Confronting Capitalism through Feminist Fat Acceptance

[Original post and comment thread at]

Despite being a longtime denizen of the feminist blogosphere, it wasn’t til last year that I learned about the Fat Acceptance (FA) movement. (Also called Health At Every Size (HAES) or Fat Liberation. Fat Fu, The Fat Nutritionist, Fatshionista, and Shapely Prose are good places to start if you’re unfamiliar.)

The connection clicked immediately.  In our society, fat people get discriminated against (and dehumanized) in ways that intersect with gender and other dimensions of body politics.  Duh.  Bonus: the fatosphere bloggers I’ve come across are funny, hella scientific, and really good writers.

And today, thanks to a post by wickedday, a guest blogger at Feministe, I made another big thinky-type connection: this time between fat-shaming and capitalism.

Basically, what the fat-shaming helps to do is obscure the bald hypocrisy of a capitalist society that claims to care about people’s dietary health (e.g. fighting “the obesity epidemic” on the level of ‘education’ and personal lifestyle choices), while generating enormous profits from food industries that are fundamentally health-hazardous, environmentally devastating, and/or horribly inhumane (processed and genetically modified foods; hormone-filled factory meats; subsidized corn for corn syrup, etc. etc. etc.).  And using super-exploited immigrant labor to do a lot of it.

Now, this isn’t a new argument among FA feminists, but my perspective extends wickedday’s outline of the parallels between slut-shaming and fat-shaming, placing a greater emphasis on the historical and material basis for both.  By most FA accounts I’ve read, fatphobia comes from some combination of hatred, thin privilege, and jealousy: as wickedday puts it, the idea that “it is agonising to look at someone ignoring the rules that you punish yourself with, and still being happy.”

At the moment I’m more curious about bigger-picture causes.  The macro-relationships.  Because, as I say in my comment (copied below), as much as we might argue that our bodies are none of their business, as long as we live under capitalism, their business is precisely what our bodies are.

kloncke 9.7.2010 at 5:31 pm

Loving this post, and wondering if anyone else is interested in bringing the analysis toward the realm of political economy? I’m trying to figure out plausible, material reasons *why* the hegemonic discourse is so concerned with fat-shaming and slut-shaming.

Because on one hand, from an ethical perspective, “my body” (in terms of its size and sexual activity) is none of “your business.”

But from a point of view of class struggle in a capitalist context, “my body” as a vehicle for the commodity of labor-power (and/or the reproduction of labor-power; i.e. childbearing and domestic work) is *precisely* “your business” (“you,” the capitalist class) — in the sense that it is the source of the surplus value that capitalists (who are almost entirely men) extract as profit. No wonder the state (largely synonymous with the capitalist class) monitors the bodies of its labor force a.k.a. profit machine.

From a Marxist-feminist perspective, the ruling class under capitalism has a vested interest in regulating the reproduction of labor-power (in other words, the babymaking of future workers of all genders) by controlling the bodies of childbearers (historically, women). Capitalism itself requires this subjugation in order to maintain a wage-based system propped up by unwaged, naturalized domestic work (“the second shift”).

So, that might be one angle on a materialist explanation for slut-shaming under capitalism: as one of many tools for regulating the production of labor-power.

And again, on a bigger-picture scale, we can notice the discursive and legal differences between interpersonal slut-shaming in the white middle- and upper-classes of dominant capitalist states (more individualized, personal, or classist), versus the whole-cloth patriarchal bigotry against women of color, queer people, and immigrant women as immoral, hedonistic, irresponsible, sex-obsessed, devious, and culpable for global overpopulation and the dissolution of “The Traditional Family”— as a group.

Now, one question is: if the capitalists want more labor-power (which starts out in the form of baby workers-to-be), then why would they disproportionately slut-shame people of color, who reproduce the majority of the super-exploited labor-power in the world?

During colonial expansion, capitalists and aspiring capitalists forcibly bred people of color in order to expand commodity production capacities.

But maybe under today’s neo-colonialism, since the dominant world commodities are no longer material products but fictive capital (i.e. debt, investments, and other financial stuff), slut-shaming is evolving out of the racist patriarchal discourse that justified white-supremacist rape. Whereas before, painting non-white women as lustful justified raping and breeding them, now in many contexts it justifies deporting, sterilizing, and de-funding them (through stereotypes like the welfare queen that rationalize cutting away at the social safety net).

So if we take this type of materialist (and class-struggle-based), feminist perspective on slut-shaming, how do we see fat-shaming as similar and/or different?

To offer one idea, I don’t think it has to do with regulating labor-power or its reproduction in any meaningful way. First of all, being fat doesn’t necessarily mean being less productive as a worker. Also, with outsourcing and globalization, the dominant capitalist nations increasingly rely on commodity production from Global South/ThirdWorld countries, where, as far as I understand, fat-shaming is less of an issue, especially compared to malnutrition. (Please correct me if I’m wrong on that.)

In the countries where fat-shaming is rampant, I suspect it might have more to do with justifying the internal contradictions of capitalism itself: i.e., making it about why are people fat or thin, versus why do some people have access to healthy foods and environments, while others are deprived of them through structural violence.

Silvia Federici has a good quote on this general idea in her Introduction to Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation:

For capitalism must justify and mystify the contradictions built into its social relations — the promise of freedom vs. the reality of widespread coercion, and the promise of prosperity vs. the reality of widespread penury — by denigrating the ‘nature’ of those it exploits: women, colonial subjects, the descendants of African slaves, the immigrants displaced by globalization.

And fat people!

Denigrating people through their fatness — painting fatness as primarily a personal choice or failing (in classic neoliberal fashion) — helps to obscure, as others have said in the thread, the classist structural violence of of food deserts, a for-profit medical industry, environmental degradation, dangerous working conditions, and most of all the basic reality that the ruling classes profit from the exploitation of labor, while all other classes must either work or starve.

So, in longwinded conclusion (sorry! :), I totally empathize with the desire to reclaim body size and sexuality as private issues — as spaces for personal expression, taste, and fulfillment, that are none of anyone else’s business. But at the same time, I feel like there are historical and material reasons, not just arbitrary aesthetic/ideological ones, why that’s not the current cultural reality. So the more we understand those material reasons, the better we can contend with them and transform some shit! Yay. :)

Thanks again to Atheling for the bad-ass and hilarious post, and to everyone for all the wonderful insights and food for thought! This has really helped me out in a major way with the HAES feminism.

Disclaimer: This post was written by a Feministing Community user and does not necessarily reflect the views of any Feministing columnist, editor, or executive director.

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