Tosha Yingling

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ABSTRACT For fat people, to realize themselves is to defer and evolve from their flesh. Yet, as our culture becomes increasingly digital, users are adopting cyberspace as a form of subversive self-creation. This movement is fat futurity, where fat users employ a process of self-actualization that, instead of relying on corporeal understandings of fat, uses digitization to skew perceptions and challenge the quantitative understanding of fat bodies in a non-linear plane that blurs the empiricisms of stereotype. Progressive embodiment captures the potential of the self beyond the stasis of physicality according to one’ s authentic self and thus resists dominant discourse.

We live in the neoliberal moment, an era in which bodies are policed, cultivated, and sculpted in the name of health. Explored by fat scholars and neoliberalism critics such as Kelly Moore and Stefanie Jones, the self-help bootstrap myths of neoliberalism affect our bodies as they affect our economies and politics. In the context of fat studies, these myths combine with and solidify the fallacy of fat bodies as unmanaged pathological flesh that fat scholars for decades have opposed. These tropes are, of course, also racialized and gendered, so that fatness becomes a code of disenfranchisement used to accentuate the lascivious sexuality of women of color, the gluttony of Black welfare queens, and the filth and lack of management of those living in poverty. These images of fatness as lazy, unhygienic, and tragic flesh are perpetuated by capitalist diet culture, making the fat body the emblem of that which must be abandoned: a signal of dystopian disrepair of a body that will not ascend to its more desirable potentiality, thinness. Aside from the biopolitical implications of how neoliberalism’s marriage to capitalism allocates resources for this kind of cultivation, a parcel of bodies are made deviant, the very definitions of lacking health. As explored through fat scholar and activist Samantha Murray’s work, fat people learn that to realize themselves is to idealize the thin and acceptable, and thus actualize themselves away from their fat flesh. Claiming fatness is made taboo, and the overall state of being fat is steeped in a poisonous deferral one must evolve beyond, making fatness a kind of liminality in the quest for the thin ideal. A lack of humanity results from being made deviant, from having to assert one’s existence.

Yet, as our culture becomes increasingly digital, fat users are taking to cyberspace to root themselves in their present fat identities rather than taking hiatus from their flesh. This vast online network of body positivity, probesity, and body-reclamation activism continues to grow in its potential in what Cat Pausé refers to in “Causing a Commotion: Queering Fat in Cyberspace” as the “fat-o-sphere.” These spaces become refuge for fat users and their safety inspires users to think about their embodiment in provocative new ways. In these realms, digital identity can serve as a form of self-creation and subversive representation for marginalized bodies, in this case, fat flesh. As a person digitizes their identity, they have the freedom to represent fat as desirable, confident, unapologetic, fierce, fashionable, human. Fat is being reclaimed in the fat-o-sphere on activist tumblr pages, online fashion blogs, and in smaller-scale personal accounts that use the screen divide to enact and experiment with confident embodiment. This movement of digitizing oneself to claim fatness—manipulating the perceived screen divide between the user and their cyber-self to actualize fatness as part of their embodied identity—is the concept and process of fat futurity. In this movement, fat users can reinstate the future of their bodies, provide stability to claim and experience fatness, and make a process of self-actualization away from the thin-body ideal.

In this paper, I outline the components of fat futurity, a complicated process I am using to describe the calculated images of fatness many fat internet users are employing in radical and provocative ways. This process hinges upon actualizing or refashioning an ideal self using digital media to present the flesh. Employing Hortense Spillers’s concept of the flesh and the body, I argue that the body is a narrativized entity whose ascriptions often precede the sensual reality of the flesh. In fat futurity, the flexible records of digitization are used to challenge notions of fatness applied to the flesh. I will explain the ways in which the flexibility of digitization is optimal for fat users wishing to use digital records to reinstate fat futures through the use of fat avatars, icons predicated on the communal practice of appearing. I will then highlight the importance of Sylvia Wynter’s concept of being human as praxis to the process of fat futurity, noting that the cyborgs invoked in fat futurity are more complex notions of the flesh and its capacities, rather than post-humanist ideals of transorganic fusions of bodies and machines. Fat cyborgs instead are predicated on Michele Stephens’s concept of the invaginated body rather than Donna Haraway’s idea of the cyborg as “a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism,” though fat cyborgs are still cyborgian as “a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction” (Haraway 1). Combining the idea of the invaginated body as one that can project embodiment into digital records and Sylvia Wynter’s analysis of bodies consisting of bios and mythoi, I analyze in the closing section how the fat cyborg is born.

