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Saturday, April 9, 2011

fat is a feminist issue

by Catherine Partin

                A recent blog post by writer Maura Kelly for women’s magazine Marie Claire, a publication often hailed for its progressive coverage of women’s issues, has generated considerable controversy within the feminist blogosphere and amid the mainstream media.  Published online in October 2010, the main premise of Kelly’s article is that the spectacle of the obese expressing affection is a repulsive and disgusting one; furthermore, she claims that television programs such as Mike and Molly promote obesity merely by portraying characters whose excessive weight does not appear a hindrance to their romantic or personal fulfillment.  Her argument boils down to this offensive conclusion: obesity is an abomination, and overweight people should not be entitled to basic human experiences of love and desire.  Beyond its weakness as a work of journalism, “Should ‘Fatties’ Get a Room?” displays a total lack of feminist consciousness while revealing the disheartening extent of fat hatred in America.

                The offensively-titled “Should ‘Fatties’ Get a Room?” came to my attention via Jezebel, which published several reactionary pieces following the Marie Claire controversy.  The post begins with the question that prompted Kelly’s protest against the romance between Mike and Molly: Are viewers disgusted by scenes of affection between overweight characters on television?  Kelly phrases her prompt and affirmative conclusion thus:

“Yes, I think I'd be grossed out if I had to watch two characters with rolls and rolls of fat kissing each other...because I'd be grossed out if I had to watch them doing anything. To be brutally honest, even in real life, I find it aesthetically displeasing to watch a very, very fat person simply walk across a room…” 

Interestingly, the characters that so repulse her are nothing less than sitcom stereotypes: white, middle-class, heterosexual adults whose only deviation from the Hollywood mold is the size of their bodies.  Although they are an anomaly in television, Mike and Molly actually represent the reality of life for an increasing number of Americans, 68% of whom were found to be overweight or obese in 2008, according to the Centers for Disease Control.  Kelly’s stance is surprising given her role as a relationship blogger for Marie Claire, which targets young women and portrays itself as a more enlightened and “woman-positive” magazine than its competition (i.e., magazines like Cosmopolitan and Women’s Health) .  While disdain for fat is rampant in our society, the article comes as a shock because of its unbridled honesty in expressing Kelly’s derisive opinion of the overweight.

      The idea of the personal-as-political that arose from radical feminist theory is one that has always resonated with me, especially in light of the crusade against obesity-related diseases, which has become a highly-charged political issue in the United States.  Currently in recovery from an eating disorder, my personal interest in women’s issues has been largely influenced by my own experiences as well as a desire to understand the cultural forces that have historically supported women’s oppression by casting the female body as sinful, dangerous, an entity to be strictly contained and tightly controlled.  Naomi Wolf notes in The Beauty Myth that ideals of femininity remained bound up in fertility and domesticity until the Second Wave of the 1960s and ‘70s, at which point the subjugation of women evolved into a subtler form of oppression: the imperative to remain thin.  As Wolf argues, "The more legal and material hindrances women have broken through, the more strictly and heavily and cruelly images of female beauty have come to weigh upon us."  Although women today enjoy more liberties and opportunities than ever before, the pressure to conform to societal beauty ideals has grown stronger than ever.

                Although Kelly does not directly target women in her hateful criticism of Mike and Molly, the issue is at its core a feminist one, because of both the article’s intended audience and the immense pressure our culture exerts upon women who fail to meet current standards of thinness and beauty.  The collective impact of media messages such as those so explicitly expressed in “Should ‘Fatties’ Get a Room,” and others more subtly insinuated, cannot possibly fail to affect women’s views of themselves as scrutinized by the male gaze.  Obesity may affect both sexes equally, but eating disorders remain, as always, an overwhelmingly female concern.  The history of Western philosophy is rife with misogyny as well as disdain for the human body; articles like “Should ‘Fatties’ Get a Room,” merely express the thinking that still permeates our culture in these modern times.  Kelly’s tone is shocking in its contempt only because she dares to openly articulate the subtext beneath every article published by magazines like Marie Claire urging readers to mold themselves into the false ideal marketed to us as the epitome of female beauty.

                The very existence of a television series like Mike and Molly constitutes an audacious refusal to abide by the rules that the patriarchy has established and that women like Maura Kelly have so effectively internalized.  Kelly’s condemnation of Mike and Molly, poorly masked behind her claim that the show promotes obesity, is extremely telling in its blatant intolerance for those who fail to meet our society’s rigid definition of physical beauty.

                Shortly after the post appeared on, the blogosphere erupted in protest, and under pressure, Kelly issued a weak apology.  But by unabashedly declaring her views on obesity, Kelly has spoken only what society has long expressed, albeit in more subtle and perhaps even more damaging ways.  The original article can be read here.  Also check out some of the pieces later published in counterpoint to her argument.  What do you think of Kelly’s reaction to Mike and Molly, and/or the responses her article provoked?  And why has the concept of a happy overweight couple resulted in such controversy?

*References available upon request.

1 comment:

  1. i hadn't heard of this discussion or article. thanks so much for posting this, catherine!