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Colonialism & Man Boobs: Conquering the Feminized Terrain of the Fat Male Body

In Imperial Leather: Race, Gender, and Sexuality in the Colonial Conquest, Anne McClintock demonstrates how male imperialists repeatedly framed exotic lands as feminized terrains to be explored, contained, and dominated by masculine reason and violence. For example, she analyzes Jan van der Straet’s famous drawing, which “portrays the ‘discovery’ of America as an eroticized encounter” between “a fully armored Vespucci, [who] stands erect and masterful” and “a naked and erotically inviting woman” (p. 25-26).

"The Discovery of America," a 1630 engraving by Theodor Galle after a drawing by Jan van der Straet (ca. 1575)

“The Discovery of America,” a 1630 engraving by Theodor Galle after a drawing by Jan van der Straet (ca. 1575)

McClintock cites additional gendered metaphors of conquest, such as the language of “virgin” lands and territories, the female figures that donned ships’ prows, and even the mythical mermaids and sirens that filled the otherwise empty seas drafted by cartographers. Notably, McClintock argues that one of the motivating factors behind these imperialist actions was “a profound, if not pathological, sense of male anxiety and boundary loss” (1995, p. 24).

McClintock’s argument finds an analogy in the study of male control over fat male bodies. In this scenario, the fat male body emerges as similarly feminized terrain, a land of the self that—based upon body size recommendations from medicine, the media, and cultural norms of thinness—is judged to be spilling out beyond acceptable borders. This physical transgression takes on moral, political, and ideological significance within the context of the “obesity epidemic,” evoking anxiety and panic among men and women alike.

Just as feminine bodies, forms, and adjectives accompanied and marked colonial conquest, the fat male body is denigrated using feminine comparisons. For example, the terms “man boobs” or “bitch tits,” referring to fat that accumulates on a man’s chest, or the remark that fat at the abdomen makes a man appear pregnant are ways in which male fatness is construed as derisively feminine. In this way, fat becomes a gendered antagonist of masculinity and an entity to be controlled by force. One such forceful action is dieting—reducing caloric intake in an effort to reduce the weight, space, and femininity of the fat male body.

Paradoxically, however, going on a diet is deemed within the strictures of hegemonic masculinity as inappropriately feminine. Just as the feminine fat on a man’s body is perceived as trespassing upon corporal borders, so too does the act of dieting encroach upon hegemonic standards of what is suitably masculine behavior. Men who diet purposefully traverse hegemonic boundaries of gender as they engage in weight loss, which is perceived to be an un-masculine, feminine activity. Thus, by participating in a weight loss program, men resist and subvert hegemonic masculinity, as they conquer the feminized terrain of the fat male body.


  1. Would that mean that fat men are more likely to take up exercise than dieting for weight loss? Looks like it judging from the “Six-Pack Abs” diet slogan, “dieting like a man.”


    • emilycontois says

      It does appear that men have been more inclined to exercise to lose weight rather than modifying what/how they eat, but that also appears to be changing as I continue to explore how commercial weight loss programs like Weight Watchers and Nutrisystem are targeting male clients, a recent phenomenon. Their marketing messages are often linked to sports and working out, but they do directly engage men in the act of dieting, which is conventionally viewed as a feminine activity. The interplay between gendered notions is really fascinating in this project.

      As always, thanks for reading and commenting, Jan!


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