Fat Shaming vs Fat Empowerment: The Construction of Fat Bodies in Neoliberal Discourse

Fat Shaming vs Fat Empowerment: The Construction of Fat Bodies in Neoliberal Discourse

Hannah Knox


This paper discusses the current political conceptualisation of fat bodies in neoliberal society, focusing on two prominent opposing discourses surrounding fatness that are shaped by neoliberal discourse: fat shaming and fat empowerment. Through the synthesis of several factors, including the increased medicalisation of fatness, the shift to viewing bodies as autonomous economic actors, and the construction of health as a commodified moral choice and responsibility, I demonstrate the fat-shaming narrative of today: the view that fat is a failed, unhealthy, immoral and irresponsible body type. Contrastingly, the movement of fat empowerment aspires to promote fat acceptance, aiming to construct fat bodies as agentic in their own empowerment. As argued in this paper, the progressive aims of these movements have become co-opted by neoliberal principles, which severely limits their endeavours to challenge the status quo. Drawing on parallels with feminist critiques of neoliberal sexual agency, I explore how neoliberalism encourages an individualised form of empowerment via body positivity, which has depoliticised the concept of empowerment, removing its capacity to abolish social injustice. I further expose how this conception of empowerment as an individual choice and responsibility is twisted into a narrative of self-improvement, which can be achieved through the purchasing of commodities; a phenomenon that corporations have embraced in recent years in their marketing of products to women. It is concluded that a reconceptualisation of fatness is needed outside of the body-positivity narrative, centring on the social construction of fatness, in order to encourage more political forms of empowerment that aim to attack neoliberal fat shaming.


“Body type, citizenship, and moral type have long been linked: ‘beautiful’ and ‘healthy’ cluster to connote a good citizen, while ‘ill’ and ‘ugly’ put one in the citizenship doghouse.”

Kathleen LeBesco (2004: 55)

“In a context in which fake ‘empowerment’ is everywhere and in which feminist notions of it have been taken up and sold back to us emptied of their political force, how can we identify what true empowerment would look like, would feel like?”

Rosalind Gill (2012: 743)

In 2018, the October issue of the British women’s magazine Cosmopolitan famously featured ‘plus-size’[1] model and body-positive advocate Tess Holliday on its cover. The image of the model wearing green lingerie on the front page caused an uproar on social media, dividing opinions across the country. Many spectators[2] voiced highly negative reactions which personally attacked Holliday, accusing the model and the magazine of promoting obesity and endorsing an unhealthy lifestyle for the population. Other commentators[3], however, made the case that Holliday’s presence on the front cover was empowering for women’s bodies, expressing admiration of her body confidence as well as excitement at the visibility of a different body type on a mainstream platform (BBC Newsbeat, 2018; Scott, 2018).

The fat body has become a point of increasing political interest and debate in recent years.[4] The above example highlights two of the dominant opposing discourses which exist in today’s mainstream culture surrounding the fat body. The first serves to shame fat bodies in society through a discourse that strongly emphasises notions of bodily health and lifestyle choices (Cairns and Johnston, 2015). Owing their credibility to the support of scientific ‘knowledge’, these discourses construct fat bodies as a critical public concern through the rhetoric of the obesity ‘epidemic’ (Boero, 2007). As Pieterman (2007: 309) argues, fat bodies are “now not only culturally condemned, but also medically and politically defined as a major public health threat.” The opposing discourse aims to promote the acceptance[5] and empowerment of fat bodies. Arguments attempt to challenge the cultural devaluation of fat bodies, endorsing a more accepting politics of the body (Donaghue and Clemitshaw, 2012). In recent years, this fat-acceptance discourse has been eclipsed by a wider body-positivity narrative in mainstream media, which encourages individuals to perform personal embodiments of empowerment by celebrating their bodies (Tovar, 2018). These messages can now be observed throughout the beauty industry, with more and more companies promoting body-positive messages in order to sell their products (Johnston and Taylor, 2008).

