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Remembering Heather MacAllister

heather-macToday is the anniversary of Heather MacAllister aka Reva Lucian’s passing. There is grief – and – this year I’d like to do something a little different with it.

I’ve been thinking about Heather a lot over the last year. It’s a conversation with her I had on a lunch date in 2005 which started me thinking about going back to school again, which reminds me how powerful a force she was for change and revolution — both in a big way and in small, personal ways in the lives of her friends. And, selfishly, there are specific conundrums I’ve faced as someone with a ‘big personality’ over the years (and lately as someone with a ‘big personality’ who is feeling quite timid and tempted to hide herself away) which I’ve wished that I could talk over with her. In a broader sense, I’ve also been quite sad that a new generation of rad fatties are coming up in the world without her voice. I’ve wondered what changes/shifts she’d have gone through, what epiphanies she’d have had that she might have shared with others. What her leadership would look like. What critiques she’d have added, what growth she’d have fostered. I feel her as a great loss, not just personally as a friend and confidant, but as an activist and a future elder.

I thought I’d share the major lesson(s) I learned from Heather over the years in celebration of her:

First and foremost, I’d be remiss not to point you to her own words. Her keynote from NOLOSE offers some brilliant insight into who she was. Re-reading it today, I see foreshadowing of some major shifts in NOLOSE itself since her passing. Always, she was ahead of her time. Most importantly, I want to challenge you to take the advice she so vehemently offers here and GET TO THE GYN. Go to the doctor for regular check-ups. Don’t let your fear of discrimination stop you from getting the healthcare you deserve. As Heather said: “They would rather see us dead so don’t let them win!”

Now, from my own observations, here is the most important lesson I learned from Heather:

To be a powerful woman is to be polarizing. There’s no way around this. To know what you want, why you want it, and to chase it with fierce determination is to be ripe for the projection of others. Surviving, especially thriving, amidst this takes a thick skin and a certainty of self that few are able to master. However, the flip side of this surety is that, while it may present outwardly as self-focus and while it may get you labeled a Diva, in actuality what this surety does is make room for an intense external focus.

By this I mean: if one isn’t constantly worried about how the self appears to others, or if one isn’t so concerned with what others think about the self that one is constantly on the defensive, the self can relax and *focus* on others instead. The self can weather critique (both productive and unproductive), even abuse, in a largely unruffled fashion, understanding that often the slings and arrows we throw at one another come from a place of our own wounding and not in reaction to some inherent, unfixable flaw inside the other. From this position, all we say and do become clues to the states of our own being and an other who is able to perceive this with compassion rather than defensiveness offers us the gift of loving insight. Heather had an ability to perceive others in a powerful way – such that she could spend an hour chatting with someone and then deliver a simple sentence that had the power to transform their lives in some small but memorable way. In the case of many, that transforming power was much larger. That is what her Diva-ness did for her, and for others. She not only took up space without apology, but she created space with warmth and a stern-but-loving maternality that required of others a challenge and critique of our own internalized oppression and an accountability for the way our movements in the world impacted others. She held space for flaw and imperfection, she let others be broken and loved. She had a passion for community and activism that, in some ways, transcended the individual (in ways that the individual sometimes found uncomfortable) in favor of the vision. It was not at all a comfortable role she held and the weight of it sometimes sunk her shoulders — but it never lasted long.

She was by no means perfect, but I’ve never known anyone like her and likely never will again. She was a one-off and I miss her all the time. And as the years go by and I grow and change, I come to appreciate what I learned from her all the more. Thinking of everyone who loved Heather today.

Vegan, Gluten Free, Dairy Free, Egg Free, Soy Free, ‘Egg’ Salad Sandwich

Pretty much every female on my Mother’s side of the family either has Sjogren’s Syndrome or some other related auto-immune problem and I’m showing some telltale signs of following suit. It’s something that kicks in a bit later in life and my Mom and Aunt are struggling. A few weeks ago my Aunt went to see a specialist who advised her (along with every other woman in our family) to give up Gluten, Dairy and Eggs as a part of treatment and prevention.

So let it be said that I basically LIVE for cheese. And bread. And a little bit eggs. So giving these things up? Totally not my favorite. And guess what — I found out by substituting Soy for basically everything that I’m allergic to Soy as well! Ok, so that’s Gluten, Dairy, Eggs, and Soy. Oh, and Cigarettes ‘cuz I quit smoking 4 months ago, too. My last remaining vice was my lifelong Diet Coke addiction, which I held on to for dear life — until this week. ‘Cuz apparently, if you give up all your major coping mechanisms at once in the middle of a time of great stress, your physiology goes totally berserk and you have mild anxiety attacks on double decker busses after jostling your way through hoards of not-so-jolly Xmas Market shoppers and having ONE — count ’em, ONE — caffeinated beverage. Le sigh.

So that’s caffeine, cigarettes, gluten, dairy, eggs, soy and, heck, let’s throw in ginger ‘cuz I’m already allergic to that. And at this point, I’m having to get reaaaaaal creative about finding foods that satisfy my working-class comfort food appetites — which brings us to the recipe below for a Gluten Free, Dairy free, Soy Free, and *EGG FREE* ‘Egg’ Salad Sandwich.

The other day my girl and I were having a salad with fresh raw mushrooms on top and we both noted that the mushrooms tasted a bit like boiled egg. A-Hah!

For one sandwich:

– 5 large white mushrooms
– 1 tablespoon vegan* mayonnaise (not heaping)
– yellow mustard to taste
– pinch salt & pepper

Optional:
– a few green onions
– bit of chopped red pepper

* – note, not all vegan mayo is soy-free, so if you can’t find soy-free vegannaise, there’s a recipe here to make your own.

Wash the mushrooms. Break out your food processor and chop them down to ‘egg salad’ proportions. You can obviously use a knife but it’s tedious. Mix in the mayo and mustard and any other optional ingredients you’d like and serve it on the gluten free bread of your choice with lettuce. If you’re not into GF breads, it’d work just as well wrapped in the lettuce leaves alone.

