The Body and Its Denizen: On Kate Manne’s “Unshrinking”

By Emmeline CleinJanuary 13, 2024

The Body and Its Denizen: On Kate Manne’s “Unshrinking”

Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia by Kate Manne

IMPROBABLY, THE FINAL GIRL is fat. She stands tall, cut-up and bleeding, but breathing. After confronting the killer and making it out alive, after watching her loved ones—people who couldn’t quite see past her body and into her soul, people who tried, but not hard enough—die at his hands, she rides off into the sunset or stalks out of the woods.

In film theory, the “Final Girl” trope refers to the last woman left standing in a slasher movie. The term was coined to highlight the horror genre’s typically moralistic, misogynistic, and racist rules. The “Final Girl” was and is, in most movies, a thin, blonde white woman, who at some point in the film refuses some moralized substance or activity her (now dead) friends enjoy: drugs, alcohol, sex. But in the films Fat Girl (2001) and Piggy (2022), conventionally hot girls are murdered by a killer who harbors a sexual obsession with the fat girl, whom he leaves alive. Raging, sweaty, and buoyant with grace, she has her whole life ahead of her.

The image is, tragically, a rare one, at least in mainstream cultural productions. Fat characters star in sad stories or serve as laughingstocks-cum-warnings on reality TV; happy endings are predicated on weight loss achieved through heroic efforts at self-control that usually veer into self-harm. Fat girls are raised to fear a phalanx of dangers: disease, scorn, sexual rejection, social rejection, voyeurism, mockery. Too often, fat girls are raised to believe they won’t even become women—in a figurative sense, as their bodies may not conform to the archetypal feminine form, and in a literal sense, as they face a culture of fearmongering around fatness, which implies (when it isn’t literally threatening) that their physical size will end their lives long before those of their thin counterparts.

In her new book Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia, philosopher Kate Manne tears down the fortress of Western fatphobia, excavating its foundations in racism, misogyny, and classism, and clearing a space to build a better moral paradigm through which to relate to our bodies. Unshrinking is a project of deconstruction, archaeology, and care—of listening to the stories medical professionals have ignored or disdained, hearing the plaintive notes in speeches by fictional characters most people mock, and reading between the lines of physicians’ reports and autopsies.

One of Manne’s first targets is the conflation of fat bodies with sickness and mortality. Drawing on decades of research, Manne deftly counters notions that weight loss lengthens life spans and improves cardiometabolic markers. Invoking epidemiologists such as Katherine M. Flegal, Manne explains how weight loss often leaves people, perversely, fatter and sicker. This is because most diets require sudden, severe reductions in caloric intake, periods of restriction that naturally incite extreme hunger and cravings to binge—which lead, in turn, to rapid weight gain. Manne highlights studies finding that the overweight band of the BMI range is associated with the lowest mortality rates, while connecting weight cycling to an array of problems including hypertension, cancer risk, depression, metabolic syndrome, stroke, and eating disorders.

The insidious idea that weight loss is necessarily “healthy” for fat people inflects their health outcomes in other surprising and profoundly disturbing ways. As Manne outlines, negative health outcomes among fat people are far more likely related to fatphobic mis- and underdiagnoses from doctors. Rather than receiving the type of testing and diagnostic scrutiny thin people receive, fat patients are likely to be prescribed weight loss. Bariatric surgery, which Manne calls “an unfolding human experiment whose scale is ever increasing,” serves as a horrifying microcosm of medicine’s devotion to the notion that a smaller body is always a healthier one. One out of 200 patients die in the wake of this surgery, many end up with opioid addictions, and people who undergo it are over twice as likely to die by suicide than fat people who don’t.

Fatphobia in medicine, as Manne writes, “causes fat people to avoid seeking medical care, and results in our getting inadequate care when we do seek it out.” Manne introduces us to a woman named Jan who began experiencing extreme pain and vaginal bleeding in middle age. Jan had long been fat, but as her pain spiked and bleeding increased, her appetite dissipated. She unintentionally lost 60 pounds in just a few months, yet when she visited her sister, she was confronted with compliments instead of concern. At the gynecologist’s office, Jan was “dismissed” and told to eat healthier. Six months after visiting her sister, she insisted another doctor run a retinue of blood tests, which led to the discovery of a massive tumor. She died months later. By this point in the book, we know who killed her.

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Weight-loss success stories are here revealed as fairy tales, moralizing fables more mythic than factual. They are storylines written to influence behavior according to racist, classist, and misogynistic mores—ones Manne historicizes, revealing the way fatphobia functions as a “powerful proxy—and outlet—for these forms of bigotry.” She underscores the “common tacit assumption, even among progressives, that fatphobia is vastly less important than other kinds of oppression”—an assumption that simultaneously allows these other oppressions to continue operating covertly while encouraging ever-increasing forms of fatphobia.

