Tuesday 16 July 2019

Happy Fat: Flying the flag for the 'fat cause' as comedian explores the new F-word

Non-fiction: Happy Fat

Sofie Hagen,

4th Estate, €18.20

Sofie Hagen is a Danish comedian
Sofie Hagen is a Danish comedian
Happy Fat by Sofie Hagen

Sophie White

There's been a glut of fat books landing on my doormat of late. Cynics could accuse publishers of taking up fat books to cash in on the fat buck, and it does feel slightly iffy that an industry, that for decades coined it on diet books, is now taking up the fat cause but I suppose better late than never.

Fat acceptance, as a movement, has been around for decades and as a subject is certainly nothing new for those of us who've been wandering around the internet for a few years.

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Irish broadcaster and writer Louise McSharry covered it extensively in her excellent memoir Fat Chance which was arguably a forerunner to the current trend for dismantling fat phobia and peddling body positivity to the book-buying masses. We could be forgiven for wondering if there's much more to learn on the matter.

Enter Danish comedian Sofie Hagen and her first book, Happy Fat.

Hagen has been outspoken on every conceivable platform, from Twitter to the stage, about the fat phobia that is ingrained in our society and it would be reasonable to expect that her book might be another iteration of stories and ideas she has previously explored in podcasts (she hosts Made Of Human and was one of the original contributors to the wildly successful Guilty Feminist podcast) or in her stand up. Much of what is written in the mainstream on the subject of fat acceptance and self-love comes from the author's first-person experiences, however, to Hagen's credit, she has opted for a more researched and broad take in Happy Fat.

She intersperses anecdotes of her experience living in a fat body with interviews with academics, bloggers, trans people and writers to allow for inclusiveness - a facet of fat acceptance that is all too often neglected in mainstream treatment of the topic. The body positive movement which was started primarily to elevate the voices of fat black women has become largely repped by white women who are often "acceptably fat" (larger but still catered for by high street sizing) rather than living in bodies that are truly stigmatised by society.

As Stephanie Yeboah, a black plus-size blogger who works in PR, notes in her interview in the book: "Body positivity has been co-opted and commercialised by white women, physically attractive women who sort of fluctuate between sizes 10-14. They fit society's standards of beauty. What bo-po has done, is that it has forgotten the very root and demographic that gave it prominence in favour of 'society's ideal' and so it refuses to lift up thoughts and opinions of black women."

Yeboah goes on to describe the racism and fat phobia she has experienced in her own community, describing how she bleached her skin as a teenager, "I'm dark-skinned black... even within my own community we have colourism where dark skin is seen as disgusting... the lighter you are, the better you are."

Hagen's interviewees bring enormous depth to the book. They allow the discussion to broaden and examine the treatment of bodies that are marginalised in more respects than fatness.

The interview sections are cleverly laid out in Q&A style which makes them highly readable even when the subject matter is knotty. Hagen's interview with Kivan Bay, a trans artist and activist who is also, as he says, "Fat as hell!", is equal parts incredibly enlightening and incredibly affecting.

He speaks about a collision of marginalising factors. His fatness, his poorness, his gayness. He compares how he is treated as a man compared with how he was treated when people thought he was a woman. "I don't get as much yelling out of cars," Kivan says. "When people perceive me as a woman, my fat is masculinising... or your fat makes you not even have a gender. But now that I'm out as a man, I find that people consider my fat incredibly feminising and they consider it a sign of my lack of masculinity."

In Happy Fat, Hagen has set out a compelling exploration of fat politics, identity politics and personal shame and revolution.

There is much humour and pathos in these pages to wash down the more uncomfortable and depressing truths: that 40pc of trans people attempt suicide, that fat people's eating disorders go undiagnosed, or that quite simply living in a fat body is being subjected to daily petty cruelties in our supposedly progressive society. It's a fascinating and essential read.

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