'Unshrinking,' an unflinching takedown of fat phobia
Kate Manne’s latest book is a persuasive blend of personal memoir and well-researched analysis that helps us reimagine how we think about weight.
“This is how misogyny works: take a hierarchy, any hierarchy, and use it to derogate a girl or woman. We value intelligence: so call her stupid, inane, clueless. We value rationality: so call her crazy and hysterical. We value maturity: so call her childish and irresponsible. We value morality: so call her a bad person. We value thinness: so call her fat and, implicitly or explicitly, ugly. We value sexual attractiveness: so make her out to be the kind of person whom no one could ever want.” —Kate Manne, “Unshrinking”
Hi friends. I don’t often do book reviews. In fact, my only other book review is on’s “Fat Talk: Parenting in the Age of Diet Culture,” which I wrote early in my Substack days when I had just a handful of readers. “Fat Talk,” by the way, should be required reading for every parent on the planet as it gets to the heart of the challenges we face in raising healthy, happy children in the age of diet culture. Today I’m here to talk about ’s “Unshrinking,” a feminist takedown of fat phobia that builds on the work of many others, including Sole-Smith, , Aubrey Gordon and Da’Shaun L. Harrison.
"Unshrinking: How to Face Fatphobia" is equal parts memoir and well-researched analysis that explores all the ways fat phobia infiltrates and influences society. The book examines our collective fixation on body size and how it exerts control over us, especially us women and girls. Manne is clear to point out, however, that for every man who has carried out bullying or discrimination against a woman for her appearance, there is a woman doing the same. By keeping us in check and focused on weight, we remain small, less likely to take up our own proverbial space.
Manne likens fat phobia to a straitjacket, a discomfort that affects everyone, but particularly those whose bodies don't conform to societal expectations. Her exploration reveals how fat phobia pervades so many aspects of our lives, starting with our upbringing and education. It subjects us to peer bullying and influences how academically capable we are perceived by our teachers. It follows us to the workplace, affecting our earning potential and job choices. It keeps us from receiving proper care from healthcare professionals and even infringes upon our reproductive freedom.
At the core of the book are Manne's personal experiences grappling with fat phobia, a journey that begins in fifth grade when a boy calls her fat despite being of average size. A comment in high school about her figure leaving something to be desired and later being voted “most likely to have to pay for sex” fuels a full-blown preoccupation with weight that follows her into adulthood. She spends years keeping it in check with ADHD meds and other restrictive methods, even as she makes a name for herself professionally as a feminist writer and associate professor of philosophy at Cornell University.
It’s not until after promoting her first book and taking extreme measures to avoid being photographed, including turning down a book tour, out of fear of being shamed for her body, that she decides to embrace it as nature intended.
“You might expect that as a lifelong feminist, not to mention the author of now two books on misogyny, I would be one of the last people suckered into policing my own body and trying to force it into a size and shape more acceptable to the patriarchy. You’d be wrong about that sadly,” she writes.
Paired with her personal stories of being fat shamed and attempting to control her body, that so many of us are intimately familiar with, Manne does an incredible job of outlining research and statistics that paint a stark picture of the state of our fat bias.
While we make strides in fighting racism, sexism, ageism and ableism, anti-fat discrimination remains unchecked. Of six forms of implicit bias investigated by Harvard researchers in 2019—race, skin tone, sexual orientation, age, disability, and body weight—anti-fat bias is the only one that’s gotten worse, she points out. And this is despite nearly three-quarters of all Americans being classified as either “overweight” or “obese.”
For those of you thinking, why shouldn’t we care when fat people are clogging our healthcare system? Kate presents research on this topic, too. In fact, an entire chapter is devoted to untangling the relationship between fat and health. Piggybacking on established research, she makes a compelling argument that being fat isn’t nearly as deadly as we’ve been led to believe and that our pursuit of weight loss ultimately leads us to poorer health…all the while making us fatter.
Where the book doesn’t go far enough is in its conclusion. With so many of us living with ingrained fat phobia—even among those of us who are fat—we need more guidance on how to dismantle this bias both within ourselves and society at large. Even if we take back our bodies and claim them just for ourselves, we don’t just stop being fat phobic after a lifetime of indoctrination.
As Manne readily admits, body neutrality, even body positivity, isn’t working. She asserts that the solution is not to collectively love our bodies more—it’s to remake the world to accommodate people of all sizes. I agree, but we also don’t get there overnight. I would argue that we have to start by acknowledging and dismantling our own internalized fat phobia, recognizing that bodies naturally vary in shapes and sizes, including our own, first. When we start pushing back against the narratives and challenging our own beliefs, then we can start remaking the world.
"Unshrinking" stands as a substantial body of work, offering a compelling call to action for readers to confront and challenge societal norms, embrace body diversity and dismantle the pervasive influence of fat phobia. If reading this book prompts even a moment of pause about what you believe about fatness, then it’s done its job.
Who’s planning to read the book or has already started? I’d love to get your take. How can we dismantle fat phobia? I’d love to hear your thoughts on that as well.