Emma Woolf has misunderstood the whole concept of fat pride

Supersize, superskinny: aren't we all bigger than that now?

Emma Woolf,  Supersize vs Superskinny presenter, recovered anorexic and author of the recently published Ministry of Thin, is under attack. So she wrote a book in which it was argued that thin people face discrimination in the same way fat people do. Then she wrote a piece for the Guardian reiterating this, and one for the Daily Beast, in which she claimed to have “discovered that even to hint that fatness might be anything [other] a cause for celebration is a big mistake” and that “the plus-size sisterhood can be frightening – not unlike playground bullies”.  So now it’s all blown up into fat versus thin – a literal supersize vs superskinny – despite the fact Woolf’s main aim (which I don’t doubt) has been to support those with eating disorders. It’s all deeply unpleasant, and hard for outsiders to approach (not least if one dreads being cast as a plus-sized bully). Nonetheless, if this really is how some thin people feel, isn’t it time we engaged with it?

On the face of it, this feels a tremendously pointless debate to be having, Who’s got it worst, fatties or thinnies? Seriously, is that where we’re at? And yet the level of disgust, resentment and bullying faced by fat people seems to me so high that Woolf’s position requires a response.

Woolf’s failure to acknowledge the difference between sniping at thin people and the constant discrimination faced by those who are fat is a real slap in the face to anyone who’s been on the receiving end of the latter. Hence the real pain and anger her comments have unleashed. It’s not a competition, no, but honestly – the scales just aren’t evenly balanced here.

Allow me to be clear: I’m not fat. I mention this, not because this makes me more or less authoritative, but to nip all those ad hominem “you’re just jealous” arguments in the bud. After all, Woolf has used the apparent envy of her fat friends as evidence for her thesis (she quotes one token fat friend as saying: “it’s jealousy, pure and simple. Skinny-minnies are fair game because we all want to lose weight”). I write this as a relatively slim person. I might have issues with my body but I see no need to stick a thinspirational photo of Woolf on my fridge. However, I have been fat. What’s more, I’ve also been very, very thin.

Like Woolf I suffered from anorexia for a decade. Unlike Woolf, upon recovery I went through a phase of not being able to stop eating. What happened to me – an extension/distortion of the original eating disorder – is not uncommon in former anorexics. Even so, I would like to stress that I do not think fatness or thinness in itself is indicative of an eating disorder. Woolf seems to suggest otherwise:

I see clear parallels between fatness and thinness. I believe that out-of-control eating may work in the same way as out-of-control starving, as a defence mechanism against the world, a place to retreat when it all gets too much.

For someone like me – and indeed Woolf – that might be the case, but most fat people do not get fat the way I did. Body size does not tell us everything about a person’s relationship with food and their psyche. My fatness was not another person’s fatness. I do, however, think the responses I got when I was big – and the ways in which I felt myself to be positioned in relation to slimmer people – are pretty typical when it comes to the fat person’s experience of the world.

Woolf is correct in claiming that “fat-shaming” (as in directly accusing an individual of being repulsive/unattractive/morally deficient etc. because of their size) is officially more frowned upon than “thin-shaming”. That’s not to say we don’t do it (the fat and famous are always fair game), or that we don’t find ways to get around it (the passive-aggressive indirect fat-shaming of Heat, Closer, Now etc. is aimed at all of us, not just that one starlet who failed to get sufficiently beach body ready). More important than this, though, is the fact that what we don’t say out loud to people’s faces can be far more damaging than the things we’re comfortable expressing. Antipathy towards fatness is ingrained. We don’t even need to voice it.