In this paper, I aim to unpick the current political terrain of fatness, exploring how the two opposing discourses outlined above are both shaped and produced by the all-encompassing structures of neoliberalism. Starting with fat shaming, I argue that neoliberal structures have facilitated a culture of fat shaming, whereby fatness is constructed as a failed, unhealthy, immoral and irresponsible citizenship and body type, and that these structures serve as a form of social control. Following this, I explore the opposing discourse, which aims to position fat bodies as agents of their own empowerment. I argue that endeavours at fat empowerment have become distorted by neoliberal messages of body positivity which have been co-opted by capitalism, turning rhetoric that might initially be considered progressive and empowering into something far more limiting. Importantly, I do not aim to determine the ‘truth’ about whether or not fatness is a matter of health risk or to deny that the body-positivity discourse is empowering for some bodies. Rather, this piece will serve to contextualise these discourses within neoliberal structures in order to highlight their restrictions. I argue that neoliberalism has had such a profound impact on the conception of fat bodies that the opposing discourses in fact harbour many of the same themes, which all have extremely limiting effects.

It is important to acknowledge that discourses around fat bodies are of course intersectional, with body size intersecting with numerous other aspects of inequality (Van Amsterdam, 2013). This article aims to explore the fatness discourse that is prevalent in UK and US mainstream media; a context in which narrow beauty ideals privilege the thin, white, straight, young, able-bodied and cis-gendered (Sastre, 2014). The constructions of fat bodies mentioned in this article will revolve around women’s bodies, as women are often held to the most extreme body-size standards (Saguy and Gruys, 2010).


  • Fatness and failure: Conceptualising bodies and fatness within neoliberalism

Firstly, I argue that, in order to fully understand the prevailing discourse around fat bodies, it is necessary to contextualise this debate within the current social, political and economic atmosphere. The dominant wave of neoliberal thinking has had a dramatic influence on the conceptualisation of bodies through the prominent discourses of consumerism, individualism and personal choice (Brown, 2006; Phipps, 2014). Deconstructing how bodies themselves are imagined in neoliberalism enables us to comprehend the present landscape of fat-shaming discourse.

Neoliberalism as an economic and political concept, originally prevailing in the USA before spreading to Europe, has been interpreted differently in various analyses. In this paper, I comprehend the concept using Wendy Brown’s (2006) view of neoliberalism as a political rationality. Incorporating a Foucauldian concept of power, Brown identifies neoliberalism as a “specific form of normative political reason organising the political sphere, governance practices and citizenship” which “governs the sayable, the intelligible, and the truth criteria of these domains” (2006: 693). In economic terms, neoliberalism is premised on the liberalisation of capitalist markets (Phipps, 2014), such that control of economic factors is transferred from the public to the private sector; neoliberal rationality thus supports economic moves such as deregulation, privatisation, fiscal austerity and reduced government spending (Larner, 2000). Brown notes that, while neoliberal rationality is based on a conception of the market, these same rationales are imposed on all other spheres of society; “more than simply facilitating the economy the state itself must construct and construe itself in market terms” (2006: 694).

Under neoliberalism, citizens are constructed as rational, self-interested economic actors with agency and control over their lives (Brown, 2006). The body in neoliberal culture thus exists as an autonomous, consuming and self-governing entity, which must perform desirable individual citizenship through the making of ‘correct’ consumer choices (Guthman, 2009a; Stuart and Donaghue, 2012). The ideal neoliberal body thus becomes one that performs and maintains a productive economic and social citizenship whilst expressing a desirable self-image via the purchase and consumption of appropriate products.

This neoliberal conception of bodies informs the way in which fatness is shamed in society. Since successful citizenship is assessed by an individual’s capacity for self-care, those bodies that do not construct themselves ‘appropriately’ in neoliberal terms, such as the fat body, are constructed as evident failures (Phipps, 2014; Wright, 2009). Furthermore, neoliberal governance functions through pathways of responsibility (Cairns and Johnston, 2011): since neoliberalism dictates a regime of self-governance, responsibility for failing as an appropriate neoliberal ‘citizen’ is placed solely with the individual. Social issues become viewed as results of incompetence and individual failings rather than being due to oppressive societal structures (Larner, 2000; Phipps, 2014). Fatness, therefore, is not only visualised as a failure, but is also considered the fault of the individuals themselves.

