Cherchez La Femme

Well, it’s been a good long while.  And this isn’t a ‘real’ post so much as a drive-by thank you to all the folks who came along to Cherchez La Femme on Tuesday night to talk about fat and feminism with us.  Y’all were awesome and amazing, and it was great to have the opportunity for a public discussion about fat in such an open forum.

I’m also in awe of my co-panellists, Jenny, Elizabeth, and Lili, who were all incredibly articulate, generous, and damn funny to boot.  And of course massive thanks to Karen, who put the whole evening together.  It was a really fantastic night, and it’s reinvigorated my enthusiasm for fat activism and community.

I also wanted to post a few links to some resources for folks who might be new to fat acceptance (or just looking for new things to read).

First, some Melbourne fat groups you should check out:

Chub Republic – a newly formed group of rad fatties intent on changing the world through dance, fashion, and other joyful things.  Check out our inaugural Fabulous Fatshion Extravaganza on Sunday 11 September.

Aquaporko Melbourne – a fat femme (and femme-friendly) synchronised swim team.

 

We also mentioned (and in some cases, forgot to mention) a bunch of books.  These are a great place to start, but there’s plenty more out there.  Omission from this list is in no way condemnation; it’s necessary to get this post up.:

Screw Inner Beauty: Lessons from the Fatosphere, Kate Harding & Marianne Kirby (You can also read “The Fantasy of Being Thin” on the Shapely Prose archive.  Do it, it’s brilliant.)

Fat!So? Marilyn Wann

Revolting Bodies: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity, Kathleen LeBesco

Bodies Out of Bounds: Fatness and Transgression, edited by Kathleen LeBesco & Jana Evans Braziel

The Fat Studies Reader, edited by Esther Rothblum and Sondra Solovay

The ‘Fat’ Female Body, Samantha Murray

Health At Every Size, Linda Bacon

Big Big Love, Hanne Blanke (NB: A new edition is due out in September)

Fat & Proud, Charlotte Cooper

 

Also some blogs:

You should definitely read Elizabeth & Lili’s blogs (linked above), but there’s a whole big wide fatosphere out there.  Here are a few places to get started (ditto with omissions here):

Two Whole Cakes

The Rotund

Definatalie

Adipositivity

Fatshionista Flickr Pool

Notes from the Fatosphere feed (one of a number of fat-activists feeds)

 

Happy reading!

Big Fat US Adventure

So, I’m in the USA.  I’ve been here for 6 weeks now.  I meant to write about it sooner.  MUCH sooner.  I meant to write before I even left, but, as usual, study/planning/life/tv watching got in the way.  And then actual travel got in the way.  But it’s been amazing.  AMAZING.

I started in New York, where I met (and posed for) the incredible Substantia Jones of Adipositivity.  I went to the Breaking Boundaries: Body Politics and the Dynamics of Difference at Sarah Lawrence University, where I met the famous Marilyn Wann, the fabulous Zoe and Arun, and one of my all-time academic heroes, the fantastically brilliant Katie LeBesco, and too many others to mention.  I went to Re/Dress and found incredible vintage dresses (the amazing vintage Lane Bryant in this video).  I got to meet the ferocious Tauret, who is incredibly sweet and wonderful and took me shopping at Forever 21 (I have a whole other post I want to write about fat girl retail in the US).  I met Polianarchy and went to Rebel Cupcake and explored New York City and it was amazing.

I went to the University of Connecticuit in Storrs to look at the Mayer Collection of Fat Liberation in their archives.  It’s an incredible collection of letters and materials from the early fat liberation movement.  I also went to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard in Boston, where they have some more collections of early fat lib materials.  At both archives I met other researchers who were looking at the same collections – fat grad students are taking over the world!

I also got to meet my long-time blogging hero, Lesley Kinzel, and hang out with some other Boston Fats, who were some of the most generous and welcoming people in the world.  I went to Lafayette, Indianapolis and met Mychii, who is brilliant and driven and we had wonderful conversations about fat and fat studies and teaching and activism.

