The Belly of the Beast: Da’Shaun Harrison on Anti-Blackness, Anti-Fatness, and Desirability

Written By Bianca Gonzalez

Those of us who are ostracized by society for our converging marginalized identities often find that we’re the last ones to be heard. But Da’Shaun Harrison, a Black, fat, disabled, and nonbinary trans writer, uses writing and speaking to document their story as well as the history of marginalized people. 

“My name is a very Black name. The spelling of my name,” referring to the apostrophe in their name “is a very Ghetto spelling. I welcome them both, and never want to be separated from either of them for as long as white supremacy exists,” they write in their post, “The Politics of a Name.” 

“‘Ghetto’ is not just geolocational. Much like Blackness, ‘Ghetto’ is sociopolitical and serves as an incubator to the Black babies who so often create and shift culture,” explains Harrison as they reflect on how often people leave out the apostrophe in their name. 

Those whose names are always spelled correctly probably won’t understand how isolating it can feel to be denied the respect of being referred to as your actual name. But here, Da’Shaun Harrison is speaking on the cultural and personal significance of their name. When others deliberately and systematically misspell a person’s name, they externally sever a person from the culture they identify themselves with, all while implying that their cultural identity is undesirable.

This is just one of many ways desirability politics plays a role in shaping the experiences of those marginalized. Their book Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness, which won the 2022 Lambda Literary Award for Transgender Nonfiction, explores anti-blackness and anti-fatness as implicitly intertwined ideologies rather than two intersecting ideologies.

In an interview with Nursing Clio, Harrison explains that “Anti-fatness is anti-Blackness… Anti-Blackness creates the World and gives meaning to everything in it… Anti-fatness is the framework by which the (Black) fat subject is forced to be inhuman: an object, the Beast,” says Harrison. 

“These ideologies do not and cannot exist independent of one another,” they say as they explain why fatness does not merely “intersect” with blackness. “To destroy one requires the destruction of the other. ‘Intersect’ implies that they exist on their own and meet at a point; I’m suggesting that they have the same origin and, therefore, must have the same end.”

In an excerpt from their book, Harrison explains that black fatness is at the core of the War on Obesity, noting that while Black people make up roughly 13 percent of the American population, they make up about 51 percent of America’s fat population.

A 2004 report from the CDC claimed that obesity was killing 400,000 Americans a year, but the CDC also defines obesity as “weight that is higher than what is considered as a healthy weight for a given height,” using the BMI system as a measurement.

Adolphe Quetelet, the creator of the BMI, was not a physician nor did he study medicine. He was best known for sociological work on homme moyen  or the socially ideal or “average” man, using data of cisgender white men to determine measurements. The BMI system is founded on desirability politics and sociological theory from the 1830s, not medicine.

“By the twentieth century,” Harrison writes, “Quetelet’s work was being used as the basis of, and justification for, eugenics. And though all of his work in that time period was based in anti-Black race science, he was clear that the intent of the BMI was to measure populations to develop statistics.”

Almost 200 years after its inception, this faulty measurement system would be used in a faulty study that would fuel toxic anti-fatness diet culture in America. “From the moment white Europeans saw fat Africans,” says Harrison, “the science that followed was intended to always separate them from the rest.”

The Black population disproportionately feels the effects of the anti-fatness dieting culture that this faulty study has perpetuated. It’s legal in 49 states to fire fat people for being fat. With non-hispanic Black adults having the highest prevalence of obesity, this lack of lawful protection for fat people disproportionately affects Black Americans and gives employers lawful access to firing Black employees for being themselves– if they so happen to be fat.

Black fat people, Harrison writes in their excerpt, aren’t dying due to being fat but “because of a medical industrial complex committed to seeing fatness, Blackness, and Black fatness as death; they are dying because of a lack of proper resources—like housing and employment—that would provide them with money, health care, and a place to rest their heads.” 

“The Black fat, in particular, is dying because of an inherently anti-Black system of policing that sees them as the deadly Beast that needs to be put down. This is the Belly of the Beast: removed from care and placed always in the way of harm.”

You can find Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness at Penguin Random House Books.

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