  • Fatness and health: The obesity ‘epidemic’ and the medicalisation of fatness

In the media today it is not uncommon for emotive, fearmongering language such as ‘crisis’ or ‘epidemic’ to accompany discussions of fatness. Such hyperbole has led to a moral panic surrounding fatness, positioning the issue as a significant threat to societal values and interests (Campos et al., 2006; Stanley, 1972). It is now widely accepted that obesity is increasing at a threatening rate, and that it is causally associated with an increased risk of early mortality and chronic illness (Guthman, 2009b).

Since the early 2000s, the obesity epidemic discourse has dominated media platforms, enabled by the exaggerated medicalisation of fatness; a point which is highlighted by the shift towards using more medicalised terminologies, such as obese, to describe body types (Boero, 2007; Guthman, 2009b). Medicalisation is a process informed by the current societal and cultural context by which issues previously considered non-medical are reconstructed as medical problems, typically in terms of a disorder, and often for purposes of control (Conrad, 1992: 209). As Sobal (1995: 69) writes, “medicalisation of obesity occurred as medical people and their allies made increasingly frequent, powerful and persuasive claims that they should exercise social control over fatness in contemporary society.” Together with the push to define obesity as a disease and the popularisation of the term (Sobal, 1995), this shift positioned health and medical interventions at the centre of discussions surrounding fat bodies.

It is important to note, however, that, within the neoliberal context, fatness has experienced a rather unique process of medicalisation. The construction of fatness as a condition, disease or disorder has not designated it as a medical responsibility. Drawing a comparison between obesity and disability, Guthman and DuPuis (2006) observe that fat bodies are viewed as failing bodies in a capitalist neoliberal society, yet unlike (other) disabled bodies, the fat body is burdened with the sole responsibility for its ‘failure’. This point is evidenced through reports on health care access for obese individuals that have revealed medical help is often denied for problems relating to obesity. In a synthesis of current research on health care delivery for obese patients, Mold and Forbes (2013) examined 30 studies from the USA, UK, Australia and Canada, finding that health professionals often actively denied obese patients medical care, or were less likely to suggest care options to obese patients, thus perpetuating the idea that fatness is a self-inflicted problem and not a state or medical responsibility. Far from being viewed as sufferers of a condition beyond their control, fat individuals are stigmatised as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘lazy’, and thus undeserving of medical intervention (Harjunen, 2016; Tischner and Malson, 2012).

  • Fatness and morality: Neoliberal healthism and health as an embodied moral responsibility

Neoliberal reforms have had a huge impact on the conceptualisation of health in society, and in turn this has strongly influenced how fatness is viewed. Health and healthcare in the UK and USA have been reformed via neoliberalism through the ideologies of individualisation, privatisation and deregulation (McGregor, 2001). The restructuring of healthcare as a private scheme for sale rather than a public system paid for by taxes is a notable reform of healthcare taking place under the neoliberal agenda (McDaniel and Chappell, 1999). As opposed to an entitlement view of health, which aims to make health and welfare a fundamental right for the population, healthcare systems in today’s neoliberal economies promote an obligation view of health; a principal which constructs health as a personal obligation that one must maintain so as not to become a drain on state resources (Fraser, 1993). This approach links health to morality through the employment of a neoliberal politics of personal responsibility; as health has become individualised, being healthy is now a matter of individual moral responsibility.

Another effect of these neoliberal reforms involves a shift to viewing health as an embodied phenomenon, whereby health is located within our bodies. Embodied health is coupled with the enforced connection between health and fatness, which has strong implications for how fat bodies are viewed: as Boero (2007) notes, there has been a problematic enforcement in mainstream discourse of the idea that body size is straightforwardly associated with health. This emphasis constructs the fat body (or anything that deviates too far from the ideal of thinness) as unmistakably unhealthy. Likewise, being physically fit and having a thin body is interpreted as ‘proof’ of health (Kirk and Colquhoun, 1989). As illustrated in my earlier example, many critics cited concerns over health as a reason to shame Holliday’s body, despite the audience having no information about the model’s state of health. It is clear that body size alone has become a signal of both our health and our way of life. Fatness, therefore, is viewed as an immediate indication of ill-health and a deviant and immoral way of living.

