By Abigail Saguy for WOMEN = BOOKS
Posted on September 20, 2010
I am writing this from the Bibliotheque Mazarine in Paris, where I have been, among other things, interviewing French fat-acceptance activists.
“But,” you say. “French women don’t get fat.”
Indeed, this is the conventional wisdom, as well as the title of a popular diet book. While it is true that French women are thinner on average than women elsewhere in Europe or in the United States, there are fat women in France (including French ones).
But what I find more interesting is the extent to which these women report suffering from many of the same indignities as American fat women.
In both countries, I have heard stories about mothers telling their daughters that they would never marry if they did not lose weight, of men humiliating their wives about their weight, of employers refusing to hire female job candidates once they realized they were fat. Unlike the United States, France has a national-level statute banning weight-based discrimination, but it is apparently extremely difficult to enforce.
Unfortunately, most women internalize fat stigma and blame themselves for their mistreatment. Yet a small few reach a point where they are no longer willing to apologize for their size. In France, as in the United States, they reclaim the word fat (gros), just as the Black Power movement reclaimed black or the Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) rights movement reclaimed queer.
Many of these women identify as fat-acceptance activists. They reject terms like obesity and overweight on the grounds that they medically pathologize normal human diversity. Here’s a terrific “Fat Rant,” American-style:
One such French activist told me that, during a recent visit to the United States, she was amazed to see fat waitresses. She claimed never to have seen a fat waitress in France. This would suggest less weight-based discrimination in the United States, and, given that Americans are so much heavier on average than the French, she expected this would indeed be the case.
On the contrary, she went on to tell me she felt more negatively judged as a fat woman during her visit to the United States than she feels in France.
A 2003 research study by Janet Latner and Albert Stunkard, “Getting Worse: The Stigmatization of Obese Children,” found that the harsh judgment of fat children by their peers has increased over the past 40 years in the United States, despite rising rates of “obesity” and “overweight.” When shown drawings of fat children or of children with various physical disabilities or without disabilities, the children in a 1961 and a 2001 study responded that they would least like to be friends with the fat child. More to the point, the fictional fat child was liked significantly less in 2001 than in 1961.
Two-thirds of the U.S. population is now “overweight,” according to current U.S. guidelines, but this has not translated into less stigmatization of bigger bodies. What accounts for this paradox?
Based on my research, as well as my review of the U.S. and French secondary literature, I’m convinced that the answer lies in the fact that achieving and maintaining thinness has becomes the single-most important aspect of social distinction among many women. (Current male beauty ideals emphasize toned muscularity, rather than thinness. Moreover, as we have long known, men’s worth is less dependent on the extent to which they live up to beauty ideals.)
Rates of “obesity” increased between 1970 and 2000, although they’ve leveled out in the decade since then; see Flegal et al., 2010). Nevertheless, important differences by social class have persisted. Stated simply, the richer and more educated a woman, the more likely she is to be thin. Inversely, poorer and less educated women tend to be heavier. It seems that elite women are both more motivated to be thin and have greater resources to achieve this goal. In addition, due to weight-based discrimination in both employment and marriage, being heavy leads to downward social mobility for many women.
In this context, achieving and maintaining a thin physique is an important marker of social status, while fatness is socially degrading. A thin toned body (one’s own or that of one’s partner) has become a crucial status symbol, while the fat body has become the ultimate social liability.
If thin bodies are valued in both countries, why should there be more anti-fat sentiment (if indeed this is the case) in the U.S.?
It may be that Americans feel more threatened, given that fat people are more visible here. American mainstream culture also puts more emphasis on individualism, making Americans—and the American news media—even more likely to view fatness as an individual failing.
In this context, the fat-acceptance movement offers a refreshing alternative, in which body diversity is embraced. Vive la différence!
Other fat-acceptance activist sites:
- Allegro Fortissimo
- NAAFA: National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance
- We Are the Chubsters
- Shapely Prose: A Blog by Kate Harding
Abigail Saguy is Associate Professor of Sociology at UCLA. She holds doctorates from Princeton University and the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales (France). Her research and teaching interests include the sociology of gender, cultural sociology, sociology of law, political sociology, comparative sociology, sociology of the media, and health policy. Her book What Is Sexual Harassment? From Capitol Hill to the Sorbonne (2003), studied how and why sexual harassment has been defined very differently in the United States and France and across national institutions, including the law, corporations, and the mass media. She is currently writing a book about the contested meaning of corpulence in the United States and in France, as both a social and health issue.
Read Abigail Saguy’s review of The Fat Studies Reader, edited by Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay in the July/August 2010 issue of WRB..