‘Fat is a neutral word. If you look it up, it doesn’t say good or bad. I want to remove the negative associations.’ Photograph: Alicia Canter/The Guardian
“People feel uncomfortable talking about beauty privilege,” she says, “but it is part of this discussion.”
Aside from her size, Hagen notes, Holliday is conventional. “She has a symmetrical face, she’s white, femme, able-bodied, long hair. It’s making fatness more palatable, but not really changing anything.”
For Hagen, learning to accept her body wasn’t a drawn-out process; the change came instantly. One day her university friend Andrea asked her to think about where self-hating thoughts come from, and who profits from them, and her whole perspective shifted.
“I used to think – of course fat is ugly, lazy, stupid and bad. I never questioned it. But when Andrea said: ‘You feel bad then you buy more stuff, so they make money,’ it clicked. Overnight I stopped seeing it as a fact.”
This is the political centre of Happy Fat: the argument that fatphobia is a product of capitalism – designed to keep us consuming diet products and miracle foods; and patriarchy – which demands women exert an impossible level of self-discipline around their looks. She sums up the argument with a Naomi Wolf quote: “A culture fixated on female thinness is fixated on female obedience.”
To challenge fatphobia is to challenge capitalism and to see fat people in the context of other marginalised groups. The ideas Hagen discusses come from fat liberation, a grassroots movement that started in 1960s New York and the manifesto of which is included in the book. This includes a demand for “equal access to goods and services in the public domain” and singles out as special enemies “the so-called reducing industries [including] diet books, diet foods and food supplements”.
Hagen says that when fat liberation became body positivity, the movement became more palatable to mainstream culture. “Big clothing companies can make money by saying they’re body positive and that they cater to all sizes, when they only cater to a size 22, and all the people in their adverts are white and perfect-looking, except for a bit of stomach.
“We cannot keep fixing ourselves. We’re never told to look around us. I’m doing panels asking: ‘How do I love myself?’ How about we do a panel with the people who make [fatphobic] adverts and ask: ‘Why did you make that advert?’”
She includes many examples of little acts of kindness throughout the book, including the friends who have swooped in and saved her when she is caught in a conversation with somebody who tells her, unprompted, that being fat will kill her. Then there is the musician she dated, who, realising she might struggle up the many stairs to his flat, stopped every flight for a kiss, to let her catch her breath.
Even the most well-meaning people and those who have suffered marginalisation themselves can have a bias against fat people, she says. One example of how this plays out particularly struck me: telling people they “don’t look fat”. Hagen says this only serves to deny the person’s experience. And it strengthens the belief that fat is wrong. I tell her I am guilty of it myself.
“We all make mistakes. It’s tempting to think of ourselves as good – and therefore not able to be, say, sexist or transphobic – but we’ve all been raised in the same society. The answer is never going to be: ‘Oh, I’m not [prejudiced], phew!,’ because that way we do nothing. We should be saying: ‘I am racist, I am homophobic, I am transphobic and I want to do better.’” She pauses before laughing. “What a quote! I can see the piece now: Sofie Hagen says ‘I am racist.’”
Is it possible to find happiness in your body if you don’t want to dive into anti-capitalist politics?
“For me? No,” she says. “The politics was the main attraction. Politics gave me the desire to want to fight this system so that other people don’t have to fight it any more.”
Happy Fat: Taking Up Space in a World That Wants to Shrink You is published by 4th Estate on 2 May. To order a copy for £11.43, go to guardianbookshop.com. Sofie Hagen’s Bubblewrap, Happy Fat standup and book tour travels the UK from 26 April to 15 June, sofiehagen.com.