According to one US author, London is an incredibly hostile place to exist as a fat woman – far more so than other major Western cities.
In an interview with The Guardian, Sarai Walker – whose debut novel, Dietland, tells the story of a 21-stone woman who joins a feminist terrorist organisation – said: “London was the most fat-shaming place I’ve been in my entire life. It was on a scale like nothing I’ve ever experienced.”
Walker now lives in New Mexico, and said that while enmity towards fat people does exist in the US, it is displayed far more subtly than in the UK. In the US, she would be excluded from things; in London, where she lived on and off for seven years, strangers would insult her to her face. “I’ve lived in New York, Paris, Boston and the western US – and that just doesn’t happen,” she said.
Walker, who describes herself as fat, said she believes that people in the UK are more hostile towards overweight women because of the way that “porny images” are used in British society.
“Women’s bodies were on display in London like I’ve never seen,” she said. “In the phone booths with those pictures of naked women, and on Page 3, and in those tabloid newspapers with half-naked women on the cover. It was like the whole city was a red-light district.”
In the US, in contrast, she said that “we have fashion magazines with scantily clad women but you don’t see those kind of porny images in public as much. I felt part of the reason I got harassed in London was because there were messages everywhere that women’s bodies are public property.”
She acknowledged that in many cases, aggression towards fat people also stems from a conviction that being overweight is unhealthy. While promoting Dietland in Australia, Walker was invited to appear on a live radio show with the British novelist Will Self. He interrupted the discussion of Walker’s book to lecture her about how unhealthy and ugly it is to be fat.
In London in December 2015, a police investigation was launched after a group of men calling themselves Overweight Haters Ltd allegedly handed out fat-shaming cards to women on the tube. The cards were initially reported by 30-year-old Kara Florish, who tweeted a photo of a card she was handed reading: “We do not understand why you fail to grasp that by eating less you will be better off, slimmer, happy and find a partner who is not a perverted chubby-lover, or even find a partner at all… You are a fat, ugly human.”
Susie Orbach, the author of radical 1978 book Fat is a Feminist Issue, has said that society struggles to accept fat people because of the assumption that overweight people have lost their self-control. That, she told the BBC, is frightening. “Most people want to be slim, but this perceived physical perfection is difficult to hold on to and they fear losing control of it… They project that fear and unhappiness on to people who are bigger and that often translates into abuse and attacks.”
However, Walker told The Guardian that many contemporary fat activists reject the argument, made by Orbach in Fat is a Feminist Issue, that being fat is also the consequence of psychological damage. “One of the things I push back against in Dietland is the idea that fat is an outer representation of some kind of inner trauma,” she said. Rather than being a negative, she said, fat can be “neutral or positive thing”.