Fighting Fatphobia and Embracing ‘Unshrinking’: The Ms. Q&A With Kate Manne

Kate Manne wrote Unshrinking to “come to terms with some of the most deep seated aspects of patriarchal culture … that said that somehow I was ‘less than’ for being fat.”

Kate Manne’s research is primarily in moral, feminist and social philosophy. (Simon Wheeler)

We live in a society obsessed with fatness. Or, perhaps more accurately, obsessed with fighting it. 

Fatness has been rendered a disease, and we are inundated with “cures”: ‘What I Eat in a Day’ videos from celebrities and thinfluencers, low-cal recipes of “unhealthy” foods, Whole30, Atkins, intermittent fasting, general calorie restriction (more fasting), low-carb diets, appetite suppressants, semaglutide injections like Ozempic (now offered by Weight Watchers) and Wegovy, even newer tirzepatide injections like Zepbound, liposuction and bariatric surgery. 

These “cures” particularly haunt women’s bodies—and their wallets. Women are significantly more likely, for instance, to experiment with prescription injectables like Ozempic (which is both expensive and associated with rare but very dangerous side effects). The haunting begins early, with approximately 80 percent of 10-year-old girls engaging in dieting. 

Questioning the devotion to anti-fatness usually prompts a “well, being fat is unhealthy!” But according to Kate Manne, feminist philosopher and author of the recently released Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia, the connection between weight and health is not so clear cut. What is clear, Manne brilliantly reveals, is that fatphobia, not fatness, is the problem.

In Unshrinking, Manne presents a personal and methodical account of fatphobia—the systemic devaluation of larger bodies—its history and its harms. Manne, who also wrote the acclaimed Downgirl: The Logic of Misogyny and Entitled: How Male Privilege Hurts Women, demonstrates that a truly intersectional feminist movement must consider anti-fatness. And it must be committed to stopping it.

Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia, published Jan. 9, 2024.

Manne spoke with Ms. to break down fatphobia’s broken logic, its racist origins and gendered impacts, and what it means to be “unshrinking.” 

Morgan Carmen: I would love to start by talking about the book’s title: Unshrinking. It reads as disobedient. Can you talk about why it’s disobedient to be unshrinking, to refuse to make yourself smaller? 

Kate Manne: Absolutely. My first two books were theorizing misogyny and the way that misogyny is a kind of system of policing and enforcing patriarchal norms and expectations. And so I think of misogyny as basically what happens when girls and women face that policing and enforcement system in the social environment.

One really powerful way that happens, [a way] that we’re made to conform, is via beauty norms and via, in particular, fatphobic norms that say: We should take up as little space as possible, metaphorically and literally, in terms of how much our bodies are allowed to expand and how much we’re allowed to be ourselves in the world. 

I wanted to choose a title that was both a little bit bracing hopefully, talking about what it might be to resist those norms and expectations—so to face them unshrinkingly—and also that had this kind of literal meaning of what it was, for me personally, to come to terms with some of these most deep seated aspects of patriarchal culture, which had to do with buying into diet culture and buying into fatphobic norms that said that somehow I was ‘less than’ for being fat. 

Carmen: In your book, you write a lot about the material gendered impacts of fatphobia. Can you tell us more about the heightened effects of fatphobia on women and other marginalized genders?

Manne: We see this really at every level of our social institutions that are of central importance. We see it in the education system, in the way that girls are particularly subject to fatphobic bullying. And we also see it in employment in ways that are really pointed. 

So one study that I draw on in the book compared a thin man, a fat man, a thin woman and a fat woman, and compared them for four different employment opportunities: an administrative assistant, a university lecturer, a sales person and a manual laborer. And surprise, surprise—the thin man was judged the most suitable employee, and the fat woman the least suitable employee for each and every job opening, despite the fact they had identical CVs. … So this kind of fatphobic bias affects women when it comes to hiring decisions and employment opportunities. And it also has enormous impacts on wages.

Between a very thin woman and a very fat woman, there will be about a $40,000 annual average wage gap amongst millennials. That’s just an enormous difference.

