan the personal is political was intended to shed light on the role that women needed to play in the public spheres of education, employment, and government (Caha 22). Across the world, the acceptance of women within the public sphere has been varied due to cultural, political, and religious, preferences and restrictions (Agenda Feminist Media Collective). Limited acceptance of women in the public sphere has historically been granted by those ‘anointed’ by a male family member or patron (Fountaine 47).
Anti-feminists are quick to disavow women being in public spaces, preferring to assign them the role as helpmeet to male political elite. As Schlafly (in Rowland 30) notes: “A Positive Woman cannot defeat a man in a wrestling or boxing match, but she can motivate him, inspire him, encourage him, teach him, restrain him, reward him, and have power over him that he can never achieve over her with all his muscle.” This idea of women working behind the scenes has been very strong in New Zealand where the ‘sternly worded’ letter is favoured over street protest. An acceptable route for women’s activism was working within existing political institutions (Grey), with activity being ‘hidden’ inside government offices such as the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (Schuster, 23). But women’s movement organisations that engage in even the mildest form of disruptive protest are decried (Grey; van Acker).
One way women have been accepted into public space is as the moral guardians or change agents of the entire political realm (Bliss; Ginzberg; van Acker; Ledwith). From the early suffrage movements both political actors and media representations highlighted women were more principled and conciliatory than men, and in many cases had a moral compass based on restraint. Cartoons showed women in the suffrage movement ‘sweeping up’ and ‘cleaning house’ (Sheppard 123). Groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union were celebrated for protesting against the demon drink and anti-pornography campaigners like Patricia Bartlett were seen as acceptable voices of moral reason (Moynihan). And as Cunnison and Stageman (in Ledwith 193) note, women bring a “culture of femininity to trade unions … an alternative culture, derived from the particularity of their lives as women and experiences of caring and subordination”. This role of moral guardian often derived from women as ‘mothers’, responsible for the physical and moral well-being of the nation.
The body itself has been a sight of protest for women including fights for bodily autonomy in their medical decisions, reproductive justice, and to live lives free from physical and sexual abuse, have long been met with criticisms of being unladylike or inappropriate. Early examples decried in NZ include the women’s clothing movement which formed part of the suffrage movement. In the second half of the 20th century it was the freedom trash can protests that started the myth of ‘women burning their bras’ which defied acceptable feminine norms (Sawer and Grey). Recent examples of women protesting for body rights include #MeToo and Time’s Up. Both movements protest the lack of bodily autonomy women can assert when men believe they are entitled to women’s bodies for their entertainment, enjoyment, and pleasure. And both movements have received considerable backlash by those who suggest it is a witch hunt that might ensnare otherwise innocent men, or those who are worried that the real victims are white men who are being left behind (see Garber; Haussegger). Women who advocate for bodily autonomy, including access to contraception and abortion, are often held up as morally irresponsible. As Archdeacon Bullock (cited in Smyth 55) asserted, “A woman should pay for her fun.”
Many individuals believe that the stigma and discrimination fat people face are the consequences they sow from their own behaviours (Crandall 892); that fat people are fat because they have made poor decisions, being too indulgent with food and too lazy to exercise (Crandall 883). Therefore, fat people, like women, should have to pay for their fun. Fat women find themselves at this intersection, and are often judged more harshly for their weight than fat men (Tiggemann and Rothblum). Examining Coulter’s tweet with this perspective in mind, it can easily be read as an attempt to put fat girl protestors back into their place. It can also be read as a warning. Don’t go making too much noise or you may be labelled as fat. Presenting troublesome women as fat has a long history within political art and depictions. Marianne (the symbol of the French Republic) was depicted as fat and ugly; she also reinforced an anti-suffragist position (Chenut 441). These images are effective because of our societal views on fatness (Kyrölä). Fatness is undesirable, unworthy of love and attention, and a representation of poor character, lack of willpower, and an absence of discipline (Murray 14; Pausé, “Rebel Heart” para 1).
Fat women who protest transgress rules around body size, gender norms, and the appropriate place for women in society. Take as an example the experiences of one of the authors of this piece, Sandra Grey, who was thrust in to political limelight nationally with the Campaign for MMP (Grey and Fitzsimmons) and when elected as the President of the New Zealand Tertiary Education Union in 2011. Sandra is a trade union activist who breaches too many norms set for the “good woman protestor,” as well as the norms for being a “good fat woman”. She looms large on a stage – literally – and holds enough power in public protest to make a crowd of 7,000 people “jump to left”, chant, sing, and march. In response, some perceive Sandra less as a tactical and strategic leader of the union movement, and more as the “jolly fat woman” who entertains, MCs, and leads public events. Though even in this role, she has been criticised for being too loud, too much, too big.
