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.

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.

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

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.