This blog was edited from the original version on 9/28/12, 4:15pm.
NB: I got some fantastic feedback from two people related to this blog, and I want to thank them for taking the time to write and also for their ideas about how to make this blog/my ideas engage even more critically with systems of oppression! As a writer I find the process of feedback so important, and I don't always get a second pair of eyes before publishing. Some minor edits have been made to the original post, but the premise/thesis of this piece has not changed.
Lady Gaga’s recent response to being called “meaty” is one in a relatively long line of (indisputably) thin women spouting the rhetoric of body revolution while being deeply involved in the machine that churns out impossibly arbitrary beauty standards. Yes, Gaga, I give you props for putting yourself and your body out there because I realize it likely felt vulnerable. But really? It’s taken you this long to realize that these standards exist and that they affect you too?
Women all over the United States affirm and reaffirm body standards through a kind of confessional process, referred to in popular culture and by some fat/gender studies scholars as "fat talk." A confession might begin with something like "I hate my thighs!," followed by a reciprocal outpouring/confession meant to bond us women in our mutual, dogged pursuit of the "perfect" body. In the book Fat Talk, MiMi Nichter notes: "The statement 'I'm so fat' is actually much more than an observation about how a girl looks or feels. It is a call for support from her peers." Another emanation of fat talk is a meme with which we are all familiar: “You look like you’ve gained a little weight,” often followed quickly by “You look great no matter what!” This confusing criticism-comfort model is part of this long-time feminine pastime.
Women engage in this kind of conversation publicly and privately: What did you eat? How much fat does that have? Did you lose weight?! It’s what scholars have deemed a “uniquely feminine” conversation tendency. Sometimes we’re expected to offer tough love and other times we know that a dose of unconditional adulation is what’s called for. The outpouring of earnest replies from fans fits perfectly with this conversation pattern. The thin Lady Gaga has been called fat and engages with this by launching the "Body Revolution" campaign. In so doing she begins the chain of reactions women have been taught, from our baby days, to enact. Her fans comfort her. Her fans resonate with her and the campaign, but will this campaign be the fix to our feminine body woes - or even the start of a new conversation? My bet’s on no.
It doesn’t engage with women and our bodies in a fundamentally different way. The conversation – and the way it’s playing out – follows all the trappings of fat talk and makes this body revolution a lot more like high school mirror talk redux.
Because “fat talk” isn’t about change. It’s about reaffirming body policing. It’s about keeping the conversation fundamentally about our focus on the female body and not on liberation ― and certainly not on revolution. This Body Revolution campaign is not a new idea. Upper class women have found the concept of system overhaul titillating for centuries. Furthermore, the campaign's phraseology borrows from fat positive ideology that's been around for several decades. Lady Gaga’s show of near-nudity becomes an invitation to commiserate and comfort; remind her that she does, in fact, have an “enviably” thin body. We become her best friends in that moment, engaging in the ritual that feels familiar. Her exposed body becomes a thing that we are supposed to pity and envy. We play out the roles; we derive pleasure from playing out the roles, and once everyone is suitably fulfilled and reassured we go back to counting calories.
I’m a firm believer in the politics of size. Hell, I’m a fat activist. And if we were at a different point in the history of fat, women, feminism, whatever, I think it would be obvious that the the Body Revolution campaign is a problematic attempt. But we’re not at a different point. We’re still at this one: where fat is considered an act of personal failure, where women bear the moral brunt for body “aberrance,” where women are mostly just bodies to be approved and gawked at or loved or loathed depending on the camera angle or the Instagramonomics, and where we all live in fear of that one little word: F.A.T.
Gaga’s campaign is not a method to unravel an oppressive, obsessive system of body rules that has us reeling. It’s the same old ethics misleadingly packaged in body-positive language.
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.