I started reading Amy Farrell's Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture recently, and I am really enjoying it so far.
Amy was supposed to be in one of my NWSA panels last fall, but couldn't make it, and so instead I read her paper for her...a fantastic essay on how antifat sentiment was used by both those for and against women's suffrage, which was part of a chapter in her (then upcoming) book. I was so impressed with her work and fascinated by the topic, especially because I think it shows the way in which antifat attitudes have been woven into the historical fabric of feminism.
The white, Western mainstream feminist movement took off the same time that Western attitudes about fat began to change. Fatness became a serious character flaw, a symbol of failed citizenship. As Amy says in her book, fatness was a sign the middle class folk couldn't handle modern society, couldn't regulate themselves in amidst the new potential for excess. And as Amy points out, the body was increasingly understood to be an important marker...indeed, it was also the height of the Eugenics movement.
And sadly, these discourses about bodies were utilized by claimsmakers (or people trying to persuade) because those arguments were found to be compelling.
As such, some feminists of the time used Eugenicist language/arguments to make claims about their (white) right to "women's" suffrage and "women's" rights. They used ideas that already compelled people, that already panicked them, that already tugged at their (a)moral compass.
Which is why feminists use of anti-fat sentiment didn't come as a big surprise for me...though I find it tremendously interesting. In fact, before I had even read Amy's piece, someone showed me this link to an old book from that time period, archived in Bryn Mawr's "Women's Suffrage Ephemera Collection," called "Ten Little Suffergets."
"Ten Little Suffergets" is a sad piece of anti-women's suffrage propaganda; it's hilarious in it's ridiculousness until you think about the fact that feminists still face these kinds of ridiculous arguments. The "suffergets" (pictured as little girls in dresses, maryjanes with socks, and bows in their hair) hold signs like "Votes for Women" and "Equal Rights" (innocuous enough), "No More Home Rule," "Down with Teachers," "Down with the Men," "Let the Man be the Housemaid," "Protection for Infant Industries" (not sure exactly what that refers to), "Every Day a Holiday," "No More Bedtimes," and........."Cake Every Day."
That's right. Cake. Every. Day. I think it's clear to us all now that suffragists are the architects of the obesity epidemic. Feminism really is the downfall of society!
The storyline of the book is merely that each of the "suffergets" encounters an issue--either she throws off her ideals (the "sufferget" who held the "Down with Teachers" sign ends up bringing flowers to her teacher, thus the end of her feminism) or she is injured in some way (the story starts out with the first "sufferget" getting a whipping--get this, cuz "suffergets" are naughty. Infantilization + sexualization + physical domination = sexism win!). Essentially, if she doesn't learn her lesson on her own...harm shall come to her, as it should be.
Guess what happens to the "sufferget" who was fighting for "Cake Every Day"?
Her gluttony and cakelust is her own undoing and she can no longer protest on behalf of cakefreedom. Twowholecakes is one thing, this gal "gobbles" ALL TEH CAKES. If only feminists had an allthecakes shout-out back then to turn this on its head.
In her chapter on "Feminism, Citizenship, and Fat Stigma," Amy talks both about this kind of anti-suffragist attack and about how the suffragists tried to depict themselves a slim, young, and beautiful...and anti-suffragists as fat cats or fat and aging (behind the times).
Rather than saying something radical, like, "We're fat, so what, give us our fucking votes!" it seems early feminists used the antifat sentiment and lookism of the day to argue for their cause. Although it's lazy (and often despicable), it's much easier to utilize narratives that people already accept or find persuasive, symbols that jive with their (often fucked up) cultural logic (Eugenics, antifat denigration, etc.) than to vie for your cause AND challenge systems of privilege and oppression that are in place...or at least refrain from perpetuating them. Fatness is a place marker people can use to rile people up and win them over with the sensationalism, fear, and panic (not so dissimilar from the functions and dynamics of panic about racial purity) when otherwise they fear their argument is not compelling or persuasive enough. When in doubt, rely on fear and hate, right? It's a surefire plan.
As fat activists, we should do our best to avoid falling into the trap of relying on or reinforcing systems of privilege and oppression and/or cultural tropes to vie for our cause. Our cause stands on it's own.