I’d post a picture, but I ate it too fast. I’ll add one in next time I make it.

I love you, Fatty.

It’s been an intense year for me. My move to a new country has been a bumpy ride. In some ways, it’s been so much less traumatic than I feared it would be. I’ve made connections with some really amazing people and transitioning my long-distance relationship into real-time, daily life has been downright idyllic. In other ways, however, it’s been unexpectedly difficult.

Living in a city of 8 MILLION vs. a city of 600,000 is humbling. No one who hasn’t made a move like this in their life can really grasp the magnitude of the difference. The only city in the States that’s London’s size is New York. The next most populated city is less than half the size and the drop-off is steeper still from there. No matter how empowered and fierce I thought I was coming in here, life in London is DIFFERENT, and life as a *FAT GIRL* in London is TOUGH.

If Fat Hate were zombies, Portland would be the occasional half-witted, slow-moving, comic zombie that you can take out with a golf club and London would be screaming hoards of sharp-toothed, fleet-footed, superzombies in SWAT Team helmets that JUST. KEEP. COMING. It’s a relentless daily barrage of death glares, shitty comments, unrepentant staring and physical jostling. I gotta tell you, it’s been kicking my ass.

For people who have lived here all their lives and who have developed an emotional toolset to deal with it, I probably seem like a big babyhead because they can’t imagine what it’s like to live somewhere where your daily experience isn’t peppered with asshole after asshole. And for people who haven’t lived anywhere where your daily experience *is* peppered with asshole after asshole, I probably seem like I’m blowing it out of proportion. And, well, I’m not — not a babyhead and not exaggerating. This totally blows.

So that’s my long preamble. But what I really want to say is this:

I opened up my heart to friends on Facebook this week, telling them I was getting my ass kicked by daily harassment/abuse and asking for suggestions on how to cope. The stories that came out of that thread were nothing short of EPIC TALES of human strength and resilience. Not to mention crazy amounts of compassion, warmth and support. As each new person added to the thread today with their stories, being raw and vulnerable, talking about digging deep to find the strength to speak up in defense of themselves, or feeling ashamed when they couldn’t, or finding warmth and humor instead of rage, or grappling with themselves not to internalize shame, or finding little ways to resist that were purely for their own benefit, self-sufficient rebellion — I was just completely overcome with this HUGE FEELING. It was so big it took me a second to parse it out. And it turns out it was just plain old love.

But it was this wellspring. It was profound. It was this imagining of this Fat Fucking Army, where every second spent in the public eye is a battle on the front lines. And it was this deep pride at the sheer magnitude of strength it takes every single one of us to navigate this world on a daily basis. And it was this awe at the ability of so many of us to maintain enough idealism to be activists. And enough compassion to be loving human beings. It’s the middle fingers hidden in pockets, and the ‘crazy fat lady’ losing her shit in the food court when one jerk too many said the wrong thing, and the beautiful spirit that leans down and tells a staring child how exciting the world is because there are so many different kinds of people, and the tender heart that holds it in until the door is closed and then weeps, and the balled fist that just punched the bully on the playground because enough was enough, and the closed hand around the love note that someone wrote to their body so they can remember how beautiful they are when others try to tell them different. All these ways of fighting. All these ways of surviving. And it fucking SUCKS that you have to, that I have to, that WE have to. But we do. And oh, my lovely beings, my brave and beautiful comrades – you are amazing. My heart was full to bursting with you today. I just want you to know that. I see you. And all the ways that your struggles are unique. And all the ways that no one can know what you’re going through. And all the ways, still, that we are in this together. And I love you. I really, really do.

Yay Obama – but:

I feel like a lot of people are really hanging on to the bit of Obama’s speech where he says everyone can make it if they’re ‘willing to try.’ And I just want to point out that this is a myth, this is a story we’re being sold about what it means to be American, and what it effectively does is put the onus for failure to ‘thrive’ back on the individuals who are most endangered by systematic and institutionalized oppression. Obama’s rad and all, but he’s a politician and i’ma join you in celebrating, but please don’t lose track of the fact that this bootstrapping shit is a way to shift the blame from the HAVES back to the HAVE NOTS. It’s like saying everyone can be thin if they just work hard enough. It’s like saying that everyone can get into college despite any access issues. It’s like saying that everyone who is struggling is just not doing their best. I hate to break it to you, but working hard is NOT the measure of success in this world. PRIVILEGE determines access. And with that, back to your regularly scheduled kermit arms.

Sock Puppets – First UK Activism

Over the last few weeks I’ve been working with two great people, Vikki Chalklin and Bill Savage, to create a collection of sock puppet vignettes that take some of the most ridiculous myths surrounding fatness within society and then pushing them to their even more ridiculous logical ends. The project was framed by Vikki as related to ‘potential.’ I’ll let her words speak for themselves:

“This dialogue project will explore the problematics and limitations posed by ‘potential’ through the lens of body size and fat activism. Within the global context of the “Obesity Epidemic? fat bodies are not only despised, pathologised and ridiculed, but also imbued with the redemptive potential to become thin. This promise of shedding shameful fat in favour of a happier, healthier, slender self contains within it assumptions and impositions that are the focus of this dialogue project. Potential is often bestowed upon us by institutions or individuals bearing supposedly superior knowledge or expertise, be they teachers, parents or health professionals. In such hierarchical encounters, potential becomes a vehicle for a disciplinary command tied up with norms, value judgements and the mentor’s own conception of success. But what knowledges, experience and frameworks of achievement does this obscure?” – quoted from: http://www.thisisperformancematters.co.uk/words-and-images.post123.html

We each wrote two scripts and then set to work creating the puppets and filming them on one long and hilarious afternoon. I don’t have anything to show you here as there’s some talk of submitting the film to festivals, either a revised version or the quick n’ dirty we have now. But I wanted to talk a bit about the experience as it’s the first bit of activism I’ve had a chance to do here in the UK and it’s a very different style than anything I’ve done before.

