Policing Fatness in Black and Queer Bodies
Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry, and today we start with the body. Yes, we're going to get just a little Philosophy 101 with it. Here's your philosophical question to start the show. Is the me that makes me me found in the thoughts, ideas, and emotions of my mind, or is the me that makes me me found in the fingertips, ear lobes, belly button of my body? Ponder it long enough while sipping a good cup of tea, and you just might find you're a philosophy major. For me, it's the aging. At 25, my body kept up with my mind.
If I had 10 big ideas in a day, I could count on MHP Body 25, accomplishing most of them, getting started on the rest, and making a checklist to start some new ones in the morning. These days, my mind is still kicking out big ideas, but MHP Body 48 is definitely not keeping pace. If this old girl manages a 50% completion rate, it's basically time to celebrate with a nap, but my body isn't a used car or a historic house. It is me and also not me. Why so Descartian today? Maybe it was watching the Olympics, and all those young extraordinary athletes had such different bodies.
A sprinter is not built like a gymnast. A champion swimmer body is so different from a gold medal pole vaulter, but are Olympic bodies. Maybe it was the recent conversation with a gay male friend. He was so distressed by the criticism and rejection he often feels for having what he described as an imperfect body. Maybe it was scrolling through Instagram Live and suddenly finding pop star, Lizzo, weeping.
Lizzo: On the days I feel like I should be the happiest, I feel so down.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Lizzo typically uses IG to celebrate her large, beautiful body, but instead, I saw this.
Lizzo: It's fatphobic, and it's racist, and it's hurtful. If you don't like my music, cool. If you don't like Rumors, the song, cool, but a lot of people don't like me because of the way I look.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You see, earlier this month, pop royalty, Lizzo and Cardi B, released a video for their new song Rumors, which by the way, debuted at Number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100.
They don't know I do it for the culture
They say I should watch the stuff I post
Come on, man
Say I'm turning big girls into hoes
Come on, man
They say I get groupies at my shows
Come on, man
All the rumors are true, yeah
Melissa Harris-Perry: In the video, Lizzo and Cardi B are dressed in golden robes and armor, surrounded by larger than life imagery that calls to mind ancient Greece, but what should have been a celebratory moment for Lizzo was ruined by internet haters who unleashed a toxic stream of offensive and racist comments about Lizzo's body. Now we're back at the start. What is this thing we call a body? It ages, it slows, it refuses to behave exactly as we want. For most of us, it doesn't even come close to conforming to rigid standards of perfection.
What does that say about us? How can we look at ourselves and at all the other bodies sharing the world with us, and find a little more joy, humor, and pleasure, and a little less shame, stigma, and hate?
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sheesh. Talking with me now is Brittney Cooper, Professor at Rutgers University and author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. Great to have you here, Brittney.
Brittney Cooper: Glad to be here.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Also with us is Dr. Jason Whitesel, Associate Professor of Sociology and Women's Gender and Sexuality Studies at Illinois State University, and author of Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma. Thanks for being here, Jason.
Dr. Jason Whitesel: Thanks for having me.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Brittney, let me start with you, and this moment with Lizzo because obviously, she's this incredibly talented artist. She's also someone who really embraces her body, and yet this is certainly not the first time she's been fat-shamed on social media.
Brittney Cooper: Yes. She released a new song with the rapper, Cardi B, and she talked about receiving so many inboxes and hateful messages where people didn't disagree with the music necessarily, or have issues with her as a musician, but rather simply derided her body. That is really part and parcel of how we think about people of size, about fat people. In American culture, they are the one acceptable group that we still think it is widely okay to discriminate against, to say negative things about because we have this overarching idea that fatness is a choice and that it is an unhealthy choice that folks are making because they lack self-control.
That then gets tied up in these tropes around Black people as being out of control, and of women as being overemotional, and excessive, and out of control of their own bodies.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Can we stick with that for just one second, about this notion of being out of control? I started by talking a little bit about what we see, or how we experience our own bodies, but it's also true that our bodies are always being read by others. Other folks are taking a look at us and making all kinds of assumptions, or reading on to us.
Not just beliefs about what size we are, or whether we're able-bodied, or beautiful, or any of those things, they're also reading about whether we have self-control, whether we care about ourselves, whether we are loved or lovable.
