Well, that was exciting!

This post has nothing at all to do with fat.  But today was a pretty exciting day in Australian politics, and I want to record some of my thoughts about what has happened.

For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, today Australia has a new Prime Minister.  Our first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard.  Former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stood down from his leadership of the Labor party after being faced with a party ballot which promised a resounding defeat.  There’s good coverage of the story on the ABC if you want more details.  His resignation speech was gut-wrenching.

When Rudd was elected in 2007, it was by far the best political day in my adult life.  It was the first time since I’d been old enough to vote that Australia had elected a Labor government.  More importantly, it was the first time in my adult life that we hadn’t elected a Liberal Government (Very Important Note: in Australia, Liberal does not mean liberal, it means conservative right wing assholes).  It was the first time I’d voted in an election that hadn’t resulted in yet another term of John Howard, whose political ambition revolved around returning Australia to the values of the 1950s.  His policies were anti-feminist, racist, and generally appalling.  So when he lost not only the election, but also his seat, it was a great night.  There was champagne and tears and hugging and shouting and jumping up and down with excitement, relief, joy, and … is that…pride?

But even then, I was cynical.  For me, the most important thing about Rudd was simply that he wasn’t Howard.  Now, this is a significant point of difference.  And while the Labor party had moved so far toward the centre they’d actually slid over to the right during Howard’s reign, it was also incredibly important that they weren’t the Liberal party.  That they were at least nominally left.  And Rudd did do some good things.  The Apology was one of the most significant to me, at least in terms of symbolism, if not real action.  He also failed to do some of the good things he’d promised, like tackling climate change.  Certainly, none of these things, the good or the bad, were his work or responsibility alone – governing isn’t about the will of an individual (thank goodness).

Our new Prime Minister, Julia Gillard is not only the first woman to be prime minister of Australia.  She’s also deliberately barren, unmarried, living in sin, working class, publicly educated, and godless.  These are all things I’m fully behind, and more than a little excited about.  But I’m not sure I’m actually excited about Gillard’s leadership.  I’m not sure it’s actually progressive.  I don’t think it will change much of anything at all.  I suspect that both of the major party’s policies on refugees, climate change, workplace relations, etc, will remain somewhere to the right of decent and humane.

After their defeat at the last election, the Liberal party sort of imploded.  They had leadership woes and internal splits.  When Tony Abbot became leader, I was both amused and relieved – I thought he was a bit of a joke, that Australia would never elect someone with such regressive ideas.  But he gained popularity and started to look like a serious threat to the Labor party in the next election, which *shudder*.

What I do think Gillard’s leadership means is that Labor is more likely to win the next election, and, despite everything, that’s a good thing.  Because the alternative is the Liberals and Tony Abbot.  The most disturbing thing about this whole situation is that Abbot is even a contender – if Howard was stuck in the 1950s, Abbot is positively medieval, chastity belts and all.  And the prospect of another decade of right wing government is just too much to bear.

You will never be rid of us

I’ve been working on the bit of my thesis where I justify why I’m not interested in writing about fat and health.  In order to do that, I pretty much have to write about fat and health.  Sigh.  Anyway, part of that has involved reading up on the Australian Government’s preventative health strategy, Australia: The Healthiest Country by 2020.

One of the aims of the strategy is to “halt and reverse the rise in overweight and obesity”, which is hardly surprising given that fat is considered self-evidently unhealthy and weight-loss is therefore considered self-evidently healthy.  The idea is so common-place I’m almost yawning with the can’t-be-botheredness of it (though I have a great deal of admiration for those who can be bothered and are fighting those fights).  But.  BUT. When I stop for a second and think about what that means, I realise my government is trying to put in place strategies to get rid of bodies like mine (I’m not the first person to point this out).

It’s not as overt as outright declaring war on obesity (which I hear happened in some other famously fat country), but it’s still clear: the fatties must go!  Why?  Well – and I’m barely paraphrasing here – because the fatties are lazy and expensive.  Fatties don’t work as much, chuck lots of sickies, and cost tax payers a fortune in health care.  We’ve all heard these arguments, again and again.  We’ve also heard these arguments smartly refuted, again and again.  The territory has been well and truly trod.  That doesn’t make it any less powerful or ubiquitous.  It doesn’t make the government strategy any less about my body, my personhood, my right to exist.

The title of this post references a quote about queers from Martha Shelly*:

You will never be rid of us, because we reproduce ourselves out of your bodies.

I goddamned love that quote.  I love that quote because it’s not only defiant, it’s right.  It’s a big fuck-you to obedience and conformity and towing the line.  It’s a big fuck you to neoliberal individualism, to notions of ‘proper’ citizenship, to any hope that freaks and rebels will just start behaving.  It’s a big fuck you to interventions like the Australian Government’s preventative health strategy which seeks to get rid of certain types of bodies, certain types of people who are positioned as troublesome, as non-compliant, as expensive.

