The Real “Small Fat Complex”

Last week, Bustle published an article by Marie Southard Ospina titled “The Small Fat Complex in Body Positivity and Why it’s Not Entirely Justified.”  And the content of that article was enough to inspire me to write something for this blog for the first time in over a year.

My initial feelings when I read Southard Ospina’s opinion piece were hurt and angry, but I decided to put off writing my response until I could approach it more calmly. To tell you the truth, I still feel hurt, but I think it’s important to highlight that articles like this contribute to the marginalisation of very fat people within body positive circles and beyond. Articles like this characterise us as mean, bitter, hateful and exclusionary, and attempt to position small fats as hard done by on all sides, victims not only of mainstream body shaming but of forcible eviction from the exclusive fat acceptance club as well.

The thing is, there isn’t an exclusive fat acceptance club, nobody has the power to evict anyone else from the fat positive movement, and the only “small fat complex” I can see is the need some smaller fats have to be the centre of everything.

That sounds harsh, and I know I run the risk of turning plenty of smaller fats against my argument by putting it in these terms, but I honestly don’t know how else to put it. Smaller fats already enjoy more public visibility, more mainstream acceptance (even if that acceptance is not complete), more access to things like fashionable clothing and medical equipment that is sized for them to use. Smaller fats are already the face of the body positivity movement in most places. But somehow not being welcomed and embraced by very fat people, who maybe want to surround themselves with people who look more like they do and share more of the experiences of fat hatred that are unique to very fat people, is enough to utterly ruin their self-esteem. For people who claim we are “a movement that’s at its strongest when banded together”, it seems awfully convenient to me that the main threat to a smaller fat person’s self esteem is people who are fatter than they are. If you are able to embrace your fat identity in the face of the entire fat-hating world telling you fat is bad, why would a relatively small number of people saying “you’re not fat” – for reasons that you claim to understand and be sympathetic to – undo that?

Southard Ospina says that “within fat acceptance bubbles on the Internet, there’s one body type that often receives a bit of flak”, meaning the small fat body. That is to say, those who are fat but who wear smaller plus sizes, or may even be able to squeeze into the high end of straight sizes. But it’s not actually the small fat body type that receives flak.. Criticism relating to small fats is actually about two things:

  1. The mainstreaming of fat positive ideas into “body positivity” for all (not just small fats, but thin women as well) has tended to focus on more socially acceptable deviations from the normative ideal body type – smaller fats, conventionally attractive fats, hourglass-shaped fat women, and white fat people in general. This allows people in these categories to enjoy more thin privilege than they previously did, which feels good for them, but does nothing to demolish thin privilege altogether and leaves larger or less “acceptably” fat people in the cold;

  2. The attitude some smaller fats have in responding to critiques and complaints about point 1 from larger fatties is defensive and hostile, and tends to lead to these critiques (which are legitimate and important!) being dismissed as mean, hurtful and exclusionary instead of considered on their own merits.

It is not “invalidating” to point out that a smaller person’s experience of sizeism is fundamentally different from the experience of a much fatter person. The author even goes into quite a lot of detail demonstrating that she knows and understands that experiences of fat stigma vary depending on size! But this seems to be just a rhetorical device to make her argument seem more reasonable, because her conclusion that critiques of the prominence of small fat images and voices in the body positive movement “only create divide” and undermine the strength of the movement seems to contradict her claim that she thinks fat shaming can be worse for very fat people.

In fact, it’s very telling that so much of this article is talking about shame and body image. Good body image is important, and hating your body because the world tells you that your size is bad really sucks. It’s draining, it’s hurtful, and it can escalate into all kinds of awful mental health problems and self harm. I’ve had an eating disorder that started from a “normal” weight loss diet, I get that wounds to one’s body image are not nothing. I’m sad for anyone who feels ashamed of their body, and happy for anyone who doesn’t fit the extremely narrow mould of conventional beauty who has managed to transcend mainstream messages about what is beautiful and feel beautiful as they are.

But feeling beautiful isn’t the main or most important goal of fat liberation for me and other fatties who are size 26 and over. Feeling ugly isn’t the worst thing I face as a very fat woman. Compared with being less likely to be hired for a job than a thinner person, being routinely denied proper medical care and being either excluded or made seriously physically unsafe by furniture and equipment that isn’t designed to accommodate me, some dickhead telling me fat girls are unfuckable is kind of small change. Yeah, it can hurt immensely, and the world would be a better place if it didn’t happen. But if the only thing “body acceptance” achieves is allowing me to feel pretty despite being systemically victimised for my body size, I’m still pretty much fucked.