Brittney Cooper: Absolutely. Look, the level of policing that goes on of bodies, in general, is something that we really should be having this broader cultural conversation about. We judge each other quite harshly, and so much of it is projection of our own insecurities, of our own issues around desirability, and who we want to be in the world. That becomes particularly projected onto Black women whose bodies are seen and have been seen as a problem.
Our bodies are seen as a problem because they're seen as hyper reproductive. That we're having a bunch of babies that we can't take care of, or we are seen as loud, and unruly, and needing to be contained, or because we are, in the main, over the standard notions of weight, our healthy weight. We are seen as taking up too much space, and as of being unapologetic about it. It's not only that Lizzo is a large person, it is also that she is a person with a lot of self-confidence. You can be fat in the public as long as you are willing to be self deriding, as long as you are willing to be ashamed.
As long as you are willing to shrink yourself, or to imagine that you deserve the kind of ridicule that you receive in the public. It is her resistance to that, that also draws vitriol and people saying, "Why are you excusing your own negative behavior and not taking responsibility?" When you begin to think about that discourse about, why are you excusing this and not taking responsibility, the racist overtones become quite apparent.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jason, I want to come to you in part, because I think we sometimes will frame, and not that Professor Cooper is doing this, she's actually quite good at not doing this, but we'll often frame this discussion about bodies and about body shaming around women and femme bodies, and with a sort of unspoken assumption that we're at a heteronormative marketplace of desirability. As we were beginning this conversation even within our own production team, we had to keep checking ourselves on that, and coming back to the ways that we also see very strict norms of desirability, and of categorization operating in queer communities as well.
Dr. Jason Whitesel: I think that when we look at communities for gay men, for example, if they possess a body, or they desire a body that's not conforming to that kind of gay male beauty myth, they're often stigmatized. Looksism, it occurs among gay men. They fat-shame one another, and oftentimes, it's done through ascribing a kind of feminine stigma to fat men on gay dating apps. For example, there's oftentimes that tagline, "No fats, no femmes." Again, it becomes racialized, "No fats, no femmes, no Blacks, no Asians. Again, I want to be clear that this is an intersectional oppression, but feminine stigma gets attached to fat gay men.
When you think about fat, thin, gay, that's embodying three identities that go against what is thought to be socially desirable for men, or again, Brittney used the term exceed. It's exceeding what's desirable for men. Grindr, for example, has been called out for a lot of its users deeming fatness unattractive, or devaluing and degrading a gay man's femininity, or relegating fat, femme, racialized queer people to the margins. I think this happens quite a bit within dating apps for gay men. I think that it's also true that when we look, speaking to this idea of fat, femme, and racialized, there's also people who don't feel comfortable even in some of the communities that are created for big gay men and their supportive others. Some authors have written about that, oftentimes, fatness in gay men's communities can be acceptable if it's in a hairy bear body or a body where the beard is providing confirmation that you're masculine. That it's a regular guy masculinity, but there's an author, for example, who has talked about having little facial hair growth based on Indigenous roots.
This individual talks a lot about feeling a little too brown, and too femme, and too queer to be a part of the bears, and I'm quoting Caleb Luna there. I think that even within queer culture, there might be some spaces that are supportive of fat gay men. I use fat. It's not a four-letter word. I think that there are folks who oftentimes don't feel like maybe they fit into some of those spaces because of the sexual racism in those spaces as well.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jason, stick with me on space for a second because I want to tie it to what Dr. Cooper was saying around-- This I get. This is like Women's Studies 101. Women taking up too much space is part of what's going on with fat shaming. It's not just about desirability. It's also about actually occupying space. More traditionally, men are expected to take up space, are expected to be large, big voice. It's interesting to me that you're expressing a sense of an inversion that, in fact, that space occupation gets read as femme.
Dr. Jason Whitesel: Yes. I think that part of it, and the example, at least that I provided, is that there's a way in which obviously fat becomes gender. There are people who have written about this idea that if you think about somebody who was assigned male at birth, and a fat body might include that you develop "breasts" or wider hips, the physicality, in some way, becomes read as gender. People have talked about being even misgendered because of the way that their body, again, I don't want to say betrays itself, but their body, in some way, doesn't fit these masculine norms.