First – it wasn’t my idea! There was a lot of relief and quite a bit of joy in that. It was fun to be a part of a collaborative effort that gathered itself around someone else’s vision. It’s been a long time since I’ve done that and I’d forgotten how different (and good!) it feels. I like seeing the light in someone else’s eyes when they know they’re on to something. I like having something to contribute to help make it possible. It’s kind of like an energetic ‘kickstarter’ campaign. Someone has a good thought, everyone does what they can to bring it to fruition. Vikki and Bill were an excellent team, super supportive of ideas and welcoming, no weird ego stuff, dedicated to fun and good politics. Definitely doing it right.

Second – it involved the actual production of something performative. I’ve facilitated other people’s performance before. I’ve performed a bit as well (singing at the first Fat Girl Speaks, and my band playing at the last). But that was never the point for me. The point came resoundingly to center when I stood at the back of the venue, hands clutched over my heart, watching the interaction of the audience and the performers and feeling so full-up of joy that I could barely stand it. My point felt quiet, kinda secret – just me in the back of the room after all the contracts were signed and the venues booked and the social media monopolized. When I got to gauge if it worked. (It being the point of the whole thing: to make people feel better. Whether it was something someone said on stage that shifted their perspectives forever, or whether it was just for that moment.)

Conversely, in the context of this project, the performance itself *was* the central element. All that planning went into a different kind of end result. A thing. Not a time or place or event. It’s a different kind of creation. Like writing a book instead of editing an anthology. I feel I’m circling my point here and lack of sleep/caffeine means I’m likely not to find it. But this felt different in a fun way. More creative. Less administrative.

Third – this wasn’t created for a politically aware fat audience. I’m sure politically aware fat people would find it entertaining if not altogether educational – like being ‘in’ on the joke. But this wasn’t for them. It was for a specific kind of audience — an educated collection of performers who were there to think about performance itself. I’d wager 95% of our audience had never heard the phrase “fat activist” or, if they had, had never bothered to give it further thought. I felt quite nervous as the video started to play and that nervousness was different than my usual pre-event jitters. I felt much more vulnerable *personally*. It’s the difference between preaching on a corner soapbox or standing up in front of your own congregation. There’s an expectation of agreement in the latter that is definitely not there in the former. Anything could have happened in the discussion afterwards. Although, of course, our own fat bodies being present in the room and the radical position of the film itself likely shifted the possibility of people asking questions they might have asked were no fatties actually present. There was a sense that quite a few questions went unasked which is both fortunate and unfortunate. Though perhaps some inner dialogue was triggered by the realization that they had questions which would have been inappropriate to ask.

So — the experience was really wonderful and it definitely has me thinking. As Vikki and Bill are both well advanced of myself in terms of education (both PhD, both actively teaching) I did feel a bit in over my head intellectually. But I also felt valuable. And excited to be learning new ways of being in the world as a political and creative person! Fat Activism in the UK! My first dabble was a wonderful experience.

Tipping the Scales: Decreasing Your Tolerance for Misery

Tipping the Scales - Decreasing Your Tolerance for MiseryI touched on this theme in my last blog post, but I wanted to go a bit deeper. To do so, I have to tell you a story.

I used to be a total slob. During my 18th birthday party, I opened up my bedroom door to find my super-meticulous gay boy best friend grinning smugly at me from my bed. He was dwarfed by my knee-high piles of clothes, books, and random teenage debris and was thoroughly enjoying the look of abject horror on my face. Now, I wouldn’t have made an episode of Hoarders, but I wasn’t far off. I was “messy”, not “dirty” – I told myself. And for the most part it was true. Weirdly, this same friend ended up being my first housemate a few months later, but only on the condition that I keep my slovenly nature firmly behind my closed door. I did, and for years, that was my modus operandi.

With housemates or lovers, I managed to keep it together in shared spaces and then exploded all over whichever room of the house was branded ‘mine.’ It was kind of like sucking your gut in all day long and then letting it go as soon as you walked in the front door. I thought of myself as the kind of person who didn’t “see” mess. I wasn’t bothered by it. Messy was my default state. Cleaning was a pretense I put on for others, and very possibly a Tool of the Man(TM). I had better things to do with my precious time than obsess over things like…y’know, drawers or like…hangers. Whatever. I was CHANGING THE WORLD, ferthaluvvagawd. No time for dusting the goddamn knickknacks!

I kept things relatively in check largely (maybe solely) due to the fact that I hate not being able to find things. I’d occasionally go on frustration-fueled cleaning benders that would result in the sparklin’est, smell-goodin’est room you ever did see. I mean, when I do shit, I DO SHIT – I just didn’t happen to do shit all that *often*. On those days, I would feel pretty darn good about myself. I would sleep a lot better, my mood would pick up and life would feel less stressful. This would last for approximately 1 week, maybe 2, and then the mess would start creeping in at the sides again. And by the mess, I mean me. Leaving shit. In piles. Like, everywhere.

Just before my 30th birthday, my long-term partner and I broke up. We sold the house we had together and I bought my own. For the first time in my entire life, I lived alone. I totally sucked at it.

I lived in my house like I was a college kid renting a room from myself. I unpacked most of my few belongings into my bedroom – and that’s where I spent most of my time. It, of course, was messy. But the larger problem was that I had no idea what to do with the REST of the house. It was a veritable wasteland. I had reverse claustrophobia. The emptiness made me feel lightheaded, untethered.

It wasn’t that I didn’t have money. I could have furnished the place if I’d wanted to. It was just that I honestly had no idea how to make a home for myself in the larger sense. I could decorate a ROOM. But 3 bedrooms? A dining room, patio, kitchen, living room, and family room on top? No one to compromise with. No one but me to make all the decisions. I knew I had to do something, but I felt paralyzed. To deal with it, I went totally SPOCK on myself; function over form, logical choices.

What did I need? I was an activist. I made a successful line of lip balm. I needed space for meetings! To stack tins! Therefore, I bought 6 totally uncomfortable wooden chairs and a monolithic, emotionally barren 8′ oak table and and put it smack dab in the middle of the living room. It was like those movies where they have to pass the salt on roller skates. Then I basically spent the next two years hiding from it in my bedroom, avoiding its vast, empty expanse which seemed a perfect visual metaphor for my angst.

