In this episode, Alyssa and Brendane unpack questions of fatphobia, anti-blackness, and how that intersects with the discursive. For What’s the Word?, we discuss discourse to understand how understandings of the world circulate, of course referencing one of our fave French philosophers: Michel Foucault. Today, we read the essay “Fat, Black, and Ugly: The Semiotic Production of Prodigious Femininities” (2021) by Professor Krystal A. Smalls, which explores several ways fatness and Blackness are discursively constructed as social comorbidities for feminine people and examines how this discourse affects lived experience. Through this lens, we talk about how fatness was wielded against Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Ma’Khia Bryant. In What In the World?! we discuss the latest scandal involving the teen clothing brand Brandy Melville and accusations of anti-blackness and fatphobia, unpack why these -phobias are not specifically about fear (except maybe psychoanalytically!), bias against fat people in the medical system including our own experiences, why commenting on people’s bodies is not “caring” for them, Lizzo living her best life, and how loving ourselves and our bodies is a journey.
Zora’s Daughters Podcast: Season Two, Episode Two
Co-Hosts: Brendane Tynes: and Alyssa A.L. James
Title: Big Girl, Small World
Total Length: 01:06:15
[00:12] Alyssa: Hi everyone! Welcome back to Zora’s Daughter’s, the podcast where we discuss popular culture with a Black feminist anthropological lens. I’m Alyssa and I use she/her/hers pronouns.
[00:23] Brendane: Hey, y’all! I’m Brendane.
[00:25] Brendane: And I also use she/her/hers pronouns. And on today’s episode, we’ll be discussing discourse—ooh la la—fatphobia, anti-Blackness, and so much more. So we understand that these topics can be difficult and personal topics for us to discuss and for you all to listen to, so please take care of yourself as you need to while listening.
[00:47] Alyssa: Yes. And before we get into it, we wanna give a huge thank you to everyone who has donated to the podcast or engaged with us on Instagram and Twitter. We would not be doing this without you.
[00:59] Brendane: Period.
[00:59] Alyssa: And I just wanna say our post on The Activist TV show is doing really well on Instagram. It’s generated a lot of discussion, which, you know, is what we’re here for. So we’re very pleased about that. I’m also a little shook at how unfortunately well-timed the last episode was [laughs].
[01:18] Brendane: I mean, I jokingly said either we’re psychic or capitalism is just that predictable. But we know that both of these things are likely true [laughs].
[01:31] Alyssa: Yeah, I mean, if capitalists can’t stop it, they’ll control it. Purr. [Laughs] All right, let’s get [laughs]—
[01:41] Brendane: End the episode [laughs].
[01:43] Alyssa: I’m like, “Are you dabbing?” Or, like, what is happening over there? Okay.
[01:47] Brendane: Oh, the eyebrow cover?
[01:49] Alyssa: Oh, you did it so quickly that it looked like you were, like, dab. Are we still doing that? Some of our younger listeners let us know cuz I have no idea [laughs]. Well, let’s get into it. Brendane, what’s the word?
[02:06] Brendane: Yes, the word for today is “discourse.” And this is the term that people will add into any title to make it sound more academic.
[02:15] Alyssa: Oh, yeah, yeah, absolutely. There are a lot of uses of the word discourse in a multitude of ways. And I’m sure that I, myself, have been guilty of using it to mean the dominant lens people are using to look at a particular topic through. Or something like that.
[02:32] Brendane: I mean, I feel like that’s not entirely wrong, though.
[02:35] Alyssa: Yeah, I know, but I still just kinda throw it in there just to sound smart [laughs]. I mean, really, I could just say, “Yeah, that’s the lens people are looking at things through or, like, that’s the narrative people are using, or they’re thinking about things with, and, you know, sometimes that just won’t do and you wanna use the word discourse. And so when you do want to use it, let’s just make sure that we’re all using it [laughs] correctly. So we’ll get a little bit more specific. So, according to my Oxford Dictionary of Sociology, which is a reference I highly recommend if you’re in grad school. You can also get the Dictionary of Critical Theory. Both good resources when you’re like, “I don’t wanna sift through Wikipedia.” You just go to the dictionary entry and they’ll probably have it in there. Anyways. ‘Kay. So in this dictionary, discourse is the study of language, its structure, functions, and patterns in use. And so there’s a whole linguistic and poststructuralist background that features Ferdinand de Saussure, but we’re not gonna do that to ourselves. We’re not gonna do that to y’all [laughter]. But what we will say is that in linguistics, they aim to understand the patterns that structure sentences, whereas in anthropology and sociology, we’re thinking about the patterns of thought that structure whole texts. So that’s how you kind of get this like linguistic-anthropological-sociological, like, mix that draws on Saussure and Barthes and, you know, all of these other linguistic types [laughs].
[04:11] Brendane: You know, this is not my wheelhouse. So imma [laughs]—
[04:15] Alyssa: Listen, we are cultural anthropologists. We have told y’all before that there are four subdisciplines of anthropology. One of them is linguistic anthropology. We do not specialize in it, but here we are attempting. And so if you’re wondering, like, “What do texts have to do with culture and the study of culture?” If you remember your Clifford Geertz, he wrote that quote, “The culture of a people is an ensemble of texts, themselves ensembles, which the anthropologist strains to read over the shoulders of those to whom they properly belong.”
[04:50] Brendane: Now not to get, you know, too off track but what you said just, like, it inspired me to really think about this, like—that is actually what we do as anthropologists, right? We aim to “read” culture. And if, you know, y’all think of read in that emphasis just like, you know, Kid Fury and Crissle, right? So this idea of the culture as text and the fieldwork as reading metaphors were important in Clifford Geertz’s time, which feels like a lifetime ago, but, you know. Here we are.
[05:23] Alyssa: Like, 50 years.
[05:24] Brendane: Fifty years [laughs]. And it has its importance in this time, but also has its problems and limitations, particularly when it comes to questions about who has the authority to read these texts and who has the power to rewrite them through different forms of representation?
[05:47] Alyssa: Did you just say power and representation in the same sentence? Okay. I guess everyone knows what’s coming!