I went to Portland and got to meet Stacey Bias, who took me to a big fat queer cabaret.  I’m currently in San Francisco, where I’ve spent time looking through Judy Freespirit‘s papers at the GLBT Historical Society, and hanging out with Marilyn Wann.  I’m about to get ready to head over to Oakland to see the spectacular Ladymonster perform tonight, and tomorrow I’m off to Fatshion!…Turn to the left! before The Socialist arrives to spend my birthday week with me.

After that, I’m off to the PCA/ACA Conference, which has an awesome Fat Studies area.  I get to meet Abby Lentz who does amazing fat girl yoga. And I get to meet Hanne Blank, whose book Big Big Love changed my life (keep an eye out for the new edition, which I think is coming out later this year. I also highly recommend her erotic!). And finally, I head back to NYC for the Fat Girl Flea.

In short: This is truly the Fatty Dream Tour (TM).

I’m not writing this just to name-drop (although I am completely thrilled to have met so many amazing people!).

I’m writing this because I’ve always been scared of travelling as a fat person – of the physical inconveniences, yes, (and there have been some), but mostly the social isolation.  I didn’t do the youthful travel-as-right-of-passage for that reason (well, that and having no means to afford it).  I’ve always had the fear – the expectation – of social rejection, of not fitting in, because of my fatness (and it’s not an unfounded expectation; there’s a long history and plenty of evidence).  And while I’ve been friendly enough with my hostel roommates, I haven’t made any real connections that would be socially sustaining (which I’ve no doubt is partly a function of age and interest, as much as size and socialisation).

What has happened, though, is that I’ve found fat community on the other side of the world and felt  immediately welcome, understood, and connected.  I’ve had the audacity to ask people to spend time with me, and they have all, every single one of them, not only said yes, but gone out of their way to welcome and accomodate me.

What I find most remarkable is that this trip is happening – is motivated, enabled, and made so incredibly wonderful – not inspite of my being a fatty, but emphatically because of it.

To have grown up my whole life being bullied for my size, feeling isolated, unloveable, and unworthy because of my fat, to have never been able to fit in, it is truly remarkable to me that it’s the thing that has opened up whole new worlds of friendship, intellectual inquiry, love, and awesome adventure to me.  It’s especially remarkable given the efforts of an increasingly fat-phobic society to convince everyone that fat people can’t have love or joy or mobility or excitement.  This whole trip has been a big fuck you to that idea.

 

 

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.

Sydney Fat Studies Conference

Wow, that was AMAZING!  It was an extraordinary couple of days, incredibly nourishing intellectually, emotionally, and physically (all those fatty hugs)!

It was wonderful to hang out with a bunch of awesome fats and allies, some of whom I knew already, some of whom I knew on the internets, some of whom I’ve been admiring from afar, and some who I met for the first time.  I now have a bunch of new friends on facebook and twitter and in real life.

It was a little scary to give my first conference paper outside of my uni, and to chair panels for the first time, but I think it went well.  It was fantastic to hear other papers which connect with my work and inspire me in new directions.  I want to post a write-up in the next couple of days, but we’ll see how that goes time-wise.  There’s so much I really do want to say, though!

The Bodies Abound art and performance night was completely, utterly, unbelievably amazing.  There was a bunch of beautiful fatty art on the walls, and some great spoken word performances.  Jenny Lee’s memoir piece had me crying and unable to stop.  I even read a story I wrote a couple of years ago, which was heaps of fun – it’s been so long since I’ve done anything ‘creative’ (not that academic work isn’t creative, or isn’t at least as invested with my identity, but it is different).

It was extraordinary to hang out in fat space for what I realised was the first time.  I’ve come back inspired, energised, excited.

