"There will always be fat people": Kate Manne fights fatphobia in the age of Ozempic

In her new book "Unshrinking," the Cornell philosophy professor argues that body diversity matters more than ever

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published January 9, 2024 9:12AM (EST)

Female friends dancing for social media and filming it on mobile phone in the pool at home (Getty Images/FG Trade)
Female friends dancing for social media and filming it on mobile phone in the pool at home (Getty Images/FG Trade)

The fat acceptance movement has been around for decades now, and has even gained mainstream traction in recent years, usually under the banner of "body positivity" or the rejection of "diet culture." Nowadays, even fitness influencers and women's magazines feel the need to downplay weight loss as an exercise goal. Weight management services sometimes avoid the word "diet" in favor of championing "wellness." But right in the middle of this slow-moving gain toward a more body-inclusive culture, a bomb was dropped: The sudden arrival and rapid spread of weight-loss drugs like Wegovy and Ozempic. Both are being marketed as something akin to a "miracle cure," allowing people to lose a lot of weight, something rarely achieved through diet and exercise alone

It's a hell of an environment for Kate Manne to publish her new book "Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia." Yet the Cornell philosophy professor exudes the same calm, rational style of argument that she has offered in previous works addressing misogyny. She spoke with Salon about why she believes the weight-loss drug revolution is overrated and why it's still important to push back against the overwhelming pressure on women to be thin. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

You put more of yourself in this book than you have in your previous books. Why did you make that choice? How are you feeling about that?

I've often been asked, when it comes to my work on misogyny, why I got interested in the topic. I found that I really couldn't tell that story without also telling a story about fatphobia. I had been especially targeted as a fat girl and then fat woman over the years. I wanted to tell more of my personal story. Misogyny and fatphobia crucially intersect. 

It's certainly important to have a deep dive on the empirical evidence, like the evidence that for many people dieting is a common pathway to eating disorders. But I needed to make the point that no one is immune to the pressure to shrink yourself. It's so pernicious and toxic. As someone who's written two books about patriarchy, I still felt this intense pressure to be thin or at least thinner. My hope is that the personal story makes it clear to the reader is that no one is really immune to these pressures. We really can't think about how to resist and combat misogyny without being smart about body diversity more generally.

It's an interesting book to come out at this particular point. The discourse around body acceptance and fat acceptance has become more mainstream in the past decade, and that's all been upended in the past year with the widespread release of Ozempic and other weight-loss drugs. How do you feel about those particular change?

I think you're right that it exposes much of the body acceptance or fat acceptance that we've seen superficially. It exposes it as a kind of fragile detente, rather than a real peace or truth that we're having with our bodies. The war against our bodies is still being waged — and now there's a new tool in that fight, a new weapon in the attempt to make yourself small.

No matter what you think about drugs like Ozempic and other related drugs, they're not going to make everyone thin. The most optimistic estimates from the companies themselves show people losing 15% body weight. [In other words, approximately 45 pounds for a person who weighs 300 pounds.] So there will always be fat people. There have always been fat people. We're going to need to deal with body diversity for as long as we have bodies. Ozempic is not going to make any of that go away. It exposes just how ambivalent our fat acceptance has been. We've done fat acceptance as a "lemonade out of lemons" strategy, rather than fully embracing the bodies that we have, which would be my preferred way of doing things.

It seems as if, prior to these drugs, there were two threads of fat acceptance. One is resigned, saying, well, dieting doesn't work and exercise doesn't work. So since there's nothing that fat people can do to change themselves, we need to move to acceptance. Then there's a different argument which is that it shouldn't matter one way or another. We should accept fat people as they are, regardless of whether or not they can lose the weight.

"What if we believed with our whole hearts that bodies come in different shapes and sizes? Bodies come with different heights and different hair colors, skin colors and hair textures. What if we embrace a range of body masses as a beautiful part of human diversity?"

