I am a new fat activist, and have been exploring the world of selfies for the first time. The other day I got into an argument with my fat friend because she always posts pictures of her low-fat, low-carb, vegetable-heavy meals. I post pictures of myself eating ice cream and donuts, and she said it was the same thing. She said she has the right to post photos of her food just like I do. I felt like she was wrong, but I didn’t know what to say.
I was legit just thinking about this very thing this morning. I was eating some Bob’s muesli, which I mean is fine. Like, I like Bob’s. I like muesli and I had this interesting inclination to photograph my immensely boring bowl of seeds and oats with milk. I usually only want to selfie with really attractive high-fat foods, but I was vaguely proud of myself for eating such a bland and highly unphotogenic meal. Why? Because that’s how powerful fatphobia and food moralizing are!
Here’s the thing. Your friend is right that she does have the right to post photos of her food, but she’s wrong that it’s the same thing that you’re doing. What we are talking about here is meaning. How are you each using food to express things about identity and ideology? What does the food and your choice to document it signify?
I’ve spoken at length about how our relationship to food is very symbolic. Yes, on a basic level we use food to give us nutrition, sate hunger feelings and basically to survive. That is the literal use of food. The metaphorical use of food gets into how we use food in order to deal with other things, or acquire other things — like our status as a “good” person or a “bad” person, an adherent or an outlaw.
Many of us (especially women) have been culturally taught to use food primarily in a symbolic or fetishistic way. Rather than eating for the sake of pleasure, fulfillment and nourishment, we are taught to use food to get us things, like praise or love or acceptance.
The culture expects people — especially fat people — to eat a low-fat diet, and so documenting a behavior that is already culturally sanctioned does not mean the same thing as documenting a behavior that is taboo.
When fat people post pictures of themselves eating “bad food” it is a political gesture of non-adherence to gendered, classed and racialized norms. When fat people post pictures of themselves eating donuts or pizza or chicken wings we are publicly documenting behavior that is considered aberrant for fat people.
When I post images of myself eating stuff I know a fat woman is not “supposed” to be eating according to Fatphobic Holy Law, I am conveying that I have no desire to be seen as a good fat person or a good woman. I am conveying my unwillingness to participate in my own oppression. I am conveying my appetite for freedom.
Hope this helps!
Virgie Tovar is an author and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp.