This column originally appeared in pop justice, Scalawag's newsletter exploring the intersection of popular culture and justice—namely through abolition. Sign up here.
As a chicken salad stan, this TikTok moment is what dreams are made of.
On September 1, Nish Godfrey (@onlynishaa_ on TikTok) recorded a video as she took a bite of a chicken salad she had ordered at a run-of-the-mill bodega in Cleveland, Ohio. "Y'all better come up here and get one of these," she says, with a plastic fork balanced between her index and middle fingers. "What's that?" someone off-camera asks. "It's a chicken salad. 81st Deli. Superior."
Godfrey became a sensation almost immediately. There was something about the way the words chicken salad escaped from her lips. Linguists were interested in her diction. Memes unfurled. Celebrities and influencers were obsessed. Folks from Cleveland warned newcomers against just pulling up to the hood to go to the deli.
But as Meek Mill codified in his timeless Dreams and Nightmares, "Dreams unfold/ Nightmares come true."
Mine has arrived in the form of a Weight Watchers sponsorship.
Last week, Godfrey posted another TikTok, this time from the Weight Watchers test kitchen. She said she had something special for us: a chicken salad. "It's going to be superior," she promised. Corners of the the comments section exploded in applause, praising Godfrey as a testament to the power of the Internet. But a lot of us cringed—myself included.
Normally it makes me so giddy to see nonwhite TikTok creators get sponsorships to make some money off the talent that propels the addictive app. (The disrespect is palpable: Google allegedly offered Godfrey $500 for the rights to her sound.) This, however, actually pissed me off on multiple fronts. The antifatness is a clear point of contention. But, for pop justice, I was also thinking about how her experience dovetails with policing—and the resurgence we're seeing in both police killings and the Y2K "heroin chic" relationship to body and size. I saw a tweet recently that gets at the heart of what I'm going to unpack in today's edition:
2022 or 2002?
These pandemic years have been awful, especially for groups who hoped we would emerge from the 100-year event a different, more inclusive society. Disabled people, especially under the hashtag #DisabledPeopleToldYou, hoped to harness the fact that pandemic preparations—such as taking it seriously early—were things they knew how to handle from lived experience. What would the world look like if the most vulnerable led us?
We can never forget the way the pandemic exacerbated the housing crisis nationwide (landlords need to get a real job, ok). There were temporary interventions at the federal level, stalling evictions, but now those are back—and the economy is not. There's also been devastating reporting capturing how parents saw a marked difference from the child tax credit, meaning they could afford simple pleasures and small dignities they otherwise have denied their children—and have had to revoke since.
Fat people have been told since the early days of the pandemic that we're at greater risk of illness from COVID-19. But the BMI index is so racist and skewed that "obesity" begins with a BMI of 30—which for someone 6'0 like me, if you're over 219 lbs, means you're "at risk." The pandemic also meant that for the first time in my life, the medical-industrial complex was actually giving me something for being fat: a skip-the-line pass when the vaccine rolled out. I wish I could've bottled that feeling up.
Lastly, one of the defining moments of 2020 came in the form of an unrequited horror story: police were killing us, even as millions quarantined. The world watched footage of a cop killing George Floyd months after we learned the name of another fat Black person killed by police: Breonna Taylor. Their murders catalyzed a nationwide movement in the streets we had not seen since 2016, after the murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling (another fat Black person) .
As "Defund the Police" echoed throughout the world, politicians started responding. Some cities, including Minneapolis, Austin, Los Angeles, and New York City, promised to "defund" or reduce police spending. I felt hopeful.
But two years later, halfway into the Biden administration—which has relied on Joe's roots as the architect of mass incarceration legislation—it still feels like we're in a moment of regression. Cities are increasing their funding to police, including to school resource officers in Uvalde. Mapping Police Violence recently revealed that police are killing people at higher rates in 2022 than *any year on record* in the United States, with 1,054 killings through November 27. Too many people have died in the last two years for us to not fight for liberation with all we have.
There's another resurgence taking place that also relies on policing, but not necessarily with cops. We're back to an aesthetic from the aughts of the early 2000s. Celebrities that spent the last decade cosplaying as Black, with the surgical procedures to boot, are leaving the butt pads behind and championing weight loss and diet culture. Kim Kardashian said she lost 16 lbs in three weeks to fit into Marilyn Monroe's dress. The term "heroin chic" is popular on TikTok right now. This moment very much feels like a targeted unraveling of the limited progress made in the body inclusivity/positivity space.
The police state relies on othering, a binary of good vs. bad. So does thinness and the culture it breeds. If you want to be/remain thin, what you eat, how your stomach folds, your chin(s), how many calories you burn/consume are always monitored. What diet culture also translates into is surveilling the people around you. Fat people know all too well what this gaze feels like, as we're never far away from unsolicited weight loss advice or remarks about what we put on our plates. (I prefer a low vibrational one if I'm being honest, but that's another TikTok for another day).
It's why seeing a delightful fat woman and her food become weaponized for Weight Watchers is not the brand-deal success story you think it is.
Y'all better come over here and get some of this…(it's a fat politic).
Weight Watchers (or WW, as they've rebranded) has been back in our lives full-swing ever since Oprah and her bread-loving ass launched it into a renaissance. Much has been written about Weight Watchers and its toxicity. I'm not wasting time there. What I will say is that it's so cowardly and cliché for this to be Godfrey's biggest brand deal to date. It reinforces the notion that fat people are worthy of backing when they show they're making an effort to lose their girth. It's why so many of you defend Lizzo: she's a vegan and she works out often. What you're missing is that even if she only ate pork, you still don't get to be antifat. It's also not dissimilar from the white supremacist argument that if Black people just followed orders, maybe police wouldn't kill us. And if you made it this far in the newsletter, I hope you know better than that.
We know from work like my Scalawag colleague Da'Shaun Harrison that thin people have more "desire capital," which refers to how your appearance factors into securing housing, medical care, upward mobility, etc. (I recently interviewed Da'Shaun for a Mother Jones piece about desire capital and antifatness on Netflix's Love Is Blind.)
In the case of Godfrey, this brand deal would "fix" how she looks, as if there's something inherently wrong with her. Her fatness was centered here, but not uplifted—because capitalism, which is an inherently antifat construct, rewards those who make themselves palatable.
And let's also be for real: the recipe is nasty. The original salad was chicken, pickles, banana peppers, bell peppers, tomatoes, onion, over iceberg lettuce all drenched in a glorious white sauce. The #sponsored salad is boneless skinless chicken breast, tomatoes, cucumbers (see, why y'all adding shit), pickle chips, banana pepper rings, mushrooms, lemon pepper, grated parmesan cheese. I will not be coming anywhere to get one of those.