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Fatphobia and food: A review of the improbability of love

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By Anna Hill

Content note: anorexia [breifly], fatphobia, racial stereotyping, very brief mention of rape

The Improbability of Love by Hannah Rothschild is a novel ostensibly about the transformative power of art and as such has been shortlisted for the Baileys Women’s Prize for Fiction this year. The novel follows a woman named Annie who stumbles across a masterful painting in a junk shop, and the consequences of her purchasing it. She is plunged into the art world full of salacious gossip and billionaires and a potential new lover.

I will be up front with you – I didn’t think this should have been shortlisted; it’s not that I didn’t enjoy it at all (for example, some chapters where written from the paintings perspective which was fun), I just felt like any kind of authenticity or innovation was missing. Not only was it structurally and linguistically dull, but it also employed tropes and traits that are actively harmful, repeated everywhere in media.

In some novels it doesn’t matter if the characters are two-dimensional because you are reading for the plot, but with The Improbability of Love, neither the characters nor the plot where interesting enough to really propel the story. Even the main character Annie is fairly simplistic and more disturbingly there are racialized caricatures throughout the novel. For example “Filipino servants”, who are only ever mentioned in connection to their race (and never say a word) and the wealthy Arabs; The Emir of Alwabbi and his domineering wife Sheika Midora who supposedly have links with Al-Qaeda. Add to the racist stereotyping an incredibly stereotypical representation of queerness, and more lazy and uninteresting writing occurs. There is one token queer person in the book – Barty is a socially mobile, white cisgender gay man who, unlike the majority of the other characters is left with no relationship and is seemingly only motivated by what he should wear to the next ridiculously extravagant art world event.

improbability of love

The book, as you might assume, features descriptions of art, but almost more intensely describes food – Annie works as a chef so we often hear about her love of food and her work in creating banquets for rich art dealers, collectors and historians. As a self-confessed food lover (I will consume as much chocolate as humanely possible in my life time!!) I tend to enjoy great descriptions of food that revel in the sensuality and vibrancy and fun of food and eating, like how Ruby Tandoh waxes lyrical about fast food in her vice column Dirty Eating, or how much I enjoy anyone talking to me about the pleasures of butter. Unfortunately though I have some major issues with Rothschild’s descriptions. Firstly a lot of the descriptions are incredibly contrived with clichéd phrases such as “each variety of vegetable suggested a story” or moments when Annie asks herself: “how could anyone think of an aubergine in such a disparaging way?”. And secondly, they are harmful in the simultaneous elevating of slim people who enjoy food and denigrating of fat people who do the same.

The fatphobia of the Improbability of love first comes to light with the overweight and lonely art historian Delores. Described in unfavourable terms and often supposed to provide comic relief, because, for example, she has leftover food on her face or clothing, Rothschild plays into the hegemonic idea that fat people and especially fat women are jokes and are not deserving of respect. Delores’ size is remarked on multiple times and in a lot of ways her fat body is seen as something to consume, something to watch, to point at. At her birthday banquet Annie describes her as “a vast animated sea anemone shimmying across the floor”, whilst all the other (slim) guests’ outfits are described in detail and without immediate judgement or animalisation. The representation of Annie’s love and obsession with food is palatable and serious only because she is slim; if a fat woman were to describe food at the length Annie does it would be comedic. When Annie gets a bit of food on her face Jesse (the love interest) finds it charming, but on a fat body it is repugnant, unattractive, gross. Annie herself is described in incredibly anorexic terms, for Jesse, the main love interest, “she had an ethereal dreamy quality, as if she wasn’t quite grounded but floating above earthly matters”. In other words it looks like she was light, thin, not heavy and full, the opposite of fat.

The other, even more worrying representation of fatness, comes in the form of Delia – a textbook example of fatphobic assumptions; Delia knows the TV schedule off by heart, is uncaring, eats too much food (according to her husband, “you…eat enough for nine”), is unintelligent (when she asks what a word means she is met with silence) and is jealous of the conventionally attractive slim women she sees on TV. In a really disgusting moment Delia says “he might have been a rapist” of Jesse when she refuses to let him in the house and her husband replies, disgustingly; “in your dreams woman, in your dreams.”.

When we consume media about food, particularly those that celebrate the creation and consumption of it, we need to keep questioning who is palatable and who isn’t. Fat characters and fat people are mistreated and affected negatively in most texts that focus on the pleasures of eating (and even those that don’t, such as the Harry Potter series). And this affects fat people’s quality of life. Fat people are more likely to struggle with employment and bullying/death threats or being told that the one way to solve any kind of illness or disability is to lose weight. Next time Hannah Rothschild writes a novel I hope she radically deconstructs her views on fatness and desirability instead of regurgitating tired, boring and harmful views.