There has also been an emergence in the public domain of what has been termed “healthism”; a middle-class obsession with achieving and maintaining ideal states of health (Crawford, 1980). Since neoliberal reforms have closely linked health to consumerism, ideal health is often sought through the pursuit of consumerist solutions (Cheek, 2008; Greenhalgh and Wessely, 2004). The new healthism discourse thus perpetuates the idea that good health can be simply achieved through individual choice, effort and discipline. As a consequence, failing to reach one’s health potential is seen as the result of a lack of effort and self-discipline and the wrong lifestyle choices. Within these structures, fatness is viewed as a choice, not a condition, and thus as the result of a failure to consume and discipline oneself and one’s body appropriately within neoliberal culture.

Fat shaming: The fat body as failed, unhealthy, immoral and irresponsible

I contend that the synthesis of all three constructions of fatness as outlined above enables the current culture of fat shaming. The medicalisation of fatness and the neoliberalised view of health combine to create the current construction of fat as a failure. Fat is unequivocally indicative of ill-health, a matter which is first and foremost seen as an individual problem, as a result of the (wrong) individual lifestyle choices. Health concerns are a tool that is often used to legitimise fat shaming, rather than a genuine concern about bigger bodies and health. By failing to engage in the new commodified health regime, the fat body is deemed immoral for neglecting its obligation to avoid becoming a drain on state healthcare resources. Lastly, because in a neoliberal context we are responsible for our own states of citizenship (particularly our own states of health), the fat body is thus responsible for its own fate, even deserving of its shame.

One of the most damaging consequences of this discourse is that it denies any analysis of the structural proponents of fatness. As numerous studies have illustrated, obesity rates in both Europe and the USA are highest amongst the most socio-economically deprived groups in society (Drewnowski, Moudon, Jiao, Aggarwal, Charriere and Chaix, 2014; Knai, Lobstein, Darmon, Rutter and McKee, 2012; Schienkiewitz, Brettschneider, Damerow and Schaffrath Rosario, 2018). Despite these clear findings, there is a failure to view fatness as a resource- and class-based inequality, leading instead to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes of these groups. Saguy and Gruys (2010) exemplified this effect through a media analysis of obesity discourse, in which they found that articles reporting on obesity most often featured poor minority groups, and would frequently frame obesity amongst these individuals as a result of bad life choices. It was also found that many news articles would explicitly blame ethnic communities for contributing to higher national rates of obesity (2010: 244). Reporting obesity in this way serves to reproduce classist and racist stereotypes of minorities and underprivileged groups, which frame these individuals as lazy, irresponsible and out of control, distorting the real issues of inequality in the debate.

Fat shaming thus becomes a regulatory discourse of social control. Drawing upon Foucault’s (1984) notion of ‘biopower’ – the governance of individuals through body-related practices and ‘regimes of truth’ – fat-shaming rhetoric helps to shape fatness as a social problem and thus reproduces social inequality in the process (Wright, 2009). These effects regulate and normalise commodified practices of weight and health management, urging people to work on themselves rather than look to the surrounding social structures as being the problem. In turn, this has created a culture of exclusion in which bodily difference has become central to notions of citizenship, as well as the denial of human rights (Guthman and DuPuis, 2006: 436). As a result, fat bodies are shamed for being failing citizens, or even undeserving of citizenship.


Fat activism and empowerment

In opposition to the punishing anti-obesity discourse stands a movement that aims to promote fat acceptance and empowerment for all bodies. As an official political endeavour, fat activism aims to reject the social and cultural devaluation of fat bodies, promoting respect and empowerment for individuals with fat bodies (Donaghue and Clemitshaw, 2012).