We see similar kinds of fatphobic biases play out too when it comes to the dating marketplace, the sexual marketplace … [where] women are systematically disadvantaged in violent practices like that of hogging or pig roast, where fraternity brothers compete to see who can bed the heaviest or fattest woman. 

And we don’t see analogous practices like that for men—we don’t see men being penalized in terms of their wages until they get very fat. So there are wage penalties for fat men, but only at very, very high BMIs. For women, these penalties kick in very early and really penalize anything other than very thin bodies. …

Kate Manne and Roxane Gay discuss Unshrinking during a January book talk. (Instagram)

Manne: I’ll throw in just one more sector of life where this affects people: When it comes to childhood, parents are particularly liable to police their daughters’ bodies, which shows up in the fact that they’re about twice as likely to Google whether their daughter is overweight compared to whether their son is, despite the fact that boys are actually slightly likelier to be so classified.

There was some research in the ’90s that even showed that parents were less willing to support their fat daughters to attend college. So, it’s a pretty pervasive form of bias where I think in most areas we see this affecting women particularly badly. 

And I think it also shows up for people who are nonbinary. Research by the eating disorder specialist Erin Harrop has shown that nonbinary folks seem particularly susceptible to eating disorders, so that suggests that there are also huge pressures on other marginalized genders in addition to girls and women … [who] are also very disproportionately vulnerable to eating disorders compared to boys and men.

Carmen: Oftentimes, as you point out in Unshrinking, fatphobia is justified by this assumed connection between weight and health. So much so that there’s a medical term for fatness: obesity.

Can you explain how fat became medicalized? And what do people get wrong when they assume that fatness is some sort of disease?

Manne: That is a really excellent question. The brilliant work of the sociologist Sabrina Strings has shown that fatphobia really wasn’t medicalized until the 20th century. Fatness wasn’t even seen as really a problem until the mid-18th century.

I mean, there are dribs and drabs of fatphobia in human history, but it didn’t really become systemic until the mid-18th century when Strings’ research shows that white people basically needed a way to derogate the Black bod[ies] they were enslaving so brutally and in ever-burgeoning numbers during the transatlantic slave trade. So, in that era, an association between Blackness and fatness began to be drawn based on purely racist pseudoscience—no basis in reality, but there was this myth that the Black body was fatter, and that’s when fatness came to be derogated.

It’s not that there was something seen as *bad* about fatness and then Blackness and fatness became associated—it went the other way. Fatness and Blackness were associated, and then fatness was no longer seen as a sign of wealth and prosperity and well-being. It was seen as a sign of primitivity … and being “savage.” So these horrifically racist conceptions of Black people and their fat Black bodies kind of permeated the racist, colonialist, white supremacist imagination. 

So that happened and a kind of gradual norm of beauty set in for white American Protestant women … [but] it didn’t become medicalized until the beginning of the 20th century, when health insurance companies began to be interested in deviations from the norm and wondering when human bodies are liable to suffer greater mortality risks.

And their findings actually had a kind of grain of truth in them and mirrored the later findings of medical researchers and epidemiologists like Katherine Flegal, who showed that, in reality, the relationship between weight and health can be represented by a U-shaped curve with, perhaps surprisingly to some readers, people in the “overweight” categories (so people with a BMI of between 25 and 30) being in the lowest mortality risk categories, statistically speaking.

So it seems that being in that category of having somewhat more flesh is actually somewhat protective against certain mortality risks.

The other part of the U-shaped curve worth emphasizing initially is that people in the “moderately obese” category (with a BMI of between 30 and 35) have a similar risk to people in the average weight category.

People who are either “underweight” or “over moderately obese” do have greater correlations with health risks, but that’s not necessarily causation. 

The above graphic compares the excess mortality faced by four different BMI ranges when compared to “normal” BMI (18.5 to <25), demonstrated by the horizontal black line on each graph. Both an “underweight” BMI (<18.5) and an over “moderately obese” BMI (≥35) were associated with more deaths. A “moderately obese” BMI (30 to <35) was associated with almost comparable mortality rates when compared to “normal” BMI. Most interestingly, an “overweight” BMI (25 to <30) corresponded to fewer deaths when compared to the “normal” BMI range (graphic created by Knowable Magazine).