These criticisms are loudest when Sandra is alongside other fat female bodies. When posting on social media photos with fellow trade union members the comments often note the need of the group to “go on a diet”. The collective fatness also brings comments about “not wanting to fuck any of that group of fat cows”. There is something politically and socially dangerous about fat women en masse. This was behind the responses to Sandra’s first public appearance as the President of TEU when one of the male union members remarked “Clearly you have to be a fat dyke to run this union.” The four top elected and appointed positions in the TEU have been women for eight years now and both their fatness and perceived sexuality present as a threat in a once male-dominated space. Even when not numerically dominant, unions are public spaces dominated by a “masculine culture … underpinned by the undervaluation of ‘women’s worth’ and notions of womanhood ‘defined in domesticity’” (Cockburn in Kirton 273-4). Sandra’s experiences in public space show that the derision and methods of putting fat girls back in their place varies dependent on whether the challenge to power is posed by a single fat body with positional power and a group of fat bodies with collective power.
Fat Girls Are the Future
On the other side of the world, Tara Vilhjálmsdóttir is protesting to change the law in Iceland. Tara believes that fat people should be protected against discrimination in public and private settings. Using social media such as Facebook and Instagram, Tara takes her message, and her activism, to her thousands of followers (Keller, 434; Pausé, “Rebel Heart”). And through mainstream media, she pushes back on fatphobia rhetoric and applies pressure on the government to classify weight as a protected status under the law.
After a lifetime of living “under the oppression of diet culture,” Tara began her activism in 2010 (Vilhjálmsdóttir). She had suffered real harm from diet culture, developing an eating disorder as a teen and being told through her treatment for it that her fears as a fat woman – that she had no future, that fat people experienced discrimination and stigma – were unfounded. But Tara’s lived experiences demonstrated fat stigma and discrimination were real.
In 2012, she co-founded the Icelandic Association for Body Respect, which promotes body positivity and fights weight stigma in Iceland. The group uses a mixture of real life and online tools; organising petitions, running campaigns against the Icelandic version of The Biggest Loser, and campaigning for weight to be a protected class in the Icelandic constitution. The Association has increased the visibility of the dangers of diet culture and the harm of fat stigma. They laid the groundwork that led to changing the human rights policy for the city of Reykjavík; fat people cannot be discriminated against in employment settings within government jobs. As the city is one of the largest employers in the country, this was a large step forward for fat rights.
Tara does receive her fair share of hate messages; she’s shared that she’s amazed at the lengths people will go to misunderstand what she is saying (Vilhjálmsdóttir). “This isn’t about hurt feelings; I’m not insulted [by fat stigma]. It’s about [fat stigma] affecting the livelihood of fat people and the structural discrimination they face” (Vilhjálmsdóttir). She collects the hateful comments she receives online through screenshots and shares them in an album on her page. She believes it is important to keep a repository to demonstrate to others that the hatred towards fat people is real. But the hate she receives only fuels her work more. As does the encouragement she receives from people, both in Iceland and abroad. And she is not alone; fat activists across the world are using Web 2.0 tools to change the conversation around fatness and demand civil rights for fat people (Pausé, “Rebel Heart”; Pausé, “Live to Tell").
Using Web 2.0 tools as a way to protest and engage in activism is an example of oppositional technologics; a “political praxis of resistance being woven into low-tech, amateur, hybrid, alternative subcultural feminist networks” (Garrison 151). Fat activists use social media to engage in anti-assimilationist activism and build communities of practice online in ways that would not be possible in real life (Pausé, “Express Yourself” 1). This is especially useful for those whose protests sit at the intersections of oppressions (Keller 435; Pausé, “Rebel Heart” para 19). Online protests have the ability to travel the globe quickly, providing opportunities for connections between protests and spreading protests across the globe, such as SlutWalks in 2011-2012 (Schuster 19). And online spaces open up unlimited venues for women to participate more freely in protest than other forms (Harris 479; Schuster 16; Garrison 162).
Whether online or offline, women are represented as dangerous in the political sphere when they act without male champions breaching norms of femininity, when their involvement challenges the role of woman as moral guardians, and when they make the body the site of protest. Women must ‘do politics’ politely, with utmost control, and of course caringly; that is they must play their ‘designated roles’. Whether or not you fit the gendered norms of political life affects how your protest is perceived through the media (van Acker). Coulter’s tweet loudly proclaimed that the fat ‘girls’ protesting the election of the 45th President of the United States were unworthy, out of control, and not worthy of attention (ironic, then, as her tweet caused considerable conversation about protest, fatness, and the reasons not to like the President-Elect). What the Coulter tweet demonstrates is that fat women are perceived as doubly-problematic in public space, both as fat and as women. They do not do politics in a way that is befitting womanhood – they are too visible and loud; they are not moral guardians of conservative values; and, their bodies challenge masculine power.
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