Disclaimer: I use the descriptor “fat” very loosely.
Please bear in mind that most decks don’t feature any fat people at all. Therefore, as you’ll see in some pictures, characters on the cards are often simply bigger than the very slender other figures. I use them as examples of fat as a symbol, but in no way do they illustrate a proper fat representation in decks according to me. It saddens me that I must use ‘not skinny’ examples when I want to talk about fatness.
But this is the point: There are almost no fat people in tarot decks; their erasure is general, and yet, there are so many things to say. I want to highlight that super fat fatties are left aside of most fat representation, including in the fat activist and body-positive communities, and obviously in tarot and oracle decks. This must change as well.
Something else to keep in mind: The examples shared here are ones that I picked from awesome fat-inclusive decks. I find imperfections in decks I love, I decipher fatphobic involuntary biases. But I still adore them. I still think they do an important job. Most decks don’t go that far. There is no good excuse for creating fatties-less decks. In the best-case scenario, deck creators have internalized fatphobia without being aware of it.
I’d love to see a deck made by fat folks. I’m fed up with thin people’s poor attempts at using us as metaphors. Fat bodies are only ever present IF they can tell a story. In other words, they are there because they are fat and it serves the storyline/message, not just because a lot of people are fat. About 51% of Belgian population is “overweight or obese”, 62,9% in the UK – 18,6% are “obese” in the former country and 26,9% in the latter.
As much as I hate those ‘medical’ words, you get what it would mean to aim for a fairer representation in a 78-card deck. It’s not enough for so-called ‘body positive’ decks to include 2 to 5 slightly larger characters. Some bodily attributes you can’t always see (e.g. many disabilities are invisible, you often can’t tell if someone is trans just by looking at them), but it’s very blatant if someone erases fatness or race from a deck.
Fatness and class are intertwined
At first sight, I like the Four of Coins (or Pentacles) in the Sakki-Sakki Tarot. A card usually associated with restraints, control, and being mean that pictures a fat character? That doesn’t happen a lot.
Let’s take a closer look. Their skirt is made of lines – like layers. Remember what I wrote in my previous article about this psychoanalytical well-spread idea that fat people put on layers and layers of fat to build a fortress that will keep people away, like a defense mechanism? This card evokes a bit of that to me. Also, the Four of Pentacles could be considered greedy and selfish to the point of not sharing any of the things they accumulate. It’s easy to equate greed with fat, right? I’m being picky, I know. Yet…
In the same deck, there’s a fat character in the Six of Coins, a card often associated with generosity and, in a very traditional approach, even charity from the rich to the poor. In the 19th century’s leftist clichés, the bourgeoisie is always fat. It’s what Pamela Colman-Smith conveyed with the Six of Pentacles in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck (RWS). She drew a fat, rich and charitable person. Deck creators are still largely inspired by the RWS system. Nowadays, fat and class go hand in hand. Stereotypes co-exist in their contradictions.
Whilst rich and powerful people today spend tons of money not to look fat and poor, the caricature of the fat bourgeois is getting more outdated than ever. Yet, in books on symbols, fat implies prosperity, so indirectly money and richness. It’s also become a classic and classist cliché to associate fat only to food choices and to the accessibility to ‘good food’. People consider that poor folks are fatter than ‘average’ (aka middle and upper class) because they can’t eat healthy foods. Food, fatness and class are also looked at through a moral(ist) lens. Anti-fat attitudes are fueled with disdain for overconsumption in the rich Global North and with hate for working classes all around the earth. This has little to do with reality, but it shows a lot about stereotypes.
One way or the other, and often both ways simultaneously, fat is used as a class signifier. Tarot is universal. Are you so sure about that? I’d say, it’s mainly a very good illustration of the dominant clichés of a certain time and place. Perpetuating the 19th century equation of fatness to rich Western white people is harmful for actual fat people in their diversity.
Yet, the solution is not to erase the fat people featured in Colman Smith’s original version from most RWS-inspired decks.
Kings – and Queens to a lesser extent – as well as the Emperor and the Hierophant are often larger (not necessarily fat though). It’s like life taught them to take up space. They have stature and a social status, they inspire respect and they embody a kind of authority and/or mastery if only on themselves. Large is here synonymous with space and charisma. This physical attribute complements their posture when it comes to learning what the characters can teach us about a card.
