I want to talk about how the fat belly has become a reviled cultural object, in part, because it’s become a metaphorical representation of the refusal to discipline “base” instincts and non-empirical ways of knowing - that is, knowledge and behavior derived from “the gut.”
I think the fear of fat bellies is connected to our cultural anxiety around trusting our “gut” - or instincts - because we have spent hundreds of years trying to suppress it culturally. More on that in a second.
We obviously have actual guts (intestines and other viscera) inside our bodies, which you could easily find during a surgery or during a CT scan. When we colloquially refer to “trusting our gut,” however, we are talking about something we cannot measure or see. When we talk about the second kind of gut, we are talking about non-empirical knowledge or intuition. Somewhere along the way we as a culture began to locate that intuition within our gut - or belly.
The fat belly, I think, becomes an outwardly visible "object" that represents an internal, invisible rebellion against a culture that values measurable outcomes and concrete ways of knowing.
OMG! I bet you didn’t know your belly was doing all that.
We live in a culture that expects us to suppress our “gut feelings” in favor of intellect and social mores. We also live in a culture that expects us to maintain a slender body - and a flat belly by extension. I see the anxiety around the size of a belly as connected to the anxiety around how much I allow “my gut” to determine what I choose to do - or not do - with my life.
Following “my gut” often leads to me doing things that are frowned upon by respectable society. In fact, it was my intuitive sense that diet culture is unjust and violent that led me to stop dieting. My gut also led me to postponing marriage, becoming a feminist, leaving Christianity and all kinds of other things that girls aren’t supposed to do.
If you know me you know that I’m ALWAYS talking about the universe, how my gut told me not to trust that one person that one time, ghosts, how I “had a feeling” that so and so was going to call me and they did, and all kinds of other stuff that places me firmly outside of the western narrative of progress or respectability. Girl, I’m Mexican. And Mexicans know that you shouldn’t trust no man who tells you to believe his books more than your own body.
I’d like to talk about a time that I suppressed my gut in favor of "intellect." Ready?
It’s 2010, and I’m in grad school. During the new student orientation, my gut hones in on someone who is the energetic equivalent of one enormous red flag made of tinier red flags that are made of tiny razors that carry tetanus. My gut immediately gives this girl the side-eye. As the orientation continues, however, I begin to throw the advice that my gut generously gave me to the wind. I’m a grown up grad student now, I thought! There was a lot of discussion from faculty about how important it is to be “collegial,” and presume that we are all working collaboratively. In short: that same old colonialist bullshit that lands people like me in Shitsville. My gut knew better, but now that I was in a fancy board room I decided to forsake her in the name of “success” and “self-improvement.”
I won’t bore you with the gory details, but in short I made the wrong goddamn choice.
Central to the building of an idea of western modernity was the notion that a superior species or race could be constructed through the denial and repression of our “primitive” instincts - for sex, food, love, fart jokes, etc. We can see the ripple effects of this violent history in modern day racism, sexism, classism and their love child - fatphobia. Dieting is all about the denial and repression of valuable instincts in the name of getting “exclusive” privileges meted out by the nation’s wealthy elite.
This fear of actual bellies feels connected to this greater fear of our ability to access intuitive knowledge - or “gut” knowledge - and instincts. The impulse to force us to slim down is in many ways about the cultural terror of desire, the complexity of our own humanity, and what might happen if we actually (and metaphorically) just ate the damn cake.
Ok, girl, time for a sandwich.
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Virgie Tovar, MA is one of the nation's leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp (a 4 week online course focused on helping people break up with diet culture) and the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, 2012). She writes about the intersections of size, identity, sexuality and politics. See more updates on Facebook.