cultural capital, fitting in, and standing out

So, um, hello again.  It’s been a while.  A long while, actually.  Sorry about that.  I’ve been super-busy.  It’s been (mostly) amazing, but also exhausting.  A lot of things have happened.  My first time teaching (amazing! terrifying! fun!).  The fat studies conference (completely incredible!).  Stuff and nonsense of all sorts.  I’ve had lots of thinky thoughts but no time to write them down, which means they get all kind of bottle-necked and jammed up and then when I finally do get a moment, it takes a while to untangle the ideas and lay them out in ways that make sense.  This post will be long and probably not very neat or coherent as I try to fit all these ideas together.

Something that I’ve been thinking about a lot over the last few months is cultural capital.  Partly because it got a fair bit of play in the subject I was teaching, but also because it’s highly relevant to both my research and to certain events in my personal life.

The idea of cultural capital comes from French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who wrote a lot about class, taste, and social distinction.  Cultural capital is closely related to the idea of habitus – roughly, the idea that not only tastes, but also behaviours, comportment, and bodily styles are a product of social and economic class.  One of Bourdieu’s most oft-quoted lines is:

“taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier”

In other words, what you like says something about who you are.  By declaring a fondness for, say, vintage sundresses, I’m not only affirming said frocks as beautiful and valuable objects, but identifying myself as a particular type or person – alternative, but probably not too threatening; quirky in a whimsical way; indie but not rebellious.  I’m not saying that every girl in a vintage sundress fits the same mould, but that dressing in a particular style will identify me as a particular kind of person and associate me with particular attributes and ideals.  That is, if I can even find a vintage sundress that fits.

Which brings me to one way that cultural capital relates to fat.  Fat bodies lack cultural capital.  We’re devalued, othered, and outcast.  We’re desexualised, unfashionable, and made to bear the burden of failed citizenship. We’re excluded from participation in clothing cultures through sheer lack of options which accommodate our bodies (although this is, fortunately, changing).  Being excluded from being able to dress in a particular way has significant implications for participation in the rest of the world – in work, in leisure, in exercise, in social activities.  If I can’t find an appropriate outfit to wear to a job interview, I appear unprofessional and don’t get the job.  If I can’t find comfortable clothes to exercise in, it makes it harder to go to the gym.  If I can’t find bathers that fit, how can I join in with the fabulousness that is Aquaporko‘s fat femme (and femme-friendly) synchronised swimming? (But find a way because it is AWESOME!).  If I can’t find a cute vintage sundress, then what the fuck am I going to wear to hang out with my friends at whichever laneway bar we’re frequenting this week?  Even if I do manage to find a cute vintage sundress that fits (which is getting easier, thanks to uppity fats demanding fatshions, the internet and the relentless need of capitalism to always expand its markets), my body already classifies me as different.  I’m too big and too awkward and too solid for the whimsical femininity such a frock might attempt to reference.  Not only are fat bodies largely excluded from particular styles of dress, the presence of “too much” fat changes the meaning of those styles which are available.  Because no matter what I’m wearing, I am still a visual interloper.  The visible, visceral difference between me and them remains an obstacle to participation in this particular bit of life.

For some people the answer might be not to care what anyone else thinks, that it’s what’s inside, etc, etc.  Personally, I think that particular argument is so loaded down with neoliberal individualism that it exhausts me beyond words.

Being able to fit matters not only because I do care what people think, but because dressing in a particular style and going to particular places and participating in a particular form of cultural life of my city (ILU, Melbourne!) is important to my identity, is a part of who I am, is how I make myself in the world.

My concern with cultural capital isn’t only about fat.  Growing up, I was one of the least popular kids in school.  I was picked on for being different – for being fat, yes, but also for being poor, for dressing differently, for eating strange food, for having a dark-skinned father, for being excruciatingly shy to the point where sometimes I literally could not speak.  At one point in early high school, my best friend decided to stop speaking to me and the rest of the group followed her lead.  I had no friends for several months until we reconciled.  Traumatic times.

