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Coming Out as Fat: Rethinking Stigma

Author(s): Abigail C. Saguy and Anna Ward


Source: Social Psychology Quarterly, Vol. 74, No. 1 (MARCH 2011), pp. 53-75
Published by: American Sociological Association
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AM
AMERICAN ASSOCIATION
SOCIOLOGICAL
SocialPsychology
Quarterly
74(1)53-75
Coming Out as Fat: ©American
Sociological 2011
Association
DOI:10.1177/0190272511398190
http://spq.sagepub.com
Rethinking Stigma
USAGE

Abigail C. Saguy1 and Anna Ward2

Abstract
Thispaperexaminesthesurprising case ofwomenwho"comeoutas fat" totestand refinethe-
oriesaboutsocialchange,social mobilization, stigma,and stigmaresistance.
First,supporting
theoriesabout"socialmovement spillover,"wefindthatoverlappingmemberships in queerand
fatactivistgroups,as wellas networks betweenthesegroups,havefacilitatedthemigration of
thisculturalnarrative.Second,we findthatthedifferent, embodiedcontextofbodysize and
sexualorientationleads tochangesin meaningas thisnarrativetravels.Specifically,thehyper-
offatchangeswhatitmeanstocomeoutas a fatperson,comparedtowhatitmeansto
visibility
comeoutas gay or lesbian.Third,thiscase leads us toquestiontheimportance ofthedistinc-
tionmade in theliteratureson stigmaand on social movements betweenassimilationist strat-
egiesthatstresssameness,on theonehand,and radicalpoliticalstrategies thatemphasizedif-
ference,on theother.Finally,thiscase suggeststhattheextentto whicha stigmatized traitis
associatedwithmembership in a social group- withits ownpractices,values,and norms -
" "
shapeswhatit meansto comeout as one whopossessesthattrait.

Keywords
stigma,coming out, covering,flaunting,
destigmatizationstrategies

When asked about how she became a fat person" at her first National
involved with the fat rights movement, Association to Advance Fat Acceptance
prominent fat rights activist and (NAAFA) convention: "Even though
author Marilyn Wann talks about her you may look fat, it's hard to admit it.
"Really Bad Day," when a romantic As we talk about in NAAFA, it's coming
interest told her he was embarrassed out as a fat person" (Sherrie interview
to introduce her to his friends because 9/7/01).1
she was fat and when she received a let-
ter fromBlue Cross refusingher health
1 ofCalifornia,
LosAngeles
insurance because she was "morbidly University
obese." At that point, Wann realized 2Swarthmore College
that "living in the closet [was] not Corresponding Author:
working," and she "decided to come Saguy,UCLADepartment
Abigail ofSociology,
264
HainesHall,LosAngeles, CA90095
out as a fat person and tried to do it Email:saguy@soc.ucla.edu
really publicly and really loudly
because . . . [she] wasn't going to put 1Unlesstheyrequested interview-
otherwise,
ees are identified
withfirst-namepseudonyms.
up with exclusion" (Wann interview 8/ Weuse firstandlastnamesforthoseinterview-
17/01). Another activist, Sherrie, simi- ees whorequested to be identified
bytheirreal
larly talks about how she "came out as names.

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54 Social PsychologyQuarterly74(1)

In an essay on the "queerness offat," This begs the question of why and
Katie LeBesco notes that "fat activists how fat acceptance activists have come
regularly describe the experience of to use this narrative and how they are
coming out as fat and choosing to no using it differentlythan have gays and
longer pass as on-the-way-to thin" lesbians. It thus speaks to the sociolog-
(LeBesco 2004:95). She cites a 1983 ical question of how cultural narra-
example when "Pam Hinden told tives travel and change in the process.
what she called her Tat coming out As the above quotations demonstrate,
story,'" in which she "explained that fat rights activists are not disclosing,
coming out meant mustering courage as much as affirming,their fatness.
to engage in activities usually thought They are reclaiming the term fat, com-
proper only for thin people, giving up monly used as an insult, as a neutral
futile diets, and rebuilding her self- or positive descriptor(it is in this sense
esteem" (LeBesco 2004:95). "We're that we use the word fat here), reject-
here, we're spheres! Get used to it!" ing the terms obese and overweightas
Wann is quoted saying, echoing the pathologizing normal human variation
ACT-up and Queer Nation's mantra (Cooper 1998; Schroeder 1992; Wann
"We're here, we're queer, get used to 1999). They are innovating upon the
it!" (Burkeman 1998; cited in LeBesco concept of coming out as a "destigmati-
2004). zation strategy" (Lamont 2009; see
It is intriguing that fat acceptance also Wimmer 2008). Thus, the rela-
activists- who combat discrimination tively understudied case of coming
on the basis of body size - would talk out as fat provides an opportunity to
about coming out as fat. It is not sur- test and refine theories of stigma and
prising that members of this move- stigma resistance. Before turning to
ment, which emerged in the 1960s our findings,we review our theoretical
and 1970s in the wake of the civil perspective, provide background on
rights, women's rights, and gay rights queer and fat politics, and describe
movements, would be drawn to our data and methods.
a proven strategyforcombating stigma
or unwanted difference (Goffman
THEORETICAL PERSPECTIVE:
1963). However, the narrative of com- FATPHOBIA AND SOCIAL
ing out does not seem to work with CHANGE
fat. That is, while coming out usually
refers to revealing something hidden, This paper seeks to contributeto under-
body size is hypervisible. It is what standings of political resistance and
Goffman (1963) referred to as a "dis- social change. It specifically considers
credited identity," meaning that it is political resistance to what we will call
plainly visible, as opposed to a "discred- fatphobia, akin to homophobia, in
itable identity," which can be which thinner bodies are defined as
concealed.2 morally, medically, aesthetically, and
sexually desirable, while heavy bodies
are vilified.The suffix"phobia" evokes
2Thatsaid,fatwomen often
talkaboutfeeling the fear and hatred that visible body
inthatpeopleonlyseea fatper- fat on oneself or on others
invisible,
socially
sonandcannotsee theindividual much provokes for
woman, in the United
as the protagonistin Ralph Ellison's(1947) many contemporary
InvisibleMan speaks of beingblack in the States. We conceptualize fatphobia as
UnitedStatesin the1940s. a social structure that is jointly

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Coming Out as Fat 55

composedofcultural schemas and mate- researchshowingthat the risks ofobesity


rial resources (Sewell 1992). Schemas have been overblown.4Yet while clearly
are "virtual" in that they exist only as intenton protectingits bottomline from
memory traces in people's minds, are accusations that its products contribute
not always conscious, and can be trans- to illness, the foodindustryhas not pro-
posed or extended to new situations duced a counter-ideology that celebrates
when the opportunity arises (Sewell bigger bodies. On the contrary,advertise-
1992:8). In contrast,resources are mate- ments for diet foods explicitlysuggest
rial. Schemas are enacted via resour- that thinness should be a personal goal,
ces, while the use of resources is while other food advertisementsimplic-
directedby cultural schema. As a struc- itly convey the same message by, for
ture, contemporary American fatpho- instance, exclusivelyfeaturingvery thin
bia is both deep (schema dimension) models (Bordo 1993). Plus-size fashionis
and of high power (resource dimen- probably the industrymost invested in
sion) (Sewell 1992). It is deep because creating positive and glamorous images
it is pervasive and relatively uncon- of larger female bodies. While a growing
scious. That is, in contrast to places market, plus-size fashion nonetheless
where food is scarce and where fatness representsa tiny segmentof the fashion
signals health and high status (Klein industryas a whole, which caters to the
1996; Popenoe 2005; Stearns 1997), in slimmest women and emphasizes the
contemporary and wealthy Western desirability of slenderness. In other
societies, fatness predominantly signi- words, while not monolithic,contempo-
fies laziness, ill-health, and ugliness rary Western economic interests over-
(Campos 2004; Latner and Stunkard whelminglysupportthe idea that thin-
2003; Puhl, Andreyeva, and Brownell not fat- is desirable.
3 Yet even deeply entrenchedand pow-
2008). In contrast, slenderness is
taken as proof of discipline, health, erful social structures can be chal-
and beauty (Bordo 1993). lenged. One way to do this is to apply
Fatphobia is of high power because existing schema to new contexts,
negative attitudes about fat are but- a potentialthat Sewell calls the transpo-
tressedby substantialeconomicand polit- sibilityof schemas (Sewell 1992). Thus,
ical material resources fromthe United talking about comingout as fat transpo-
States and other state governmentsand ses schemas developed in the gay rights
agencies,internationalorganizationslike movement (e.g., the importance of
the World Health Organization (WHO), authenticity,value of diversity,critique
pharmaceutical companies producing of pressures to conform)onto fat bodies,
weightloss drugs,the weightloss indus- so that they can be seen as valuable
try,the fashionindustry,and the medical rather than pathological. This process,
establishment(see Campos 2004; Campos in which innovations diffusefrom one
et al. 2006; Oliver 2005). In contrast,the social movement to another (see Soule
foodindustryseems to have an economic 2004), is what social movementtheorists
interest in promoting fatness. Indeed, call a social movement spillover
the Center for Consumer Freedom, (McAdam 1995; Meyer and Whittier
a food industry lobby, has publicized 1994). Previous work suggests that cul-
tural diffusion is most likely when
3Fatis,however, andpositive
multivocal, con-
in certain
offatpersist
notations contextsandin ://ww
4See http .com/adver
w.consumerfreedom
See,forexample,
subgroups. Klein1996. tisements_detail.cfm/ad/30.

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56 Social PsychologyQuarterly74(1)

a frame resonates across social settings resources provides opportunities for


(Snow et al. 1986) and among move- social change. This refersto how material
ments that have overlapping constitu- resources can be interpretedin different
ents (Meyer and Whittier1994). ways. Thus, a fat body can be read as
In that the coming out narrative has the embodimentofexcess and moral soft-
become broad and inclusive enough to ness, but it can also be seen as, say,
accommodate a variety of differentper- expansive or generous. Similarly, thin
spectives and interests beyond the spe- bodies can be read as streamlined,but
cific social movement where it origi- they can also be interpretedas narrow
nated, it could be considered a master (as in narrow-minded)or stingy. The
frame (Snow et al. 1986). Indeed, John ways in which material resources- in
Kitsuse (1980) noted as early as 1980 this case physical bodies- can be inter-
that a variety of groups, including "fat preted are not infinite.It would be diffi-
people, little people, [and] old people" cult to argue that a fat body is stream-
were "coming out all over." He argued lined, just as it seems counterintuitive
that while these groups were not reveal- to frame a thin body as expansive, but
ing a hidden stigma,theywere nonethe- thereis nonethelessa varied (thoughlim-
less "coming out" by declaring "their ited) number of schema- with positive
presence openly and without apology to and negative valences- that can be
claim the rightsof citizenship"(Kitsuse applied to the same material resource.
1980:8). While he did not show that And this providesopportunitiesforthose
"new deviants," as Kitsuse (1980:8) challengingthe symbolicorder.
called them, were themselves using the
term coming out, Kitsuse himself used
it as a master frame to make sense of Coming Out and Flaunting
a wide range of new political activism, The case of coming out as fat also pro-
thus foreshadowingthe phenomenon at vides an opportunity to rethink
the center of our analysis. Goffman's (1963) classic work on
The effectof transposing schema or stigma. For Goffman,only those with
using a master frame, however, is not invisible stigmas, what he calls "dis-
entirelypredictable.Justbecause a met- creditable" identities, can pass as
aphor or narrative has been successful normal, that is, as not possessing the
in one setting is no guarantee that it stigma in question. Thus a lightskinned
will be successful in another. To work, AfricanAmerican may pass as white, or
it may have to be changed somewhat a stereotypicallymasculine-lookinggay
to fit the new setting. Moreover, the man may pass as straight. Building on
experiencein the second settingis likely Goffman (1963), law professor Kenji
to have implicationsforsubsequent usa- Yoshino (2006) talks about coming out
ges of this metaphor. This corresponds as a refusal to pass. Based on this typol-
to what Sewell (1992) calls the unpre- ogy, it is impossible to come out as fat,
dictability of resource accumulation. given that fatness is visible. Yet fat
The case offat rightsallows us to exam- rights activists do talk about coming
ine the important and understudied out as fat, which leads us to rethink
issue of how different(embodied) reali- the importance of visibility in stigma
ties shape the diffusionof social move- and destigmatization strategies.
ment narratives. Accordingto GofFman's(1963) typol-
Finally, for our purposes, Sewell ogy, fat, as a discredited identity, is
(1992) discusses how the polysemy of immediately apparent and impossible

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Coming Out as Fat 57

to hide. While a person with a dis- forgood gays- the kind who would not
credited identitycannot pass, they can challenge the norms of straightculture,
cover by preventing their stigma from who would not flaunt their sexuality,
"looming large" (Goffman 1963). Thus, and who would not insist on living dif-
a blind man may directhis eyes toward ferently from ordinary folk" (Warner
the person with whom he is speaking, 1999:113).
not to pass as seeing, but to avoid mak- Indeed, Yoshino's notion of flaunting
ing the other uncomfortableby drawing as a refusal to cover resonates with
attention to his difference (Goffman queer theory and activism, in which
1963). Yoshino (2006) calls the refusal "queer maintains a relation ofresistance
to cover,which results in drawing atten- to whatever constitutes the normal"
tion to a visible stigma, flaunting. He (Jagose 1996:99). Queer theory often
gives examples of gay men who are not performativelycelebrates acts that are
onlyout about their sexuality but flaunt typically coded as socially deviant in
by, say, bringing their romantic part- order to resist the very categorization
ners to office parties, kissing their of "normal" and "deviant." Yoshino
same-sex partner in public, or speaking (2006) argues that coming out involves
out about gay politics. By extension, a politics of assimilation, whereas
a fat woman may cover by wearing flaunting represents a politics of
dark clothes or flaunt by wearing difference.
a hot-pink bikini. Thus, while coming Sociologist Mary Bernstein makes
out is assumed to be a strategyfordis- a similar distinction between identity
creditable identities, flauntingis avail- foreducation, which "involves challeng-
able to those with both visible and invis- ing how dominant cultures perceive
ible stigmas. stigmatized individuals and communi-
Yoshino (2006) argues that the same ties in an attempt to gain legitimacy"
behavior may or may not be covering and identityfor critique, which "con-
or flaunting,depending on personal sen- frontsthe values, categories,and practi-
sibilities. For instance, some African ces of the dominant culture" (Bernstein
Americans experience prohibitions 1997). She argues that the former
against dreadlocks as a demand to approach is more commonamong collec-
cover, while others personally preferto tivitieswith strongorganizational infra-
straighten their hair. Yoshino (2006) structureand access to decision makers,
further argues that a given behavior while the latter is more common among
can constitutecoveringon some dimen- groups with weak organizational struc-
sions and flauntingon others. He specif- ture and no access to decision makers
ically discusses the dimensions of (Bernstein 1997).
appearance, cultural expression (what Yet, as we will see, in the case of fat,
he calls "affiliation"),activism,and asso- coming out ofteninvolves affirmingdif-
ciation. Demanding gay marriage, for ference,while flauntingis oftenpart of
instance, can be seen as flauntingalong a strategy of inclusion, leading us to
the dimensions of appearance, activism, rethink destigmatization strategies.
and association, but covering along the Finally, the fat case draws our attention
dimension of affiliation,in that it reaf- to how otherunderemphasizedvariations
firmsthe mainstream cultural value of in stigma- particularly the extent to
marriage. Queer theorist Michael which a given stigma is associated with
Warner affirms this view when he cultural practices, beliefs, and values-
argues that gay marriage "would make shape destigmatizationstrategies.

