Privilege

So there’s a bit of talk about privilege going on at the moment.  Sometimes I take issue with the way privilege is talked about, specifically, the way in which people ‘acknowledge’ that they have privilege but then proceed to exercise it in really obnoxious ways.  Paying lipservice doesn’t make it ok to do that. I highly recommend Lesley’s 101 over at fatshionista.  This isn’t going to be a 101, so if you’re not sure what I might mean by ‘privilege’, I’m happy to wait while you read that first.

Privilege is a tricky thing.  It has a tendancy to be invisible.  It’s hard to see when you have it, and it can also be really hard to see when you don’t have it – mostly because not having it is constructed as an individual fault rather than part of a structural and/or cultural system (poor people are poor because they don’t work hard; fat people are fat because they’re lazy and greedy).

For me, fat is the main area where I’m consistently aware of privilege and oppression.  The other big ones in my life are class/economics (my childhood wavered between welfare class and working poor), never having had any family or partner support to speak of (I’ve actually never seen anyone articulate this as privilege, but I absolutely believe it is), and some pain issues about having messed-up feet and joints (not related to being fat, but it interacts with it in perception).  There’s also being a woman and being queer, which I know are massive categories but I don’t experience the same level of difficulty around them – I think this has more to do with how normalised/naturalised gender categories are, rather than those particular oppressions being in any way minimal.  But for this post, I’m going to focus on fat.

I’ve always been fat.  I always AM fat.  And it’s always obvious.  It’s the physical characteristic I’m most aware of, and because of that, I have this unspoken assumption that it’s what other people are most aware of about me, too.  This may or may not be the case, but it colours every interaction I have with the world and everyone in it.

I’m usually the fattest person in the room.  I’m often the only fat person in the room.  When I meet someone for the first time, there’s a part of me that’s already – subconsciously – convinced they won’t want to know a fat person.  When I talk to some cutie at a party, there’s always a part of me that’s already – subconsciously – convinced that they won’t want to get stuck talking to the fat girl all night when there’s hot (read: thin) girls to be talking to.  When I meet some potentially eligible partner, I’ve already rejected myself on their behalf.  When someone does express an interest in me, I wonder if they’re trying to be politically correct, or they’re fetishising me, or they feel sorry for me, or they have some sort of horrified curiosity.  When I go on a date, I feel like I have two-and-a-half strikes against me before I’ve even opened my mouth.  These are not merely the products of my imagination – they’re the products of popular culture, of discourse, of personal communication, of experience.

When I go to the gym, I’m fat.  And there’s a part of me that knows people are looking at me and making judgements – about how hard or fast I’m exercising, about how much I should do, about why they think I’m doing it (no, it’s not to loose weight, but you can’t tell that by looking).  When my friends invite me to go out dancing, I hesitate because I’m aware of by fat body and how I’m not supposed to dance in public.  When they go to dance class and don’t invite me, I’m pretty sure it’s because I’m fat.

When I go to a new class, or to a conference or a seminar or a reading group, I feel like I don’t belong.  When I go to a new bar I wonder if I’m going to be ignored – or worse, looked at – because I don’t fit in.  Because I don’t fit in.  Whenever I go into a shop that doesn’t cater specifically to fat people, I know I won’t find anything to fit.

When I walk down the street in a halter-neck or spaghetti straps and get cow-called by a passing car, I know how revolting my body is seen to be.  When I go swimming and I pass a group who burst into whale song, I know exactly why.

When I go to the doctor, I know the blood pressure cuff won’t fit and they’ll suggest I exercise more and eat better.  When I go for a job interview, I know how hard I have to work to convince them I’m not lazy or sloppy or bad for the corporate image.

Wherever I go, I’m fat.  Wherever I go, it’s the most visible thing about me.  Wherever I go, I know that fat is not cool, not pretty, not desirable, not elegant, not hip, not wanted.

This isn’t a play for sympathy.  It’s not about me being a sad individual with low self-esteem (most anybody who knows me would shoot milk out their nose if you suggested that).  And it’s most certainly not all in my head.  It’s an example of how privilege works to keep oppressed people down.  It’s just a little bit of what I – an otherwise conventionally pretty, stylish, intelligent, accomplished, reasonably popular fat girl – have to deal with every time I leave the damn house.  It’s an example of the extra crap on top of all the ordinary crap that everyone has to deal with.  It’s how things get made just a little bit harder for certain groups of people, in ways which look like individual issues (shyness, self-esteem) but are really produced by the culture at large.

Places to go, things to do: request for fat events info

So, I need some help in putting together a sort of US-based fat-events calendar for next year.