Fat activism can be dated back to the establishment of the small civil rights group, the National Association to Advance Fat Activism (NAAFA) in the USA in 1969 (NAAFA Inc., 2016). Following this, subsequent radical fat liberation groups emerged in the USA and Europe, heavily influenced by the growing radical therapy movement; a movement that criticised mainstream psychotherapy, viewing it as a tool of social control that maintains oppressive social conditions by persuading individuals that they themselves are the problem in need of a ‘cure’ (Hill, 2009). These movements were originally considered fringe groups, who engaged in small-time grassroots activism in their pursuit of fat acceptance (Kwan, 2009). Within the last two decades, however, fat empowerment discourse has infiltrated into mainstream media discourse, gaining public attention through the rise of the “Fat-o-sphere” (Harding and Kirby, 2009); an online domain consisting of blogs and discussions in which fat activists “confront the personal and political elements of the pathologisation and demonisation of fat bodies by sharing their thoughts, feelings, experiences, and personal practices as they pursue fat acceptance” (Donaghue and Clemitshaw, 2012: 417).

Fat liberation discourse confronts the oppressive anti-obesity discourse through critiques of the dominant narrative from a range of perspectives (Wright and Harwood, 2012), and aims to construct fat bodies as agentic in their own empowerment (Dickins, Thomas, King, Lewis and Holland, 2011). Recently, however, the creation of Instagram has aided the development of a wider movement of body positivity, which has somewhat replaced fat activism with a more generalised discourse of self-love (Tovar, 2018). Along with the hashtags #bodypositive and #effyourbeautystandards (the latter of which was started by Tess Holliday in 2003), participators use social media platforms to promote bodily empowerment. These empowerment discourses are shaped by a neoliberal sensibility that emphasises individual agency as the prominent means of enhancing women’s bodily empowerment. The concept of empowerment, and whether or not this has a positive outcome for women’s bodies in a neoliberal context, has become an important focus of feminist analyses on sexual agency in the climate of Postfeminism[6] in recent decades (Gill and Donaghue, 2013; Gill, 2012). I contend that these arguments are also relevant to the concepts of empowerment pushed by current body-positivity discourse. I argue that body positivity is a neoliberal co-optation of fat activism. In the following section, I include my own theorisations of how fat activism has been co-opted by neoliberal notions of body-positive empowerment in three ways.

  • From political to personal empowerment

Firstly, the notions of empowerment that are promoted by body-positive discourse are predominantly focused on the individual level. Media and marketing messages that instruct consumers to love themselves and their bodies encourage individualised acts of empowerment (Johnston and Taylor, 2008); for example, posting a photograph on social media with the #bodypositive hashtag can be seen as a highly individual act of self-empowerment.

These individualised acts illustrate how conceptions of empowerment have changed within neoliberal culture: Bay-Cheng (2011) notes that contemporary ideas of empowerment have shifted to a subjective and individualised type of personal empowerment at the expense of more social and systemic forms. Many suggest that this turn to personal empowerment has depoliticised the concept, removing its power to abolish social injustice (Peterson and Lamb, 2012). In this way, neoliberal empowerment exists as a matter of superficial acts performed by the individual rather than an acknowledgement of and challenge to oppressive social structures as a whole (Bay-Cheng, 2011; Pease, 2002; Peterson and Lamb, 2012). Miriam (2012) highlights this point in a discussion of the SlutWalk – the media-famous transnational protest against rape culture – arguing that, whilst the message might be positive, this attempt at protest exemplifies a type of movement that “has effectively supplanted a collective world-changing project with individualised empowerment” (262).

In a similar way, I argue that neoliberalism co-opts these elements of fat empowerment discourses and replaces them with an individualised and depoliticised movement of body positivity, through which the notion of empowerment becomes distorted. Rather than critically challenging why fatness is constructed negatively in the way that fat activism does, body positivity encourages fat bodies to simply rise above fat shame through individualistic and often superficial acts of embodied ‘empowerment’, such that empowerment becomes simply loving one’s own body. This individualised notion of empowerment denotes a personal conception of power, obscuring the real power relations in society, and thus making empowerment a matter of individual choice and responsibility (Pease, 2002); an effect that is comparative to the notion of health being a matter of choice and responsibility. Through this neoliberal body-positivity discourse, fat bodies are thus instructed to take agency to empower themselves, to choose empowerment over shame, which wilfully ignores the impact of the damaging power structures at play within fat-shaming discourse.

