Yesterday I had a conversation on Facebook that deeply infuriated me. Admittedly, as an activist, I have a tendency towards being infuriated. This conversation, though, made me as angry as I have been in a very long time.
As some in Portland, Oregon are aware – there is a new store opening and its owner has expressed some really problematic views on homosexuality (linking it with pedophilia) and has been openly advocating for the generic rights of businesses to refuse service based on their personal beliefs. There has, rightly, been an uproar, threats of boycott, and a large debate about what rights business owners have in relation to their personal beliefs.
Over the course of the last 24 hours, my newsfeed slowly filled with links to various stories, multiple opinions about how to take action, and justifiable expressions of hurt, anger, and frustration. But one post stood out — from someone who has previously held a very public position in queer leadership — as deeply problematic. The poster acknowledged the many angry and frustrated posts and then proceeded to point out that she’d not seen a single person rise above and offer to sit down with the store owner to talk it out, educate her, and see if they could build a bridge.
Immediately, the ‘likes’ came pouring in. The poster was congratulated on her compassion, on her obvious mediation skills, and thanked for pointing out how unproductive it is to be angry. I mean, it sounds good, doesn’t it? It has the air of moral authority to it. We must be productive! We must be good citizens! We must forgive. We must forget. We must do the work to sand the rough edges, to smooth the path for those behind us. We must be strong.
But here’s the thing, it is NEVER OK to tell someone who is currently subjugated by legal, moral, and ideological forces that it is their responsibility to “rise above” and educate the people who are leveling abuse at them. The “be the bigger person” and the “if you don’t love them then you’re like them” arguments may have the air of moral high ground but invariably they make anyone who is expressing anger, hurt, or unhappiness sound like someone who is ‘stuck’, who is making themselves a ‘victim’.
In critical race studies, there is a term for the portrait of the ‘stuck’ individual, of who, rather than simply accepting their subjugation, proclaims and visibly suffers the impacts of his or her ostracization from society by virtue of his or her difference from what society has deemed valuable . That term is called ‘racial melancholia‘, the individual being deemed melancholic. It’s applicable to a lesser extent in all oppressions. This is a term used to render problematic the person who is pointing out injustice, either directly or by refusing to disappear his or her suffering. Melancholia sees the vocalization of pain not as productive but as weak, self-involved and stagnant. Sara Ahmed has written beautifully on the topic of racial melancholia and on the social obligation to be happy, as have many others. While I dare not compare the experience of queer melancholia to the experience of racial melancholia in terms of its depth or impact, and while this brief explanation of melancholia does little to highlight its true complexity, the fact remains that aspects of melancholia are applicable to the queer experience. And the expectation that queers be the “better people”, especially when doing so calls for them to place themselves directly in the path of further abuse, is part of a system of neoliberal governmentality which requires, above all, that we are useful and productive.
To quote Sara (Happy Objects, in the Affect Theory Reader, p. 50)
What concerns me is how much this affirmative turn actually depends on the very distinction between good and bad feelings that presumes that bad feelings are backward and conservative and good feelings are forward and progressive. Bad feelings are seen as orientated toward the past, as a kind of stubbornness that “stops” the subject from embracing the future. Good feelings are associated here with moving up and getting out. I would argue that it is the very assumption that good feelings are open and bad feelings are closed that allows historical forms of injustice to disappear. The demand that we be affirmative makes those histories disappear by reading them as a form of melancholia (as if you hold onto something that is already gone). These histories have not gone: we would be letting go of that which persists in the present. To let go would be to keep those histories present.
I am not saying that feminist, anti-racist, and queer politics do not have anything to say about happiness other than to point to its unhappy effects. I think it is the very exposure of these unhappy effects that is affirmative, that gives us an alternative set of imaginings of what might count as a good or better life. If injustice does have unhappy effects, then the story does not end there. Unhappiness is not our endpoint. If anything, the experience of being alienated from the affective promise of happy objects gets us somewhere. Affect aliens can do things, for sure, by refusing to put bad feelings to one side in the hope that we can “just get along.” A concern with histories that hurt is not then a backward orientation: to move on, you must make this return. If anything we might want to reread melancholic subjects, the ones who refuse to let go of suffering, who are even prepared to kill some forms of joy, as an alternative model of the social good.
I propose that a queer ‘good citizen’ is not the citizen that ignores his or her own pain, or the pain of others, and who selflessly offers his- or herself up in attempts to educate systems of power which oppress them. I propose that a queer ‘good citizen’ is rather a killjoy – a stubborn thorn in the thumb of bigotry. And, echoing Sara Ahmed, I propose that these protestations, these seemingly ineffectual expressions of pain, hurt, and frustration, are valid and valuable and necessary pieces of activism. They are our human voices, they are the loud slap of the landing of a blow, they are our valid expressions of justifiable anger and they need not be silenced in service of anything.
I thought I’d try my hand at this ‘sketchnote’ thing and see what happened. Aside from Foucault’s wonky face and the fact that the guy from the Milgram experiment looks a bit like Buffalo Bill, I think it turned out OK. A little synopsis of biopower and performativity.
Just a passing thought I wanted to place somewhere rather than a well thought-out blog post:
Spatially – I am aware of my body as I move through the world, as I navigate a larger-than-it-was-designed-for body through a never-ending obstacle course of a world. I am constantly taking measurements as I walk; is there enough room for this man to pass on the sidewalk? Will my ass fit in that chair? Can I buckle that airplane seatbelt? Can I fit comfortably behind the wheel of that car? Am I blocking the passage of fellow pub-goers? I am fairly graceful because of this – I know how to slide my body through tight spaces, to turn my hips just-so to avoid bumping strangers, or to lift my bag just high enough to avoid its bulk adding to mine as I skim through underground turnstiles. I sometimes think the world misses the grace and beauty of a fat girl as ballerina, effortlessly avoiding impact with a hundred obstacles a day. It’s pretty respectable if you stop to think about it.
Most folks who know me in real life know that fat activism has only been a fraction of my life’s work. Alongside event organizing and action planning, I’ve been a graphic designer and web developer for nearly 20 years. I don’t generally use this forum for self-promotion but I’ve recently reignited my love for illustration and I’m making a few custom portraits available between now and the holidays. Check out the gallery below and if you like my style, consider ordering a portrait from someone who will draw your body lovingly, exactly as it is. The vector format can be printed and hung, made into holiday cards, used as logos or simply as social media avatars. Your choice!
- orders currently take up to 3 weeks for delivery, so please order now to receive it in time for the holidays.
- Images delivered as: PSD, PNG, JPG, EPS, or AI files in high resolution. Please specify how you would like to receive it.
- Once ordered, please email me at fatfeistyfemme (at) gmail (dot) com with the image you’d like me to draw from and any particular color scheme you’d like me to follow. Thanks!
I’ve been working on this under wraps for a couple of weeks. It’s not often I’m quiet about something I’m working on but this story, as told to me by the amazing woman who narrates it, has been heavy on my mind since October of 2006. As part of an epic 2 month road trip with Val Garrison (rest her sweet soul, who passed this year after a long battle with lung cancer), I sat down with VJ to hear the story of her life as centered around her experience of fatness and/or the impact of others’ perceptions of her fatness. It was an intense ride throughout, but I was utterly unprepared for how jarring Vj’s interview would be (and so I advise those of you sensitive to social injustice to gird your loins, as it were). I think even VJ herself wasn’t aware of how powerful a story it was until she’d told it. It’s amazing what we learn to live with. Sometimes our resilience and strength can hush our pain until we share it with others, and then the reality of it as shared or reflected with and by others brings it home again.
It is my hope that VJ’s story is a reminder not only that things like this happen in the world, but of the beauty and strength and power of those who struggle and survive the impacts of classism, institutionalized racism, and sizeism. Little VJ was a powerhouse and grown-up VJ is the same, with the addition of compassion, wisdom and love.
If you have a story you’d like to tell through this medium, contact me and we’ll see what we can do.
An historic moment. My joy is complicated, but it’s still joy.
Thinking about the day I called my Mama crying when the vote came down that voided the beautiful marriage she and her partner had. Thinking about being on the phone with her talking about our broken hearts when a pack of rowdy conservative frat boys drove by the political headquarters where we were gathered to moon us and shout gay slurs.
