I've often been asked about my opinions or politics surrounding fat men. I have long hesitated to speak on this issue - despite its significance - because (1) my background and expertise lie in the study and advocacy of women and (2) I hadn't dedicated enough time to figuring out my ideas on the way that fatphobia affects men, especially considering the ways that I feel that fatphobia is so heavily mediated by gender (i.e., fatphobia in so many ways is about hating and policing women and our bodies).
What I've realized recently is that in some ways the fatphobia that fat men experience is as a result of sexism. In researching this idea, I found that fat men are often perceived as feminine. I found that fat men are often perceived as possessing "looser morals" or less discipline - traits historically ascribed to women/femininity. I also found many themes that pointed to fatphobia toward men, at its roots, being about anxiety that men were becoming woman-like. So, I believe that it is sexism and the deep cultural hatred of the feminine - not the hatred of men who are fat, per se - that leads to some (possibly many) of the instances of fatphobia that men experience.
In reviewing images and articles related to fat men there were three themes that struck me:
1. Chemical Feminization
Even Dr. Oz is worried that men's belly fat "increases the conversion of testosterone into estrogen." In a Salon article dated September 8, 2010, entitled "Sex Researchers: 'Size' Does Matter" (Subtitle: "Study shows that fatter men last longer in bed. Should Americans rejoice?"), Judy Mandelbaum writes "Men with excess fat showed higher levels of the female estradiol sex hormone. This substance apparently disrupted their bodies’ natural 'male' neurotransmitter chemicals and slowed their progression towards orgasm. Ironically, the less masculine their bodies appeared, the better lovers they proved to be."
2. Fat Castration
In searching images and articles on fat men, a popular meme related to fat men's bodies is what I started calling the "fat castration" meme: literally the idea that fat men cannot find their penis (this level of condescension is typically reserved only for women, by the way) or haven't seen their penis in years or are otherwise metaphorically castrated by their fat:
3. "Moob" Development
Another source of anxiety expressed toward fat men's bodies is the development of breasts - otherwise known as the shame-inducing neologism "moobs." This phenomenon is described as "disgusting" (UrbanDictionary), and treatment suggestions - surgical and otherwise - abound online. In an article for Men's Health on "banishing" your man boobs, the author writes: "You probably love a great set of breasts—as long as you’re not the one sporting them." This seems to draw parallels between compulsory heterosexuality, masculinity and body size - subtly policing the boundaries of sexuality by pointing out that only women should have breasts and as a man you should be attracted to them and if you have "moobs" then you are confusing heteronormativity and blurring the culturally sanctioned bifurcation between men and women.
It is clear that there are many, many reasons that men experience fatphobia, most of which I did not go into here. However, I feel that sexism is a major factor certainly in the ways that fat men are rhetoricized online. The anxiety that fat men are becoming women or exhibiting traits historically ascribed to women, I believe, is at the heart of at least some of the fatphobia that fat men experience.
For this reason I believe that the treatment of fat men is a feminist issue, deserving consideration and inquiry that do not seek to deny male privilege - which fat men do possess - but to interrogate the ways in which fat men's bodies are constructed culturally and the ways that this construction affects the treatment of women and the policing of gender non-conformity.
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.