So when I say that I’ve had a background obsession with fitting in, with understanding and cultivating cultural capital for most of my life, I’m not exaggerating.  Not that I’ve been particularly successful in cultivating this capital, more that I’ve been acutely aware of my lack of success.  I’ve always known that my body (and my economic status, and my social inelegance) excludes me from not only certain fashions, but certain identities – hipster, for example, was never an option despite my “obsessive, often self-deluded, pursuit of inner-city cool” and aforementioned penchant for laneway bars.

Given my history, one of the things that never ceases to amaze me about my adult life is that I have a surprisingly large number of excellent friends.  From long-term, intimate friendships to drinking buddies, I’ve somehow become…popular?  I have a pretty full social calendar, anyway, and a sense that I’m incredibly lucky to be so well loved.  Which is not to say that my adult social life has been without challenges.  I’ve lost friends who’ve drifted away or fallen out or gotten involved and never been heard from again (where are you, S?).  Being chronically single for most of my life was also challenging.  There’s a huge amount of social (not to mention economic) capital which goes with being partnered, especially for women.  Knowing how little sexual capital fat people generally have didn’t help, despite my sound disdain for compulsory heteronormative coupling and a biting analysis of the damage done by the dominance of romantic mythology.  (I have a whole other post brewing on why sexual desire and desirability matters and is a valid grounds for fat activism.)

When I started dating The Socialist a year-and-a-half ago, I was painfully aware of his lack of cultural capital.  On our second date we went out for brunch, and was astonished to see avocado on toast on the menu as a breakfast food, thus demonstrating to me beyond all doubt an unforgivable lack of sophistication.  Fortunately, he’s an open-minded and adventurous type who ordered the damn avocado (and enjoyed it).  A year and a half later, he’s still not very sophisticated.  He doesn’t wear trackies to parties anymore, but he still says the wrong thing at the wrong time.  He can be painfully awkward in group situations and he doesn’t always pick up on social cues.  He doesn’t get irony and sarcasm.  But he is undeniably good-hearted and loving and generous, and still willing to go on just about any adventure I can concoct, and makes me happy in the most ridiculous ways.

When we first started dating, I wasn’t sure what to do.  For the longest time I was conflicted.  I would warn people of his awkwardness, his lack of cool, in advance of introducing him.  Trying to manage the potential impact. An old friend once described this sort of thing as “trying to cover your ass while saving face”.  It’s a tricky manoeuvre.   I was afraid that by associating so intimately with someone who not only didn’t have, but didn’t care about the cultural capital I had worked so hard to cultivate, I’d loose what little I had.  I was afraid that my friends would reject him and in doing so, reject me.  After the trauma of highschool, it was the worst thing I could imagine.

Well, the worst thing I could imagine is actually what happened.  We’ve been effectively ostracised by one group of friends; him directly, me by association.  And it turns out, it’s not that bad.

It’s hard to say why without reducing it to the same individualist narrative that I find and misleading and useless.  It’s not because I suddenly stopped caring about cultural capital (I certainly didn’t), or because romantic love is the most important thing (it’s definitely not, and if the rest of my friends weren’t saying how lovely they think The Socialist is, I’d be writing a very different post).  I think partly it’s ok because I was always on the edges of that particular group anyway.  I didn’t have the history (one of the things about having moved cities several times is that other people will always have been around longer than me), or the indie music credentials, or access to quite the right kinds of clothes, or the ironic sense of disregard for the impact my words might have on others.  And while I still care about those things (well, not that last one), there’s some small pressure that’s dissipated.

Mostly, though, I think it’s about you.  Fat community.  The blogs and the twitters, and the fat studies conference and aquaporko and hanging out at hipster bars with other rad fatties.  With changing the context and the meaning of fat, even if only in little corners of the world (at a time).  With the ways that we’re making spaces both on and offline where fat bodies are normalised and valued.  It’s what we do when we write and talk and swim and dress up and dress down and move and sit and eat and hang out and offer support and make theory and tell our stories.

And what we do is fucking amazing.

