DSQ > Fall 2008, Volume 28, No.4

This paper uses feminist disability studies to explore the discursive production of fat embodiment within contemporary Western society. I examine beauty and medicine as fields of knowledge which create and sustain bodily norms, representations and practices. Specifically, I examine the representation of women's (fat) embodiment through an analysis of the promotional material at a well-known women's gym. I show that this gym implicitly references wider health discourses to characterize fatness as pathology, thereby requiring intervention through physical fitness to return the body to normality. Through this analysis, I demonstrate that fatness is not a value neutral embodiment but is socially produced. By bringing together disability studies and fat studies, I highlight the importance of interdisciplinary dialogue, and reveal how different forms of oppression and discourse interlock to create normative understandings of embodiment. I argue that by re-reading fatness we can resist these normative demands and begin to imagine ways of desiring embodied difference.

Instructor's Statement

Professor Rod Michalko
New College, University of Toronto

Even though embodied difference marks the focus of any expression of inequity or privilege, the body is not often theorized within an equity paradigm. Margaret Shalma's article poignantly captures the significance of the social interpretive processes we employ to judge and categorize difference manifested in bodies. My third year course, Equity and the Body, at New College, University of Toronto was the occasion where Margaret developed her considerations of the body. In a very powerful way, she explicated the various implicit and explicit ways the body is gendered and how this gendering expresses itself in the societal need to cultivate the acceptable body.

The implications of Margaret's work for an understanding of disability and for disability studies stem from her development of the body as more than what our society demands it to be. She formulates the body as locus of normative demands and not as an object of a fixed natural phenomenon. This theoretical formulation extends the disability studies concept of body, mind and senses as phenomena constructed as "normal" or not.

Our course relied on such an understanding as a way to demonstrate that disability, among other human expressions, is a locus for our inquiry and not some thing to be remedied. Margaret's participation in the course allowed me to bring disability more fully into the mix of social inquiry. This is important since disability is often left out of any theoretical consideration of human embodiment.

Resistance Training: Re-reading Fat Embodiment at a Women's Gym

Introduction: Considering Fat Embodiment through Feminist Disability Studies

This paper explores the representation of fat embodiment within contemporary western society through a feminist disability studies perspective. In particular, I will examine beauty and medicine as fields of knowledge which create and sustain bodily norms, representations and practices. My work is guided by two central questions: What are the social meanings and values inscribed on fat bodies, and how are these meanings gendered? What do these notions tell us about bodily norms and ideals? My interest in pursuing these questions, and this topic, arises from my personal experience as a client, and currently as a paid staff member, at a North American women's gym. I became interested in unpacking the normative social investment in physical fitness as a cornerstone of health promotion. To explore these questions, I want to reveal what assumptions and ideologies lie beneath commonsensical notions of healthy, normal embodiment as they are represented through women's gym culture.

This paper is grounded in feminist disability studies and fat studies scholarship. I have found disability studies useful in my analysis of fat embodiment for three reasons. First, disability studies takes the social production of embodiment as a starting point. Second, disability studies offers an analysis of how bodily difference has been pathologized and medicalized. Finally, taken together these two analyses help to reveal those hegemonic cultural understandings which oppress fat bodies, perpetuating what fat studies scholarship calls "fatphobia" (Herndon, 2002). This provides the basis for disability studies to help us imagine ways of desiring embodied difference, and specifically, fat embodiment. As I will show, normal embodiment is a social construction and therefore can be unmade such that bodily diversity, instead, can be made meaningful and valued.

