"Bullying" came up unexpectedly a few weeks ago at the National Women's Studies Association annual meeting. I attended a presentation by Sandrina de Finney and Jo-Anne Lee, on the relationship between colonialism and violence against racialized women and girls. They inspired this post, and both Dr. de Finney and Dr. Lee had critiques that felt very relevant to the invocation of bullying in the discussion of fatphobia.
Bullying is a behavior that pivots on a complex set of social understandings: most relevant for this article is the understanding that the person getting harassed is somehow understood to be outlaw or aberrant and therefore vulnerable and/or disposable. When we use the word "bullying" we cast fatphobic behavior as (1) unidimensional/non-intersectional, (2) child-like, and (3) a natural part of maturing.
When we use the word bullying to talk about institutional and interpersonal fatphobia we obfuscate the ways that fatphobia interacts with class, gender, and race. Fatphobia is perpetuated institutionally by things like laws, standard work practices and the War on Obesity. Fatphobia is also interpersonal and built into the way we speak, joke and understand ourselves socially. The way you experience fatphobia is affected by your perceived class standing, gender and race. For instance, the recent Strong4Life public health campaign in Georgia targeted childhood obesity by showcasing images of fat children alongside slogans that have been called "bullying" by critics. But carefully examine the image and text below:
The next ad reads "Fat prevention begins at home and in the buffet line."
Some of the campaign images were of children of color/racialized children. When casting conversations about fat brown kids as "bullying," the complexity of race (and the way that brown bodies are constructed) is quickly lost. Public health messaging about fat casts "obesity" as the cause of decreased quality of life/shorter lifespan rather than understanding these things as a product of institutional racism and a permanent under class.
I'm not saying that we should stop anti-bulllying campaigns or that the language of bullying has no place in a discussion about fatphobia. What I am saying is that the analysis cannot stop there. If you choose to use the word "bullying" to describe things that are motivated by institutions (like homophobia, racism, fatphobia), there has to be an attendant understanding of what we lose when we use this word to capture a range of behaviors that have their roots in the deepest parts of our culture's fears around race, gender, class and the non-conforming body.