I spoke with a New York Times reporter today about a recent study on social media and fat shaming (see the article here), which found that Twitter had the most frequent instances of fat negativity and that instances of fat shaming were often targeted at women and girls.
She asked me why I felt that there was so much vitriol online. I answered that, among other things, "fat" has become a catch-all word for various cultural anxieties, like women's bodily autonomy. Perhaps more troubling was the way in which liberals* have aligned fatness with neo-conservatism, poverty and general "backwardness."
Perfect example: Bill Maher!
When I was an undergrad Bill came to my college to speak and I - like many people - totally wanted to bone him. I remember being awed by the way he made fun of creationism and people who are anti-abortion rights. I felt that his views aligned with that point in my recovering Christian, burgeoning feminist life.
Fast forward ten years to the middle of last month. I happen to be in a room at the Hyatt in Washington DC, blocks away from where Bill Maher is giving his live HBO special. My boyfriend is a huge fan - and HBO came with the room! - so we watched this historic comedy event together.
I was surprised and pretty appalled to watch Bill Maher make at least half a dozen fat jokes in the one hour we watched. They weren't typical "ha ha fat people are inherently funny" kind of gags. They were much more nuanced.
Through Southern drawl and I-can-barely-tie-my-own-shoe style affectation, he seamlessly tied fatness to neo-conservatism/neo-conservatives, whom he painted as policy ignorant jerks who hate women's rights and brown people. He interchangeably referenced "southerner," "fat person," "idiot" and "neo-conservative" and in so doing, positioned fat people as inherent enemies of the neo/liberal agenda of "progress" and positioned coast-dwelling liberals (who are de facto thin people, presumably) as just generally having better brains and better politics.
Bill Maher is a respected figure, especially among well-educated and monied men, and his endorsement of fatphobia as a means of conveying hostility toward "intellectual inferiority" and social conservatism is telling and it's troubling.
This was the most watched HBO comedy event in five years.
What is so odd to me is that Bill Maher has aligned himself with women's rights and anti-racism, but through his stance as a self-righteous fatphobe he invokes a language that has often been used to curtail women's bodily autonomy and is increasingly being used to scapegoat people of color and poor people.
Bill Maher, not cool!
I want to recognize that Bill is a highly visible person who is by no means the founder of this kind of rhetoric, but his unapologetic fatphobia is indicative of a damaging and deeply encoded language increasingly shared among liberals.
*I edited all mentions of "neo-liberal" to just plain "liberal" after numerous clarification requests online! I apologize for my own misuse of the word. In my years of increasingly using the word "neoliberal" interchangeably with "person with suspicious politics" the word had morphed into something less indicative of a stance on free market politics and more indicative of the often attendant social attitudes/politics.
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.