Size contrition: the performance of a lifetime

A fat woman's body shown from the armpits to stomach, with pale skin and stretch marks. She is wearing a black bra and panties, and her image appears "torn" by the layout of the graphic. Overlaid is the title of the blog post.

Today I’m thinking about a concept I’m calling size contrition.

Size contrition is what we fat folks perform in order to win small amounts of forbearance from thin people. In essence, it allows us to temporarily access aspects of thin privilege in return for our public recognition of and apology for our fatness.

For instance, let’s look at the act of wearing flattering clothing. Flattering often means causing the wearer to look as compliant with beauty standards, particularly thinness, as possible.

For average-sized and smaller fat people, wearing flattering clothing can allow them to appear thinner and access a higher level of thin privilege.

(Conversely, these folks can often claim a level of oppression they do not actually experience by reversing “flattering” — think of the thin influencers who slouch to create a “belly roll.”)

Larger fat people, however, simply cannot access more privilege with flattering clothing. I can avoid wearing horizontal stripes until the sun freezes, and I’ll still be visibly very fat. 

When larger fat people wear flattering clothing (e.g., baggy, black, dated, hiding “problem areas”), we are performing size contrition. No one — not us, not an onlooker — is fooled into thinking we’re actually thin. 

But our performance makes it clear that we know we should be thin, and (in a society that associates moral and personal traits with body size) that we should be all the virtuous traits associated with thinness. We are saying without words, 

“Yes. I know that I am fat, and that my fat body is evidence of my inferiority. Please forgive me. I’m trying to be better.”

An important privilege of thinness is to be the arbiter of fat people’s worth, and size contrition shows this in action. When handed these cues of contrition, thin people will often reward us with a temporary reprieve from oppression: size forbearance.

That reprieve might be enough to get us through a meeting, or a job interview, or a restaurant meal, or a date, or a doctor’s appointment.

And in a world that tells us, “You’d better show your contrition all the time, and maybe we’ll reward you,” it’s no wonder that most fat people are publicly contrite all the time.

Here are some of the ways size contrition shows up in the world:

  • “Flattering” clothing
  • Diet talk
  • Before-and-after photos
  • Squeezing into infrastructure (like chairs) designed to exclude fat bodies
  • Public dieting and “health journeys”
  • Exercise with a loud intention of weight loss
  • Ordering a salad or other “healthy” food in public
  • Weight loss surgery

How have you seen size contrition in action? If you’re a fat person, how have you used it for survival? If you’re a thin person, how have you used the power of others offering you their contrition?

Part 2: The Mimi Exemption Β»
Part 3: Fuck Flattering Β»

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Hi there! I'm Lindley. I create artwork that celebrates the unique beauty of bodies that fall outside conventional "beauty" standards at Body Liberation Photography. I'm also the creator of Body Liberation Stock and the Body Love Shop, a curated central resource for body-friendly artwork and products. Find all my work here at