The moment you start – as Woolf has done – saying things like “if it’s OK for you to be fat and proud of it, it’s OK for me to be slim and proud of it, too”, you’re misunderstanding the whole concept of fat pride. You’re treading on the same ground as Straight Pride UK, with their laughable assertion that the heterosexual community need to get more “out there” and confident in their sexuality. What next? When someone mocks me for having pale skin, should I start googling “white pride”? I don’t wish to suggest race, sexual orientation and body size are equivalent attributes (many people can and do change their body size), or that fattism has the same heritage and  structural implications as racism or homophobia. What I mean is that the pride that comes from facing up to disadvantage and dismissal isn’t the same as merely feeling “woo-hoo, look at me with my slim legs / white skin / heterosexual partner!”. It’s pride not in the attributes, but in your own fundamental worth and courage. It’s something I, as a fat person, aspired to but never achieved. I didn’t want to love my flesh – it’s just flesh – but I wanted to love myself enough to face down the world (instead I resorted to chain-smoking and self-induced vomiting. The worst thing of is, given how much more accepted I feel as a smaller person, I often find it hard to regret such abuse).

Mockery of the thin –  my size zero hell, return of the lollipop ladies, etc. etc. – is not acceptable. Nonetheless, it sits within a broader context of absolute veneration of thinness. Hence there’s a curious double edge to thin-bashing. When I returned to work after nine months of breastfeeding – for once not anorexic yet underweight – I became very much aware of this. Colleagues were split between admiration (“you look fantastic!”) and rather rudely expressed concern (“you’re way too thin, you look terrible!”). Sometimes I sensed both sentiments to be coming from the same person at the same time. I felt uncomfortable not least because I felt, unwittingly, I’d made them uncomfortable, just by being there in that thin body. I worried that people would assume I was judging them for not being skinny like me (Woolf is certainly not helping thin people on that score). But – and this is a big but – I did not feel like a transgressor. I did not feel as though I was looked down on, rejected or seen as comically irrelevant (all of which I felt when fat). If anything, my discomfort was connected to the sense that I’d become, quite inappropriately, one of the chosen people.

I’d switch on the TV or flick through magazines and all I’d see were other women who were thin – thin! – like me. And then there I was, in real life, walking round the office, suddenly back among the lesser mortals, the normal people with their muffin tops and cankles. Being thin is a privilege, however you achieve it. It’s a weird one, especially if you’ve tortured yourself to get there, but it’s a privilege all the same.

I think, deep down, Woolf knows all this. She knows she’s on the side of the 100 per cent fat-free angels. In Ministry of Thin she even claims to feel pity when she sees fat children. I was a fat child, an anorexic teen, a fat adult, now a slim one. At no stage have I wanted or needed the pity of a thin woman based purely on what I look like. Acceptance, yes, pity, no. Pity implies superiority. It suggests fat children are losing on their own, self-contained grounds when actually it’s someone else’s gaze – your gaze – that seeks to rob them of their dignity. If you are too weak to see a fat child as an individual human being, someone to be responded to on his or her own terms, then I’d really question who’s most in need of sympathy.

Healthy bodies and minds aren’t defined by shape. Our outline is an indicator, and a poor one at best. The normalisation that Woolf depicts as healthy – and the fake equivalence she posits between life on the extremes – simply feeds our delusions. And yet of course, this isn’t an argument we should even be having. Aren’t we all bigger than that?  

Women in a park. Photograph: Getty Images

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Chuka Umunna speaks at the launch of Labour's education manifesto during the general election. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After so badly misjudging the leadership contest, how will the Blairites handle Corbyn?

The left-winger's opponents are divided between conciliation and aggression. 

When Labour lost the general election in May, the party’s modernisers sensed an opportunity. Ed Miliband, one of the most left-wing members of the shadow cabinet, had been unambiguously rejected and the Tories had achieved their first majority in 23 years. More than any other section of the party, the Blairites could claim to have foreseen such an outcome. Surely the pendulum would swing their way?

Yet now, as Labour’s leadership contest reaches its denouement, those on the right are asking themselves how they misjudged the landscape so badly. Their chosen candidate, Liz Kendall, is expected to finish a poor fourth and the party is poised to elect Jeremy Corbyn, the most left-wing leader in its 115-year history. For a faction that never ceases to underline the importance of winning elections, it will be a humbling result.

