In May of this year, comedian Sarah Baker garnered a lot of attention for the monologue her character, Vanessa, delivered at the end of an episode of Louie. Vanessa asks Louie (Louis C.K.), point blank, why men hate fat girls so much. “What is it about the basics of human happiness, feeling attractive, feeling loved, having guys chase after us, that’s just not in the cards for us?” she asked.
Listening to Vanessa, my heart leapt into my throat. As a fat, white, middle-class woman like Vanessa, who sometimes dates men, I could relate.
For me, the brilliance of Vanessa’s words was that she didn’t position fat women as tragic figures needing pity or shame, nor did she boldly claim sexual empowerment in the name of fat women everywhere. Vanessa was simply asking to have a dialogue with Louie and hold him accountable for his beliefs and his behaviors in relation to her fatness. She says, “Look, I really like you, you’re truly a good guy, I think. I’m sorry I’m picking you. On behalf of all the fat girls, I’m making you represent all the guys.”
By making Louie represent “all the guys” on behalf of “all the fat girls,” Vanessa conjures the junction of where the big, impersonal beast of gendered, sociopolitical systems of power intersect with the intimate, personal, deeply subjective terrain of relationships between particular individuals. Vanessa wasn’t just recounting her experience of dating as a fat woman; she was demanding recognition that she was worthy of respect and love in a culture hell-bent on denying fat women both. Her words were not merely personal, but also political.
Not everyone was as impressed with Vanessa’s Louie monologue as I was. Some critics felt that Louis C.K. had overstepped his bounds, speaking for fat women while fat women’s own attempts at articulating their experiences have been mostly ignored. As Emily Nussbaum asserted in the New Yorker, “Despite [Baker’s] best efforts, her monologue came off as stiff and polemical, like edutainment in shaky-cam drag. Still, it got plenty of praise, much of it giving Louie credit for breaking a supposed tv taboo against discussing women’s experiences of love, sex, and being fat. Of course, this is nuts. For decades, there’s been plenty of television exploring these themes—from Roseanne on.”
Nussbaum, and other critics who agreed with her, felt that the show was garnering undue attention while it ignored previous representations of fat women in pop culture and the media.
Self-appointed spokesperson for hetero, male “chubby chasers” (his preferred term) and author of the blog Ask a Guy Who Likes Fat Chicks, Dan Weiss also weighed in on the monologue, taking Louie to task for ignoring men who prefer fat women. He lamented in an article for The Concourse, “Vanessa would have far less trouble getting someone to hold her hand in real life, and while this was every bit the excellent, conversation-starting Louie episode it’s being touted as, is its creator, or anyone else in the TV bubble, actually aware of that fact? ... It’s great that Louie was perceptive enough to join the conversation. But he didn’t start it, and plenty of men were already eager to have it.”
Weiss, while seeming to advocate for fat women, is actually talking about fat women’s experience for us and redirecting the conversation to be one among men. This is really Weiss speaking to Louis C.K., leaving Vanessa and other fat women out of the conversation once again. Weiss misses the point that Vanessa is crucially initiating a conversation with a man she desires—a point glossed over too quickly by Nussbaum in her rush to point out that Louie isn’t the first show to broach the topic of fat women’s sexuality or romantic lives. That fat women have things to say to other people about the relationships between their body types and their romantic lives barely seems to register on the larger cultural radar.
Discussing the politics of desire takes major guts in our culture, especially as a fat person. Most people still believe they don’t need to question their own reactions to fatness and fat people or how those reactions affect us. Many people still regard fatness as the exclusive problem of fat people. If we want to be treated better, we should stop being fat, right?
Once during college, I visited the local urgent care facility because I was feeling deeply depressed. I explained to the on-call psychiatrist that a major source of emotional distress was how other people were treating me because of the size of my body. His advice? Cut out potatoes, rice, wheat, and corn from my diet. Implicitly, he was confirming that the problem was me, not other people’s treatment of me. If I wanted respect, I should be thinner.
Holding other people accountable for how they treat fat people is still very taboo. By extension, attempts to work through the politics of desire—already a topic met with hostility and derision—are especially difficult for fat people. We have been trained in Western culture to think of the political and the intimate as polar opposites. This ideology pits the rational and the irrational against each other along with other corresponding binaries: the masculine and the feminine, the public and the domestic, the mental and the emotional, the mind and the body, the head and the heart.