Rosemarie Garland-Thomson (2001) discusses the convergence of feminist and disability studies, explaining that a feminist disability studies perspective positions the body as central, and documenting how both women's bodies and disabled bodies have been culturally represented as abnormal and in need of disciplining by medicine and beauty ideologies. She suggests that the obsession with the thin body in Western culture is an example of how the ideology of beauty is used to discipline the body. The current healthism movement that locates exercise as a crucial component in addressing obesity and other illnesses also functions as a way of disciplining bodies, and in particular, women's bodies. Following Foucault (1979), who calls attention to the mutually constitutive nature of power and knowledge, I will show how discourses of beauty and medicine work together to produce fatness as a devalued form of embodiment by positioning it outside of the norm and outside the contemporary version of health. As Margrit Shildrick and Janet Price assert, "notions of health, of physical ability, are not absolutes, nor pre-given qualities of the human body, but function both as norms and as practices of regulation and control that produce the bodies they govern" (1996, p. 99). The fat body is thus constituted through the language and practices of beauty and medicine. Furthermore, medicine and beauty discourses understand the body as malleable, meaning that it can be altered through the individual's efforts (Garland-Thomson, 2001). This form of self-improvement is a characteristic of capitalism, where it is a person's moral duty to eradicate fatness (Garland Thomson, 2001; Sassatelli, 2005). Thinness is held up as the norm, expressed as the ideal, and is to be achieved by any means.

In the discussion that follows, I will take an imaginary woman through the process of a "figure analysis" and reflect upon what this practice tells us about the healthy, normal body and thus about its supposed opposite. A figure analysis is a woman's first encounter with the gym and acts as an information-gathering process both for the woman and for the health club. I will use the process of a figure analysis to reflect upon this gym as a cultural setting where varying ideas related to fatness, normality, health, beauty and productivity intersect. I am particularly interested in the body as a site of work, which refers to the "forms of knowledge, practices, and strategies that manufacture and normalize the female body" (MacNevin, 2003, p. 271). Harnessing my "insider knowledge" of the gym where I am employed, I will expose the considerable amount of cultural and discursive work that goes into producing and sustaining fatness as pathology.

The Figure Analysis: Making Profit, Making Normality

When I first came to the gym, a large banner with the words "No men, no-makeup, no mirrors" was posted on the wall. Although I initially joined as a member, I later became an employee, which offered me additional insight into the gym's culture, and particularly the sales techniques and operational procedures. During my training, it became clear that the program was designed with a particular woman in mind. This is demonstrated by the first section of the figure analysis in which I take Rhonda, our imaginary figure, through a series of questions about her body and health history with the aim to sell a gym membership. After writing down her contact information, I ask Rhonda about her weight and weight fluctuations at various life milestones. The milestones that are expected to be significant to women are imbued with (hetero)sexist ideology: for example, pregnancy, marriage and divorce are listed on the questionnaire. I ask, "What did you weigh when you got married?" and "How many years ago was that?" This is to show that there is a causal relationship between marriage and weight gain through the calculation of the difference between her weight at marriage and her current weight.

The logic at work here is that there is an inevitable yet negative connection between marriage, pregnancy and weight gain. This reflects what Josée Johnston and Judith Taylor refer to as "a hegemonic ideology of gendered beauty," which views beauty as "an essential part of a woman's identity, personhood, and social success" (2008, p. 954). This stage of the figure analysis thus suggests that in order to confirm her value as a woman, Rhonda has to take control of her weight gain by committing to the fitness program. Interestingly, this series of questions seems to work against the slogan "No men, No makeup, No mirrors." The absence of men, makeup and mirrors implies that it will allow women to work on their bodies in a safe, comfortable and non-judgmental environment. This is in contrast to other, typically co-ed gyms where people are striving towards the hard body ideal and where mirrors are used for monitoring both oneself and others.1

However, while both men and mirrors are physically absent in the gym, they are in fact present through the gaze that women are encouraged to exercise upon and amongst themselves through the discourse of the figure analysis. By evoking "men" to promote their business, this gym is ultimately suggesting that women can understand themselves only through their relationships with men (see also Johnston and Taylor, 2008). This patriarchal gaze understands the physically fit woman as strong, healthy, active, lean, efficient, energetic, attractive, and committed to bodily improvement. These characteristics allude to a singularly acceptable way of being in the world which is premised upon a "healthy," "able" body and which renders the woman sexually available and desirable to men. Although men and mirrors are not permitted in the gym, it is clear from both the slogan and the procedure of the figure analysis that ableist, heterosexist and masculinist norms permeate and shape women's bodily perceptions and their health and fitness goals.

After calculating Rhonda's weight gain,2 I then ask her to identify her specific goals in coming to the gym. I provide her with three options: "losing weight," "firm and tone" or "gaining weight." The choices provided are limiting, and set out the gym's values about what a woman's body should look like. I ask Rhonda if she has exercised in the past to lose weight and she goes on to tell me her fitness regime. I need to solicit a "power statement" from her, which is an acknowledgment that she knows exercise works. This power statement implicitly suggests that fat bodies are the problem and that exercise is the solution. In general, power statements are used by the gym to place the responsibility of bodily improvement upon women. Power statements thereby function as an empowerment tool where women can exert choice regarding whether they are committed (or not) to bodily improvement. In this scenario, the gym is never at fault if the woman does not meet her weight loss goals; she could have worked harder and been more committed.

We move on to document Rhonda's health history and I ask her a series of questions about health-related issues such as osteoporosis, diabetes, high blood pressure, and other conditions or injuries. Finding out about these health conditions serves multiple purposes. It would seem that asking this information of these women would ensure that staff are well aware of clients' capabilities and limitations so that we can design a safe and individualized program for each client. But in fact, this information is not used to tailor a specific fitness program, because all women are expected to use the same equipment, in the same way, in the same order and at the same pace. Despite asking for all this individualized information about their bodies, this gym treats all fat bodies as the same.

A second power statement is needed in this section of the figure analysis to persuade women to believe that weight loss can help maintain good health. After Rhonda lists her health history, I am to elicit her agreement that she has to exercise for health. The practice of linking exercise with health through this power statement tells us that fat bodies are seen as unhealthy, and in need of intervention. (There is parallel here to the common demand that disabled bodies require intervention.) As LeBesco & Braziel suggest with reference to the obese body, "the labeling of obesity as a primary cause seems inextricably and discursively bound to a view of corpulence as a fatal but preventable disease" (2001, p. 5). Similarly, the fat body here is pathologized by medicine and characterized as a "causal or contributing factor" in chronic conditions and fatal illnesses (LeBesco & Braziel, 2001, p. 5). Without naming obesity explicitly, this power statement is drawing upon the larger discourse of the "obesity epidemic" in order to sell gym memberships. Responsibility for one's health is individualized and represented as a choice to correct the unhealthy and abnormal body by acting upon it.

This responsibility of individuals for their own health must be understood within the context of capitalism, where individuals are treated as whole and autonomous entities. Gyms are products of consumer culture that draw on the notion that individuals make their own choices about how to manage their health so as to maintain and optimize their bodies as both commodities and as labourers for the state. As Roberta Sassatelli argues:

The practices and discourses of bodily control, health maintenance and physical efficiency…are increasingly delivered by the private market of goods and services. More and more often, care for the body takes place within commercial facilities like fitness gyms and by practices carried out by individuals exercising free choice on the market and on themselves. (2005, p. 286)

Participating in gym culture requires that one exercise purchasing power, which ascribes value to this form of physical activity. (Of course, participation in private gyms in unavailable to many women due to high membership fees). It also gives value to the imagined fit and healthy woman.

During the figure analysis process, while gyms are held up as an ideal and legitimate form of exercise, other activities such as walking are diminished. Many women, when undergoing the figure analysis, identify walking as their current form of exercise; however, walking is low on the hierarchy of recognized fitness activities and so as staff we are trained to dismiss it and probe for more rigorous examples of exercise. (In fact, we are probing for the absence of these rigorous activities to establish the need for purchasing a gym membership.) Similarly, the fat body and other forms of bodily difference are emptied of their value within the context of consumer culture; to be recognized as valuable in this context requires participation in the gym setting.

Once it is confirmed that exercise is essential to good health, and that certain kinds of exercise are more productive than others, the gym is held up as the ideal way to pursue one's health and fitness goals. I move on from the health history checklist to ask Rhonda what motivated her to come into the gym and speak with the staff. I follow up with the question "How long have you been seriously thinking about losing weight and getting in shape?" Regardless of the source of her motivation and the length of time she has been considering her fitness options, I am to encourage her to take action by confirming that she is ready to "Stop thinking and start doing!" This final power statement evokes a myriad of cultural assumptions about fat embodiment, all of which reinforce the ideology of individualism and self-improvement.

This power statement conjures up ideas of a person who has not yet made the transition from thought to action. The emphasis on "action" reinforces ableist and fatphobic ideologies by suggesting that the only valuable and productive body is the "active" body. The figure analysis asks women to imagine an improved self brought about by participating in physical activity. This gym program is the only way to "start doing," and thus to take responsibility for a healthier body and lifestyle, which in turn reifies dominant moral values ascribed to the fat body. As Cecilia Hartley suggests, the fat woman is typically seen as "sloppy, careless, lazy, and self-indulgent" (2001, p. 65). Women who fail to actualize their desire for change are held responsible for both their fat corporeality and the negative health and social implications that result. In order to resolve and eradicate the stigma associated with the fat body, working out is presented as the morally right thing to do. As Sassatelli points out, "training in the gym is not only rational, exact and effective, it is also right, correct and virtuous" (2005, p. 285). By characterizing working out as a moral choice, individual responsibility for participating in healthy bodily practices is maintained. This ignores the larger social context through which fatness is made meaningful, and denies the possibility that fat bodies might be taken up and imagined differently.

Having established that there is a need to exercise for health, the process of the figure analysis now seeks to turn this abstract notion into something more concrete through "measurable and attainable" goals. I take Rhonda's body measurements, including her bust, waist, abdomen, hips, thighs, arms, weight, height and body fat percentage. This part of the figure analysis is considered the most sensitive yet significant, as it will help establish goals and motivation. Once I've measured Rhonda's specifications using instruments such as a tape measure, scale and body fat analyzer, I provide her with a measurement chart and ask her what clothing size she would like to wear. Rhonda, like most women who come to the gym, aspires to be a size eight — the size she used to wear before she was married. We set out her goals in inches, body fat and weight, and map them onto an hourglass symbol. The number of inches that Rhonda needs to lose to attain her desired size is written in the top section of the hourglass and the number of pounds is written in the bottom section. The discourse of the figure analysis assumes that the hourglass image provides a visual motivator to persuade women to commit to a gym membership. However, it also tells about the cultural understandings of health and beauty that the gym is drawing upon in order to generate profits.

The hourglass is a tangible and widespread representation of desirable femininity. The visual projection of their desired measurements onto the symbol allows women to imagine the possibility of their improved selves. To actualize this possibility, however, women need real figures in the form of numbers — the concrete weight-loss goals to indicate measurable success and failure. Success is thus tied to the elimination of corporeal deviance (Le Besco, 2004, p. 74), which reveals that the gym mandate is not only about health promotion, but also serves to reinscribe dominant cultural narratives of fatness and embodied difference. Rhonda is now supposed to be convinced that exercise not only works but is essential for good health, and with her measurable and attainable goals in mind, she is ready to take action. Together, we walk over to the circuit and Rhonda begins her workout.

Disability Studies and Fat Studies: Exploring Connections

While writing this paper, I have asked myself many questions. How might we embrace other meanings or possibilities of fat embodiment in a culture that is drenched with medicalized notions of fatness as unhealthy? How do we make fatness a legitimate site for scholarship and activism? How do we negotiate scientific discourses that present themselves as all-knowing and argue that fatness leads to illness and death? And finally, how do we reclaim fat embodiment as a point of pride when at every turn our culture reinforces the idea that being fat is morally perverse? Through my examination of the gym setting and practices, I have become profoundly aware of the need to interrogate fatphobia, while at the same time struggling with the difficulties of making fat corporeality valuable in a culture that constantly reminds us that fatness needs to eradicated.3

Scholars such as Charlotte Cooper (1997) and April Herndon (2002) bring together fat studies and disability studies to explore questions such as these. One similarity is the fact that both disabled and fat bodies are subjected to medicalization. Fatness is characterized as undesirable since it can lead to numerous preventable diseases. Weight loss is presented as the cure to fatness and is facilitated by state-sanctioned initiatives, the commercial health industry and professionals such as nutritionists, general practitioners and bariatricians (Cooper, 1997). Similarly, disabled bodies "need" be cured, and failing that, be normalized through rehabilitation by health practitioners such as occupational therapists, psychiatrists, etc. In both cases, these corporealities are understood as deviant bodies that need to cured and returned to normality.

Another similarity is that both fat and disabled bodies are held up as public spectacles to be gawked at with pity, disgust and shame. However, a different kind of gaze is placed upon disabled bodies than on fat bodies. This is related to a significant difference between dominant cultural understandings of the source of responsibility for fatness and disability. Whereas fat people are believed to have caused their own misery and voluntarily violated cultural norms, disabled people are typically not held responsible for their conditions, which are more often regarded as a tragedy or an unfortunate act of God (Cooper, 1997).

Cooper (1997) notes that another significant difference between the experiences of disabled and fat people has been the history of segregation and the institutionalization of disabled people. While she does not elaborate on this point, I wonder what this suggests about the nature of fat and disabled embodiment. This seems to reflect cultural discourses that understand the fat body as malleable, and fat flesh as a layer that is external to a "normal" self. As a form of excess, fatness is thus something that can (in public imagination) be shed, whereas disability tends to be understood as inextricable to the self and the body. This is well-illustrated by overcoming narratives which suggest, through their emphasis on conquering impairment and becoming as "normal" as possible, that disability can never be fully eradicated. This implies that, unlike fatness, disability can never be completely left behind.

Herndon writes, "situating fatness and Fat women within the context of disability studies and feminist standpoint epistemology can proffer resistant accounts of marginalized embodiments and identities" (2006, p. 134). In conclusion, I explore how the practice of attending to fatness can serve as one such a form of resistance.

Conclusion: Re-reading as Resistance

Tanya Titchkosky (2003) suggests that disability can be our teacher; drawing from this, it is interesting to consider how we can similarly learn from fatness. As Titchkosky writes, treating disability as a teacher "is only possible if we suspend, even momentarily, the need to fix disabled persons or fix up society's treatment of us" (2003, p. 29). Likewise, it is also important to suspend the need to fix fat people and instead take fatness as an opportunity to interrogate notions of health, beauty and normality. This is a difficult task because, as I have shown, medical knowledge uses a narrowly determined and fatphobic criteria to define good health from the outset. I have asked: What can we do, given this difficulty? As this critique shows, one thing we can do is attend to these dominant cultural narratives so as to disrupt their authority.

Taking the figure analysis as an example, it becomes possible to re-read other cultural sites such as Body Mass Index (BMI) charts, news segments on the obesity epidemic and television shows like "The Biggest Loser." Although these examples represent various media and discourses, they all contribute to the notion of the pathological fat body. The practice of re-reading, however "moves us from thinking about bodies as naturally having certain meanings to seeing them as social products that are informed by our cultural interpretations of them" (Garland-Thomson, 2001, p. 13). Following Robert McRuer and Abby Wilkerson, who suggest that we desire disability, I believe that this kind of attentive resistance can foster "a recognition that another world can exist in which an incredible variety of bodies and minds are valued and identities are shaped" (2003 p. 14). Social change is of course a complex process. While I have become more conscious of the inseparability of gendered health and beauty discourses, I have also reflected upon my personal participation in practices which reproduce normative notions of embodiment. Considering Rhonda, and the countless other women with whom I have conducted figure analyses, I have come to realize that I have also facilitated this process of adherence to health and beauty norms for other women. I have greater insight into how power, gender and embodiment interact and can impact women's readings of their own bodily experiences both at the gym and in wider society.4