Thinking about the day in 1.5 weeks when I will be something legally akin to married to my beautiful Simone. Thinking about all my criticisms of the institution of marriage, and yet my gratitude that it keeps us together in this place.
Thinking about all the people who are kept apart in this newly mobile world.
Thinking also about the kinds of relationships that state-sanctioned marriage privileges. Thinking about racism and class and all the people who define their relationships in ways that still find themselves outside the law.
A complicated joy. But there’s still joy.
I woke up this morning to a Facebook news feed flooded with reposts for this video. It seems that Greg Karber had the idea that the best way to make Abercombie & Fitch pay for their recent fat bashing and refusal to donate damaged clothing, was to locate their clothing in a thrift store and give it to the homeless. If Abercrombie & Fitch is so concerned with their image in relation to the bodies that wear their brand, then surely the best way to get back at them is to put their branding on dirty, stinky, homeless people, right? I mean, ‘cuz… HILARIOUS, ammirite?!
Look, I get the impulse. And I get that anything that channels resources toward the disenfranchised can’t be a holistically bad thing. There’s a little room for some shades of grey here. But intersectional feminist media analysis requires that this video get a serious finger waggle and, as I’m having a certain intellectual curiosity about the sheer amount of displaced rage I get flung at me when I point out the damaging parts of ‘feel-good’ social phenomenon, I’m up for joining the ranks of the inevitable chorus of criticism targeted at this video.
Thing One: This further dehumanizes homeless people.
The subjects of this video are not in on the joke. They’re not approached for consent. They’re not re-appropriating their own stigma in service of a statement they are making themselves. They’re not pictured as multi-dimensional humans with thoughts and feelings. They’re a nameless, silent mass, individualized only long enough to be videotaped while being handed an item of clothing, and then tossed back into the fray. He mentions that some folks are suspicious or tentative in accepting the clothing. Well, how would you feel if some random stranger walked up to you on the street and thrust a pair of pants at you while someone followed him with a camera?
Further, the very crux of this joke on Abercrombie & Fitch is that their clothing will now be associated with the stigma of homelessness. This project does nothing to eradicate that stigma. It reinforces and legitimates it by relying upon it to make its point. It could be said that Karber himself doesn’t believe in that stigma and that he’s using irony to make a point about the ridiculousness of ‘cool’ as a concept. But the framing of the video makes none of that explicit, doesn’t acknowledge its exploitation of the homeless, does nothing to address its dehumanizing framing and does nothing to involve the homeless individuals in a way that grants agency and subjectivity. So, the irony argument is pretty much shot down there.
Thing Two: Race, Class, Ability and Mental Illness
Homelessness and its related stigma intersect along the lines of race, class and ability. Part of the unspoken joke here is that A&F’s branding is heavily centered around white, affluent, fit, aspirational 20-somethings. A simple google search will make that obvious. So the polar opposite of that is older, homeless, people of color — of which the video is heavily composed. With the exception of obvious disabilities or mental illness in the video, pretty much there’s your punchline. Pretty much, I’m not laughing.
Thing Three: Making fun of people who make fun of people who aren’t attractive by pointing out how unattractive they are is kind of a fail.
This is a smaller thing here, but worth mentioning. Halfway through the video, Karber points out the hypocrisy of the A&F CEO wanting to market to cool kids when he, himself, is seemingly unattractive. I’d like to point out that this is just completely not helpful.
SO listen. Grab all your Abercrombie & Fitch clothes. Donate them to a shelter. Donate other stuff, too. That part of the video isn’t such a bad thing. But understand that a real, ethical protest doesn’t throw anyone under the bus in order to achieve its goal — especially not the most disenfranchised groups among us. There are ways this kind of protest could have gone down without legitimizing stigma. Stigma could have been intentionally used to mock both A&F and the stigma itself. But to do that requires the active participation of those stigmatized and having the presentation of that protest centered around that group’s agency. Example: Fat folks could modify thrifted A&F clothing to fit our fat bodies, and/or could simply stuff ourselves inside of it and stage a public protest. Or fat folks and other groups who feel oppressed by social hierarchies of ‘coolness’ could make parody shirts and do the same. [Update: These folks are putting together an 'Occupy A&F' protest in the USA!] These protests are humanizing and incorporate the voice of those impacted by A&F’s policies. Any protest that does not has the potential to be damaging and exploitive.