[05:55] Alyssa and Brendane: Foucky! [Laughter]
[05:59] Brendane: And, of course, so when we talk about discourse, particularly its use in anthropology, we have to talk about the French philosopher Michel Foucault, who I somewhat affectionately, but mostly disrespectfully, call Foucky. And he took up this concept of discourse and he understood it as the language for talking about or representing a topic and demonstrated how it can both open up but also constrain our thoughts, actions, and even what is possible for us to imagine.
[06:32] Alyssa: Yeah, so language structures our reality, y’all. And so the example that I like to think about is that in English, we have about five ways to classify snow. You know, flurries, light snow, packing snow—you know, the stuff that you use to make snowmen with [laughs].
[06:49] Brendane: Oh?
[06:50] Alyssa: But then in Austria, they have more [words for snow] because of, like, their history of skiing. So, for example, you can have a “grippy” snow, which we might call packing snow, but that’s something different, cuz like, packing snow is—I think it’s, like, knee-breaker snow, it’s not good for skiing [laughs]. Meanwhile—
[07:09] Brendane: I grew up in the south so [laughs].
[07:12] Alyssa: Snow is not a thing? I’m Canadian, so snow is definitely a thing. I’ve skied in Austria. I’m bougie [laughs]. It was cool. That was back in my travel writing days. I did a whatyamacallit—like, a sponsored trip. Anyhow. So then, of course, we have the persistent cliche that we can thank the wonderful Franz Boaz for, which is that the Inuit have 50 words for snow. I don’t know if people have heard this. I’ve heard it repeated a lot—”Oh, there are 50 words for snow.” That’s not exactly the case. Of course, what it means is they have dozens of ways to describe snow. Okay, so that’s my example to help you understand how language structures our reality. Back to Foucault. In his text, The Archeology of Knowledge, which was published in 1969, Foucault identified the structures that determine language use as historically produced, loosely structured combinations of concerns, concepts, themes, and types of statements, which he calls discursive formations. And so to put it plainly, discourses are groups of statements, whether written or spoken, historical or contemporary, that provide the architecture for understanding and talking about a particular topic. And so, in making and repeating these statements, we create knowledge about different things. And so, these repetitions become discursive formations that then structure how we understand the world and create the conditions of possibility for how we engage and act in it. And so, these things are mutually constituting, right? So, the discourses produce the discursive formation, which then allow the discourses to propagate—I guess we can put it that way.
[09:04] Brendane: Yeah, that makes sense. Another example, that’s a little less wintry, I guess, would be thinking about, like, conspiracy theories and conspiracy theories who create them, as an example of discourse in action. So there was a recent article in VICE about a survivor of the Parkland school shooting, whose father was convinced by QAnon that it was all a hoax.
[09:31] Alyssa: Can you imagine? Oh my goodness.
[09:34] Brendane: Like, yeah, surviving a shooting and your father thinking that it wasn’t real—
[09:39] Alyssa: —That it wasn’t real?
[09:41] Brendane: That’s bizarre. But it happens, right? And so the survivor, named Bill—he said that his father—well said this about his father. He said it started a couple months into the pandemic with whole anti-lockdown protests. His feelings were so strong that it turned into facts for him. So if he didn’t like having to wear a mask, it wouldn’t matter what doctors or scientists said. And anything that contradicted his feelings was wrong. So he turned to the internet to find like-minded people, which led him to QAnon. And there’s an entire controversy now about QAnon and its connections to anti-disability rights, its connections to right-wing movements. And so this is another example of, like, how this kind of discursive formation creates people’s realities. And so the statements that were being repeated—which we named as discourse, right—came out of this discursive formation, which is the QAnon conspiracies. And this in turn structures how Bill’s father sees the world and takes action as a result, meaning completely, you know, gaslighting his son about it.
[10:53] Alyssa: Right, right, I read about that and that is wild. And I think it really speaks to how susceptible we are to these different forms of “programming”—if you want to call it that—through language. Like, I was just reading today in The Guardian about the growing use of influence government. So national and local governments, they use sensitive personal data and then they create these specific campaigns that are aimed at altering our behavior. And of course, right now, they’re like, “Oh, we’re using it for good,” you know. So you go to the grocery store or something and you buy matches or lighters, and then you scan your Prime code—cuz Whole Foods, you get a discount. Now, all of a sudden, you start getting ads on your Google Home or on your Alexa about, like, fire safety and things like that. So they’re trying to, like, you know, kind of change—alter our behavior. And in a sense, it’s like, “Okay, yeah, there’s some good points. You know, there’s something good to it,” but then it can also be really dangerous, right? And so I’m freaked out by the whole thing.
[12:01] Brendane: Me too.
[12:02] Alyssa: I’m just like—I’m ready to get rid of—I’m just ready to live off the grid [laughs].
[12:06] Brendane: You and me both! Look, you and me both. If I could, I would [laughs].
[12:13] Alyssa: Exactly. But I think just to wrap up this definition—this “What’s the Word?” segment—I found the definition of discursivity in the essay we that we’re reading today for this episode very helpful. So discursivity is defined as, “Those processes and practices through which statements are made, recorded, and legitimated through linguistic and other means of circulation.” So simply a statement is made, it’s repeated or circulated, and that begins to structure our reality, because we come to believe that that statement, and the world from which it emerges, are true. And so there is a lot of power—scary power [laughs] —in being able to harness that.
[13:00] Brendane: Yes, so I guess that leads us to our next segment, which is what we are reading today. So Alyssa, what are we reading today?
[13:10] Alyssa: So we’re reading “Fat, Black, and Ugly: The Semiotic Production of Prodigious Femininities” by Krystal A. Smalls. This essay was published in 2021 in Transforming Anthropology. Krystal A. Smalls is an assistant professor of anthropology and linguistics at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. She earned her PhD at the University of Pennsylvania and studies the semiosis—which means meaning through words—of race in young people’s lives by conducting research in different locations of the Black diaspora. One of her projects in development examines uses of Black bodies in reaction memes and gifs and of Black body parts in Internet-mediated images by non-Black people, and situates these recursive digital practices within a timeline of slavery and its afterlife—following Saidiya Hartman’s retemporalization of the present—and, therefore, within a history of corporeal theft. She is currently working on a monograph titled Telling Blackness: Young Liberians and the Semiotics of Contemporary Diaspora in an Anti-Black World. And so this essay that we read today, it was tough. It was very tough, but very worth it. And also her [mispronounces “citational”]—ugh, [repeats mispronunciation]—her citational [correct pronunciation] practice is [makes kiss sound] on point [laughs].
