The Social Construction of Fatness and Femininity

Two things happened in last 24hrs which inspired this blog. First, last night I was watching a PBS show (yes..nerdery abounds!) called Make ‘Em Laugh which featured Joan Rivers claiming (this isn’t verbatim but close), “We should all stop pretending that beauty doesn’t matter. It does. So let’s just tell young girls ‘beauty matters’ so try to make yourselves look good.” (You can see part of her interview about “fat” Elizabeth Taylor here.) Second, I read a blog “Fat Pedagogy: On Gluttonous Enterprise and the Exercise-Industrial-Complex” which inspired this blog. I’ve read some about the critical perspective of obesity, overweight, and fatness which I find fascinating (See for example the special issue of Sociology of Sport Journal Special Issue: The Social Construction of Fat—“The Personal is the Political” edited by Margaret Duncan). I’ve thought about this issue and its intersection with gender…here is an excerpt I wrote with graduate student Chelsey Thul for a paper on underserved girls and physical activity:

Some scholars argue that a public focus on inactivity, the obesity “epidemic,” and assertion that the nation’s future is tied to its citizens’ body shape, athleticism, cardiovascular fitness, and vitality (Gard, 2004), contribute to the development of eating disorders, unhealthy body scrutiny, and anxieties in young women. Messages about health and physical activity, constructed by experts and reinforced by the media, tell girls what a “normal” and “desirable” body should look like, which is unobtainable for a vast majority of girls. Achievement of this kind of body within “a cult of slenderness” (Rich et al., 2004) signals worth, discipline, virtue, status, and emotional stability but leaves little room for acceptance of bodies outside the norm or for different perspectives about the role of physical activity in girls’ health and well-being.

This narrow standard of “acceptable bodies” was a theme in my blog about Jason Whitlock’s sexist column about Serena Williams’ backside and his assessment that she wasn’t disciplined enough to be “really good”. Neuman writes about this point, “More importantly, that ‘fixed standard’ is a socially-constructed sensibility grafted to the cultural politics of the ‘Right body,’ one less rooted in scientific nuance than in cultural norms shared by mostly white, upper-middle class, (mostly) masculine, (almost exclusively) Western scientists (Atkinson, 2006).” Neuman goes onto to assert that, “Herein lies the exercise-industrial complex paradox: the more money invested into ‘fixing’ the ‘problem’ of obesity, the more convinced we as a consuming public become of the stakes and consequences—and yet, those investments and moral imperatives have only resulted in higher rates of ‘obesity.’ ”

This got me thinking as well about the female athlete-sexy babe paradox (for more on this click here, and here): the more the media focuses on femininity and sexiness of female athletes, the more convinced the public becomes that femininity is “important” and the only way to market and consume women’s athletics—, and yet, selling sexy female athletes has not resulted in higher rates of popularity and attendance…nor does help challenge narrowly constructed ideas of healthy female bodies—particularly for girls and women.

One thought on “The Social Construction of Fatness and Femininity

  1. Backlash is the operative word here. Like a child being told to do what’s right, there’s plenty of people who purposely do the opposite. In fact, many of the people this fat phenomenon is speaking about are in fact children.

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