The Real “Small Fat Complex”

Last week, Bustle published an article by Marie Southard Ospina titled “The Small Fat Complex in Body Positivity and Why it’s Not Entirely Justified.”  And the content of that article was enough to inspire me to write something for this blog for the first time in over a year.

My initial feelings when I read Southard Ospina’s opinion piece were hurt and angry, but I decided to put off writing my response until I could approach it more calmly. To tell you the truth, I still feel hurt, but I think it’s important to highlight that articles like this contribute to the marginalisation of very fat people within body positive circles and beyond. Articles like this characterise us as mean, bitter, hateful and exclusionary, and attempt to position small fats as hard done by on all sides, victims not only of mainstream body shaming but of forcible eviction from the exclusive fat acceptance club as well.

The thing is, there isn’t an exclusive fat acceptance club, nobody has the power to evict anyone else from the fat positive movement, and the only “small fat complex” I can see is the need some smaller fats have to be the centre of everything.

That sounds harsh, and I know I run the risk of turning plenty of smaller fats against my argument by putting it in these terms, but I honestly don’t know how else to put it. Smaller fats already enjoy more public visibility, more mainstream acceptance (even if that acceptance is not complete), more access to things like fashionable clothing and medical equipment that is sized for them to use. Smaller fats are already the face of the body positivity movement in most places. But somehow not being welcomed and embraced by very fat people, who maybe want to surround themselves with people who look more like they do and share more of the experiences of fat hatred that are unique to very fat people, is enough to utterly ruin their self-esteem. For people who claim we are “a movement that’s at its strongest when banded together”, it seems awfully convenient to me that the main threat to a smaller fat person’s self esteem is people who are fatter than they are. If you are able to embrace your fat identity in the face of the entire fat-hating world telling you fat is bad, why would a relatively small number of people saying “you’re not fat” – for reasons that you claim to understand and be sympathetic to – undo that?

Southard Ospina says that “within fat acceptance bubbles on the Internet, there’s one body type that often receives a bit of flak”, meaning the small fat body. That is to say, those who are fat but who wear smaller plus sizes, or may even be able to squeeze into the high end of straight sizes. But it’s not actually the small fat body type that receives flak.. Criticism relating to small fats is actually about two things:

  1. The mainstreaming of fat positive ideas into “body positivity” for all (not just small fats, but thin women as well) has tended to focus on more socially acceptable deviations from the normative ideal body type – smaller fats, conventionally attractive fats, hourglass-shaped fat women, and white fat people in general. This allows people in these categories to enjoy more thin privilege than they previously did, which feels good for them, but does nothing to demolish thin privilege altogether and leaves larger or less “acceptably” fat people in the cold;

  2. The attitude some smaller fats have in responding to critiques and complaints about point 1 from larger fatties is defensive and hostile, and tends to lead to these critiques (which are legitimate and important!) being dismissed as mean, hurtful and exclusionary instead of considered on their own merits.

It is not “invalidating” to point out that a smaller person’s experience of sizeism is fundamentally different from the experience of a much fatter person. The author even goes into quite a lot of detail demonstrating that she knows and understands that experiences of fat stigma vary depending on size! But this seems to be just a rhetorical device to make her argument seem more reasonable, because her conclusion that critiques of the prominence of small fat images and voices in the body positive movement “only create divide” and undermine the strength of the movement seems to contradict her claim that she thinks fat shaming can be worse for very fat people.

In fact, it’s very telling that so much of this article is talking about shame and body image. Good body image is important, and hating your body because the world tells you that your size is bad really sucks. It’s draining, it’s hurtful, and it can escalate into all kinds of awful mental health problems and self harm. I’ve had an eating disorder that started from a “normal” weight loss diet, I get that wounds to one’s body image are not nothing. I’m sad for anyone who feels ashamed of their body, and happy for anyone who doesn’t fit the extremely narrow mould of conventional beauty who has managed to transcend mainstream messages about what is beautiful and feel beautiful as they are.

But feeling beautiful isn’t the main or most important goal of fat liberation for me and other fatties who are size 26 and over. Feeling ugly isn’t the worst thing I face as a very fat woman. Compared with being less likely to be hired for a job than a thinner person, being routinely denied proper medical care and being either excluded or made seriously physically unsafe by furniture and equipment that isn’t designed to accommodate me, some dickhead telling me fat girls are unfuckable is kind of small change. Yeah, it can hurt immensely, and the world would be a better place if it didn’t happen. But if the only thing “body acceptance” achieves is allowing me to feel pretty despite being systemically victimised for my body size, I’m still pretty much fucked.