[14:32] Brendane: Yes, chef’s kiss! Like, everybody and they mama was cited in this [laughter]. Really excited to read this research article because it’s written by linguistic anthropologists and I think this is our first time reading one on the podcast, I believe. I love her Twitter bio where she describes herself as “thick-as-cold-grits, black-on-both-sides empath”—
[15:03] Alyssa: I love that!
[15:03] Brendane: —and I just wanna say, Dr. Smalls, if you’re ever listening to this, if you are from South Carolina, please holla. I am as well. But it’s important to note, right, the “black on both sides”—if you’ve been keeping up with the academic mess as of late, it’s necessary to say. But [laughter] back to the matter at hand. So in this article, Smalls takes up the trinomial “fat, black, and ugly” to discuss the ways that fatness and Blackness are, “discursively constructed as social comorbidities for feminine people.” And she examines some of the ways that this impacts their lived experience[s]. So she argues that a semiotic collusion—which Alyssa explained what semiosis is earlier, but we’ll get to what that means later—between fatness and Blackness leaves certain people out of the purview of “legible and legitimate humanness and value.” Now y’all, this article is thicc—pun intended—so we won’t touch on everything, but we will talk about a few important points.
[16:12] Alyssa: Right, so she begins with what she calls an “autoethnographic meditation.” So autoethnographic means an ethnography of the self. Auto, self, ethnographic. I’m not getting into whatever [unclear] [laughter].
[16:27] Brendane: Who knows? [Laughter]
[16:30] Alyssa: We’d have to go through—that might be our “What’s the Word” another day. So yes, so she starts with an autoethnographic meditation on fat-talk. Fat-talk is the “hyper-normalized, self-deprecating way many of us talk about and to ourselves and others about bodies.” And so she talks about the places and times in which she’s participated in fat-talk, how she’s devalued her own body in a voice that she knew was not a deity or a celestial being, right? She was like, “There’s no way that these kinds of words that are coming into my mind, even though I—you know, people often say that they seem kind of celestial or something like that—there’s no way that they could be.” So what she thinks—what she comes to the conclusion of is that, you know, this is an internalization of the messages that we’ve received from the world around us. And so because of this, fat-talk is imbued with racialized, colorist, and gendered meanings that often impact dark-skinned fat Black women the most. And so she points to various sources of these external messages—song lyrics—for her, she talks about the sex scenes in the TV show Scandal, which even I can think about [laughs].
[17:42] Brendane: You know, I’ve never seen an episode of Scandal.
[17:46] Alyssa: I knew exactly what she was talking about because Fitz be lifting Olivia up and flinging her around and I’m like, “Oh, yeah. I want someone”—nevermind [laughs]. I know what she was getting at.
[18:00] Brendane: You know, if that’s what you into, hunny. I like to stay on the ground. I like to stay rooted, grounded [laughter].
[18:11] Alyssa: Anyhow. So yes, so those—”the cracks of whips that turned [her] great-great grandmothers’ bodies into flesh,” everyday conversations about health and wellness, doctor’s office visits, encounters with the police, and almost anything ever said about women’s bodies. So she, along with these sources, participate in the discourses that render her fat, Black, and ugly, and excessive flesh.
[18:40] Brendane: Right, so we’ve talked about flesh before in episode two of season one titled, “Ain’t I A Woman?” where we discussed Hortense Spillers’s essay, “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” so we’re not gonna do a deep dive in this episode. Listen to that if you want to learn more about flesh. But Smalls uses this idea or this concept of Black flesh to expand to thinking about fatness. And so she says Black flesh, when it’s fattened up, has the capacity to hold all meanings and ways of being. So Blackness and femininity in all its forms—so whether it be short, tall, light-skinned, dark-skinned, skinny, fat, somewhere in the middle—produces an “everyday praxis” where Black women and girls can both be magical and ordinary. And so to unpack this, Smalls uses a “rasanblaj” discourse analysis of “fat, black, and ugly” to determine how these different meanings and ways of being actually manifest in our world. Rasanblaj discourse analysis is an eclectic analysis that draws from multiple disciplines to examine how discourse reflects and makes the ways bodies are experienced and treated in this world. So the idiom “fat, Black, and ugly” signals how Blackness, fatness, and ugliness determines what kind of value a person has.
[20:07] Alyssa: Rasanblaj discourse analysis was developed by Gina Athena Ulysse, a Haitian American anthropologist, artist, and post-Zora interventionist. There may have been a problematic ethnography about Haiti—or two—by Zora Neale Hurston [laughter]. So, anyways, this decolonial approach stems from Caribbean politics and performativity that urges researchers to take up a transdisciplinary approach to their research, writing, and reporting back to their communities. In this article, Smalls relies on evidence that is not just field notes and participant-observation. She also brings together Black studies, disability studies, gender studies, fat studies, and semiotics to develop her theory of prodigious femininities. And I think with “prodigious,” she’s kinda working with the polysemy of that word, right? So prodigious, it can mean, like, large, huge, excessive, but it can also mean, like, abnormal. So I think she’s kinda playing with that whole idea. And so she analyzes different scales of fat-talk from Urban Dictionary definitions to Lizzo’s Instagram posts to literature, and then examines how they not only create discursive violence for those marked as fat, Black, and ugly, but also predispose them to physical violence, aggression and neglect.
