Unpacking the messages of fat bodies as depicted by Slow Tarot
First, I want to start off with the following:
A few months ago I greedily unwrapped the Slow Tarot by Lacey Bryant and was astounded by the lusciousness of the art, the sweetness and depth of the deck, the kind rendering and interesting interpretations of each card.
But one card stopped me short. In fact, it made my blood ran cold and turned what was otherwise a joy into sorrow. The artist had decided to rename the Devil card as ‘Temptation’ and in it you see a tableau of (thin) people making love but mostly in the middle of the frame you see a naked fat woman squaring you directly, but her face is also square with the viewer but she is looking away. She is an object to be viewed by the audience’s gaze. It is a vulnerable, sullen shot.
She holds an almost empty wine glass while around her lie plates of half eaten food and empty platters. The foods include cakes, cheese and grapes. Forbidden foods, indolent foods, foods of pleasure, “naughty” foods. The colors used to paint her are in a green cast.
So what? You might say. What’s the big deal?
But what if I told you that the deck contains no other image of a fat person? How would you feel knowing that the artist herself is not a fat woman (but I do not know what her journey has been. I only know she passes as a straight size now and that confers its own level of privilege).
Here is the image:
As a fat woman staring at this image, what am I to think? What am I to feel?
Is it true that I have just handed myself over to Temptation, the Devil, and the underlying message: the sin of gluttony? Is my body really the bad guy, here?
As a person who identifies as fat I have grown accustomed to living in a body that is often another woman’s greatest fear. The years of bullying and abuse from children and adults alike is nothing new. In fact, as a tarot reader I had long resigned myself to the fact that most tarot imagery will never look like me (though thankfully that has changed as artists are being mindful in creating tarot populations with diversity).
But what is the emotion that someone who looks like me-whether that be me as a reader or a client who comes to see me, what do they feel when they see that image?
I took it public and I asked others. I posted it on my facebook feed and it was clear:
Women, but especially women who negotiate a fat body (or just struggle with weight) felt shame when viewing the image. That increased when they were told that there were no other images of fat women in the deck.
And why would we feel shame? Because society has told us that we are moral failures. We fail as people, but especially, we fail as women when we cannot maintain a straight size and oh boy, shame sells, it really does
Again, so what? Maybe these people need to be shamed, am I right? Since obviously, they are fat because they have been led astray by the Devil. They are fat because they have no willpower. This is the long held view of fatness in the western world.
But these stereotypes have actual consequences for larger people in the real world.
When fatness is viewed through the lens of personal and moral failing, it has huge social, financial and lifestyle impacts on people of size. “ Some 62% of people surveyed by the World Obesity Federation said they had been discriminated against because of their weight.” (BBC)
The discrimination runs deep: fat people do not get access to medical care on par with straight sized patients. Many fat people are told that their problems are due to their weight and as a result their very serious medical conditions such as a crushed back or endometriosis or even breast cancer go undiagnosed and untreated. “The general public, in most Western cultures, is conditioned to condemn overweight individuals.” (Healthline)
Fatness is condemned because it is a physical reminder that gluttony, temptation, sin, and depravity are the user’s fault. We live in a meritocracy- we believe that people deserve what they get in life. So fat people understandably deserve contempt, derision, bullying, fear, and even loathing. Don’t believe me? People surveyed would rather lose a limb or a year of their life than be fat.
In our culture to be fat is feared more than almost anything else. Doesn’t that just sound crazy? I mean, think about it! People would rather lose an arm than carry weight on them. Now, what kind of cultural pressure is there that these people are responding to?
It makes total sense that a meritocratic society condemns fat people so vociferously. You can’t help it if you are disabled, a woman, or mentally ill but (according to research that’s being rapidly debunked) you can help it if you are fat. And since fat is the one thing you can control then it is open season on the fatties! Our culture exonerates or villifies based on content of character
But if 60% of all Americans are now overweight and obese can we therefore posit that all of the sudden a huge swath of the population just suddenly lost their will power and are guzzling down bags of cheetos at 3am? Are we really ready to condemn the majority of the population when we look at this situation with a critical eye?
Because the research is beginning to show something very different. That, in fact, will power has not much to do about losing weight and keeping it off.
The research has been very clear: in most cases dieting simply does not work long term for most people. How is it that the diet industry (which makes billions every year) can even stay in business if fat people are such gluttonous and lazy slobs if dieting actually worked? Or, if they just didn’t diet at all?
With a 95% failure rate you can guess it is not the people who are already thin keeping these guys afloat. You guessed it, it is fat people who fail over and over again, who keep trying even when the research clearly shows that restrictive eating often harms their metabolisms and over time will make them regain the weight and add more on.