Even feminist, queer, and antiracist activists are often dismissive or cruel when people of size politicize their personal experiences. Many people don’t believe sizism is a legitimate form of discrimination worthy of discussion. There have been times when I’ve tried to discuss my body size as a political issue and I’ve been told I am playing the “Oppression Olympics” or trying to falsely compare sizism to more serious, historical forms of oppression such as racism or sexism and thus detracting from those more politically important conversations. Fat people are told over and over that there simply isn’t enough space for fat bodies. Of course, for me, there is no understanding of my own privilege, power, or identity as a middle-class, queer-ish, white woman that isn’t also about being a fat middle-class, queer-ish, white woman.
I have always been a fat woman, so I don’t know what it is like to date as a thin person. What I do know is that to date as a fat woman is complicated in ways that other people, especially thin people, don’t often seem fully able to grasp. Even when I try to explain my own experiences to friends, family, potential lovers, or political allies, they just don’t seem to get exactly what I’m trying to say.
Being fat carries with it a lot of cultural baggage. At the same time, fat people, especially fat women, are supposed to pretend we don’t exist or that we’re not fat. I can’t count the number of times thin people have made reference to fat people or fatness in a negative or joking way in front of me, from the petite woman sitting next to me at the coffee shop complaining about fat people on airplanes, to my friends who routinely make jokes about their “inner fat kids” coming out when they eat a lot, to the women in my family who compete to see who can look the thinnest in family photos. Sometimes it feels like I’m not even there, or that I’m not supposed to be.
This double bind of hypervisibility and invisibility is manifested in sex and dating for fat women between the extremes of fat fetishization and sexual violence specifically targeting fat women, such as the practice of “hogging,” which is when men, often in groups, seek out fat women for sexual encounters as a joke. Many fat women learn to give up trying to discuss our experiences and sexualities in a nuanced way with others before we’ve even begun talking. One of the things that made Vanessa’s monologue in Louie so effective was that, despite initial protests on his part, Louie shut up and listened to Vanessa. Talking the scene over with my fat lady friends, we all felt that it was unrealistic in that regard. Mostly, when we have gotten up the courage to talk to men we’re romantically interested in about our fatness, we’re met with protests and denials of the “not all men” variety. Stock responses range from “I don’t really think of you as fat” to “I really like you, but I’m not interested in dating a fat woman” to “Shut up, you fat bitch.”
People don’t know how to talk to fat women about our sexualities, but I can’t really blame them given how few examples our culture has of how to talk with fat people about romance and sex. For example, even though there has been seemingly endless discussion of Lena Dunham’s body type and nudity on Girls, Hannah (Dunham’s character) has been almost entirely mute on the topic. Given the plethora of transgressive sex scenes in the show, it wouldn’t be difficult to imagine a scene with Adam and Hannah in which her body size or body type becomes the explicit focus of their sexual interactions or conversations. While we don’t see that sort of scene in Girls, there is a lot of hand-wringing in real life, mostly from men, about how Dunham’s “real” naked body makes them feel. As it is, fat women (and Dunham is just a little chubby, really) are supposed to be grateful we’re even allowed to appear on TV at all without being made objects of fascination, reform, mockery, humor, or disgust.
Queer women, women of color, working-class women, disabled women, whether they are fat or not, will probably be familiar with this experience of sex and love, as well. All women may be vulnerable to slut-shaming and sexual violence, but only certain women have the privilege of being represented as sexually respectable at least some of the time. There are no fat versions of Rose in Titanic or Allie in The Notebook or Carrie (or even Samantha) in Sex and the City because fat women fail to meet the requirements of proper upper-class, white femininity, which is always coded as thin. Instead, we get Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit in Shallow Hal, a film marketed as “a valentine to fat people” and actually about Jack Black’s character, not Paltrow’s.
It’s simply assumed that fat women are not worthy of having anybody “woo” us or walk down the street holding our hands, as Vanessa points out. And there is something pretty troubling about that fact. Crucially, Vanessa was asking Louie to think about why it was that he treated her as different from other women and deserving of different treatment when it came to romance and sex. She was asking for a response from him that made him (and not just her as the fat woman) responsible for the treatment of fat women like her. And that is nothing short of revolutionary. Feminists, both fat and thin, should take note.
Lisa C. Knisely is a freelance writer, assistant professor of the liberal arts, and editor-in-chief of RENDER: Feminist Food & Culture Quarterly.