Recent Insights on Fat Oppression and Women

I had the pleasure of leading a day-long Workshop for Large Women and also an evening Gather-in for Allies to Large Women. (We met in the Capital Region of the United States, which includes Maryland and Washington, D.C.) Although the workshops were full of discharge, laughter, games, and closeness, this article focuses on the theory shared. (Because this oppression feels heavy to large women, it is important for leaders on the topic to balance theory presentations with having fun together.)

I began with a historical perspective on fat oppression. In the history of Western societies (whose culture now dominates all the world’s societies), fat was a sign of wealth and abundance, particularly in women. For the owning class, fat was a sign of being well-fed, of having a body not exploited by work, and of having more than needed to survive. For the working class, fat was a sign of being hearty and strong, able to do heavy agricultural work, and for women, fertile.

With the industrial revolution women still often depend on men’s approval—for jobs or marriage—in order to access resources necessary for economic survival. New domestic technologies alleviated some of women’s harshest burdens. Women also no longer needed special domestic skills in order to appeal to men. A patterned version of “beauty” replaced domesticity as the primary standard for judging women. For this and other reasons, it has become difficult for women, large and otherwise, to determine realistic standards for our health.

Because of the close connection between economic survival and others’ perception of our beauty, fat oppression is harsh. Many studies have shown that large women in the United States and England are poorer and less educated and are promoted less, date less, and marry less than their thin counterparts. This has been shown for white women and women of color.

In addition to job and marriage discrimination, large women experience other systematic mistreatment. Many stereotypes that class oppression uses against poor people are also applied to fat people; fat people are perceived as lazy, dirty, and smelly. Fat people often get touched less and have less access to sexual relationships. And perhaps most painful, openly acting out hatred and disgust at fat people is acceptable. The pain of name-calling and other cruel behavior persists from childhood, affecting even the closest adult relationships.

Being “openly hated” by others sets up an internalized oppression—vicious self-hatred. It is often difficult for thinner people to comprehend the depths of self-hatred experienced by large women. Large women play it out through addictions and self-destructive behaviors. These include, but are not limited to, living in fantasies, smoking, caffeine, other drug addictions, sex or masturbation addictions, food addictions, and compulsive passivity concerning our bodies.

Large women are a group blamed for whatever patterns made us large, then additionally oppressed for our “out-of-control” behavior.


There are many effective directions against the chronic patterns of self-hatred and of hiding that most large women carry.

I’ve found it useful to give large women the direction to show themselves. It always brings voluminous discharge. Large women often experience attention as excruciating. It’s important not to skip over the chronic feelings of humiliation that often appear in those first moments when large women receive attention.

I also did a lot of work on secrets at this workshop, encouraging large women to take directions like “I have a secret,” or “I do x.” These directions loosen up the pattern of hiding so that large women have a better chance of discharging directly on addictions and self-destructive behaviors.

It is also important to encourage large women not to use self-hatred as a false motivation for “taking charge” of their bodies or their health. It rarely works, and using this patterned motivation grinds in internalized oppression (and leaves a woman vulnerable to regaining lost weight). The correct direction for a large woman is always to discharge toward being completely pleased with herself.

Another key direction against large women’s internalized oppression is to be visible, out-front leaders.


Fat oppression, like disability oppression, can potentially affect anyone, depending on body changes. Allies often fear the idea of getting fat themselves, because they have witnessed the vicious, unchallenged oppression experienced by large people. Although allies might need to discharge on the ways they’ve participated in the mistreatment of large women, it is often most useful to get allies working directly on their own fears of becoming fat. Here is my three-point program for allies of large women:

1. Do everything you can to not run your own chronic material about fat at large women; own your own material (most often a fear of getting fat), and persistently discharge on it.

2. Stand up fiercely against the oppression and with large women. It is an enormous contradiction for large women when thin people notice fat oppression and find it intolerable.

3. Assist large women to discharge on the material that sets them up to be large (and gets them targeted with fat oppression).

Allies usually don’t have a clean shot at point three until they have done a fair amount of discharge work on points one and two. Unless they have cleaned up their own restimulations around a large woman’s size such that they’re genuinely pleased with her, they won’t have much slack to patiently counsel her on eating, exercise, early sexual memories, and the other pieces that might need to move.

Large women are incredible human beings with tremendous intelligence and an infinite capacity for leadership. I look forward to the Communities’ assisting more and more large women to become visible leaders. Happy discharging!


In response to these thoughts on large women, Mel Cowell from Nottingham, England, asked me an interesting question. Here it is, with my response:

Mel: Do you think our largeness is purely a result of too much eating and too little exercise, or do you think distress can keep us holding onto our weight or slow down our metabolisms? It certainly seems to me that there are a lot of skinny people around with food addictions who seem to remain skinny while others seem to put weight on.

Nikki: Losing weight is not an easy thing. At this point I’m convinced that the often-unaware decision to be large is the key element in determining a person’s size. I say this because I have had a range of eating styles and exercise habits while large, and the only times my body has gotten smaller are the times my terror moves and I feel like I can handle men’s sexual attentions. I can tell that when I was a developing and unprotected black adolescent female, I decided to get large in order to get space from sexual attention. (You may be aware of how black people are sexualized and how black women experience sexual harassment and rape in the United States all out of proportion to our numbers.) I know that if I can move on the terror of sexual attention, I’ll probably turn around one day and discover that I’m no longer fat.

Nikki Ayana Stewart
Washington, D.C., USA
(from the e-mail discussion list
for women’s leaders)  

Last modified: 2014-10-06 21:56:15+00