  • From personal empowerment to self-improvement

Moreover, the individualisation and depoliticisation of empowerment as seen in body-positive discourse can easily transform the concept into an endeavour of self-improvement. Bay-Cheng (2011: 714) argues: “When stripped of critical consciousness and social action to correct system injustices, empowerment is quickly distorted into a self-improvement discourse that instructs individuals: to identify themselves, rather than surrounding social conditions, as the problem to be fixed; and to compete against others rather than join with them.” In this way, body positivity encourages fat bodies to recognise themselves (their ‘mindset’ or ‘lack of confidence’), rather than the encompassing social and political devaluation of fatness informed by neoliberalism, as the issue in need of changing.

This discourse of individual change can quickly be distorted even further by capitalism: as Phipps notes, “the drive to consume in order to both express and ‘add value’ to oneself is a key aspect of contemporary consumer culture” (2014: 10). In relation to fat bodies, this might involve changing eating habits or losing weight as a path to empowerment (Dickins, Thomas, King, Lewis and Holland, 2011). Advertisements for weight-loss products frequently use body-positivity discourse in this way to encourage sales: Kellogg’s, for example, famously markets Special K cereal to women as promoting weight loss through the use of empowerment language, instructing consumers to love their bodies whilst simultaneously encouraging weight loss (see Advertising Archives, 2019). Similarly, Tschinkel (2018) notes how the #bodypositive hashtag has frequently been used by corporations alongside thin, white women with the hashtag #fitspo to promote their brand of body-altering exercise and fitness. Empowerment thus becomes a burden for individuals to endure, rather than achieve (Bay-Cheng, 2011: 714). Moreover, a type of empowerment that focuses on self-improvement leads directly to a path of consumerism.

  • Commodified empowerment

As Gill writes, “another reason ‘empowerment’ is so problematic, it seems to me, is because the notion has become commodified – used to sell everything from washing powder to cosmetic surgery” (2012: 743). Within neoliberalism, the body is a symbol of value and identity which is enacted via the purchasing of products; political and social issues surrounding the body are thus converted into market terms with consumption-based solutions (Phipps, 2014). In light of these rationalities, I argue that the neoliberalised concept of empowerment championed by body-positivity discourse problematically links empowerment to consumerism, creating an environment in which notions of empowerment can simply be bought via the correct consumer choices.

Utilising body-positive messages and attempts to include more diverse and realistic body types in marketing illustrate the current pursuits of beauty and fashion companies. One of the best-known is Dove’s 2003 ‘Real Beauty’ campaign, which included “women who were wrinkled, freckled, pregnant, had stretch marks, or might be seen as fat” (Johnston and Taylor, 2008: 942) in their advertisements in an apparent attempt to critique mainstream beauty standards. Body-positive rhetoric is frequently used as a marketing tool today, with adverts suggesting that, by simply buying the product on sale, consumers can empower their bodies. Ironically, this branding is often used to sell body-altering or body-modifying products and merchandise, reinforcing the link between neoliberal notions of empowerment and self-improvement. For example, Spanx ‘control’ undergarments are specifically marketed towards fat bodies and utilise bodily empowerment rhetoric as an advertising tool: Spanx states its mission as being “to help women feel great about themselves and their potential” (Spanx, 2019), whilst the company simultaneously capitalises on women’s insecurities by selling a product that contorts fat bodies into more normatively beautiful and acceptable shapes. In addition, Avon recently came under scrutiny for attempting to market anti-cellulite cream to women (another product which fundamentally contradicts fat acceptance) using an obvious body-positive empowerment discourse, with the conflicting straplines “every body is beautiful” and “dimples are cute on your face (not on your thighs)” (Greenspan, 2019). It is evident that the concept of empowerment pushed by body-positive rhetoric can easily become confused under neoliberal capitalism, whereby empowerment becomes an outcome achieved by the purchasing of body-modifying products.

