Fat Sex: New Directions in Theory and Activism

Edited by Helen Hester, Middlesex University, UK and Caroline Walters, BiUK. Ashgate.


The editors of “Fat Sex: New Directions in Theory and Activism” set out with several laudable aims in mind. They are looking to address the gap in fat studies around theorizing fat sex. They acknowledge the activist origins of fat studies as a field, and seek to engage with activist traditions around fat sex. Finally, they aim to represent international, interdisciplinary, and intersectional perspectives on fat sex.

The book is structured in four main sections, with “creative interludes” interspersed between them. The first section, “Fat Histories, Fat Communities” serves to lay a lot of groundwork. Zora Simic’s chapter in particular provides an extensive and thorough history of varied and often contradictory intersections of fat and feminism. Cat Pausé provides an overview of academic research and cultural approaches to fat sex. Together these two chapter serve as a springboard for the remaining sections: “Fat Gender Politics”; “The Pornography of Fat”; and “Culturally (In)Visible Bodies”.

“Fat Gender Politics” examines the intersection between fat and gender from three different angles. Jeannine Gailey’s research looks at different routes to body acceptance and its impact on fat women’s sexual agency and empowerment. A key strength of this research is the ethnically and sexually diverse sample of women recruited for it. Unfortunately the resulting data was not analysed along some of these axes, possibly missing out key insights around the intersections of fat and race, and fat and sexual orientation. Frances Heatherley explores the intersections of fat and class by comparing and contrasting the subversive potentials of fat representations in both “low culture” – the adult comic strip “The Fat Slags” – and fine art in the form of Jenny Saville’s large-scale fat nudes. Heatherley’s chapter is particularly notable for the thorough theoretical grounding of the work, interweaving Foucault’s ideas on discipline, Bourdieu’s work on distinction, feminist empirical work on fat and class, and Bakhtin’s carnivalesque. Finally in this section, Vikki Chalklin provides an autoethnographic account of her participation in “Hamburger Queen”, a beauty pageant for fat people. Chalklin’s work examines the intersection of queer and fat and draws strong parallels between them. It does not, however, acknowledge the limitations of this approach or explore the differences between queer and fat. Overall, “Fat Gender Politics” addresses some important issues around the intersections of fat and gender, and raises further questions about how intersections beyond gender impact the fat embodied experience.

The section on fat pornography provides good balance by examining both the production and consumption of pornography. Natalie Ingraham’s chapter uses interviews with people involved in the production of queer porn in the San Francisco Bay Area to further explore parallels between fat and queer, and to argue that production of niche, consciously representational pornography like this is seen by the performers and producers as a form of activism. Goda Klumbyte and Katrine Smiet investigate the impact of consuming online fat porn on fat women’s sexuality. They find a diverse range of reactions to the material, indicating that some fat women can identify with this kind of pornography and find it empowering, while for others it creates distance and removes them from their own pleasure and sexuality.

Finally, “Culturally (In)Visible Bodies” looks at representations of fat women’s sexualities in literature. Sarah Parker re-evaluates the work of Amy Lowell – once a celebrated American Imagist poet who after her death was derided by enemies and critics who often focused on her sexuality and fatness. Parker analyses Lowell’s poetry particularly for its use of images of food and appetite and their connection to desire and eroticism. Michelle Green investigates Margaret Atwood’s “Lady Oracle” and argues that the novel’s use of weight loss to signify psychological change negates the fat female main character’s social and sexual maturity, placing her in a state of “sexual amaturity”. Finally, Laura Ellen Joyce’s chapter on Blake Butler’s experimental novella “EVER” uses Freud’s concept of the uncanny to explore how the work uses fat female sexuality, flesh, and ideas of spaciality to create a sense of horror. The chronological arrangement of these chapters – from Lowell’s early 20th century poetry to Butler’s 2009 novella – tells a compelling story of the changing representations of fat female sexuality in literature.

“Fat Sex” set out with an ambitious set of goals, and the collection of essays goes some way towards addressing them. Where it does not, it serves to highlight opportunities for future research and engagement with the issues it raises. I would particularly like to see future work in this area on the intersections of fat with race, asexuality, and disability, as well as more detailed explorations of fat in contemporary popular culture, and online activism.

This review was provided by Milena Popova, PhD Researcher in the Digital Cultures Research Centre at University of the West of England, Bristol.