Though the crash has been sudden, the Blairites have long been in decline. Gordon Brown won the leadership unchallenged and senior figures such as John Reid, James Purnell and Alan Milburn chose to depart from the stage rather than fight on. In 2010, David Miliband, the front-runner in the leadership election, lost to his brother after stubbornly refusing to distance himself from the Iraq war and alienating undecided MPs with his imperiousness.

When the younger Miliband lost, the modernisers moved fast – too fast. “They’re behaving like family members taking jewellery off a corpse,” a rival campaign source told me on 9 May. Many Labour supporters agreed. The rush of op-eds and media interviews antagonised a membership that wanted to grieve in peace. The modernising contenders – Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, Mary Creagh, Tristram Hunt – gave the impression that the Blairites wanted to drown out all other voices. “It was a huge mistake for so many players from that wing of the party to be put into the field,” a shadow cabinet minister told me. “In 1994, forces from the soft left to the modernising right united around Tony Blair. The lesson is never again can we have multiple candidates.”

While conducting their post-mortem, the Blairites are grappling with the question of how to handle Corbyn. For some, the answer is simple. “There shouldn’t be an accommodation with Corbyn,” John McTernan, Blair’s former director of political operations, told me. “Corbyn is a disaster and he should be allowed to be his own disaster.” But most now adopt a more conciliatory tone. John Woodcock, the chair of Progress, told me: “If he wins, he will be the democratically elected leader and I don’t think there will be any serious attempt to actually depose him or to make it impossible for him to lead.”

Umunna, who earlier rebuked his party for “behaving like a petulant child”, has emphasised that MPs “must accept the result of our contest when it comes and support our new leader in developing an agenda that can return Labour to office”. The shadow business secretary even suggests that he would be prepared to discuss serving in Corbyn’s shadow cabinet if he changed his stances on issues such as nuclear disarmament, Nato, the EU and taxation. Were Umunna, a former leadership contender, to adopt a policy of aggression, he would risk being blamed should Corbyn fail.

Suggestions that the new parliamentary group Labour for the Common Good represents “the resistance” are therefore derided by those close to it. The organisation, which was launched by Umunna and Hunt before Corbyn’s surge, is aimed instead at ensuring the intellectual renewal that modernisers acknowledge has been absent since 2007. It will also try to unite the party’s disparate mainstream factions: the Blairites, the Brownites, the soft left, the old right and Blue Labour. The ascent of Corbyn, who has the declared support of just 15 MPs (6.5 per cent of the party), has persuaded many that they cannot afford the narcissism of small differences. “We need to start working together and not knocking lumps out of each other,” Woodcock says. There will be no defections, no SDP Mk II. “Jeremy’s supporters really underestimate how Labour to the core the modernisers are,” Pat McFadden, the shadow Europe minister, told me.

Although they will not change their party, the Blairites are also not prepared to change their views. “Those of us on this side of Labour are always accused of being willing to sell out for power,” a senior moderniser told me. “Well, we do have political principles and they’re not up for bartering.” He continued: “Jeremy Corbyn is not a moderate . . .
He’s an unreconstructed Bennite who regards the British army as morally equivalent to the IRA. I’m not working with that.”

Most MPs believe that Corbyn will fail but they are divided on when. McFadden has predicted that the left-winger “may even get a poll bounce in the short term, because he’s new and thinking differently”. A member of the shadow cabinet suggested that Labour could eventually fall to as low as 15 per cent in the polls and lose hundreds of councillors.

The challenge for the Blairites is to reboot themselves in time to appear to be an attractive alternative if and when Corbyn falters. Some draw hope from the performance of Tessa Jowell, who they still believe will win the London mayoral selection. “I’ve spoken to people who are voting enthusiastically both for Jeremy and for Tessa,” Wes Streeting, the newly elected MP for Ilford North, said. “They have both run very optimistic, hopeful, positive campaigns.”

But if Corbyn falls, it does not follow that the modernisers will rise. “The question is: how do we stop it happening again if he does go?” a senior frontbencher said. “He’s got no interest or incentive to change the voting method. We could lose nurse and end up with something worse.” If the road back to power is long for Labour, it is longest of all for the Blairites. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses