The Tragedy of Fatphobia in Kate Manne’s “Unshrinking” – Chicago Review of Books


During the launch of her first book, Down Girl, a popular work about sexism and misogyny, Kate Manne was doing what she could to avoid appearing in public. She turned down a book tour and in-person interviews, and supplied media outlets with her own photographs. Manne was self-conscious of her body’s size, and didn’t want to expose herself to public scrutiny. She was well aware of the irony—a feminist, curtailing her female-forward message on account of her own body shame: “And that’s when it hit me: I had to sort out my head, regarding my body, for the sake of my daughter.” 

The result is her latest book, Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia, a breathtaking work of meticulous research, philosophical rigor, and personal anecdote. Manne, an associate professor of philosophy at Cornell University, writes for a general reader in a way that enlightens and engages. In Unshrinking, she argues that it’s not fatness that encumbers us, but “fatphobia,” which she describes as a system of oppression signaling “that some bodies should be ignored, disregarded, and mistreated.” It’s a set of attitudes and behaviors that work, metaphorically, like a straightjacket, with catastrophic results: limiting the freedoms and opportunities of fat people, and also—as Manne demonstrates persuasively yet heartbreakingly over the course of the book—causing them serious harm. 

Manne fills the book’s pages with examples of fatphobia drawn from studies and reportage. Fatphobia is when doctors fail to see beyond the fatness of their patient and miss the actual health issue with fatal results. Fatphobia causes educators to expect less from their fatter students. It encourages prospective employers to overlook qualified applicants and to pay their overweight employees less than their thin colleagues. Fatphobia is seeing fat women as easy. Fatphobia designs a world in which desks and chairs don’t fit larger bodies. Fatphobia is satisfied with emergency birth control pills being less effective for women over 155 pounds. Fatphobia makes certain people feel it is their right to shame a fat person squeezing into the airplane seat next to them, rather than the person who designed the chair or the airline that approved it. Fatphobia creates art and literature that is insensitive to a fat person’s perspective. Fatphobia produces philosophical thought experiments in which a fat person is thrown from a bridge or gets stuck in a cave to save other people—yes, these are actual thought experiments entertained in ethics classes. The list goes on. On the whole, Manne reveals, fatphobia afflicts women, people of color, disabled people, and trans people more than their white male counterparts.

So why this problem with fatness, anyway? It’s not based in sound philosophical argument, something Manne ably demonstrates throughout the book. I particularly appreciated her retort to the claim that fat people are taxing on the social system. If it were true and we wanted to act upon it by imposing strictures on their lives, we would also need to include any risk takers in our moral calculus, such as skydivers and mountaineers. It’s a rhetorical point: Manne, along with most of the rest of us, prefers a society that protects these liberties. That we are reluctant to extend such freedoms as easily to fat people is evidence of our bias. 

Fatphobia doesn’t have any empirical justification either. Here Manne brilliantly ushers forth scientific studies and powerful anecdotes to dispel us of the notions that a fat body is necessarily an unhealthy body and that dieting works (most dieters gain back their weight—plus more—within five years). Even if these notions were true, Manne explains, they would never be a basis for treating someone unkindly or disrespectfully. An obvious insight, but one that needs to be made plain, unfortunately. 

Yet this is her point. Fatphobia isn’t grounded in reason, science, or ethics. Rather, its roots are in the dark recesses of the human psyche: disgust. Manne recounts how this aversion to fat bodies was manufactured during the Enlightenment from racist and sexist ideologies, and is operative throughout the world today. The diet industry uses this loathing to its advantage and perpetuates it, knowing full well diets don’t work, but cashing in on the myth that they do. 

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It’s a sick cultural state, and one can see the appeal of the new weight loss drugs, such as Ozempic. But even if we could all safely become thinner with these drugs—is this the sort of world we want to build for ourselves? Manne dares us to reject racism, sexism, and capitalist greed as forces that shape our bodies and minds, and instead aspire to a world shaped by justice and kindness, one that fits all bodies. It’s a profound challenge that is worth our time, as Manne makes clear in this superb book full of insight and hope. 

Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia
By Kate Manne
Crown Publishing Group
Published January 9, 2024

Regan Penaluna

Regan Penaluna is a writer with a master’s degree in journalism and a PhD in philosophy. Previously, she was an editor at Nautilus Magazine and Guernica, where she wrote and edited long-form stories and interviews. A feature she wrote was listed in the Atlantic as one of “100 Exceptional Works of Journalism.” Her book How to Think Like a Woman: Four Women Philosophers Who Taught Me How to Love the Life of the Mind is a Most Anticipated Book of the Year at Lithub and The Millions and a New York Times Editors’ Choice.


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