Why?  I’m doing this PhD on fatness and sexual subjectivity.  Part of what I’m looking at is the interventions fat people are making into representation and discourse; how we negotiate/re-negotiate our fat identities.  In a way, it’s sort of turning into a thesis on the fat/size acceptance movement.  And because of that, I want to do some ‘field work’ of sorts.  That is, hop over to the US (being the centre of the FA-universe) and hang out with some awesome fatties doing awesome fatty things.  So I’m starting to put together a sort of calender of fatty events for next year so I can try to figure out the best time to go and fit in as much as possible.

Dear people of the fat-o-sphere, I need your help.  I know it’s probably a little early to really know when things are happening in 2010, but if you do know of any awesome and fat-related events or places I should visit, please tell me all about it!  I’m particularly interested in:

– Conferences (both academic and activist)
– Performances (theatre, dance, burlesque, etc)
– Community events
– Fatshion-related stuff (eg, fat girl flea, Re/Dress, etc)
– Awesome fatties who might be interested in hanging out and talking
– Pretty much anything else you care to mention

Thanks heaps in advance!

Ok, go!

(x-posted everywhere I go)

ETA: I’ve added a calendar to track and share any events.  You can comment here, there, via email, or however you want.  Awesome.

Obesity: It’s like killing mittens

So there’s an absolutely ridiculous article about how Obesity May Threaten Mitten Industry, based on the ridiculous headline to this apparently serious piece of ‘scientific journalism’.  Which has had me giggling to myself pretty much all day.  It’s like a wonderful piece of absurdest satire (is that even a thing?).  It’s so ridiculous that it makes the absurdity of so much obesity reporting really fricken obvious.

1. Take an observation (a small sample of fat people have, on average, slightly warmer hands and slightly cooler bellies than a small sample of thin people).

2. Draw some conclusions (fat people loose more body heat through their hands because fat has insulating properties…?).

3. Extrapolate to mean THE-END-OF-THE-WORLD-ZOMG-WELL-OK-NOT-THE-WORLD-BUT-THE-MITTEN-INDUSTRY-AND-MAYBE-THE-SOCK-INDUSTRY-TOO-BECAUSE-WE-ASSUME-FAT-PEOPLE-HAVE-HOT-FEET-TOO-EVEN-THOUGH-WE-DIDN’T-MEASURE-THAT-AND-ANYWAY-ONCE-THE-MITTEN-INDUSTRY-AND-THE-SOCK-INDUSTRY-ARE-GONE-YOU-MIGHT-AS-WELL-SAY-GOODBYE-TO-CIVILISATION-ITSELF even though you don’t actually say that mitten sales have decreased one iota.  This step is also known as: Invent An Entirely Imaginary Problem To Blame On Fat People.

Well, that settles it.  I’m donating my seven pairs of mittens to a charity for cold skinny people.  Well, ok, it’s actually six pairs of gloves and only one pair of mittens.  And those mittens are also convertable to fingerless gloves, so I don’t know if they even count at mittens…

Never mind the logical disconnect where warmer hands would actually feel colder (ever had a fever that’s made you shiver?).  Or that, if you were loosing body heat through your hands, it would be extremely efficient to put on mittens to trap the heat and stay warm (same logic as wearing a hat).  It would even be more efficient than, say, putting on a jacket, since your fat belly is already keeping all the heat in there (ha! obesity is really killing the jacket industry!  I knew it was killing something!).

I wonder if Carol Burdge, executive director of the International Glove Association, actually mean to imply that fat people’s hands were somehow akin to finely calibrated instruments that could accurately register the temperature to fractions of degrees when she said “You could use your hands like thermometers”?

Fat Year

So I’m on a bit of an organisation kick at the moment.  I’ve been going through all the files on my computer and refining the filing structures, archiving the old and irrelevant, generally tidying things up and making them work.  In the process I came across a reflective piece I wrote for a creative project at the end of my honours year (back in 2006 I wrote a 15,000 word thesis on why I hate The Biggest Loser).

Any you know what?  It’s not a bad piece of writing.  So, here it is.

Fat Year

I’m having a fat year.

A whole year of feeling fat.  Of thinking fat, of talking fat, of writing fat, of being fat.  Of owning fat.  My fat.

how to talk about the body like it’s not my body

I spent years in classes where lecturers talked about ‘the body’.  I read articles and chapters and theories about embodiment.  I wrote papers on corporeality.  All with the (un)easy knowledge that none of it, none of it, was about my body.  Not my body.  Not this body.  Not fat.  In the specificities of race, gender, class, age, ability, and desire, size has disappeared.  In the intersections, the networks, the inscriptions and readings, the talk about boundaries, fluidity, impulses, lines of flight.  In all the talk about flesh, there is a careful avoidance of fleshiness.

Not that body.

