Diva Citizenship

Well, this blog has been rather quiet lately.  Mostly because I’m not a very regular blogger to begin with, but also because of been off doing Epic Productivity (TM) on my actual thesis.  Theoretically, that should feed in here, but I have thousands of words of notes towards a chapter rather than a nice concise little five hundred word post.

Anyway, instead of a ‘proper’ post, I thought I’d share an extended quote from a book I’ve just started reading, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship by Lauren Berlant.  There is a chapter that talks a little bit about fat, but the book is more concerned with the race and sexuality in America. I want to make it clear that I think caution is needed in not appropriating wholesale the arguments and terminology of other struggles (I wouldn’t claim ‘subaltern’ for white fat acceptance, for example), but I think this passage says some really useful and interesting things about privilege, activism, speaking, visibility, and the necessity for faith in other people.

Moments of optimism for the transformation of…political and social culture abound in the stories of subordinated peoples… A member of a stigmatized population testifies reluctantly to a hostile public the muted and anxious history of her imperiled citizenship.  Her witnessing turns into a scene of teaching and an act of heroic pedagogy, in which the subordinated person feels compelled to recognize the privileged ones, to believe in their capacity to learn and to change; to trust their desire to not be inhuman; and trust their innocence of the degree to which their obliviousness has supported a system of political subjugation.  These moments are acts of strange intimacy between subaltern peoples and those who have benefited by their subordination.  These acts of risky dramatic persuasion are based on a belief that the privileged persons of national culture will respond to the sublimity of reason.

I call these moments acts of Diva Citizenship.  Diva Citizenship does not change the world.  It is a moment of emergence that marks unrealised potentials for subaltern political activity.  Diva Citizenship occurs when a person stages a dramatic coup in a public sphere in which she does not have privilege.  Flashing up and startling the public, she puts the dominant story into suspended animation; as though recording and estranging voice-over to a film we have all already see, she re-narrates the dominant history as one that the abjected people have once lived sotto voce, but no more; and challenges her audience to identify with the enormity of the suffering she has narrated and the courage she has had to produce, calling on people to change the social and institutional practices of citizenship to which they currently consent.

Diva Citizenship has a genealogy that is only now beginning to be written; the fate of its time- and space-saturating gesture has been mostly to pass and to dissolve into nostalgia, followed by sentences like “Remember that moment, just a second ago, when X made everything so politically intense that it looked like sustained change for good would happen?”  The centrality of publicity to Diva Citizenship cannot be underestimated, for it tends to emerge in moments of such extraordinary political paralysis that acts of language can feel like explosives that shake the ground of collective existence.  Yet in remaking the scene of public life into a spectacle of subjectivity, it can lead to a confusion of wilful and memorable rhetorical performances with sustained social change itself.

Lauren Berlant, The Queen of America Goes to Washington City: Essays on Sex and Citizenship, p222-223

I can think of a few examples of Fat Diva Citizenship – Beth Ditto’s whole public persona, for one.  The profile of Lezley Kinzel being herself in the Boston Globe.  Everyone who posts pictures to Fatshionista (livejournal or flickr) or Deathfatties.  The whole damn fatosphere in general, and any time “when a [fat] person stages a dramatic coup in a public sphere in which she does not have privilege.”

The claims of these moments of Fat Diva Citizenship tend to get co-opted by mainstream commercial interests in order to sell more magazines, but then, I wonder – is that a sign of some sort of sustained social change, even if it’s not the sort of change that upsets – or even challenges – the system in any real way?

Desireable objects and desiring subjects

So I’ve been reading and writing and thinking and talking a lot about fat and sex lately.

Well, ok, I haven’t been reading a lot, exactly, because there’s not a lot of academic work on fat and sex to read and some of what there is, is frankly appalling.  I have been reading what Samantha Murray, Jana Evans Braziel, and Laura Kipnis have to say on fat and sex, though, and it’s most interesting.  It’s got me thinking.

There’s so few images of fat women as sexual beings in mainstream representation.  Most of these representations are set up as parodic, absurd, carnivalesque, grotesque.  Images from fat porn occasionally find their way into the mainstream, where they are recontextualised as objects of ridicule rather than desire.  Any fat woman who dares to desire sex  is cast as oblivious to the disgust and repulsion her body must engender.  She must be delusional to think anyone could possibly want her.  As Murray says:

as a ‘fat’ woman I am expected to deny my own sexual desires and identity because my body stands as an ’embolism’, to use Sedgewick’s term, between  my sexuality and my society (p123)

Yeah, I fucking love Sam Murray.  But that’s not really the point I’m trying to make.

The point I’m trying to make is that what this suggests to me is that being able to conceive of ourselves as a desirable object is integral to constituting ourselves as validly desiring subjects.  Extended out to the cultural level, it is necessary to be able to conceive of a body as desirable in order to conceive of its desires as valid or real.  In order for desire to be intelligible as desire.

What do you think?

References:

Samantha Murray, The Fat Female Body, 2008

Laura Kipnis, ‘Life in the Fat Lane’ in Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America, 1996

Jana Evans Braziel, ‘Sex and Fat Chics: Deterritorializing the Fat Female Body’ in Bodies Out Of Bounds, Desirable objects 2001

Privilege

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks heaps in advance!

Ok, go!

(x-posted everywhere I go)

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

Obesity: It’s like killing mittens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fat Year

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

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

Fat Year

I’m having a fat year.

