Okay, this is going to make even more awesome sense than it already does if you read this entry at Fats.com and this entry in the community! You have probably read Stitch before over at Fats and you will read her again if you buy the book because she provided one of our guest essays!

Okay, enough intro. Rock on!

I Want It All: On Feminism and Fat Acceptance

“We hate her, oh we hate her
Her voracious will
Her unrepentant appetite [...]
She cannot be handled
She cannot be trusted
she makes us
very
nervous.
And so we shame her to silence,
And stuff her underground
And imagine that she is controlled”

from “The Fat Girl Rules the World” by July Siebecker

Recent events and posts in my small corner of the fatosphere have me thinking about the critical epiphany that pushed me—self-loathing and resistant and comfortable in that state as I unfortunately was–towards the hard work of fat acceptance. Actually the term “epiphany” in this case is utterly hyperbolic. It was much less monumental than that. There was no choir or holy light. It was more of a tipping point. Or maybe a hole. One that kept getting bigger, and one day an “oh. huh.” combined with all the others “wait… what?” and “no, that’s not right” to render my previous image of myself (and the world) as unrealistic, tattered, and unsustainable.

But before I delve more into how I came to fat acceptance, it’s probably useful to describe my initial reactions to feminism, since these days my feminism and fat acceptance combine into a giant megazord that battles patriarchal/fatphobic evil to shape my politics and the actions that stem from them.

As a little kid I–like many little kids–used to cut long chains of paper dolls from construction paper. When I first started to read about Marilyn Frye’s “birdcage of oppression”, and Bitch‘s articles about the way female bodies were depicted in less than fleshed-out ways in pop culture, I was reminded of those dolls. I felt that media and cultural construction of women was strikingly similar to those paper-cut girls: uniform, unchanging, and, ultimately, flat. Wholly unable to support or articulate the actual reality and plurality of womens’ identities. I started to see how paper–namely the glossy paper of magazines like seventeen and y&m–shiny, and two-dimensional had, in a sense, papered me over. Built up, layer by body-objectifying and one-dominant-ideal enforcing layer to give me– a three-dimensional human being with complex, three-dimensional, desires– a two-dimensional understanding of myself. And that’s when I started saying–in my writing, speech, and appearance– the equivalent of “hey, I’m more than this flat fucking piece of paper” which, as you’d probably guess, tended to cause a commotion with the people around me. People who were used to my silent nodding, my falling–happily, easily, and without question–in line.

If feminism brought my paper double/covering–my paper beldam, if you will–into focus then fat acceptance was like the missing piece for me–akin to my discovering the hole punch. The tool needed to doff the layers. But let’s come back to that…

I came to fat acceptance for a lot of reasons, but one of the most palpable pushes came from reading the following comment on a feminist community:

“You know what, I’m actually really tired of feeling like the only valuable part of me is my brain. I know it seems counter-intuitive, because on one hand it seems we’re so often arguing that our bodies ought not to be sexualized objects/define our destinies. As a FAT feminist, I’m starting to find fault with being wholly divorced from my physical body. I feel like my relationship to my body is complicated by my fat, and that my desire to have my fat body be valued, be seen as a worthwhile and attractive part of me IS NOT about wanting to be objectified or capitulating to the patriarchy. It’s the opposite–it’s about empowerment.”

Siebecker’s poem continues:

But you can’t kill the fat girl…
You drive her below
and she rules the roots…
Leaving you wanting…
saying
I won’t be denied
Saying
Deal with me
Saying
YES!