Margaret Shalma is a fourth-year student pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Women and Gender Studies and Equity Studies (Disability Studies stream) at the University of Toronto, Canada.

Works Cited

  • Cooper, C. (1997). Can a fat woman call herself disabled? Disability and Society, 12(1), 31-41.
  • Foucault, M. (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison, translated by Alan Sheridan, New York: Random House.
  • Garland Thomson, R. (1997). Extraordinary bodies: Figuring physical disability in American culture and literature. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Garland-Thomson, R. (2001). Re-shaping, re-thinking, re-defining: Feminist disability studies. Washington: Center for Women and Policy Studies.
  • Hartley, C. (2001). Letting ourselves go: Making room for the fat body in feminist scholarship. In K. LeBesco & J. E. Braziel (Eds.), Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression (pp. 60-73). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Herndon, A. (2002). Disparate but disabled: Fat embodiment and disability studies. NWSA Journal, 14(3), 120-137.
  • Johnston, J. & Taylor J. (2008). Feminist consumerism and fat activism: A comparative study of grassroots activism and the Dove real beauty campaign. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 33(4), 941-966.
  • LeBesco, K. (2004). Revolting bodies?: The struggle to re-define fat identity. Amherst: University of Massachusetts.
  • LeBesco, K. (2001). Queering fat bodies/politics. In K. LeBesco & J. E. Braziel (Eds.), Bodies out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression (pp. 74-87). Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • MacNevin, A. (2003). Exercising options: Holistic health and technical beauty in gendered accounts of bodywork. Sociological Quarterly, 44(2), 271-289.
  • McRuer, R & Wilkerson A. L. (2003). Introduction. GLQ, 9(1-2), 1-23.
  • Sassatelli R. (2005). The Commercialization of discipline: Keep-fit culture and its values. In M. Fraser & M. Greco. The Body: A Reader (pp.283-287). New York: Routledge.
  • Shildrick, M. & Price, J. (1996). Breaking the boundaries of the broken body. Body & Society, 2(4), 93-111.
  • Titchkosky, T. (2003). Disability, self and society. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
  • Wann, M. (2004) Finding the f word for it. Off Our Backs, 34, 23-26.


  1. With respect to the absence of mirrors, the gym setting uses a number of alternate surveillance techniques. For example, there is a color-coded tracking system that allows clients to monitor their range of motion and speed. This technology fulfills a regulatory function that is similar to the presence of mirrors in other gym settings; it allows women to not only monitor their own effort but also the effort of other women because the colors communicate optimal (or less than optimal) fitness levels, and this color-coding is visible to other women.
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  2. I am assuming here that Rhonda has gained weight, following the belief set out by Curves that women typically gain weight after marriage and come to Curves with the aim to lose weight.
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  3. I have lived this struggle on more than an academic level. While writing this paper, I have been on a regimented diet with two different weight-loss programs. As a result, I have experienced a tension between my political and theoretical commitment to interrogating systems of inequity and my desire to lose weight and lead a healthy lifestyle according to prescribed bodily and behavioural norms. I continue to grapple with this tension, and although it remains unresolved, I believe this ambivalence has provided me with a rich source of insight and analysis precisely because it has been grounded in the experience of doing a weight loss program.
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  4. I would like to thank Dr. Rod Michalko for invaluable discussion and feedback regarding this paper. I also appreciate the thoughtful suggestions provided by Susan Ferguson, Amy Gullage, and Eve Haque.
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