In order to understand fat futurity and its processes, it is first important to think about the manifestation of time in fat flesh, so that the radical process of actualization through digitization can be appreciated especially for fat users. Through this understanding of the radical reclamation of fat, we can appreciate an idea of fat permanence, though “permanence” here is used differently than our linear understanding of permanence in time. As Samantha Murray outlines in her work on the aesthetics and becoming of fatness, this permanence must take fat into account as a “perverse form of embodiment and, in order to be accorded personhood, is expected to engage in a continual process of transformation, of becoming and, indeed, unbecoming” (Murray 2005, 155). (This idea presumes that a body that becomes thin is a body of privilege, though we must acknowledge how bodies are then racialized, gendered, and read as able to understand that thinness is but one norm in a multi-interlocking system of oppression as fatness is often used to enhance and signal other marginalizations. For example, fatness meets race and gender to make the mammy figure asexual and undesirable). Fat bodies in their material reality are in a constant state of disavowal from their lived contours. Often policed because of Puritanical understandings of excess and control that often are heavily racialized to signal the uncontrollable hedonism of lesser races in scientific racism (cf. Sara Baartman) and bolstered by the neoliberal body cultivation aforementioned, this disavowal encourages a liminality in fat embodiment as “there is a sense of suspension, of deferral, of hiatus. One is waiting to become ‘thin’….” (ibid.). Even if thinness is not a particular fat individual’s desire, the thin imperative is ascribed to their skin, making fat flesh the site of an undesirable reality in the spectrum of control and excess. By intersecting the realities of fat identities as ascriptions of uncultivated flesh with neoliberal, racist, and misogynist ideals of body management, fat identity is made liminal and suspended so that permanence is more about ownership and stability than a static marker of identity in linear time. It is the reclamation of fat in a faithful representation of the radical polarization of the thin ideal. In cyber spaces, the permanence generated in fat futurity offers stability in self-representation for the creator, who fashions fat in a sense that affirms their creative process both in and out of social ascription (ibid.).

The ownership of fat identity in this way marries the futuristic connotations of digitization to anchor fat realities in an alternative visibility. Fat futurity asks that we think about how time is deployed on fat flesh, particularly with regard to the future due to the deviant expiration coded in fat ascription. Keeping in mind the unhealthy, deviant, and sexually underproductive or lascivious prescriptive identity (as fat bodies are deemed asexual or sexually undesirable outside of fetish or kink), it is important to think about fat futures in conjunction with Alison Kafer’s theory of cripping time, a concept responding to and building on Lee Edelman’s No Future: Queer Theory and the Death Drive. Though it is problematic to equate fat studies and disability studies as they investigate different intersections of power, elements of Kafer’s theory of cripping time can inspire new ways to think about fat futurity, particularly in her call to radicalize our linear perceptions of time in which the future is exclusive to some identities. Similar to the ways in which fat bodies are read pathologically, Kafer exposes a reality where those who read her disabled body “can clearly see the grim future that awaits me: with no hope in sight, my future cannot be anything but bleak” (Kafer 2013, 2). As they are pathologized, bodies are placed on a spectrum of health that is quantitative in its linearity, creating a timeline where bodies deemed unhealthy are left out of the arc of progress. They are also coded as bodies that are pathologized, whether through lack of health or asexual undesirability, as bodies literally incapable of producing the “future”/children. Fat bodies similarly coded as fat are read as a perpetually unhealthy project, a risky and careless existence, where one’s time is fatal or short. Not only does this intersect with the liminality described by Murray to render the fat body as temporary in its poor health but, with regards to Kafer’s cripping time, fat bodies then signal a dystopia whose absence indicates a better future.

Understanding that fat bodies are coded in dystopia, body reclamation in cyberspace gains a new powerful meaning. When Kafer challenges us to crip time, she is ultimately asking that our task “is not so much to refuse the future as to imagine disability and disability futures otherwise, as part of other, alternative temporalities that do not cast disabled people out of time, as the sign of the future of no future” (Kafer 2013, 34). Similarly, for fat people fat futurity offers a way to conceptualize a world where fat can be a present reality without being devalued by a constant rhetoric of eradication. In the digital medium, fat identity is claimed in ways that mark it with the brand of permanence outlined in fat futurity so that fat is an ownership denouncing the quest for a thin body, anchoring the body beyond the pathologized limited, and signaling a future where the present realities of fat existence are humanized. Additionally, fat futurity works to move past what Lee Edelman calls “reproductive futurism,” in which the figure of the child is looked to for creating sustainable futures and the utopias free of certain identities that Kafer expands upon. Fat futurism evokes a future where fat bodies are possible but which also allows, through a process of digital self-actualization, the means by which to celebrate and embrace the present self. This is not a future about losing weight to reach an ideal; this is a future where the present contours of a body are legitimized, no matter their expansion or decrease in lifetime. Fat futurity pluralizes and expands upon notions of self as multiplicity, allowing for fatness to be experienced and performed in a myriad of ways. This is the genesis of fat futurity, in which a cyborgian relationship with digitization facilitates self-actualization.

It is this sense of permanence that fat futurity offers us rather than a simpler linear one that suggests being permanently fat as reclamation. Fat futurity is complex in its recognition of the self as multiple. Part of body reclamation’s marriage with the cyber is the digital’s ability to record flexible futures. This is important not just for understanding the self but also staging a radical fatness that online audiences consume. The flexibility of the digital realm allows for the important understanding in which we “experience myself/my body in ways that shift and vary and contradict one another,” to create records that can reflect bodies that become fatter or thinner over time, different performances and ways of embodying fat, and even mourning for a thinner body or a formally fatter body as a lost self all in the same person (Murray 2005, 156). Digitization reflects the multiplicity of self around a shifting core, one which captures fat essence while still conveying the multiplicity of identity. This tension results from the slippage between social construction and material reality, as the body is still ascribed with the products of fat discrimination in its material reality, while adjusting the self through digital self-creation allows a platform for constructing the self with transgressing or undermining social constructs in mind. This idea of both consistently owning fatness while exploring the potential for digitization to portray all identity as unstable, temporal, plural, and refashioning is best exemplified through the fat avatar, the foundational tool for refashioning fat identity through fat futurity.

