Size, stigma and shaming: Toward a new politic of solidarity

Like many gender-related issues, body politics is deeply personal, and many people feel passionately about their stances. For something that inspires so much rage and discordance, many don’t delve particularly deep into this topic. If we don’t look beyond discussions of the pros and cons of the Dove campaign for real beauty, how will we move past the disagreements body politics often inspire? Specifically, how do we talk about the periphery of what racist/sexist/colonial/ablest mainstream U.S. culture views as desirable?

On the heels of the video (and accompanying controversy) over Nicki Minaj’s “Anaconda,” a friend posted this article about “The Myth of Skinny Shaming.” The comments it has generated, both on the article’s page itself, and on social media, have been hugely disappointing to me. It feels to me to be highlighting both a rift and a blind spot in the feminist community, so I’d like to address and break down and some of the common complaints I’ve seen. 

“I’m over this – we shouldn’t be judged by our bodies.”

I feel like this is at once an idealistic and a privileged stance to take. Of course we shouldn’t be judged by the shape/size/color/sexuality of our bodies. Of course we shouldn’t. The male gaze is a sonofabitch, and inhabiting all feminine bodies in mainstream U.S. culture is a really rough road. But – we have to find ways to survive in the environments we’re in. The different ways we are judged based on our appearances often connects to and impacts our identities. Downplaying this process, or dismissing it as superficial, erases and invalidates the experiences of other people who don’t look like you. To say we should stop discussing it, to deprioritize this, says that you have the privilege to not need to discuss it, the same way men don’t need to talk about gender oppression, and white people don’t need to discuss race. We absolutely shouldn’t be judged by these criteria, but we very much are, and we can’t just wish that judgment away. You know how stupid we all think the idea of a post-racial America is? Apply that to post-fat. Our society, as a whole, is not “over” these concepts.

“Being a skinny person is hard, too.”

I get that, and I’m sorry. Having experiences where your body is painfully held up to scrutiny is totally, totally shitty. However, you don’t get to talk about thin shaming like it’s as bad as fat shaming. You just don’t. There are some great articles about thin privilege, so I won’t go into it at length here. I agree that our culture has a narrow scope for what it considers “attractive”, but please keep in mind that being hurt from an ideal is different than being oppressed by it. Oppression involves ubiquitous, pervasive societal subjugation, as opposed to individual moments of pain. Fatphobia is a term I think we’re all familiar with, but I’ve never heard of skinnyphobia, and “skinny bitch” is a world away from “fat bitch” as an insult. Additionally, on a slightly different note, I should mention that feeling fat or uncomfortable with your body is totally different than being fat. The latter involves being judged by society every day as you walk through life.

If someone brings up fat experience, or fat anger, or fat-shaming, and your immediate response is to tell them you “know what it’s like, too” because either you’re skinny and you’ve been teased, or you’ve experienced some level of inwardly-directed body-hate, you are competing with someone’s experience of oppression, plain and simple. This can be enormously invalidating, and I think we all know female competition can be a real bummer. If your goal is to be an ally or stand in solidarity with someone, letting them have space to talk is a far better way to ensure you don’t replicate the mainstream’s attempts to shrink, silence, and imagine them away. Otherwise, you wind up sounding like the men who whine about not being invited to all-female meetings. Please, check your privilege.

“The lyric ‘fuck the skinny bitches’ is girl on girl hate, and I can’t get behind it.”

This seems to me to be the crux of the discomfort, so here’s where shit gets interesting. A lot of what I’ve heard centers around objections to this line in the song. It seems to me that the “this is girl on girl hate” argument is a sentiment that seeks to silence what’s really going on, without having to consider it seriously.

When a queer person says, “fuck straight people”, or a person of color says, “fuck whitey”, they are actively critiquing the power structure. I’ve found it way more conducive to building bridges in my life if I make an active decision to see these comments focused generally, as opposed to taking them personally. Knee-jerk defensiveness about privilege says to me that you are engaging with your own position in society on a superficial basis. Shit is not about you.