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58 Social PsychologyQuarterly74(1)

BACKGROUND: THE COMING OUT norms after the war. While they made
NARRATIVE political demands, the Mattachine
Society's use of coming out narratives
In his examination of prewar gay male was focused on the "internal acceptance
communities in major cities, George ofa homosexual identity(which could be
Chauncey explains that coming out wholly private)" (Johansson and Percy
was not initially associated with the 1994:21).
closet. Rather, one spoke of coming The Stonewall Riots of 1969, or the
out into homosexual society or the Stonewall Rebellion, is a watershed in
gay world, including enormous drag traditional narratives of lesbian and
balls that were patterned on the main- gay historyin the United States and is
stream debutante and masquerade oftencreditedwith sparking the gay lib-
balls, "a world neither so small, nor eration movement (see D'Emilio 1983;
so isolated, nor often, so hidden as Duberman 1993). The Stonewall Inn,
'closet' implies" (Chauncey 1994:7). In a popular, members-only bar in
other words, during this period, com- Greenwich Village in Manhattan, had,
ing out was conceptualized as mainly like otherestablishmentscateringto les-
social and cultural (see also Garber bians and gays, oftenbeen the target of
1989:325). Borrowing from Sewell's police raids. On July 27, 1969, however,
(1992) language, the upper-class Stonewall patrons resisted a police raid,
debutante ball was transposed onto which escalated into Village-wide riots
the gay social scene, exerting social that continued off and on for several
change in a cultural more than a polit- days, as others joined the resistance.
ical sense. Recent scholarship has shown that
By placing large numbers of men in a vibrant political field was already in
same-sex living arrangements and put- place prior to Stonewall and that the
ting women in workplaces with large New Left played a greater role than the
numbers of women, the war increased Stonewall rebellion in energizing and
the likelihood that those with same-sex radicalizing the movement (Armstrong
desires would find like-minded people 2002). Nonetheless, Stonewall remains
(Berube 1989). The end ofthe war, how- a pivotal and definingmomentin collec-
ever, brought renewed attention from tive gay rightsnarratives.
the government,community and reli- In the 1970s, the gay rights move-
gious leaders, and the media to gender ment took the civil rights and black
and sexual identity (Faderman 1991). power movements as a new model for
As Alan Berube explains: "The taste of political organizing and conceptualizing
freedomduring the war, the magnitude gay identity (Armstrong 2002). While
of the postwar crackdown, and the pre-Stonewall organizations such as
example ofthe growingblack civil rights the Mattachine Society conceptualized
movement caused more and more les- homosexuality as a relatively minor
bians and gay men to think of them- aberration of mental character, the
selves as an unjustly persecuted minor- post-Stonewall organizations framed
ity" (Berube 1989:393). The few lesbian gay identityas a significantcomponent
and gay organizations in existence dur- ofsocial and personal identity.The com-
ing the 1950s and 1960s, including the ing out narrative assumed a central role
Mattachine Society and the Daughters in gay identity and community,as is
of Bilitis, developed in response to the reflectedby the publicationofnumerous
legal and political enforcementof sexual anthologies of coming out stories

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Coming Out as Fat 59

(Holmes 1988; Moore 1997; Penelope further advice and information on


and Wolfe 1980; Umans 1988). coming out straight (Cohen 2000).
The coming out narrative became Organizations like Free To Be Me, an
a rite ofpassage, somethingto be shared ex-gay group aimed at young adults,
with others, and the centerpiece of gay explicitlyadopt the language oflesbian
liberation movements.Coming out was, and gay scholarship and activism,
for the first time, set up in explicit specifically arguments about the fluid-
relation to the metaphor of the closet. ity of sexual identity,to argue that gay
A hostile, homophobic mainstream cul- people can choose to become straight
ture was blamed forthe creation of the (New Direction for Life Ministries
closet but individuals, including gay Inc. 2009).
individuals, were blamed for its main-
tenance. Thus, the mantra "Come
DATA AND METHODS
Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are"
of the 1980s and 1990s can be under- The idea for this paper emerged at
stood as just as much of a demand for the 2001 annual convention of
gays and lesbians to publicly declare National Association to Advance Fat
their sexuality as an assurance of Acceptance, which the first author
safety and community. This new for- attended as part ofa larger study inves-
mulation of coming out asserts "the tigating debates over body weight. Bill
public relevance of what others deem Fabrey, a self-identifiedfat admirer
private" (Gamson 1998:200; see also (men who are sexually attracted to fat
Valocchi 2001). Questions ofauthentic- women), founded NAAFA in 1969, in
ity, and the recognition that the veil the wake of the civil rights movement.
of the private sphere had to be Fabrey says he consciously chose a -
lifted for effective political mobiliza- moniker that resembled that of the
tion, brought forth such notions as NAACP, the National Association for
the "closet case" and the tactic of out- the Advancement of Colored People
ing in which one's sexual orientation (Fabrey interview 8/17/01),thus claim-
is publicly revealed by a third party. ing moral equivalence between discrim-
There is some evidence that the closet ination on the basis of race and size.
has recently receded as a powerful Today NAAFA denounces weight-based
metaphor among gay and lesbians discrimination and negative images of
(Seidman 2002). fat people in the media, and encourages
Ex-gay movements, also known as self-acceptance and empowerment
reorientationmovements,have adopted through workshops held during the
the language of coming out to describe annual national convention and local
the journey from a gay identity to a chapter meetings. The annual NAAFA
straightidentity.Richard Cohen's book national convention and state chapter
Coming Out Straight: Understanding meetings also offer social events for
and Healing Homosexuality adopts the fat women (most weighing between
language and style of lesbian and gay 200 and 500 pounds) and fat admirers
coming out anthologies. It includes to meet and socialize (Saguy and Riley
a step-by-step model for coming out 2005).
straight, a variety of coming out At 5'3" and about 120 pounds, the
narratives, advice for families and firstauthor is generally not considered
friends dealing with the process, and fat and worried that this might hinder
a resource list for those seeking her ability to develop rapport with

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60 Social PsychologyQuarterly74(1)