Online avatars are icons used to navigate digital forums. We typically think of cyber entities fashioned with a user’s idealizations in mind as a means to represent themselves in digital media. Particularly with the fears of phenomena such as catfishing, in which our distrust of the cyber worlds as inauthentic or clandestine manifests, we tend to imagine avatars as separate entities from the physical self. The mysticism of the screen divide (portrayal of self in an online space polarized from the physical self behind the computer screen) makes us believe that on the internet “[t]he body is left behind and the mind released from the mortal limitations of the flesh” (Sundén 2001, 216). However, the fat avatar complicates this idea as many bloggers are embracing their flesh on the internet as a form of re-embodiment that transcends this.


Picture1    Picture2

In fig. 1, style blogger Gabi Gregg takes a selfie in the mirror opposite her bed without makeup and in her PJs, a departure from her typical blog content. In fig. 2, Gregg posts a picture of her posing for the photos that will appear on her blog, leaving the image of the person photographing her within the frame.


Take for example, plus-size fatsionista, Gabi Gregg of Gabifresh. Though Gregg’s popularity as an Instagram personality and style blogger centers around using makeup and fashion as an art of transformation, her embodiment and her flesh are integral to the self she presents. The avatar in this instance is enfleshed, though presented in no less calculated and creative ways than the cartoon avatars we imagine: Gregg’s avatar is her enfleshed body but is creatively posed and manipulated for constructed viewing through camera angles, filters, and her use of style and fashion to create the ideal self (fig. 2). She even cheekily shows pictures of herself appearing before the camera, a meta-creation moment highlighting the radical intent behind the portrayal of her social media presence. An image such as fig. 1 would at first appear to make it difficult to differentiate an avatar from the actual person; however, the two are not inseparable as the fat avatar functions as a tool to refashion interpretations of fatness and is presented in very calculated and radical ways. As a tenant of many body reclamation movements, Gregg’s fat avatar is enfleshed and the self is made virtual in an eschewal of the virtual and real as the physical body is presented to an audience rather than a cartoon idealization. Instead of mistaking this avatar as one that is more genuine than performative, the fat avatar acknowledges both the flesh and the ideal so that, instead of disembodiment, the image employs a means of “‘new constructions and definitions of the self’” (Bolter 1996 quoted in Belk 2013, 481). This leads to a kind of re-embodiment, where embodiment is written onto the physical body, though on the terms of their own creation. However, just because the physical self is visible does not mean that it is any less constructed, as “[t]he relative freedom of configuring our avatar bodies has led some to suggest that our avatar represents our ideal self, aspirational self, or a canvas on which we can ‘try out’ various alternative selves,” selves that could foster the existence of fatness in the cyber world in ways that the physical world does not (Belk 2013, 481). The revolutionary idea here is that, rather than using an avatar whose appearance may reinforce harmful ideals that rupture their own physical embodiments, embodying the fat self becomes the presumptive ideal.

People then actualize themselves digitally as their ideal fat person rather than as an aspiration to thinness. By using the fat avatar, fat futurity then allows users a process in which “with designing our avatar…and becoming comfortable with it, we gradually not only become re-embodied but increasingly identify as our avatar” (ibid.). This avatar becomes one of our selves, an aspect that transcends the screen to sync with our physical bodies. This is a different process for those who do not use flesh avatars as fat bloggers do, as using a non-flesh avatar is a deferral tactic from the physical body; however, as fat people are conditioned to defer from their physical flesh, the avatar becomes an anchor with which to explore and construct the fat self.

Claiming fat flesh and recording it in digital records is a radical move as fat people are often reduced to their flesh. They are looked upon as meaty and thick, corporeal, and carnal in ways that tie them to connotations of the body, particularly making them a synecdoche for the sensual flesh. Fat scholarship has centered the ways in which fatness is connected to the body, as many oppressed groups are Othered in binaric opposition to the mind, so that fatness connotes the unhygienic, corporeal, excessive, and the fleshy body. These are bodies that are constantly placed out of time through future utopias and are situated as failures in a binary of control and excess. Particularly when looking through historic understandings of fatness, it is often the colonial and Puritanical that look upon bodies brutalized by conquest and use fatness to bolster racialized stereotypes of gluttony, excess, and deviant sexuality to absolve colonizers of their brutalities. These stereotypes further anchor fatness in the fleshy carnality of the body. However, in the digital plane, “the viral can instigate a panic around measure or measuring that takes us beyond human perception, consciousness, and cognition…,” thereby offering the potential for fat bodies to be interpreted beyond their fleshy contours (Clough and Puar 2012, 15). The digitization of fat bodies can skew our perceptions, both in representing fatness in ways that we are not used to comprehending and in challenging the quantitative understanding (fatness is measured in weight) of fat bodies in the non-linear plane of cyberspace. It is in this plane where the time of fat bodies (usually perceived as sloth) and the empiricisms of weight and stereotype can be blurred and subverted.

The fat body is always hypervisible, taking up too much visual space. Through digitization, this claimed hypervisibility is subverted “in relationship to the viral, [as] measure becomes speculative in its aim; it activates, if it does not preempt, futurity and potentiality in probing for the not-yet-calculated, the excess incalculability in calculation” (Clough and Puar 2012, 15). This hypervisibility reverses the gaze of fat bodies and creates space for their staging rather than hiding behind an avatar and eliciting stereotypes of fat shame. The fat body becomes immaterial in its digitalization, a revolution for bodies reduced down to their flesh. This cyborgian relationship also works to give flesh to the disembodied in cyberspace as flesh is being acknowledged and recoded in digitization.