Fatties have always existed.  Fatties will always exist.

You will never be rid of us.


*Which I read years ago and can’t remember the source – if anyone knows, comment please?  Also, I don’t know that much about Martha Shelly apart from the brief bio I googled.

Also also, I’m wary of co-opting queer work in the service of fat acceptance (even – especially – as a queer), and I’m also wary of collapsing fat acceptance into queerness, but I do think there are important similarities and sympathies.  People far more eloquent than me have written about this. I highly recommend Charlotte Cooper’s recent post ‘What is Queer Fat Activism‘ at Obesity Timebomb, as well as Kathleen LeBesco’s essay ‘Queering Fat Bodies/Politics‘ in Bodies out of Bounds (which can also be found in her book, Revolting Bodies).

fat at the gym

This week, I met one of my fitness goals: to do the ‘hundreds’* in my pilates class without cheating.  It’s a fairly modest goal, but I was still excited about it.

It was a deliberately modest goal because me and fitness goals, we’re not great together.  I often feel defeated by them.  I don’t track my progress at the gym anymore because it leads me to comparing and assessing and inevitably judging my performance as not good enough.  My one, long-term, abiding goal in relation to exercise is simply to do some.  To front up with some regularity and do some stuff.  More ambition, more pressure than that, and I stop going.  When the goal shifts from ‘move your body in ways you find enjoyable’ to ‘move your body more’, my attendance gets spotty, then ceases all together.  It can take months to re-ignite my enthusiasm.

Which is something I try to avoid, because I actually like working out.  I like the feel of my body working, and I like finding out what it can do. I enjoy the way that, even in the absence of goals or striving or any great amount of effort, my body inevitably changes, becomes stronger and fitter and moves differently.  It’s something of a revelation.

I’ve spent a lifetime being told I was weak, physically incapable, not able to do much of anything at all.  Now, some of that is actually true.  I have had dodgy ankles and knees since I was a wee thing.  I was on crutches due to various sprains and pains for half of high school.  I still have some issues now – I can’t walk as fast as most of my peers, and I can’t walk for too long without causing myself a fairly high level of pain.  It doesn’t interfere with my life (walking to the train station or around campus or going shopping is just fine), and the only time I really notice is when I’m walking with a group of people and I get left behind because I’m slow.  I don’t like it, but I’ve learned not to interpret it as a deliberate snub.  Mostly.

Aside from these specific musculoskeletal difficulties which have been been with me my whole life, I’ve always thought my body wasn’t capable because it was fat.  Because fat people and fat bodies are weak and lazy and clumsy and lacking in skill and finesse.  Ironically, it was writing about Australia’s The Biggest Loser for my honours thesis that made me realise the equation of fatness with weakness just wasn’t true.

It’s true that one of the main aims of The Biggest Loser was to encourage fat people to go to the gym.  By ‘encourage’ here, I actually mean ‘shame’.  The show went to great effort to emphasise how very difficult physical exertion was for fat bodies.  It showed fatties sweating while they ran up sand dunes, puffing while they climbed stadium stairs, straining to pull trucks.  The message that was imparted via the filming, editing, and the contestant’s own testimony was that these things were difficult because of their fat; because they had ‘let themselves go’ and ‘gotten into this state’.  The thing is, there is no ‘state’ that one can get into where running up sand dunes won’t make you sweat, where doing laps up and down the MCG stands won’t make you  puff, where pulling a semi-fucking-trailer is ever going to be easy.  Sure, a higher level of fitness and strength will make those things easier, but not effortless.  The reason why they’re hard to do, is because they’re hard to do, not because you’re fat.

It took me a while to see that, amidst all the fat-shaming and blaming, what The Biggest Loser showed was fat bodies performing frankly impressive physical feats.  Fat bodies which had strength and endurance, which were incredibly physically capable and accomplished, despite what the narration implied.  This is in no way an endorsement of the kinds of things the show subjected people to.  It was out-and-out sadistic punishment for being fat, and I found the whole thing abhorrent in its glee.  But despite the awfulness, it nonetheless showed (especially if you turned the sound down), that fat bodies were physically capable of amazing things.  And that was a revelation for me.

It wasn’t until about 6 months after I finished honours (and finished with Loser forever – I cannot tell you the joy I felt!) that I started going to the gym.  I’d left a physically active retail job to go back to office work, and my fitness was suffering because of it.  I was far enough into fat acceptance that I didn’t have that secret hope that this would be the thing, the change, the miracle that would make me thin.  But it was terrifying going to the gym for the first time.  Being up-front about the fact I was there for fitness and not weight-loss.  Reminding the instructors who designed my program and showed me how to use the equipment when they ‘forgot’ and said things like ‘try to get up to x speed to really burn those calories’ (I’ve since moved and changed gyms).  Dealing with ‘encouraging’ comments from gym bunnies, where ‘encouraging’ actually means ‘patronising as fuck’.  Dealing with my fear and projection about what other people might think of me, a fatty working out.  Dealing with the fact that I really wasn’t very fit or strong.  Four inconsistent years later, I’m still neither of these things, but I am fitter and stronger.  I’m also bigger – both fatter, and more muscular.  My thighs are enormous and wonderful.