In addition to this, when you are very fat, even body positive circles tend to be full of rhetoric that either excludes or actually vilifies you. Being a bit fat is fine, as long as you’re not too fat. Being fat is fine as long as you’re “fit” and “healthy”. Look at all these gorgeous size 18 models! I’m all for body positivity, but isn’t that just unhealthy?  Isn’t it great that this department store is now catering to ALL BODIES with their range that goes from size 0 to size 22? Here’s a discussion about whether or not very fat people’s critiques of small fat prominence in body positive circles are “entirely justified” in which I interview ONLY SMALL FATS.

Southard Ospina argues that “to tell someone whose body — even if that body is a smaller type of fat body — that their experiences with eating disorders, excessive exercise, fat shaming, body shaming, or body image issues in general are invalid simply because they aren’t “that fat” is unfair to that person.”

And she’s right, it would be unfair if someone said that. But that actually isn’t what most people in this ongoing conversation are saying (maybe some people are, there are dickheads everywhere, but it is not the prominent or prevailing sentiment). Saying “you’re not fat” or wishing out loud to see more larger bodies represented in body positive circles (even in a rude and dismissive way!) isn’t actually the same thing as saying “your experiences with eating disorders are invalid.” After all, “she’s not even that fat!” is a common cry made in support of thinner women who experience body shaming, as if it is this alone that makes the shaming reprehensible. And of course actually unequivocally thin women experience body shame and eating disorders as well, not just fat women. That doesn’t mean thin women should be the only bodies represented in body positive circles, or that it is cruel and invalidating to point out that they have thin privilege.

Southard Ospina concludes her article with a touchy-feely appeal to fat people of all sizes to come together as one, saying “although we should always be self-aware enough to acknowledge our privileges in this world (and self-aware enough not to identify as fat when we are very clearly thin), I believe we should also be self-aware enough to acknowledge where society and culture are doing us wrong. All of us.”

What this seems to be saying to me is that it is just as important for very fat people to talk about the struggles of small fats as it is for small fats to acknowledge their own privilege. And that is a contention with which I fundamentally disagree. It is always incumbent upon all of us who have privilege to use our privilege to support the struggles of those less privileged than ourselves, even in contexts where we also experience some marginalisation. We get to talk about our own problems too, but we are not entitled to have our lesser struggles prioritised by those with less privilege, who have their own damn work to do, and we should take notice when talk about our problems is eclipsing the public discussion of more severe oppression. This is why white feminists must promote and fight for women of colour, why currently able bodied people must promote and fight for people with disabilities and why small fats must promote and fight for super fats. Because a body positive culture that frees super fat people from fat hatred will free small fats as well, but a body positive culture that works as far as freeing small fats from fat hatred and then rests on its laurels leaves a lot of us still marginalised and still suffering.

And if you feel like having your fat identity actively validated by everyone you encounter is just as important as someone else’s struggle for access to adequate medical care, and deserves just as much prominence and discussion time, I am not sure if you really do understand how much worse fat hatred is for very fat people.

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11 thoughts on “The Real “Small Fat Complex”

  1. Thank you SO MUCH Sarah. You have put into words all the things I was thinking and feeling but simply did not have the spoons to articulate myself. Brilliant writing, I’ve missed your contributions to the fatosphere!

  2. Thank you for this. I could rattle off a bunch of excuses for why the article wasn’t better, but I recognize that the way I chose to speak about privilege was flawed. A lot of what you’ve written, well, it’s all part of the visibility I try to fight for. I long to see larger fats represented with the same fervor smaller fats are starting to be, and if I ever said anything that implied I believe larger fats are “mean, bitter, hateful and exclusionary,” then I can only apologize because that’s intrinsically against what I believe.

    You don’t know me, so I cannot and do not expect you to know the things I care about. But this… fighting so that one day things like improper medical care, poorly constructed furniture, rampant fat phobia in our media… aren’t just the “norm.” As a fair-skinned woman who fits into most 18s and 20s, I am in possession of a lot of privilege — and I would never want to claim that the fat phobia I experience equates to that a size 26 would. The body pos community and its many activists have changed my life, and for the most part, I’ve felt incredibly welcome. I do think sometimes the experiences of smaller fats are written off, though, and that isn’t something I can support because I believe everyone’s experiences are valid in their own right. But I can 100 percent understand feeling angry, hurt, or frustrated when you are told things like “Isn’t it great that this department store is now catering to ALL BODIES with their range that goes from size 0 to size 22?” while you and many others are above a 22. Or when you repeatedly hear that your size 28 body is finally being “represented” when the majority of fat individuals we see represented are still below a 20.