That comment, for me, was the YES! moment Siebecker articulates in her poem. I’d spent my whole life feeling like my personality/intelligence was at odds with my body, instead of in cooperation/conversation with it. That if I could just outrun my skin, fat, muscle, and bone— somehow evolve into a Star Trek-like light-being and get rid of my body forever– I’d finaly realize my TRUE potential. Fat Feminist’s comment spoke to that feeling, but more than that seemed to come from deep in my own body. That pull–of recognition in the pit of my stomach– was my body speaking up and calling bullshit on everything heinous my brain had enacted on it up until that point. It was taking a stand after years of being hidden in clothing meant to camouflage and cloak it, words meant to erase and eradicate it, and it wasn’t holding back in administering a swift kick to my cerebellum. My body demanded–after years of being secreted and silenced, hated, and apologized for by me–that I recognize its value, its presence. Hey! said my body. It’s time to Deal with me.

Feminism and fat acceptance are my framework–they give me the language to identify my struggles. Engaging in discussions–in active critical thinking– is how I go about poking holes in the media corrupted and constructed image of myself. How I work to bust through years of glossy billboards and teen zine plaster. And it ain’t easy. And it certainly isn’t gonna be stripped away over night.

This is why, frankly, the existence of a communities that feature fashion photographs of fat people, do not feel ultimately effective to me without dialogue and critical thinking and engagement with those images. Some people would say I should be content to take to my corner with any and every proverbial bone that’s tossed my way. “Isn’t it enough, just to see other fat people? ” “Isn’t it enough to have one option?” “Why can’t we just talk fashion?” “Doesn’t the political value of the image outweigh (har) everything else?”

And there is something there. Representations do have to start somewhere. I won’t deny that there is definite political and cultural value in seeing images of people with fat bodies online everyday. But even in this increasingly image-driven culture the fine print–the absence of, and presence of it–still matters, still calls for examination because it STILL makes meaning. When I start to see a pattern–in words, in what shapes are deemed “pretty”, in which posters are told things like “i would kill to have your body!”, in which images receive pages and pages of praise, and which receive almost none, I worry that a certain “fat ideal” is simply standing in place for the thin one. I am reminded, once again, of the construction paper dolls. The layers of magazine ads I still need to break through. (and I worry about the necessary paper cuts.) I think, self, you need to get out your hole punch, you’ve still got a lot of work to do.

Oftentimes print text can contradict image text. It can enhance or complicate the image. (We seebthis potential explored in comics all the time). The relationship between the two is never simple, or static. There are layers of meaning–just like the layers of paper. Many angles to consider. Many implications to unpack.

Consider this paragraph from Susan Jane Gilman’s essay “klaus barbie, and other dolls i’d like to see,” an essay, which, you might gather from the title, calls for barbie to greater represent the spectrum of women’s identities:

“Dinner Roll Barbie: A Barbie with multiple love handles, double chin, a real, curvy belly, generous tits and ass and voluminous thighs to show girls that voluptuousness is also beautiful. Comes with a miniature basket of dinner rolls, buck o’ fried chicken, tiny Entenmann’s walnut ring, a brick of Sealtest ice cream, three packs of potato chips, a T-shirt reading “Only the Weak Don’t Eat” and of course, an appetite.”

Now there is certainly visual power in the idea of a fat Barbie (see for example the body shop ads from some years back). But I read this and I can’t help but think, ok, Dinner Roll Barbie–better Fat Barbie– concept is a great one, but it stops short because FB’s accessories lapse her back into stereotype. She might read a bit like the fat girl as characterized by the writers of Shallow Hal. Couldn’t Fat Barbie she come with these things and, say, I dunno: celery sticks, workout pants, a newspaper, killer heels, and a PhD? I don’t know about you, but my Fat Barbie’s appetite would extend–as with that of humans of any size–beyond a cartoonish love of junk food. Call me greedy/dreamin’ if you must, but I want MY fat barbie to have it all, because really, WHY THE HELL NOT?