Pages are usually thin or tiny, probably because they’re seen as children. I know many fat kids though, don’t you? In the RWS and some other decks, the illustrators convey the Knights’ strength, will and determination by making them muscular. Being muscular is not perceived like fat though, especially not when it’s associated with masculinity. It’s the good way to take up space: by being active. Don’t we all know some skinny or fat non athletic-looking people who are amazingly strong though?
The Rider-Waite-Smith system has set a standard. A lot of decks still borrow a lot from it nowadays.
The trouble with body positivity
I must confess there are also many decks I just can’t stand. Tarot doesn’t exist on its own, in a little bubble. Capitalist trends affect tarot communities, like they do most of the world. Fat activist fights became mainstreamed and co-opted as ‘body positivity’ gained visibility. Corporations couldn’t miss this opportunity, like many others, to suck every radicality from a movement and use it as a label that sells. Fat folks got erased, or only vaguely used as tokens when respectable: “plus size”, conventionally attractive, embodying one non-normative aspect at a time.
This trend also affected the tarot community. Several decks which are labelled as inclusive or body positive are a joke to me. The characters are ‘beautiful’ (the common, mainstream, normative kind of beautiful) and look like they come out of a fashion magazine, but some of them are ‘coloured’ or ‘Beyoncé-ed’, others are slightly less thin than others, and maybe one is disabled. There’s no real effort to make something radically different. Creators could simply not stay away from this new niche. And of course, most of them do have a rather normative body. Why can’t they make space and support initiatives by queer/trans/fat/POC instead? After all, oppressed people should not be their token. This revolution will not be tokenized.
Being oppressed or marginalized often means being poor and having less access to creative production. If you are white, thin, cis, straight and able-bodied maybe you could refrain from occupying an already busy space with new decks being promoted every day, and instead support projects that make an actual change. Likewise, every gay deck I had a look at depicted some muscular men and “no fat, no fems, no Asians”. Instead of challenging the very harmful exclusions in the gay community, they just go with it.
Only an extensive study could go further than these few examples to understand the intersectionality at play when reproducing bodily norms in tarot. We’d also need a big collection of decks to explore the potential differences between independent decks and mass-market mainstream decks. We know for sure that most decks don’t even depict any fat characters. What about those that do? I have highlighted above some trends, many of which are the remnants of the RWS system and the old associations you can find in most symbol dictionaries: fat is a symbol for fertility, prosperity, enjoying food. It’s impossible for me to get a broad picture though.
I have asked for help to gather more examples on Instagram and on my tarot blog. I’d like to invite you to help as well. Could you have a look at some of your decks so we might see some bigger trends and study more intersections? How does fatness interact with race? How does it play with gender identity? As someone commented on my first article: non-binary people are usually depicted as thin as if androgyny comes with thinness. What about indie decks? What about decks that co-opt body positivity? What about decks focusing on the Goddess or the divine feminine? How are those decks impacted by the equation of fatness and femininity? Do they consider fatties as some sort of fertility goddesses?
Could you share your observations in comments, either general or on decks in particular? Could you share your recommendations for others to explore?
Here are some fat-friendly tarot and oracle decks based on my own experience and the comments I got on my posts:
- Next World Tarot (sold out at the moment)
- Thea’s Tarot (rare)
- The Crone Tarot
- The Collective Tarot (out of print)
- Äkta Spåman Podcast Oracle
- Queer Tarot Project
- Sakki Sakki Tarot
- Dust II Onyx Tarot
- The Gaian Tarot
- Urban Tarot
- Niki de Saint Phalle Tarot
- Tarot Del Fuego
- The Illuminated Tarot
- Mythical Goddess Tarot
- The Butterfly Effect Tarot
- The World Spirit Tarot
Unfortunately, a deck that’s doing a nice job in terms of fat representation doesn’t necessarily succeed with people of colour, trans people, disabled people, old people. Please bear that in mind when you go through this list.
Featured decks: Äkta Spåman Podcast Oracle, Vessel Oracle, Next World Tarot, Queer Tarot Project, Sakki-Sakki Tarot, Rider-Waite Smith, Slow Holler, RoseButch’s interpretation of the Niki de Saint Phalle deck
Cathou is a queer and feminist activist and artivist who lives in Brussels, Belgium. She develops a queer tarot perspective in French on cathoutarot.blog and holds a blog on fat liberation and fighting fatphobia at grossefem.tumblr.com. Her Fat Tarot series combines those two topics, as an invitation to understand and resist bodily norms in tarot. You can also find Cathou on Instagram @cathoutarot.