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Feminism, Anti-Feminism, and All the Cakes

I started reading Amy Farrell's Fat Shame: Stigma and the Fat Body in American Culture recently, and I am really enjoying it so far. 

Amy was supposed to be in one of my NWSA panels last fall, but couldn't make it, and so instead I read her paper for her...a fantastic essay on how antifat sentiment was used by both those for and against women's suffrage, which was part of a chapter in her (then upcoming) book. I was so impressed with her work and fascinated by the topic, especially because I think it shows the way in which antifat attitudes have been woven into the historical fabric of feminism.


The white, Western mainstream feminist movement took off the same time that Western attitudes about fat began to change. Fatness became a serious character flaw, a symbol of failed citizenship. As Amy says in her book, fatness was a sign the middle class folk couldn't handle modern society, couldn't regulate themselves in amidst the new potential for excess. And as Amy points out, the body was increasingly understood to be an important marker...indeed, it was also the height of the Eugenics movement. 

And sadly, these discourses about bodies were utilized by claimsmakers (or people trying to persuade) because those arguments were found to be compelling. 

As such, some feminists of the time used Eugenicist language/arguments to make claims about their (white) right to "women's" suffrage and "women's" rights. They used ideas that already compelled people, that already panicked them, that already tugged at their (a)moral compass. 

Which is why feminists use of anti-fat sentiment didn't come as a big surprise for me...though I find it tremendously interesting. In fact, before I had even read Amy's piece, someone showed me this link to an old book from that time period, archived in Bryn Mawr's "Women's Suffrage Ephemera Collection," called "Ten Little Suffergets."

"Ten Little Suffergets" is a sad piece of anti-women's suffrage propaganda; it's hilarious in it's ridiculousness until you think about the fact that feminists still face these kinds of ridiculous arguments. The "suffergets" (pictured as little girls in dresses, maryjanes with socks, and bows in their hair) hold signs like "Votes for Women" and "Equal Rights" (innocuous enough), "No More Home Rule," "Down with Teachers,"  "Down with the Men," "Let the Man be the Housemaid," "Protection for Infant Industries" (not sure exactly what that refers to), "Every Day a Holiday," "No More Bedtimes," and........."Cake Every Day." 

That's right. Cake. Every. Day. I think it's clear to us all now that suffragists are the architects of the obesity epidemic. Feminism really is the downfall of society!

The storyline of the book is merely that each of the "suffergets" encounters an issue--either she throws off her ideals (the "sufferget" who held the "Down with Teachers" sign ends up bringing flowers to her teacher, thus the end of her feminism)  or she is injured in some way (the story starts out with the first "sufferget" getting a whipping--get this, cuz "suffergets" are naughty. Infantilization + sexualization + physical domination  = sexism win!). Essentially, if she doesn't learn her lesson on her own...harm shall come to her, as it should be.

Guess what happens to the "sufferget" who was fighting for "Cake Every Day"?




Her gluttony and cakelust is her own undoing and she can no longer protest on behalf of cakefreedom. Twowholecakes is one thing, this gal "gobbles" ALL TEH CAKES. If only feminists had an allthecakes shout-out back then to turn this on its head.

In her chapter on "Feminism, Citizenship, and Fat Stigma," Amy talks both about this kind of anti-suffragist attack and about how the suffragists tried to depict themselves a slim, young, and beautiful...and anti-suffragists as fat cats or fat and aging (behind the times).  

Rather than saying something radical, like, "We're fat, so what, give us our fucking votes!" it seems early feminists used the antifat sentiment and lookism of the day to argue for their cause. Although it's lazy (and often despicable), it's much easier to utilize narratives that people already accept or find persuasive, symbols that jive with their (often fucked up) cultural logic (Eugenics, antifat denigration, etc.) than to vie for your cause AND challenge systems of privilege and oppression that are in place...or at least refrain from perpetuating them. Fatness is a place marker people can use to rile people up and win them over with the sensationalism, fear, and panic (not so dissimilar from the functions and dynamics of panic about racial purity) when otherwise they fear their argument is not compelling or persuasive enough. When in doubt, rely on fear and hate, right? It's a surefire plan.

As fat activists, we should do our best to avoid falling into the trap of relying on or reinforcing systems of privilege and oppression and/or cultural tropes to vie for our cause. Our cause stands on it's own.

