Sara Fogarty Olmos re-reads Zadie Smith’s On Beauty (2005) and articulates the politics of fat resistance and the black female body.
Fat has been neglected in literary discussion. While works of literature like William Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, and Cervantes’s Don Quixote have been employed by theorists like Joyce L. Huff (2013) and Pat Rogers (2010) to help historicize the fat body, close readings of the fat body in literature are still somewhat scarce. The recent emergence of the Fat Studies discipline, bastioned by Samantha Murray, Cat Pausé and E. D. Rothblum (to name the three important thinkers) has helped to complicate social conceptions of the fat body. Literary theorists, in particular, employ a nuanced critical vocabulary to analyze the portrayal of fat characters and the subtleties of external and internal fat experiences. Through these close readings literary theorists can problematize how fat characters have been dismissed or misunderstood in popular culture.
Of particular interest is the representation and politics of fatness in Zadie Smith’s second novel On Beauty (2006). In this novel, Smith follows Kiki Belsey and her fat, black body. Scholars like Sabrina String have noted that, historically, weight has been intrinsically linked with ideas of race with eugenicists like Georges-Louis LeClertt, Comte de Buffon defining ‘black Africans [. . .] by both their dark skin and their enormity’ (String, 2019). Since then, the sign of the female fat black body is one which has been reduced to comic caricature in much of popular culture (String, 2019). In On Beauty, however, weight exists as the novel’s primary site of resistance against the neoliberal values that dominate Wellington, a fictional East Coast college town, especially such virtues as self-reliance, control and personal hygiene.
In On Beauty, Smith demonstrates the ways in which the fat, black body is abused and then asked to shoulder the blame for the prejudicial treatment it is made to suffer. One of the ways in which Kiki’s body is abused are the ‘disapproving looks’ she receives from, presumably, non-fat-bodied women when eating her breakfast in public (2006: 162). The logic that underpins this subtle expression of objection stems from a belief in what Hannele Harjunen terms the body as an ‘individualist project [which] one can choose and shape as one wishes’ (Harjunen, 2021). According to Harjuen, the fat body is imagined to be a physical manifestation of an individual’s poor choices. Harjunen draws our attention to the fact that this conception of the body is one of self-reliance: an imagining of selfhood which is central to the neoliberal humanist politics brought to centre-stage in the Thatcher-Reganism of the 1980s (Harjunen, 2021).
Smith’s characters are held responsible for the appearance of their bodies and Kiki’s fatness is conceived of as a failure of self-discipline. For these women, then, Kiki’s innocuous act of eating breakfast in public becomes an act of gross responsibility, not to mention gluttony and overindulgence. Smith draws attention to the existence of the prejudicial slim gaze, writing that the looks Kiki receives are typical of those looks ‘other women give to big women when they’re eating in public’ (2006: 162). Thus Smith’s focus is on the identification and denouncement of prejudicial treatment rather than on the engagement of the supposed logic that motivates this treatment. I propose that Smith’s approach to fat resistance, one that is characterised by a spirit of refusal, might be described in terms of stubborn fat. Stubborn fat is a term popularly used to describe pockets of fat which refuse to melt away with diet and exercise, and just as fat on the body can refuse to melt away despite actions taken against it Kiki refuses to melt away under the spotlight of the slim gaze.
Kiki eats in public despite these looks and the discomfort they cause her. Fat theorist Samantha Murray has directly addressed the experience of eating in public while being a fat woman in her book The Fat Female Body (2008). Murray asserts that for some fat women ‘the act of eating in public [. . .] is so corporeally traumatic as to elicit the response “I cannot”’ (Murray, 2008). In this light, Kiki’s ability to eat in public might seem as if it were an act of supreme self-confidence, an ability to ignore the harshly judgemental looks of the thin women. The quality of self-confidence forms the foundation of the fat-resistance movement of fat-acceptance, which preaches that self-love as a practical antidote to fatphobia. Murray is critical of this movement, defining it as the ‘liberatory project of fat pride as an individualist politics of self transformation’ (2008). Smith also seems to be suspicious of this strategy as we see through the constant insistence that Kiki’s blackness and fatness are not to be blamed for people’s mistreatment of her. Stubborn fat resistance, then, does not manifest in the form of a persistent love for one’s fat body in the face of hatred but rather in the adamant resolution that to disapprove of the fat body is a hurtful mistreatment of the individual.
Kiki is aware that her interactions with thin, white Wellingtonians are partially determined by their prejudice to her weight, race and gender, rather than how she chooses to present herself. When Kiki runs into Warren Crane (a white firefighter from New Jersey) and begins a conversation, her interior-monologue is dominated by her frustration with the way in which Warren’s prejudice determines her interaction with him. Kiki explains that, to ‘these white American boys: I’m the Aunt Jemima on the cookie boxes of their childhoods, the pair of thick ankles Tom and Jerry play around. Of course they find me funny’ (2006: 51). Warren associates Kiki with the mammy, a racist domestic stock character, which the critic Tracey L. Walters delineates as a ‘buxom, matronly black woman with ebony skin’ (Walters, 2008: 128). Kiki’s physical resemblance to mammy characters like Aunt Jemima and Mammy Two Shoes prompts Warren to believe that Kiki is funny and maternally tender, but won’t allow him to believe that she could exist in what Kiki terms ‘the sexual universe’ (2006: 51). Walters argues that the resigned frustration that underlies Kiki’s interaction with Warren is the result of Kiki’s poor self-esteem. Kiki ‘allows her insecurities to create an image of herself as the mammy’ (2008: 128). Thus Walters puts the onus on Kiki and her personal discomfort with how her body is perceived rather than on Warren and his prejudice.
