A Moral Philosopher Contemplates the Evils of ‘Fatphobia’

After penning two acclaimed books on misogyny, Kate Manne turns her attention to a different—but related—form of oppression

By Beth Saulnier

Philosopher Kate Manne’s first two books—Down Girl and Entitled—both address the subject of misogyny. In discussing them, she was often asked how she got interested in such a grim topic. “People wanted to know my backstory,” she recalls, “and I found I couldn’t really tell it without talking about fatphobia.”

As Manne explains, she first encountered misogyny in adolescence—as one of just three girls who integrated a formerly all-boys school in her native Australia.

“And the form misogyny often took was weaponized fatphobia,” she says, “directed at me as a teen who was bullied and belittled on account of my size.”

Fatphobia—fearing, avoiding, or discriminating against people who are perceived as overweight—is the subject of the latest book by Manne, an associate professor in the Sage School of Philosophy in Arts & Sciences.

Titled Unshrinking, it interweaves Manne’s personal experience with a deep dive (including studies by researchers in a variety of fields) into how society views fatness, and how that impacts people’s lives.

Prof. Kate Manne

1) Why did you opt to use the word “fat” throughout the book?

Many people working in this space like to treat “fat” not as a shameful term that should be substituted with euphemisms, but rather as a merely neutral description of some bodies—much like short, tall, or thin.

We’re trying to reclaim it, as people have done with words like “queer.” That reflects the belief that fatness is a natural human variation, part of normal and healthy bodily diversity.

2) You write that fatphobia is a form of structural oppression. How so?

It is not just hurting people’s feelings; it is genuinely limiting their freedom and ability to access important entitlements, resources, and opportunities.

Many people working in this space like to treat ‘fat’ not as a shameful term that should be substituted with euphemisms, but rather as a merely neutral description of some bodies.

In the book, I document how fatphobia limits educational opportunity, vastly curtails employment possibilities and wages, and affects access to public spaces; everything from theaters to airplane seats are not made to accommodate larger bodies.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, fat people are hugely discriminated against in healthcare. They often do not receive adequate care that speaks to the true nature of their symptoms and treats them in ways that are compassionate and dignified.

3) There’s a commonly held notion that weight is just a matter of self-control. How do you address that?

In the short term, many people can lose a moderate amount—5–10% of their body weight—through diet and exercise.

The cover of "Unshrinking"

But what meta-analyses of every longitudinal diet study show is that, for the vast majority, the weight comes back. Over a four-to-five-year period, between one-third and two-thirds of people will end up heavier than they started.

Researchers actually believe that dieting is an excellent predictor of weight gain, rather than of long-term weight loss. Part of it is that metabolism tends to slow markedly after losing weight, especially if it’s lost dramatically.

Studies of contestants on “The Biggest Loser” show that their metabolisms were 30% slower, on average, five years after the initial weight loss—meaning that they had to eat less and exercise more to maintain it. And the result is, many didn’t.

Even on the new, much-hyped class of weight-loss drugs, the weight comes roaring back following discontinuation. And the vast majority of patients do discontinue them, because of side effects, cost, heath risks, or simply not wanting to be on them long term.

4) Could you talk about the relationship between fatness and poor health?

We need to tell a much more nuanced story than just that fatness is deadly, which in many cases is demonstrably false. Epidemiological research has shown that the relationship looks like a U-shaped curve, with people who are “overweight” having the lowest mortality of any weight category.

Yes, there are worse health outcomes correlated with being very heavy. But is that correlation, or causation? It’s hard to know, because people in very high weight categories get worse care or avoid it altogether; they’re subject to the stress of stigma and to weight cycling from dieting; they may not have the means to exercise, because they’re belittled when they do so.

And there are many fat people who are healthy, including metabolically healthy—and many thin people who, unfortunately, are not healthy.

5) You make a connection between fatphobia and racism. Could you talk about that?

Here I’m drawing on brilliant work by the sociologist Sabrina Strings, who has shown that while fatphobia was never completely absent from human history, it wasn’t systemic until the mid-18th century.

We need to tell a much more nuanced story than just that fatness is deadly, which in many cases is demonstrably false.

In that era, racist pseudoscientists looked for a way to distinguish white bodies from the Black bodies who were being enslaved so brutally in the burgeoning transatlantic slave trade, and drew an association between fatness and Blackness. Fatness came to be derogated shortly thereafter, and fatphobia really took off. So it’s a recent form of prejudice.

And for anyone wondering, there were fat bodies in all of human history; just think of the Venus of Willendorf, the statuette of a fat woman from Paleolithic times. Historical evidence from paintings and early photographs show that fat bodies are nothing new.

6) Has the book struck a chord with readers?

People have shared their stories in ways that I find heartening and inspiring; many readers have said that they felt empowered by it.

I just heard from a reader who said she, as a fat woman of color, had felt able to pose nude for a life drawing class, where previously there had only been white, thin models. She was able to feel, “This might not only be a beautiful body, but interesting to draw.” She could revel in her rolls, her amplitude, and her lusciousness, and not feel like she had to hide.

All images provided.

Published March 8, 2024


  1. Sheryl Wragg, Class of 2023

    I got this book and highly recommend! Prof Manne is brilliant and as always has ways of encouraging me to think differently.

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