Manne: So, we have to be a bit careful about assuming without argument that either very thin or very fat people are suffering from the greater risks because of the size of their bodies. It could also be that there are confounding variables like the fact that someone who is in the higher weight category faces weight stigma, they face the stress of being mistreated due to fatphobic biases, which has … ill effects on the body.

It [further] might be confounded with them not getting as much exercise, and they also may be subject to certain kinds of deleterious health effects from weight cycling. … We know that dieting and in particular weight cycling—going up and down in weight—has negative health effects like cardiovascular problems, metabolic problems, immune dysfunction and mental health problems. 

So, I think it is still an open question whether the higher weight is causing the health problems that we do see it very high weights, or whether it’s mere correlation.

Even if it turns out that it is causal, of course, no matter what your size, you deserve compassion and inclusion and adequate healthcare. So whatever we find out on that score, often health becomes a pretext for excluding people and ironically denying them the healthcare and the health interventions that would be more appropriate, not less, if someone is in poor health. If the idea of restricting someone’s access to healthcare because they’re unhealthy sounds wild, it’s because it is. That’s a wild and deeply unjust idea. 

Carmen: In a similar way, you write about fatphobia appearing as disgust. And how there’s a moralizing force behind that specific emotion, which isn’t hatred but something entirely different. Can you explain what makes disgust specifically so dangerous and what it means to put that sort of moral judgment on fatness?

Manne: That’s such a great question, because research shows pretty clearly that what many larger people know, and from experience, which is: Fatness often attracts not just contempt and derision, but specifically visceral disgust reactions. And what we’ve found from other empirical research is disgust is the moral emotion that becomes moralized the most easily.

When people feel this pang of disgust, what we find is that they often find reasons why that stimulus is morally objectionable, even when it’s a completely benign behavior being described … so the implications of that I think are quite straightforward: Fat bodies are attracting moral disgust because they’re attracting visceral disgust, not because there’s something actually morally objectionable about larger people.

And people will often be completely in the dark as to the true origins of their moral disgust responses. They’ll say things like, ‘Oh, you’re glorifying obesity’ or, ‘you’re setting a bad example for children.’ Like, no—actually this person is just existing in their body in public space. And the visceral disgust is being confused with moral disgust. And then this post hoc rationalization is kicking in with predictable, but really harmful, effects for people who are being held to be morally problematic when they’re just people with bodies.

There’s a lot of complacency among liberals and leftists … about fatphobia. We can’t fully address any form of oppression—including racism, including misogynoir, including misogyny of all kinds, including trans misogyny—without also addressing fatphobia.

Kate Manne

Carmen: I remember in the book you talk about Lizzo and the disgust that’s often targeted towards her, for both misogynoir reasons and fatphobic reasons. Can you talk about how those different kinds of bigotry dovetail often to make stigma even harsher? 

Manne: I think this is some[where] to draw on work like Strings’ and also work by Da’Shaun Harrison, who is a wonderful fat activist and organizer and writer in the space of body liberation.

Their argument is that Black women face some of the most disgusted reactions, particularly when they’re in larger bodies in ways that really reflect this potent intersection of misogynoir, to use Moya Bailey’s term for it, and fatphobia. And so part of my motivation for writing this book is I think there’s a lot of complacency among liberals and leftists—people in my political genre broadly—about fatphobia. The truth is that we can’t fully address any form of oppression—including racism, including misogynoir, including misogyny of all kinds, including trans misogyny—without also addressing fatphobia.

The way the fat Black female body is held up for derision, disgust and contempt has potentially fatal consequences for the women on the receiving end of that disgusted moralizing and deeply racist gaze.

Carmen: In the book, which is really a personal one, you talk about noticing that there was a gap between your own ideological rejection of patriarchal norms and the way that you’ve been dedicated to shrinking yourself. And I think that’s such a familiar experience, and it makes me want to ask you: How do you think we’ve made shrinking palatable, or even most almost compatible, with feminism?