It's a great distinction to make. I do agree that body size is not under our tight control.  But you're right that a deeper and more radical point is: What if we thought differently and believed with our whole hearts that bodies come in different shapes and sizes? Bodies come with different heights and different hair colors and skin colors and hair textures. What if we embrace a range of body masses as a beautiful part of human diversity? I know that thought will be uncomfortable to many of my readers, but it's where I have ended up, having been down the road of thinking through this. It's not only about my body, but about the world that I want my child to grow up into. I want a world where we regard body size as another beautiful facet of the ways that we differ. It shouldn't be minimized, even if we could minimize that diversity. 

I remember many years ago, back in the feminist blogosphere days, when Kate Harding wrote a blog post about this. As I recall, she wrote that she could probably lose some weight if she starved herself, but she didn't want to. I remember feeling how radical that was: Like, I just don't want to. So much of this is about the role of food and pleasure and our right to eat. 

I think Kate Harding is a brilliant writer and really broke huge ground in this space. She was one of the first writers I read 20 years ago when, as a fat young woman, I was discovering these ideas and their radical power. It took me a long time to get fully behind the ideas, personally. But politically, they've had long-standing influence on me as part of my feminism. There's an idea that we might think of our bodies as something as not a ripe subject for endless manipulation to make them more pleasing to a pretty narrow set of beauty ideals. That is both a familiar idea and a radical idea when it's actually practiced. To say that I love my heft. My body is partly a f**k you to the patriarchy and I'm not changing. It is pushing back on those really narrow and frankly fascist beauty norms and values.

The pleasure piece that you raise is really apt. One thought that has really troubled me lately about the weight-loss drugs is the way that they reduce food and pleasure. How they work is to make food much less rewarding and pleasurable, as well as making us less hungry. People are often tempted to reframe that as a lack of "food noise." The concept did not have any traction until the last year, when these drugs made people less excited about food. I would align myself with the Twitter commentator who replied to a post of Nigella Lawson, when she said she couldn't bear to live without "food noise." I believe he called it "food music."

The idea is embracing your body, embracing your fatness, and not viewing your body as something that should be a visual object that pleases or soothe or serves, but rather a vehicle through which you experience pleasure in the world. And one of those, very fundamentally, is the pleasure of food. That's how I'm encouraging readers to think about their bodies as for them. My body is for me. Your body is for you, and so on. But also the pleasure to be garnered through food is a fundamental human good, and not something to be minimized or degraded or sneered at, or just simply forsworn in the name of a kind of thinness that I think is a really hollow and pointless human value.

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I was listening to a podcast recently and they mentioned that "food noise" phrase. I had never heard that before. The first thing I thought was: What if there was like a pill to make your sexual desire go away? How would we think about that? On one hand, there are times that would be useful. But I think it would make us uncomfortable.

You can imagine the same thought experiment with sleep. Imagine that we have this powerful amphetamine that suddenly means people don't need to sleep for days or weeks at a time. And now we have "sleep noise," not normal human tiredness. It's  a way of refusing our humanness, and with it our animal nature. Our visceral appetite is a part of being alive and being human and having a life that is rich and having fundamental needs. There's the pleasure of sleep, the pleasure of sex, the pleasure of food.

"The idea is, not viewing your body as something that should be a visual object that pleases or soothe or serves, but rather a vehicle through which you experience pleasure in the world."

I'm wary of thinking of those pleasures as suspect, for reasons connected with making us more productive little capitalist machines that don't have needs. And for reasons to do with the overarching feminist principle: Are we really going to continue this long-standing practice of telling women to be ashamed of their visceral appetites? Eighty-one percent of people on Wegovy are women

That's telling, because, as far as I know, men are more likely to be classified as overweight or obese than women.

I think it depends on the racial and socioeconomic bracket. Certainly the numbers are not vastly different. So there's no reason why it should be that disproportionate based on the statistical likelihood of being a certain size. And a lot of women taking the drug are already thin and getting thinner. I suspect it will historically be looked at as a rather dangerous practice and potentially a gateway to disordered eating for many people.

