Over the past week, fans have enjoyed seeing comedian and author Sara Benincasa’s epic response to a man who asked her “why she got so fat” go viral. In the piece, Benincasa pushes back against the misogynistic objectification that leads some men to feel entitled to comment on a woman’s weight on the Internet.
It’s fun, bold, and has been met with an incredibly positive response.
And it’s that response that author and size activist Lesley Kinzel is critiquing in her essay on Medium, “Fat Shaming Is Not An Individual Problem, It’s a Cultural One.”
Kinzel, who at a size 26 describes herself as “obviously, visibly fat,” is not attempting to detract from individual women or their efforts to resist a body-shaming culture. But she is putting forth the question: How would we react if the woman in question were obese instead of just “curvy”?
As she writes, “It’s still only socially acceptable to rail against fat shaming when you’re not actually fat.”
As Kinzel points out, this is a story that plays itself out frequently these days: average sized to “curvy” woman is body-shamed, tells haters off in a dazzling display of personal confidence, receives accolades.
“Shutting down body-shamers” has become a headline trope in itself. Sometimes the woman in question is a celebrity who is a size 6 instead of a size 2, or simply a size-2 celebrity who is subjected to a higher level of criticism as a public figure.
Pink “shut down body shamers” on Twitter who criticized her weight in photos from a charity event, referring to her body as “voluptuous” and later tweeting that her figure is “squishy” because she’s happy. Alyssa Milano also responded on Twitter when actor and comedian Jay Mohr criticized her weight: “So sorry you felt the need to publicly fat-shame me. Be well and God Bless. Please send my love to your beautiful wife.” Other celebrities who have publicly responded to weight-shaming include Demi Lovato, Lady Gaga, Kim Kardashian, Khloe Kardashian, Jennifer Lawrence, Amy Schumer, Tyra Banks, Kristen Bell, Kesha, Lena Dunham, GIgi Hadid, and Selena Gomez.
The problem lies not with their reactions — it is indeed awesome that these women refuse to accept attacks on their bodily autonomy. The problem is that none of these women are actually fat.
They are standing up against objectification and impossible beauty standards that demand every woman wear a size zero and have a perfectly flat stomach, which is admirable. But it is not the same thing as standing up against fat-shaming. Fat-shaming is a term with cultural weight behind it — calling a thin woman “fat” doesn’t have the same force as the societal discrimination that keeps fat people from accessing equal employment and healthcare and causes them to face harassment and commentary on a daily basis.
Kinzel writes, “I am the woman who doesn’t get to rail against the injustice of being called fat, because that is what I am. I’m actually fat, the kind of fat that makes some people not want to look me in the eye; the kind of fat that makes some people assume I am dying of obesologizing disease, like, right now, dying; the kind of fat that makes me embarrassing, or weird, or gross. … Meanwhile, in that other oft-repeated situation, where a woman in a size 10 dress is castigating the establishment that finds her body unacceptable, many of those people who wouldn’t make eye contact with me? They’re cheering for her.”
Kinzel concludes that by pointing out that all this emphasis on women shutting down fat-shaming places the impetus for change on how confident an individual woman can be, instead of placing the impetus for change on a deeply flawed, fatphobic culture.
So while stopping body-shaming is an admirable goal, we need to think beyond the individual level if we want to actually dismantle fatphobia and stop fat-shaming. And that includes supporting women of every size with the same enthusiasm we use to cheer when a size-6 celebrity charmingly dismisses a hater who calls her fat on Instagram. It means changing our responses from “But she’s not even fat!” to “It’s OK to be fat.”
Kinzel concludes: “See us. The ‘obese’ ones, the Death Fat, the unacceptable, the invisible. And look us in the eye. Maybe then we can have each others’ backs for real.”