“Do they look like they need food stamps?”: Thoughts on Fatness and Citizenship in the United States
Throughout my five years of undergrad I worked in customer service at two different grocery stores. While I have many fond memories from those experiences, especially because I grew so close to my coworkers, I always dreaded moments when fat customers, with bodies like mine, paid for their groceries with EBT cards. All too often, when these customers wrapped up their orders and moved just out of earshot, one of my coworkers or a customer in line would say something to the effect of “Do they look like they need food stamps?”
Sometimes these statements would pass by quickly, as one-off jokes to break the ice before I began checking out the next person’s groceries. Other times, particularly if it came from a familiar coworker or customer who felt comfortable enough around me to elaborate, these comments would lead into longer tangents about government handouts or restricting EBT purchases to “healthy foods.” Regardless of the tone of these comments, the basic premises behind them were consistent. These fat people, because they were fat and using EBT cards, were clearly leeching off the system, and if government programs were going to continue supporting them, they should only do so by simultaneously making them skinnier.
In these moments, and so many others like them, I came to feel that my fatness makes me a bad American, a bad citizen, whose body marks them as a problem to be solved, a crisis to be overcome, or a con artist selfishly gaming the system. While this feeling has often made me feel isolated, my work within fat studies over the past few years has shown me that fatness has a long history of designating bodies as unfit for citizenship and political participation in the United States.
This perceived unfitness is certainly evident in the white supremacist origins of fatphobia in the United States. Gail Bederman points to how the fat body became inherently sinful and primitive within the framework of white millennial civilization, a Protestant concept which gained increased traction in the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. These fat bodies therefore became incapable of participating in the advancement of the white race and by extension, “true” American citizenship. Sabrina Strings, who traces the development of fatphobia from Renaissance Europe to the current “obesity epidemic,” argues that this connection between fatness, race, and Christian morality is so powerful that American fat discrimination and thin privilege are directly rooted in two key developments, “the rise of the transatlantic slave trade and the spread of Protestantism” (7).
This relationship between fatness and American citizenship is also on display in the rhetoric used by suffragettes and anti-suffragettes alike during the early twentieth century. Anti-suffragette propaganda, like the June 14, 1910 cover of Judge magazine (figure 1), repeatedly weaponized fatness as a means of characterizing suffragettes as overly masculine, primitive, brutish, and therefore unfit for the vote. Suffragette propaganda, as a result, often doubled down on this fatphobia by inversely characterizing suffragettes as exclusively thin, beautiful, and white, while regularly using fat men’s bodies to characterize their political opponents, as evident in this Nina Allender cartoon published by the National Woman’s Party in 1918 (figure 2). While both sides of this discourse are vehemently opposed to one another, these two examples and many others like them illustrate that their rhetoric operates on their shared commitment to a basic premise: thin bodies are deserving of the vote and full American citizenship, fat bodies are not.
Along with race and gender, fatness positions bodies across every class boundary for criticism of their position within American society. This certainly applies to the figure of the poor fat body or the figure of the welfare queen, which I discussed in the opening of this piece, but also middle-class fat bodies as well. Indeed, Amy Farrell argues that middle-class bodies were such a common target of fatphobia that in the 1950’s there was an entire cottage industry devoted to producing postcards making fun of fat middle-class women, who would often be depicted traveling or getting into a new car, whose repulsive fatness stems from their inability to “manage the wealth of consumer goods that a new middle-class life afforded” (69). As in Allender’s cartoon, fatness also comes to represent the super-rich in the form of the “fat cat” or the overbearing fat male body, whose fatness stems from his greed and excessive, harmful social privilege. To see this stereotype at work, look at Baron Harkonnen in Frank Herbert’s Dune (1965) or the recent film adaptation that came out this year (where he is played by Stellan Skarsgård in a fat suit), whose enormous fat body functions as a physical manifestation of his excessive appetite for wealth, which motivates his horrific treatment of the native Fremen people on Arrakis. While, in terms of class, these figures of the welfare queen, middle-class fat woman, and fat cat are so different from one another, they resemble each other in that their fatness marks them as excessive citizens, fat bodies getting more than they deserve in system or society that needs to change or has changed in all the wrong ways.
These connections between fatness and citizenship have a long history and understanding that history has helped me to make sense of the world I live in. But as happy as I am to know the things I know now, I can’t help but feel frustrated by how long it took me to learn them. The knowledge that would have comforted me in those moments with my coworkers was not readily available to me until graduate school, and even after nearly eleven years in English departments across four universities I have yet to see a course offered specifically on fatness or fat studies. I want that course and this history for my younger self, but if he can’t have it, I want it for others who have lived too long with the lie that they are too fat for the American dream.
Citations not linked:
Bederman, Gail. Manliness & Civilization: A Cultural History of Gender and Race in the United States,
1880-1917. University of Chicago Press, 1995
Farrell, Amy Erdman. Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture. NYU Press, 2011.
Strings, Sabrina. Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. NYU Press, 2019.