[21:34] Brendane: Right? So—and also, one of the meanings of prodigious is “monstrous,” which I think also kinda folds into what she’s developing in this essay. But I wanna jump back to the semiotic collusion of fatness and Blackness that I mentioned earlier, and as Alyssa said earlier, right, semiotics is the study of meaning. And so we already know some meanings for Blackness, right? And one of them that we’ve talked about on the podcast is how Blackness can predispose Black and Blackened people to gratuitous violence. And if you wanna hear more about that, check out our episode on Afropessimism (Season 1 Episode 14). But fatness, and its meanings compounds that violence. So the normative discourse around fatness is that fatness means one is lazy, less desirable, unlovable, “unhealthy”—and I’m putting quotation marks around that—and because of these things you deserve abuse, death, and violence. And so we see the deadly semiotic collusion of these discourses in the aftermath of the police killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and Ma’Khia Bryant to name a few. In all of these cases, their deaths were considered justifiable in different communities for different reasons. Michael Brown’s fatness took him out of the realm of the human young man and made him a monster. The police blamed Eric Garner’s fatness to be the source of his last words, which were “I can’t breathe.” And in Ma’Khia Bryant’s case, her fatness transformed her from a child in self-defense to a combative, deadly adult. But what is different—and that’s the difference that I’ll mark—about the discourses surrounding Michael Brown and Eric Garner is that those were the police justifications for their killings, right? That fatphobic discourse came mostly and mainly from the police and those communities that were aligned with the police. The fatphobic discourse about Ma’Khia came from the police and came from other Black people. Namely, Black men. I saw a lot of Black men justify her killing through fatphobia. So all of this to say, there is a difference—there is a gender[ed] difference that Smalls points to in this article. Being fat, Black, ugly, and feminine exposes one to a particular discursive violence.
[24:07] Alyssa: Yeah. I think this essay really got me thinking about how the fat Black body can contain, or does contain, these multiple meanings and in different discursive spaces, right? So she writes that “Such being takes us to (and beyond) the far reaches of indestructibility and moribundity, incivility and grace, disgustingness and succulence, sexualities from hyper- to a-, the sacred and profane, beastliness and utter humanness, and on and on.” So fatness means unwellness. But it’s also the reason that Ma’Khia Bryant and Eric Garner, as examples, are unable to be victims. They’re superhuman but also always already approaching death due to their size. And then there’s this—then there is the hypersexual body that’s, you know, characterized by steatopygia, which is what she talks about, which is some of the literature that she refers to, which means excessively large buttocks and is supposed to be, basically how, like, Khoikhoi women were described such as Sarah Baartman. So there’s that aspect, which is characterized by largeness, right? And then there’s the asexual body, like the Mammy archetype, you know, which we discuss also in our second episode, “Ain’t I A Woman?” She talks about then this subversion, right, with respect to the fat Black woman who would normally be Mammy-fied. And so the subversion is in inviting a sexual gaze, right? So—and I think that’s one of the things that gets people so riled up about women like Lizzo. And other proudly BBBWs—[laughs] as she writes about in the essay, right?—you know, reclaiming their bodies, they’re like, “Oh, but you’re meant to be this way. You’re fat. And, like, this was meant to be, like, a redemptive form of life and living for you. And you’re rejecting that and sexualizing it. And that’s weird.”
[26:14] Brendane: Right. Like, “Why don’t you want to be included in the way that we want to include you?”
[26:19] Alyssa: I wonder.
[26:21] Brendane: I wonder, right? And that’s even more disruptive or even prodigious because the Mammy role was meant to be a safe role, right? It’s basically how society would like to value a Black woman. And you could be absolved by being caring and comforting and serving white people and their children. And so Smalls writes, “Transformed into both an object of loathing and a deeply desired instrument of comfort and healing, the abundantly fleshy Mammy may still serve as a site of potential ‘redemption’ for fat Black women—that is, as a viable means of attaining value per dominant society.” So that’s part of the reason why this body positivity movement does not necessarily have the same liberatory potential for Black women as it does as whites because okay, yeah, value us as fat, but in what way, right? As only when we’re taking care of you.
[27:19] Alyssa: Yep. So Smalls talks about how the racialized difference between “fat and ugly” and “fat, Black, and ugly,” and how it creates ideal citizens. Part of the model minority myth, for example, is the image it conjures of the thin, “health-conscious” East Asian person as opposed to the fat, unhealthy, Black, Indigenous, or Latinx person. So the model minority can then be written as the ideal foreigner, while the other is treated as a burden on society because of the deeply rooted belief that fatness is a result of the “wrong” choices. So Smalls unpacks how these racialized differences impact Black and non-Black fat feminine people differently. In this current moment, when the body positivity movement may benefit fat white women, fat Black woman still experience anti-Black violence for simply living. She argues that this is because fat Black feminine people efficiently embody deviance from white Western femininity.
[28:21] Brendane: Right, like, if you want to point to who is not feminine in the most efficient way, in some ways fat Black women encapsulate that. And she deepens this by referring to Sabrina Strings’s conceptualization of the heavy Black feminine body as “social deadweight,” which shows that Black fat feminine people are seen as burdens to social systems to their fatness and lifeless due to their Blackness. So decolonizing our relationship to whiteness—which we talk about all the time on this show and outside of this, right?—actually necessitates that we reestablish—I was about to say “healthy” but I’m tryna stay away from that word—reestablish our relationship to fatness and Blackness. And for a Smalls, living as a fat, Black feminine person is “always already an act of political and ontological subversion,” disrupting what we assume makes up desirability and humanness. And so we must remember that every time we denigrate ourselves for having fat or being fat, we are shoring up these anti-Black, fatphobic conceptualizations of who is deserving of life and love. And so Smalls encourages us to take up fat Black fugitive femininities that do not aim to be incorporated into standards of beauty, but that thrive outside of them. And in them, we take up ways of “becoming that facilitate new, other, and recovered modes of being.” So living in our fatness and our Blackness allows us to usher in new worlds today. And—ooh—with that, I guess we could get into our next segment which is what?
[30:12] Alyssa: What?
[30:12] Brendane: What in the world?
[30:14] Alyssa: What in the world—
[30:16] Brendane: —Is going on? There’s so many things to discuss.
