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‘Unshrinking’ & Parenting Through Fatphobia – SheKnows


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“I should have been thrilled,” are the first words of Kate Manne’s new book. The opening anecdote recalls how Manne, when offered an all-expenses-paid London publicity tour for her first book, Down Girl, “flinched from the prospect” of doing bookstore readings and TV appearances for one reason: the accomplished author, Cornell associate professor of philosophy, and mom “felt too fat to be feminist in public.”

Manne identifies as small fat, and now uses the word fat as a neutral adjective, but that wasn’t always the case. In Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia, Manne pulls back the curtain on a life full of traumatic fatphobia, from her first memory of being called fat by a boy in fifth grade to being voted “most likely to have to pay for sex” in high school to suffering through fatphobic microaggressions in academia. In response, Manne became a chronic dieter who would sometimes go days without eating. (A doctor she saw at the time complimented her on the weight loss she experienced as a result.)

When the COVID-19 pandemic came and Manne was forced into lockdown, she felt — along with the fear and anxiety of that time — something like relief to not have to subject her body to public scrutiny. The author also realized something else: that she didn’t hate her body as much as she hated how vulnerable it made her. She didn’t hate her fatness — she hated fatphobia.

Unshrinking is the book that grew out of that realization. It’s a systematic takedown of fatphobia, addressing all the myths it convinces us to accept about the health, attractiveness, intellect, and willpower of fat people. It lays bare the way the world is set up to alienate fatness, then suggests the start of a solution, at least on an individual level: a concept Manne calls body reflexivity. It’s the idea that your body is yours alone, to feel about it however you want, despite the body “hierarchy” that, Manne argues, continues to perpetuate fatphobia. “Why do we need to be implicitly assigning bodies a number, be it positive or neutral or negative?” Manne tells SheKnows. “Shouldn’t we be throwing out the scale altogether, and getting beyond this idea that we should be comparing and contrasting bodies?” It’s simple, and yet somehow revolutionary: “My body isn’t for consumption or comparison or correction,” she says. “It’s for me.”

SheKnows spoke with Manne a few weeks after her book’s release to talk about fatphobia, why the “fat equals unhealthy” assumption is so damaging (and less true than we think it is), and how Manne parents her four-year-old daughter following this journey through her own fatphobia.

‘Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia’ by Kate Manne

SheKnows: Your definition of fatphobia might be different than people expect. How do you define it?

Kate Manne: I think of fatphobia as the unjust downranking of people who live in larger bodies, where I use the word ‘fat’ in an entirely neutral way. So people who are fat are unjustly downranked with respect to our aesthetic value, our moral value, our intellectual value, and also our health status. There are a lot of myths and untrue beliefs about our being doomed to die necessarily unhealthy that I argue in the book are inaccurate.

SK: The idea of downranking implies, as you talk about in Unshrinking, this hierarchy around fatness and body size.

KM: The way that I think about it is that weight is this linear and infinitely gradable quality that lends itself very easily to human hierarchy, where some people are valued more and some people are valued less. Weight has these properties of being linear and infinitely finessable, so you can get more and more precise with regard to someone’s weight measurement. It means that we have this very ready-to-hand metric for ranking people when it comes to weight.

So I hold that people are more or less ranked inversely proportional to their weight. So the thinner you are, the more valuable you are, with some complications based on things like waist-to-hip ratio or breast size for women. But it’s basically, to a large extent, the thinner, the better for women and girls in particular.

SK: You address a lot of myths around fatness in the book and these insulting stereotypes that fat people are unhealthy, unattractive, unintelligent, lazy. Which of these myths do you think are the most urgent to debunk?

KM: One myth, I think, that’s worth getting out there is that even though people are told they’re ‘overweight,’ that’s actually the healthiest category again, on average, to be in. And people who are even ‘moderately obese’ — so, between a BMI of between 30 and 35 — have the same mortality risk statistically as ‘average’ weight people. The way to think about it, initially, can be captured by Katherine Flegal’s notion of a U-shaped curve of the relationship between health and weight, where people in the “overweight” category actually have the lowest mortality risk, statistically speaking [and being either very fat or very thin is correlated with premature death, per Flegal’s study.]

