Each week, The CSPH answers questions that have been submitted anonymously through our Formspring. This week’s question has been paraphrased, and is as follows:
I am a curvy feminist who is particularly interested in the representation and portrayal of plus-sized women in the media and entertainment industries. However, I’m finding that some of my feminist friends don’t agree with me; they feel that increasing depictions of fat women furthers objectification and capitalist notions of the female body. This is becoming an area of contention for us, and I was wondering, who is right? Can we all be correct? Also, how do I let go of my resentment towards these women, namely in the face of their assumptions about me and my body?
The junction between objectification and empowerment is an significant issue to discuss, especially in consideration of the capitalist, consumptive nature of our society, in which sources and actions of selfhood and personal pleasure can often be rooted in the reproduction of existing harmful socio-political, economic, and cultural frameworks. It’s understandable that you’re finding people with differing perspectives than yours, even amongst those who self-identify as feminists. The important thing to recognize here is that the so-called feminist community is not necessarily a community in action—there exist vast differences in ideologies and practice of self-identified feminists, and so the opinions of some do not necessarily reflect the opinions (and activities) of others. I say this in acknowledgement of how upsetting it can be when fellow feminists perpetuate oppressions, but also as to implore you to continue being an advocate for feminism and feminist ideals.
That said, to answer your questions: yes, it is possible for all of you to be correct, and indeed, that’s my position of this discussion. On one hand, increasing the portrayal of othered bodies (as in, bodies deemed non-normative/”other” by society) does technically perpetuate the objectification of people within the media and entertainment industries, in that the visibility of these bodies results in the emergence of new sites for the reproduction of objectification. On the other hand, I’d argue that we live in a society that implicitly objectifies all women, and as such, even if media representation focuses predominantly on thin body types, fat bodies are being objectified within everyday societal discourse. Therefore, limiting body type representation in the media does not reduce objectification, but rather, results in the invisibility of marginalized persons, which further perpetuates their marginalization. This is harmful in that it normalizes some bodies (while inherently othering the bodies of those rendered invisible), the consequences of which include the preservation of stereotypes and ignorance and rising rates of disordered eating behaviors amongst this country’s youth.
Thus, by increasing representation of the variety of bodies depicted in the media and entertainment industries, we are in fact working within existing models of oppression (such as sexism and capitalism). This is an incredibly important issue and is one that should always be considered, because it allows us to understand the ways in which we, to paraphrase Audre Lorde, work with the master’s tools—and the ways in which this isn’t necessarily productive, namely in consideration of disestablishing the existing systems of oppression. Still, this truth doesn’t negate that some people can feel personally empowered through reappropriations and rearticulations of the perceived truth. In this way, increasing representation of non-normative bodies within the media can in some ways serve as a transformation of the parameters of objectification. I would also note that objectification is a problem in how we represent people in the media and entertainment industries, not merely in the fact that we do represent people. In other words, objectification is the result of how we treat people on a societal level and in the media as objects; increasing representation on non-normative bodies in the media is therefore not inherently objectifying, although it certainly can depending on the depictions.
As I stated previously, your frustration about your situation is completely understandable. From my perspective, there are two actions that you can take to address your issue: you can choose to continue your dialogue with these other women in hopes of educating them, or you can cut your losses. Depending on your emotional state and well-being, the latter may be the better option—these interactions can be incredibly draining, and being unable or willing to continue engaging with people in ways that hurt you is totally fine. After all, self-care is incredibly important, but unfortunately, it is often ignored within activist communities in favor of fighting for social justice. If you find that you do want to disengage from this discussion, removing the women in question from your social media outlets might be a good choice. You don’t owe anyone an explanation for doing so, but if you want to give one in any form (e-mail, letter, in person), I’d suggest approaching the issue with the use of I-statements and a clear understanding as to which of their actions you find hurtful. For example, instead of, “You make me feel as though my opinions are invalid,” say, “I feel invalidated when discussing this topic with you, because I feel like I’m not being listened to.”
To combat resentment, in addition to disengaging from this conversation in particular with these women, I suggest taking the higher ground. Keep in mind that we cannot all know everything, and remember that the process of undoing the harms we’re socialized into is not only incredibly long-drawn, it’s forever. Moreover, just because we have certain blind spots, doesn’t make us ignorant in all ways—despite their limited understanding of the politics of representation, the women you described are not inherently bad or wrong, nor are all of their opinions. To put it another way: oppression is intersectional, not only in the ways we experience it, but also the ways in which we reproduce it. In my experience, being conscious of all of this allows me to foster environments based on understanding, and reduces resentment as I remember the degrees to which people can learn and grow. (In other words, optimism can go a long way, even if maintaining it requires limiting one’s interactions with certain people for personal health reasons).