Research Blog: Judgments of self-sexualization on Facebook, or, too sexy to be smart

By Jenn Chmielewski

It’s that time of year when I start seeing photo after photo on Facebook of people vacationing in awesome (warm) locations. While I am still cold in New York City, I see them lounging on beautiful beaches in bikinis or partying like rock stars in crop tops at Coachella. I will admit, as I sift through Facebook in my pajamas, I start to get a little jealous – and a little judgmental. Some of those bikini shots on the beach seem pretty sexualized. When it looks like a Kardashian directed a photo shoot, I start to turn up my nose a bit. The feminist in me knows this isn’t right though. I mean, really, the media is constantly telling us that we should be focused on looking attractive all the time, so it’s no wonder young women sometimes sexualize themselves in an effort to look sexy. I don’t always agree with what that definition of “sexy” should be, but the pressure to look the part affects me too. I don’t want to have to have full make-up on at the beach or crawl around in the sand while a friend captures it on camera, for instance. But I also won’t post a picture where I feel like my hair doesn’t look right or my eyes are closed or my belly is sticking out just a little too much… So why should I judge how young women on Facebook are spending their time on a beautiful beach? Does that make them less feminist than me or less smart than me, just because they want to portray themselves in a more sexualized way than I am comfortable doing myself?

All of this made me wonder how other girls and young women perceive self-sexualizing photos on social media. We know that buying into the sexualized media ideal can have negative consequences, from body dissatisfaction and eating disorders to limited career aspirations. But how does it affect what other people think about us? It turns out that researchers Elizabeth Daniels and Eileen Zurbriggen[1] actually just did a cool experiment on this topic. They asked adolescent girls and young adult women to view a Facebook profile of a 20-year old white, blonde-haired woman named “Amanda.” Each participant saw Amanda dressed in either a non-sexualized way or a sexualized way. Non-sexualized Amanda was wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt with a scarf around her neck in her profile photo. Sexualized Amanda was wearing a low-cut red dress with a slit up the leg to the mid-thigh and a visible garter belt in her profile photo. After participants looked at one of these Facebook profiles for Amanda, they were asked a bunch of questions about her, like how attractive they thought she was, how much they would want to be friends with her, and how smart they thought she was.

If you have ever had thoughts mine when you look at sexualized Facebook profiles, you probably will not be surprised by what these researchers found. It turns out that both teenage girls and young adult women who viewed the sexualized profile of Amanda rated her as less physically attractive, socially attractive, and competent, than the participants who looked at the non-sexualized Facebook profile. In other words, people who saw Amanda in the sexualized condition were less likely to find her attractive, were less likely to want to be friends with her, and were less likely to think she could handle tasks competently. They had all these negative attitudes just based on what she was wearing.

So where does this leave us in a sexualized world where we are told our looks matter more than anything else, but we are judged when we try to look sexy in a sexualized way (and we judge others for doing the same). It sure feels like we’re damned if we do, and damned if we don’t. Look, I could say that the lesson of this study is that young women shouldn’t buy into the sexualized ideal and post those racy Facebook photos because they will be judged negatively by other girls and women for it. But as a young woman and a feminist I know it’s not that simple. Girls and women who post sexualized photos are not the problem. We should not be force-fed the idea that dressing in a sexualized way is the only way to be sexy. And we should be more understanding of the pressures we are all under. Some of us want to reject the system that encourages us to self-sexualize but we shouldn’t reject girls when they buy into it sometimes.

Now, I’m not exactly saying I’m going to start hitting the ‘Like’ button when I see my acquaintances in their Victoria’s Secret-style photo shoots. But I will check myself and my nose turning. Because I know where the desire to look that way comes from. And hey, who knows, maybe it feels good to some people too! I’ve never crawled around on the sand – who am I to knock it? So when I see these photos, I will also start reminding myself to be a little less judgmental and a little more supportive of the multitude of ways that girls and women can find their own sexy.


[1] Daniels, E. A., & Zurbriggen, E. L. (2016). The price of sexy: Viewers’ perceptions of a sexualized versus nonsexualized Facebook profile photograph. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5, 2-14.


RESEARCH BLOG: The Hidden Cost of Sexualization

By Kimberly Belmonte

Every morning when I get off the subway, staring at me are billboard-sized Victoria’s Secret ads featuring models sexily posing in lingerie. These huge ads are just one of the many sexualized images of women that are in my face every single every day! Usually, I roll my eyes at these kinds of images, but the other day, I found myself wondering if they were getting under my skin.

