To Infinifat and Beyond

REVIEW: 'Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia' by Kate Manne

January 28, 2024

Events of the last several months (if not years or decades) have amply demonstrated the moral and intellectual rot at the heart of our elite academic institutions. Ivy League universities in particular have become quasi-religious cults (attached to billion-dollar hedge funds) less interested in teaching than they are in preaching their gospel of radical nonsense. Their professional inhabitants are somehow even more out of touch with average Americans than are the self-righteous journalists who cover politics for a living.

On January 2, Harvard president Claudine Gay resigned in disgrace for being a serial plagiarist who couldn't answer a simple question about whether it was appropriate to call for Jewish genocide on campus. Gay's defenders insisted she was a victim of a "racist mob" waging "open war on black progress," if not full-scale genocide akin to the "white colonists" who "eradicate[d] Native Americans."

One week later, an associate professor of philosophy at Cornell University published a book about America's open war on fat people. The answer to your question is: Yes, of course these two things are related. They absolutely intersect, and not only because Claudine's cousin Roxane Gay, the feminist activist and New York Times contributor (and visiting professor at Yale), is quoted throughout.

Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia was written by Kate Manne, a feminist philosophy expert and author of two other books about misogyny and "male privilege," respectively. Prospect magazine named her one of "the world's 50 top thinkers" in 2019 alongside Ta-Nehisi Coates, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Greta Thunberg. She self-identifies as a "small fat," as opposed to a "large fat," "superfat," or "infinifat," and other terms from the "fat studies" lexicon you didn't know existed.

Manne could have written an interesting book challenging the conventional wisdom that being fat is bad for your health. Most scientists seem to agree that it is, but if the COVID-19 pandemic taught us anything it's that so-called scientific experts don't really know what they're talking about and are prone to make authoritative pronouncements for purely political reasons. Manne cites other studies that found the relationship between fatness and health to be more "complicated" than we think, and there's probably some truth to that.

Unshrinking is not that book. It is simply another data point supporting the argument that academic elites have lost their damn minds, starting with the James Baldwin epigraph and trigger warning about "frank descriptions of fatphobia in its intersections with racism, misogyny, ableism, transphobia, etc." Further reading reveals that fatphobia also intersects with classism, ageism, colorism, homophobia, and anti-Semitism. It's bigotry all the way down.

Manne utilizes all the trendy academic buzzwords, presumably because she has to in order to be taken seriously as an Ivy League scholar. After initially defining fatphobia as "a feature of social systems that unjustly rank fatter bodies as inferior to thinner bodies," the author goes on to explain that anti-fatness is also a "structural form of oppression" that is the "exploitative" consequence of "fascist body norms" endorsed by "vested capitalist interests" with roots in the slave trade and Western colonialism. It is literally "violence," obviously.

As a liberal white woman steeped in the doctrine of diversity and intersectionality, it would be downright heretical if Manne were to discuss a form of bigotry that applies to her without acknowledging her privilege and explaining why the fatphobia she experienced was nothing compared with the fatphobia wreaking havoc on the less privileged. For example, the black women who danced on stage with Miley Cyrus at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards. Over the course of several paragraphs, Manne explains why the pop star's performance was basically an endorsement of slavery.

With the confidence of a credentialed expert, Manne argues that being fat is good. Trying (or even wanting) to lose weight is not only counterproductive but dangerous and "morally pernicious." Urging someone else to lose weight is even worse, except when Michelle Obama does it—then it's "well-meaning." For everyone else, though, wanting children to be less fat is like supporting terrorism. (Not Hamas, obviously; the bad terrorists.) She likens fat people to "adventurous mountaineers" who knowingly risk their lives for pleasure. We don't charge them a fee to be rescued after getting stuck on a mountain, which is why it's wrong to make fat people pay more to fit on an airplane, the philosopher argues.

Manne's solution to the problem of so-called fatphobia is simple enough. No, it doesn't involve the widespread adoption of Ozempic. We just need to start including fat people on the ever-expanding list of historically marginalized communities that count as "diverse" and get their own "pride" parades. Maybe journalists could start writing headlines about how some town in Oregon just elected its first fat mayor.

Then, after we "remake the world" by reprogramming human beings to disregard their fascist beauty standards, fat bodies will be celebrated for their contribution to "human bodily diversity." People will understand that losing weight or trying to change their bodies in any way is bigotry, period. Maybe they will stop getting nose jobs, which Manne suggests are socially objectionable and borderline anti-Semitic because they "minimize the evidence of a supposedly Jewish nose." Is any of this starting to make sense?

By far the most terrifying and dispiriting aspect of Manne's book is that she repeatedly positions herself as a moderate in the niche debate playing out among "fat studies" scholars at elite academic institutions upwards of $80,000 a year in tuition. She does not entirely agree, for example, with the radical weirdos who say "there are no moral obligations to look after our health or ourselves in any way," or that fatphobia is "essentially genocidal." This certainly can be the case, Manne writes, but she's "not convinced that it always is."

So there. Maybe our academic elites are more open-minded than you thought.

Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia
by Kate Manne
Crown, 320 pp., $29