NAAFA members. Her fears, however, interview.One ofthem thoughtthe met-


were unfounded. Her presence evoked aphor did not workbecause the visibility
some puzzlement at first, but when ofbody size meant there was nothingto
NAAFA members heard that she was reveal: "I never felt like I was in the
a sociologist interested in the fat closet, so I couldn't come out." Two of
acceptance movement,they were eager these four,however,foundthe metaphor
to share their perspectives.Indeed, sev- useful and readily adopted it duringthe
eral members commented that as interview to make sense of how they
a "thin person," she was better posi- identify as fat. The fourth interview,
tioned to advocate for fat acceptance conducted during the 2008 NAAFA con-
(assuming this would be her inclination) vention, like the original interviews in
in that she could not so easily be dis- 2001, did not explicitlyaddress the met-
missed as having an axe to grind. This aphor of coming out but discussed iden-
is an instance ofhow thin privilegefunc- tifyingas fat and fat acceptance politics
tions in debates over body size (see more generally. The respondent in this
Bacon 2009; Saguy and Riley 2005). interviewdid not use the term "coming
During the 2001 convention and in out as fat," but described experiences
the two months followingthe meetings, that closely paralleled what others
the first author had several informal labeled coming out.
discussions with participants and Interviewslasted at least 90 minutes,
conducted formal, in-depth, semi- and several respondents were inter-
structured interviews with nine viewed more than once. Interviews
NAAFA members: eight fat-identified were taped and transcribed verbatim,
women and fat-admirer Bill Fabrey. but interview excerpts were edited for
Much to her surprise, the first author clarity.Twelve respondents were white
found that during their interviews,five and three were bi- or multiracial. Over
of the eight women spontaneously used half (eight) identifiedas either bisexual
the analogy of "coming out" and/orthe or queer. Ages ranged from25 to 60 at
"closet" to talk about how they identify the time of the interview,with an aver-
as fat. Bill Fabrey also recounted age age of 42 years. With one exception
a very detailed coming out narrative in in which a respondenthad recentlylost
regard to his sexual desire for fat 100 pounds and was of average size,
women, suggesting that future work body weight ranged fromabout 200 to
should examine the case of fat admirers 425 pounds. The respondent who had
in greater detail. recently lost 100 pounds remained
As a follow-up,an additional seven a good candidate for the study, in that
women were interviewedin 2006-2008. she has a long history of involvement
They were selected based on their in the movementand her weighthistory
involvement in fat acceptance groups provides her an interesting vantage
and/ortheirhigh profilein the fat accep- point to discuss how body size shapes
tance literature. Three of these addi- micro-interactions .
tional respondents had publicly used As these interviews are not drawn
the analogy ofcomingout as fat in their from a probability sample of fat-
activism and/orwriting,and the inter- identified women (an impossible task,
view sought to clarify how they were given that the fulluniverse of fat-identi-
using this analogy and its source. The fied women is unknown) and were con-
remaining four respondents had not ducted over a seven-year period, they
used this expression before the cannot tell us about the prevalence of

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Coming Out as Fat 61

the comingout narrativeamong fat-iden- respondents and movement activists to


tified women at any given moment in hone our analysis. Finally, as part of
time. However, they do suggest that an effortto capture the social context
this narrative is being used in this new in which fat activists are coming out as
context.Our goal here is to examine how. fat, we searched Lexis-Nexis for all
To answer this,we also draw on ongo- news articles for all available years in
ing (since 2001) participant observation major papers that contained the terms
on two fat-acceptance listservs, from coming out and closet in the keywords.
which the firstauthor regularly copies Our specific focus on women induc-
and analyzes relevant threads, auto- tively emerged from the fact that the
biographies, and anthologies focusing fat acceptance movement is comprised
on fat identity, fat acceptance zines almost exclusively of (fat) women.
(self-published or online magazines), Women are also the main producers of
websites, and blogs. We further draw autobiographies chronicling their pro-
on analyses of NAAFA newsletters. cess of coming out as fat. Both patterns
The most recent newsletters (Winter are probably largely due to the fact
2005-Winter 2008, or 16 issues) are that fat stigma weighs more heavily on
available on the NAAFA website, and women than on men (men, in contrast,
we were able to obtain fromthe current suffermore stigmatizationthan women
newsletter editor electronic versions of if they are short) (Conley and Glauber
issues published between 1999 and 2007; Puhl et al. 2008). Specifically,
2003. We searched all of these issues the fat acceptance movement is domi-
forthe words out and closet. The oldest nated by fat,white,middle-class women
issues (1970-2002) are not publicly (Sobal 1999), forwhom body size is espe-
accessible, but Bill Fabrey generously cially salient (see Brownell et al. 2005;
manually searched his personal full Cawley and Danziger 2005). How fat
archive for any mention of coming out men negotiate their body size is an
and provided us with a detailed report importanttopic that has been examined
of what he found. Whenever possible, elsewhere (Monaghan 2008), but it lies
we contactedauthors ofrelevant articles beyond the scope of the present study.
to ask them about how and why they
chose this specific terminologyto talk FINDINGS
about affirminga fat identity.
The firstauthor also engaged in sev- Studying the migration of the coming
eral email exchanges with Charlotte out narrative fromqueer to fat politics
Cooper, founder of the Chubsters, to allows us to (1) identifygeneral mecha-
gather specific information about this nisms of cultural migration and (2) to
particular group, and with several of see how narratives change when they
the interview respondents to clarify are used in a new social context.
points or ask additional questions. Given that body size is typically more
From Cooper, we also obtained pub- visible than sexual orientation, this
lished and unpublished articles detail- case further provides an opportunity
ing the history ofthe Chubsters. We fur- to reconsider the role that visibility
ther drew on the fat acceptance plays in stigma and stigma resistance
literature for historical information (Goffman 1963; Yoshino 2006). Third,
about the movement and its use of the as we will see, this case leads us to
term coming out, and we solicited feed- question the distinction between com-
back from many of the interview ing out and a politics of assimilation,

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62 Social PsychologyQuarterly74(1)

on one hand, and flaunting and a poli- heterosexuals, female homemakers,


tics of difference, on the other and stay-at-home fathers. There are
(Bernstein 1997; Yoshino 2006). references to Jews, Christian musi-
Finally, examining the case of fat cians, atheists, secular humanists,
acceptance draws our attention to and witches coming out about their
underexamined aspects of stigma- spe- respective faiths. Socialists, republi-
cificallythe extent to which it is associ- cans, white supremacist groups, cli-
ated with membership in a social mate change deniers, and Scots are
group- that help predict if and how described as coming out by revealing
a given stigma will be reclaimed. We their political views or nationalities.
develop each ofthese points in fourcon- A mother of a young man who is men-
secutive sections below. tally ill describes herself as "coming
out of the closet" by talking about his
illness. Similarly, several articles dis-
Migration of Cultural Narratives cuss the coming out of taboo topics,
There are at least two pathways that including sexual harassment in the
the narrative of coming out may have late 1970s, immigration in the late
travelled from queer to fat politics. 1980s, family violence, abuse of
First, it may be that the narrative has Jewish women, surrogate motherhood,
become culturally ubiquitous in a way menopause, mood disorder, erectile
that makes it increasingly available dysfunction, and male vanity. One
forappropriation in highly diverse set- article describes abortion as moving
tings, perhaps with little efforthaving "back in the closet."
to be expended by the appropriators, We found a reference to "large-size
and perhaps with a gradual weakening women . . . coming out of the fashion
of the definitionalcontrol,so that peo- closet, with versions of European
ple can make of the terms whatever designs now available in sizes from 14
they like. Alternatively,or in addition, to 26" but we did not find examples of
it may be that migration of the coming coming out as a fat person, as evoked
out narrative fromqueer to fat politics by our respondents. Similarly missing
has been facilitated by networks or fromour list were examples of African
overlapping memberships between Americans coming out as black.
the two movements (Meyer and Indeed, stand-up comedian Wanda
Whittier 1994). While coming out has Sykes, who is black and recentlycame
indeed become culturally ubiquitous, out as a lesbian, treats as a laughable
we find that queer-fat networks and impossibility the idea of "coming out
overlapping memberships in these black" to her parents in a 2009 HBO
movements have played a crucial role special "Fma Be Me" (Sykes 2009).
in the diffusionof the coming out nar- Consistent with this, the news media
rative from queer to fat political examples of coming out all involve
groups. instances in which somethingboth stig-
A search, in October 2009, of the matized and hidden is broughtinto the
terms coming out and closet in the key- open. In other words, while the narra-
words of major papers, indexed by tive of coming out has indeed become
Lexis-Nexis for all available years, culturally ubiquitous, fat acceptance
yields news stories that speak of people activists still appear innovative in their
comingout not only as gays or lesbians, use of this narrative to affirma visible
but also as asexuals, celibates, male stigma.