I don’t think I love anything as innocently or defiantly as I did when I was young. Increasing criticality robs joy. Even my favorite things are tempered. The exception, though, are people. At least my people. Them I love better than ever. Spectacular personal failure breeds compassion for the flaws of others. Also, the more I learn about how fucked things are, the more I’m amazed by the beauty of the people who survive it all with any ounce of compassion. Boo to the bullies. Hurrah for the broken.
I noticed a little traffic coming in to the site today from a reddit thread. I usually check those because, to be honest, reddit freaks me out. I’ve heard a lot of horror stories from other rad fatties who’ve been flooded with mean-spirited emails after being featured there. Luckily this one was little more than a blip but its content concerned me.
For those too busy to click, someone kindly posted a link to my site as an offer to those struggling with body image. In the comments, someone who claims to have known me in real life cited me as a source of struggle in her own body image, stating that I’m “the kind of fat activist who thinks fat is a superior state of being” and that I tried to shame her for failing to be fat enough.
That this particular blog post was inspired by a random comment about me on the internet is kind of beside the point. I mention it because it got me thinking. I often see this misconception in conversations about fat activism happening outside of fat activist circles. Smaller fatties or thin folks who are tentatively reaching out to fat activism hit up against something that pokes them in a tender spot and finds them feeling left out or unwelcome. The space I can imagine that happening in most frequently is the space of checking privilege.
So first, I’d like to clear up the initial misconception. As the fabulous Glenn Marla says, “There is no wrong way to have a body.”
As I can only speak for myself here, I want to state that I believe this fervently. There is no kind of embodiment that is superior to another. Any belief to the contrary would collapse the very foundations of my ethic. The point of social justice movements like fat activism, disability rights activism, anti-racism, feminism, queer rights, etc is to create all bodies as equal, independent of difference. I, personally, want a world in which all bodies exist in spaces of equal accessibility that are free of stigma and oppression. To that end, holding or projecting negative beliefs about bodies that aren’t like mine is exactly counter to that goal. So let me state clearly: I do not believe that fat bodies are superior. What I do believe is that fat bodies are not inferior. And there’s a world of difference.
So if this is what I believe, then how could someone walk away from a conversation with me thinking otherwise? Now, I’m not ruling out the possibility that I simply spoke carelessly (for the record, I’m still figuring it out and I always will be. Expect more mistakes.) without fully understanding the impact of my words. But as my views on this have never been any different than they are now, I’m going to assume that the wires were crossed in relation to the requirement to acknowledge specific levels of privilege within activism.
For SuperFat folks (this is a self-defined term, and most likely to be chosen when an individual faces specific access challenges in relation to clothing, transit, seating, medical equipment, etc.) moving about in the world is a significantly more complicated endeavor than it is for someone who is a size 22. For someone who is a size 22, moving about in the world is significantly more complicated than it is for someone who is a size 12. And there are all manner of variations therein. Add to this additional intersections of oppression (e.g. those based on ethnicity, class, gender, ability, age, sexual orientation) and each person wanders around the world with a unique concoction of privileges in some areas, lack of privileges in others and, accordingly, an obligation to work toward awareness in relation to the ways in which their movements impact and are impacted by others.
So while no one is too thin for fat activism, and while no one is immune to ‘feeling fat’, to claim fatness as an identity is to claim that your real-world experience is impacted daily by certain kinds of punitive and oppressive behavior on the part of society and/or institutions. A ‘normatively’ sized woman who is having a ‘fat day’, e.g. feeling bloated and/or even having a dysmorphic episode where she truly believes that she is larger than she is, is not necessarily experiencing the same kind of oppression and/or stigma that a physically larger person faces. Another example: One might not be comfortable flying economy on an airplane at a size 12 because flying economy sucks for everyone, but someone at a size 12 does not have to face the fear of being asked to buy a second seat at the last minute, or the pain of bruising from a too-tight fit, or the potential embarrassment of asking for a seatbelt extender. Another example: Someone at a size 3x might be frustrated with the limited selection of clothing at their local plus-size store, but someone at a size 6x may have no option but to order more expensive and less fashionable clothing online, and someone at a size 12x may have to hire someone to make clothing for them especially at an even greater cost.
