Is ‘fat’ a feeling? facebook, fat politics and reclaiming the double chin

When you post a status update on facebook, you can add a little emoticon to it to express how you’re feeling about whatever you just wrote about. Feeling happy, feeling blessed,  feeling hungover. Feeling fat? That last option, illustrated by a smiley emoticon with red cheeks and a double chin, recently caused quite an uproar. More than 16,770 people signed a petition to remove the emoticon, and the accompanying tumblr blog received many submissions from people who agree. The campaign was succesful: today the offending emoticon has been changed. Well, the picture is still there, but now it is accompanied by the description ‘feeling stuffed’. Is this an improvement? And what was wrong with the ‘feeling fat’ option in the first place?

image by Vicky Chetley
image by Vicky Chetley

The initiators behind the petition argue that the emoticon encourages people to make fun of people who consider themselves overweight, including people with eating disorders. According to initiator Catherine Weingarten,

“Fat is not a feeling. Fat is a natural part of our bodies, no matter their weight. And all bodies deserve to be respected and cared for.”

These last sentences are of course very true, and I couldn’t agree more. The petition clearly comes from a body-positive perspective, and challenges people to think more critically about assumptions we have about our own bodies and those of others. But nevertheless, I have a problem with central claim: the idea that ‘fat is not a feeling’.

It makes me wonder: if ‘fat’ is not a feeling, then what is it? Is it a ‘fact’, something that can be measured and defined according to objective standards? As I understand it, one of the key projects of the fat acceptance movement and critical research in fat studies is to resist and challenge the idea that ‘fat’ is a static, definable and measurable state. Rather, we should see ‘fatness’ as something which is socially constructed: a descriptor that is put on certain bodies and not on others. The categorizing of bodies – whether they are the medical categories of ‘underweight/overweight/obese’ or the everyday categories of ‘fat/thin’ is a practice that is highly contextual, specific to a time and place. In some contexts, my body might be understood as fat (f.ex. at the gym), in others not (f.ex. at home with my partner). In some contexts, I might understand myself as fat (again, at the gym – or looking at women’s magazines), in others not. Ideas about who and what is fat are changing all the time: just think bout those images of beauty icons from the 1960s, like Marilyn Monroe, that would be considered ‘plus size’ according to today’s standards. Of course, to say that fat is socially constructed is not to say that it isn’t real, or that these categorizations don’t have real effects.

For me, ‘fat’ is very often a feeling, an emotional thing. When I look at a photo of myself from a few years a go, I might think to myself “hey, I looked nice”. And often that is followed up with “hey, I looked thin. Definitely thinner than I do now…. Those jeans really don’t fit anymore….” While I can see myself as thin in hindsight, when I think back to the moment that the photo was taken, I usually didn’t feel thin in that moment. In fact, I was probably holding in my belly, or hated the photo when I first saw it. My weight has fluctuated through the years, but ‘feeling fat’ has been a constant. That feeling is not correlated to any one particular body size or weight.

In a thin-centric society, almost any body can be made to feel fat.

Actually, in a society that polices our bodies in so many ways, the majority of people are made to feel like they ‘don’t fit in’ in one way or another.

And yes, what we mean when we say that we ‘feel fat’ is often a negative feeling. It is often feeling like you are not beautiful, not good enough, lazy, gluttonous, undisciplined – all the stereotypes that Western cultures link to fatness. It’s also the feeling that if you just lost those kilos, then you would be happy. That is so deceptive! Losing weight will not necessarily change that feeling – it does not mean that you will magically get rid of the feeling of ‘feeling fat’. I have seen partners and friends who are significantly smaller than I am looking self-destructively in the mirror and despairing over their chubby belly, big thights, or fat ass. For me, this is the ultimate lesson that ‘fat’ is not about a particular clothes size, body shape, or number on the scale.

I wrote my master thesis in fat studies, examining from a feminist phenomenological perspective how online fat acceptance activists use practices of self-photography to challenge dominant body norms (you can find it here!). During the process of research and thesis writing, I talked about my topic with many of my peers, friends and classmates. I was genuinely suprised with how many people came out to me as fat in one way or another. The idea of ‘coming out’ as a fat person might seem counter-intuitive, since fatness is assumed to be a visible feature of a body, something that is immediately clear upon seeing someone. But in talking about my research, I found that so many people related to the topics that I was bringing up, people that I had not put in my own little mental folder of “fat”. Someone who I might perceive as thin, might relate to fatness in a very personal way and experience their own body as fat.

That is not to say, of course, that the feeling and experiences of a person wearing size XS is similar to that of a person wearing XXXL. Yes: they may both experience anxiety, inadequacy and self-hate about their body weight. In this way, they both share a relation to fatness and the negative emotion of ‘feeling fat’. But the second person is far more likely to experience external negative reactions: ranging from well-meaning but hurtful comments by family or friends, to public humiliation and harassment and discrimination related to her weight/size. When I say that almost any-body can be made to feel fat, I don’t mean to conflate these experiences and equalize them. In a thin-centric society, having a body that is closer to the norm – however far way that norm may feel, and however impossible to reach – is definitely an advantage.

But rather than concluding from all this this that fat is not a feeling, and that the facebook emoticon is a problem, I would actually go in a different direction. Instead of dismissing the idea that ‘fat is a feeling’, I think it is far more interesting to think about what kind of feeling fat is today, and what kind of feeling it could be. Do we continue buy into all those negative connotations that ‘fat’ holds? Or can we work towards reimagining and breaking open what fatness could feel like and look like? Can we radically redefine the meaning of ‘feeling fat’, stripping it from the old clichés and the deeply ingrained and embodied negativity? Can we turn ‘feeling fat’ from a negative into a neutral or even positive description?

Actually, a facebook emoticon seems a pretty good place to start with redefining what ‘feeling fat’ means. Instead of posts that make fun of people with eating disorders and people negative perceptions of themselves related to weight/size, I could imagine a movement that turns the expectations upside down to reinvent the situations and experiences that ‘feeling fat’ might relate to. The emoticon is pretty adorable afer all, and there is really nothing wrong with a double chin.

Presenting a paper at a conference – feeling fat.

Putting on a cute dress and dancing all night – feeling fat.

Enjoying a day at the thermals baths in Budapest and lounging in the water – feeling fat.