Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture

Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture

Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture

Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture


To be fat hasn’t always occasioned the level of hysteria that this condition receives today and indeed was once considered an admirable trait. Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture explores this arc, from veneration to shame, examining the historic roots of our contemporary anxiety about fatness. Tracing the cultural denigration of fatness to the mid 19th century, Amy Farrell argues that the stigma associated with a fat body preceded any health concerns about a large body size. Firmly in place by the time the diet industry began to flourish in the 1920s, the development of fat stigma was related not only to cultural anxieties that emerged during the modern period related to consumer excess, but, even more profoundly, to prevailing ideas about race, civilization and evolution. For 19th and early 20th century thinkers, fatness was a key marker of inferiority, of an uncivilized, barbaric, and primitive body. This idea—that fatness is a sign of a primitive person—endures today, fueling both our $60 billion “war on fat” and our cultural distress over the “obesity epidemic.”

Farrell draws on a wide array of sources, including political cartoons, popular literature, postcards, advertisements, and physicians’ manuals, to explore the link between our historic denigration of fatness and our contemporary concern over obesity. Her work sheds particular light on feminisms’ fraught relationship to fatness. From the white suffragists of the early 20th century to contemporary public figures like Oprah Winfrey, Monica Lewinsky, and even the Obama family, Farrell explores the ways that those who seek to shed stigmatized identities—whether of gender, race, ethnicity or class—often take part in weight reduction schemes and fat mockery in order to validate themselves as “civilized.” In sharp contrast to these narratives of fat shame are the ideas of contemporary fat activists, whose articulation of a new vision of the body Farrell explores in depth. This book is significant for anyone concerned about the contemporary “war on fat” and the ways that notions of the “civilized body” continue to legitimate discrimination and cultural oppression.


Toward the end of fall semester in 2006, leaders from the national office of Delta Zeta sorority visited its DePauw University chapter, ostensibly to encourage the sisters in their recruitment efforts. Membership in what one unofficial survey on the campus had called the “socially awkward” Delta Zeta chapter had declined to the point that the national office was considering shutting it down. The national officers met with the thirty-five members individually, discussing each one’s specific plans to increase membership. A week before finals, twenty-two of the members received a letter from the national chapter explaining that they had been placed on “alumna status”— in other words, they had been kicked out. By the beginning of the following semester, the letter explained, they had to find other housing.

According to a New York Times interview, the ousted members included all the “overweight” women as well as the only Vietnamese and Korean women. (The one African American member never received an expulsion letter, nor did she receive a letter asking her to stay. She presumed she had been kicked out.) The national officers countered that the evictees demonstrated insufficient commitment to the sorority. According to the evicted sisters themselves, it was all about looks and popularity, not about commitment. They pointed out that the national office had purged the sorority of the girls who did not match the stereotypical image of a “sorority girl,” one who was attractive and well liked by fraternity brothers. Indeed, the national officers had actually requested that these same “unpopular”—that is, fat or nonwhite—sisters stay upstairs during a recruitment party, instead bringing in slender Delta Zeta sisters from neighboring Indiana University to meet with prospective sorority members.

While many of the rejected sorority sisters described feeling depressed after they received their letters, their sorrow soon turned to activism. Many of those who had been allowed to stay in the sorority quit in solidarity with their sisters. DePauw faculty began a petition objecting to the focus on these women’s looks over their academic and service accomplishments. The . . .

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