When I first started, I could barely manage 3 minutes on the cross trainer.  My thighs and calves would burn, my legs turn to jelly, and the instructor who suggested I go faster to ‘really burn those calories’ would have got a punch in the nose if I hadn’t needed to hold on with both hands to stay upright.  My free weights exercises were all done with one or two kilogram dumbells, and they absolutely caned.  I was using my body in new ways, and it was hard work, and it hurt, and  I really, really liked it.

Once I got more familiar with the gym and the equipment, the anxiety about what people would think or say subsided.  I put in my headphones and turn my iPod up and away I go.  The music is important.  I have a pretty ecclectic range of songs on my gym playlist, from The Pixies and The Clash to Florence and the Machine and Santogold.  There’s a lot of Gossip, because I love the Gossip, and because Beth Ditto is one of the most kick-ass fatties I know of and if I’m going to be in an environment which is traditionally positioned as anti-fat, then I want a kick-ass fatty there with me.  I get a kick out of being fat and working out and not loosing weight either deliberately or incidentally.  I get a kick out of being in the gym listening to someone who tells normative ideology to go fuck itself.  There’s also some Divynals, because I get a kick out of secretly listening to Chrissy Amphlett singing about kink and masturbation.  Same goes for the soundtrack from Hedwig and the Angry Inch – listening to a big queer musical in a room full of machismo fills me with glee.

The gym I go to now is a Serious Gym.  They have heavy weights and host powerlifting competitions and don’t harass you in the street to come along for a free trial.  They offer a free trial, but they don’t harass you about it.  They don’t market, and they don’t specifically target women, which means that their core business model doesn’t involve selling low self-esteem.  Some of the trainers are kind of fat – they’re strong and fit and round-bellied (although only the male trainers – the women are all quite slim).  I love seeing the people who work out there, from the super-cut femmey boy who always has a full face of (‘natural’) make-up and looks incredible, to the super-macho body builders who probably aren’t the least bit aware of the homoerotic undertones of their manly bonding which please me SO VERY MUCH. I love the variety of bodies, and admire the work that goes into creating them.  I think it’s a shame that bodies like mine aren’t legible as ‘worked on’, though, because what I’m doing when I go to the gym is essentially engaging in body work.  I am strengthening and stretching, and challenging and changing and working on my body.  That work isn’t aimed changing my size, but it is work on my body nonetheless.

I’m almost wary of posting this, because I’m aware of how discussing exercise can play into good fatty/bad fatty dichotomies, which I abhor – not only because they falsely heirarchise bodies and behaviours, but because they deny the complexity and contradictions of how bodies are lived.  Sure, I exercise and I’m a vegetarian with a fondness  for greenery, but I also eat an ungodly amount of butter, cheese, eggs, and chocolate.  I particularly love eggs served with butter and egg sauces (eggs florentine, come to meeeeeee!).  I regularly replace most of the fluids in my body with large doses of coffee and red wine.  Paragon of virtue I am not.  Hedonist would be a more appropriate label, and one that’s much more applicable to my experience of working out, too.  Simply put, I work out because it’s another way that I enjoy my body (and no, I’m not still talking about Chrissy Amphlett here).


*Hundreds involve lying with your legs raised and holding your torso up in a crunch position for a slow count of 100 while doing various things with your arms.  Believe me when I say this is hard work.  ‘Cheating’ involves lowering either your legs or torso at the point where you can’t hold them up anymore.  Mostly, I’ve been getting through sixties or seventies, so getting through hundreds was pretty damn exciting!

my body and bodies like mine

So I presented my paper a couple of days ago and the world didn’t end.  As far as I can tell, it actually went quite well.  People asked questions, and came up to me afterwards to say they liked my work.  Someone even remembered me from my last presentation and said they were looking forward to hearing my paper.  Let me tell you, that blew my tiny little mind.  I’ve long thought that I was pretty much invisible (I’m can be terribly shy and a bit of a wallflower), so it’s always surprising when someone sees me, let along remembers me.

