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What Kim Kardashian squealing about being skinny on Instagram can tell us about neoliberalism and patriarchy

Weight stigma is a social justice issue, and the Kardashians are one of the most successful brands in the world

Eleanor Higgins
Wednesday 01 August 2018 15:37 BST
Kim Kardashian's family gushes over her weight loss on her instagram story

With all the campaigns seeking to raise awareness of anorexia as a deadly mental illness where 20 per cent of sufferers die prematurely and only 46 per cent currently make a full recovery, you would be forgiven for thinking that the days of glorifying the condition would be over. So imagine my surprise when I read today about Kim Kardashian expressing joy at being called “too thin” and “anorexic” by her sisters. In a series of Instagram videos, the star was seen replying: “Oh my God, thank-you!” with a smile on her face when her sister Kendall Jenner says, “I’m really concerned, I don’t think you’re eating”, before asking her siblings to “tell [her] more” about how she looks underweight.

To be clear, young viewers aren’t stupid. They’re not sponges or dupes when it comes to media consumption – but when they are bombarded constantly by messages that the body is a project to be laboured over throughout every age, it can’t help but colonise one’s mind. We must never take our eyes off of the reflection in the mirror, we’re told, or forget about the panoptical gaze of the always potentially present and judgmental Other.

Our bodies, we are reminded daily, are not a place to live from, to find comfort in, to trust or be allies with. They are not vehicles for experiencing the joys and pains of life, but deemed to be like putty in our hands, ready to be molded and altered at will. Children are playing plastic surgery games on apps, indoctrinating them from childhood to see flesh and features as things to be butchered for the holy grail of whatever is considered to be the ideal of beauty at any given time.

And this isn’t limited to celebrity and media influence. The medical establishment plays its own part, too. Fat people are routinely congratulated for behaviours that would be diagnosed as anorexia in a thin person. Anorexia sufferers are being required to reach ever lower weights in order to qualify for treatment when people with eating disorders can die at any weight.

War is waged on fat bodies and fatphobia, and I have seen firsthand eating disorder treatment centres reassuring sufferers that they won’t make them fat, reinforcing the idea that fat bodies are problematic and to be avoided or eliminated.

Fat people are scapegoated, blamed, and shamed for anything from being a strain on the NHS to being irresponsible, lazy and ignorant. We can see this in television shows that seek to educate fat, usually working class, people as to how to eat as if people who don’t exist in thin bodies are somehow immune to the constant bombardment of diet culture. Thin people are considered morally superior and receive better medical care than fat people who will go to the doctors for an ear infection and be given a lecture on their weight before being sent away with a prescription for weight loss classes.

The fact that diets don’t work, and that racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, and other oppressions cause stress on the body that can lead to physical illness, goes unremarked. Weight stigma is a social justice issue.

Let’s not forget, most of all, that the Kardashians and other celebrities endorsing these same toxic messages are a brand. Their posts may be sponsored by companies who make a profit from exploiting our vulnerability to body hatred – such as the diet lollipop Kim Kardashian has been advertising on her Instagram, the same place where the videos of her being lauded for her “skinniness” appeared. These messages are a part of the neoliberal doctrine that isolates us as individual consumers and makes us responsible for our responses to oppression and injustice. It is big business and a capitalist patriarchal agenda that still wants to see women (and increasingly other genders) shrink, quieten ourselves, and shy away from making a scene.

What can we do in the face of such onslaughts? We can join together, become part of a collective body, rage, and create a community of resistance at both the personal level and political level.

Personally, we can dare to begin to accept ourselves by surrounding ourselves with body positive/body neutral messages and finding out about things like the Health at Every Size movement, following our work at AnyBody on Twitter and Facebook. Politically, we can engage in activism in areas that we are passionate about even if this isn’t related to body positivity because focusing on creating a better world, beyond surface appearances, is fulfilling and meaningful. As the poet Andrea Gibson writes, “We have to create; it’s the only thing louder than destruction.”

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