In addition to this, when you are very fat, even body positive circles tend to be full of rhetoric that either excludes or actually vilifies you. Being a bit fat is fine, as long as you’re not too fat. Being fat is fine as long as you’re “fit” and “healthy”. Look at all these gorgeous size 18 models! I’m all for body positivity, but isn’t that just unhealthy?  Isn’t it great that this department store is now catering to ALL BODIES with their range that goes from size 0 to size 22? Here’s a discussion about whether or not very fat people’s critiques of small fat prominence in body positive circles are “entirely justified” in which I interview ONLY SMALL FATS.

Southard Ospina argues that “to tell someone whose body — even if that body is a smaller type of fat body — that their experiences with eating disorders, excessive exercise, fat shaming, body shaming, or body image issues in general are invalid simply because they aren’t “that fat” is unfair to that person.”

And she’s right, it would be unfair if someone said that. But that actually isn’t what most people in this ongoing conversation are saying (maybe some people are, there are dickheads everywhere, but it is not the prominent or prevailing sentiment). Saying “you’re not fat” or wishing out loud to see more larger bodies represented in body positive circles (even in a rude and dismissive way!) isn’t actually the same thing as saying “your experiences with eating disorders are invalid.” After all, “she’s not even that fat!” is a common cry made in support of thinner women who experience body shaming, as if it is this alone that makes the shaming reprehensible. And of course actually unequivocally thin women experience body shame and eating disorders as well, not just fat women. That doesn’t mean thin women should be the only bodies represented in body positive circles, or that it is cruel and invalidating to point out that they have thin privilege.

Southard Ospina concludes her article with a touchy-feely appeal to fat people of all sizes to come together as one, saying “although we should always be self-aware enough to acknowledge our privileges in this world (and self-aware enough not to identify as fat when we are very clearly thin), I believe we should also be self-aware enough to acknowledge where society and culture are doing us wrong. All of us.”

What this seems to be saying to me is that it is just as important for very fat people to talk about the struggles of small fats as it is for small fats to acknowledge their own privilege. And that is a contention with which I fundamentally disagree. It is always incumbent upon all of us who have privilege to use our privilege to support the struggles of those less privileged than ourselves, even in contexts where we also experience some marginalisation. We get to talk about our own problems too, but we are not entitled to have our lesser struggles prioritised by those with less privilege, who have their own damn work to do, and we should take notice when talk about our problems is eclipsing the public discussion of more severe oppression. This is why white feminists must promote and fight for women of colour, why currently able bodied people must promote and fight for people with disabilities and why small fats must promote and fight for super fats. Because a body positive culture that frees super fat people from fat hatred will free small fats as well, but a body positive culture that works as far as freeing small fats from fat hatred and then rests on its laurels leaves a lot of us still marginalised and still suffering.

And if you feel like having your fat identity actively validated by everyone you encounter is just as important as someone else’s struggle for access to adequate medical care, and deserves just as much prominence and discussion time, I am not sure if you really do understand how much worse fat hatred is for very fat people.

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A Night at the Theatre

Here’s a not very well-kept secret: film and theatre make me cry.

I can’t go to a Disney movie without a pack of tissues in my handbag. TV shows, even cartoon ones, often have me sniffling. When we were in high school, my friend Ashlee used to call emotionally fraught movies “Sarah movies” because that’s just how I roll, and live theatre with any kind of emotional aspect is a dead cert for switching on the waterworks, especially if there’s music involved. There’s something about the combination of music and emotions that makes it impossible for me to keep it together; by the interval of Wicked, Clare and I were clutching each other sobbing inconsolably, and by ten minutes into Les Miserables I was a mess.

But until yesterday I’d never been to a show where the performer held my hand when I cried.

The show I saw yesterday was The Belle Curve, an intimate acoustic jukebox cabaret made up of tender and emotionally charged covers and intimate self-reflection from the engaging and charming Ella Jean. I saw an earlier incarnation of this show at the Monash University Student Theatre Container Festival last year, and it was beautiful and inspiring then, but the cabaret you’ll see at Melbourne Fringe is longer, deeper and more developed than the original. The show tells the story of “a fat girl finding peace and strength in the face of crushing body politics” and to me it demonstrates how powerful autobiography can be, because while the experiences Ella talks about are personal, they’re achingly familiar as well. The steps on The Belle Curve’s journey and my own weren’t identical, but the story felt so much like mine that it brought me to tears more than once, both for the girl in the story and for the girl in my own story. Luckily I chose the seat next to the complimentary tissues!

The performance space is a cosy little lounge room hung with twinkle lights and scattered with adorable body positive cushions, and it’s a bit like being invited into a friend’s home, with the audience all cosied up on couches or cross-legged on the floor. When Ella speaks her voice is soft and conversational as if she’s just chatting to you about her life. When she sings with acoustic accompaniment from instrumentalist Oliver Stuart – and she has a beautiful, powerful voice – you can feel all the emotion poured out into those carefully chosen songs because she’s right there next to you. The combination of all these things makes for a performance that is sensitive and intimate and deeply caring. There is a lot of love in this show.