    There’s still so, so, so much to do if the fat phobia and body shaming tied to contemporary culture are ever going to dissolve. I’m sorry I didn’t live up to the messaging I preach, but I’ve learned a shit ton from this experience. And am very thankful that you took the time to critically examine those words.

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks for responding so thoughtfully 🙂 I’m sorry it took me a while to approve your comment, I didn’t see it until today so I hope it didn’t feel like I was not responding on purpose. Now that I have read it, I don’t think I have much more to say anyway, but I appreciate you commenting here. I imagine you’ve had a lot of responses, some less kind than others, so I’m glad to know my critique was read and taken in the spirit intended!

  3. josiecinders says:

    After reading this and a few similar articles, I posted this to my facebook page. Then it occurred to me folks here might be interested in reading it. I will, however, blot out the swear words, coz it’s not MY page. Honestly, before reading this article, I was unaware of any big to-do between the small-fats and the large-fats. It strikes me as silly and sad at the same time.

    *****************************************************

    So I’m reading an article on thin privilege, and am utterly dumbfounded. Apparently there’s a schism between slightly-fat girls and super-duper-fat girls because we suffer from differing degrees of prejudice. So weird. I just don’t get it. Like somehow, we’re not all fat girls? Um, no. Stop this. This is stupid. I mean stupid. We’re all fat girls here, we’re all hated by the mainstream. Really, we are. Are some of us hated MORE than others? Maybe. Does it matter? Is degree of hatred really the point? Seriously? Like on a scale of 1 to 10, if you’re not hated above a 5, you don’t qualify to be in the fat girls’ club? What the actual f**k? That is so stupid, I…. well I’m not sure I can find the words to express it. I’m dumbfounded. It makes no sense. This is a binary system here, folks. You’re hated or you’re not hated. There is no degree of hatred here. We are battling hatred, period. Not how much, not for what, or why, just hatred. Hello?

    In fact, for those who have been paying attention, it’s called the Body Positivity Movement, which means that the skinny girls are in this club, too! Is somebody hatin’ on you because of the way you look? Git yo’ scrawny ass in this club, girlfriend! You my BFF, right here, right now! We are the hated, and we are fighting back! I don’t care HOW hated you are, or by whom, or why. Skinny, fat, too ugly, too pretty, pimples, bad hair, what ever ails your body – someone out there hates it, you’re in my club! What are we bickering over? Body positivity for EVERYONE! (even -gasp!- boys)

    Now stop this s**t right now before I have to come back there and spank your slightly-fat ass, you hear me? Do you want me to pull this car over?

    I love you all. ❤ Peace out.

    ******************************************

    So there you have it. That's MY take on the issue. Oh, and in case it matters (which of course it doesn't, but…) I weigh in at somewhere north of 400lbs. And my boyfriend adores me, body and mind. I know, I know, I'm incredibly lucky! I adore him right back!

    • Sarah says:

      But…it isn’t a binary system. It just isn’t. Last month I needed a DEXA scan to check whether a treatment I had been on for the last year had caused bone loss which could lead to early osteoporosis, and when I arrived for the scan I was told it couldn’t be performed because I was too heavy for the machine. If I had been forty kilos lighter I would still be fat, and would still experience fat hatred, but I would have been able to get the DEXA scan I needed for my health.

      When I was in the waiting room at the hospital waiting for the scan I couldn’t get, I couldn’t sit down because all the chairs had arms and they were literally too small for me to fit my butt into them. If I had been forty kilos lighter I would still be fat, and would still experience fat hatred, but I would have been able to sit down in a chair that was chosen and designed to accommodate me.

      I have a hard time finding clothes at a size 26-28, and have only a handful of shops available to me (and often the cute stuff in those shops doesn’t go up to my size so I have a more limited range to choose from). But I recognise that women larger than I am have a FAR harder time finding clothes that will fit on their bodies at all, let alone cute ones that are within their price range.

      The point of my post was that talking about the differences in experience between very fat and less fat people ISN’T saying smaller fat people “don’t qualify to be in the fat girls’ club”. Body positivity is really nice. It’s important for people to be able to feel good about themselves regardless of their body type, and it’s important for everyone to be free of hatred. But while the fat acceptance movement prioritises the voices of smaller bodies (and I don’t mean “allows them to speak at all”, which of course they should, but rather puts them at the front of every discussion and doesn’t promote other voices), these problems that fatter people have *that smaller people do not share* are frequently forgotten or even outright ignored. And they’re important. I’ve been lucky, but other very large people have died because of this stuff.