The second part to break down, myth-wise, is that, even though it’s true that both underweight and very heavy people have greater mortality risk, we don’t yet know whether that’s causation or mere correlation. Because when people are, in particular, heavier and have a BMI over 35 or 40 (which is when we do see correlations with health problems), we also know that they’re getting substandard medical care. They’re subject to weight stigma that is really stressful to people and is harmful to their health, and they’re also often being put on diets and weight cycling [repeatedly losing weight and regaining it], which turns out to be really hard on the human body. So there are always these confounding variables for people who are heavier, which means that we shouldn’t just assume, without more research, that it’s the mere fatness on people’s bodies that’s causing an elevated level of risk. It could be that these people are getting such poor care and have independent things going on, like weight cycling and stigma, which means that that may be responsible for some of the elevated health risks.

And the last myth I’d say is that so many people think the answer to health problems is to lose weight. But we know that for the vast majority of people, the weight loss is very temporary. People will lose weight on any number of diets, but the weight comes back pretty inexorably for the vast majority of people, and between one-third and two-thirds will end up heavier than they started. So even if it’s true that a certain degree of weight does turn out to be causally responsible for health problems, telling people to lose weight isn’t really an evidence-based solution, because the weight regain is almost inevitable. Oftentimes people would be better off being treated for the body that they have, and seen as a person who deserves humane medical treatment, regardless of the health risk that they might be subject to at a higher weight. So that’s part of it too: weight loss is not an evidence-based medical intervention given that people regain weight almost inevitably.

Kate Manne

Kate Manne
Simon Wheeler for Cornell University

SK: The book builds up to this concept called body reflexivity. Can you explain what that is and how you came up with it? How is it different than body positivity?

KM: Body positivity has these cool radical roots in Black feminism, and while it’s a useful entry point for many people to body liberation, I also think it’s been leached of a lot of its meaning and power. It’s become very much a hashtag. It’s often co-opted by thin white women celebrating one role of flesh when they sit down or a little bit of cellulite or couple of stretch marks. And I think, too, there was always something a bit mistaken about its advice, because being monolithically positive about our bodies can feel a bit oppressive, a bit like toxic positivity. I mean, I have trouble maintaining positivity about anything, let alone my body.

So I wasn’t really attracted to that option and the main alternative, body neutrality — which says we should have a neutral attitude towards our own bodies, and also that of other people’s — that feels a bit wan, a bit lackluster, a bit depressing to me. And I began to think as a result, why do we need to be implicitly assigning bodies a number, be it positive or neutral or negative? Shouldn’t we be throwing out the scale altogether, and getting beyond this idea that we should be comparing and contrasting bodies, or giving them all a particular monolithic assigned number?

Really, the thought that I found most liberating, for my own part, was the thought that my body is for me. Your body is for you, and so on, and so forth, for every person, and I would add, every non-human animal in the world. We don’t need to say that the body has a particular value. Rather, one’s own perspective on one’s body is the only one that matters. I wanted to invite the reader into that perspective, because, for my own part, I found that a lot of my self-criticisms fall away when I realize that my body isn’t for consumption or comparison or correction, it’s for me. That, to me, was a more liberating thought.

SK: You mention your daughter throughout the book and how you want to raise her in a way that’s not fatphobic, that’s loving and appreciative of all bodies. How do you go about raising a child who’s not fatphobic in a world that is — and when we as adults have already internalized so many fatphobic beliefs?

KM: It’s a really great and difficult question to wrestle with, because I think our world is so fatphobic that we can’t really protect our children from imbibing fatphobic content, or being privy to the idea that fatness is a bad thing. But what we can do — and here I’m drawing on the book Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture by my friend Virginia Sole-Smith — is have ongoing conversations that say, everybody is worthy. Everybody is valuable. We don’t think that ‘fat’ is a bad thing. We don’t think it’s a bad word.

If children do come to you with a question like, ‘Am I fat?’ instead of trying to be like, ‘No, no, you’re not,’ we can be curious about what they’re really asking, which is, ‘Am I this bad thing?’ and point out that people can be fat and brilliant, fat and kind, fat and generous, fat and every positive human quality that we actually value and care about in our family. And so, being really conscious of raising children who think that people coming in different shapes and sizes is a valuable and normal and natural part of human diversity.

