Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Fatness, Dissociation, & Dehumanization

This short film, FAT, begins by streaming voices repeating the word “fat” over shots of the subject, Margaret Donahoe’s, fat body, sometimes as she squeezes her fat together. After this, we finally see broken shots of her face, as she begins:

“My whole life growing up I had been taught to dislike my body, and specifically my fat/ I had been dissociating my from my body/ you really cement this separation between your self and your body.”

[Trigger warning for body issues & fat shaming.]

FAT from Margaret Donahoe on Vimeo.


After her short narrative, she begins to interview friends (individually), who are seemingly answering the question, “Do you think that I am fat?” For the most part, her friends show immediate discomfort.

After their initial answers, her friends’ narratives are cleverly laid over one another in a way that I feel captures the complexity and intensity of the issue.

What strikes me most is the theme, as Margaret notes, of dissociation--a stark emphasis on the separation between the mind and the body. Fat people, more often than you might think, are told by friends that they aren’t fat. And that’s not necessarily because they aren’t large folks, but often because their friends do not want to label them, as her friend says, with “the kinds of awful connotations that come with that word in the society that we live in.”

I’d like to highlight a couple of quotes from the friends, which I should note are obviously clipped or cut and pasted in particular ways by Donahoe and Good, who made the film together for a class at Queen’s University last year:

“If I hadn’t gotten to know you, I sometimes wonder, and this is gonna sound bad, but I sometimes wonder if, like, if I would have seen you as-...someone.”

“I think that when I call somebody fat and if I were to describe you as fat to somebody else, I would be also describing you as someone like, horrible and disgusting and, you know… and that’s really really fucked up.”

“Looking at a picture of you from before, it’s a completely different person.”

“I guess fat is lard. That you cook with.”

“Cut the gristle off the meat.”

The end of the first quote, though constructed by the filmmakers, is telling. "I sometimes wonder if, like, if I would have seen you as-...someone.” The third quote is apparently referring to a photo of Margaret before she had lost some weight. While subtle, the friend's use of "it" to refer to fatter Margaret reveals the impulse for dissociation...and indeed the tension experienced in this impulse when talking about someone she sees as a person at the same time as she refers to an image she feels discomfort associating with that person. It's evocative of the notion that people can "shed an entire person," which reinscribes the thin-person-inside imagery. The last two quotes get at our tendency to reduce fat to an inanimate object, separate from individuals, separate, indeed, from humanity.

This may seem like overanalysing to folks who haven't paid much attention to this stuff, but dissociation and dehumanization are every day experiences for fat people.

In Killing Us Softly 4, Jean Killborne states, “Turning a human being into a thing is almost always the first step toward justifying violence against that person.” And in our society, we are told and shown that fat is a thing. Fat bodies are just thin bodies with too much fat. Fat is extra. Fat people are told, “Underneath all that fat is a thin person waiting to get out,” and, “You have such a pretty face,” both phrases that encourage fat people to dissociate from their bodies. Since fat bodies are bad, the cultural logic is that we should focus on fat people's 'inner beauty,' sometimes coded as their inner thin person, i.e. 'once you lose weight, you're inner beauty will finally shine through.' (See Mendoza for more on thin person inside as representation of beauty and goodness). **

As you can see above, we do this in our visual culture as well. Charlotte Cooper famously coined the term “headless fatties” to refer to the perpetual phenomenon of media outlets showing fat people only from the neck down--faceless objects, abject parts. It is a different kind of objectification than most feminists rail against, though the result is still dehumanizing. Without faces, we do not connect with headless fatties, we do not see them as people. Headlessness encourages us to dis-identify with them, to see them as fat parts, cultural monsters intended to invoke horror and disgust.

The logic of fat suits similarly aids us in dissociating personhood from fatness. If we know an actor or actress is wearing a fat suit, it's easier for us to justify enjoyment in the stereotypical and harmful depictions of fat people which they are temporarily embodying. After all, they aren't fat people at all; rather, they embody our ideal fat person--one who does have a thin person inside, one who can strip off and discard their abject fat "layer." (See Mendoza, again.) One can look also to the plethora of fat suit Halloween costumes for a more commonplace dehumanizing of fat people.

If you're not yet convinced about the ways in which fatness (and, indeed, fat people) are seen as seen as separate from our notions of humanity and personhood, I offer you an increasingly popular meme:

Note that in most depictions, the fat man* is shorter, signifying de-evolution (despite the fact that we have only gotten taller as a species over time).

These depictions take one step further, predicting the de-evolution from fat man directly to animal--specifically the pig. Fat folks are rather accustomed to insults which depict them as animals (pig, hippo, whale, etc.) rather than human beings.

These images, we should note, are commonly used by folks talking about food, exercise and/or obesity. Imagine, if you will, being a fat person in the audience or in a college classroom when this sort of image is put on the screen.

In this Ted Talk by Dean Bornish, the audience laughs uproariously when he gets to this slide:

The meme is so popular, they even have t-shirts. For a change of pace, you can sprinkle in some extra sexism. The second t-shirt actually depicts a fat woman as being lower than primates in the evolutionary meme.

It's no wonder Margaret's friends had such a hard time calling her fat.


*Note the androcentrism inherent in most representations of evolution, where 'man' stands in for 'human' evolution AND the whiteness of the images, which should not be not lost on anyone with any semblance of (Western) racial consciousness.

**Erin Remick (fat famously) mocks the "thin person inside" in her video Fat Dinosity.

Related Reading
Cooper, Charlotte. "Headless Fatties."
Mendoza, Katharina R. 2011. "Seeing Through the Layers: Fat Suits and Thin Bodies in The Nutty Professor and Shallow Hal." The Fat Studies Reader. NY: NYU Press.


  1. I would have a hard time calling a fat friend fat, since most people I know don't want to be fat so I don't want to hurt their feelings.

  2. I agree, Ashley, that most people don't want to be called fat. However, even in interactions where some person specifically identifies as fat and fat positive, people still feel quite uncomfortable using that word if they aren't used to it. Clearly this speaks to strength of the social construction of fat as bad. There are lots of euphemisms that refer to the same kinds of bodies which might also be deemed fat; they have the same denotations, different connotations.

  3. I see it a lot in talks about human rights- it's bad to compare someone to an animal because it's dehumanizing.. well, it is in the fact that an animal isn't human.. but this is only a problem because of the way we treat animals. It, in essence, says "it's okay to treat a person like an animal" and we find that awful- and it is.. because we treat animals like garbage. Animals are rarely even treated as living beings. I think fat activists miss the animal rights issues in all of this because they are, so often, also okay with treating animals as things, as garbage.. that really bothers me and I've seen just about everyone do it. If we treated animals with respect and love then calling someone an animal wouldn't be such a terrible thing.

    Anyway- loved the video and loved the post (mostly ;-P )- will be sharing!

  4. Interesting. How would you describe those who have destroyed their bodies with drugs? The true is that poor nutrition leads to an underutilization of the brain as well as being abusive to the body, just like drugs. Every body is wonderful, no matter the size or shape. That said, we each have a responsibility to care for the body we have.