[30:20] Alyssa: So many things! So, [laughs] first for me is the Brandy Melville scandal. If y’all are like, “What is that?” because, honestly, I didn’t know cuz I have way aged out of this clothing brand [laughs]. Really aged out of it. Basically, last week, executives at the teen fashion brand Brandy Melville were exposed for sharing Hitler memes and advocating misogyny and anti-Black racism. It’s always Hitler that gets these people, you know? I don’t know. Y’all are on another level. But okay. So an investigative journalist for Business Insider revealed that the CEO does not allow Black or fat girls to work in their stores. And so the CEO, Stephen Marsanne, he created a workplace where only pretty and thin white girls were allowed to work in in every store and this was globally. So the former Senior Vice President Luca Rotondo said she was told by Marsanne to only hire girls who fit his specifications. “If she was Black, if she was fat, he didn’t want them in the store.” Now, you may ask, how did the CEO of a company with hundreds of stores enforce these rules? Well. Well. Every girl who applied for a job at the store had to take a full body photo while at the interview, and then that photo was sent to a group chat of the male executives. Then—not to mention they would have to send pictures every shift if they did get hired. And if they started gaining weight, they would get fired. Things like that. Anyways, they would respond not only about whether the person whose photo they were sent could be hired but it would also dictate the amount of pay that they would receive. So they would get paid more if they were more attractive to the executives. And so there were some reports of hiring managers—in order to get around this, they would use Facetune to edit the pictures because they were like, “I’m not”—they didn’t want to engage in this but in a way they were still engaging in it. Additionally, there were reports that they would hire Black and brown girls during busy periods—like around Christmas and things like that—and then they would fire them right after. And this was not just in the US, okay. Also, I should say—I think it’s an Italian company. So this is not just in the US. The owner of several Canadian stores is suing the company because he was fired for refusing to discriminate. And so in the lawsuit he alleges that Brandy Melville executives closed a store in—one of his Canadian stores—closed it because the customers were “ghetto.” And that a manager at another store was too “short and fat” to work at Brandy Melville. Alright, so just so y’all know, for any of the Canadians, Torontonians who are listening, it was at Square One. [Laughs] It was at Square One in Mississauga and they were like, “Nah, those people are too brown and too ghetto.” So all of this to say: why were people even still working there? Well, it was a status symbol. So a lot of girls who are models now and influencers, they actually got their start working at Brandy Melville.
[33:58] Brendane: The way that my face is broken. And y’all, please don’t mistake my laughter for me actually enjoying this, or, like—the thing that I find—I find the ridiculousness of it amusing. Like, the levels as you kept peeling back, like, not only do I have to take a full body picture, I have to send the picture to a group of men who then decide—either with a Hitler meme or something else—that I deserve to work. You know, that’s ridiculous. But it’s interesting, too—and we’ve talked about it a little bit and we’ll unpack it more here, this “Black or fat,” and how a lot of times, to be Black is to be always already fat. But we’ll talk about that.
[34:55] Alyssa: And I think—and, you know, one of the other things that I didn’t elaborate in my description cuz it was already long [laughs] and there are so many other elements to it. But when they did hire Black girls—or Black and brown girls—during those busy periods, they would fire the dark-skinned ones and the fat ones. They would keep the mixed-race ones, the mixed-race women—or girls, I should say, cuz a lot of them were under 18, you know, working, like, their high school after school jobs. So they would keep mixed race ones. So color comes into this, colorism comes into this and, like, the whole idea of exoticism would come into it. They wouldn’t really hire East Asian girls unless they had a very particular look, like, it was just—it was just a whole thing. They had them trying on clothes in front of executives, changing in front of them, topless, like, all of these kinds of thing. It was just, like, abuse to the maximum.
[35:59] Brendane: Yeah, for—ooh, gosh, people are disgusting. And this is not the first or second time, and probably won’t be the last as long as this company exists, that it will come under fire. Last year Tik Tok user CallieJeanxo shared a video about her experience working at Brandy Melville for three months when she was 17. But then people were like, “Why are you surprised? Haven’t you heard?” And on Twitter, @SwagMasterJenny wrote, “people being surprised that brandy melville is problematic…was the fact that they only sell XS/S clothes not already an indicator?…like how did that sit right with y’all.” And, I mean, that is an indicator, y’all. If you shop somewhere and they don’t have clothes for “plus size” people, or the plus size is size, like, 8-10, that is an indicator that it is problematic place to shop. For sure.
[37:01] Alyssa: I mean, that just goes to how much fatphobia can and is institutionalized—can be and is institutionalized, right? So that’s just one way of finding that out. You might be like, “Oh, well they just don’t cater to these kinds of bodies.” But, no. There are people up at the top of those companies making those kinds of decisions.
[37:25] Brendane: Right. And using BS excuses like, “The fabric costs more,” so. We also wanted to discuss one of the major systems and institutions that Smalls talks about in the article as a place where she hears fat-talk and engages in fat-talk and that is at the doctor’s office and in the medical system. So yeah, we’re gonna start with that, there’s so much to say.
[37:59] Alyssa: There’s so much. I mean, one of the one of the things I wanna do is clear up what fatphobia means. At some point during this conversation, I would like for us to also talk about why telling people that they’re fat, that they’re overweight, that they need to lose weight, is not a form of caring about their health. I think that we need to talk about that. In terms of fatphobia—so people often hear that suffix “-phobia” appended to things and they’re like, “I’m not scared of fat people. I’m not scared of gay people.” Okay. That’s [laughs]—that’s not—
[38:40] Brendane: That’s not what it means.
[38:41] Alyssa: —what that means [laughter]. So the next time you’re telling your homophobic uncle that he’s being homophobic, and he’s like, “I’m not scared of gay people,” y’all need to tell him [laughs] that’s not what it means. So -phobia is a suffix. It can mean fear or hatred—fear and/or hatred, really. And so what they have in common is that they come out of some kind of irrational or unreasonable belief or kind of psychic trauma perhaps when it comes to fear, right? And so fear itself can manifest in dread, it can manifest in hatred. So I hate walking on bridges because I am extremely scared of heights. Well, really, I’m actually afraid of plummeting to my death [laughs] but that’s, you know, that’s between me and my therapist [laughs].
[39:38] Brendane: That was Aquarius worst-case-scenario thinking [laughs].
[39:43] Alyssa: Yeah, I guess. I guess it is. So that’s what it is, right? So I hate bridges because I’m afraid of heights, right? So when it comes to social phobias, which is what I’m just calling, like, homophobia, Islamophobia, fatphobia, there most likely is some unconscious fear associated with your prejudice. But what we’re talking about with the phobias in this case is hatred, okay? And whatever that fear that underlies your prejudice is, that can also be between you and your therapist [laughs].