At the library I look up books on the body.  There are many.  I search the shelves for titles on the body and philosophy, the body and society, the body and what it means to have one, to live one, to be one.  What it means to be a body.  I take these books off their carefully arranged shelves and turn to the carefully arranged indexes.  I look up ‘fat’.  I look up ‘obese’.  I find almost nothing.  I look up ‘weight’ and ‘size’ and sometimes find references to thinness, eating disorders, diets and exercise.

In books dedicated to the study of the body, only certain bodies have been deemed acceptable.  In books dedicated to the study of the deviant body, only certain deviations have been deemed worthy.  Fat is not one of them.  Transgression, it seems, should be edgy, razor-sharp and full of angles.  Should be about the corporeal but not the corpulent.

Fatness is absent from the body of bodily theory, which is thin theory, anorexic theory, theory afraid of fat (but which, perhaps, perceives its reflection to occupy more space than it actually does; the space of all bodies everywhere).  Fatness is a structuring absence which is not acknowledged, not admitted to in (or into) theory, but which nonetheless is constantly implied/denied by the normal(ised) anorexic body.  Corpulence is the repressed and silenced other of corporeal theory.

I can, of course, find many books the talk about fat.  About how bad it is, how unhealthy it is, how unattractive it is.  How stupid and poor and ugly and smelly and lazy and immoral it is.  Most of all, about how to get rid of it.

There is a war on obesity.  A war on bodies like mine.  Can I call it genocide?

how to talk about bodies like mine

Susan Bordo[i] writes about ‘bringing the body to theory’.  Not just theorising the body, taking the flesh and making it words, but making the words fleshy.  Bringing the body to theory.  The body which sits cold and tired at the desk and writes.  The body which eats, sleeps, desires, hungers, grows.  The body which thinks, which cares.  Thinks this is important and cares enough to make something of it.  The body which labours to produce.

Not the body of Descartes, a great deceiver fundamentally other to the self.  Not the body of Orbach[ii], a great betrayer manifesting psychological wounds.  Rather, the body as body.

Mid-year I stand at the front of a class and talk about the body, the fat body, the body that is like mine, but I don’t say it is like mine.  I don’t say I have anything to do with it.  I talk about fat and the self, fat as antithetical to the self.  Inside every fat person, the story goes, is a thin one trying to get out.  (There is no possibility that  person trying to get out is fat.)

I talk about visibility, about what it means to see bodies like that (like mine).  How Laura Kipnis[iii] argues that fat is obscene (off-screen), that its display is pornographic in and of itself.  How bringing these bodies to the screen is a potentially subversive act.  It threatens to make them normal.

I wonder what could happen simply by being seen.

how to talk about my body like it’s my body

La Nell Guiste[iv] writes about ‘coming out’ as a fat woman.  It seems ridiculous, redundant.  Fat’s very visibility, its insistence, its immanence, make closeting seem impossible.  There is no hiding it.  Coming out as fat means not trying to pass as ‘on the way to thin’.  It’s a deviation not only of matter but of intent.  The refusal of a compulsory desire.

To be ‘out’ as fat is harder than you might imagine.  It’s socially taboo.  People protest when you mention it.  They deny, minimise, try to reduce the impact.  But the body insists.  They don’t like the word ‘fat,’ think it’s ugly, offer instead ‘big-boned’ or ‘broad-shouldered’ (I laugh) or ‘overweight’ (I protest: over whose weight?).  They don’t like the thing, the substance, the look of it, the implications.  The threat.

To insist on my fatness is a radical act.
To not try to change it, unbelievable (denial).
To find others who like it?  Incomprehensible.

(and I thought coming out as fat was hard)

The disbelief disappears quickly enough, and I am left with the uneasy question of validation: is it acceptable only because he says it’s acceptable (preferable)?  This is one of the main grounds on which the war is fought (the other being impending death), but isn’t equal-opportunity objectification is still objectification?

how to write the body like a body

How to write about fat as fat?  Not as psychological disturbance or eating disorder.  Not as wrath or greed or sloth or gluttony.  Not as comfort or sorrow or guilt or grief.  Not as the failure of thin.

Not as the failure of thin, but as substance and substantial.  As meaningful and relevant.  As desirous and desired.  As loving, lusting, aching, hurting, hungering.  As a body in the world, as person, identity, self.  As a real thing.

How to write a body like mine?


[i] Bordo, Susan, 1993, Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, University of California Press, Berkley.

[ii] Orbach, Susie, 1978, Fat is a Feminist Issue, Hamlyn, London.

[iii] Kipnis, Laura, 1996, ‘Life in the Fat Lane,’ Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America, Grove Press, New York.

[iv] Guiste, La Nell, 2004, ‘Let ME eat Cake!’ Off Our Backs, Nov/Dec <http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3693/is_200411/ai_n9473135>, accessed 19 February 2006.