You see, I was getting ready to give a talk about my own research and those “speaking in front of a crowd” jitters were kicking in. Now, when I get nervous, my brain goes blank and I needed to review my notes to help me get over my blank-brain-syndrome.   I had twenty minutes until speech time but it happened to be really rainy out and the moisture was doing bonkers things to my hair (curly-haired girls, you know the struggle).  I was torn about what to do: I did want to look professional, but going over my notes was also a priority. When presented with a challenge that is both appearance-focused (e.g., needing to look professional) and skills-focused (e.g., needing to speak clearly) it sometimes is hard to know which to prioritize – and sometimes I feel like all the sexualized images I see all the time make it even harder. It made me wonder if girls who have really internalized the sexiness ideals that we constantly see in advertising images might be more likely to focus on their appearance than skills?

So why did I think my beauty vs. brain dilemma was at all related to those billboards? Well, research shows that the constant bombardment of sexualized images shapes the way we women and girls experience and think about our own bodies. After seeing sexualized images, many girls start to internalize the idea that it’s really important that they themselves look sexy. Researchers call this internalized sexualization—the belief that your worth is tied to your sexiness or physical sexual attractiveness.   But being overly concerned about looking sexy can be a real brain bummer—in previous blogs, we’ve written about research that found being focused on your body’s appearance makes it harder to concentrate on a task.

Researchers Sarah McKenney and Rebecca Bigler[1] wanted to know how internalized sexualization (that is, adopting the sexiness ideal) related to girls academic achievement. In one study, they found that the more important girls thought it was to be considered sexually attractive, the lower their actual grades in math, science, and social studies tended to be. Now, even though that’s some pretty good evidence that being concerned with looking sexy is related to lower academic achievement, they wanted to try and understand what might be behind this relationship.

So McKenney and Bigler devised a genius study where they asked girls to give a fake news report. I mean, have you seen the news lately? It seems like all of the female newscasters are ultra-sexified (picture long blown out hair, TONS of makeup, etc.). But being a news reporter isn’t all about looks—newscasters, even the sexified ones, must be intelligent and able to communicate complicated information in an easy-breezy sort of way. The researchers wondered whether preparing to do this sort of task—the kind in which both appearance and brainpower matter—would result in girls spending more time prepping the way they look or prepping the information they would be presenting. They also wondered whether the way girls prep for the newscast would be connected to girls’ levels of internalized sexualization.


So check this out: Girls were told they would be participating in a study on broadcast journalism and that they would be videotaped giving a fake newscast about a new animal species in Indonesia. The researchers directed the girls to a room where they gave them two things they could use to prepare: the broadcast script and makeup. To do well delivering a news report, girls would have to read a script clearly and smoothly, and pronounce difficult vocabulary words. Each girl was told that she would only have five minutes to prepare—but they weren’t given any direction as to how they should prepare. Now, here’s the clever part: unknown to the girls, the researchers secretly videotaped them in the preparation room (don’t worry, girls later had the option of having their data deleted if they didn’t feel comfortable with that).

The researchers then watched these secret videos to see how much time each girl spent preparing her appearance (e.g., applying makeup) and preparing the material for the presentation (e.g., reading or practicing the script). After recording the fake news broadcast, the girls also completed a survey that measured their internalized sexualization, so the researchers could figure out whether beliefs about the importance of looking sexy had anything to do with this.

And guess what they found? Girls with higher levels of internalized sexualization were more likely to spend a lot of time putting on makeup than practicing the script. At crunch time, girls who thought looking sexy was really important were more focused on how they would look on camera than how they would perform during the intellectual task.

It might make sense that girls who thought looking sexy was really important prioritized looks over performance. But what do these findings mean for all of us? This study shows us the hidden cost of focusing on looking sexy –when we do, we’re less likely to focus on being competent. And this can have huge implications for women and girls doing well in school and in the workplace where our actual performance (and not just our looks) really matter.

So what can we do about all the times girls and women choose to focus on appearance instead of studying (or another intellectual task)? First, let’s remind ourselves about what we lose when we focus too much on appearance and refocus on what really matters! For example, when I had so little time to prepare at the conference, perfect hair and fresh lipstick would have meant forgetting my speech, so I mostly focused on my notes (and yes, my speech was great—#humblebrag). But let’s also push back against all those people and messages that tell women and girls it’s important to look sexy. Instead, let’s emphasize the amazing things girls and women accomplish, rather than how they look!

[1] McKenney, S. J. & Bigler, R. S. (2014). High Heels, Low Grades: Internalized Sexualization and Academic Orientation Among Adolescent Girls. Journal of Research on Adolescence, 26(1), 30-36.

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Happy International Women’s Day!


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hello SPARKfriends,

Thank you for visiting us. We are currently rebuilding our website and we can’t wait to share our new vision with you… soon!

Please be patient as we make some SPARKling improvements.

Website Under Construction Message. In the EPS file, each element is grouped separately. Clipping paths included in additional jpg format isolated on white background.