[40:16] Brendane: And please keep it between you and your therapist. And, I mean, maybe one of those unconscious fears, which I talk about a little later, might be connected to desirability, in some ways. Either desiring or being desired. And Sabrina Strings unpacks connections to fear and fatphobia, right with—her book is actually entitled Fearing the Black Body. And so she talks about fatphobia’s deep connections to anti-Blackness. And some would argue that to be anti-fat is to be anti-Black because of how in being Black, you’re always already rendered excess. And so we have anthropology and medicine to thank for that. Anthropology constituted what it meant to be human and constructed Black people as always outside of that, right? Measuring our skulls—our skulls were always too big, our brains were always too small. Our bone density was always too much, right? We were always already too much. And so white femininity was explicitly constructed to be the opposite of Black femininity. So you have these slender features, these slender bodies, that constitute what it means to be a real woman, while those with larger bodies were closer to animals, and thus could be treated as breeders. But we’re gonna shift this to the medical-industrial complex. So there was a study that was done at Texas Medical Center of Houston with 122 physicians, and the doctors reported that seeing patients was a greater waste of their time the heavier the patients were. Physicians would like their jobs less if they worked with patients that increased in size and that heavier patients were viewed to be more annoying—which, fascinating—and that physicians felt less patience the heavier the patient was. Just wow. Like, how—wow.
[42:29] Alyssa: I mean, for there to be an inverse correlation between how happy you are at your job, and the size of the patients that you treat is so strange.
[42:46] Brendane: To say the least.
[42:46] Alyssa: That’s just crazy. That’s just crazy. And then [laughs], you have these last two, that heavy patients are annoying and they feel less patience. I’m like, you know, I have seen that. I have seen My 600-Lb. Life on TLC. And the way that that doctor—the way he treats those patients is hella disrespectful. Some of the things that he says, I’m just like, “Are you okay? Why are you treating these people”—like, he has—I mean, there’s a sense in that he’s like, “I’m saving them and I’m helping them.” But then, like, there’s also a kind of lack of compassion with him that kinda—that just—I don’t know, for some people, they find it entertaining, but I dunno. It’s cringy. But in any case, you know, what you can see in that show and through that study that was done is that people with larger bodies, they’re always facing constant judgment and discrimination and blame. And I think blame is the big one here. It’s like, if you’re overweight, it’s your fault. And you need to do something about it. And I know that I have had that experience in my life. I have polycystic ovarian syndrome. I gained 50 pounds when I was in university, and every time I would go to the doctor, the doctor would be like, “You just need to lose weight. Because the weight apparently increases the hormones, which makes it worse,” and I’m like, “Yeah, well, obviously I’m in the middle of this, like, vicious cycle, and it’s really hard and I am trying and it’s not helping.” And I had to go see a different endocrinologist who finally put me on some medication and I was able to lose the weight. But the whole time the doctor—every time I would go every three months or whatever for a checkup, it was like, “You need to—just lose the weight! Just lose weight, just lose weight.” And so that kind of attitude can have devastating consequences in, like, a variety of areas in someone’s life, but especially when it comes to their health. Like, I didn’t wanna—I didn’t even wanna go. I didn’t wanna go back to the doctor, like, you’re not helping me!
[44:59] Brendane: Right, and, I mean, we see it on Twitter, Tik Tok people, fat people sharing their experiences at the doctor and not being able to be treated because the doctor is so focused on, you know, them losing weight. And I mean, I think I might’ve told you about going to the doctor at our university and being told that something was wrong with me, even though all my tests came back negative. And the doctor and I are the same size, you know, we both wear a size 12, or whatever, you know. And I’m looking at her like, “We look similar,” but for some reason her fixation on my BMI had me going up to the lab three times over the course of two weeks to the point where the lab technician who kept drawing my blood was like, “Are you okay? Like, are you sick? You look fine,” and I was like, “I don’t know, the doctor keeps making me come up here.” And then eventually, after wasting my time, she was just like, “Oh, you’re okay.” And then sent me on my way as if she didn’t drag me through the wringer of things. And I think—speaking of BMI, right, like, we need to talk about how the metrics that doctors use to determine “obesity” are actually dictated by pharmaceutical companies. Because we all know capitalism underlies, underscores most of these things that we’re talking about today. And in undergrad—actually in a medical anthropology course—I read this book called Drugs for Life by Joseph Dumit—and if I’m mispronouncing that, forgive me—and this book talks about how BMI is socially constructed. And so, I don’t know if you all pay attention to medical charts or things like that. Maybe some of you who are in the medical field do. But actually a few years ago, pharmaceutical companies started rolling out this kind of “studies and information” about being pre-diabetic—which, if you really think about it, like, what does that mean, right? Either you have diabetes or you don’t. So what does it mean to be pre-diabetic? Technically, if you don’t have diabetes, you’re already pre-diabetic, but anyway. And they wanted to increase the number of people who were on medication for pre-diabetes and one of the risk factors for diabetes is obesity. So in order to increase the number of people who could be prescribed that medication by doctors, they actually shifted the scales of the BMI measurements—you know, the underweight, normal, and overweight—over to the left, so that more people would be obese. And if BMI is an objective measure of how healthy you are—and we all know that’s not—why would it need to shift?
[47:48] Alyssa: And how could it shift?
[47:50] Brendane: How? How could it shift?
[47:52] Alyssa: How can you change that?
[47:54] Brendane: Especially since, as human beings, we’ve actually gotten heavier and more muscular and larger over time, why would it shift to the left? So BMI is not an indicator of health, right? It does not take into account your bone density, your body fat percentage, how much you eat, or drink water, which is an indication of how healthy you may or may not be, right? All it takes into account is your weight and your height. It doesn’t tell you any really useful health information.
[48:26] Alyssa: Yeah, and I think one of the things that we know is that there are a lot of differences in bone density among people. [Laughs] You know what, I’m not even gonna go—I’m done. I’m done on the topic of BMI, but I have a [unclear]—
[48:46] Brendane: —Lot of trauma. Lot of trauma.