      The other point of my post was that it is smaller fat people complaining about being excluded that is creating the so-called schism in the first place. Super fat people are not the leaders of the fat acceptance movement, and we don’t have any more power than smaller fats to say who is “allowed” to talk about body positivity or not (in fact, sometimes we have less). We are all battling hatred and I want everyone to be free of hatred and to be part of the struggle. I also believe that very fat people have some unique struggles that we *all* need to fight back against, just as anyone with privilege has a duty to fight for those who have it tougher than we do. That’s not excluding anyone or creating a schism, except when the people with the privilege would rather debate whether they are privileged or not than join with us in improving things that literally damage the health and lives of very fat people.

      • josiecinders says:

        Sarah,

        Sorry if I implied that it was you I was yelling at. I’m very much about including everyone IN, as I hope my post made clear. I just don’t understand anyone who wants to cut anyone out of the love. Yes, there are degrees of fatness, as there are degrees of thin-ness, but we are all hated. That’s the binary I’m talking about. Hated or not hated. Accepted or not accepted. Now, are there people out there who will hate a woman who is 30lbs overweight *less* than they hate a woman who is 100lbs overweight? Probably. I don’t care. Personally, I am colorblind on that whole “degrees of hatred” issue. If you are hated ANYwhere on the scale of 1 to a zillion, you’re in the club as far as I’m concerned. I’m an equal-opportunity lifter-upper-from-oppression-er.

        I guess my problem is that I don’t comprehend hate very well. I mean, people hate us. And… that makes me mad sometimes, and I feel anger, and rage, and helplessness, but I’m not sure if I hate them for it. Mostly I feel sorrow and confusion and frustration. Why is this hate here? Why do people hate? What is there to cause hate? It confuses me, and saddens me, and I don’t know what to do about it, because I don’t understand it.

        Breaking us into sub-groups like “small fat” and “superfat” just seems so… divisive. I understand the concept, of course, and recognize the difference in societal treatment, but I don’t understand how we can possibly NOT be a united front against the normies of the world. It is plain to see that we are not, and this saddens and baffles me, for I feel quite inclined to be open and inclusive to all fat girls and boys, not just the “superfats” like myself. My love for all of us is superfat, too.

        I guess I don’t express myself well, and I hope you can forgive me for whatever offense I may have given while trying to say “But, this is so silly, why can’t all the fat girls get along?”

        Because I do love you all. No matter what size. ❤

        • Sarah says:

          Yup, I get that, and I am not trying to cut anyone out either. I am deeply frustrated that wanting to talk about the specific experiences of very fat people is interpreted as cutting anyone else out of anything. I’d like us to get along too, and I don’t think claiming the fat acceptance movement has a “complex” about smaller bodies (when smaller fat people are literally the mainstream popular face of the movement) is helping that; I think it is doing the opposite.

  4. I’m a superfat person, that is to say, enough larger than a size 26 that I am sometimes tempted to call people who wear size 26 “not that fat.” (In my corner of fat-acceptance, the term “mid-size” is sometimes used for people who wear sizes 22–26.) Ospina’s article did not even acknowledge that superfat people exist, except one time with the phrase “size 28 and beyond”, as if anyone larger than size 28 is only barely even conceivable.

    I’ve been many different sizes in my life, and I’m happy to talk shared experience and common cause with people who are less fat than I currently am. But I think less-fat people have more mainstream privilege and visibility than I do. So I reserve the right to wait until they’ve explicitly acknowledged me first.

  5. I think I’m annoyed by this article because whereas the OP saw commonalities to which you could have said “and there’s these issues too” or “let me add to the picture” you chose to make it seem as if her very existence (her body type and its struggles) were an affront to yours. “Hurt and angry” because they want to be the “centre of everything”? Pot? Kettle!

    Speaking of black, I am. And this debate is the light skin/dark skin thing all over. People: House n*gger, field n*gger, still a n*gger. This envy of the other slave? That shit has to go.

    F***************ck, we never learn!!!!!

    • Sarah says:

      I’m perplexed that you think the original post I linked to was about seeing commonalities, because I didn’t read it that way at all. The OPs post was part of a wider issue of smaller fats responding to fatter people saying “and there’s these issues too” and “let me add to the picture” by claiming these comments are pushing them out of the fat-o-sphere when they are not being pushed out at all. I would rather we just stopped talking about who is and isn’t “allowed” to be fat and just talked more about the full range of shitty things that happen to fat people because the rest of the world hates us. Very fat people are not the goddamn enemy, fat hatred is.

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