Manne: That is really important because so much of this is tied up in what we do to ourselves under the aegis of oppressive norms and expectations.

Part of how we’ve made this palatable—which is a really good way to put it—is we’ve wrapped up something that we’re critical of, namely … diet culture and dieting, [and] we’ve wrapped it up in the language of ‘wellness’ and this kind of gaslight-y atmosphere of ‘well, you’re doing this for you.’ And kind of delude ourselves into thinking this isn’t about being smaller or about being pleasing and supplicating to the male gaze. But a lot of these things are really—the veneer is pretty thin, no pun intended—about making ourselves small, pleasing and placating in ways that are deeply responsive to this patriarchal norm and expectation that women are there to please and serve and placate others. And I don’t begrudge anyone their participation in these practices. It’s so normal, it’s so understandable, it’s something I have so much compassion for because it’s so deeply embedded.

Even as someone who’s been a card-carrying feminist since I was 10, and written two books about patriarchy and misogyny … I had a daughter, and I just thought, ‘I don’t want her to see me do this to myself.’ And that’s, in a way, a very cliché story of coming to grips with my own relationship with my body. It took that for me to really divest. …

Even though I have long consumed fat activist content, I encountered like Kate Harding’s Shapely Prose website in the early 2000s. And I just drank it up, like the politics of it, but the personal piece of it took so long to fully get on board with. And I think, in a way, giving up that project … and also, for me, that sort of allure of the thin privilege that one has to kind of give up when you become unshrinking—it’s really hard but I think worth doing, if we can.

It’s about making ourselves small—pleasing and placating in ways that are deeply responsive to this patriarchal norm and expectation that women are there to please and serve and placate others.

Kate Manne

Carmen: You write about how so much of dieting and shrinking is self-denying—how in order to diet, you either have to pretend like your natural hunger cues don’t exist, or you have to take something to artificially make them go away. In the book, you refer to it as self-gaslighting. How does self-gaslighting happen, and what can that do to somebody? 

Manne: I think of gaslighting generally as a systematic process that makes people feel defective in some way for having some mental state to which they’re actually entitled. … We often think about gaslighting as kind of making people feel “crazy,” an obviously ableist term, but one that is hard not to use in scare quotes in this vicinity.

But I think gaslighting can also make people feel shameful and guilty and morally defective for having [a] true belief about their partner or a completely warranted desire to be free of some kind of systemic form of oppression. Or, in this case, just the feeling of having certain bodily appetites—you feel defective, you feel greedy, you feel immoral, you feel ashamed, and oftentimes like you’re out of control for just having a normal, healthy human appetite for food and for foods that are pleasurable and comforting and satisfying to eat rather than sheer nutrition.

In terms of self-gaslighting, the self-talk plays the role in making us feel this sense of being defective. And we internalize these narratives and often mantras like ‘you’re not really hungry, you’re thirsty’; this satisfying, fatty, delicious food is actually disgusting and déclassé.’

Instead of relishing our satisfaction of certain appetites, we find ourselves talking ourselves into feeling ashamed of them. Or alternatively, not talking ourselves out of the cultural narratives that have made feeling shame around them natural and normal. So, I think there is just a way that we can talk ourselves into feeling defective, for having appetites that are actually completely valid, normal, healthy. 

I think honestly, we’re seeing this a lot on Diet Tok on TikTok—these very controversial conversations about things like “food noise.” I know people have different ways of defining that term and different relationships with it. And I’ve been taken to task for what I think about it, which is [that] it’s often a way of self-gaslighting yourself out of hunger and appetite for delicious foods when you’re hungry. And that “food noise” becomes more intrusive when people are restricting what they eat in ways that often kind of make our brains go a little haywire because people do really poorly with food restriction for deep seated evolutionary reasons. …

It’s come to seem so normal to restrict the type and amount of food we eat. But actually, the sheer prevalence of disordered eating and even full-blown eating disorders and the kind of fixation on food that comes from restriction suggests that this is actually an area of life where it is really delicate to mess with what our bodies can tell us, if we trust them, that we need.