One of the things that was most inspiring was the Fat Femme Front/Aquaporko panel, which has me wanting to start a Melbourne chapter of Aquaporko (fat femme synchronised swimming).  It will be FABULOUS!  If you’re interested in being part of it, comment or email me, and I’ll let you know the deets – once they get worked out.  Natalie is starting up the Brisbane chapter, so if you’re in Brisbane, you should totes get in contact with her.  Also, no matter where you are, hop on over and have a look at her fabulous photos of Aquaporko and other fab fatties from the conference.

Fats in a magazine

Last Sunday, News Ltd’s Sunday Magazine ran an article on fat stigma and fat acceptance, with interviews with Frances and Sam and Bri and…me!  (Hello and welcome to all the new people who found me via the article.)

It’s a great, positive article, and I think the writer, Jane Hutchinson, really ‘gets it’ with regard to fat stigmatisation.  It’s so encouraging to see these ideas being aired in mainstream media in Australia.

Click through for higher res files (look at that picture of Frances! Isn’t she incredible?! Also: So much yellow dress envy!)

It’s been really interesting for me being involved in this story (which is the first bit of media I’ve done).

One of the things I’ve been teaching my students at the moment is the idea of ‘framing’ – that is, what gets selected for show, what gets left out of view, what gets put around it.  We’ve been talking about it in regards to images, but it’s even more relevant to the construction of stories (and blog posts, for that matter).  I’m fascinated, both intellectually and, in this case, personally, by the way an hour and a half of conversation gets condensed to three or four quotes, and also by what kinds of quotes get selected.  I’m pretty sure I said some Deep and Fascinating and Profoundly Insightful things about fat stigma, but it’s the personal – and especially the emotional – bits which made it in.

Also, I think it’s hilarious that I’ve been quoted saying why I prefer the word ‘fat’ to ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’ and the very next paragraph talks about how many overweight and obese people there are in Australia.  It seems terribly apt that we’ve been talking about irony in class today.

This isn’t a criticism of the story or the process or anyone involved – I think it’s a really great and positive piece, and the quotes were selected because they serve the story and the angle.  But deconstructing media is kinda what I do, and it’s completely irresistible given something I was actually there for.

ETA:  I also meant to address the whole “last acceptable prejudice” thing.  I talked to Jane during the interview about how I think it’s a bogus claim – there’s all sorts of prejudice which is enshrined in legislation, used for political gain, and casually bandied about.

I’m also amused that the headline on the cover reads “Proud to be fat: The women who say bigger is better”.   Pretty sure the message wasn’t about being ‘better’ so much as not being worse.

I do, however, think Jane’s analysis of the photos used to illustrate the Christine Nixon stories is very astute, particulary when she says:

…the implied message behind the photo was clear: this woman is obviously unable to manage her appetite and body weight.  how can she be trusted to manage anything else?

Now that’s the kind of analysis of framing I hope my students will make!

Fat Pig

I haven’t posted anything here in a while.  Partly that’s down to plain old busy-ness.  Partly – and probably a more significant part – is that I’m grappling with the fact that this tiny little anonymous blog of mine is changing.  Specifically, it’s becoming more and more identifiable with me and my academic pursuits.  Which poses a problem for me re how to manage what has so far been an essentially-personal-if-somewhat-theoretically-inclined style of writing in light of possible recognition by colleagues and even future employers.  On the one hand, I’m feeling that the essentially personal is now too personal.  On the other, I think the personal is absolutely central to the (or at least my) project of fat studies.  It is quite blatantly because I live a fat body that I am doing this work, that I am interested in this research, these conversations, these experiences.  My academic pursuits are about my body; they could not be more personal.  My thesis research is directly motivated by my experiences of sexuality as a fat subject; it could not be more intimate.  The reality of this is blatantly apparent every time I stand in front of an audience and give a paper, and as much as academic language can provide a sort of distance, the material fact of my body refuses any attempt to hide.