16 Replies to “cultural capital, fitting in, and standing out”

  1. Yeah, welcome back, out of all the phatsphere, you have the posts I read and read again. I suppose you could say you are the postess with the mostess, but don’t let me encourage you!

  2. If you’re interested in Bourdieu and cultural capital and fat (which I am, and think it’s great that others are too), you might want to pursue the concept of hexis, which is basically habitus imposed upon the body—the way we make our bodies what they are and what they mean with doxa. Bourdieu’s discussion of interpretive and behavioral praxis around the body is, I think, fabulous and underutilized.

  3. I really love how you bring Bourdieu to fat rights. His work speaks so clearly to those of use who lack cultural capital.
    And I love this line:
    For some people the answer might be not to care what anyone else thinks, that it’s what’s inside, etc, etc. Personally, I think that particular argument is so loaded down with neoliberal individualism that it exhausts me beyond words.
    All I can say is Amen to that! Yes!
    I’ve always read Bourdieu as a criticism of our social stratification, though, not as a reason to continue our attempts to amass cultural capital (which is what I understand the rest of your entry to be struggling with). It’s an interesting take.

    1. Absolutely, I agree the Bourdieu and those who’ve followed him offer a critique. And I’m certainly not arguing for trying to amass cultural capital in traditional ways. But since we live in a culture in which having social capital brings with it certain sorts of power, and not having any is profoundly disenfranchising, I think there is a value (and even necessity) to accruing some, and especially to changing the meaning and means of fat bodies so that we aren’t automatically devalued and abhored. Which I think fat activism is doing, most prominently and visibly through fatshion. And while I have a critique of just how much that tends to buy into capitalist consumption and neoliberal individualism as well, I still think there’s valuable political work going on.
      A better answer would be to change the whole damn system, but one thing at a time.

  4. I think you should read some Veblen. I wouldn’t agree with you that the pursuit of cultural capital was somehow inevitable. Just being aware of the factors influencing your decisions changes your behaviour, in which case the relationship becomes more of a dialogue than an externally directed succession of acquisitions. Saying that you have no choice in the matter or that there are no alternatives is disingenuous…

    The idea is that the middle-class is isolated from the means of production, so that all of their interactions are through the workings of capital. They earn money (with the capital, of course) to buy things to enhance their status. But just making things is culture. Making things is what culture is; it’s what archaeologists dig up. So for the working class (and obviously this applies to people like ourselves who make things, whether it’s books or music or whatever, people who engage in non-alienated labour) producing culture is an end in itself. You don’t work for money, you work to make things. And your value, your personal value, should really be derived from that, not from the tastefulness of the stuff you buy on the pittance you get paid for working in the cultural equivalent of the coal mines.

    1. But Chris, I didn’t say that I have no choice in the matter. I do think we are all always operating within dominant culture, though, and can’t just shrug it off by sheer force of will. And I have read some Veblen. I think that that there are limits to a structural class analysis, though. Unfortunately this is a blog post and not a whole damn thesis, so I can’t cover everything just now.

  5. Lovely to see you at Dangerous Curves Ahead the other night — is there anywhere I can find the text of your story?

    Also interested in what resistance is possible to taste as classifier, primarily for socialist reasons — and particularly I want to reject the sort of hipster values that focus all political energy on consumer identities (somewhat like the criticism Stuff White People Like offers). I don’t want to sustain the notion of good taste, or tastefulness (more about that here, towards the end), but how do you avoid that? Especially if I still want beautiful things when I can get them?

    1. Hello! It was lovely to see you, too! Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond to your comment – I’ve been trying ot think of a cogent answer, but I haven’t come up with one yet.

      I don’t know how to resist taste as a classifier. Embracing ‘bad taste’ can go so far in breaking things down, but tends to re-create hierarchies of taste(lessness) because it inevitably remains focussed on taste. I’m not sure it’s possible to get away entirely from taste and consumption, given that we do live in commodity culture, and it’s part of how we are made intelligible as subjects (there is no ‘outside’ and all that).

      I guess another question is how/can we resist from within those structures?

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