There are hormonal reasons why people regain the weight they lost over time, this is a fairly new area of research, but it thoroughly uncouples the notion that being fat just means that we lack will power-that we have given ourselves over to temptation/devil. “Our study has provided clues as to why obese people who have lost weight often relapse. The relapse has a strong physiological basis and is not simply the result of the voluntary resumption of old habits,” he said. (Nutrition Review
“But, but, but… what about their health?!” is a common response to articles such as mine. But usually, health concern is just more thinly veiled fat disgust and stigma. Because if we really are concerned about someone’s health we would also be concerned about the greater constellation of their lives. The social, political, economic and access to care that affects the size of bodies.
We would be curious about the complex, interwoven pieces that health represents, and we would understand that weight is complicated and sometimes even beneficial to our health. It is called the Obesity Paradox and persists despite rabid attempts of debunking by medical establishments.
It is no accident that weight is tied to economic class. The poor in America-that is another ‘free for all bias’ because in a meritocracy it is your fault if you are poor, too
So if dieting has such miserable success rates, why do fat people keep trying?
Because they know that to live in a fat body means the world can judge you at a glance and find you wanting. That glance means not getting a second interview, a date, the good loan. Being just 15 pounds overweight means a loss of $9,000 a year in wages. Fatness is not a protected class yet people are regularly discriminated against because of it.
And, the saddest thing is that most fat people blame themselves, have internalized the world’s message and absolutely hate themselves despite trying over and over again to become thin, who want it more than anything.
Of course many thin people scoff at the idea of fat stigma just like white people often will scoff when black people share their experiences or men discount the harassment that many women face all of the time. It is easy to discount a lived experience you have never had. If you have been thin your whole life you might have never seen any kind of fat bias, fat bigotry, and fat hate. This is called thin privilege and yes it is a thing.
I would have hoped that the artist had taken just one small minute and imagined herself as a fat woman and asked herself, “How might this choice of fat devil make me feel as a fat body? Is it my role to paint this in this way? What is the message I am trying to convey? (and also) Might I be hurting people?”
This kind of stuff honestly doesn’t take long. Just a minute of putting yourself in someone else’s (wide-sized) shoes.
I hope that I have made a clear case that imagery such as the Slow Tarot’s “Temptation” (i.e. Devil) card is not innocent. It reinforces harmful tropes about fat people and these tropes affect the very quality of life that fat people.
But mostly, it just hurt me.
It is more of the same. Here I am going about my business of living my life and all the sudden it is like getting slapped. Because, honestly? I am pretty happy in this fat body of mine. I like it. I like who I am. But it is society who constantly reminds me that I am not ok. That I am given over to the Devil, that I represent a cardinal sin and for that I get no quarter and certainly no pity. In a meritocratic world I get exactly what I deserve.
As a fat women I feel that there is a constant quiet stream of hatred that only takes a little bit to come out. The woman who screamed, “You just a big fat woman, aren’t you?” when I yelled at her cause she almost hit me at a crosswalk. To the (ex) friend who posted publicly posted on Facebook, “So glad to cut the fat out of my life.” and left that status public so I would see it. To the man who gave me a look of disgust when I sat in his row on a flight. To the well-meaning condescending people who say they are “so proud of me” because I can swim laps in a pool, or out-walk them or out-dance them, shocked that I actually am capable of something that maybe even they are not.
To the woman at the market stall who told me that “The bracelet looks so good on larger women like you.” and another who recently told me that “you look so well put together as a larger woman” as if to look good and also be fat was an equation she could not compute. These veiled compliments are mini quakes of hate.
To the doctor recently who told me she was concerned about my BMI and told me to “just work out more” even though I came in because I thought I had broken my foot
As a professional tarot reader I am conscious about the decks I use when working with others. I am careful to choose decks that mirror the great and wonderful diversity of clients that I serve. I want my clients to see themselves in the cards because tarot is literally talking about the story of their lives.
As a reader, I want a deck that makes me feel grander, see bigger, reach further. Shame doesn’t do that. Shame makes one small.
It would break my heart to use Slow Tarot and have this card come up for a fat person, to feel them still in silent hurt (most fat people have learned to just shut up and put up) to feel them close down. Or, to feel the heat in my face when this card came up between myself and a straight sized client-however am I supposed to be able to navigate that?
You know who I want depicted as a fat woman? Strength. Because to be a fat women in a thin world that barely hides its disgust means to don the heart of a lion, the strength of the desert, and the mental fortitude of taming the internalized shame and self-hate into something usable, even joyful.
To be a fat person is a crucible, a melting point where we negotiate our bodies and the spaces our bodies inhabit, it is a balancing act that actually requires great subtlety, sensitivity and a compassion for suffering-certainly not qualities that the Devil illustrates. The fat women I have known and hope to know are beautiful, strong, disciplined, capable, and credible. Let them be Strength, let them be Star, let them paint the firmament with the qualities I know them (and myself) to actually possess.
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