Given the foregoing, these digital records are not post-human cyborgs. Building on the idea that race is forgotten in post-humanism in the denial of the ways in which Black flesh has been made inhumane through slavery and colonialism, in Habeas Viscus Alexander Weheylie reminds us of the importance of the body, which cannot be abandoned in the quest for humanity, and also evokes Sylvia Wynter and Hortense Spillers’s concept of captive flesh and the flesh/body differentiation. Post-humanism in this reading is a fallacy because it focuses on the narratives of the body rather than the site of the flesh where the horrible atrocities of racist patriarchy have manifested in white slave master’s whips and colonial conquest and rape. As fat futurity is inspired by Sylvia Wynter’s concept of being human as praxis, we must keep in mind categories of the human and the ways in which those who do not fit neatly into the category of “Man” must think of new ways of being human.

This means claiming the flesh rather than using machine fusions to try to abandon it. Weheylie argues that if “racialization is understood not as a biological or cultural descriptor but as a conglomerate of sociopolitical relations that discipline humanity into full humans, not-quite-humans, and nonhumans, then blackness designates a changing system of unequal power structures that apportion and delimit which humans can lay claim to full human status” (3). Thus we must keep in mind the ways in which humanity is denied to marginalized groups before attempting to transcend the post-human. Fat futurity cannot abandon the quest for humanity for those who have been greatly dehumanized because of their fatness and whose fatness has been used to bolster their racial and sexual oppression. A project such as fat futurity is not post-human for exactly this reason.

Fat futurity is rooted in the body, partially defined by embodiment that is not separate from the abstract or cyber, and a part of fleshes too marginalized in their fatness (and often their other identities) to ever be considered the fully human capital-M “Man.” Consequently, it is Wynter’s work that still appeals to the cyborgian sense of the human (and the invaginated cyborg) when she urges us to “initiate the exploration of the new reconceptualized form of knowledge that would be called for by Fanon’s redefinition of the human being as that of skins (phylogeny/ontogeny) and masks (sociogeny). Therefore bios and mythoi” (Wynter 2015, 23). This understanding of the body addresses both the organic matter of our flesh (bios) and the narratives of our bodies (mythoi), combining into a science of the Word in which a body can be examined in its complicated completeness as a human hybrid, a structure reminiscent of the cyborg in its transorganic fusions with meaning and matter. It is through this understanding of the human hybrid/the fat cyborg that Wynter’s work pushes us to think of being human as praxis, a process by which we as marginalized people come to understand and perform our humanity—the very essence of fat futurity. It is in itself a process of being human as praxis, as performing and living fat with a sense of humanity.

The fat avatar, then, is a tool to record digital futures that exemplify being human as praxis and that uses the avatar to highlight the ways in which the self can be realized with digitization. We must complicate the idea that the cyber self and the physical self are exclusively divided in order to understand cyberspace as a space of self-actualization. We tend to demonize the use of avatars as a fallacy or trick because of the screen divide, but the perceived polarization of the cyber self and the physical self can also be attributed to a kind of confessional culture in which people are more comfortable being themselves or who they fashion themselves to be in cyber media. The “somatic flexibility” offered “through online communication afford[s] individuals the opportunity to present and ultimately embrace their ideal self…” in ways that they may not be able to in their physical realities (Whitty and Young 2011, 544). For fat people in the context of fat futurity, this means embracing and stabilizing a sense of self in their fatness through digitization in a physical world where the expectation of fatness calls for its constant deferral and disavowal. Through the digital medium, users can discover a more transgressive sense of self with the screen divide to shelter them.

This opens fat users to experiment which is difficult to do in a physical world inhibited by capitalist and Puritanical body management: to actualize themselves while considering their present fatness rather than filtering their realities through a thin ideal that further defers them from their realities, stunting their potential realization of self. The avatar is intrinsic to this pursuit because of its function of “appearing,” gesturing to Hannah Arendt’s The Life of the Mind, which analyzes the ways in which being and appearing are symbiotic. Arendt’s work effectively explains the appeal of using the fat avatar as the process of appearing “always means to seem to others…,” so that the avatar is as much a narrative of the self as it is a calculated representation of fat to be recorded in flexible digital futures (Arendt 1978, 21). The process of appearing is never a singular one as it predicates on the idea of appearing and existing before a spectator. The author’s creation and the audience’s spectatorship meld into a sea of perspectives that color a fat avatar. However, because of the confessional culture created by the screen divide, one is often more comfortable presenting one’s online self in a way that filters out negativity and builds community between similar users/consumers. Through this lens, the fat avatar concerns appearances that “expose, and […] also protect from exposure, and, as far as what lies beneath is concerned, this protections may even be their most important function” (Arendt 1978, 25). The fat avatar becomes a tool through which fat users can refashion and re-embody their ideal self while simultaneously making fat visible to spectators in provocative ways and protecting themselves from harmful fat stereotypes that would contort their avatar-representation.