My 'comfortable' living room furniture. Cozy, no?

My 'comfortable' living room furniture. Cozy, no?

I lived a total bachelor existence; condiments-only fridge, fast food or restaurant dinners with an occasional culinary feat thrown in, like boiling pasta or nuking a potato. I was on the run, constantly out with friends or lovers and dreading the nights when no one was available to distract me from myself. I woke up every morning in my cluttered bedroom, opened my eyes to chaos and mess, rushed through the desert of discomfort that was my home, and left it as quickly as possible. This went on for a good three years. The rest of my life was seemingly together – friends, good job, steady dating life, exciting activist work, travel, etc. But my home remained a strange combo of contained clutter and disused space. I had nowhere to rest. And it was beginning to wear on me.

I have an awesome therapist. So awesome, in fact, that I still talk to her over Skype now and then, even though I’ve moved to a whole ‘nother country. And I’d totally been avoiding talking to her about this because I knew I was going to have to ‘work through’ stuff to fix it. I was going to have to stop running. Sit still with myself. But it had to be done.

“I just, I don’t get it – you know how you’re driving along and you see some lady out in her front garden, all by herself, pulling up weeds or planting flowers? Like, what makes her do that? She could be out talking to friends, or inside watching TV or reading a book. What makes her choose to do something…I dunno, productive? Why isn’t she inside stuffing cheese slices into her face and watching Matlock?”

My therapist nodded along as I ranted. “It’s like she’s good company for herself, you know? Like the quiet doesn’t scare her. I bet her room is even clean.”

I don’t think therapists are *supposed* to laugh at you, but mine does pretty frequently. “I just, I’m waiting for the switch to flip. The one where something clicks inside me and suddenly everything makes sense and I’m a grown-up and I magically know how to stir-fry vegetables and sleep without the TV on at night and when it’s time to change the sheets.”

At this point, she shushed me. “It’s not a switch.” She said, calmly. “It’s not an overnight thing. It happens gradually. Right now you have a pretty high tolerance for being miserable. The amount of misery you’re willing to endure before you take action on it is fairly substantial. But the fact that you’re in here talking about it shows that this is starting to shift. This is taking action. It’s one level. There will be plenty more to come. And as you take each step and figure out its benefits, you’ll find that your tolerance for being miserable decreases – and one day you’ll turn around and look at your life, whether you’re out in the garden pulling weeds or changing the sheets on your bed, and you’ll realize that the switch was flipped a while ago.”

I’d never heard it put like that. It sounded really far-fetched to me, especially the part about pulling weeds. But – tolerance for misery? That sounded TERRIBLE. Was that actually what was happening? Was I just so used to being miserable that I didn’t even notice any longer? Was the fact that I didn’t “see” mess some kind of learned helplessness? It kinda made me mad. At first, at myself – ‘cuz that’s how I do. But then, I started getting mad at all the things/people/situations that set me up to accept misery from an early age, things that found me focused on survival instead of thriving, being hyper-vigilant instead of merely present and calm, things that made a little girl want to make her bedroom a NOT inviting place. Stuff like that. It was a lot to chew on. So mostly I just chewed.

After a few months, my metaphorical jaw got tired and I decided it was time for action. The first thing I needed to do was to totally not do anything at all. I needed to stop manically making social plans to fill every possible moment with distractions. I needed to be Good Company for myself. My situation was extreme so I decided the shift needed to be extreme as well. Like I said, when I do things, I DO THINGS. So I circled a date on the calendar and told my friends to consider me sequestered and totally off-limits for socializing for three months, starting then. It was gonna be trial by fire, baby. I was gonna get good and goshdarn comfortable with myself, even if it killed me. My friends thought I was crazy, of course. And mostly I was. But this was a Big Deal and I needed to make it an Event to stop myself from sliding back into my patterns. I was fascinated by the prospect, and totally terrified.

I set about preparing my ‘nest.’ If I was going to be sequestered in my house, I had to stop being scared of it. The dining table needed to be put in its place. I scooped out its extra leaves, bunched it down to a more manageable 6′ length, and moved it into the actual dining room. There, I smothered its menacing expanse in an orange silk runner, jewel-toned tealight holders, rustic placemats and a twiggy candelabra. It sat there in drag, looking contrite. I patted myself on the back and set off for someplace where they sold Real Furniture.

Over the next three weeks, I gathered a couch and loveseat, lamps, coffee tables, a TV, curtains (I lived on a 4 lane road for 3 years WITHOUT CURTAINS), proper kitchen utensils and all the functional things I needed to turn my house into a place I wanted to be. I bought decorations. I set up an altar. I cleaned my room.

Suddenly I couldn’t wait to get home after work. To rest. Resting was new. I hadn’t rested in YEARS. I sat on comfortable furniture and read books, watched TV instead of just listening to it as I fell asleep, napped. As the date loomed nearer for my social quarantine, I began to realize that the process of getting myself ready for it had actually rendered it completely unnecessary. I felt calm. Invested in my own well-being. My tolerance for being miserable had shifted considerably.

It wasn’t like, from that precise moment, I became a total neat-freak and I was completely organized and hung up all my clothes and learned how to cook and shop and pull weeds. First, I freakin’ hate pulling weeds, so that is just NEVER gonna happen. But you know, as I look back these 5 years later — I have done all those things. I am a pretty good cook now. I still have to look up words, I still rely on recipes and I still mess simple things up. But I’m getting there. I still leave little piles of papers on the coffee table, but it’s contained to one little corner and it gets sorted through with regularity. I’m still not awesome at hanging up my clothes (in fact my girlfriend refers to the semi-regularly occurring stack of shirts next to the wardrobe as my “little homeless friend” and teases it with cups of change) but it lasts a week, tops. And then I deal with it. I even clean when I’m stressed out now, because I find it soothing.

