Wednesday, March 18, 2015

The Problem With Sexualization of Fat Bodies

Occasionally in fat feminist spaces we talk about the sexualization of women's bodies, specifically fat women. We talk about oversexualization and fetishization mostly and, inevitably, someone always chimes in, "but, I like being oversexualized/fetishized/objectified". I want to start out by saying I understand, but that doesn't mean that this line of thinking isn't problematic and I'll talk about why. 

First, I'm going to discuss why it is I understand and some of my own history with problematic thinking. I pretty much grew up fat. I started out pretty skinny, but when some chronic health problems kicked in when I was 7 years old, I gained about 100lbs in the course of about three years. Boys asked me out as a way to make fun of me. This, in fact, became a fear that still carries on today. I lost all of my friends and became a target for my entire grade. So when the skinny girls started talking about unwanted attention, I thought, "I'd give anything for that attention!", completely ignoring the "unwanted" part. I thought that any attention would be welcome and couldn't fathom it being non consensual or unwanted. Aren't those girls flattered? 

**Trigger warning** 

I also used to think about being raped. Not as in rape fantasies because I knew it would be horrible and traumatizing, but in the way that I blamed myself for not being raped yet. I thought maybe I was too fat and ugly for anyone to want to rape me and if someone did it would somehow validate my worth. I was a young teenager so I didn't understand all of the implications of this, but it was a pretty frequent thought nonetheless. So, when I say that I understand wanting to be objectified, I really do. I understand self loathing when you aren't objectified. I understand how good it feels to be wanted for your fat rather than rejected for it. That doesn't make it benign however. 

Firstly, none of these things- fetishization, objectification, oversexualization- exist in a vacuum. They exist inside of a patriarchal society which runs on turning women into only bodies fit for the male gaze and nothing more. It creates and feeds insecurities and then takes those insecurities and sells them right back to us in the form of the ideal beauty standard. It's not just about the individual and how fetishization, for example, makes you feel, it's about how it takes women as a whole and, in this case, fat women, reduces their worth to their bodies. 

I'll note that fat men can be fetishized too, but generally speaking it's less frequent, though no less problematic. Because I'm a woman, I'll be focusing on women in this post, though I'd be happy to interview a fat man who wants to talk about this topic. 

Secondly, I want to go back to rape culture. When I spoke at The Fat Activism Conference back in August 2014, I talked about fat rape culture because it's so unique. Fat people are often told that no one would want to rape them or, if they are raped, that they should be flattered or feel lucky because at least someone wants them. There was a cafepress T-shirt that has since been taken down which read: "Fat Girls Can't Say No (and when they do, it means yes)". Fat women face this special kind of misogynistic rape culture that says their bodies are so tied to their fat and that that fat is so gross and worthless, that being raped when you're a fat woman is a good thing. 

Rape culture is the result of a misogynistic society combined with objectification and the inappropriate sexualizing of bodies. When I say inappropriate I mean sexualizing someone without their consent. I don't mean finding someone attractive or even being sexually attracted to them. What I mean is the idea that women's bodies (or any kind of marginalized body) is inherently sexual and exists for the purpose of the viewer's pleasure. Don't get me wrong, rape culture is way more complicated than that, but that's a simplified, boiled down, version in my opinion. 

So when you're taking fat women and you're reducing them to no more than their fat, no more than their bodies and you're sexualizing those bodies, it's no wonder that you get a specific kind of rape culture. 

Thirdly, I want to point out that when you say that you want to be fetishized or ofjectified, not only are you excusing the behavior of these fetishists and misogynists, but you're condoning that they do these things to non consenting women. Wanting to feel sexy and wanted is fine, but feeding into a culture that hurts women isn't. You're saying that women secretly want to be objectified and inappropriately sexualized which feeds back into rape culture. It's the classic, "I wouldn't mind being catcalled", despite the dehumanization that women who are constantly catcalled often feel. Though you may find it flattering, it can chip away are the self worth of women who experience it chronically. 

It's easy to want the things you don't have. It's easy to look at sexualization as thin privilege. After all, it's just society confirming what you already know, that they're considered more beautiful, more desirable, and more acceptable. The problem is that no woman's worth or value should be tied to how she looks. It's a trap of the patriarchy that we often think if we're not being devalued by men, then we're worthless. I've been caught in this trap myself and was for a long time, even attempting suicide because of it. After all, if I don't have value through the male gaze then what's the point in living? But women, and all fat people, have to learn that worth and appearance are not the same thing. Embracing that idea is revolutionary and, more importantly, necessary in gaining equal rights for fat people.