These examples of corporations using emancipatory ideals to market their products not only confuse notions of bodily empowerment, they also lead to limited transformative outcomes for the social movement in question. In a comparative analysis of grassroots fat activism and the bodily empowerment pushed by Dove’s campaign, Johnston and Taylor argue that the latter is a corporate appropriation of the fat-acceptance movement’s ideals that only partially disrupts the narrowness of contemporary beauty codes, and still “systematically reproduces and legitimizes the hegemony of beauty ideology in women’s personal lives in the service of expanding sales and corporate growth” (2008: 961). Indeed, the misuse of empowerment discourse by corporations illustrates perhaps the biggest issue with the replacement of fat activism by the neoliberalised, easily-commodified body-positivity movement: little advancement for the most marginalised bodies. The appropriation of fat empowerment discourse has caused the movement to become ‘watered down’: as activist Stephanie Yeboah notes, “[today] to be body positive, you have to be acceptably fat – size 16 or less – or white, or very pretty”, which alienates the very people the fat empowerment movement set out to represent (see Kessel, 2018). Whilst all bodies might experience body shaming, it is integral that the bodies facing the most structural discrimination are kept central in the debate; an objective that the body-positive movement often fails to achieve.

Body positivity: personally empower your own bodies (by buying this product)

In summary, we can see the exposed limits of the type of body-positive empowerment co-opted by neoliberal structures in three ways. The individualised tenets of neoliberal citizenship reshape ideas of empowerment to centre on the individual, depoliticising the concept and severely limiting the outcomes that this type of empowerment can achieve. This personalised empowerment can quickly become distorted into a discourse of self-improvement, which, when combined with the neoliberal capitalist shift to viewing bodies and citizenship as operating in market terms as expressions of each other, is further co-opted into a commodified form of empowerment, where one can simply purchase empowerment through consumption. Businesses have taken to utilising the progressive messages of bodily empowerment as a tool to market products to women: as Taylor, Johnston, and Whitehead (2016) assert, “corporation[s] in feminist clothing”.

The consequence of this co-optation of empowerment, which renders it a personal choice, crucially obscures the role that privilege plays in the making of this choice. This point is well illustrated through the criticism of the SlutWalk protest for its complete lack of intersectionality; a ‘racial blindness’ which failed to consider “the differential resonance of the term ‘slut’ for Black women” (Bilge, 2013: 406). Black Women’s Blueprint (2011) asserted that, “as Black women, we do not have the privilege or the space to call ourselves ‘slut’ without validating the already historically entrenched ideology and recurring messages about what and who the Black woman is”, highlighting that engaging in this type of empowerment is only accessible to women with a certain (white) privilege. Similarly, body-positivity ‘activism’ which relies heavily on individualised performances of commodified empowerment obscures the fact that various intersections of oppression make bodily empowerment more difficult for some bodies than for others (see Hill, 2009). In the same way that neoliberalised ‘health’ is reserved for those with privilege, these neoliberal ideas promote a very problematic message of empowerment that only certain privileged (white, able-bodied, middle-class, cisgender, heterosexual) bodies can achieve. Unfortunately, this effect can be frequently observed within the current body-positive movement via the centring of bodies that face the least structural discrimination, rather than those that are most marginalised.

Ultimately, it is important to consider whether these neoliberalised notions of empowerment pushed by the body-positive movement are enough to counter the punishing, oppressive fat-shaming discourse and fat stigma that we see in society today. Considering again the fat shaming of Tess Holliday as an example, it appears that the answer remains no.


Neoliberalism has had a profound effect on the way in which fat bodies are conceptualised. Neoliberal-influenced fat-shaming discourse constructs the fat body as irresponsible, unhealthy, immoral and, above all, a failure. The increased medicalisation of fatness constructs an obesity ‘epidemic’, creating a culture of moral panic around fatness. Due to neoliberal conceptions of health as a moral responsibility to be maintained by the individual, fat bodies are viewed as irresponsible and undeserving of state or medical consideration. These negative constructions serve as a regulatory discourse which exerts social control over individuals – often those who are most economically deprived and vulnerable in society. In addition, the political rationalities of neoliberalism also play an integral role in the shaping of fat-empowerment discourse through a distortion of the notion of empowerment. The body-positivity movement, which has eclipsed grassroots fat activism, is dominated by neoliberal principles, promoting an individualised and depoliticised version of empowerment that is extremely limited, occurring on a small personal level rather than a large political scale, and often encourages self-improvement through the purchasing of commodities as a means of empowerment. All of these effects lead to limited transformative outcomes for the fat bodies that face the most structural discrimination.

