Female perfection is thin and white and has long hair, big tits, blue eyes, no cellulite and perfectly proportioned features and limbs — or so we’re told. Women spend a ridiculous amount of time aspiring to a state of being that will always be denied us unless we possess exceptional genes or enough cash to emulate them. It’s also a state of being that prominent white feminists such as Lindy West have fought to challenge. The basic premise behind much of West’s work as a pro-fat feminist is simple: Stop shaming me because I’m fat. Stop making assumptions about my health, my lifestyle, my diet, my romantic life, my career — simply because I’m fat. Stop using the word “fat” in a derogatory way.
On its surface, such an argument innately appeals. Certainly the equation of health with physical “perfection” and beauty is specious. This is why the sexist commercial for a “fitness and nutrition store” featuring a bronzed, photoshopped model next to the question “Are you beach body ready?” elicited such succinct responses from women rightly offended by the asinine message. Similarly, a woman’s size does not preclude her from career success, a rampant sex life or a good-looking, slim fiancé.
But there comes a point at which weight does teeter over into ill health, a point that West frequently ignores in her writing. Instead, she strays dangerously close to replicating the same kinds of prejudices she says have oppressed her, as she does in a Jezebel piece about thin women who struggle to grasp the crux of the body positivity movement:
When a larger woman attacks a thin woman for being thin, the attack is split — part of it is selfish, yes, to tear thin women down and feel better about their own marginalized bodies. That is bad. But a bigger part is attacking the system that marginalizes them. That anger at the system is justified.
But by justifying anger towards another woman based on how she looks, she is perpetuating a different but equally noxious set of assumptions about weight: that size is a privilege.
Educating the general public about the trials of being a larger woman is a worthy endeavor. But calling thinness a “privilege” presumes that thin people do not understand the suffering of anyone deemed by the western world to be “fat,” or do not have their own struggles. West and her brand of pro-fat feminism also wander into the rocky territory of oversimplified identity politics, trying to equate dress size with other oppressions such as racism, sexism and poverty, and ignoring that one’s weight is not an inherent privilege.
While occasionally dictated by genetics or illness, weight is more often influenced by lifestyle and choices, which are many times consequences of other intersectional factors such as race and poverty. For instance, 47.8 percent of obese men are black, and low-income women are more likely to be obese than high-income women. Very few people “choose” to be fat in the United States. What’s more, very few people can defend obesity in the way that West insists she can: by declaring herself fit and healthy despite our traditional assumptions about people who are her size. The alternative discourse, perhaps, should be that one can be fat and possibly unhealthy — and that’s OK. You don’t have to be a mythical overweight person who still runs marathons and doesn’t eat anything more than 1,500 calories a day. That myth is as damaging as any other.
The fact that I am a white, thin, educated woman will be cited — disparagingly — as the reason behind my discomfort with West’s pro-fat movement. But such a critique ignores, perhaps, my own struggles with weight and the fact that I am the daughter of obese working-class parents. I have spent years obsessing over various parts of my body — how big my thigh gap is, how beaky my nose looks, whether my chin is too small, how long my arms are, how short my legs are, my larger than average ears. I’ve struggled with my weight — I’ve been both too fat and too thin. Even as someone who spends most of the day in leggings and a tank top, I’ve still spent thousands of dollars on my hair, clothes, shoes and face. I don’t feel confident about my looks. I frequently attribute failure or success in relationships and my career on whether I looked good on a particular day. Having battled through a difficult period over the last nine months, my sinewy figure and severe collarbones are, far from the product of Los Angeles style, extreme dieting, surfing, yoga and hiking, rather the result of depression, antidepressants, a lack of appetite and severe stress. In my home country of the United Kingdom, my figure would rightly be regarded as a little frightening. In L.A., the response is more likely to be, Well your life may be falling apart, but goddamn, you look way better than you did when you were happy.
In other words, thin people struggle with size, too. More importantly, West’s bashing of slim women who dare to disagree with her stance comes across as myopic bickering amongst the white feminist ranks. West is an educated, white American woman who is able to make a living writing about pop culture and her weight for GQ magazine. But she problematically ignores perspectives other than her own. There are women of color who are the same size as her (or me), just as educated and more intelligent than the lot of us — but, due to systemic racism, haven’t had the same opportunities. This obsession with looks is largely a Western, privileged phenomenon. Our engagement with it, and efforts to deconstruct it, often fortify its pervasive influence on our life. It’s not about us white women anymore — fat or thin, ugly or hot. It’s time for our issues — and the size of our asses — to take a back seat.