Cake Is Never Just CakeThe Fraught Politics of Fatness, Desire, and Eating Your Feelings

image of a fat brown woman, from the neck down, wearing a raspberry-colored velvet top, and touching an assortment of fruit

Photography by Mycoze

This article was published in Pleasure Issue #81 | Winter 2019

In August 2017, Tina Fey did a bit on Saturday Night Live’s “Weekend Update” in response to the violent white supremacist rallies in Charlottesville, Virginia, that made national headlines and ended with James Alex Fields Jr. driving his car into a crowd of protesters and fatally striking activist Heather Heyer. Fey suggested members of the #Resistance cope with these events by “sheetcaking”: going to “maybe a Jewish-run bakery or an African American bakery,” ordering a sheet cake emblazoned with the American flag, and devouring it whole. “Let those morons scream into the empty air,” she said, her face smeared with cake.

Critics argued Fey’s “let them eat cake” response represented a profound failure to read the room. But her enthusiastic “sheetcaking” evangelism—the phrase quickly became a hashtag—also spoke to a larger issue in cultural discourse: It’s considered cute and fun for a thin, conventionally attractive white woman to devour an entire cake on Saturday Night Live, but the same indulgent view is not extended to fat women. Fat women are not seen as adorable or quirky while eating and enjoying food as an emotional coping tactic, and they don’t earn a forest of approving GIFs and hand-clapping emojis for smearing their faces with cake while wearing a sweatshirt on live television. The question of who gets to engage in the time-honored activity of eating their feelings, it turns out, is a fraught one and is bound up in the larger commercialization of self-care.

Apart from its tacit acknowledgment that ignoring fascism is a privilege only some can afford, the #Sheetcaking moment was also a profound illustration of the politics of fatness and desire. As the concept of food as a form of self-care has become commodified within the larger “wellness” movement, so too has the need to perform the right kind of eating. Instagram hashtags like #FoodAsSelfCare and #FoodAsMedicine present flawlessly styled raw vegan meals, juice cleanses, and exhortations to “choose a healthy snack.” Denial of food is often treated as a virtue: “Practice self-care without relying on food,” advises a popular publication dedicated to mindfulness; “Narrow your food choices,” says a privileged jet-setter who also advises the reader to inhale essential oils to “suppress food cravings.” “Say goodbye to comfort food,” a weight-loss counselor tells Plum Kettle (Joy Nash), the fat heroine of AMC’s Dietland, reiterating the diet industry’s message about “good” and “bad” foods, but also repeating the orthorexic messaging that dominates the “food as self-care” movement.

Eating in public exposes fat people to harassment, and even plus-size model Tess Holliday has been fat-shamed for posting a picture of herself on Instagram drinking a milkshake. At the doctor’s office, fat people are shamed for their weight, accused of lying about diet and exercise habits, and dismissed when they report serious health issues. Behind closed doors, fat people are shamed by their own families: “Are you sure you want to eat that?” In a culture that still demeans, dismisses, and dehumanizes fat people, a sheet cake is never just a sheet cake

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From radical movement to commercial product

The origins of the self-care movement can be traced to mid–20th century Black activism and the civil rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. explicitly identified “injustice in health” as a tremendous driver of inequality, while the Black Panthers ran community health clinics as part of their 10-point survival program. Caring for the community and caring for one’s self was a revolutionary duty. Audre Lorde’s 1988 A Burst of Light: Essays included this oft-quoted line: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Self-care was about confronting health injustice and creating space for taking care of one’s self and others in a world where Black bodies are devalued and politicized.

White feminists took up the banner of self-care in the 1960s and ’70s as hippie culture began flourishing in locales such as the Bay Area, where the “wellness movement” was catching on. Even as Black communities continued to treat self-care as an act of collective survival and community, some white communities approached the idea differently. While the women’s health movement applied self-care to reclaiming bodies, health, and autonomy, a more “wellness lite” movement began taking hold as well. The notion of helping yourself before you can help others was associated with fitness, macrobiotic diets, mindfulness, and navel-gazing over nurturing community resilience. In the past two decades, self-care has gone mainstream, showing up across loads of feminist websites and in media and pop culture; while radical publications and communities continue taking on healthist culture, the potential of self-care as a commercial product has begun to bloom. Brands have figured out how to commercialize the concept of wellness as resistance into a slew of merchandise, Instagrammable quotes, and meticulously packaged services such as spa days.

“Treat yourself” (also the subject of the “Pawnee Rangers” Parks and Recreation episode) has become “a capitalist command,” according to a 2015 The Atlantic article. People are encouraged to spend money to get in touch with their inner selves. The trend only accelerated in 2016 with the election of Donald Trump and what columnist Emma Roller referred to as the “self-care industrial complex.” The self-care recommended in media and pop culture—buy nice things and go on vacation—began to resemble a form of isolationism and willful ignorance rather than a genuine act of radically asserting personal value. Press mute with a Korean face mask and let the world pass you by. This defanged approach to self-care posits that it’s possible to spend your way into happiness, with a shrug for those who lack the financial clout to afford it. Getting a $5 manicure from an immigrant making minimum wage without adequate workplace health precautions is certainly an act of political warfare, but not the kind Lorde referenced.

