The Cultural Image of the Fat Poor in Contemporary American Literature and Culture

Dissertation Project by Claudia Müller

In this (ongoing) dissertation project I describe and analyze the cultural image of the fat poor, a stereotypical idea which emerged at the intersection of the discourses on poverty and on ‘obesity’ within the last decades and which contributed/s to the individualization and culturalization of poverty. This new phenomenon also marks a historical shift away from imaging the poor as thin and starving (and therefore deserving society’s support) and instead envisions them as ‘fat’ (which in that logic signals overabundance and questions the need for support). My thesis explores major cultural dynamics and figurations of fat poor by analyzing pop-cultural texts (literature, film, television) from the 1990s and early 21th century.

The cultural image of the fat poor contributes to both a culturalization of poverty, especially in its causes, and an individualization of poverty, regarding its causes and especially its overcoming. The discourses on poverty and on ‘obesity’ share several similarities in how poor and large-bodied people are imagined. Both conditions are primarily understood as consequences of certain characteristics, attitudes, and behaviors, which include laziness and immobility, consumption without productivity, and a lack of willpower and self-discipline. With the merging of the two discourses, poverty is presented as an individual hardship primarily, and not as a systemic, societal, and political matter. In the logic of fat poor, it is the individual’s responsibility to overcome poverty via a change of attitude and behavior and via internalizing a specific set of ideals.

The dissertation discusses two major dynamics of fat poor—the culturalization of poverty and the individualization of poverty—and several figurations of fat poor, such as the fat poor welfare mother/queen, the loser/winner figuration, fat poor as freak, and fat poor as outcast. Looking at these different figurations helps to describe various cultural functions of othering and marginalizing the poor and conceptualizing them as threat, spectacle, unknown, or failed self, and to recognize fat poor’s connections to other stereotypes on poverty—such as Welfare Mother, Welfare Queen, and White Trash.