When you’ve grown up fat, the perception about the world you’ve developed over years of conversations and experiences looks very different from that of a thin person. Traditional media, often constrained by gatekeepers valuing normative body standards, perpetuates an idea that the body, especially the feminized body, is of greater value when it is thin (nowadays excluding a larger bust and hips).
Fat women have little representation as the leads in action thrillers, dramatic mysteries, and despite some ripples in the industry, even in quirky or romantic comedies. Participatory media, however, breaks these norms… to an extent.
Platforms like Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok have allowed creators in bigger bodies to showcase and even monetize their creativity and self-confidence, defying diet culture standards and encouraging everyone impacted by this restrictive mindset (which IS everyone) to admit that yes, fat people, and especially fat women, ARE sexy and multifaceted.
Cosplay, the term born from “costume” and “play” normally involves an individual dressing like a character from a comic, show, or movie. Many cosplayers create their costumes from scratch, sewing items themselves or crafting pieces from foam or electronics. The community surrounding this art form is a subculture, and this allows standard norms and rules to be critiqued and even completely thrown out when necessary. Similarly, fantasy dress allows for similar creativity while also relaxing the goal of looking like a recognizable character.
Cosplay and fantasy communities are generally accepting of all body shapes and sizes. The benefits of participatory culture can more easily connect creative hopefuls to others who look more like themselves, which presents a wonderful opportunity for both representation and community growth. These same affordances can also put creators in unkind spaces, however. With algorithms prioritizing engagement today, fat-shamer and quote-unquote health activists’ comments can create cycles where these videos are taken out of their target communities and thrown before audiences who view themselves in opposition to the harmless, deserving-of-space bodies they find before them.
‘Algorithmic media’ (Carah, 2014), tailors content to characteristics such as a user’s likes, interests, or previous searches. So, many of our real-life biases are repeated online. Photo manipulation and filters have become commonplace features on all of the current platforms in ways that can be eerily subtle. (Hawker and Carah, 2020). Avoiding the “wrong side” of Instagram or TikTok does matter, as social comparison studies have found that comments do guide viewers’ perceptions of what is considered as an “ideal” body (Kim, 2021).
Luckily, many creators are aware of this possibility and have worked to uplift one another’s content, pulling their peers out of the clutches of an unwelcome audience and back into their joyful, limitless circles on the Internet. Because one cannot authenticate the self without a community against which to do so, placing ourselves in tension with each other appears to be crucial to self-actualization (Shuhart, 2014), which is why it is impossible to imagine the internet without trolls, the fantasy characters we would most love to leave behind.
Our cultures often rely on narrow constructions of femininity informed by White hetero-patriarchy (Edwards, 2018), and even the bodies most highlighted in mid-size, plus-size, thick, or fat cosplay and fantasy communities continue to uphold white hetero-patriarchy.
But this can change. Given that every individual has a perspective, each has the ability to reflect on their position and privilege and become critically conscious. Because certain groups are privileged at a societal level, blame is more likely to happen when their positions of power have not yet been recognized,” (DelGreco, 2021) Even online, thin bodies continue to be privileged over fat ones.
So, what do big bodies in fantasy clothes represent? Is it fantasy? Escapism? Community? Many creators seem to have to set themselves up as a counter to diet culture, and if they don’t do this themselves, their audience will do it for them, just as I have done with this essay. Because most media present fat bodies as a negative result of moral failure, anyone seen celebrating a body considered to be fat is automatically labeled a body-positive activist. And although the body positivity movement has the potential to challenge these standards, there is still an overarching ideal of a favorable body shape and size.
Contemporary articulations of fat bodies on social media platforms illuminate the creators’ navigation of broader cultural complexities around assumptions of health and wellbeing, especially as they are relevant to identity constitution and belonging. “One can only wonder if we will ever learn how to fantasize fatness without essentializing it.” (Hawk, 2022)
Increased representation is an effective solution to these assumptions, and this diversity must include categories of race, ability, socioeconomic status, and religion as well if it is to be effective.
Erica B Edwards, Jennifer Esposito, Reading the Black Woman’s Body Via Instagram Fame,
Communication, Culture and Critique, Volume 11, Issue 3, September 2018, Pages 341 358, https://doi.org/10.1093/ccc/tcy011
Hawk, M. (2022, April 27). In Media Res. Fantasizing Fatness | In Media Res. Retrieved September 1, 2022, from http://mediacommons.org/imr/content/fantasizing-fatness
Kim, H. M. (2021). What do others’ reactions to body posting on Instagram tell us? The effects
of social media comments on viewers’ body image perception. New Media & Society, 23(12), 3448–3465. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444820956368
Maria DelGreco, Amanda Denes, Shardé Davis, Katrina T Webber, Revisiting Attribution
Theory: Toward a Critical Feminist Approach for Understanding Attributions of Blame,
Communication Theory, Volume 31, Issue 2, May 2021, Pages 250–276,
Ni Shuilleabhain, N., Rich, E., & Fullagar, S. (2021). Rethinking digital media literacy to
address body dissatisfaction in schools: Lessons from feminist new materialisms. New Media & Society, 146144482110417. https://doi.org/10.1177/14614448211041715
Shugart, H. A. (2014). Flesh made word: The obese body as cultural matter. Communication,
Culture & Critique, 7(1), 55-75.
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