The taming of fat liberation

The same corruption seen in self-care’s transformation from radical, anticapitalist concept to sleek, sanitized commercial market also happened with fat liberation, a movement rooted in the explicit celebration of fat bodies. Don’t let the name of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA), an early player in the field, fool you—the fight for fat bodies transcended anemic “acceptance” with publications such as Marilyn Wann’s FAT!SO? working “for people who don’t apologize for their size.” Fat people of all genders participated in the early fat liberation movement, but for women in particular the stakes were much higher; fat women are coded as disgusting, unfuckable, slobs, and pigs. Aggressively claiming space for fat bodies required confronting deep-seated social bias by asserting that fat bodies have value and belong in public; for some fat people, simply being seen is a radical act. At a “fat-in” in New York City’s Central Park in 1967, activists burned diet books and ate publicly; more recently, fat activists have organized summertime “Chunky Dunks” in cities around the world, renting out public pools so attendees can swim unfettered by stares and mutters.

In the early 2000s, even as fat bodies continued to be pathologized and subjected to discrimination, abuse, and mockery, something began to change. “Fat liberation” became “fat acceptance” or “fat positivity,” and then simply body or size acceptance or positivity, with larger fat people pushed to the margins of the movement they created for themselves. The well-meaning “health at every size” framework, asserting that being fat doesn’t automatically equate to being unhealthy, can imply that people who are fat and unhealthy are failing to perform fatness appropriately. Insisting that all people in all bodies experience struggle, smaller fats and even thin people insisted on carving out a space for themselves in a diluted movement via mainstream women’s magazines, blogs, and, of course, Instagram.

In 2016, fat cultural critic Lesley Kinzel commented on her blog that “[i]n recent years, fat positivity has largely been subsumed into ‘body positivity,’ a toothless shadow of the overtly politicized embodiment the former once embraced.” A movement that had been driven by and for fat bodies flattened all bodies as equal, she noted, treating a slender, conventionally attractive young woman “on the same level” as a middle-aged fat woman. Like self-care, fat liberation has gone commercial; a growing number of companies offer plus sizes (within a narrow range), Dove makes hay on the concept through its “Real Beauty” campaign, and, along the way, fat women who didn’t fit the mold of what writer Bethany Rutter terms “socially acceptable body positivity” were pushed out. There is no space for “larger fats,” ugly women, unhealthy women, disabled women, women who are messy and complicated, women who like whole cakes as much as, or more than, kale salads. And a peculiar tension has settled around food and fatness, with fat women punished for admitting that they enjoy “bad foods” with lots of sugars and fats.

Who can afford wellness?

A privileged model of eating as self-care has high expectations—all-organic, all-natural, ethical, humanely raised, clean—and comes with the price tags to match, but much of the discourse fails to acknowledge the social pressures that dictate access to nutrition. Those surrounded by an abundance of food, time, kitchen equipment, safe places to cook, and family or community support cannot conceptualize what it means to live without, but in 2016, more than 12 percent of American households were food insecure or struggling to meet basic dietary needs during some or all of the year. Many of these households were headed by single mothers of color, with 22 percent of Black and 18 percent of Latinx households experiencing food insecurity. Food pantries and allowable Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) purchases don’t create much room for dietary choice. For these communities, food is fuel. But food is also self-care; it is impossible to survive without it.

The food and wellness politic presupposes that there’s a singular way to eat food as a radical, healing, reclamatory, empowering act, and that it’s in fact damaging to introduce “toxins” to the body by way of foods deemed unhealthy. Within the framework of capitalist systems, eating “right” has been tied to financial and social privilege in a way that further marginalizes people who are already struggling. For fat communities, the desire to eat—whether as a functional need to live or a desire to live a richer, fuller life in the form of self-care—is also enmeshed with shame as a prevalent social attitude about fatness. And fat-shaming magnifies stigma: In a 2016 study about “physical misfitting,” fat people were almost twice as likely to report receiving judgmental comments while eating in public or shopping at the grocery store. This is something radical self-care should help women defy. Instead, mainstream self-care can become another form of punishment. The foods that convey a sense of wrongness are, inevitably, those that society associates with fatness. Doughnuts, cake, and fries are suspect; acaí bowls, quinoa, and kombucha are good.

The underlying message is that nothing tastes as good as thin feels. The movements we’ve created to liberate have collapsed back in on themselves to perpetuate oppression; “self-care” is used to bludgeon women who cannot or do not wish to adhere to social expectations about their bodies, lives, and diets, replicating the very systems people claim to abhor. Failure to perform self-care correctly is taken as evidence that women don’t care about their bodies and cannot be trusted to live authentically; the good, righteous way, meanwhile, is deeply and inextricably intertwined with consumerism. This is a form of dual injustice: People who lack financial privilege cannot buy their way to acceptance, and consumerism inevitably harms those exploited to further propel the self-care industrial complex. While self-care may have become a hollow phrase and another victim of capitalism, the underlying imperative to nourish and support remains. Can people rise to the challenge without repeating this vicious cycle?


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by s.e. smith
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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.