We are excited to share the second in our series of commentaries showcasing original research by students in the School of Humanities at the University of Westminster. In this second post, Casey, who is a final-year English Literature student, reflects on some of the issues posed in her recent project for the Issues in Culture module, which is a final-year option module for many courses in the School of Humanities, including the new BA in Culture, Environment and Social Change.
Lizzo feminism: Body positivity is not enough!
As a black plus-size female artist, the popular and successful American singer Lizzo (Melissa Viviane Jefferson) has been regarded by some as the figurehead of the Body Positivity movement. Body Positivity is a form of online activism which advocates for the beauty of all bodies as seen in hashtag campaigns such as #allbodiesarebeautiful. In a recent cover interview for Vogue, however, Lizzo has distanced herself from this movement:
‘I want to normalize my body. And not just be like, “Ooh, look at this cool movement. Being fat is body positive.” No, being fat is normal. I think now, I owe it to the people who started this to not just stop here. We have to make people uncomfortable again so that we can continue to change. Change is always uncomfortable, right?’ (Lizzo, 2020)
As a fat person, I view my body through the lens of social generalisations and what is ‘comfortable’ will always conform to what is socially accepted as ‘normal’. Since society has constructed the fat body as a deviant form, a form against the norm, challenging this construction of fatness will tend to produce social discomfort of the kind Lizzo mentions.
The political history of Fatphobia
The term ‘fatness’ within Western society has, for much of history, been associated with a notion of inferiority that presents thinness as morally superior. The fat body is stigmatized as unhealthy and as a sign of personal failure, causing many fat people to suffer from social abjection: the feeling of repulsion or disgust. The abjection that results from the stigmatisation of fatness is essentially fatphobia.
In the modern period, the binary construction of thin supremacy versus fat inferiority was refracted through the racialized lens of colonial discourse. Amy Erdan has noted how ‘Fat became clearly identified as a physical trait that marked its bearers as people lower on the evolutionary and racial scale— Africans, “native” peoples, immigrants, criminals, and prostitutes’ (2011, p.64). Thinness as a signifier of white supremacy is part of a broader system that perpetuates an intersectional divide by connecting fat bodies with primarily Eurocentric and racist rhetorics of good and bad bodies.
The majority of these negative rhetorics of the body were formalised with the advancement of modern medicine. The health debate surrounding the stigmatisation of fat bodies correlates with Michel Foucault’s theory of biopower. Biopower focuses ‘on the body as a machine: its disciplining, the optimisation of its capabilities, the extortion of its forces, the parallel increase of its usefulness and docility, its integration into systems of efficient and economic controls’ (Foucault, M. And Hurley, R. 1990, p.139). This system of biopower has normalised the apparent socioeconomic productivity of abled-bodied individuals and stigmatized those who are perceived as not physically contributing to society. Kathryn Pauly Morgan notes that “Fatphobia is analogous to the metaphysical apprehensiveness that nondisabled people feel when they realize that, at any moment, their own embodiment could render them “disabled” and thrust them into the powerful matrix of oppressive ableism and compulsory rehabilitation-ism.” (2011, p.198). Within this utilitarian perspective, the able-bodied contribute to the greater good through the economic productivity of their labour, while the ‘unproductivity’ of fatness is associated not only with medical unhealthiness but socioeconomic waste, becoming an economic burden to the economy.
Such pathologizing and moralizing discourse presents the deviant body as suffering a self-inflected and unnatural disorder: the fat agent has voluntarily given-up and chosen to indulge in the unhealthy consequences of their perceived failure; fatness becomes an immoral object and socially abjected. Historicizing fatphobia as a system of oppression built upon the power structures of colonialism, sexism and classism is vital for understanding why, in order to oppose and deconstruct this systematic fatphobic oppression, a radical political response is required.
The second half of the twentieth century saw the first organised responses to fat oppression with the emergence of fat-liberating movements such as the Fat Underground and the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance), which were oriented under the idea of Fat Acceptance. Jana Evans Braziel and Kathleen Lebesco note how fat activists ‘drew on the strategies and rhetorics used by many African Americans who fought for civil rights during the 1960s’ (2001, p.137).
The Body Positivity movement has, in contrast, transformed fat acceptance into a comfortable and conformist social media trend that fails to acknowledge the longer history of fatphobia and its role in a broader infrastructure of oppressive powers. As such, body positivity has appropriated the fat liberation movement but refocused on diversifying and expanding our narrow beauty norms. The idea of positivity remains conceptually dependent on the existence of the negative. This has been done not only by focusing on the insecurities attached to white-abled-bodied individuals but also by the world of commerce, which profits from such insecurities. This focus on aesthetics distracts society from the deeper issues of fatphobia: the fat identity is more than a surface-level questioning of beauty norms; it is a transformative identity that questions the systematic and intersectional abjection of fat individuals. Consequently, body positivity is not radical enough to deconstruct fatphobia and challenging the power systems that keep marginalised bodies oppressed.