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Coming Out as Fat 63

Moreover, our interview and textual the people I turn to are fat and queer
data suggest that residents of San women or gender-queer people" (Wann
Francisco, where queer politics has email 9/30/09).
been most active (Armstrong 2002), In an essay, activistCharlotte Cooper
queer-identifiedactivists and queer the- explains that "as queers it's likely that
orists were among the first to talk of we are a little bit more advanced [in]
coming out as fat. For instance, that we are better able to reject homo-
Marilyn Wann was living in San phobia, or question assimilation"
Francisco in the early 1990s when she (Cooper 2009:4-5). Note that fat activist
created the zine FAT! SO? and talks Pat Hindon, who was quoted in the
about being influencedby her gay male introductionas one of the first people
friends in Queer Nation who took her to talk about coming out as fat, also
to "politicized/punk drag shows and identifiedas lesbian (LeBesco 2004:95).
other gay community stuff' (Wann Similarly, in a 1983 essay entitled
email 9/30/09).She took furtherinspira- "Coming Out: Notes on Fat Lesbian
tion fromqueer zines being produced in Pride," the author Thunder, who identi-
San Francisco at the time, including fied as a "dyke," spoke about "going
Diseased Pariah News and Hothead frombeing a fat woman to coming out
Paisan: Homicidal Lesbian Terrorist. as a fat woman" (Thunder 1983:212,
Wann notes that when she began emphasis in the original). According to
printingFATISO? in July of 1994, she Cooper, in response to an earlier version
used the "fatdykecommunityas a major of this paper, it is not so much that fat
support for [her] work" (Wann email 9/ activists have appropriated coming out
30/09).While traditionallymarginalized narratives fromlesbian or queer groups,
in the NAAFA itself,feministlesbians but that gay liberation rhetoric was
were active in the organization's Fat already "woven into the history of fat
Feminist Caucus and founded several liberation" via the experience of queer
independent groups, including the fat activists.
Feminist Underground in the early Queer theorists,who criticallystudy
1970s (Fabrey email 11/23/09;Stimson the socially constructednature ofsexual
n.d.). Since then, lesbians and bisexual acts and self-identifications, were also
women have organized and supported among the first to view fat through
scores of San Francisco-based fat activ- a queer lens. For instance, an essay
ist groups, including performance that began as a 1986 conferencepaper
groups such as the Fat Lip Readers by queer theorist Eve Sedgwick (Moon
Theater, Big Burlesque, Fat Bottom and Sedgwick 2001) explicitlyuses the
Revue, Bod Squad, Big Moves, the phrase "coming out as a fat woman"
Padded Lilies, the Fat Women's Swim, (see also Kyrola 2005; LeBesco 2004).
Radiance magazine, and the Fat Girl It claims that, despite the visibility of
zine (Wann email 9/30/09).There are fat, "there is such a process as coming
also queer cultural and fat positive out as a fat woman" in which "the
events, such as Fat Girl Speaks, that denominationof oneself as a fat woman
were organized in Portland in the late is a way ... ofmaking clear to the people
1990s and early 2000s, and organiza- around one that theircultural meanings
tions like the National Association for will be, and will be heard as, assaultive
Lesbians of SizE (NOLOSE). "Even and diminishing to the degree that
now," writes Wann, "when I think of they are not fat-affirmative" (Moon and
local fat activist community, most of Sedgwick 2001:206).

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64 Social PsychologyQuarterly74(1)

Analyses of NAAFA newsletterslend contact they had had with queer activ-
additional supportto the claim that net- ism or with others who were in touch
works between queer and fat groups with queer activism. Sally Smith
facilitatedthe migration of the coming explains that she worked for LIFE
out narrative. We found six explicit (Lobby for Individual Freedom and
mentions to "coming out as fat" in Equality), an umbrella group of primar-
NAAFA newsletters printed between ily gay and lesbian organizations whose
1981 and 2006. In the first,published mission was to lobby for responsible
in the 1981 Spring/Summernewsletter, AIDS legislation. She says, "I'm sure
Kimm Bonner, then chair of the New that being immersed in (what was at
England chapter of the NAAFA writes, the time) a gay rights issue provided
"Personally- what I've gotten out of a prism with which to view my experi-
this [joining NAAFA] is to come out of ence" (Smith email 12/16/09). Bill
the closet- I feel really good about who Fabrey says he picked up the expres-
I am. I've been able to tell everyone in sion of "coming out" as a fat admirer
my life- family,friends,people at work from "fat feminists," who he says
that 'Hey- this is me- if I like it, you were the first at NAAFA to use the
should accept it too"' (Bonner 1981:2). phrase in reference to body size: "I
In 1988 then executive director Sally never thought of it until they used it"
E. Smith writes, "In my first year as (Fabrey email 10/6/09).While himself
a NAAFA, I came out of the closet on a heterosexual man, Fabrey's ex-wife
size acceptance issues" (Smith 1988:3). of many years identifies as bisexual,
An April 1989 article with no byline, and he considers himself "supportive
but which Bill Fabrey attributesto him- of gays and lesbians" (Fabrey email
self, says, "The firstNAAFA officewas 12/3/09).
located in Fabrey's spare bathroom, When asked how it had occurred to
and the membership file was main- her to use this language, Bruno, who is
tained in their walk-in closet . . . (Talk straight and "happily married for 32
about fatpeople and theiradmirerscom- years," mentions that she may have
ing out of the closet!)" (NAAFA 1989:2). picked it up from one or several
Barbara Altman Bruno writes in the NAAFA board memberswho were living
1993 newsletterthat "it takes most peo- in San Francisco: "Since she [a NAAFA
ple a period of time before they will board member] lives and I used to live
'come out' as fat people, and join in the Bay Area, 'comingout' was a com-
NAAFA" (Bruno 1993:7), and in 1995, mon term" (Bruno email 12/16/09).
"Your 'coming out' process [as fat peo- Barron mentions that she "used to
ple] may have taken many years, per- hang out a lot in Hank's Gab Cafe (on
haps decades" (Bruno 1995:4). In 2006 Marilyn [Wann's] FAT!SO ? website)"
Kathy Barron writes about coming to and that "I'm sure that Marilyn had
realize that many fat people are "'in something to do with it- she has been
the closet' in terms of acknowledging a huge inspiration to me and a driving
themselves as fat" and urges "all force in much of my fat activism"
NAAFA members to come out as proud (Barron email 12/16/09).
fat people and fat activists" (Barron
2006:1). How VisibilityMatters
When asked how they came to use
this language, several of these NAAFA In some cases in which a person was
newsletter contributorspointed to the previously fat and still identifies as