Cross-posted from my personal blog.

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strawberry May 23rd, 2011 | Link | It looks to me as if other

It looks to me as if other "suffergets" were varying degrees of fat (see the girl in white in the picture?), and the cake-eater is not so huge compared to the rest, but understandably has a swollen belly. The picture is anti-greed, but is it really anti-fat? It WAS possible to be too thin in those days and the ideal was much closer to the average woman's actual size.
I don't get the "Down with Teachers" protest. This doesn't square with women's rights groups fighting for access to higher education.

withoutscene's picture
withoutscene
May 23rd, 2011 | Link | I can see how in that

I can see how in that picture they might look varying degrees of fat, but if you look at the whole book it is not really that way. In the first picture where they are all lined up, you could argue that they are made uniformly large in terms of their dresses---whether that's actually supposed to represent fatness, I do not know. The space their dresses take up seems to vary, then, within the book. http://www.brynmawr.edu/library/exhibits/suffrage/suffergets.html

So who knows if the size of the girls was a statement about fatness (I think depicting them as girls is its own statement), but I do think the cake piece was about casting feminists as wanting everything to excess, including food, and evoking an idea that if it were feminists at the wheel we'd all be eating cake all day. Fatness was a symbol of overeating and greed--and ideas about anti-fat and anti-greed were quite linked at the time. I think it's significant that eating all cakes was used as a symbol of greed/excess in this narrative.

Fatness/Overeating were both a symbol of greed and a symbol of inability to control one's self when having access to luxuries and increased availability of food. The "suffergets" also wanted to abolish bedtime, but I wouldn't say that message was about greed, I would interpret it as an effort to cast feminists wanting to be liberal when it came to raising children--so liberal that it would ruin discipline and they would let their children do anything. That's just my reading. Both the cakes and bedtime portions seem to evoke the need to control feminists.

And yes, "down with teachers" sounds like an idiotic way to frame feminists, but I'd imagine there was some argument at the time that depicted feminists that way. There's really no shortage of idiotic depictions of feminists.

strawberry May 23rd, 2011 | Link | Silly me, the answer was

Silly me, the answer was under my nose all the time. These are children, after all, they want what children often want - no fixed bedtimes, no teachers, lots of cakes, etc. Feminists are of course just little girls playing at being all grown up, and needn't be taken seriously.
I still don't see the message as anti-fat; however it does have some parallels to the anti-fat messages of today. Namely, that fat people are just overgrown children who can't be trusted with anything, and who will, in their ignorance, destroy themselves and those around them. Same dart, different target.

wriggle99 May 24th, 2011 | Link | I love the way you worked

I love the way you worked that out strawberry.

I remember hearing about how they've tried to fit fat people into many boxes of pathology. One was the Freudian oral stage which explains a lot.

The book looks interesting and I'm glad the author seems to have gotten beyond this cause and effect view of fat phobia, as many of us have noted already, stigma preceeds ALL. Everything flows from that, including a lot of the so called "science" which mainly attempts to smooth over a surface appearance of rationality.

Viola's picture
Viola
May 24th, 2011 | Link | You convinced me to buy Amy

You convinced me to buy Amy Farrell's book, so I clicked through and bought it on my Kindle. Smiling

withoutscene's picture
withoutscene
May 25th, 2011 | Link | Awesome, Viola! Would love

Awesome, Viola! Would love to know what you think. I'm a sporadic reader....I think b/c so much other reading I have to do, but I'm going to try to get through it so I can do a review here.

DeeLeigh's picture
DeeLeigh
May 25th, 2011 | Link | Hell yes, groups of people

Hell yes, groups of people that society is trying to keep in a low status position are always patronized. "They're like little children! They can't make their own decisions. They need us to tell them what to do."

And the whole thing about the bias coming first and the health argument being developed over the years as a justification? That does seem likely. Women started going to doctors saying "I want to lose weight. Please help." and the doctors needed an excuse to get involved in what was and is primarily a matter of fashionable appearance. I've had a half-finished post about that laying around for quite a while. Maybe I'll finish it and get it posted.

withoutscene's picture
withoutscene
May 25th, 2011 | Link | "And the whole thing about

"And the whole thing about the bias coming first and the health argument being developed over the years as a justification?"

Amy does address this, Dee. I'll try to find the quote I just read tomorrow.

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