People who get upset about “reverse racism” aren’t considering the benefits they reap from being in the dominant group; neither are folks upset about “reverse sexism”, or “skinny shaming”. This concept of “skinny shaming”, to quote my close friend and writer Rashaun Ellis, “doesn’t exist, and the term is used by those who are uncomfortable examining the privileges that they have been afforded by the system.” Put simply, marginalized groups are not oppressing dominant groups when they express anger towards them.

Also, let’s talk about the fact that Nicki Minaj is a black woman, and the vast majority of complaints I’ve seen have been coming from offended thin white ladies. I think we’re only a stones throw away from the “black women are too angry” sentiment here, and I have no interest in anyone being categorized as “too angry.” Oppression breeds anger, and confrontational rage against dominant groups is legit.

“These [Minaj] videos enact a certain bait-and-switch violence toward the viewer who has the audacity to think Nicki is shaking her ass for him; they draw you in with their neon-bright, sexually charged imagery, and then they suddenly, unexpectedly turn confrontational.” -Lindsay Zoladz, Vulture

Confrontation is an uncomfortable thing, but it’s the first step towards understanding. When women are offended by Minaj’s confrontational language, that anger does nothing to see where it comes from, and it seems to me that it involves more “girl-on-girl hate” to not hear “fuck the skinny bitches” as a systemic critique than it does for Minaj to say it in the first place.

“We should all work together to end patriarchy!”

This is sort of an extension of the last objection. I’ve heard the complaint that anger between groups of women is counterproductive to female unity, but I would like to posit that it can, in fact, be the starting point for truer forms of solidarity. “Woman,” to me, is not a uniform category. The idea that we should erase our differences to blindly “celebrate” each other is an antiquated idea, which engages with “tolerance” and “diversity” as surface-level concepts. These are the same politics that make it unacceptable for someone to embrace or reclaim the word fat. In fact, they also keep us from truly engaging with the unique lives and politics of any marginalized group on a deeper level. Yes, working within your own mind to acknowledge that everyone is beautiful in their own right is the first step towards undoing societal stigma, but it is sustained, continuous work, and it is still just the first step. “Everyone is beautiful in my mind” is about as dismissive as competing with someone’s experience of oppression, or shrugging off a confrontational lyric as “girl on girl hate.”

I propose that we move beyond these glib reactions to become actual allies. Focusing explicitly on different marginal groups allows us to ensure that their experiences are not erased. Read some Nomy Lamm (“I’m so fucking beautiful” is on!), or get your hands on a copy of “Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession.” Actively think about and talk about the intersections of fat and race and sexuality and nationality and able-bodiedness, and push your own boundaries. Think about these things intersecting with desire, and with love, with pride, and begin to understand that there are even (gasp!) some fat people who don’t want to assimilate to the standard of beauty we have in this country.

To me, feminism is supposed to be a place where space is made for different types of experiences and anger to be heard. When someone stops, sees, and registers something as valid – even something originating from pop culture – that’s when we begin to move forward in solidarity. That’s how we work together, that’s how we really see each other, and that’s how we smash patriarchy and hegemony.

By silencing, usurping, or dismissing the sentiments that fat women have expressed in the wake of the Anaconda video, I’ve sadly seen a lot of “feminist” women replicating mainstream oppression. The reactions to Minaj’s lyrics seem almost like neocolonial respectability politics mixed with some defensiveness, and I think engaging with the sentiments they’ve provoked is essential. Fat women are marginalized amongst women in this country; much like sex workers and gender variant folks. That’s a fact we need to look dead in the face. Once we acknowledge this, folks decrying “skinny shaming” begin to sound like male-rights activists. Failing to admit this really makes all of us miss out.

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.

Washington, D.C.

A documentarian and an educator, Amy holds an MA in gender and media studies from GW University. She has taught gender studies at the University of Guam, and her first full length film is featured in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and distributed on Amazon Prime. She works in the education department at DCTV, and lives in the District of Columbia.

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