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Coming Out as Fat 65

such, coming out as fat involves- as States. This act is of symbolic impor-
with coming out as gay or lesbian- tance, especially given how often the
the disclosure of a hidden self identifi- mass media use "headless fatties"(pho-
cation. For instance, after losing 100 tos of fat bodies with heads cropped
pounds and arriving at college where out of the image) when discussing the
no one had known her as fat, Jennifer so-called obesity epidemic (Cooper
spoke about hearing "women talk about 2007).
fatness in a way I'd never heard before" More typically, coming out as fat
and findingherself "rather mortified." involves a person who is easily recog-
She says, "I felt the only way they'd nized as fat affirmingto herself and
understand was if I outed myself. others her fatness as a nonnegotiable
That's what I did, rather uncomfort- aspect ofself,ratherthan as a temporary
ably" (Jenniferinterview 7/14/06). state to be remedied through weight
In her one-woman short video enti- loss. For example, Kelly says, "I've
tled A Fat Rant (Nash 2007), which begun identifyingmore now with fat as
had attracted over one million viewers opposed to thinkingof myselfas essen-
on YouTube by August 2008, the young, tially a thin person who just needs to
beautiful, witty, and fashionable Joy lose twenty pounds" (Kelly interview
Nash announces that she weighs 224 12/22/06).5For many, using the word
pounds and is "moderately obese" fat is a key component of coming out.
according to government guidelines. Lily says, "If there's a marker for me,
"I'm fat," she says, "and it's OK. It when I would say I came out as a fat
doesn't mean that I'm stupid or ugly or person, it's when I first reclaimed the
lazy or selfish. I'm fat. . . . F-A-T. It's word fat" (Lily interview 7/7/06).
three little letters. What are you so Marilyn Wann explains that she tries
afraid of?" to "get people to use the F word. There
After a public lecture in which the is nothing inherentlybad about the F
first author showed a clip of A Fat word. I don't use euphemisms because
Rant , members of the audience pro- these reinforcethe concept that there
tested that the charming woman on is something wrong with fat" (Wann
the screen was not actually fat. It may interview6/9/06).
be that many people do not realize just Bogeywomen zine suggests respond-
how broadly the official category of ing to the statement "you're not fat" by
obese is defined,including one-thirdof saying "I am fat, honey. Don't assume
the U.S. population, many of whom do I'm as terrifiedof the word and the con-
not look especially fat. When Nash cept as you are" (Owen, Buffington,and
announces that she is obese, she may, Owen 2000-2001). When Nicky meets
in fact,be announcing somethingpeople someone forthe firsttime, she describes
do not realize, thus challenging their herself as a "fat black woman." When
assumptions of who is obese, much in they express surprise, she responds by
the same way that a straight-looking saying uFat is not a four-letterword.
woman challenges assumptions about I'm very comfortablewith the word fat,
what it means to be lesbian when she so feel free to use it. Fabulous and
comes out as such. By associating Thick. That's what it stands for"
a happy, confident,and beautiful face
to fat, Nash undermines the fear and 5Notetheuse of"with"as opposedto"as"fat
loathing that this term typically pro- here and the reluctanceit seems to signal.
vokes in the contemporary United ThankstoReneAlmeling forthispoint.

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66 Social PsychologyQuarterly74(1)

(Nicky interview 7/11/08).As our only the polysemyofthinbodies as a material


(biracial) AfricanAmerican respondent, resource. Thus the Chubsters not only
Nicky integrates the word thick, which reject the stigma associated with being
is commonly used among American fat but also envision an alternative
blacks to appreciatively denote fleshi- world in which body size diversity is
ness, into the word fat, creativelyargu- widely valued and where size bigots
ing that FAT is an acronym for are stigmatized.
Fabulous and Thick. In proudly coming out as fat, one
Respondents say that when they rejects cultural attitudes that fatness is
reclaim the wordfat, it can no longerbe unhealthy, immoral, ugly, or otherwise
used to humiliate, shame, or silence undesirable. One claims the right to
them. For instance,when a woman tried define the meaning of one's own body
to cut in frontof her in line and called and to stake out new cultural mean-
her a "fat ass" when she protested, ings and practices around body size.
Michelle says she "just smiled and said, Queer theorists have similarly chal-
Tes, I've got a fat ass, but you cut in lenged meanings of disability. For
line and I'm first.'And she absolutely instance, Robert McRuer argues that
could not handle the factthat I was abso- asking "Wouldn't you rather be hear-
lutely unashamed to be called fat, that ing?" reinforces"compulsory able-bod-
that was okay by me because it's just iedness." In response, McRuer calls
an adjective like thin, tall, short, you for"coming out crip," where crip (short
know, brown, green, young, old forcrippled) functionsas an appropria-
(Michelleinterview10/18/06). While com- tion of a derogatory term fordisabled"
ing out as fatin this way does not involve (McRuer 2006:9). As with fat, coming
revealing a secret about one's body size, out in this context means affirming
it does reveal the surprising- and poten- and valorizing a stigmatized and
tiallysubversive- attitudethat being fat highly visible trait.
is acceptable.
The Chubster website goes further,
imagining an alternative reality in Coming Out versus Flaunting
which fatis celebrated and narrowfucks The case of coming out as fat leads us
are vilified. Narrow, the website to reconsider existing distinctions
explains, "refers not to body size, between coming out or identityforedu-
because Chubsters don't give a shit cation, on one hand, and flaunting or
what size clothes anyone wears, but to identity for critique, on the other
a narrow mind" (Chubsters 2006, (Bernstein 1997; Yoshino 2006). While
emphasis in the original). Narrow fucks we can identifycases in which fat rights
are described as "hassling fattiesin the activists are emphasizing similarity
street," "crowing about their diets and and others in which they are asserting
gym memberships,""believing that fat difference, often they are simulta-
is wrong,""selling weight loss products neously doing both in differentways.
and services,"and "spreading lies about Moreover, we find that flaunting fat is
the horror of obesity." The use of the importantly often a way of claiming
word narrow here is a creative play on inclusion, albeit on new terms.
a negative association with thinness In A Fat Rant , Nash, a self-identi-
that reverses, at least momentarily, fied fat woman, emphasizes both her
the moral hierarchy between fat and similarity to and differencefrom thin
thin. In Sewell's (1992) terms,it exploits people. By publicly lashing out against

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Coming Out as Fat 67

clothing stores fornot carrying clothes addresses by authors of books advocat-


in the sizes she wears, that is "18, at ing for HAES (Bacon 2008; Campos
least, sometimes 20, and often- dare 2004; Gaesser 1996). Given how
I say it?- triple X!" she unabashedly weight-focused medicine and public
asserts her physical difference from health currently are, advocating
the contemporary cultural ideal of health at every size is radical in this
thinness, ifnot fromactual female bod- context. Some fat activists, however,
ies. Yet by informingher viewers that question whether health is relevant
she enjoys running, swimming, and to a discussion of rights. As Lily
eating carrots, she also challenges explains, "I want to remove [health]
stereotypes of fat people as couch pota- from the rights equation altogether
toes who subsist on junk food, thereby and say this is a human right, give it
emphasizing her shared cultural and to me" (Lily interview 7/7/06).
moral commitment to health. From this perspective,one can make
Likewise, when Marilyn Wann a powerful statement by rejecting the
engages in arenas or activities "that social mandate to pursue health
are coded as having thin people as par- through exercise and "healthy" eating.
ticipants," such as ordering vegetarian Lily thus recounts ordering pancakes
entrees, doing yoga, or dancing in pub- and French toast in a restaurant
lic (Wann email 2/24/09),she is both when she could not decide between
asserting her difference in certain them as a "political" act of resistance
spaces/activities, while also affirming (Lily interview 7/7/06). By ordering
her similarity in cultural tastes. these two dishes, Lily performs the
Correspondingly, when fat women excess forwhich fat people are reviled,
take part in mainstream fitness clas- asserting her right to eat more than
ses, they flaunt along the axis of others deem appropriate. Similarly,
appearance, in that their fatness is Kelly explains how, at a restaurant,
hypervisible,but not on the axis of cul- "one of our friends was like there's no
tural expression, in that they are reaf- way you could possibly eat all these
firming,rather than challenging, the cheese fries. I'm like, 'Really, do you
hegemonic cultural value of physical want to see me?' I did, you know, I
fitness. ate every single one" (Kelly interview
Many health researchers and clini- 12/22/06).
cians have argued that our health The Chubsters website similarly
goals should focus on "health at every flaunts on the axis of cultural expres-
size" (HAES), including access to sion. It displays profile photos for 46
respectful healthcare, nutritious food, members, who boast special skills (e.g.,
and exercise, rather than weight loss sheer heft,the butt clench); weapons of
(Bacon et al. 2002; Blair and Church choice (e.g., teeth,my tushy,deadly flat-
2004; Lyons and Burgard 1988), ulence); fatal flaws (e.g., BLTs, pie eat-
and there is a strong emphasis on ing contests, lime jello); happiest-when
health at every size in the fat libera- sections (e.g., bathing in chocolate,
tion movement. For instance, the stalking and sneering, jiggling, eating
National Association to Advance Fat a fine and mature cheddar); and mottos
Acceptance website includes a link (e.g., Got Beef? Can I have some?).6The
entitled "What is HAES?" (NAAFA Chubsters flaunt and exaggerate fat
2009) and the 2001, 2003, and 2009
NAAFA conventions featured keynote 6Seewww.chubstergang.com.