I think the personal is important, is a real a proper subject of inquiry.  I think auto-ethnography can be a wonderfully illuminating methodology (see Sam Murray’s work for an example of just how brilliant and important it can be).  I’m not doing auto-ethnographic research for my thesis (though in many ways, I might as well be), but I do use this blog to connect my personal experiences with theory (though not always explicitly, and not always successfully).

There’s a wonderful quote I came across in an undergrad creative writing class, which sums up what I’m trying to say:

“There is no theory that is not a fragment, carefully preserved, of some autobiography”
 – Paul Valéry

All of which is to preface another essentially personal entry that I’ve had a hard time coming to write.

Two weeks ago, The Socialist and I headed up to Brisbane.  The impetus for the trip was to see the Queensland Theatre Company’s production of Neil LaBute’s Fat Pig, which I’m thesising about.  I also had the pleasure of (briefly) meeting Natalie, Nick, Sonya, Janey, and Zoe, who just happened to be going to the same performance.  You can read Natalie’s thoughts about the play here.

[I’m going to warn for spoilers, even though the production run has finished now.]

I saw another production of Fat Pig by the Sydney Theatre Company back in 2006, and it was a markedly different production, which leads me to a slightly different reading of the production.  I think Natalie makes some excellent points, particularly that, this production especially, is essentially “a story about how terribly hard it is for hetero men to select partners and play mates alike when there are only thin, shrieking women and fat pigs on offer”.  As Natalie says,  Jeanie is a horrible caricature of all the worst traits misogynist culture assigns to women – she’s shrill, shallow, posey, emotionally unstable, insecure, needy, obsessed with finding a husband, manipulative, aggressive but essentially powerless, uses her physical beauty to get what she wants . . . she’s a walking stereotype.  Jeanie’s opposite, Helen (the eponymous ‘fat pig’) is much more appealing – she’s funny, smart, self-deprecating, and genuine.  She’s probably the only likeable character in the play.  A generous interpretation of the direction might assume that playing Jeanie as hyper-shrill and completely obnoxious was an attempt to show Helen as even more sympathetic, and more desirable.  For me, though, it was simply shrieking misogyny.  It leaves no options for women – you can either be a lovely person but a fat pig who will end up alone; or you can be a shrill bitch but beautiful, and end up with an equally obnoxious and shallow male counterpart (Carter).

To be fair, the men fare little better.  Tom, the supposed ‘nice guy’, is an emotional coward.  The play’s central conflict is his inability to be honest with his friends (‘friends’), his paralysing fear of judgement.  He won’t admit to being with Helen because he fears being mocked and ridiculed – and when Tom and Helen are outed as a couple, that’s exactly what happens.  He won’t tell Jeanie honestly and straight-forwardly that he doesn’t want to see her anymore.  He won’t tell Carter that he doesn’t really like him or want him around.  It’s telling that all Tom’s ‘friends’ are actually workmates.  It’s telling that he doesn’t really enjoy their company, but that he is nonetheless completely beholden to their opinions.  The play doesn’t leave any options for men, either – you can either be a complete, unapologetic douchebag, and end up with a shrieking-but-skinny girlfriend; or you can try to be genuine and find something that actually makes you happy, but be unable to bear the judgement and end up alone.

The STC production was a lot more subtle.  It was still the same story, of course, and the same bleak ending (it’s Neil LaBute, after all).  But Carter was not quite so purely douchey, and Jeanie was actually relateable as a character.  I won’t say likeable, or even sympathetic, but she was played in a way that made you understand that the culture at large manoeuvres women into just these sorts of roles.  Helen (played by the divinely gorgeous Katrina Milosevic, who I once had the pleasure of serving when I worked at My Size and was completely smitten with her) was a slightly more subdued character.  Tom was . . . still an emotional coward.

