Like many feminists with internet access, I was appalled to learn about the attack on model Kate Upton by the seemingly pro-ana (pro-anorexia) site, Skinny Gossip. Jezebel was quick to inform me of all the ugly details: the gossip site—(which, in addition to fat-shaming some celebrities and skinny-glorifying some others, provides “Starving Tips” for readers who just can’t seem to quit that nasty habit of nourishing themselves)—featured pictures of Upton catwalking in a bikini at a recent runway show.
Accompanying these photos were cries of disgust over Kate’s “cow-like” appearance. The blogger wrote:
“Huge thighs, NO waist, big fat floppy boobs, terribly body definition–she looks like a squishy brick. Is this what American women are “striving” for now? The lazy, lardy look? Have we really gotten so fat in this country that Kate is the best we can aim for? Sorry, but: eww!”
In response, the article in Jezebel—and a slew of other feminist-ish blogs that covered the incident—condemned Skinny Gossip for perpetuating a culture that drives young girls to eating disorders and shames women with curves.
I was happy to join in their anger. But then I actually clicked on the Skinny Gossip website and found something to be even more outraged over, something that wasn’t mentioned in any of the responses I read on the web. This post on Skinny Gossip isn’t only fat-phobic—it’s also deeply classist and implicitly racist.
In addition to describing the physical shape of Kate’s body, Skinny Gossip also trashes Upton for looking like a model for “people who shop at Wal-Mart,” and “like she would work in the back of a motorcycle shop in Nashville and give (bad) blow jobs for $25,” and, most blatantly:
“Yes, yes, I know that every tobacco-chewing, beer-drinking, shotgun-toting, NASCAR-watching man south of the Mason-Dixon line would love to get into her pants (or, as they say down South, “into her tent,” which in her case is the same thing)–but most of those guys wouldn’t know a beautiful woman if she jumped out in front of his pickup truck.”
Hold the phone.
Truth be told, I’m actually not really surprised that this kind of language is being used on a pro-ana, er, “pro-skinny” website. Making connections between “fat” bodies and cultural stereotypes of the poor can be traced back to the historical conjuncture in which “the Welfare Queen” was born. This Reagan-era discourse aided in the cutting of federal assistance programs during the 1980s. In order to make this decision popular with the public, one of Reagan’s presidential speeches relayed an image of a welfare-leech from the Southside of Chicago. Pop culture and other cultural phenomena reified this symbol more concisely: the Welfare Queen was black, a mother of too many children, drove a Cadillac, and was also fat. This myth benefitted Reagan’s plans for a trickle-down economy, and the image continues to operate in our contemporary neoliberal climate, as it demonizes bodies that appear to be failing at individual responsibility.
You see, according to cultural logic, if you are poor or if you are fat, it’s your fault. It’s not surprising that race would be conveniently intertwined in this hypothesis, since the same ideology that promotes individual responsibility also argues that racism is over. So if you’re a person of color without a job, guess what? Still your fault.
Of course, Skinny Gossip doesn’t say anything about people of color, but she is naming Whiteness, and, in general, Whiteness is only named when it is also classed (e.g.: “red neck,” “white trash,” etc). A proper, upstanding neoliberal citizen is invisibly White, upper-middle class, and in control of their body. But those working-class, NASCAR-driving Southerners? They get set apart from hegemonic Whiteness for their similarities to the stereotypes of people of color. In a word, it’s about excess. Fat-bodied and/or attracted to fat bodies, Wal-Mart shopping, and sexual.
This is the other component to the out-of-control, unfit member of society: sexual excessiveness. This is a handy identifier, as it can discipline a whole slew of people in one fell swoop: queers, bodies of color, poor bodies, fat bodies, and sex workers. In addition to suggesting that Upton gave blowjobs in motorcycle shops, Skinny Gossip also condemns her for being just “a notch above Playboy,” and says bluntly that she looks “pornographic” (emphasis in original).
In her fascinating analysis on Hustler magazine, Laura Kipnis (1999) reminds us that “what we consider gross and disgusting is hardly some permanent facet of the human psyche: it’s historically specific and relatively recent” (135). She suggests that the reason that Hustler was considered “dirtier” than magazines like Penthouse and Playboy was all about its resistance to disciplining bodies:
Symbolically deploying the improper body as a mode of social sedition also follows logically from the fact that the body is the very thing those forms of power under attack—government, religion, bourgeois manners and mores—devote themselves to keeping “in its place.” Control over the body has long been considered essential to producing an orderly work force, a docile populace, a passive law-abiding citizenry. Just consider how many actual laws are on the books regulating how bodies may be seen and parts may not, what you may do you with your body in public and in private, and it begins to make more sense that the out-of-control, unmannerly body is precisely what threatens the orderly operation of the status quo. (134)
Blogs like Skinny Gossip only mirror what the government establishes through policies, what our economic system establishes through its mere existence, and what pop culture establishes every time poor bodies, fat bodies, and bodies of color are represented as “too much.”
One of the many pictures of Upton on the Skinny Gossip post shows her eating a large, meaty sandwich. The blogger responds with disgust—(and, to be fair, as a vegan, I do too, but not for the same reasons)—and exclaims, “Choices, people!”
How perfectly obvious of you, Skinny Gossip! You explain the fiction of neoliberalism’s promises so clearly for us! Choices? We don’t all have choices. We live in a system that confines and oppresses marginalized members of society in very real, material ways. Individual decisions won’t change this hard truth. Collective resistance will. And so I hope that outrage about Skinny Gossip can turn into something more productive: outrage about a system that enables a blog like this to exist in the first place.