Though Kiki is uncomfortable with how her body is perceived and subsequently treated, her refusal to manage her emotional reaction to this treatment does not mean that she is not committed to resisting the fatphobia she encounters. I suggest that fat resistance in On Beauty does not occur through a process of reconciliation and reclamation of the fat body. Instead, such resistance emerges from Kiki’s constant identification and pronouncement of the damaging slim gaze. One of the novel’s most subversive acts of fat resistance is Kiki’s insistence that her husband, Howard, take responsibility for his infidelity. Soon after Kiki and Howard celebrate their anniversary, the reader learns that Howard has, at some point in the recent past, had an affair with his co-worker Claire Malcolm. Kiki knows this infidelity has occurred but chooses to stay with Howard. Fat theorist Jenny Lee argues that neoliberal culture often ‘portrays fat as undesirable [and implies] that you’re “stooping” to have sex with someone fat’ (Lee, 2014). Living in such a culture, infidelity between a fat person (Kiki) and a slim one (Howard) seems like an almost inevitable outcome.
Kiki, however, does not allow the cultural narrative to dominate her feelings surrounding Howard’s affair. Instead, she confronts him with the prejudice that underlies his adultery. Kiki deconstructs the aesthetic implications of Howard’s affair with Claire by explicitly addressing the physical differences between Claire’s body and her own. Howard’s preference for Claire’s white ‘physically prepubescent’ body, ‘neatly made with the minimum of material’ affirms the normative belief that fat is ugly and undesirable (2006: 51). Kiki accuses Howard of making her look like a ‘big black bitch’ and in doing so stresses the fact that it is Howard’s actions rather than her appearance which constructs this image of her in Wellingtonian society. In an attempt to make Kiki feel responsible for the affair Howard affirms his prejudice and belief in this narrative by telling Kiki that he ‘married a slim black woman’ (2006: 207). Howard’s response suggests that he believes that Kiki’s weight gain is, at least partially, to blame for his disloyalty. Kiki’s frank dissection of the differences between her and Claire’s body uncovers Howard’s complicity, and more alarmingly, his belief in the narratives of fatness and blackness as unattractive. In drawing attention to how Howard’s actions contribute to the formation of Kiki’s sense of selfhood, both Kiki and Smith refuse to allow Kiki’s fatness to bear the responsibility for Howard’s actions.
In a society that villanises fatness, the mistreatment of the fat body is not recognised as prejudice. Instead this mistreatment is thought of as an inevitability or a necessary evil, something which will ultimately help deter people from choosing to be fat. The constant insistence that the problem lies within a fatphobic society rather than with fat people themselves is, in itself, radical. Smith presents us with the limits of reconciliatory approach to resistance, advocating instead for radical dissolution. The significance of reading fatness and fat perspectives in literary studies is revealed, at least in this novel, to be vital in helping us acknowledge the ways and the reasons for which fat bodies are made to suffer.
About the Author
Sara Fogarty Olmos graduated as an undergraduate from Durham University in 2022. In her final year Sara did a dissertation project examining fatness in post-war literature titled “Loosening the Belt: Fatness in Postwar Literature”. Sara is on year out working at a boarding school in Hertfordshire, where alongside her boarding duties is teaching a short course on critical thinking. She will be returning to Durham in 2023 to start her master’s degree in English Literature. Her next research project will focus on fatness, utopia and temporality in the short stories of Peter Carey.
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Huff, Joyce L. (2013). ‘Fattening’ Literary History. Fat Studies 2: 30-44. DOI: 10.1080/21604851.2012.713283
Lee, Jenny. (2014). “Flaunting Fat: Sex with the Lights on”, in Queering Fat Embodiment, ed. by Cat Pausé and Jackie Wykes and Samantha Murray, 89-96. Farnham: Ashgate.
Murray, Samantha. (2008). The Fat Female Body. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Rogers, Pat. (2010). “Fat is a Fictional Issue: The Novel and the Rise of Weight-Watching”, in Historicizing Fat in Anglo-American Culture, 19-40. Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press.
Smith, Zadie. (2006). On Beauty. New York: Penguin Books.
String, Sabrina. (2019). Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. New York: New York University Press.
Walters, Tracey L. (2008). “Still Mammies and Hos: Stereotypical Images of Black Women in Zadie Smith’s Novels”, in Zadie Smith: Critical Essays, 123-140. New York: Peter Lang.