The QTC also made some interesting choices in the mis-en-scene, most specifically the inter-titles.  Each scene in the play text is titled, and QTC chose to display these titles on a screen which provided the backdrop for the stage.  The first title “That First Meeting With Her” was displayed in yellow, san serif text on a red background.  Sound familiar?  Yep, just like a McDonald’s ad.  The title for “A Surprising Night Out Together” was a Japanese-inspired background, which made sense given they were at a Japanese restaurant.  The decision to add the word ‘Sumo’ to the background (presumably to indicate the name of the restaurant), however, was entirely unnecessary, and confirms my sneaking suspicion that the production was trying to have it both ways – playing up (and even creating) fat jokes for cheap laughs*, at the same time as telling a story about the incredibly destructive effects of fat hatred.

And fat hatred is incredibly destructive.  Unlike Natalie, I have dated people who’ve given in to societal pressure rather than admit they were attracted to a fat girl.  My First Really Bad Relationship was kept secret because of the shame and disgust around fat sex.  I saw the 2006 STC production with an ex-lover who had a declared preference for fat girls.  After the show, he talked about how closeting sucks, how in the past he’d dated thinner girls than what he was really attracted to because of that social pressure.   Hanne Blanke also has a great section on ‘the case of the closeted fat admirer’ in her excellent book Big Big Love.  This shit is, unfortunately, real.  And it’s really, really painful.

I saw the play this time with a current lover who was saddened and appalled by what happens.  When we talked about it afterwards, he admitted that there was a time when he might have been more concerned about other people’s judgement about having a fat lover (although The Socialist is technically obese according to BMI, I wouldn’t exactly call him ‘fat’).  I admit that I’m still concerned about other people’s judgements of who I’m with, not least because I have a culturally-conditioned fear of judgement along the lines of  “Oh, she’s so fat, that’s the best she can do” (which is something the play talks about, too).

Official, scholarly research-y reasons aside, the trip to Brisbane was also a slightly early anniversary celebration for The Socialist and I.  (Huh. Almost a year. And I thought this would just be brief fling.)  We stayed in a fancy hotel with a view of the river and a pool and motherfucking king sized beds and a two-person bathtub and a tv in the goddamn bathroom and we got room service breakfast and played at being rich for the weekend.  Hell yeah it was awesome.  It’s also far beyond anything I could have afforded as a single traveller.  It was more fun and more relaxing than most of the travel I’ve done previously, which has been almost exclusively travelling on my own.  It brought home to me, once again, just how much privilege is involved in coupledom – not only in terms of finances, but also in terms of emotional resources.  To not have to psych myself up to go out for dinner alone, to not have to deal with a stranger’s resentment at my hip encroaching on their plane seat, to not feel sad that I was there alone with all the attendant cultural baggage, was a huge relief.  And that’s why the personal matters, because it tells me about the cultural, the theoretical, the political.

__________________

*Check out Fat Heffalump’s ‘Debrief’ for more evidence of this.  Thankfully, the audience was not so vile the night I went.

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).

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*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.

on couple privilege

There’s a post that went up over at Shakesville a few of days ago about the consequences of authorites refusing to recognise the validity of gay relationships.  It’s an awful story, and I entirely agree with the statement in the title: This Should Not Happen.  Ever.

There’s a trigger warning up which says:

This story is potentially extremely distressing to people who are not protected by the privileges of legally recognized marriage, i.e. unmarried partners, especially gay partners, who have done everything in their power to protect their legal rights as partners, yet remain at the mercy of bureaucrats when they become elderly and/or in need of medical care because of disease or disability.

Again, I agree.  But there’s something missing from that definition of “people who are not protected by the privileges of legally recognized marriage”.  Something really, really glaringly obvious.  A whole huge group of people who, regardless of law or orientation “are not protected by the privileges of legally recognized marriage“.  Have you guessed it yet?  That’s right: single people.  People who do not have partners.  There are lots and lots of people who don’t have partners*, who are categorically excluded from “the privileges of legally recognized marriage”.