To understand how digitization becomes enfleshed, it is important to acknowledge the process of self creation and its complexities as it works to connect the digital persona and material reality. Beyond the opportunity to realize oneself away from the thin ideal, digitization also offers a mode by which one can create oneself in one’s chosen image. This is a complex process that involves realizing how the body is coded, creating the self as art with these codes in mind, and reclaiming, deferring, and anchoring one’s flesh reality in one’s digital image (the fat avatar). In this process, we see how the fat avatar is created and then becomes a tool for self-actualization in a cyborgian manner; because this process is cyborgian, the emphasis lies not only in the digital but in the importance of embodiment in the flesh, highlighting that in fat-futurist projects these two entities are not independent or oppositional.

While the image of the cyborg is being invoked here, it is within a challenge to post-humanism that I use the term. It is integral not to fall into the realm of post-humanism when thinking through fat futurity for precisely the importance of the role that the flesh and humanity play in the project. Consequently, fat cyborgs are not reduced to fusions of the machine and the human, but rather employ an understanding of the body as able to influence the digital because of its invaginated nature. In her book Skin Acts, Michele Stephens analyzes our contemporary understanding of the body as phallic (this body greatly complements neoliberal self-help and possessive-individual narratives, though the concept of the phallic body precedes these ideas) presenting a body that is hard, closed, a container, and an impermeable indicator of racial and sexual difference through physiology on the outside. It is through this understanding of phallic bodies that sex and gender are differentiated, as the female and male bodies are binarily opposed, with the female body as the container that envelopes the male body. Protrusions can also signal a grotesque body: uncontrollable fat bellies that stick out, hypersexual large penises of Black men, and Sara Baartman’s lascivious fleshy behind.

Complicating the notion of the phallic body, Michele Stephens introduces us to the idea of the invaginated body, one that is integral to understanding fat futurity and its complication of the cyborg ideal. The invaginated body is an understanding that negates the individualistic, closed impermeability of the phallic body and its privileging of sexual protrusions over “lacks.” Instead, the invaginated body is molecular, porous, fluid, and relational. The skin of the invaginated body “functions psychically as both ‘shell’ and ‘kernal,’ a ‘matter of relations between surfaces, inserted one inside another,’” premised around the idea of the body’s orifices rather than phallic protrusions (Anzieu 1989 qtd in Stephens 2014, 16). If we understand an orifice as skin folding onto itself rather than a hole which must be filled, we can displace the idea of phallic objects filling holes and view desire and the body as open, relational, and interacting with other skin.

The invaginated body is the actuality of the cyborg that fat futurity invokes. Rather than thinking of the cyborg as using the digital to bolster the limitations of the body, fat futurity’s invaginated cyborg highlights the power of the fluid and porous body and the ways in which it is then imprinted on the digital record as an extension of self and skin. It is “these chiasmic, fleshy relations [that provoke] an intercorporeity involving ‘reciprocal insertion and intertwining in one another…,’” that allow us to understand the cyborg not as an appendage to the lacking semi-human body, but as the flesh mingling with its own refashioning online (Merleau-Ponty 1968 qtd in Stephens 2014, 16). This pares the body down to Hortense Spillers’s concept of flesh, highlighting an intercorporeality that interacts with the sentient body rather than acting as its signifier. Narrative fuses with sensation in fat futurity, so that the cyborg is a calculated image of self that resides within the invaginated body and can be projected into cyborgian communities of flexible digital record that imprint the invaginated fat body in cyberspace. The cyborg is not a fusion with machine but rather an understanding of the skin and body as entities unbound, components that cannot be lost in the quest for post-humanism as they are the basis of scientific racism and biological determinism that define who has access to humanity and who does not. The dependence on so-called biology then lived entirely in the phallic body, a concentration on the outside rather than the fleshy folding reality of our invaginated bodies.

Fat users thus manifest a cyborg that is an extension of the body rather than the limited body and its plus-one. The fat cyborg in this sense allows for a process of self-actualization that exhibits an ongoing refashioning according to one’s own ideals and pushes back against dominant discourse recorded into flexible digital futures for themselves and their audience. This often means that fat users are talking back to fat stereotypes to craft digital personas to disprove lazy, unsexy, asexual, unhygienic, shameful, and shy tropes of fat embodiment. Using radical frameworks, one can acknowledge their prescriptive traits and, in the process  “enable a means of overturning dominant discourses around the fat body that relate to the perceived neglect of bodily maintenance and the failure of will …” (Murray 2004, 237). These prescriptive traits often dovetail with a capitalist imperative in our recent culture, in which a culture industry of a mythical fat norm emerges centered around femininity, hetero-cisgenderism, whiteness, and ablism. Fat futurity is then expanded to encompass the ways in which fat users talk back to the ways in which fat is accepted in certain realms and used to highlight disenfranchised identity (poverty, colonial perceptions of Blackness such as Sara Baartman, asexuality) in other contexts. With this knowledge, users can make their marginalized bodies visible in bold, empowering ways. Rather than seeing the fat as “a symbol of the failed body, and as an aesthetic affront,” fat users can make fat a desirable location rather than a deferrable one (ibid., 239). In making fat more desirable, one does so not only for oneself but for one’s fellow fat users in their digital communities (ibid., 240).