I think it is true that one of the things you're indicating is that groups like the bears, for example, one of the reasons why they were able to focus on sizeism within gay communities and elevate this idea of this larger, hairy body is because of masculine privilege. You're able to focus on that size. I think bear groups also skew white. That also means that, again, unencumbered by racism, you're able to focus on body shape and size. I do think that this whole idea of fat being read as gender is also important too.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Brittney, I'm interested here, as Jason is making this point that larger-sized people don't necessarily always find that space that is meant to be positive around large size, around fat, around categorized identities, it's not necessarily the space folks want to be in. I want to go back to our Descartes example here, my body is one thing but it is not all of who I am. Again, as our bodies change over time, we really maybe start to experience how distinct we are from our bodies. I'm wondering about the limits of body positivity.
Brittney Cooper: Absolutely. As I was thinking about this, and thinking about Lizzo, look, let me say as I often say in my work, I am also a fat person navigating this in community. One of the things that happens in this discourse around-- You might have some Black listeners who are saying, "We like big folks in our communities. We like thick and curvy girls." Often Black women will say, "I got shamed because I don't have a big behind. I got shamed because I'm too skinny." Part of that, I would just remind people is, again, that we police women's bodies too much, in general.
Also, the other thing that I personally experienced, which is why I resonated so much with Lizzo, is that we like thick and curvy, but fat-- There is a world and a body beyond the thick, that is fat. There is a deep disdain for that body or a set of projections about what that body should be doing. That either she can sing real good in church, or she can serve everybody, or she's the cuddler in chief, which is super interesting for me because I'm not a hugger. Part of the reason that I wanted to give that context is really to say it becomes really hard then to try to think at the intersection of loving yourself and loving your body.
Thinking about health discourses when you go into the doctor's office and you're there for something that is unweight related, and the doctor feels compelled to lecture you about your weight. We don't have to do a toxic body positivity thing because quite frankly, it is really hard, as a fat person, to embrace your body in this culture. I was talking to a group of people about this yesterday, and after talking about the issue of fatphobia, one of the conclusions from someone who would not listen to me was, "We just need to stop using the word fat because that means unhealthy, and it's a slur."
Instead, rather than thinking about body positivity, or negativity, I think we should follow the work of many fat studies scholars who say, "Look, fat is just a part of life. It is neither good nor bad. It is a thing that our bodies have a different relation to depending on where they are in life stage, in terms of age, in terms of metabolism, parenthood, stress levels, racial identity, as it is connected to stress level, all of those sorts of things." We don't have to keep judging fatness or lack thereof. We just have to think about bodies, and what they need, and how we want to be in them, and exist in them.
That's the world that I'm fighting for. That's what you see Lizzo saying as well. She keeps saying to people, "Judge my music. Talk to me about the thing that I'm sharing with the world. My body is a vehicle, but really, my music is the thing that I want to be in community with you around." Too often we treat Black women, anybody, even queer folks, we treat folks who don't fit particular societal norms, as all body and no mind. All we do is obsess about what we think is wrong with queer folks' bodies, and their particular performances of gender and sexuality.
We stress about Black women's bodies, and the idea that respectability is not just about speaking a certain way or being clothed in a certain way, but it is also about this need to perform that you are worthy of citizenship. That means not taking up too much space. That means not being excessive. There is even a fatphobia element to that as well, where we're all being asked, particularly women, to discipline our bodies to make everybody else comfortable.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Jason, I'm wondering if this notion of disciplining your body also resonates as we think about queer communities whose bodies are perceived as inherently problematic. So, either trans folks whose bodies are not conforming to cisgendered norms of what we understand, sex assigned at birth, and gender self-understanding, and gender self-presentation to be, or whether there are queer bodies that might be gendered as we would imagine, but whose expression of sexuality and desire is not in conformity? I'm wondering if that's part of where this requirement of disciplining the physical presentation of self, maybe it becomes even more heightened in a political and social space that calls all the rest of what your body is doing problematic.
Dr. Jason Whitesel: Yes, right, the idea that there's multiple levels of being othered, fatness, and queered. You had asked, for example, I think that when you think about the intersection of fat with transgender, where a person is violating two forms of normative embodiment, fatness does influence how trans bodies can be viewed. It affects your gender self-presentation.
There have been authors who have written about, as a fat activist who also identifies as a trans man, I'm stuck here with this discourse that I want to love my body, and all the wobbles, and wiggles, and jiggly bits, but also, in order to perhaps feel comfortable in my body, I may need to alter my body. How do I reconcile fat activism with trans activism, and this kind of idea of, for me, to affirm my body, I might want to have top surgery, for example, or something like that? That can be very difficult. That's not to say that fat and trans communities are at odds.