It’s good to get some outsider perspective sometimes, too – a lot of my academic angst comes from knowing how far my work is from what I really want to say, how far I have to go (which is objectively a fine position to be in, that’s why the process of writing a thesis takes years and not hours).  For a lot of people, though, it’s the first time they’ve been exposed to these ideas, and that’s a good reminder that what I’m doing – what we’re doing as a community – is both new and important.  I’m still a little…anxious? awkward? embarrassed? about my paper.  I can’t tell if it’s because I’m talking about such a daggy film (Shallow Hal), or because I’m talking about sex with bodies like mine, which is, well, an awkward thing to talk about in front of an audience.  I’m pretty sure there’s a bit of that internalised shame about how ridiculous it is for a fat girl to ever think anyone would want to fuck her (a la every teen sex romp film ever made) – which is ironic, because that’s one of the main things I talk about in my paper.

Anyway, it was also fabulous to hear about the work other people are doing – there’s all sorts of fantastically interesting stuff to think about, and I’m feeling energised and full of purpose and direction.  Engaging with community is good for that.  So is socialising with other students, despite feeling awkward and out of my depth, and then tipsy and over-disclosing.  That’s kind of how it goes.

When I’m talking to new people socially about my research, there’s a lot of different reactions, but two stand out for sheer frequency.  When I say “fat embodiment and sexual subjectivity”, the most common response is “Oh, you mean like feeders and fetishism and stuff?”  The answer to that is now yes, I will be devoting a chapter to that, mainly because that’s the most common thing people ask me about which seems to warrant further investigation.  My chapter will be focussed on the reactions of the ‘general population’ more than fetish practices, though.

The second is a hushed, confessional “You know, I used to be big too”.  Followed by a difficult-to-divert disclosure of the hows and whys and whens and whats.  I don’t want to dismiss people’s experiences, and I think there’s all sorts of ways of managing one’s embodiment which are completely valid.  But I don’t want to talk about weight loss uncritically – which doesn’t mean I want to condemn it, but I do want to question, not so much a particular individual choice as paradigm which makes that choice mandatory.

(That said, we are all endlessly engaged in choices which, if not mandatory, are almost always highly constrained.  Which is to say, I think it’s important to understand that ‘choices’ are often compelled, that we’re not exactly the freely self-determining agents of our own individuality as neoliberal ideology would have us believe.  But then what?  I’m not sure where that line takes me, except to further individualisation, which is not quite where I want to go…)

The fact that the ‘choice’ to loose weight is socioculturally compelled is very high on the list of reasons why I try to avert these conversations.  Because as much as someone might genuinely be talking about their own, individual experience, as much as they might not be trying to imply “I did it so you can too” (and I believe this person really wasn’t doing that), the culture at large has had its metaphorical boot on my metaphorical neck trying to stop me from swallowing any metaphorical food since I was literally four fucking years old.  It’s also why I find the impulse toward a ‘good fatty’ defence so strong, even though I know it’s feeding into the same thinking which hierarchises certain bodies over others, which says this way of being is better than that way.  Even though I know it buys into the individualisation which I find so problematic.  It’s why health discourse about obesity is deeply fucking personal even though I’m in perfect health – because health discourse is mobilised against all fat bodies, healthy or not; because it is used to compel, if not change, then certain modes of embodiment and subjectivity, certain ways of being and being seen.

It’s hard not to take it personally when it’s about my body and bodies like mine.

the uses of social media, or, another navel-gazing post

I’ve been thinking a lot about how social media is, by definition, social.  I mean, obviously.  But in some ways the implications of that have not been something I’ve really come to grips with.  I get upset when I’m misunderstood on the internet, which, I mean, it’s the internet, that’s what happens here.

Obviously not the only thing that happens here, but to expect that I should be able to expound my ideas with such perfect clarity that no one will ever mistake my meaning is frankly absurd.  Yes, I have thought I should be able to do that.  And no, I’m not a perfectionist; I never do anything perfectly.

One of my main aims with this blog is to share ideas that are beyond the 101-type posts.  There are plenty of people doing that already, with far greater patience and clarity than me.  I have enormous respect for that work and the people doing it, but it’s not the work I’m interested in doing here.  I want to get past the normal structures of thinking around this stuff to something new.  When I talk about fat sexuality, I want to get at more than the same tired discourses of ‘body image’.  I’m not interested in claiming that every body is beautiful, but looking at why beauty has come to stand in for worth, at what the idea of beauty does.  I think fat acceptance is far more radical and fundamental than the vague, insipid blathering about ‘self esteem’ that goes on in ladymags and self-help books.  To me, fat acceptance is about the management of bodies and the body politic.  It’s about the production and regulation of identities and subject positions.  It’s about class and gender and race and citizenship and labour and capitalism and power.

Actually, what I’m talking about is probably more fat studies than fat acceptance.  While the two are by no means separate, there is a difference, and it’s that difference which draws me to academia despite the angst it sometimes (often!) induces.  Trying to push past the normal structures of thinking is always going to be a difficult thing, but I think it’s necessary.  More than that, I find it thrilling.  New ways of thinking are exciting, dammit.

Ok, now I really have to finish up that paper I’m presenting tomorrow.  (Yeah, it’s mostly angst at the moment).