I still have a long way to go and my tolerance for being miserable around some things is still higher than I’d like. But taking an objective step back from the life I lead now and contrasting it with the life I lead back then, the difference is pretty astounding. I may not yet be my own best friend, but I am infinitely better company than I used to be. I don’t claim to have any magical answers for anyone else. For me, I just began to realize that the clutter around me had a genuine impact on my emotional health and, after admitting that to myself, it became less and less possible for me to ignore it. Mess became a blaring siren instead of white noise. Cleaning up felt less like an earnest but unnatural effort at self-care and more like a simple requirement. With each passing year, more and more things make that shift and I feel more and more holistically invested in my well-being. What worked for me may not for others who struggle in the same ways, but here’s hoping my story helps another to tip their own scales of tolerance from misery back to joy.

What won’t actually kill you makes you happier.

will this actually kill me?So this thing happened the other day that I want to tell you about, mostly because I think it’s going to considerably change my life and then also because it might be of use to you, too, if you struggle in similar ways.

I am an insecure person. I’ve recently stopped apologizing for that, which has been nothing short of a miracle in and of itself. Insecurity, especially for someone who claims the title Fat Activist, can be a hard thing to own. The failure to achieve the (largely self-imposed) expectation of being ‘fierce’ and ‘fabulous’ and loving one’s self and one’s body wholeheartedly and without reservation can add another layer of shame on top of any that’s already being experienced, which is pretty counter-productive. But when one is prone to insecurity, often the presentation of new opportunities can be internalized as something one should already have known about and therefore achieved. Honestly, insecurity is pretty much the bane of my existence but, largely owing to childhood trauma and systematic abuse on a level that thankfully precious few have to contend with, it’s going to be part of who I am, ideally in lesser and lesser frequency, for the rest of my life. Somehow, accepting that things beyond my control have created this aspect of my reality has really helped me integrate it into my life in a much less conflict-ridden fashion. Through no inherent failings of my own, this exists. It is what it is. So now I get to build a little toolbelt to contend with it.

Two of these tools recently came together in a little epiphany. The first is something someone said to me years ago, to great effect. I was talking about self-care in terms of general life skills, specifically in relation to being a mess-maker and living in a chaotic environment because of it. I was waiting for the switch to flip. You know, the one where magically you know something you didn’t and then immediately everything in your life falls into place and you know how to be good at organizing and a productive citizen and all that ordered-existency, grown-uppy stuff. The person I was talking to said that it never happened that way. That it wasn’t an overnight shift but a slow, gradual process in which your tolerance for being miserable slowly lessens and you start making different choices, a bit at a time, which increase your well-being in small ways until one day you turn around and realize that you’ve been quietly taking better care of yourself for a while. And that’s exactly what happened. The phrase “tolerance for being miserable” really stuck with me because, well, that’s exactly what it is. A choice, in a moment, between settling for misery (to whatever degree) or choosing to act differently to alleviate it. I began to see the ways in which my mess-making impacted my general sense of well-being. I began prioritizing my overall happiness over my momentary overwhelm. I slowly morphed over a couple of years into a tidy person, much to the surprise of anyone who had ever lived with me prior.

The second tool came to me last week. My Mama and her partner own a big, amazing old house and, as big amazing old houses are wont to do, bits of it tend to fall apart at really inconvenient times. The most recent conjunction of bad luck and bad timing was rotten floorboards beneath the shower during a visit home by my partner and I. Four people without a shower for a week is not so much fun, especially when one of them gets the twitchy-eye if they can’t shower every day, and double-especially if that person lives in London where victorian-era plumbing means taking a shower feels kinda like someone taking a long slow pee on your head (not that this person would know what that feels like), and triple-especially if approximately 33.9% of their excitement at coming home was about having ACTUAL WATER PRESSURE.

So this person (Ok, it’s me) was totally NOT going to NOT SHOWER, come hell or high water. In fact, BRING ON THE HIGH WATER, that’s the WHOLE POINT.

My first line of defense (wearing down my mom’s ‘no showers’ resistance by whining incessantly) failed utterly. My second line of defense (the bathroom sink spongebath) was just not cutting it. So that left me with showering at the public pool. I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me that they would have a big group open shower rather than private stalls. I mean, I guess that’s pretty much the norm for pools. I think my mind didn’t allow for the possibility as it was just too horrible. It’s one thing to rinse off after a swim but lathering up your bits in public is another thing entirely, especially when you’ve got a stareable body, even when it’s clothed. The idea of a hoard of gawking children parading past me towards swim class felt unbearable. Then again, the idea of no shower at all felt unbearable, too. I stood there, little bag of toiletries in hand, gazing at the showers at impasse.

In that moment, something clicked for me, something I’ve been hoping for for a long time but had only been able to find in moments where I felt safe, where I was surrounded by other fatties, in community, and in solidarity. What happened was this:

I dropped into my hedonism. In that moment, the feeling of warm water washing away the river silt and sunscreen, the coming joy of a cool breeze across my fresh-scrubbed skin, these things mattered more to me than the potential judgment of strangers. My tolerance for being miserable shrank considerably. I asked myself this question: “Will it *actually* kill me to do this? No? OK. I’m doing it.”

Then the woman from the front desk came in and said “Oh, I meant to tell you, there’s a private shower room out front here if you want – it was full when you came in, but they just left.”

Admittedly, dear reader, I was relieved. And I opted for the private shower ‘cuz, I mean, who wouldn’t? But that’s kind of not the point. The point is, I would have pushed past my insecurity and taken the risk. And I would have left the pool sparkly clean and totally still breathing, no matter who stared, who giggled, who pointed, laughed, or even directly mocked me. And I went on, for the rest of the week, asking myself that question every time I felt insecure. In the last week I have felt the wind on my bare skin, have clambered down rocks to swim beneath waterfalls, have waded neck-high into rivers while hawks dove and rose, fish-in-claw, a few yards from where I stood. I wore my swimming suit in public, surrounded by muscular frat boys and half-nekkid teenage girls (my least favorite). I went sleeveless in a hipster-ridden London market in a brightly-colored, vertically-striped shirt. I even tucked it into my skirt and showed my belly outline, which is absolutely the area of my body that I struggle with the most. I have made choices, not with the fear of judgment at the forefront of my mind, but my own pleasure. And I have to tell you, it is SO MUCH BETTER.

