Producing Physical and Social ‘Unfitness’

My mom would ask me to go to the store. I had so much anxiety about that . . . I think it was because of being overweight and people commenting even though that’s not what I thought consciously. All I knew was that it was uncomfortable to go outside. (Salima)

Women recounted how they were rendered as physically and socially unfit through the on-going dialogue of their social relations. This included the symbolic systems, physical environments, and visual, verbal and physically violent exchanges, which taught them that they transgressed the culturally normal (feminine, fit and flawless) body. Negative perceptions of fatness became increasingly commonplace as contributors moved through childhood, and occurred at home, on the street and especially at school. When memorable anti-fat cultural representations gained meaning and momentum in social interactions, these had significant implications for participants’ developing sense of bodily self.

Participants told how critical comments from friends and family were the most memorable sources of cultural knowledge about size. For most, including Aurora, family members first imparted the significance of size differences through body-based comparisons with sisters, cousins and female friends:

My sister is chubbier. They’d always make that distinction. I was ‘la flaca’ [the thin one], and she was ‘la gorda’ [the fat one]. Together, we make the perfect ten. It was terrible. They’re lavishing on me and disregarding her . . . (Aurora)

As a result of such body-based comparisons, many women acquired consciousness of unequal values given to different sizes. Stories of Catherine and many others further suggest that gendered power relations operating in encounters with fathers, brothers and other boys frequently opened up big girl bodies to a particularly gendered critical gaze:

My brother started to give me the nickname Moose or Cow. Those names hurt. But I wasn’t aware of it [being big] and it wasn’t negative until people started to comment. (Catherine)

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Through harsh and harassing comments, boys and men dictated anti-fat attitudes that informed women’s perceptions of their bodies and selves. For many, designation of their bodies as ‘fat’ laid the foundation for their forced accommodation to an unfit identity that, in turn, negatively shaped their embodied being.

Pp. 100-101 in Rice, Carla. 2009. “How big girls become fat girls: The cultural production of problem eating and physical inactivity.” Pp.97-109 in Critical Feminist Approaches to Eating Dis/Orders, edited by H. Malson and M. Burns. London and New York: Routledge. [From the section titled, “Producing Physical and Social ‘Unfitness’.” Bolding not in original.]

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