Of note: This is not meant to minimize the impact of a body-obsessed culture on the mental, emotional and physical wellbeing of people of all sizes. This is not meant to disavow the suffering of those who struggle to feel at home in their bodies, independent of size. That suffering is real and valid and rooted in many of the same kinds of ideologies and processes which ultimately oppress fat people.
Having said all that, feeling fat and being fat are not the same thing and this truth requires acknowledgment for all the reasons outlined above. There is no size restriction on who can and can’t be a fat activist. Fat activists, like feminists, come in all shapes and sizes. There is, however, a kind of logic by which one could gauge whether or not one should identify as fat themselves, and if fat, where one might be situated in relation to thin-privilege. And if one believes they are benefitting significantly from thin privilege, this knowledge might guide them in certain situations. For example, in the context of a mixed-size conversation about how difficult it is to be fat in the world, one might offer more conversational space to those experiencing the larger impact of oppression. And if one has and acknowledges some level of thin-privilege, then one could use it to benefit others as well — interrupting fat jokes, challenging stereotypes, etc.
I absolutely don’t draw a line at where identification as a fat person starts. Ok, maybe that’s not entirely true. If someone at a size 2 takes on fat as an identity, I might give them a sideways glance. But within reasonable parameters, the line where someone starts feeling impacted by fat oppression is really individual and really subjective. I’m absolutely not interested in challenging people on their identifications. I am, however, more comfortable around those who acknowledge that their experiences may be less challenging than mine, just as I try to do the same for those who face greater stigma and oppression than myself. It’s not easy to do — in fact it is really challenging and consuming work. I fail regularly. I acknowledge that others will do the same. I hope that we are able to remind each other when that happens.
And to whomever walked away from me feeling as though their suffering didn’t matter, however that happened, I apologize. And I hope that something in here helps to explain it and that you find a place in fat activism that feels more like home to you.
I’m gonna go ahead and be a feminist killjoy on this one. Dove’s at it again with their Real Beauty campaign. This time they’ve asked 4 women to meet with an FBI sketch artist and describe themselves. Then they’ve asked 4 others to briefly meet the women and then describe them to the same sketch artist. Without seeing the women, the artist draws both sketches and then the women view the difference. It’s heartwarming if you watch it without your killjoy glasses on, but unfortunately, feminist media analysis once again ruins EVERYTHING.
1) These experiences are so plainly curated. They chose pretty, well-dressed women of a certain class and they chose people of a similar attractiveness-scale and social class to describe them. Politeness in this scenario dictates a courteous description. This whole set-up is skewed from the start to give exactly the result intended.
2) I’m struck that, after seeing the difference between the portraits, one of the first vocalized responses (and indeed the underlying current to all responses) is “I have a lot of work to do on myself.” This project succeeded in a) giving these women something else to be ashamed of and b) further encouraging the whole ‘self as project’ mentality that keeps people focused inward on their own failings, beavering away at loving themselves alongside (but not necessarily *with*) everyone else rather than attacking, say, Dove Beauty and its ilk for fashioning beauty as a worthwhile measure of worth in the first place.
3) “Do you think you’re more beautiful than you believe?” Is that really the end goal? Is the pinnacle of success always beauty? Believing that others see us as beautiful? Believing that we are beautiful? I want people to question their negative self-perceptions, sure. But I would love for that to happen in a context where beauty doesn’t always end up valorized. This is a mindfuck — ‘everyone is beautiful, so you are beautiful, too!’ still reinforces beauty as an aspirational value. And those who believe this, or believe they should believe it, yet also recognize that the social/economic hierarchies favor a specific kind of beauty, end up feeling doubly bad for failing to love themselves through injustice.
4) They focused a LOT on the other people describing women as not as fat as they thought they were. Fuck you for that, Dove. I don’t even have to explain that one.