And coming back to my earlier note about plural identities: why not create a whole passel of Fat Barbies. Barbies with different fat bodies and different accessories? Is it so much to want to think about the spectrum of experience? I, and I think most of you, would say: NO. And that’s why as part of my fat acceptance and feminism is an active and unrelenting need to examine images and language. To push on the things–expressions and contradictions— that might make me and others uncomfortable. Why I am not just content to let words like “flattering” go by unchecked. Because I want more than just a flat reflection of myself in an internet mirror. I want variations in three dimensions. I want more than one option. I WANT IT ALL. And we might not always agree about the best way to go about it, but know this: I want you to have it all too.


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15 Comments

  1. JupiterPluvius
    Posted February 16, 2009 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    Susan Jane Gilman is a very good writer, but I think a) she is so used to writing for-hire stuff for mags, she can fall into those cliches really easily, and b) she hasn’t worked through all her own FA stuff yet (the impression I get is that she comes from a family of origin where the “fat is a moral failing” thing was strongly reinforced).

    This is based on having met her twice and exchanged a few emails, so take it for what it’s worth.

  2. stitchtowhere
    Posted February 16, 2009 at 9:06 pm | Permalink

    JupiterPluvius: I agree with you about Susan Jane Gilman, and I take your comment as a perfect moment to reassure folks that my querying her text is not at all meant as a dig at her work. In that essay she’s given us a very tangible intriguing idea. Maybe she didn’t have the space to develop her Barbies, in the article –I know what it’s like to write with a tight word limit (even if this post length implies otherwise!). That’s why I think it’s good to dialogue as a community. We can take her work as a point of departure, and roll with it.

  3. Posted February 16, 2009 at 9:14 pm | Permalink

    Here’s a question- why should a fat barbie come with any food related accessories at all? Not “celery sticks”, because that comes with an entirely differnt set of baggage. Is fat barbie on a perpetual diet, with her celery and workout pants? Is that just the same set of luggage with a different print fabric?

    It’s just a question- it shows how subconsciously these things creep in.

  4. Stitchtowhere
    Posted February 16, 2009 at 9:22 pm | Permalink

    bronxelf: good question! i toyed with banishing the food and adding an implicit reference to exercise but ultimately i felt like Gilman’s point about appetite–especially since so much of the fear and loathing of fat in society is connected to this idea of an “out of control appetite”– was worth expanding/toying with. Point is that Gilman’s point about Barbie having food isn’t necessarily offensive. It might be accurate for some and inaccurate for others. The point is, Barbie with a whole range of food–i could have expanded that list– would have bold political impact in our culture. My choice of celery sticks was DELIBERATE, precisely because of the “you’d be skinny if you just ate some celery sticks” type comments fat people get. Same deal with the workout pants. Fat people don’t need to exercise if they don’t wanna–they certainly don’t owe it to anyone–but lots of fat people do like to workout in a variety of ways. I guess what I was trying to get at there, is like anyone, a less cartoonish Fat Barbie might have appetites for a whole host of things that society would moralize as “good” and “bad” activities in relation to the body.

    That’s why in the end I suggest that the best Fat Barbies would be custom. I’d like to think you could choose her accessories from the whole range of Barbie paraphernalia, and if something you wanted was lacking–like a grappling hook or a yak?–you could have it made.

  5. Seamyst
    Posted February 16, 2009 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

    MY Fat Barbie(TM) would have a big belly and thighs and a double chin. She’d come wearing a short sleeve blouse, skirt, knee socks, and cute glasses; and would have chocolate, a stack of books, and a tea set (it tastes better that way).

    Oh – and a yak, of course.

  6. Posted February 16, 2009 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Oftentimes print text can contradict image text. It can enhance or complicate the image. (We this potential explored in comics all the time). The relationship between the two is never simple, or static. There are layers of meaning–just like the layers of paper. Many angles to consider. Many implications to unpack.

    WORD. I write about picture books, and it’s true there too. Text and image both expand and limit each other’s possibilites, layer upon layer, often at the same time, contradicting and challenging and supporting and questioning and confirming each other. Very fluid. Great post.

