‘Fattening’ history: Reading archives of fat women

Jessie Matheson explores how “out-sized” rural women used the women’s pages of a 1930s newspaper to counter discourses about their bodies. This post is based on an article that appears in the 2020 issue of Lilith, available now on open access here.

In 1936 a woman on a sheep farm in the Western Australian wheatbelt wrote into the women’s pages of the Western Mail under the name ‘Nil Desperandum’. She was writing to ‘Virgilia’, the editor of the women’s pages and of the ‘Virgilians’ Friendly Corner’: a few pages at the back of the newspaper where women from across Western Australia would write in to share stories of their lives. ‘As most of the Virgilians seem to be ‘O.S.’,’ she began, meaning ‘out-sized’, or fat, ‘I wonder what they will say when I tell them that a Harley-street specialist says that most of the ‘O.S.’ women of today are the arm-chair type’. She dryly responded to herself: ‘If I had him here for a week, I bet he would eat his words’.

Hidden at the back of a relatively obscure rural newspaper, and beneath the flimsy euphemism of ‘O.S.’, or ‘X.O.S.’, lies this unexplored world of fat women, talking to each other, sharing their experiences, and, sometimes, resisting discourses that had been imposed on their bodies. These women offer an insight into the private worlds of fat women who preceded the ‘fat activist’ movements of the late twentieth century. They pose a challenge to historians of fat people, who must find ways to push beyond traditional languages of fat empowerment or oppression and ask: how did fat people talk to each other? How did they talk to themselves? How may our study of fat women nourish and sustain our relationship to the past, and narratives about contemporary fat bodies?

Western Mail was one of the oldest newspapers in Western Australia. Outside of the women’s pages, there was little aimed at women, inside the pages, rural women developed a vibrant community of self-proclaimed ‘Virgilians’. These women were almost exclusively white, but represented a wide range of class backgrounds. Letters were largely conservative in tone, with women mostly sharing domestic tips and anecdotes. Yet in sharing these details of their lives, women could use the conservative-coding of the women’s pages to mount fairly radical criticisms of the conditions they lived in, and, much as  Katie Holmes has suggested in her study of women’s diaries, insist on a ‘priority to the seemingly insignificant things that absorbed their time’.

Holmes identifies diaries as potential sites of ‘defiance, of freedom, validation and acceptance’. Hélène Cixous has also explored the radical quality of women writing about their bodily experiences, whereby to put oneself into text is to put the body ‘into the world and into history’. For fat women, the community they created for themselves in the Western Mail became a space where they could challenge popular narratives about their bodies with details of their own experience. There are countless examples of ‘O.S’ women using the women’s pages of the Western Mail to do this, the rest of this post will focus on just one of these women, as an example of what these kinds of narratives may mean for the study of women’s history, and the experience of fat women today.

In her letter, ‘Nil Desperandum’ sought to share her experience with other ‘O.S.’ Virgilians. Read closely, her letter demonstrates how centring the experience of fat women may offer new insights into medical, commercial, moral and sexual histories. Her experience offers new insights into several key historiographical questions of interwar Western Australia. Perhaps more significantly, we also see how women like ‘Nil Desperandum’ resisted narratives about their bodies. She went on to detail her near-constant farm work of gardening, cooking, cleaning, sewing and teaching her children, ‘so’, she wrote wryly, ‘you can imagine how much arm-chair I enjoy’. ‘Nil Desperandum’ clearly defined herself by her work, which she talked about openly and frankly. She seems to have believed that the medicalisation of her body was predicated on the invisibility of her work and countered this by exposing the constant work of women on farms.

Kate Darian-Smith and Sara Wills have discussed how during the interwar years the institution of the ‘Show Queen’ was utilised to mask the productive work women did in rural communities, accentuating their symbolic role as icons of passive femininity. Emphasis on women being needed or active threatened to emasculate men, whose own gender identities had been made vulnerable by rural downturn. I argue that by stressing their work, indeed, their over-work, in response to assumptions about their weight, Virgilians were attacking this rural ideal of passive femininity, threatening to expose the myth that work and gender had ever represented a neat dichotomy in rural life. This suggests solidarity not just with other ‘O.S.’ women, but with all women in rural communities.

Mae West in “Go West Young Man”, a film directed by Henry Hathaway (1936). Wikimedia Commons.

‘Nil Desperandum’ received a flurry of messages of agreement and support following her letter, including ‘Nota Bene’ who used the opportunity to share how much she loved her ‘Mae West curves’ despite ‘pitying’ looks from her neighbours. This was typical when ‘O.S.’ women shared their stories: one story inspired countless more. For historians, these letters offer a chance for a ‘fattening of …history’, not just an opportunity to tell the important stories of fat women resisting and negotiating the cultural discourses of their bodies, but as a lens through which we may track broader histories of women. They are a tool by which we may challenge the supposed naturalness of contemporary fat-shaming discourses, by giving resistance to these discourses their own history, and disrupting the assumption that history is dominated by a single normative body type.

The full-length version of this article appears in the 2020 issue of Lilith: A Feminist History Journal.

Jessie Matheson is a PhD candidate working on the Invisible Farmer Project (ARC Linkage LP160100555) at the University of Melbourne, in partnership with Museums Victoria. Her research is on cultural histories of gender and sexuality in Australia across the 20th century. Her thesis explores the political identities of Australian rural women.

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