One doesn't need to change their fat body, but trans people also have every right to change their body. It's their body. It's not mine, and it's not your concern, but I think that that becomes tricky for some folks where they're trying to think about how their fat body, and that in conjunction with their trans body, may or may not be confirmed. How one might be "read" based on the distribution of fat on one's body.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Dr. Jason Whitesel is an Associate Professor at Illinois State University, and author of Fat Gay Men: Girth, Mirth, and the Politics of Stigma, and Brittney Cooper is a professor at Rutgers University, and author of Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. Thank you both for being here.
Brittney Cooper: Thank you.
Dr. Jason Whitesel: Thank you.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Hey, folks, we asked you about this as well. Have you ever felt insecure or ashamed of an aspect of your body? Have you found effective ways to be more accepting of your body? You told us about it.
Becky from St Louis: Hi, this is Becky from St. Louis. Since I was 13 years old, I've struggled with body dysmorphic disorder. There's always been at least one part of my body, at any given time, that I have been either insecure or shamed. I recently realized that I attributed being fit aka thin, to being of good character, as though there was some sort of morality quotient tied to the scale. I know on an intellectual level that my body is just fine. It is proving tricky to let go of 30 plus years of self-sabotage.
Kayla from Fort Collins: This is Kayla from Fort Collins. I'm naturally quite muscular for a lady. I've always felt self-conscious about how thick my thighs are. In my mind, they look too big for the rest of my body even though other people have told me that they look normal. I've gotten my body fat down to about 20%, which is lean enough to look toned. As long as my thighs look toned and muscular and not flabby, I can accept them being on the thicker side, and some days, I even appreciate them.
Elizabeth from Oakland: Hi, this is Elizabeth from Oakland. I had a pituitary tumor, and I ballooned up from 110 pounds to 210 pounds, and I stayed that way for 35 years. I starved myself, and it did no good. I got the tumor cut back, and I lost the weight. When I was overweight, everybody had a tip for how I could lose the weight. I endured years of people's opinions. I just mostly stayed to myself because diet wasn't working, and when I was able to get that resected, it made all the difference.
Lee from New Jersey: Hi, my name is Lee, and I'm calling from New Jersey. I've always had a tummy even when I was slimmer and working out every day. As a dancer, certain body ideals exist, and that is not one of them. I've come to make peace with my more Rubenesque figure by focusing on how my healthy body affords me so many ways to enjoy life unimpeded. Also, looking at great art through the ages is a great reminder that what is attractive now was not always the standard of beauty. Thanks.
Damian from Kentucky: Hi, my name is Damian, and I'm calling from Louisville, Kentucky. I had a disorder where I have spongy bones, and my teeth fell out at an early age and permanent dentures won't stay in. I was very self-conscious about this. However, over time I learned to just smile less and interact less with people, but the pandemic and the mask situation has come along and actually helped me because now people get to know my personality before they get to know my disability. When they do come across that, they find out that I am a radiant, intelligent individual who just happens to have a lousy smile.
Deborah from Dover: Hi, this is Deborah from Dover. I struggled with body issues since I was a child. Mostly because my stepfather felt that, at 11, I was too big when actually, I was just too tall for my age. He put me on the Atkins diet, and he made me run at age 11. I'm taller and bigger than my half-siblings. I struggle with these issues today even though I'm an adult. because I just don't feel like I fit in with the rest of my family.
Lisa from Oregon: Hi, I'm Lisa from Eugene, Oregon. You asked about body image. Of course, it is a problem. I'm a woman. It comes with the turf of being a woman in 21st Century America. An effective way to accept my body is to do ordinary things and events in the course of my regular life, where the event leaders happened to also share my body type, and their body is not part of what the talk is about. They do not act ashamed of their bodies, and their valuable talents go ahead and shine. They become a role model of how body shaming can become non-existent and a non-issue.
Acceptance depends, for me, on lessening my self-talk about discussing my body's issues. If it becomes a non-issue inside me, and in my mind, then half the battle is won as I become more able to tune out and ignore those people, outside of me, who would try to shame me for my body. Thanks for the topic and for thinking about it out loud.
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