In consistently employing fat futurity in companion with one’s self-actualization, cyber communities are built in which users feel validated by other users, who then deploy a kind of fat futurity themselves. In the fat-o-sphere, fat users can turn to cyber communities to actualize themselves through reclamation of their fatness. In contrast to the physical world that restricts fatness and sees it as temporal, fat futurity builds communities where fat people can embrace and own their present size. The screen divide fosters “[t]he sharing of information about the self online facilitated by the disinhibition and confessional effects means that it is now far easier to present our selves in ways that would have been awkward…,” and in building fat community, these representations of self feel less awkward as they are affirmed by other users (Belk 2013, 481). As some fat performance scholars—such as Stefani Jones in “The Performance of Fat: The Spectre Outside the House of Desire”—remind us, the performance of fatness, indeed the performance of any identity, is two-pronged. In fusion with Hannah Arendt’s concept of appearing, the performance of fatness involves both the performer and the audience. The intentions of the fat author and the fat community blend and meld into an assemblage of meaning-making and subversive knowledge. In these spaces, fat shame is slowly eroded, so one can feel pride in and love for one’s current skin. A community which supports a fat user is created in a digitization that greatly contrasts the policing expectations of the physical world.

Cyberspace gives the user the tools to capture the potential and the fluidity of the self beyond the stasis of their supposed phallic physicality in an embrace of the body as invaginated and able to be recorded in digital futures for an audience. It offers a kind of progressive embodiment where one can “present oneself in a manner that corresponds to the potential afforded within a given environment/space to be what one has the potential to be” (Whitty and Young 2011, 544). Pixelated cyberspace with its flexible records allows for digitization to become a kind of identity management, one that records multiple sides of an individual’s self and their multiple selves for an audience whose stereotypes of fatness are being challenged. This “fresh arena for the staging of the body, upon which new dramas are to be enacted” is particularly important to fat people, whose quantitative bodies are often reduced down to the flesh, as invaginated embodiment in cyberspace makes way for users to “exploit somatic flexibility so as to extend the boundaries of their own embodiment…,” and show us images of fatness that are challenging (Whitty and Young 2011, 537-8). It is in this space that one can not only acknowledge the oppression of physical ascription but also challenge it in making one’s self in one’s own image.

For fat futurists, these images of self reclaim fatness as a desirable position and aim to change our conceptions of bodies. Fat is flesh, reduced to its contours, but cyberspace has no linearity and digitization has no physical space. “With the viral, aesthetic measure goes beyond human perception, consciousness, and cognition, drawn to a futurity or potentiality that today is an object of political, cultural, economic, and technical contention,” and our ideas of fatness are challenged, so that fat is moved away from the quantitative spectrum and into a more complex and flexible plane in which humanity is claimed and enacted beyond our physical understandings (Clough and Puar 2012, 15). Cyberspace lends us a stage in which the invaginated cyborg skews the presumptive physicality of the phallic body to allow us to make the ways in which our bodies are truly invaginated. In many ways, the internet allows users, fat and thin alike, to re-inscribe their embodiment with digital self-actualization and use the process of appearing to record fat futures that resist fat norms.

However, we must be careful not to subscribe to the idea that the internet is a vast expanse of potential without limitations. It is ironic that our view of bodies is phallic and limited while our view of the cyber is not, as the cyber does in fact have limitations. While the anonymity of the screen divide allows the possibility of redirecting or transgressing the gaze, it is not a refuge space where material realities of embodiment can be escaped. This idea would lend itself to the phallic body, suggesting that the hard contours of the body cannot be imprinted on the digital and that digital machines have a sentience to rival humanity. The understanding of the invaginated cyborg is an important idea here, as it complicates Donna Haraway’s idea that cyborgs can blur the lines between the mind and body to create new terms of embodiment. Understanding the invaginated cyborg means that neither the body nor old terms can be escaped and, by using the act of appearing in the digital realm, invaginated cyborgs forward the body onto the digital plane to interact with audience and flexible records. These cyborgs can allow us to meld digitization into our physical self-actualization but, as seen in the ways that self creation takes bodily ascription into account, they can never transcend the old discourses and their hegemonic fluidity. Colonizers and colonizing ideas still use the internet; they still colonize cyberspace. Despite this, fat digitization is revolutionary in its appeal as, though fat people cannot transcend their ascribed flesh, they can create and present a new cyber skin that actively manages their identity through perceived ascription, material reality, and digital potentiality.

This new cyber skin is a molecule of the invaginated body, making sense of the self through digital representation to further anchor the self in the fluid material body. In this process, the user filters their fat avatar through the ways they conduct themselves, which “produces the lens through which we understand ourselves, and our world” (Murray 2004, 240). No matter how the cyber skin is designed in any instance, it is affected by the ascription that fashions their lived reality; the cyber skin and the cyborg are functions of the porous invaginated body. The only bounds of the fat avatar are the knowledge of its creator, a knowledge that is moulded by the user’s material experience. While the avatar is created through a lens of the user’s lived reality and material responses to oppression that are politicized even in their resistance, the use of the fat avatar is more about creating a form of self in one’s own image. This avatar takes both material reality and its transgression into account. The lines between the physical and the cyber are not so much blurred as the cyborg is an extension of the body used in the digital realm as “a creative means of connecting oneself to one’s body” (ibid.). The flexible digital record signals revolution in its play on old discourses and in its ability to help users realize their selves in and out of their ascribed phallic physicality. For fat users, this means embracing their fat physical bodies and manipulating their codes in digital space (ibid.).