[48:47] Alyssa: Yes, I—honestly! From childhood going to the pediatrician. Just trauma. But anyways. I mean—anyways, I think what we’re getting to here is that fatphobia just has dire consequences, especially when it comes to health, right?
[49:08] Brendane: Yes, absolutely. And I would say, like, thinking about my own childhood, I was a child who struggled with disordered eating because I felt pressured by my mother, and by the church that I was in, to look a certain way. And I now understand that this pressure was a projection of their own anxieties about their own undesirability as fat Black people onto me as a Black girl. And because I was “normal” for my childhood and early adulthood—so on the BMI index, I was always kind of in the middle up until towards the end of college—and doctors, like my pediatrician, did not even consider that I might be experiencing mental health issues or the digestive issues that I was experiencing was due to my disordered eating that was due to my own internalized fatphobia. And while I’m still working through my feelings about my body, and accepting myself, I definitely embrace myself more now than I’ve ever before. And I’m at my heaviest. So getting back to what you were saying earlier about commenting on people’s weight and, like, as an indication of their health—it’s not. I feel better about my body and feel better in my head now than I did when I was, like, a “normal, average sized” and all these air quotes around that, like, Black girl.
[50:42] Alyssa: Yeah, I feel like for so many of us, the process of getting to loving and caring for our bodies is a journey. Like, the fact that you have to go through a process and a journey to just accept something that is normal—like that is normal for you, is what I mean, and not normal for society—is so indicative of how much—like how much of a problem this world—this, like, white capitalist, like, white supremacy, capitalist, patriarchal society has affected everybody. But especially us and folks like us.
[51:30] Brendane: Right? And, like, you know, it’s coming for—it comes for white women, too, you know? I mean, to drag y’all into this, like, [laughs] to drag y’all into this, I was just—after re-reading the article, I was thinking about my archival dig that I did for my dissertation and seeing some of the ads that they had in popular newspapers for white women, where it was, like, basically telling them to take some drug—I don’t know what it is—but basically this drug that makes your butt flat. And it’s like, “You don’t wanna look like your housekeeper. You don’t wanna look like the help.” That’s what they say.
[52:10] Alyssa: That was what the ad said?
[52:11] Brendane: Yeah, you know, you want your husband to remain attracted to you, and you don’t want to look like the help, so keep your back flat with—I don’t know, maybe it was cocaine, I don’t know what they were selling women—these housewives to take. But, right, like, fatphobia—which is always, in my opinion, connected to anti-Blackness—is what caused Demi Lovato to come forward about [their] cocaine addiction and [their] disordered eating. Like, this damages white women, too, while also serving to, like, help uphold them and a standard of beauty—as a standard of beauty. So I think, like, as we’re talking about our experiences as Black women, it’s not to say that, like, this shit, it just harms us, right? It harms everybody, but it impacts us the most, right? And then for fat, dark-skinned Black women, like, it affects them the most.
[53:12] Alyssa: Yeah, I mean, and then if we bring that back to kind of, like, what’s going on in the medical industry, I think we really saw the way that all of this operated during COVID-19, right? So the CDC told us that people with underlying conditions like diabetes and obesity, you are at high risk of complications to COVID-19. And so then in saying that—and this is where we talk about discourses, right? Discourse and discursive formation—how did those discourses then create a discursive formation that then encouraged different discourses, right? That probably just confused people, but what I’m saying is how did [laughs] that statement that fatness put you at a high risk, which is the discourse, create a structure for people to be like, “Oh, we don’t need to treat these people and care for them as much as we would people who are thin.” So basically it biased—it created this bias in the treatment of larger people for COVID-19 when they went to the hospital, right? So how much of that risk was increased, because doctors don’t offer the same level of care to fat patients? And then when fat people were dying of COVID-19, that reinforced the whole idea that they were at high-risk, right? So all of it basically just becomes this, like, this vicious cycle. And I just don’t—it just doesn’t make sense that sick people—regardless of size—like, sick people are considered less valuable by the medical establishment. Like, that doesn’t even make any sense.
[54:57] Brendane: I mean, if your whole medical establishment is driven towards the maintenance of life versus, like, you know, increasing life or increasing the quality of life, but just the maintenance of it so that people can stop being sick to go to work to keep this lil’ economy that we got [laughter] going, then it only makes sense on that level. And, like, what you’re saying about the bias against fat people, and so people—and remember what we talked about earlier, right—there’s this discourse around fatness that says, “Oh, it’s a choice. You’re choosing to have a less quality of life,” versus looking at the structures and the society that say, “People who are above”—well, lemme talk about women. Women, feminine people, who are above a size 4—which is what models have—I think, what you’re even a big model if you’re a size 4, right?—like, don’t deserve to have the same quality of life as someone who’s a [size] 0, or is, you know, maintaining a certain type of body type. We live in a society that excludes most people from the people who deserve to have good lives.
[56:13] Alyssa: Right.
[56:14] Brendane: That’s wild. And, like, we could also talk about, like, literally how Plan B doesn’t work for people who are over 160 pounds. Like, if I ever wanted to get spicy with my life and, you know, play games and go against everything in my soul—
[56:34] Alyssa: Date cis men again?
[56:37] Brendane: You know, date cis men again. I wouldn’t even be able to use Plan B to correct my mistakes [laughs].
[56:44] Alyssa: You know what I was shocked about that as well. Like, the average woman in America weighs 168 pounds. And so even at my—like, among my lowest weights, Plan B would not even be as effective for me. And mind you, I mean, I’m tall. I was I was an athlete back in the day, but it’s like, does that count? Like, how exactly does this work?
[57:13] Brendane: Only height and weight.
[57:15] Alyssa: So if it’s literally based on height and weight, like, I’m finished. I’m finished [laughter]! I don’t understand. Like, I know that, you know, the recent decision in Texas, that has had us discussing reproductive rights. But, I think, you know, one of the things that we haven’t been talking about is the way—are, like, the other ways that access to birth control is curtailed, particularly in ways that discriminate against certain body types, like, there are certain methods that you cannot use. There are certain solutions that you cannot have as a person who may be larger than, you know, a size 2, which is crazy.
