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There is a trend on Tik Tok where people present their bodies in an “ideal” manner, and then seconds later relax their bodies to demonstrate that it is natural to have rolls and folds and “imperfections.” One of the videos I landed on was Lizzo’s rendition, where for the entire video her body remains the same. This video made me realize that the trend, which I’d originally thought was empowering women, was falsely re-defining what it means to be fat and erasing the real stories of fat women who we need to hear and support.
To preface this article, I must state my positionality within this structure: My body is seen as “ideal” in the sense that my physical body, in both its appearance and function, has been privileged in the construction of all the spaces we occupy. Though I have followed, advocated for, and supported body positivity across time, it was not until quarantine that I realized that there was a problem in how I and others orient ourselves to the body positivity movement and fatphobia.
Historically, fatphobia has been strengthened by racism due to white supremacy. In her book “Fearing the Black Body,” Sabrina String discusses the conflation between fatness as “masculinity, aggression, failure and ugliness,” while thinness is associated with “whiteness, femininity, softness, success and purity.”
The prejudiced notion that the white body is the most ideal body has another layer: the white skinny body being the most optimal form. In contrast, caricatures such as “The Mammy” stereotype use fatness as a means of demoting the status and desirability of Black women. Fatness is continually used as a way of asexualizing people, especially Black women who have the converse struggle of being hypersexualized as well.
We have been taught to value Black women for their bodies and appearances, and the moment Black women cannot meet these impossible standards, they lose their protection. Black fat women face this on a daily basis.
We all have a warped understanding of what a fat body looks like, as demonstrated by the earlier TikTok trend. The trend became co-opted by skinnier and skinnier girls who are able to suck in their stomachs and later relax them. The current body positivity movement has not created space for fat bodies but has slightly increased the margins of what we should consider an “acceptable body” that is still dictated by ever-evolving Eurocentric beauty standards (think the Kardashians).
Within these trends, there is an erasure of women who are not able to maleate their bodies; women who cannot position their swimsuit to appear like they have an “hourglass” shape. The invisibility and co-opting of the experiences of fat women is one of the main issues with the body positivity movement. It also presumes that we can all forcibly love our body and that self-love can heal the issues of all fat and Black fat women when the reality is that there are many bodies who are still excluded from the sentiment of self-love because the world remains hostile to their physical form.
It can be tiring for fat women to just “love their bodies.” It is not the onus of fat individuals to forcibly change themselves and their views of themselves, but society’s responsibility to accommodate more bodies both in our construction of spaces and our interactions with one another.
Medical spaces are one such space constructed in a way that targets bigger bodies and perpetuates fatphobia. Samyra C. Miller ’21 — host of The Crimson’s Harvard Communitea podcast and the Class of 2021’s First Class Marshall — consistently creates conversation through social media highlighting the violence that fat and Black fat women face, and has been a needed force in sparking this conversation within the Harvard community. One of her main points of discussion is how medical racism and fatphobia compound to target bigger bodies, such as through the Body Mass Index.
BMI has been misused by many medical professionals. They treat BMI as being causal to many diseases when, in fact, the BMI has been highly criticized for its misevaluation of weight. This leads to misdiagnoses and patient-blaming. Doctors will tell their fat patients to “eat healthier” and “lose weight” — misdiagnoses that often lead to medical problems, such as eating disorders, body dysmorphia, depression, and lethal heart problems.
The BMI is rooted in Eurocentric ideals of body weight. It was developed based on the “ideal” white man and, since, our research on obesity and weight has been rooted in studies of white wealthy men. Not only do Black women, especially poor Black women, become erased from this research, but it erroneously assumes that all weight is equal. Black women have been found to be healthier at higher BMIs, demonstrating a flaw in our understanding of how health relates to fatness.
Just as there is violence towards Black fat bodies in the medical field, this violence is also seen in policing. We don’t talk enough about the fatphobia in Eric Garner’s 2014 case, where police justified the use of a chokehold that took Garner’s life because his size made him threatening. Fatphobia interacts with gender and race to also hyper-masculinize Black men, becoming another explicit instance where society is structured on the systematic erasure and mishandling of fat bodies.
When examining fatphobia, it is easy to dismiss these issues to others without evaluating the manners we perpetuate these violent tropes. When you're talking to your classmates about getting that “post-quarantine, summer body,” what are the implications of these statements? Who do you have in the group photo and who do you have taking the group photo? Did someone’s weight change how you valued them? There needs to be a dramatic shift in our relation to fat bodies and fatness, and that can only occur once we centralize, normalize and make visible fat women and Black fat women and recognize their fatness as normal and a part of their beauty.
Ogechukwu C. Ogbogu ’24 lives in Wigglesworth Hall. Her column appears on alternate Thursdays.
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