The gender aspect of this continues to confuse a lot of people. People do know women are under more pressure to be thin than men. But it is also true that fat men are made to feel bad as well. There is pressure on men to lose weight and to not be fat.

That's a really important question. Studies look at just how bad fatphobia is for men versus women. A lot less work has been done on nonbinary people, but what work has been done suggests nonbinary people and other marginalized genders may have it even worse than girls and women. But in one study, four candidates applied for various job openings: A fat woman, a thin woman, a fat man and a thin man. And the employment opportunities were diverse. They were things like a salesperson, a university lecturer, a manual laborer and so on. The fat woman was judged the worst candidate, and the thin man was judged the best candidate for every single job opening. Their CVs were the same.

When it comes to the concrete material implications of fatness, women don't just face more pressure to look a certain way. We face more in the way of discrimination and also a wage gap that has a direct impact on life prospects. Another study showed that for millennial women, there's about a $20,000 average annual wage gap between very fat women and so-called average weight women. With the various aspects of fatphobia, we see when it is just much more pronounced for women.

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Sexual fatphobia is particularly pronounced for women. Think about the practice of "hogging" or "pig roast," which takes place, unfortunately, at many universities. There are competitions among frat brothers to see who can bed the heaviest or fattest woman. This is a form of bullying and taunting and, arguably, in some cases sexual assault because the woman isn't consenting to be part of this toxic game among frat brothers. No equivalent practice applies to fat boys and men. Similarly, about 90% of fat women can recall instances of being belittled by a male partner for their weight if they're in a heterosexual relationship. It seems like the converse is much less common. Fatphobia is absolutely real for men, especially for men with other vulnerabilities, like being Black or being queer or being trans or being poor. But all other things being fixed, a woman is often at more of a disadvantage for being fat than her male counterpart.

Your book isn't just coming out during a weight-loss drug bonanza. The amount of social control that people are attempting to exert over women's bodies is generally escalating. The most obvious is the Dobbs decision that led to banning abortion in a lot of states. But it's not just that. I follow right-wing rhetoric very closely and I've noticed that many conservative men get angry when women dye their hair or have tattoos or wear certain kinds of makeup. There's so much entitlement in these spaces to tell women what to do with their bodies.

It's quite fearful as well as overtly hostile and full of misogynistic rage towards women who they think fit a certain stereotype. Like a queer woman who is not wearing makeup, or is heavily tattooed. Or who has cut her hair short or has visible body hair. Someone who's fat or who is intensely progressive. Maybe as a "cat lady" too. There is a real fear of the kind of progressive feminist woman whose body is seen as resistant to patriarchal norms and expectations. Just by existing publicly and visibly in the world, she is saying that she really doesn't care about the male gaze and that she's not subject to that tight form of control or policing.

"That is a pretty radical thing, to let your body do the talking when it comes to some of your values, and the particular value of being deeply resistant to patriarchal norms and expectations."

That is a pretty radical thing, to let your body do the talking when it comes to some of your values, and the particular value of being deeply resistant to patriarchal norms and expectations. It's resisting the idea that your body is there to serve and please and placate straight men. That woman is a terrifying prospect to a misogynist. Also, good for her. For all of us, for a nice big old f**k-you to patriarchal domination.

I get called "cat lady" day in and day out, and I'm just like, "Yes, I am."

It's just that idea you should be looking anywhere else other than a men's eyes. It's that simple. How dare you avert your gaze from men to appreciate others, including cats.

It reminds me of a couple I'm friends with. They were walking down the street and this guy walks by and hisses "lesbians" at them. They were like, "Yep, we are." 

It's so offensive to not be in a position of deference, looking up in admiration at a man. Having a body that is visibly out of line with those norms is being resistant to these noxious values. I have certainly been in the game, historically, of trying to make my body look more conformist than it actually is or wants to be. Given my overall beliefs about what matters, I just had to ask: What is worth spending my time on?

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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