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68 Social PsychologyQuarterly74(1)

differenceas part of an effortto sub- just as their performanceof fatness (or


vert fat stereotypes. As Chubsters relative thinness?) will vary based on
founder Charlotte Cooper explains, the situation.
"Somehow, embracing fat stereotypes Moreover, whereas previous work
enabled us to subvert them, and per- has distinguished between coming out
haps rob them of their power over us" or identityfor education, on one hand,
(Cooper 2009). The Chubsters thus and flaunting or identity for critique,
embrace the excess that attaches to on the other (Bernstein 1997; Yoshino
fat embodiment to remobilize it as 2006), we findthat flauntingfat is often
a source of pleasure and pride. The a strategyof inclusion. For instance, in
group's intentionally loose organiza- an interview (8/17/01), Wann talks
tional structure and disinterest in about deciding"to come out as a fat per-
gaining access to decision makers, son . . . really publiclyand really loudly"
inspired by punk and Do It Yourself because she was no longer willing "to
(DIY) practices (Cooper 2009; Stasko put up with exclusion." She explicitly
2007) fits with their strategy of iden- discusses, in this interview,her decision
tity forcritique (Bernstein 1997). to confrontfat prejudice in "a fun and
While these tactics can be quite pow- sassy way." She thus speaks of "coming
erful, they run the risk of reinforcing out," while using language such as
stereotypes. And if fat-identified "really loudly" or "in a fun and sassy
women feel peer pressure to give this way" that evokes flaunting. But ulti-
kind of performance, it can feel like mately, she seeks social inclusion.
a demand to act out stereotypes,what Similarly,while a fat woman wearing
Yoshino (2006) calls "reverse- a bikini may seem like an act of flaunt-
covering" or what Degher and Hughes ing, Melissa describes it as claiming
(1999) call "reaction formation." a "normal life." In her interview,
Reflecting upon the tensions between Melissa retells how she bought her first
advocating health at every size and bikini in eighteen years at her firstfat
rejecting healthism, Sherrie says, "In acceptance event and soon afterwore it
this world where society so tells you to at a NAAFA conventionfashion show,
be thin,there's a part of me that wants as well as at the pool. Rather than
to eat a sundae in frontof models. Part flaunting her differenceto stand out,
of me wants to say, 'Look what I can wearing the bikini representsan impor-
do!' But that's a kid part, and then you tant step in becomingmore sociallyinte-
have to grow up and say . . . T have grated: "Many fat people sort of hide
a rightto be healthy and a rightto eat themselves away, and they don't get
celery'"(Sherrie interview9/7/01). out and enjoytheirlife.... So [it's affirm-
Often activists blend assimilationist ing when] they come and they see all
strategies and radical critique. For these other fat people wearing bathing
instance, Wann has served on the suits and down in the pool and having
NAAFA board, gives public lectures on a good time and dancing and just, you
fat acceptance, and actively lobbies for know, having a normal life" (Melissa
anti-weight-based discrimination laws, interview8/16/01,emphasis added).
but she is also a member of the
Chubsters. This suggests that activists Culture and Community
may use a variety of strategies-
some assimilationist and some more Fat acceptance activists speak about
-
radical dependingon the social context, how organizations have helped them

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Coming Out as Fat 69

find comfortand pride in their bodies individuals that is necessary forthe for-
on a personal level, while acknowledg- mation of group practices, beliefs, and
ing that a "fat-pridecommunity"or cul- values.
ture, akin to gay/lesbian/queerculture The fact that the fat acceptance
with its rainbow flag, gay neighbor- movement is not grounded in cohesive
hoods, and pride parades, does not yet social groups with their own practices,
exist. The National Association to values, and culture is, we would argue,
Advance Fat Acceptance had only two the reason why the movement has not
to three thousand paid members yet developed a strong counter-culture
in 2001 (Saguy and Riley 2005). and why comingout as fat is more about
The International Size Acceptance rejecting negative stereotypes than
Association (ISAA) has branches across about affirminggroup practices,beliefs,
the United States, in Canada, Brazil, or values. Wann speaks to this when
the United Kingdom, France, she says that "fat people have yet to
Australia, and in the Middle East and find a point of anger that would mean
North Africa (ISAA 2007), but it has no turning back. Fat people still go
not operated as a paid membership along with blaming ourselves- rather
organization since 2005, according to than blaming the prejudice against
ISAA director Allen Steadham us - when we're treated as second-class
(Steadham email 5/18/09). "Fat-pride or untouchable" (Wann email 1/12/09).
community,"in Wann's words, is hard Wann explains how, at a NAAFA con-
to find (Wann interview 6/9/06).It is, vention, she was "joking about how
she says, "very grassroots and small. Slim-Fast® is self-hatredin a can, and
It's not even a lawn. It's a few blades [later learned that] a woman sitting
of grass" (Wann interview 6/9/06). nearby leaned over to another NAAFA
Given this,websites and/orbooks pro- member and confided, I've drunk
vide a virtual "fat-pridecommunity"for a Slim-Fast® every morning since I've
many. BeforeJoyNash made her filmA been here'" (Wann interview 6/9/06).
Fat Rant , she had never been to a fat Similarly,Michelle says in an interview,
acceptance meeting,but as she explains "I have people who are within my own
in an interview,"Fd already been read- chapter who consider themselves to be
ing a bunch ofthe [fatacceptance litera- fat-acceptancepeople, but on the other
ture], like Shadow on a Tightrope and hand, they still never have walked
[Marilyn Wann's] FAT ISO? and things away from dieting. They never have"
like that. So, I definitelyknew that I (Michelle interview 10/18/06).
wasn't alone." Similarly, Jennifertalks Just as many fat people, including
about coming out "into a hypothetical some membersoffat acceptance associa-
community,aware there were otherpeo- tions, would rather be thin, preferthin
ple with these ideas, without actually mates, and would hope to have thin
ever knowingany ofthem,ever meeting children, blind people- who do not
any one of them" (Jenniferinterview 7/ have a common culture, history, or
14/06). While virtual or hypothetical language - tend to shun the company
"communities" can be comforting of other blind people, seek sighted
and absolutelycrucial to affirminga stig- mates, and do not wish to transmittheir
matized trait as a valued part of one's blindness to their children (Deshen
sense of self, they are limited in their 1992). In contrast,members of the deaf
ability to fosterthe sustained interper- world,who have a vibrant culture,their
sonal interaction among like-minded own language, and pride in their