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

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

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

Not that body.

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

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

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

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

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

how to talk about bodies like mine

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

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

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

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

I wonder what could happen simply by being seen.

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

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

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

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

(and I thought coming out as fat was hard)

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

how to write the body like a body

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

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

How to write a body like mine?


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

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

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

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

Self-esteem is baaad, mkay?

So Fat Lot of Good and Axis of Fat have already posted some great responses to the Susie O’Brien piece on why self-esteem is bad for fatties, the economy, and Good Thin Folk (also published in the Herald Sun, that bastion of outstanding journalism).

I don’t really have the patience to go through most of the sheer ludicrousness, but I did want to comment on a couple of things.

The first the idea that having a very, very few fat people in roles that aren’t overtly about ridiculing them will somehow make everyone WANT to be fat – ASPIRE to be fat, even.  I mean, if the models at Australian Fashion Week are doing it, it makes sense that the rest of the population will follow like mindless sheep.  Never mind that those models were only used in one show, and that was for a plus-size label.

According to Suzie:

… it just doesn’t make any sense to also be sending the message that it’s not only OK to be fat, it’s a sign of self-empowerment.

Suzie dear, I think you may be seriously confused if you thinks that encouraging self-esteem in fat people is the same as encouraging people to get fat as a form of self-empowerment.

Oh, but self-empowerment is not ok:

But the discourse of self-empowerment surrounding the move is stopping us asking why so many young people are size 16 or more in the first place.

I’m thinking that if staying under a size 16 requires shaming and social ostracism, maybe a better question is how the limits of ‘acceptable’ bodies are defined and policed, not how we come to exceed them.

And then there’s this doozy:

Alarmingly, a new Australian study of more than 30,000 people shows obese and morbidly obese men are less depressed and less suicidal than those of a normal weight.

Hang on, WHAT?  It’s ALARMING that fat people aren’t depressed and suicidal?   We’ve been given Fashion and Fat Models and that has somehow made us all forget that we’re intrinsically worthless and should just kill ourselves quickly so the good thin folk don’t have to pay for us while we malinger?  WHAT?

Yeah, fuck you, Susie O’Brien.

Towards a fat aesthetics

So I’ve been thinking a lot lately about fat and aesthetics.  Actually, I’ve been thinking about it for a really long time – at least since this post at fatshionista.com a year and a half ago.  Specifically, this bit:

The freedom and confidence to dress to fit one’s fat body and not hide it is, absolutely, a revolutionary experience, especially for a girl who lived in jeans and baggy t-shirts for most of her life.  But it is equally revolutionary, for me, to choose not to put myself out there as a curvy, slightly more acceptable, fake-voluptuous shape.  I ain’t voluptuous.  And if I don’t feel like faking a shape my body doesn’t fit, I’m not going to do so.

There had been a bit of discussion in the fatshionista livejournal community around that time about the idea of ‘flattering,’ and how it was usually used to mean ‘slimming’ – or sometimes ‘smoothing’ – either way, making the body appear closer in size or shape to the dominant ideal (slim, smooth, curved).  Which, well, is a fine thing to do, but it’s not exactly going to start a revolution, or change much of anything at all (except perhaps how the ‘flattered’ person feels at the time, which is not nothing).

And it got me wondering: what would ‘flattering’ mean in the context of fat fashion if it didn’t mean ‘slightly-more-like-a-thin-body’?

The topic has been on my mind a lot lately thanks to the release of Beth Ditto’s collection for Evans.  There’s been a lot of praise and a lot of criticism about the collection.  I kinda have a foot in each camp myself – there’s some pieces I adore, and some that just sort of make me go o_O.  The collection is incredibly on-trend and in line with what’s coming in with small-size collections, but at the same time, it feels to me like it’s doing something different, something more than just upsizing the current fashions.  It seems to me to be about fat in a way I don’t think I’ve seen before.  I think it’s partly the rhinestone-eyed kitty t-shirt that is so evocative of pretty much the only style of clothing available to me as a young fat girl in the 80s.  I think it’s partly the domino dress that doesn’t try to flatter or slim or smooth.  These are pieces I would never wear because I’m too deeply invested in being ‘acceptable’ fat, but they still say something to me.

One of the things I love most fiercely about Beth Ditto is that she’s not afraid of ugly.  When I saw The Gossip live (please come back to Australia soon!), at one point in the gig, Beth posed for photos by looking down and tucking her chin in, saying ‘Did you get the double chins?  Make sure you get the chins!’  Watching her emphasise rather than try to hide her fatness, I had a Moment.

And so, for a while now, I’ve been thinking that one of the things that is happening in fat acceptance – in the various manifestations of fatshionista, in (some) other fat fashion blogs, in Beth Ditto’s unashamed display of fat flesh both prettified and uglified – is the development of a fat aesthetics.  A recognition that fat bodies are different to thin bodies (and different to other fat bodies, and that thin bodies are different to other thin bodies, and that the line between fat and thin is pretty impossible to locate definitively) and that finding ways to make a fat body look as much like a thin body as possible is not necessarily the ultimate aim of the game.  That there might be a way of fashioning fat bodies, of valuing the visuals that doesn’t have to be about ‘curves’ and cleavage (although it can be), that isn’t about adapting and adopting a certain set of standards, that isn’t about ‘what’s inside’ being the only thing that counts.

I think all this and I get very excited, because I think it means that fat bodies – that a fat aesthetics – could be truly revolutionary.