Why I Need A Fat Philosophy (And So Do You)

I went into the COVID lockdown a fat person, and I’ll be leaving it as an even fatter person. I need a fat philosophy to help me make sense of the changes my body has undergone during the pandemic. And, I believe, whether you are fat or thin, whether your body shape changed during the past year or not, whether you have ever actively tried to change your body shape or not, and even if you’ve never really thought much about the shape of your body in a systemic way at all, you could benefit from a fat philosophy too.

A warning, at the outset of any discussion like this: it is hard to talk about and think about fat. It can be dangerous. Check in with yourself and your needs, and do not continue reading if it is not safe for you to do so. If you are a student at ASU, then ASU Counseling Services can help you find the support you need.  Take care of yourself.

An introduction to fat studies, or the interdisciplinary study of the meaning and nature of body size, always begins with the science. This is because there is such a huge gulf between the way we tend to think about fat and what the science actually tells us about fat. I won’t summarize the scientific data here, because there’s a fantastic and comprehensive overview available in Michael Hobbes’s article, Everything You Think You Know About Obesity Is Wrong. Read it. Seriously: go read it.

Once you’ve read that article, then it’ll be worthwhile to think about the social and political dimensions of fat. Abu-Odeh offers a good overview of how fat bodies are stigmatized in our society, and Van Amsterdam shows how body size fits into an intersectional analysis of oppression and privilege. If you’d like to examine your own implicit biases about body size, you can take Harvard’s Weight Implicit Association Test. And keep in mind that fatphobia doesn’t just negatively affect fat people like me: thin bodies are subjected to unjust and harmful treatment, too. Consider that it is generally taken to be socially acceptable to make negative comments about how thin someone is, despite the taboo of commenting on someone’s fat (Beggan & DeAngelis). An environment in which body size is a marker of social value is an environment in which no one is safe from being treated like an object.

That’s the world we inhabit, one in which the size of our bodies is assumed to say something about our quality as people, where we are judged by our fat (or lack thereof), where the stories we are trained to tell about ourselves and our bodies are harmful, unjust, and almost completely divorced from the scientific data. Now: what are we to do about it?

A good starting place may be to interrogate the stories that we have to tell about this year we have spent surviving the COVID pandemic, and the assumptions about bodies and weight that underlie those stories. Because there is a story for you to tell about how you and your body have managed through such a scary and anxious time. Our fatphobic society, which surrounds us and conditions us, would want you to tell a particular kind of story about your time during the COVID pandemic and whatever changes in your body you might notice as a result of that time. But there are other stories available to you, as well, and a fat philosophy would encourage you to reach for those stories that strengthen your love for yourself, for your body, and for all the fat and thin and anywhere-in-between bodies of your fellow human beings.

So, let’s find the fat philosophy we need–one that is informed by science and works to combat size-related stigma and oppression–by starting with the stories we have to tell. Let’s explore what the pandemic has meant for us and for our bodies. We can begin by considering some questions and using the answers we have to those questions to identify what we believe and what we care about, in relation to our bodies:

  • What has it been like, to inhabit your body, during this last year?
  • What changes have there been to how you treat your body? 
  • Have you been affected by gyms and restaurants closing down, by physical proximity to others becoming so limited, by our social opportunities shrinking so quickly and dramatically?
  • Has your body been healthy? And what do you pay attention to, to determine whether your body is healthy or not in the first place?
  • How have you taken care of your body, and how has your body taken care of you?

I don’t know what answers you will find. I don’t know if they will be easy or if they’ll be hard. They might hurt. But, hopefully, they also might heal.

Written by Michelle Saint.

Michelle Saint specializes in the philosophy of fiction. Her work covers the metaphysics of fiction, the moral value of fiction, and the philosophy of mind. Her current research interests involve the application of feminist ethical theory to aesthetics, the role of narrative in psychological well-being, and the social significance of fictional artworks.

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