[57:59] Brendane: It’s—yeah, it’s wild. And I think part of it—if I want to be in my psychology bag that I step in every once in a while like—it’s due to the assumption that, like, fat people aren’t desirable, so back to that kind of, like, fear around desirability, and that they themselves have no desire to live full, complete lives, because it’s like, if you did, you would look differently or you would make different choices, right? And you also can’t—if you have a BMI above a certain number, you cannot donate your eggs for money, which I was—a few years ago, you know, I was like, “Oh, let me see what this is giving. I keep getting all these Instagram ads. Lemme see.”
[58:45] Alyssa: You know what? [Laughs] I’ve considered it, too.
[58:47] Brendane: Look, I thought I would sign up. So I fill out the little questionnaire. Already figured it was a slim shot because I am a darker skinned Black woman. But I was shocked to find out that in addition to that, hunny, I weigh too much. That’s what the results came back. And I guess to be facetious about it, right, I guess somebody told fertility scientists that being overweight is genetic.
[59:18] Alyssa: Is it that or is it that the fertility—cuz, you know, you have to take all of these, like, shots and stuff? And again, I mean, again, it comes down to certain treatments, drugs, all of these things not being made for people who are not of a particular size. So I think—so it might be the genetics thing, but also might be because, like, the treatment that you would have to take would make you—you would be “higher risk,” right? So who knows?
[59:51] Brendane: That’s a possibility, too.
[59:54] Alyssa: I mean, I’ve tried to sign up for, like, drug studies [laughs] and stuff, like, you know, where they pay you, like, $1500 to take some medication or whatever. I’ve tried to do it and they’re like, “Uh, nah.” [Laughs] “Not for you. You’re too high risk and we don’t know what the side effects will be.” Well, damn. Anyways, that’s okay. At least I won’t end up with, like, you know, a third eye or something decalcifying my pineal gland [laughter]. I like it well calcified. So as a last point on this topic, someone did ask us on Instagram about you know, your weight limiting access to health insurance. To be clear, it is illegal—it is IL-LEGAL—to deny someone health benefits due to obesity or their weight. If you were talking about life insurance, then, like, you might be hit with higher premiums because of your life expectancy. We’re not gonna get into that. But we really do you want to drive home that you your weight cannot stop you from getting health insurance, from being covered by your insurer, by your company insurer, any kind of health benefits. Now, if you have experienced weight bias in healthcare or in other contexts, you can complete the Weight Bias Reporting Form, which was created by the Obesity Action Coalition. And so a committee reads and responds to the submissions where appropriate and either calls out the bias, starts dialogues, or offers education. So we will put a link to that in the description box. And yeah. Journey on folks with us.
[1:01:34] Brendane: Yeah, there’s already enough barriers to health. And the last thing that we wanted to talk about today was to kinda bring this back into, I guess, more popular culture. And you all may have encountered—either on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook—Kevin Samuels—I was about to put his first and last name together—videos and Instagram posts. There is a discourse that surrounds Lizzo and her choosing to live her life, whether she chooses to have mustard with her watermelon, whether she chooses to drink tea, whether she chooses to work out, whether she chooses to be surrounded by fine men on her birthday and be sprayed with a water hose, which, girl, you out here livin’ your best life, you know? Do you. And it seems that it doesn’t matter what she does or doesn’t do, right? People will always have something to say. And y’all truly do not want to see fat Black women love themselves, and be loved, without caveat. Which is disgusting. And so Kimberly Foster on Instagram made a reel where she talked about how y’all won’t let Lizzo or any other fat Black woman live because y’all think that they don’t deserve life or happiness. But I need y’all to make it make sense to me. Like, make it make sense to me. Y’all praised the already thin Ari Lennox for losing weight, which—that was not slick. We all knew what was going on with that. I’ll never forget how I saw niggas claim that Megan the Stallion was one dessert away from being desirable when she first came out. And now she’s on this “health journey,” which, again, make it make sense, right? All of us have fat Black feminine people—oh, another person, Jazmine Sullivan, now getting all this recognition because she’s thinner now. Like, I got my eyes on y’all. I know wassup, I know wassup, right? And, Iike, all of us have fat, Black feminine people in our lives who make life worth living. And yet our internalized white supremacy and anti-Black fatphobia tells us and them that they don’t deserve it. And it’s gotta stop, right? It was anti-Black fatphobia that helped the officer pull the trigger on Ma’Khia Bryant, and it helped y’all justify her murder. So the solution is not how do we make Black feminine people more conventionally attractive, right? We don’t need more exercise programs that reinforce the unworthiness of fat, Black bodies and people, right? We need to eradicate these systems, this discourse, this fat-talk, this thinking, within and outside of us, that tells us that we are unworthy as we are. I just think we gotta get rid of it all. Like, we can’t keep living like this, y’all. We can’t keep living like this. And thinkin’ we gon get free. Like, we’re not.
[1:02:09] Alyssa: Well, exactly. If your vision for revolution, liberation, and the world otherwise doesn’t include fat people in a way that treats them as worthy and loved, it ain’t truly liberatory!
[1:04:57] Brendane: Period.
[1:04:58] Alyssa: You ain’t doing nothin’!
[1:04:59] Brendane: You not doin’ nothin’. You doin’ same ole, same ole, hunny.
[1:05:04] Brendane: And we done with that. Well, that’s our episode for today [laughs]. Thank you all for listening. This episode was produced by Alyssa James and Brendane Tynes and distributed in partnership with the American Anthropological Association. This season of the podcast is generously funded by a grant from the Arts and Science Graduate Council and donations from listeners just like you.
[1:05:31] Alyssa: Yes, and we appreciate all of your support. Thank you so much. If you liked this episode, please share it. We would love to hear about what you have to say about this episode, so be sure to follow us on Instagram at zorasdaughters and twitter at zoras_daughters. For transcripts, syllabi, and information on how to cite us or donate, visit our website zorasdaughters.com. You know what, just Google “Zora’s Daughters” because we have got the brand name on lock! All right.
[1:06:01] Brendane: Period, period. And, last but not least, please remember that we must take care of ourselves and each other. Bye!
[1:06:10] Alyssa: Bye!
[END OF RECORDING]
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