@nytopinion “Before 2022, there was barely a whisper about it. Now the concept of ‘food noise’ is ubiquitous on social media,” says Kate Manne, an associate professor of philosophy at Cornell and the author of a forthcoming book on fatphobia. #Foodnoise already has nearly 15 million views on TikTok. “Coined to name the experience of thinking about food, longing for food, planning our next meal and so on, ‘food noise’ is a slick rebrand of some of the most basic human drives: hunger, appetite, craving. But now these are being framed as bugs, rather than features,” Kate says. “We should resist this reframing.” #fatphobia #bodypositivity #nytopinion ♬ original sound – New York Times Opinion

Carmen: I want to ask you more about the pleasure-denying element of fatphobia. You write about the pervasive belief that fat people, fat women in particular, aren’t entitled to pleasure of all kinds—in the form of good food, enjoyable sex or risky behaviors. Can you talk about like that specific kind of cruelty? Because it feels like a cruelty to deny people entitlement to any sort of pleasure at all.

Manne: I’ve wrestled with this a little bit, and I’ll tell you a thought that is newer for me and that isn’t in the book: There’s a lot of talk in fat activist circles about how fat people are dehumanized. And I’m, you know, obviously on the record as someone who’s always skeptical of dehumanization hypotheses. I feel like it’s actually pretty recognizable when somebody’s human and [that] dehumanization is less common. And it’s almost a soothing narrative we tell ourselves that horrible misogyny and racism take place because if only they knew they were human, they wouldn’t do it. Well, actually, no. Unfortunately, humans treat other humans abysmally with some regularity, partly because of their all-too-human tendencies that can result in resentment and guilt-mongering and shaming and all sorts of things that are distinctive to humans. 

But I think when someone sees a fat woman, they don’t really see a human being, they kind of see a human failure. So a human—but a human who has failed in her kind of most fundamental human task of giving visual, sexual aesthetic satisfaction. And so yeah, this idea that she doesn’t deserve pleasure, kind of makes a sort of sixth sense when you think that she has denied the world what she owes it. 

You feel defective, you feel greedy, you feel immoral, you feel ashamed, and oftentimes like you’re out of control for just having a normal, healthy human appetite for food.

Kate Manne

Carmen: That makes me want to ask you about other social media trends, like TikTok’s trad wives. Whenever somebody talks about what a trad wife is, they seem to evoke very specific images of what a trad (traditional) wife must look like for her husband (they often mention pilates). I was wondering what you make of this return of “traditional femininity,” while you’re also seeing things like food noise and other kinds of body panics?

Manne: That is such a good question because I have wondered if there is more overlap than one might think between the sort of trad wife phenomenon and the diagnosing oneself with “food noise” phenomenon. I’m not saying they’re the exact same people—I have actually had the instinct that there is something a bit similar in the discourse where people are sort of trying to reclaim what is this deeply patriarchal internalized lifestyle. But it doesn’t feel accidental that as you said, there are no fat trad wives—or very, very few. This is like a way of deeply living patriarchal norms and expectations of denying your appetite, self-pathologizing appetites, conforming to these deeply held patriarchal norms and expectations in different ways.

Then the discourse around it is oftentimes, ‘don’t call me out on this,’ or ‘don’t criticize this, I’m doing this for me,’ or ‘this is true fulfillment,’ or ‘this is empowerment,’ or ‘this is happy making.’ And it’s like, well, no one doubts that being caught up in a narrative that allows you to fulfill these very entrenched norms and expectations can make people superficially happy. But it’s very doubtful that it’s a form of true liberation.

There is this other parallel too—this worry that, ‘well, are you doubting the lived experience of a trad wife?’ Or ‘are you doubting the lived experience of someone who has decided that their appetite is not to be satisfied?’ And I think, sadly, sometimes, you have to say, ‘well, people’s lived experiences are sometimes reflective of really problematic norms and values that they’re conforming to and living in accordance with.’ It doesn’t mean that isn’t their experience. But their experience can have some meanings and values in it that are still criticizable and that might be really pernicious. …

Iindividuals should do what they want. I’m a big believer in autonomy. But those norms and values still worry me if they socially proliferate. 

