Date of Award
Thesis - Restricted Access (SIA Only)
Master of Arts (MA)
he purpose of this thesis is not to provide the reader with a manual on how to appreciate fat bodies in art, but instead aims to identify the obstacles artists face when showing fat female bodies to an anxious fatphobic audience. I will use the word “fat” instead of “obese” or “overweight” throughout the thesis as an effort to reclaim the word, not as a stigma but as a descriptive neutral adjective. The goal of the study is to defend the idea that fatness is not a sign of failure or cultural burden. The first step to building a foundation of knowledge around the prevalence of fatphobia is to outline government policies, anti-fat terminology, and prejudices faced by fat bodies living in Western societies today. As Fat Studies author Aubrey Gordon explains in her 2020 book What We Don't Talk about When We Talk about Fat, “Anti-fat bias is not the work of a few bad apples or a marginal group that decides to harm fat people. Anti-fat bias is a cultural force that simultaneously shapes and is expressed through our most commanding institutions.”(1) Gordon’s exclamation is appropriate. Fatphobia is a massive act of injustice that is so heavily ingrained in modern living that it can sometimes be hard to spot. A deeper analysis of these culturally contested bodies is unveiled when delving into the origin of fatphobia and its long history of racist, classist rhetoric in association with the fat female nude. Art history scholars Lynda Nead and Kenneth Clark will provide a backdrop for the history of the high-art ideal nude as means to illustrate why the depiction of a fat nude would deem the artwork obscene or radical, breaking from the secure aesthetic discourse. For the purposes of this study I will only focus on the fat female as depicted in Western artworks and contemporary media representations, while I do acknowledge that fat female bodies are sometimes revered in other countries and cultures (each having her own extensive history to analyze). I will explore the notion of abjection as it relates to the reaction of the fat body, both for its physical appearance and for the social repulsion it so often meets. Furthermore, I will analyze why some artists such as Jenny Saville and Lucian Freud found great success in their interpretation of the fat body, but real fat females continue to face contention and rejection from the same authority that invests in similar aesthetics. This degradation of the fat female allows for objectification to persist as I will illustrate through Karl Marx’s theory of commodity fetishism and the patriarchal cosmetic panopticon. I will conclude by suggesting ways in which society can heal from the dangers of surveilling female fat bodies. By analyzing artworks by contemporary artists that depict fat bodies in an honest act of reclamation, I will demonstrate how fat-positive art asserts validity in the face of social erasure, humiliation, and objectification.
(1) Aubrey Gordon, What We Don't Talk about When We Talk about Fat (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2020), 166.
Powell, Elizabeth, "How Fat-Positive Art Asserts Validity in the Face of Social Erasure, Humiliation & Objectification of the Fat Female Nude" (2021). MA Theses. 85.