In fact, according to one study Manne cites, fatphobia is the only implicit bias that, on average, has become more extreme and prevalent since 2007. As the aughts wound down, the images of skeletal starlets were splashed across the pages of tabloids and alternately worshipped and worried over in the nascent blogosphere. Meanwhile, sites like People of Walmart posted supposedly amusing, anonymously submitted photos of the store’s shoppers. Scroll through today, and you’ll still find side boob, rogue flesh, and errant folds, captions mocking an array of customers whose bodies aren’t entirely contained by their clothes. Manne considers the site reflective of the classism inherent in fatphobia. She notes that the images, which were “popular in [her]—predominantly white, leftist or liberal, indeed progressive—circles,” offered viewers an “invitation to look down on these people as hideous specimens of humanity, casting aspersions on their health and imagined characters.”

Manne understands People of Walmart as emblematic of progressives’ surreptitious fatphobia, a form of bigotry expressed as an indictment of consumerist impulses like shopping at superstores. Manne flips this script, spotlighting obsessive weight-loss adherents and wellness addicts as more apt targets of capitalist critique. Unsurprisingly, Manne casts the wellness and weight-loss industries as cruel, insatiable twins with ravenous appetites of their own, consuming livelihoods as well as literal lives. “[U]pheld by a toxic combination of misogyny, ageism, and fatphobia,” these industries teach people, especially women, to “shrink, or be belittled,” no matter the cost to their mental or physical health (or their wallets). The statistics she cites only sharpen Manne’s point: 80 percent of 10-year-old girls have been on a diet, despite evidence that over a third of diets become pathological, with a quarter progressing into eating disorders, diseases that have the highest fatality rate of any mental illness other than opioid addiction. This is a culture that kills.

It’s also one that enslaves. Rooting contemporary fatphobia in its historically racist and capitalist soil, Manne demonstrates how its earliest iterations were instrumentalized to “justify and rationalize the burgeoning slave trade.” She indicts Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, as one of fatphobia’s earliest agents. In 1749, the celebrated naturalist (and proto-eugenicist) published a scientific tome in which his “coding of fatness as a distinctively Black trait […] led to the construction of the fat body as something ‘other,’ as something grotesque.”

In addition to its economic impetus—Americans spend over $60 billion annually on weight-loss schemes—fatphobia also serves to uphold white men’s place in an intellectual hierarchy. Pulling apart the paradigmatic notion of “intellect,” Manne argues that, for much of the philosophical establishment, intellectual flourishing demands cold discipline and demonizes “rogue appetites.” She recounts a philosopher friend overhearing a colleague wonder, of a fat peer, “If she can’t discipline what she eats, how can she discipline how she thinks?”

It is in her analysis of disgust that Manne’s own training as a philosopher comes to the fore, as she demonstrates that this emotional response—an affect that is “easily learned and socially contagious”—intensely “motivates us to avoid interacting closely with what is deemed to be disgusting.” Often, people “misinterpret their visceral disgust reactions as moral disgust,” leading them to “deem neutral actions morally problematic” when paired with a trait they’ve been taught to find disgusting. This explains alarming phenomena such as fat people’s lower salaries and hiring rates, as well as fatphobia’s more violent iterations: Manne cites a recent study that found that, when presented with a scenario in which a fat woman was sexually assaulted, people were more likely to display sympathy for the perpetrator than in cases where the victim was thin.

The lie that fat people simply make poor food choices fosters the disgust undergirding misconceptions that fat people are dumb or lazy. In reality, fat people are often the most lucid and clear-eyed of citizens, perhaps best-suited to recognize the cruelty and increasingly unlivable conditions of modern society. In a world where there is no safe or reliable way to shrink fat bodies, it is our moral imperative to recognize body size as a vector of diversity that exists on a spectrum as naturally and necessarily as gender and race. Any other approach is, as Manne argues, a form of gaslighting—“a systematic process that works to make us feel defective in some way for the beliefs, thoughts, feelings, desires, and appetites to which we are, in reality, entitled.”

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On my phone, girls are gasping and giddy, declaring that they’ve finally found it. They hold up the lavender bottle with big smiles, promising that it works—tamps down their appetite, keeps their stomachs from growling late at night. The product is called “Lemme Curb,” a gummy from Kourtney Kardashian’s supplement line that claims to control your cravings. Another play on “curb,” Kurbo is a WW (formerly Weight Watchers) app designed specifically for children, intended to rein in raucous, overeager appetites.

Manne mentions Kurbo (“Body panics, like moral panics, often focus on the children”) during her analysis of diet culture’s incursion into our psyches, the way we are “mentally being colonized” by a doctrine that tells us we “cannot trust our own bodies.” Curb your appetite, control your cravings, don’t believe your body—that hunger pang might just mean you’re thirsty, if you believe the weight-loss industrial complex. Rhetoric costumes our oppressive understanding of nutrition, bodies, and beauty, teaching us that our appetites are irrational and our feelings false. Women who want, especially larger women, become a metaphorical foil for the slim, intellectual man. Witness how arguments, in Manne’s discipline, are often praised for being “muscular” and “compact,” or condemned for being “flabby” and “flowery”—in other words, fat and feminized. Manne sees this pattern of “resisting ourselves and our appetites” as an attempt to “reassure ourselves we are above nonhuman animals in an existential hierarchy.” But we are animals, and hierarchies hide insight; moreover, just as arguments can be “sharp,” so too can they be “deep, expansive, abundant”—they might even have folds, nuanced meanings that cascade and crease.