Picture3    Picture4

In fig. 3 and fig. 4, blogger Jesamyn Stanley flexibly poses for the Body Positive Yoga website. Stanley is a far woman who often dresses, as pictures, in form-fitting sports bras and yoga pants that do not hide her figure.


Even with the potentiality digitization offers, the avatar is still a component of the invaginated body, highlighting the need for flesh and its radical grasp in claiming humanity. As the old discourses can never truly be transcended because they can never be uncreated, we must recognize revolution as calling out and subverting the old discourses rather than transgressing them. Subverting fat stereotypes has a number of manifestations, a kind of physical cinema of the flesh. Fat avatars often move between restricted or calculated images of the self, so as not to reinforce stereotypes and the acknowledgement of the carnal fleshy and excessive stereotypes associated with fat flesh. In our current neoliberal climate where the body is situated in a capitalist machine of management and control, this can mean fat bloggers posting pictures of eating, a cardinal sin for fat people, and of their exercise routines, a supposed fat taboo, all in the same space. As pictured above, Jessamyn Stanley of Body Positive Yoga does just that, crafting her social-media presence around challenging fat stereotypes showing the active fat body that still maintains its fatness while combatting ideas about fat as the absence of health. This fluidity between expectations challenges how we authenticate identity, acknowledging ascription in calculated measures that both affirm and deny its sustainability. The fluidity of digital fat representation is really only affirmed in the stability of fat ownership, but the representation of fatness is flexible and changing, even in a single person. For example, on their tumblr blog, Marfmellow, shows a multitude of gender representations (below) using a myriad of names including marf, Tatiana, and Trent. Marfmellow is also an outspoken blogger about issues of fat weight loss and change, highlighting the ways in which the contours of fat bodies can move and change in the fluidity of fat futurity. This use of the digital record is revolutionary in that it captures the performance of fatness through time rather than simply supplying viewers with a snapshot of what fatness means in a particular moment.


Picture5    Picture6

In fig. 5, Trent poses for the camera wearing more identifiably masculine style and declares their use of “they” pronouns, working in tandem with fig. 6, in which the same blogger presents a more femme image as Marfmellow in a dress and full traditionally feminine makeup.


These fluid representations of fatness go beyond the fat avatar, making it important to understand that the invaginated cyborg as the avatar is the foundational tool by which the audience can read fat futures in the digital record, and that the cyborg is a molecule of the invaginated body living both within and outside of the digital realm. Only acknowledging the fat avatar would suggest that this process of self-actualization through digitization remains in the digital realm; however, fat futurity relies on the fat cyborg, a creature whose existence is both digital and flesh. While the screen divide breeds a presumptive polarization between the cyber as immaterial and futuristic and the physical as organic mortal materiality, the cyborg encapsulates contradiction, creating an entity that houses both. The cyborg in this instance does merge with the cyber, but it is important to note that because of the invaginated nature of the body, the cyber is only made material through the self and the flesh. For fat people, digitization is a process to fashion “a fusion of the organic human body and … a transorganic personality construct where the human mind is preserved on computer software,” by which a cyborg is created through imprinting the invaginated body in cyberspaces to create a calculated digital record (Sundén 2001, 215). This cyborg is a kind of extended self, one that melds with the digital and its potential to produce a more multiple and complex understanding of the self. The fat cyborg allows fat-body contradictions, multiplicities of self, and a blurriness that is still anchored in fat stability, not requiring a fat user to defer their fatness to experience their self as complex and varied. This presents a process of self-actualization that “can and should reflect not the truth of the body through its measured contours, but the imaginative, affective, anxious truth of continual self-making” (Sastre 2014, 941). The physical experiences fat users take with them and to their spaces of digitization and the molecularity of their invaginated bodies, as well as the narratives/mythoi used to reimagine their body, meld the physical and the digital to advance the cyber skin of a fat cyborg.

This idea is particularly revolutionary when considering how fat people are represented as a synecdoche for the flesh. As “virality is a specific mode of action that is crossing institutions, contexts, and scales and is “‘inherently connected to the complex, non-linear order of a network society,’” there is a component of cyberspace that resists the quantitative empiricisms of the flesh (Parrika 2007, 288). This applies not only to the stereotypes or oppressive power ascribed onto the body, but also to the literal quantity of fat flesh, how fleshed is scaled. The internet complicates our notions of space, and in a world where fat bodies are seen as taking up too much of it, cyberspace creates a platform for fat expression in non-linear modes. As fat bodies are constructed as lacking in some way, either because of grief or shame of their fatness or through a sickness narrative or a lack of control, the invaginated cyborg offers a contradiction which refuses to see the fat flesh as lacking and imprints the realities of fat bodies before spectators in digital record. The fusion of the digital and the flesh does not function to create a whole being from using the cyber to fill a void, but rather works to synchronize an acknowledgement of the flesh’s existence and a manipulation of the body narrative in a hybrid human being.