I have spent so much of my lifetime shortchanging myself in anticipation of judgment. I have let what others may or may not think of me dictate my actions on so many occasions that it became my subconscious default. I’m not saying that I won’t still struggle with insecurity, or that i won’t have to repeat my mantra to myself eleventy-squillion times a day in order to maintain this perspective. I’m not saying that I will have the energy to make the hedonistic choice every. single. time. or that the world has lots its ability to knock the wind out of me with its cruelty from time to time. What is different, however, is that I have gained a new perspective. An intolerance for misery combined with a genuine desire to get the most out of this lifetime of mine, to not miss out on life experiences because of the ignorance and bigotry of others. In other words, watch out jerkfaces, ‘cuz you’re about to see a WHOLE lot more of my butt. And I’m about to get real mouthy, too.

This is what it’s like for me

15 minutes ago. I’m walking down the street. I’m in a fairly good mood. A woman is on the sidewalk in front of me and next to her is a parked ambulance with the driver’s side window rolled down. As she walks past, she says “Hey, so am I eating too much?” She presses one hand to the curve of her back, the other to her belly and turns sideways; the typical “before” pose. She’s laughing, enjoying the joke of asking for free advice from a professional. I brace myself, because I’m about to pass them, and I know it’s coming. The ambulance driver says “No, no. You’re fine.” and then he spots me. I can tell because he goes silent for just a beat or two. I get a few steps ahead, enough to give him confidence that I can’t hear. He says “There, there. Look at her. See? You’re fine. I’ll be seeing her soon, though.” They laugh knowingly. Even expecting it, I’m shocked to hear it. It’s grim. Some part of me, the old part I haven’t healed yet, believes him. The other part wants to swing around and force my humanity on him. Make him see me. Spit in his face. But I keep walking. I don’t even miss a step. I never do.

Personal Update: Life in London, 9 Months Later

Me, wearing a leather jacket with my hair in an up-do, smiling beneath Big Ben in London, UKSo I’ve lived in London now for as long as it takes to gestate a baby human, which is a fitting analogy considering I’ve barely left the womb (otherwise known as the circular path from my home to school and home again). I laughingly tell the girl–and anyone else who will listen–that I feel less like I moved to London and more like I moved to her house, which could essentially be located ANYWHERE for all I’ve seen of what’s outside of it.

SCHOOL

School took up a mammoth portion of the last nine months. This is due in part to my ginormous learning curve and also because I am less interested in rote memorization than I am actual comprehension and general ass-kickery. Getting back into studying was less like remembering how to ride a bike and more like figuring out how to slap a fish with a watermelon — totally starting from scratch with zero previous study skills to draw from in a completely foreign educational environment (save the common language) with about 5-10 years of life experience on the majority of my professors. One seminar leader actually giggled and said “OMAHGAWD! You’re like, TEN YEARS OLDER THAN ME! That’s so WEIRD!” I laughed with dead-eyes and secretly wished her random hairs growing from weird places on her body, plus also gas pains.

I picked up some skills along the way that will help me next year, though many of them I didn’t actually figure out until the end of the last term which meant that my first year was quite a bit harder than it needed to be.

Stuff I Learned Too Late:
– Slides are available online! I knew this, but it took me two terms to figure out that this meant I didn’t need to waste time copying their contents during lectures.
– Also maybe don’t transcribe the ENTIRE ARTICLE into your notebook. Not everything is THE MOST IMPORTANT THING.
– Perhaps most importantly: Joint Honours = Double Major = TWICE THE WORK. It doesn’t mean a nice mesh of two subjects so you get the best bits of both, it means learning ALL THE THINGS plus also TWICE THE EXAMS.

For a smart girl, I can be a little slow on the uptake. (We’ll revisit this theme again later in the blog post.)

The last slog to final examinations this year was pretty intense. For nearly a full month, the only time I left the house was the five minute walk around the corner to purchase more caffeine. I turned a sickly, pallid shade and began to refer to my laptop as ‘the precious.’ But I managed to write two essays and memorize 12 sets of very intense flashcards for my 3 unseen essay exams. Unseen Essay Exams, by the way, suck. Here’s the math:

2:1 ratio of subjects covered to questions on the exam.
This means half the stuff you learn ISN’T represented by a question on the exam. BUT – you don’t know which half will be left off.
This ensures that you study twice as many subjects as you’ll actually be answering questions on and might still possibly find that you studied for the wrong things, at which point you’re basically hosed.
Plus, this isn’t multiple choice – you need to be able to write a fairly long, insightful, detailed, coherent essay with dates, authors, key theoretical points and ideally some originality – from memory, in an hour.

Thankfully I picked correctly for all three exams, though I’ll have to wait until mid-July to find out how I did. The lowest grade I received throughout the year was a 60% – which sounds bad when you think in American terms, however the UK system looks like this:

A first (A equiv.) equates to the student having an average of over 70%
An upper second (2:1) (B) is between 60% and 69%
A lower second (2:2) (C) is between 50% and 59%
A third (D) is between 40% and 49%

So basically, I got a low B. And it about KILLED me, especially as it was simply a lack of understanding about how much definition they wanted in the essay vs. how much application. I applied the knowledge but I didn’t define it so even though they mentioned that it was a passionate and well-written essay, they marked me down a full grade because I didn’t engage enough with the text. Infuriating. But lesson-learned. Every other paper came in at 70% or above and, for the first time in my life I actually got the highest grade in a course (78% – which is consider ‘publishable’). NERD CRED!