  7. Stitchtowhere
    Posted February 16, 2009 at 9:58 pm | Permalink

    ok Seamyst.. did you post your comment just as or after i was editing mine to include yaks?

    LOL

  8. Posted February 16, 2009 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

    I concur about wanting many depictions of fat feminity and fat feminism to chose from.

  9. Posted February 17, 2009 at 7:44 am | Permalink

    I’m still not convinced by the fat acceptance versus the patriarchy argument.

    It’s obvious that feminism has as many problems with FA as anyone.

    The virulence of the opposition to it within feminism. Too many of those who reject FA after embracing; because they seem to feel trapped by it; seem to be feminists.

    That suggests to me, there is possibly an icompaitibility between FA and feminism.

    Certainly, the deeper I go into FA, the more alienated I’ve felt from what feminism is today-as opposed to it’s history.

    FA is as problematic for feminists as it is for anyone else, the question is why.

  10. madge
    Posted February 17, 2009 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    Stitchtowhere, thanks for the amazing post. I also want to tell you that you are a fashion hero to me for several reasons. I often look to the fatshionista photos to see what you’re wearing and how you’re pulling together such great looks, because your style is so chic and fearless. You rock – your style, your writing, your confidence. You’re an inspiration.
    thanks

  11. Posted February 17, 2009 at 10:54 am | Permalink

    Wriggles, I don’t think FA and feminism are incompatible and I’m curious why you seem to feel so strongly that they are. Body autonomy is body autonomy. Of course it’s not as simple as that but they’re more compatible than not IMO.

  12. Posted February 17, 2009 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    Buttercup,

    I said:

    “It’s obvious that feminism has as many problems with FA as anyone. The virulence of the opposition to it within feminism. Too many of those who reject FA after embracing; because they seem to feel trapped by it; seem to be feminists.

    That suggests to me, there is possibly an icompaitibility between FA and feminism.”

    That should have course have been incompatibility, (sorry about mad spellings).

    Like you, I didn’t think there was either, but fat acceptance, or fat liberation has been part of feminism since the 70′s.

    I feel they should have melded together, they don’t seem to have.

    It seems that whilst we all agree on body autonomy, we don’t all agree on what that leads to. For some, FA seems to suggest some kind of genetic determinism. And that this restricts freedom, to control weight.

    I’m not sure though, becuase I’ve never seen it honestly explored.

    I’ve never seen a piece that says, ‘Why I honestly can’t stand FA, by a feminist’.

    So I can only guess.

  13. Posted February 17, 2009 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    This is a really thought-provoking piece. It’s certainly got the wheels turning in my skull. Thanks.

  14. Posted February 18, 2009 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    Wiggles, I guess for me it depends on what intention is given to the choices we make. The whole thing is kind of rattling around in my head right now but I’m thinking of the difference between real empowerment and “empowerfulment” which only gets you as far as the patriarchy is willing to grant approval. If your actions regarding your body and appearance are because you’re trying to conform to patriarchal standards or if you’re doing something because it’s what you want, are different things.
    That being said, appearance-based decisions are not made in a void, but far be it for me as a feminist to decry how any woman chooses to present herself to the world. We all do the best we can with what we have in the patriarchy.

    I love the Fatshionista community on LJ for a number of reasons, partially because it has helped me so much to see myself as less abnormal. I also love it when dialogue and conversation on fat and fatshion breaks out because it gives me a chance to learn, even at my advanced age, and sometimes contribute. And that comes back, for me, to the YES moment, my body and mind being unified and acceptable and valuable, all of it, fat and old and crippled and imperfect and still all me and all important. And all valuable.

  15. Prof
    Posted February 19, 2009 at 12:50 pm | Permalink

    This is (probably) an excellent post, but I will have to read the rest of it later. After reading your crossed out megazord comment, now I’m busy imagining you as the Red Ranger leading a team of Fat Power Rangers. Your morphers are shaped like baby donuts. AWESOME.

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