It is hoped that this analysis of the workings of neoliberal tenets in fat-shaming and fat-empowerment discourses has shed light on the large-scale influence of neoliberalism on the politicising and conceptualising of bodies in contemporary society. Future work in the area of politicised fat bodies in neoliberal discourse may do well to focus more closely on the social constructionism of obesity as a public health problem, and should challenge the ‘facts’ of the so-called epidemic. These efforts have already been initiated by academics in the field as well as other grassroots activists, yet so far these have failed to permeate public or media discourses of fatness. The work of the Chubsters – a fat, queer activist girl group – illustrates an example of fat activism that is trying to reconceptualise fatness outside of the neoliberal discourse; Charlotte Cooper, the founder of the group, articulates it as focused on “expand[ing] ideas about what fat identity and culture could be, and develop[ing] the ways in which people might approach fat in a critical way” (see Cooper, 2019: n.p.). Similar activism should be encouraged in order to create a critical reconceptualization of fatness that encourages a nuanced view of fat identity, rather than the individualised self-love philosophy that is often encouraged by body positivity. It is hoped that this will inspire more political forms of empowerment that aim to attack the oppressive neoliberal discourse, rather than encouraging empowerment through consumption.



[1] Use of the term plus-size here reflects the terminology used to describe Holliday by Cosmopolitan (see Capon, 2018) and the reporting of Holliday’s cover by mainstream media as referenced in this article (see BBC Newsbeat, 2018, and Scott, 2018 for Global News). However, there is debate surrounding the use of this term to describe bodies; many models, including Ashley Graham, reject the label, arguing that, whilst it is often framed as a neutral descriptor, the word “plus” carries negative connotations as it implies being bigger than a ‘regular’ or ‘normal’ size, which is dictated by unrealistic standards of thinness (see Burke, 2017). This article thus uses scare quotes around the phrase to highlight the controversy of this label.

[2] Cosmopolitan and Holliday were heavily criticised on Twitter for the shoot, perhaps most famously by controversial journalist Piers Morgan, who called the cover “dangerous” (see Scott, 2018). Morgan later wrote an open letter to Holliday accusing the model of “glamorising morbid obesity” (see Young, 2018).

[3] The cover also received extensive online praise from supporters on Twitter (see Scott, 2018), as well as support from other models in the industry, including Felicity Hayward, who described the image as “something that plus-sized women have needed for the longest time” (see BBC Newsbeat, 2018).

[4] Whilst the term fat is often viewed as an offensive or derogatory expression in popular discourse, in the current article I use the word fat as a descriptor to respect and support the view shared by many activists that the term should be reclaimed as a neutral description, in the same way that tall or short might be used to describe a person (see Kirkland, 2008). Many activists also feel that the terms obese and overweight, which are used overwhelmingly in mainstream media, seek to medicalise these bodies and enhance their undesirability (see Guthman, 2009b). The term obesity will still be used in this article, however, simply to match the nature of these discourses.

[5] This article uses the terms fat acceptance, fat activism, fat liberation and fat empowerment interchangeably to describe the movements towards creating positive constructions of fat bodies.

[6] The term Postfeminism has been used to mean contrasting phenomena: a shift within feminism, a break with (second-wave) feminism, a backlash against feminism and a cultural sensibility (see Gill, 2007). Adopting Gill and Donaghue’s (2013) approach, I refer to Postfeminism in this context as a neoliberal cultural sensibility that denies gender-based inequalities by assuming that many or all of the goals of feminism have already been achieved, and thus embraces the neoliberal principle that an individual’s circumstances are a consequence of choices made by that person, for which they alone are responsible.


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I am a Psychology (BSc) and Gender Studies (MA) graduate from the University of Sussex, currently living in London. I am particularly interested in the influences of patriarchal, neoliberal capitalism on the way in which bodies are construed, and how this has implications for feminism and intersectionality. Having personally struggled with body image for as long as I can remember, and observing too many amazing women around me face the same struggles, I am especially passionate about dismantling fat-shaming narratives and promoting diversity and the representation of marginalised bodies on mainstream platforms.