Get angry … Think about how much money and time and effort and energy and bandwidth has been taken from me, or could be taken from me, that I could reserve for things that I value more than making my body a slightly different size or shape.

Kate Manne

Carmen: In your conclusion, you write, “We are wronged bodies, not wrong ones.” Can you talk more about that, and how that can lead us into a different vision of what it means to be fat in this society? 

Manne: I would love people to come away from this book really focused on weight stigma and the kind of different strands of fatphobia that we’ve touched on here: the intellectual, the sexual, aesthetic, moral. And the ways that fat bodies are systematically wronged in society … the material and structural aspects of fatphobia, as well as the harmful cruelty and interpersonal hostility and moral disgust that’s completely spurious.

Focusing on those pieces of it makes it clear that we’re wronged bodies. And it also makes it kind of implausible that in addition to being subjected to these forms of oppression, that we would then have the exact right narrative in an area as fraught and normatively laden as health discourse about fat bodies. It would become unlikely, I think, and we should at least be very careful about the narratives that we’ve bought into about the intrinsic unhealthiness of the fat body, that they might actually be reflective of the same biases that are a very powerful way of shaming and stigmatizing people in a society that tends to value and even, in some ways, I would say, overvalue, health. Not in all ways. I mean, goodness, we’ve seen in the pandemic people radically underestimate the value of health in some ways, but in other ways, when it comes to moralizing certain bodies, we overestimate.

We have a kind of healthist mentality. So, overall, that just made me want to reframe things as wronged bodies, not wrong ones—not defective, not pathological, and not in need of correction.

Carmen: You write a lot about, and you spoke about, thinking of your daughter and the kind of world that you want for her and what you want her to see. Do you have advice for girls like your daughter and women of all ages? 

Manne: I think one of the things I find really helpful here is to get angry—to think about how much money and time and effort and energy and bandwidth has been taken from me, or could be taken from me, that I could reserve for things that I value more than making my body a slightly different size or shape, bearing in mind that most of us are kind of just stuck with the genetics that we have and will end up roughly the size or shape we’re going to end up.

That will change with lots of things like aging, like puberty, like pregnancy, like medications, like illness. Should we be so lucky to get the privilege of aging, bodies go through all sorts of changes. But bodies are not that malleable without the kind of intense effort that feels, I think when we reflect on it, like a huge waste of time if we are really real about what that takes. And what expense and energy it takes where I feel like if we could collectively divest.

That’s a big ‘if’ and it’s partly dependent on privilege … [but] imagine what we could do together. We could revolutionize the world if we were able to siphon back this energy and this time and this money from this pretty futile, pretty depressing project of trying to shrink our bodies. I think highlighting the possibility [of that] is where I find my mind become seized with hopeful possibility rather than just mired in the depressing fog of what we’re doing to ourselves and what it’s hard not to keep doing. 

This is going to be a 4-hundred-billion dollar industry by 2030 globally, the fitness and diet industry. That’s too much money to be taken from us. … There is just a huge case to be made for thinking differently about where we invest. And that is what I hope to teach my daughter along with all sorts of conversations that emphasize that body diversity is a beautiful and normal thing and that we don’t judge anyone based on their appearance, not just in terms of things that for liberal parents are more obvious. We teach we don’t judge based on skin tone or hair texture or gender expression, but we also don’t judge people based on body size.

We don’t hold that fatness is a bad thing. It’s not a bad word. It’s just a neutral bodily quality. So, I also think that piece of educating children [that], in the words of one of my favorite children’s books, ‘bodies are cool’ and that they’re very diverse. And that’s great. And that’s something that we embrace and value and don’t try to minimize or hide from or run from. 

Up next:

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Morgan Carmen is in her third year at Harvard Law School, where she is the president of the Alliance for Reproductive Justice. She is an intern with Ms. Studios and is based in Cambridge, Mass. Find her on Twitter @morgancarmen_.