Now, it’s absolutely not my intention to have a go at the Shakesville post – I think it’s an excellent piece and Shaker Maud makes a really, really important argument.  I’m using the story because it’s a great illustration of the point I want to make.  The point is this (if you haven’t already guessed):

WHY SHOULD ONLY COUPLED PEOPLE BE AFFORDED RIGHTS AND PROTECTION?

No, I don’t think that the post is actually arguing that only couples should be afforded rights an protection.  But I do think that it shouldn’t matter if Clay and Harold were “just” room-mates – their relationship, their (legally documented!) wishes, their basic dignity, should still be respected.  Regardless of weather they were sexually and romantically involved.

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* Roughly 30-ish percent!  A third of the adult population!

on being fat and in love

When I started writing this post, I thought it was going to be about coupledom and privilege.  It hasn’t turn out that way – it’s turned out as a post on my history of dating while fat.  I still intend to write that post on couple privilege, but I think this is important background.

I have some strange ideas about my relationship history.  Up to nine months ago, I claimed that I’d never had a ‘real’ relationship in my life.  I also claimed that all my relationships were bad relationships.  (See the strange yet?)  I’ve always been convinced that both of these things were because I was fat.  But NONE of these things are true.  I’ve had relationships, I’ve had good relationships, and I’ve had relationships both because of and regardless of my fat.

It is true that I’ve spent a lot of my life as a single person.  And it’s true that I’ve broken my heart a helluva lot.  But I have dated a respectable number of people (for some values of ‘respectable’, anyway).  And I’ve actually only had two truly bad relationships.  Only two.  Other relationships may not have gone the way I wanted them to, but there’s only two that have been really bad -  by which I mean emotionally or psychologically damaging.

The first of my bad relationships was in my late teens and early twenties. It lasted just over two years and is the longest relationship I’ve ever had.  We were never officially a couple, and the whole affair was kept secret, even when we lived together (twice!) – partly because we worked together, partly because he didn’t want the fact that he had a lover to interfere with picking up other girls, and mostly  because he didn’t want anyone to know that he was fucking a fat girl.  I’m not making that up, or extrapolating from anything – he told me straight out that if anyone found out he was it would be over (people found out, it wasn’t over, we just continued to deny it).  He also told me once that if I were thin, “we’d be married by now.”  I’m counting that as a lucky escape.

I accepted the lying, the secrecy, the other women because I thought I didn’t deserve any better.  Because I thought that I was so incredibly hideous that no one would ever want to be with me ‘properly’ and so this was the best that I could get.  I’m pretty sure there was also a bit of the myth that a bad boy will come good with the love of a good woman at work in there.  Romantic comedies have a lot to answer for.  I eventually met some new friends who made me feel like I wasn’t the most hideous person in the world and finally had the courage to leave.  I was heartbroken for years after.  I really and truly believed that no one could ever love me because I was fat.

The second really bad relationship was in my late twenties, and quite short (three months or so).  We started going out because she chased me.  My interest in being with her was primarily my interest in being pursued (even though she’s one of the most conventionally attractive people I’ve dated).  The sex was absolutely minimal (once) and absolutely non-reciprocal.  (Incidentally, sleeping with her made me very aware that fat bodies and thin bodies are incredibly, radically, different.  It was kind of shocking to be confronted with a body so different from mine when, both being girl bodies, they were ‘supposed’ to be so much the same.)  I raised the no-sex issue, but never pushed it because, well, who’d want to fuck a fat girl?  Even though at that stage I was well and truly into fat acceptance.  Even though I’d had experience of dating people who loved fucking fat girls, who only wanted to fuck fat girls, or who really liked fucking this particular fat girl, I was so indoctrinated with the idea that fat girls are unfuckable that I couldn’t actually stand my ground and say “This is not ok”.  There was, of course, more to the story: I was trying to do-things-differently from the past and not instigate a pre-emptive break-up; I told her that I was not going to break up with her and that if that’s what she wanted, she’d have to do it herself.  She kept reassuring me she really did like me but had “issues”.  After three months of this, I decided that doing-things-differently-be-damned, it wasn’t ok.  She had decided the same thing at the same time.