The seeming boundlessness of digitization in the cyber landscape means that a user can control their cyborg in a way that challenges stereotypes portraying fat people as uncultivated and undisciplined flesh. Digitization changes “how the body is performed and recorded” as one can create one’s own codes for how one’s body is perceived and archived (Sastre 2014, 932). This recoding of fat is a complex and contradictory project fitting for a cyborg, one that acknowledges fat identity and anchors it in the embodied flesh, as well as a project that allows one an authorship of one’s bodily contours and ascriptions to create a deeper sense of self beyond societal expectation. The cyborg is “premised not on particular visual and discursive formations, but on a critical and conscientious engagement with the ways we are expected to understand, perform, and be our bodies,” so that digitization becomes a project that is always conscious and subversive (Sastre 2014, 941). The fat cyborg is an assemblage of personal, interpersonal, social, and institutional meaning, as well as viewer spectatorship, in a marriage of radical potentiality that creates an understanding of embodiment beyond the body through communal knowledge-making. This assemblage is then blended with the flesh, with a stability of fatness, to create an authentic image of the self. This idea calls for us to complicate our notions of the authenticity of the self, as “[w]ith the help of Photoshop and purchased ‘skins’ and accessories, we have considerable leeway in our visual self presentations online, despite a fairly high degree of similarity to our physical appearance,” so that these tools create fat avatars that, though similar to their users, might not be exact copies of the physical flesh (Belk 2013, 481). As evidenced by Gabi Gregg in figures 1 and 2, controlling camera angles by which the body is captured, manipulating lighting and filters, and regulating the behaviors and personality of blog posts are all ways in which physical reality is acknowledged but designed with full control of the user. The fat cyborg moves us beyond simple fat acceptance to a plane in which we have “imagined a more radical alternative to [body] ideals, not by merely broadening the rubric of what bodies are included, but by dismantling and reimagining the very way bodies are allowed to be performed” (Sastre 2014, 939-40). This potential and imagination allows one to cultivate one’s embodiment to realize distance between one’s lived flesh and one’s signified body.

The digitized self then portrays a flexible record of how the invaginated flesh is lived in the physical world. The fat avatar represents an individual ideal in which “you are not assuming that identity, you are that identity,” in a cyborg process where the cyber puts forth for display the boundlessness of the invaginated flesh (Belk 2013, 482). It is the romance of the cyborg that one can claim ownership of a body, from which society demands deferral, in the confines of the physical self. Though these are separate processes for some, fat futurity does not separate the physical and the digital as they coexist in an invaginated body.

It is important to discuss the tension of the screen divide to legitimate the validity of fat digital representations, which could be read as inauthentic or a kind of play as a consequence of the tendency to see the cyber as immaterial or unreal. Embodiment and the flesh are forever important to fat futurity as a process. As the body is invaginated, it can affect the cyber which remains immaterial and non-sentient, but the cyber is not a material reality used to fuse a lacking body with a more fully realized human subject. The mistake we make “[i]n the discourse of virtual worlds as scenes for disembodied performances” is leaving out the “heterogeneities, variations, different and maybe marginalized versions” that digital potentialities further when we understand cyber representation as part of the invaginated body and cyborgs as a function of embodiment (Sundén 2001, 222). The cyber is anything from disembodied. It is an extension of the invaginated body which is not contained within the impermeable confines of skin alone. As discussed above, “the ultimate purpose of employing cyber-technology as a tool in the realization of one’s ideal body-image is to transfer this body-image into the offline world…,” so that the physical self is realized through the digital in a blend of cyber and skin that moves beyond the merely digital (Whitty and Young 2011, 555). There is also a muddling of the physical in the cyber world: if we truly left our bodies behind in the virtual world, we would not part with our experiences and understandings gained in the world. We see this when examining the crossing-over of popular fat bloggers and personalities when they stage in-person meet and greets with their fans, events that solidify the use of the fat cyborg to exist beyond the digital realm. Exemplified below in plus-size blogger Kellie Brown’s promotional work, the constructed online image becomes a fat futurity project when it becomes enfleshed, and moves with someone through their actualization of self. These movements beyond digital and physical boundaries give the cyber a materiality we do not usually associate with the digital.


7      8


On top left: fig. 7, an Outfit of the Day post on Kellie Brown’s style blog, and fig. 8, showing Brown posing for cameras at a red carpet event. On bottom: Fig. 9, where Brown poses with fans at a meet and greet.


Thus, fat futurity in its entirety is a tool to reconceptualize fat as bodies with a present/presence and future, a guideline for self-actualization and representation, and community of appearance and flexible record that offers the support and courage one needs to live as fat in a world adverse to fatness. Still, we must examine fat futurity further to recognize a number of its complexities and intersections. It is difficult to imagine a more progressive cyborg than the one detailed through fat futurity; however, we are in danger of affirming old ascriptions any time we relate back to the body. Our bodies and identities are always politicized in an intersectional and complex manner, raising the question of whether our bodies could ever really be the precultural and historical organic objects that are beyond our contemporary imagination. Could we possibly portray our cyborgs in more effective ways than the corporeal? Furthermore, could we do this in a way that still lets us claim our sizes, races, and genders in a way that does not make our world colorblind? A cyborg like this is almost impossible to imagine as, in trying to move beyond ascription, we discursively reinforce it. Yet part of the radicalism of fat futurity is that one can claim and own one’s identity while challenging its physical confines. For those of us who find pride in the richness of our identities, even or especially in our marginalized ones, this kind of ownership is unapologetic, radical, and progressive.

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Murray, Samantha. “Locating Aesthetics: Sexing the Fat Woman.” Social Semiotics 14, no. 3 (2004): 237-47.

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Tosha Yingling is a current Master’s student at Rutgers University in New Brunswick. Coming from Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, her research background is concentrated in feminist studies, African American studies, literature, and prison abolition activism. Her current research focuses on intersections of fat representation, fierce culture, and media studies.


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