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“Happy Fat” this summer: a review of Sofie Hagen’s book about fat activism

Book cover of Sofie Hagen’s book, Happy Fat: Taking Up Space in a World that wants to Shrink You. Sofie is sitting on a stool holding her belly and smiling.

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Finding this book has been 2019 gold for me. It has also been exceptionally fortuitous to read this book at the beginning of summer, a time for many people that singles stress and anxiety around their bodies. This book was my first deep-dive into fat activism and the fat positivity movement, and I feel like this book is a must-read for anyone of any size.

By now, I feel like most people have heard of the terms fat activism, body positivity movement, and fatphobia. A lot of people try to claim and reclaim these terms for their own use, and some get it wrong, while others get it spectacularly wrong. Before talking more about what is in Sofie Hagen’s book, I wanted to define some terms briefly, drawing on Hagen’s terminology, for my readers who may not know that much about fat activism.

Firstly, I want to acknowledge that if you are a human being, you have probably had someone shame you for the way you look. If that has never happened, I am pretty sure you are an alien infiltrating our society so you better keep your head down or you’ll blow your cover. In particular, if you are a female-presenting person, the types of relentless attacks on your body can feel exhausting. I have personally been called fat, too tall, a man (because I am tall), asked where my dick is (because if I am that tall I must be a man), a she-man, ugly, four-eyes, slut, and Godzilla just to name a few insults off the top of my head. The reality is that we humans seem to enjoy torturing each other because of how we look. And body positivity is about fighting against this mistreatment.

However, there is a big BUT to add in here. Although we have all been called some pretty terrible things throughout our lives, fat activism, body positivity, and fat acceptance/pride fight against something even more insidious. The reality is that fat men and women will be discriminated against because of their size. This discrimination can be found throughout all aspects of their lives. It starts in restaurants with what fat people eat, it moves to the chairs and seats on planes that are not made to accommodate fat people, and it infests every doctor’s room, hospital, and medical care facility across every country the world over. Fat people are mistreated daily, and doctors often ignore life-threatening symptoms and complaints because they assume it is all due to the person’s fatness. Fat people are often afraid to visit medical centres because instead of being treated for their tonsillitis, they get told to lose weight. This level of discrimination and subsequent trauma is a reflection of how entrenched fatphobia is within our culture. These spaces of fat activism and body positivity were created by fat people to demand equal treatment regardless of their weight. Let me reiterate: fat people do not deserve to be laughed at, mistreated, abused, or medically forgotten because of their size. Respect and love should be given regardless of the number on the scales. These fat spaces should remain open to fat people and should also not be coopted by slimmer people.

Fellow conventionally skinny people PSA: giving fat people these spaces doesn’t mean we are not allowed to feel frustrated about our own bodies. It does not negate the traumas we have experienced because of how the world views our bodies, nor does it invalidate how we feel about our weight, size, or height. We can feel all these things and still let fat people have a room of their own (Virginia Wolf quote intended).

What I have summarised here only touches the surface of fat activism and if you want to know more and learn more then start with reading Hagen’s book.

Hagen addresses the history of fat activism, which has been around since the 1960s. In fact, in 1967 500 fat people had a ‘Fat In’ in Central Park. This is really amazing, and I love the idea of this. Before reading Hagen’s book, I had no idea about the rich history of fat activism. The historical silences around it also highlight the fatphobia we have in academia and history in general. Hagen brings up in her book that many people think that fatness was more accepted in the past and that fuller bodies were celebrated. The reality is fatphobia has been around since the Ancient Greeks. We still are beholden to those slender, muscular bodies of antiquity. Gluttony, one of the seven deadly sins, is probably a significant factor in why slimmer bodies were prized about others. I would also add that because of this element of gluttony and sin, and there is religious piety in slenderness and a heavy moral judgement on bodies that break out of these chaste slender constraints. Arguably, these judgements are still with us today. In any time in history, as Hagen points out, fatness is considered wrong. In the Renaissance, you couldn’t have thick wastes in some courts. Bodies were made to fit the clothes, and not the clothes made to fit the bodies. Throughout literature, fat people have been used as comic relief. They are the idiots, the clowns, and the dunces. Shakespeare was fatphobic. And to use Shakespeare’s insults against him: “Methink’ st thou art a general offence and every man should beat thee.” (You get extra points if you can figure out which play I am referencing).

Happy Fat also addresses some of the every day struggles fat people face. Shopping is often not an option for fat people. Very few brick and mortar stores hold larger sizes for fat people, which removes fat people from public spaces. Fat people can wear whatever they want and should be able to access the same types and styles of clothes as everyone else. Everyone should have the same and equal opportunities to make terrible at-the-time-on-trend fashion decisions. Furthermore, to quote Hagen, “Get the fuck out of people’s wardrobes.”

I also wanted to touch upon the medical treatment of fatness, which is the most heartbreaking thing for me to hear. Fatphobia in medicine is so engrained in the way it treats patients. Doctors focus predominantly on weight and not on any other factors. Fat people consistently do not receive the same medical care as other people solely because of their size. This is unacceptable. Also, I need to rant about the BMI. Around the globe, doctors keep using the BMI, a 200-year-old measurement invented by a mathematician. Honestly, the BMI can choke on a big ol’ bag of doughnuts. The BMI is not an accurate way to measure weight, health, or anything. I should know because I have an overweight BMI of 27 yet have 20% body fat and work out for around 6-7 hours a week. Based on that measurement alone, I am overweight and therefore, at risk of all kinds of horrible ‘fat’ illnesses. The BMI doesn’t take into account fat, muscle, bone, or water weight. DO BETTER DOCTORS. DO BETTER.

Hagen’s book isn’t all about horrifying statistics or manipulated historical facts. She also offers fantastic tips and ways to love the body you have. She asks you to ‘kill your skinny self’ and live for the body you have today. She encourages you to stand up for yourself against fatphobic remarks. She tells you to be kind to your body. She asks you to look into ways that will help you accept your body. And mostly, she tells you that you are not alone. There are quite a few amazing organisations that she talks about throughout her book that advocate and celebrate fat bodies. Hagen also tries to be more inclusive in her writing and shines a spotlight of Black fat bodies and disabled fat bodies by including interviews from marginalised people throughout the book.

Cartoon picture of author Sofie Hagen holding a sign saying “FCK FATPHOBIA”. Drawn by yours truly.

This book is so easy to read and such a powerful book. I hope everyone gets a chance to read it. I am thankful that Hagen who in writing this book, drew on a lot of her own experiences with being fat.

So tell me, what fat activism books are you reading? What social media accounts are you following, and how do you fight fatphobia in your every day life? How are you an ally to your fat friends? As always, share the reading love.

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