The way she told me was to say: “I was only pretending to like you”.

I wasn’t heartbroken, but I was psychologically devastated.  This was my secret paranoia in every relationship (which she knew, because I’d told her in order to reassure her that “everyone has issues”).  “Only pretending” has been my secret paranoia since year seven when Ben Richardson used to shout across the schoolyard, “Sizeoftheocean, you give me orgasms!” Since year seven means every single relationship I have ever had. EVER.  I always “knew” that anyone expressing interest in me was probably doing it to mock me.  To set me up as a punch-line. AND: She knew this.  SHE KNEW THIS.  Yes, I am still angry.  It was a cruel and deliberate thing to say (looking back, there were plenty of clues to this tendency, but I ignored them because, well, I’m fat and she’s not and surely I should just shut up and be grateful for the attention).

But back to the point: I’ve had two terrible and devastating relationships.  Hardly every relationship I’ve ever had.  I’ve actually had some quite wonderful relationships, even if they mostly haven’t gone the way I’d like them to.  But I always believed that I hadn’t had – and couldn’t have – the kind of relationship I wanted because I was fat.

I know fat acceptance as a movement works pretty hard to dispel the idea that fat women will accept anything just to get sexual and romantic attention. But at a certain time in my life, this was absolutely true for me, and I think it’s important to acknowledge that.  I think it’s also important to acknowledge that being fat does actually make it likely you’ll encounter extra challenges in dating (because there aren’t enough challenges already), even if it’s just in the constant, endless, relentless message that no one will ever want a fat girl.  A message which is rubbish, by the way, but still extremely powerful.  A message which taught me to put up with being mistreated.  A message which taught me to pre-emptively reject myself before anyone else could, which became a self-fulfilling prophecy because I foreclosed any possibility before it could become a reality. A message that brought with it the nagging idea that because being fat precluded me from having a “real” relationship (despite ample evidence to the contrary), it meant that I was precluded from being a worthwhile person, someone who really mattered.  Romantic love and coupling-off are culturally positioned as profoundly desirable, deeply necessary, and ultimately validating. “You’re no one until somebody loves you” and all that.  A message which taught me to negate my personality and desires in order to become what someone else wanted (yeah, that worked out real well).  A message which has been the hardest thing about fat acceptance that I’ve dealt with, because it’s necessarily completely wrapped up with other people’s opinions and desires.

For the last nine months I’ve been dating a boy (let’s  call him ‘The Socialist’).  I wouldn’t say our relationship is perfect by any stretch, but it’s good.  We have fun together.  I’m completely myself around him, which is a revelation.  I don’t feel the immanent threat of being dumped for someone else, someone thinner, someone more interesting (it’s amazing how trying to be what someone else wants actually makes you incredibly dull).  More importantly is that I’ve started to seriously deconstruct the ideology of romance and coupledom, and what exactly a ‘real relationship’ is anyway.

I think there are a lot of reasons for wanting the kind of relationship privileged by the dominant culture. Primarily, that is THE ONLY KIND OF RELATIONSHIP that is ever depicted as valid in the dominant culture.  I think this message is much stronger for women, but men certainly don’t escape it. There are all sorts of privileges which accrue to couples – economic, social, and cultural privileges. There’s the incredible benefit of emotional support and knowing that someone’s on your side and always having a friendly face at parties, of not having to go it on your own all the damn time*. Of knowing that you’re loved. Of having visible social approval in the form of someone who loves you and publicly acknowledges that fact.

The privileges and social validation that comes along with coupledom have become more and more blatant the longer I’ve been seeing The Socialist.  And that will be the subject of another post.

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*I am, of course, speaking only of functional relationships, where there are tangible emotional benefits. Obviously not all relationships are like that, and sometimes being in a relationship can actually be emotionally damaging rather than nurturing. I also realise that this is a bit idealistic even for good relationships.