Manne encourages attention to corporeal signals, offering what she calls “body reflexivity” to replace both “body positivity,” a notion she finds unrealistic, and “body neutrality,” which she rightfully finds “lackluster” in its insistence that we give up on viewing ourselves as beautiful and accept and respect our bodies instead of attempting to adore them. If body neutrality offers “a precarious retreat from judgment” rather than “a stable resting place,” body reflexivity ostensibly cancels the competition altogether. Manne frames it as an “escape” that “transcends the mode of assessment entirely,” recognizing that a “body is not something good or bad or neutral for people generally, but rather something that may suit and work better or worse for its denizen—in other words, the person who inhabits it.”

Manne’s paradigm is radical in its reorientation of bodily purpose but surprising in its individualist bent. Early on, she promises “a political and structural, as opposed to a psychological and individualistic, intervention” into the discourse around fatphobia. And she delivers, illustrating fatphobia’s tentacled reach and horrifying fallout. Yet her solution is highly individualistic. At times, she places blame on individuals who could also be considered victims of diet culture, condemning “women who, by policing other women’s bodies, or simply participating in diet culture themselves, do such untold damage.” She recalls cruel bullying by girls she knew in her youth, and describes a scene in Sex and the City in which characters shame one of their friends for a minor weight gain.

Both anecdotes bruise, and bullies should be called out. But the girls who hurt Manne were probably hurting too, acting out of the terror and shame instilled in girls as soon as they become self-aware in this country. We’ve all been fed a Kool-Aid that kills. Sometimes, it comes back up. When Manne writes about embarking on extreme restrictive diets that descended into disordered eating, she remembers her initial resistance to writing about it, afraid that she was “performing the role of the good fatty,” the one who tries to change and in turn upholds diet culture. Yet, as the book evolved, she realized that her history of extreme diets and disordered eating was “a confession of a sin that was less mine than a completely predictable product of the social world I lived in.” I wonder why other women don’t always get the same compassionate treatment, especially since Manne elsewhere recognizes that, while “[m]isogyny distinguishes ‘good women’ and ‘cool girls,’” the patriarchy’s winners possess a “dangerous kind of currency,” one with a volatile value and rapidly diminishing returns.

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In pandemic isolation, Manne showed her child bodies. She opened Instagram and fed her daughter beauty. She scrolled through big, bent, taut, tall, small, short, slender, and stocky bodies spanning the race and gender spectrum, bodies that made her daughter grin and zoom in. Manne wanted her to know “that the world is not meant to be populated by people who look just one way or another,” so she gave her beauty unbounded. In the end, it wasn’t Manne’s belief in body reflexivity that saved her from dieting and disordered eating; it was her love for her daughter—her refusal to enter her into the murderous beauty pageant that Manne, like so many of us, woke up one day to find herself competing in. “I know that she is watching me, taking in everything,” Manne writes.

Everything includes how Manne eats and how she stares at herself in the mirror, how she speaks to herself and how she listens to her body’s cues. Earlier, Manne insisted that a body is not for anyone but its denizen—no one’s reaction to her body should or can be “salvation.” But isn’t her daughter’s soft gaze salvation?

Our bodies are not for others to rank or judge, but they can be for others in ways that care and heal instead of harm. My body is for my friends and lovers and sisters. My body is for, and forged by, other women’s bodies, even the ones that have hurt me. My body is forgiveness and grace and other women’s survival.

At the end of Piggy, our fat heroine has a choice. She can let the only man who has ever expressed romantic interest in her brutalize the thin, popular girls who have been making her life hell; she can take the knife he hands her and get revenge herself; or she can kill the man and save her bullies. She cries while she kills him—it hurts, giving up the patriarchy’s dangerous, soaring high—but she does it. She saves the girls who called her a pig and stalks outside, drenched in the man’s blood. She knows those girls were hooked on the same drug she just had a taste of, the compliments and caresses, the attention. But she also knows the side effects aren’t worth it. And, as Manne knows, we should be awestruck in front of this fat girl, revering fatness for its beauty but also for what it instills: “a sense of solidarity, of shared vulnerability,” a recognition of our “common fate,” and, just maybe, a way to escape it.

LARB Contributor

Emmeline Clein is a writer living in Brooklyn. Her first book, Dead Weight, is forthcoming from Knopf in February 2024, and her chapbook, Toxic, was published by Choo Choo Press in 2022.

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