WORK

I went back to Portland in April for a quick visit which was largely amazing, yet also consisted of me being hit by a truck (I’m OK), finding out about a death in the family (RIP Uncle Aaron) and being informed that I was about to lose my job at some near but indefinite point in the future. Pretty unhappy-making, all-around, although my uncle was suffering quite a bit so his passing was a mixed bag. Sad, but grateful he’s no longer in pain. As for my pain, it took me a few weeks to get my body back in workable shape from being shoved out of alignment but the stress of the impending job loss was slightly more complex to deal with. Admittedly, after putting in 11 years with the company, getting canned simply because they wanted someone in the office for bureaucratic reasons was infuriating. More importantly, being outside the USA means that I’m not entitled to unemployment compensation there, nor am I able to collect the ‘dole’ here, so as soon as my job ended I faced absolutely zero income. Pretty terrifying.

Several good things came out of it, however, not the least of which was a forced conversation about teamwork in my relationship in which my muleheaded pride and willful independence was directly challenged by the earnest, doe-eyed expressions of support and ‘in-it-togetherness’ from The Girl. She insisted on the ridiculousness of my paying rent while studying and I balked at the proposed inequality but couldn’t deny the possibility that a time may come in the nearer-than-not future where I’d have to consider her offer. If my pride was a marshmallow, it would have been bigger than both of us together – but I started nibbling at the corners of it, trying to see what humility might taste like should I have to swallow it entirely. The process of these discussions brought us closer together.

THANKFULLY, however, the reality of this shall not come to pass as I’ve managed to find gainful, ethical, part-time, homotastic, do-goodery-type work here in Ye Olde London Towne! I was hired last week at PACE which offers mental health services to the LGBT community in/around London. They are launching a new web-based project which is funded for three years and which, for the first time ever, combines both my activist and geeky skillsets into one fantastic position – and then pays me for it. DREAMBOAT. I start on the 18th and I absolutely couldn’t be happier. I’ll be keeping my current position through the end of the summer, so basically working full-time. I’m a bit sad to be losing out on a restful summer in which I actually get to explore some of London – but it’s worth it to be able to pad my savings so I can pay tuition next year and I’m lucky to have the opportunity in such a tough job market so I’m definitely not complaining.

In more processy exploration: It’s weird to think of giving up the PDX job and starting a new one in London. I’ve been straddling two continents this entire time. Picking up both feet and planting them firmly on UK soil feels scarier somehow. More real. More permanent. It’s only the illusion that’s shattering – I mean, I moved to London, who’m’I kidding – but some part of me has been taking its sweet time processing that and this puts heat under its ass. There’s also some grief about giving up my connection with the job and people there that I’ve known for so long. Change is inevitable, though – and this new job feels like a step in the new direction that this whole adventure is pointing me in.

LOVE

The other big news is that I appear to be betrothed. This is where we return to that whole ‘slow on the uptake’ theme I mentioned earlier ‘cuz apparently you have to Speak. Very. Slowly. to get me to recognize that you’ve proposed to me. It took a full 24 hours for that proposal to sink in. IN MY DEFENSE: she didn’t exactly get down on one knee. It was a sweet, yet subtle proposal and one that found me, the next day, stopping in mid-sentence and saying “Hey, wait — were you serious yesterday?” At which point The Girl gave me her patented “amused-yet-exasperated” look and said “Uh, yeah.” in that ‘you’re cute but I worry about you’ tone of voice. At that point, I think I still didn’t actually say Yes. I mean, I *meant* yes — but I was so surprised at her romantic turnabout that it took a minute (or 1440 of them, to be precise) to actually compute.

We’ve seen a lawyer and are working out the logistics of legal routes and visa statuses and all that complicated stuff. We’re shopping for outfits (which I actively LOATHE – shouldn’t this be a fun thing? All the fat girl wedding dresses look like a bride is literally popping out of her own cake — a cute, informal yet special dress seems to be out of the question) and considering venues and will be looking at dates once we figure out the next logistical steps re: immigration law. We plan to have the official ceremony here in London (obvs.) and then a gathering/celebration in Portland so that all friends/family can be accounted for. And don’t think you’re getting out of the wedding registry, PDX. Mama’s packin’ an empty suitcase.

Friends

I’ve made some really lovely connections here in London which I’m very happy about. I’d feared a much more isolated existence and at times, compared with the bounty of PDX, it can feel that way. The reality, however, is much less grim and the feelings of loneliness have more to do with a lack of time to engage in the connections I’ve made than a lack of connections to engage with. Reminding myself of that definitely helps and I’m hoping the coming summer months will shift that a bit!

I’m missing folks back home, especially my Mom. At the same time, the distance has actually forced a certain level of commitment to and from my friends – active participation is required in maintaining the connection in both directions. I have to admit that I haven’t been great at writing/returning physical letters. Again, it’s been a simple lack of time – and I hope to rectify it over the summer. But in some ways, even though I’m further away, I feel stronger/more connected inside these friendships because I know I can trust them. I know who is in it for the long haul, regardless of the distance. It’s lovely.

There’s other stuff. Less fun stuff. Friends having hard times. People struggling in ways that I cannot even comprehend – with money, with health, with loss. The distance feels unbearable sometimes in that I can’t even offer the simple support of a hug or a ride to a doctor’s appointment. It’s a struggle that’s as selfish as it is altruistic because sometimes helping helps the helper more than the helpee. I’ve done what I can from a distance. The hard part is realizing that this choice to leave definitely means I’ll miss important things, important moments in the lives of people I love, important ways to be of service. It’s hard not to feel selfish about that sometimes. And yet we all have our own journeys to attend to. Sometimes there’s nothing for it but to trust that we’ll be able to get there when it really matters and to reach out as much as possible in the meantime.

Summer Fun

Now that I’m re-gainfully employed, the prospects for summer fun are a bit better. There is a three week trip to PDX from July 20th to August 10th, in which we avoid the largest part of the surreal terribleness that is the Olympic Games. And then I hope to convince the girl to take one or two 3-day weekend trips to exciting places like Amsterdam, or Paris, or Barcelona. The cost of these trips is so much less than even intercontinental travel in the United States. Granted, it’s still not cheap but I plan to take advantage of this rare moment of full-time employment and skim a little off the top for life experience. Plus, The Girl and I haven’t had a proper adventure together since I moved over. She was really patient with my enforced “CONE OF SILENCE” while studying all year long. Time to whoop it up a little.