Just like, as a white parent, I’m having conversations already with my 4-year-old about how people have different skin tones, and that’s beautiful, and everyone is equal, and — in an age-appropriate way — talking about the history of people not believing that. Similarly, I think we can have these conversations about how people sometimes make the mistake of thinking fat is bad, but we don’t believe that. In our family we believe that fat bodies are part of beautiful diversity in the world, and that fat bodies are something to be celebrated, not something to be ashamed of. That kind of counter messaging is really valuable as a way to not protect, but to arm your children with the tools to think critically about some of the fatphobia they will encounter.

I found that a lot of my self-criticisms fall away when I realize that my body isn’t for consumption or comparison or correction, it’s for me.

Kate Manne

SK: You also talk about food and learning to trust our own appetites, hungers, and instincts. With children, that comes down to encouraging them to eat when they’re hungry, stop when they’re not, that kind of thing. How do you encourage that as a parent?

KM: Yeah, totally. Again, I’ve been really influenced by Virginia Sole-Smith’s work here, of thinking of the family dinner table as a place for connection and curiosity and conversation, not for policing bites of food. In my household, we practice a variation of what is called Division of Responsibility, which is a model developed by Ellyn Satter for feeding children, and that means my husband and I provide nutritious, tasty meals, including regular desserts, and there’s no hierarchy of food. There’s no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ food. The child then, after you provide the food, decides how much and what they eat.

And we practice a slightly more relaxed version of that which has elements of responsive feeding, which is, if the kid wants a snack, they can have a snack. Regular access to treats, candy, ‘so-called’ bad foods is helpful actually to not build fixation on that food, because it’s just one food among many. None of it is set up as having a particular value. They all have a role.

And honestly, in my own case, I found it leads to a kid who has such a great relationship with food, who really enjoys food, who is not fixated on any one food. Not that this is necessarily the goal, but she doesn’t care about candy at all, because it’s just not presented as a forbidden fruit. It just has led to an illustration of what these experienced clinicians and nutritionists and dietitians in this paradigm say, which is, it’s restriction that breeds fixation and behaviors that can be harmful, like bingeing or hoarding food.

SK: You’ve been on this whole journey of learning about fatphobia and finding ways to face it and push back against it. Has that changed the way you feel about your own body? Has it changed how you parent your daughter?

KM: It’s changed it really fundamentally. I am able to have a much richer relationship with my daughter where I don’t view policing her food intake or trying to make her end up a particular size or shape as the right choice as a parent. The idea that parents are in charge of our children’s body size is empirically inaccurate. Most people who are genetically predisposed to a status will end up being fat. Of course, it’s always work in progress, but really being conscious of the fact that it’s not my job to patrol or police her body, and that doing that could be very damaging to our relationship.

It’s changed my relationship with my own body too, hugely. I had a moment with my daughter recently, where I was trying on dresses from my book tour, and I just found myself realizing that I wasn’t hiding my body from her. I wasn’t ashamed of how I looked in a particular piece of clothing. If a dress was too small, it’s just not right for my body. If the dress is too big, it’s just not right for my body. It’s not good on the one hand and bad on the other. And I was able to realize how far I’d come, in being able to just enjoy this fun ritual of trying on clothing with my kid with the thought being, ‘How does this look for me? Does it work for me?’ rather than, ‘Does my body fit the piece of clothing?’ And I hope she develops that attitude, too. ‘Does this work for me? Is this something that I like?’ rather than, ‘Do I conform to arbitrary beauty standards?’

Of course, it’s relatively easy for me to say that now, as a small fat person who is on the lower end of the fat spectrum with a child who presently is a thin kid. I don’t want to underestimate the challenges of dealing with the fatphobia in the world that we can’t combat just by changing our attitude. We actually need to make the world accessible to people and everybody and every body size and type. But still, I do think it is a good step to think of your body as for you, and something that no one else’s attitude to it matters, and that our body is meant to be for us and not to serve or please or placate others.

And for me, personally, the journey of facing fatphobia has made a big difference in my ability to be in my body and in the world, in ways that feel unshrinking.

Before you go, check out these powerful quotes about food that’ll inspire you in your own body image journey:



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