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The Racialised Origins of Fatphobia

Disclaimer: This article is an excerpt from an academic essay written by myself. As my intellectual property, I am sharing this work on the Her Campus platform to highlight important issues of racism and fatphobia.  

The body positive movement was born out of radical fat activism that abhorred the gendered and racialised notion of fatphobia - the individual and societal fear, unacceptance, and ridicule of fatness (Robinson & Bacon et al., 1993: 167). Thus, any current movement advocating for body positivity must also acknowledge the gendered and racialised elements of fatphobia. In the seminal work ‘Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia’, Sabrina Strings recounts that in the 18th and 19th century, American and European ideals of beauty were created alongside the Slave Trade and the onset of colonialisation, ensuring racialised beauty ideals and allowing for the supremacy of White skin and slender bodies (Strings, 2019: 180). She further examines how science, medicine and art combined to create a culture around female beauty that linked laziness and unattractiveness with fatness and dark skin. She notes  in the 18th century, the sexualisation and vilification of large Black bodies by American artists, and a Protestant push for abstinence from sensual pleasures, such as lavishly eating in England, resulted in the linkage between race, subordinance, grossness and fatness. (Ibid: 100). It was this historical precedent around fatphobia and race that mobilised initial fat activists, including Margaret K. Bass who wrote in her essay ‘On being a Fat Black Girl in a Fat Hating Culture’ that her call to activism was being victim to specific fat prejudices that were steeped in racism and that stemmed from memories of the slave trade (Bass, 2005: 225). Therefore, the Black women who first envisioned fat acceptance and the subsequent body positive movement did so due to the highly racialised notions of fatphobia that directly affected them. In sum, they started a movement set on shielding themselves from prejudices imposed upon them both for their size and skin colour as interlinked social markers. 

This historical precedent has continued into the modern day. For example, fat Black women must bear the brunt of the racialised and fatphobic medical practice of the BMI Scale. This measures your height and weight to see if your weight is healthy, as it is based on the data of White European men and does not take into account that someone may be fat and also healthy (Miller, 2020). This outdated medical practice is representative of how historical racialised fatphobia has permeated into modern day practises and highlights the difficult reality for many fat Black women: that racialised fatphobia follows them wherever they go (Strings & Bacon, 2020). As the issue of racialised fatphobia is still prevalent in society, it becomes logical to assume the modern body positivity movement would, and arguably should, continue to protect fat Black women who are systemically more at risk from these racialised and gendered prejudices. However, as I will argue, this has not been the case, and despite the very clear historical precedent suggesting fat Black women need to be protected by the body positive movement that they originally created, the movement has moved so far away from its political activist roots that it does not recognise the need to protect Black women.  

References 

Bass, K.M. (2005). ‘On Being a Fat Black Woman in a Fat-Hating Culture’ in (eds. Bennet, M., Dickerson, V.) Recovering the Black Female Body: Self Representations of African American Women (London: Rutgers University Press) 

Miller, K. (2020). ‘How Whiteness Killed the Body Positive Movement’ Elemental. [online] Available from: <https://elemental.medium.com/amp/p/4c185773101e> [ Accessed: 17/04/2021] 

Robinson, B. B. E., Bacon, L. C., O'reilly, J. (1993). ‘Fat phobia: Measuring, Understanding, and Changing Anti‐Fat Attitudes’ International Journal of Eating Disorders, 14(4), 467-480 

Strings, S., Bacon, L. (2020). ‘The Racist Roots of Fighting Obesity’ Scientific American [online] Available from: < https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-racist-roots-of-fighting-obesity2/> [27/04/2021]  

Iona Hancock

Aberdeen '22

PGDE Primary 21/22 @ Aberdeen 1st Class Honours in Politics and IR @ Aberdeen
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