Intentional Weightloss, Shapewear and the Supreme Reign of Fatphobia

Intentional weight loss is a feat that is most commonly communicated through “before and after” pictures. These pictures are created by former fat people where the “before” pictures portray them looking their “worst” (fat and sad) and the “after” pictures display them at their happiest everything: their happiest body (thin), happiest state of mind, happiest relationship with society. These pictures, to a large extent, feed into the narrative that thinness will always be an ideal to be celebrated and congratulated. A lot of people who undergo intentional weight loss explain that their decision was led by health-related concerns, but are seen to glorify their new physical appearance over their improved health. In the United States, the total U.S. weight loss market grew at an estimated 4.1% in 2018, from $69.8 billion to $72.7 billion. The weight loss industry is one that needs fatphobia for sustenance and since fat people will continue to be shamed into hating their bodies, this industry will thrive.

Roxane Gay’s What Fullness Is, a tremendously moving piece, details Gay’s struggle with society’s perception of her weight and her subsequent weight loss journey. Her experience magnifies the dangerous and harmful effects suffered by fat people in a fatphobic world. Her decision has been read by many as rooted in survival, about needing, as many of us do, to change in order to survive. The fatphobic ways that people interacted with Gay’s body and her disordered eating served as valid motives for her surgery. Frankly, it is hard to love your body when you are faced with constant reminders on why your body is repulsive. However, acknowledging that the need to change, reshape, reduce, or contort your body to suit [and] pacify an ideal is inherently fatphobic while providing empathy to fat people who have been coerced into doing so is significant. 

In April 2022, grammy-award winning singer and fat-positive advocate Lizzo, through a partnership with Fabletics, launched Yitty, her shapewear line. Lizzo describes shapewear in general “as an “in-between piece of clothing” that’s worn over underwear but beneath outerwear to change the shape of your body”. Her brand, Yitty, includes the Mesh Me Smoothing Midi Top designed for “smoothing and toning”; the Mesh Me Smoothing High Waist Brief created with “silicone-grippers to keep everything in place”; the Nearly Naked Shaping Midi Bra for “shaping, firming and back-smoothing.”

From girdles, corsets, Spanx and Kardashian’s Skims, shapewear tells a long, dark history of its policing and oppression of female bodies. Shapewear, in its various forms, has remained a constant in the changing tides of beauty standards. Women in ancient Rome bound their breasts to match the ideal of a small-chested, large-hipped figure. The 1800s Victorian era is a period popularised by the use of corsets with metal stays meant to supply women with the “wasp waist”. Although many individuals and shapewear brands have rationalised the context of shapewear and attempted to redefine its purpose, fatphobia remains a major tenet on which it is built. For example, Karen LaBat, an apparel products researcher and author of Human Body: A Wearable Product Designer’s Guide is quoted to explain that, 

“Modern shapewear is, essentially, a compression garment. It does not alter fat or muscle, but rather displaces it to better approximate a desired shape. For example, a natural roll in the back might be moved to the armhole of a garment, the better to conceal it. In the process, shapewear also offers a smoothing effect for everything contained within the garment—similar to the corsetry of yore.”

While I was in secondary school, my teacher commented about my body being too “jiggly for a young girl” and offered to purchase shapewear for me to “tighten my body up”. I took her advice and for years, struggled with compressing my body into those restrictive garments. One day, strapped in my bodysuit, I attended an outdoor event. The hot weather coupled with the fact that I had not eaten all day for fear that the pins holding together my stomach and back rolls would pop, gave me an overwhelming wave of dizziness and nausea. I walked up to the restroom, took the bodysuit off and never put on shapewear again. While it can be argued that different people wear shapewear for a variety of reasons that claim not to be associated with thinness, the inherent aim of shapewear renders that there is an ideal body, a standard, that should be aspired to and shapewear is built to catapult to you to reaching those prejudiced standards.

Hence, when Lizzo, a renowned fat-acceptance promoter, launches a shapewear line that promises “shaping, toning, and firming”, the oxymoron is palpable. How about we just let [fat] bodies exist for what they are? For capitalist, social movements like Yitty centered around self-love and the supposed demolition of fatphobia, the inclusion of shapewear has the great possibility of being a trigger for fat people who may have dealt with demands to stuff their bodies into “shape fitting” garments most of their life; thus, it should be completely exempted. Rachael Weingarten asserts, 

“While these new brands preach inclusivity no matter your size, they really are variations of glorified girdles. And if you claim to stand for acceptance of bodies exactly as they are, it seems odd to then try to smoosh them into swaths of tight-fitting spandex that contort them into something else entirely.”

Because of how systemic fatphobia is, the fat politics of a lot of people (fat people inclusive) may, in some ways, become infiltrated by fatphobia. Thoroughly investigating the premise on which opinions and beliefs as regards societal conventions and norms are formed, help to guide an appropriate interpretation of those norms. Fat positivity is a continuous state of choosing to divest from both subtle and glaring nuances of fatphobia. As always, people must be allowed to structure their lives according to their reasonable individual needs. The human body is not static; several internal and external factors influence its form. Therefore, bodies are liable to take different forms at different times. For fat people, living everyday in a world that harbours long-standing hate for fat bodies — a world that demands that fat people must become thin before gaining access to basic necessities like healthcare, clothing, and fulfilling relationships — is a constant struggle. It is a harrowing reality that may spur the flaming desire to conform to the ideal. However, tailoring your desires, choices, and actions according to, or in reaction to, ideals prescribed by fatphobic conditions should be recognised for what it is: fatphobic.

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