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70 Social PsychologyQuarterly74(1)

deafness, prefer to socialize with and used to affirmfatness as a neutral or


marry other deaf people and often hope positive trait,while disclosing a fat-pos-
to have deaf children(Lane 2005). itive perspective. This points to how
Wann and othersreferto the contem- cultural resources and physical bodies
porary fat acceptance movement as jointly constrain social behavior.
"pre-Stonewall" (Wann email 1/12/09), Third, the case of coming out as fat
which suggests that it is early in its troubles the distinction made between
developmentand following teleologi- coming out, identityfor education, and
is a
cal path common to identity move- a strategyof assimilation, on one hand,
ments.7 However, if the tentative and and flaunting,identity for critique, or
weak nature ofthe movementis indeed a strategy of difference, on the
a product of the lack of a real offline other (Bernstein 1997; Goffman 1963;
community,it is unlikely to change in Yoshino 2006). These distinctions are
the absence of a vital fat-pridecommu- useful forexamining how activists vary
nity. Dieting groups, such as Weight in the extent to which they, say, affirm
Watchers or Overeaters Anonymous, a shared cultural commitmentto health
could potentially provide a basis for or reject the hegemonic health impera-
such a movement, in that they bring tive (Lupton 1995). Yet, when fat-identi-
together large numbers of individuals fied women affirm their difference,
(mostly women) who feel too fat, even whether in a bikini or in a restaurant,
ifthey are oftennot heavier than aver- they are often not affirmingdifference
age. Yet the fact that such groups are for difference'ssake but as part of an
dedicated to helping members exit the effortto challenge social norms in order
category of fat through weight loss to gain social inclusion.
undermines their potential for fat Finally, this study suggests that de-
pride. stigmatization strategies are informed
by the extent to which a given stigma
CONCLUSION is associated withmembershipin a social
This paper makes several sociological group. While there exists a vibrant gay
and lesbian culture in many large urban
and social psychological contributions.
centers, fat-pride culture remains
First, it provides additional support virtual. As a result, coming out
that networks and shared membership largely
as fat often means affirminga label
in differentsocial movements facilitate
and rejecting negative stereotypes
the diffusion of cultural narratives
rather than coming into a subculture
among these movements. Given the with its own values, practices, and
unpredictabilityof resource accumula- norms. This is an importantdistinction
tion (Sewell 1992), discussions of com-
with implicationsforwhich stigmas are
ing out as fat may lead other groups
with visible stigma to similarly talk of likely to be reclaimed and how.
When JoyNash affirmsshe is fat,she
coming out as, say, blind or black. the idea that this means that she
rejects
Second, our study shows how different is or ugly or lazy or selfish."But
embodied experiences can lead people "stupid
this raises a question: What about peo-
to use old narratives in new ways.
ple who are stupid or ugly or lazy or self-
Specifically, given the visibility of ish? Might they one day come out as
body size, coming out as fat has been such? More generally, what makes
some stigmas- and not others- reclaim-
7ThankstoSteveEpsteinforthispoint. able? We speculate that stigma is likely

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Coming Out as Fat 71

to be reclaimed when it corresponds to is similarlylargely a matter of opinion.


a category (1) into which some people We have no governmental or scientific
clearlyfall,(2) fromwhich theyperceive categories for these terms, if we accept
no easy escape, and (3) which entails that mental disabilities differfromgar-
clear social sanctions. People who can- den-variety stupidity, and we do not
not buy health insurance, clothingin off- use these categories as a basis fordeny-
line stores, or are forcedto buy two air- ing legal, medical, or consumerrights.If
plane seats because of their body size this were to change, we might indeed
unquestionably fall into a categorythat see new social movements emerge
carries social costs. Such incidents pro- around these categories.
vide frequent reminders that their Some worry that the fat acceptance
body size makes them a second-class cit- movementharms health by encouraging
izen. While fat phobia harms women an unhealthy lifestyle(Fumento 1998).
and men across the weight spectrum, Even leaving aside the contested ques-
albeit in differentways, the fattest tions of whether or not heavier weight
women are penalized the most. Thus, it is unhealthy or whether body size is
is no surprise that they have dominated changeable for most people, there is
the fat rights movement. A belief in strongevidencethat weight-basedstigma
weight loss prevents many more people itselfnegativelyimpactshealth (Muennig
fromjoining the cause, as this keeps 2008). Given this, destigmatizingstrate-
alive the hope that exiting the fat cate- gies developed by the fat acceptance
gory is possible. Indeed, while we have movementmay improvethe mental and
focused on reclaiming stigma, what physical health of fat people (see also
some call equalization or normative Lamont 2009). To the extentthat fatacti-
inversion (Wimmer 2008), outside of vists' demands for respectfulpreventive
the fat acceptance movement,otherdes- medical care for people of all sizes are
tigmatization strategies are probably successful,this too should have a positive
more common. In addition to exiting effecton health. Moreover,to the extent
a category, these include appealing to that comingout narrativesenable a posi-
other commonalities, blurring the tive identification as fat, this may
boundaries between categories, and strengthenand broaden supportforpolit-
shiftingthe line dividing differentcate- ical and legal claims on the basis ofbody
gories (Lamont 2009; Wimmer 2008). size (Kirkland 2008; Solovay 2000).
Like being fat,being black, female,or
homosexual are categories into which
some people clearly fall, from which ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS
theyperceive no easy escape, and which Theauthors thankall interviewrespondentsfor
carry clear social sanctions. In all of theirtimeandopenness. ofthis
Earlierversions
these cases, medical science has, now paperwerepresented at the2007Cultureand
or in the past, played an important PowerConference, the University of Colorado
Law School, UC Berkeley Law School's
role in creating and justifyingthese cat-
Jurisprudenceand Social Policy (JSP)
egories. In contrast,stupidity,ugliness, Program,the 2009 annual meetingof the
laziness, and selfishness are human American Association
Sociological andthe2010
traitsthat are highlysubjective and var- wintermeetings of SociologistsforWomenin
iable. We recognize differentkinds of Society(SWS).Thispaperbenefited fromfeed-
backfromReneAlmeling, Deb Burgard,Paul
intelligenceand stupidity,and the idea Campos,CharlotteCooper,StevenEpstein,Bill
that beauty is in the eye of the beholder Fabrey,Marion Fourcade,Joshua Gamson,
is a cliche. Who counts as lazy or selfish KjerstinGruys,KristenSchilt,Charles W.

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72 Social PsychologyQuarterly74(1)

Smith,Phil Smith,Sarah Soule,Iddo Tavory, Blair, StevenN. and Tim S. Church.2004.


and Marilyn Wann.The authorsare especially "The Fitness, Obesity, and Health
gratefulforthe extensive and insightful com- Equation:Is PhysicalActivitytheCommon
mentstheyreceivedfromformer SPQ editor Denominator?" JAMA292:1232-34.
GaryFineandfrom fouranonymous reviewers. Bonner,Kimm. 1981. "Spotlighton Kimm
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Feminism , Western Culture,and theBody.
Berkeley,CA: Universityof California
FUNDING Press.
Thisresearch received from theCenter Brownell,KellyD., RebeccaM. Puhl,Marlene
funding B. Schwartz,and Leslie Rudd,eds. 2005.
for the AdvancedStudy in the Behavioral
Sciencesat Stanford and theUCLA WeightBias: Nature,Consequences, and
University Remedies.NewYork:Guilford Press.
GraduateResearchMentorship Program. It is
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