Moving Through the World (Happy?) Fat

Last year in July, I almost fainted when I saw Danish UK-based comedian Sofie Hagen perform in Berlin. Now my near collapsing wasn’t so much swooning – though Sofie Hagen might merit that – but due to being stuck in a very small, very hot, and pretty much void of oxygen venue. But still, in the end, I was very glad I had persevered because Hagen’s show made me laugh full heartedly, giggle, and tear up.  In a short amount of time, Hagen managed to tell a story of growing up in Denmark, the relationship to her body, and the experience of sexualized violence. Before that performance, I had watched her taped stand-up shows Shimmer Shatter and Dead Baby Frog (which you can buy at her website) and followed her numerous podcast projects. Consider me a fan? Anyway, when Sofie Hagen announced her debut book Happy Fat. Taking Up Space in a World That Wants to Shrink You I already knew she was a great, captivating feminist storyteller and thus, I was excited. 

Happy Fat is part memoir, part social commentary. Hagen dives into anecdotes from her life and gives an honest portrayal – sometimes hilariously so, sometimes deeply touching – how she moves through the world as a fat person, the many messages she had internalized about fat bodies (and then shed), the barriers put in in front of her, and the joys. Within the book, Hagen tackles a lot of topics, some in more detail than others. She writes about the need for representation (and the vile backlash she received when she said so online), love and sex, the fraud relationship of health and weight and health concern trolling (a chapter based on a lot of studies), the way most physical spaces are not built to accommodate fat bodies, queerness, disordered eating and diet culture, and the difference between body positivity and fat liberation (as well as the history of the latter). 

The second to last chapter bears the title “How to love your body”. A heading like that easily gets me into defence mode. I want to argue: “This is about systematic oppression, keep these feel-good messages out of it.” But Hagen actually does a great job with this chapter. She shares very practical tips on how to tackle one’s own internalized fat-hatred – many of which I can attest to as having been helpful throughout my life. At the same time, she makes clear that the main problem is systematic. In the end, she implores her readers that self-love is not a duty, it is not/ should not be another thing fat people owe society or can fail. It is a difficult tightrope-act to balance between giving fat people tips to better their lives but not to put the burden of ending fat-hatred on the shoulders of fat people alone. The same way Sofie handles the title of that self-love chapter, she also critically examines the title of her book. I was reminded of Magda Albrecht, whose book is entitled Fa(t)shionista: Rund und glücklich durchs Leben (roughly translated: Fa(t)shionista: Round and happy through life) and who goes even further with her dismantlement of ‘happiness’ when she writes an entire chapter on grief. I do find it noteworthy that these books which both offer critiques of capitalism and the patriarchy are sold under the label of “happiness” to make them more palatable for a wider audience.

One of the strengths of Sofie Hagen’s book is how she addresses fat people as her main audience. This book can (and should) be read by people of all sizes but throughout the chapters, Hagen speaks directly to people who experience fat shaming and other forms of fat oppression. The exception is one chapter, which offers advice on how to support fat people when you yourself are not fat. And while Hagen draws heavily from her own experiences, she explains how these are not universal. I am very glad that she continuously points towards the reality that there is a continuum of fatness and people can have widely differening struggles. Hagen has also included a great resource list at the end and throughout the book a variety of interviews with other activists, writers, performers, and academics who speak on their specific lives and the intersections of race, ableism, being trans, etc. with fatness. 

Overall this is a wonderful book, even though I found the first chapters at times a bit unfocused. Some jumps from anecdote to anecdote felt jarring and if they weren’t going anywhere. But in the end, these are minor hang-ups. I know, that I am not the ideal audience. Happy Fat is aimed at people who had not yet access to thoughts from the fat liberation movement and are new-ish to all the discussed themes. But while there were many facts and analysis included, I had already seen before (and Hagen never pretends she is the first to put these ideas forward), I was hooked and read the book in a matter of days. I laughed, I recognized some of my own experiences, I enjoyed reading many of the anecdotes and thought about all the people who will benefit greatly from this book. 

I received a review copy from 4th Estate.

5 More Books If You Enjoyed Happy Fat

Fat: The Owner’s Manual (Ragen Chastein/ 2012) Hot & Heavy (Virgie Tovar, ed./ 2012), You Have The Right to Remain Fat (Virgie Tovar/ 2018), The Body Is Not An Apolgy (Sonya Renee Taylor/ 2018), and Fa(t)shionista (Magda Albrecht/ 2018).

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