There’s also the FATTYLYMPICS, organized by Charlotte Cooper and Kay Hyatt on July 7th, which I’m very excited about. Was hoping to be able to volunteer a bit more but with the new job, chances are slim so I’ll just be attending gleefully. I’m particularly looking forward to the Rolling.

Activism

When I thought I was without job prospect, I had the idea of starting up the Fat Experience Project in earnest and trying to crowdfund the project. I figured if I had the time, I might as well use it productively. But the timeline felt forced and I was worried that the idea was still too much in its infancy to get the enthusiasm it needed. I’m grateful to have a little more time to learn more, develop my thinking on the subject and brainstorm. If all goes to plan, the video from the 2006 road trip should actually be digitized over the course of the next several months. I have permissions from most folks involved to share their video so I’ll basically be using the stories gathered on that trip as a trial run for the larger project. I plan to chop things up into short, topical snippets and organize them into searchable categories. This will take a while as, once school starts, I’ll be back to being impossibly busy again. Eventually, though, I hope to begin new interviews as well as to welcome submissions direct from folks who wish to interview themselves or each other. I will be working on a plan for grassroots promotion (of both the project itself and of invitations to take part in the project) with intersectionality at its core. This is the piece that I want to spend the most time on – inclusivity. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned over the last year of education is that no individual or collective of individuals can accurately represent the true complexity of embodiment within any community. Cultures, subcultures and communities are made up of individuals with deeply diverse backgrounds. The smallest difference can radically shift what all kinds of embodiments look like (queer, fat, of color, gender, sexuality, etc.) and this needs to be at the heart of any activist endeavor. It cannot assume to speak for all. It cannot assume common goals. It cannot assume hierarchy. I want the Fat Experience Project to be a collective of individual voices, each telling their own stories in their own ways. The Fat Experience Project will not be, nor will it aspire to be, a safe or a safer space. I feel, however, that I have much more to learn before I truly begin such a daunting prospect. And I’m grateful to have the time to do it.

There are a few other activisty things afoot. I’ve been invited into a couple of different projects that are still in their formative stages. Also I was contacted last week by a reporter from Businessweek who wants to do a piece on flying while fat. She wants to actually fly with me. I’m trying to decide how I feel about that. I’m definitely of two minds. More time is needed.

So that’s that. 9 months of update in one VERY long post. And now, back to work!

* – pic credit: Leah Strock

The Burden of Representation – Or – Jeez, you people really hate a kill-joy!

My last blog post on the Geico commercial ruffled some feathers. I had to laugh this morning when I deleted yet another snarky comment (this one told me I must have Daddy Issues. You don’t even know, Troll from Portland, Tx. You just don’t even know…) about the fact that, while it took me 37 years to get here, I’ve finally earned the title of humorless lesbian feminist. I’m considering celebrating this by temporarily dubbing my home “Womyn’s Land” and holding an induction ceremony that involves smudge sticks, quinoa and an overt lack of penetration. (Hey look, I can stereotype, too!) My sisters in feminist media analysis, I join you in embracing my newfound kill-joy nature. But, I’m still going to sneak-watch episodes of Desperate Housewives, because that’s how I roll.

So, for you naysayers, let’s dig in to the Burden of Representation. If you’re not familiar with the term, essentially it means that, for any marginalized group, the pressure on the individual to represent the whole is greater. If you’re a white, able-bodied, lower-middle-class, thin, heterosexual person of moderately good looks, you’re cool. There are myriad media representations of you to choose from. You see yourself or someone kinda like you everywhere you go, so if ten representations of you are unflattering, there are hundreds, thousands, bajillions more that are not to counteract it. In the minds of the masses, you are a multifaceted people and if they see one of you behaving stereotypically on the street, they don’t immediately think “Geez, all white, able-bodied, lower-middle-class, thin, heterosexual persons of moderately good looks are jerks to their kids.” They think “That guy’s a dick.” and they move on with their lives.

However, for any marginalized or oppressed group, media representations are far fewer and much further between and are often very stereotypical. For every positive, well-rounded media portrayal, there are dozens more that pigeonhole or negate. This means that the burden of the individual to represent his or her identity group in real life and/or in art or media is significantly increased because their actions are far more likely to be seen as representative of the whole group. Because there aren’t enough representations in popular culture to choose from to give the general population a well-rounded perspective, every public action or interaction carries the risk of being labeled as “what __________ people do” or “how ___________ people are.”

For this reason, critical media analysis is important around Fat issues. There are not enough positive, well-rounded representations of fat people on the media to let even subtle stereotyping slide. With a deluge of “headless fatties” in news media with constant looming threat of the OMGZOBESITY EPIDEMIC writ large across their bellies, with the public shaming of Mike and Molly for daring to kiss on TV, with Georgia posting fat-shaming billboards targeting children, with Disney shaming fat kids on vacation, with fat kids being taken away from their parents — this is no small issue. Fat bodies are under attack. My body is under attack. If you’re fat, your body is under attack. A “war on obesity” is a war on my body and on the bodies of many of the people I love.

The argument that it’s “just a commercial” and the advice to “stop taking shit so seriously” is really just utterly and completely inadequate in contrast to the looming media monolith that is fat hate. And not the least important point here is the fact that the subtle use of stereotype is often MORE successful at naturalizing myth. Blatant stereotyping confronts the audience member, even if it’s only on a subconscious level. It requires acknowledgment and thus, a choice. To believe or not to believe. To agree, to dissent or to ignore. In either case, action is required. Subtle stereotyping, however, often passes unnoticed. It, as Roland Barthes (the original kill-joy) states, “transforms history into nature.” It makes the myth ‘normal’ to such a degree that we don’t even think to question it. This is how stereotyping works. This is how myths about any marginalized group get passed, absorbed, carried forth into society.

Railing against those who point out the myths being passed through the media serves no purpose but to shield your own self from the responsibility of critical thought. By minimizing the truth of myth, you excuse yourself from the requirement to take it seriously. If you don’t want to do the work, you don’t have to. But maybe ask yourself why it makes you so angry when others do.

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