To begin the dismantling of fatphobia, we therefore need to take a more liberal approach to fatness. A more radical body normativity must draw instead on deontological ethical approaches. As Gerard Garbutt and Peter Davies argue, ‘The consequences of a deontological action may be right for the individual, but not produce a good outcome for the whole population. Deontological actions are therefore known as non-consequentialist actions’ (2011, p.268). Taking a non-consequentialist view of fat bodies disrupts the pathologizing narrative and enables the fat body to be seen beyond the stigma. Deontological ethics facilitates the construction of a social norm of goodness outside the medicalizing discourse: the fat body is no longer an object of morality.
In 2019, Lizzo performed at the Black Entertainment Television (BET) Awards, where she sang her biggest hit, ‘Truth Hurts’. This BET performance should be understood as a disruption to the dominant fatphobic discourse. High visibility is a focal part of the performance and Lizzo’s bridal lingerie does very little to hide her body fat. The fast-paced movement of the choreography, flute solo and vocal range of the performance embody a high level of fitness and a work ethic in contrast to the connotations of shame and moral failure normally associated with the fat black female body. The central staging and freestyle – at time, sensual – dancing create a celebratory atmosphere of individualistic freedom. On a situational level, the emotive response to the performance – cheers and smiles – discredited the biopolitical norm that fat is bad. Lizzo not only normalises her own body through her movement and productivity but also reverses social abjection by becoming celebrated.
All these factors provide evidence that fat bodies can be healthy, fitness is not always dictated by size, and fatness can be presented in a sensual way, as opposed to the social norm that the fat identity is to be a suffering agent alienated by the abjection of their fatness. However, while Lizzo rejects the social norms around her fat body, there is still a risk her performance is measured in a utilitarian and ableist framework of the positivity of productivity. For this reason, it is imperative that the normalisation of fat bodies locates its central argument intersectionality within a discussion of ethics, as proposed earlier, not biological science or economics, such that everybody is treated on an individual basis.
For me and many others, watching Lizzo’s rise to fame has allowed us to understand that fat people are more than their weight and their weight doesn’t define their success. Lizzo is a better example of the type of representation needed to normalise those who deviate from the social norm than the comfortable generalities of the body positivity movement. Her normalisation enables those with deviant identities to break away from preconceived notions of themselves and begin a life centred around their own specific individualism, not objective generalisations.
As a society, we are a very long way off universal body normativity but as a fat person myself, I hope to show that:
- Body Positivity, while it began with fat influencers, is not a Fat Liberation movement; fatphobia is more than a beauty norm transgression.
- Fatphobia is entirely political and should have a political response.
- Representation matters! Lizzo is the beginning of the idea that a fat person can achieve individualism. An identity outside of being fat!
This will enable fat agents to reverse the dehumanisation process caused by abjection and become something more!
Casey Joanne Willett (she/her) is a full-time student from North London studying English Literature at the University of Westminster. As a student of the arts, it is no surprise that her favourite pass time is escaping into the enriching world of storytelling. Casey thanks this hobby for the development of her obsessive behaviour when it comes to reading books, listening to music, watching musicals and playing video games.
Audi , R. (2007) “Can Utilitarianism Be Distributive? Maximization and Distribution as Criteria in Managerial Decisions Author,” Business Ethics Quarterly , 17(4), pp. 593–611. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/27673202 (Accessed: January 5, 2023).
Balcarran, M. and Jefferson, M.V. (2020) Lizzo wants to normalize her full figure with “body normative” movement, 102.5 The Block. Available at: https://theblockcharlotte.com/274753/lizzo-wants-to-normalize-her-full-figure-with-body-normative-movement/ (Accessed: January 5, 2023).
Braziel, J.E. and LeBesco, K. (2001) Bodies Out of Bounds : Fatness and Transgression, ProQuest Ebook Central. University of California Press. Available at: http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/westminster/detail.action?docID=223975. (Accessed: January 6, 2023).
Foucault, M. and Hurley, R. (1990) The history of sexuality: An introduction. New York: Vintage Books.
Garbutt , G. and Davies , P. (2011) “Should the practice of medicine be a deontological or utilitarian enterprise? ,” Journal of Medical Ethics , 37(5), pp. 267–270. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/23034772 (Accessed: January 7, 2023).
Morgan , K.P. (2011) “Foucault, ugly ducklings, and technoswans: Analyzing fat hatred, weight-loss surgery, and compulsory biomedicalized aesthetics in America ,” International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics , 4(1), pp. 188–220. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.2979/intjfemappbio.4.1.188 (Accessed: January 5, 2023).