It’s not all calm and gentle though; there are some gut-wrenching, agonising moments and some dreadfully sad ones, as one might expect from a story about the very painful experience of growing up fat in a fat hating environment. The feelings are raw and Ella is open and honest about the ups and downs of coming to be okay with yourself, that even when there are victories there can be setbacks too. But there is a tenderness throughout the show that reminded me that she knows these moments are painful for us in the audience too. When she sings KT Tunstall’s “Heal Over” towards the end of the show, the words are a promise to herself and to us as well: “Everybody sails alone, but we can travel side by side.”

I’ve got to confess a certain amount of bias here, although I am confident the show speaks for itself even without my emotional entanglement: Ella is a dear friend of mine and I am the Sarah you’ll see honoured in the program notes. But the story there is the most important part of all this, in a way. The honour is not for being actively involved in the show, but for doing the kind of activism I am most proud of doing, helping another fat person come to realise that who she is is and the body she has are completely okay. It will never ever stop filling me with joy when people tell me I’ve been able to give them that gift, because it was desperately important when it was given to me and it’s a message I want to keep sharing and to see others share. And that’s what The Belle Curve is, a revelation and a reminder to anyone who hates their body that they’re not alone, and that there is another way to live. This is such a vitally important message, and its importance is why so many people contributed to the Pozible campaign that funded the show. We all knew how much this story needed to be told, and I am very grateful to Ella for telling it.

Melbourne is becoming a pretty wonderful place to be fat, with the likes of The Belle Curve and Va Va Boombah, a blossoming indie plus size fashion community and a whole lot of fantastic fat babes networking and creating and being completely brilliant. It’s a constant delight to see the kind of fat positive art and community being created here, and The Belle Curve is a wonderful contribution to that.

The Belle Curve is still showing at the Melbourne Fringe Festival until October 4, and I encourage you to go see it if you can. Not just because Ella Jean is my friend, but because the world needs more stories like this.

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Everybody on Imgur thinks I’m Taylor Swift

Today I found out one of my family members has cancer, and then I got stuck in traffic for an hour while I really needed to pee.

All things considered, a little copyright infringement and mean-spirited impersonation is just a bit of vomit icing on the cake of shit that was my day. So when I got a facebook message from a friend who had seen my photo posted on imgur as part of a fat joke I was upset for a bit, and then my capacity for distress overflowed and it just became…funny.

I’m not going to do the imgur troll the compliment of linking to their spectacularly unoriginal attempt at humour (a rehash of a joke that was tired and pathetic the first time it was made at the expense of another anonymous woman on the internet), but they stole this photo and attached it to a fake facebook post that said “tired of not being able to go to the mall because everybody thinks I’m Taylor Swift.”

Me (a fat, blonde white woman) doing a selfie with a big smile on my face.  I'm wearing neon yellow eyeshadow and a necklace of neon yellow and gold skulls.  A little of my white short-sleeved jacket and black scoop neck dress can also be seen.  There is a camellia bush in the background.

Me (a fat, blonde white woman) doing a selfie with a big smile on my face. I’m wearing neon yellow eyeshadow and a necklace of neon yellow and gold skulls. A little of my white short-sleeved jacket and black scoop neck dress can also be seen. There is a camellia bush in the background.

If you’re confused, the joke is that a hideous fat lady who thinks she looks like thin, attractive Taylor Swift is obviously deluded. Hur hur self-confident fat people exist, what’s up with that? Except…I’m not hideous. And, hilariously, several people in the comments of the image said they thought I really do look a bit like a fat Taylor Swift.

Did the person who posted this expect to deflate my self-confidence by encouraging people to mock me? Sorry dude, I look fucking awesome in that photo. That’s one of the reasons I put it on the internet.

Several of the commenters disdained the joke – the fact it was a fake post, the fact it was a tired old fat joke, the fact I was a human being who maybe deserved a little respect – but not all of them were so kind. There were a few cheeseburger jokes (seriously, the nineties called, they want their fat joke back) and so many variations on “you mean you ate Taylor Swift, hyuck” that my eyes just about rolled out of my head. The people who commented to say I looked like Richard Griffiths obviously haven’t read my post about selfies, in which I offered up several awkward photos of myself, or the facebook post I made recently in which I compared a recent passport photo to the demon Balthazar from Buffy. Photos can be hilariously unflattering, and I’m happy enough about who I am that I’m cool with that. Plus, Richard Griffiths was awesome! It doesn’t bother me to be compared to him because, unlike the ones making the comparison, I don’t think being fat is bad.  But also that photo isn’t unflattering. I look better in that photo than I do in real life! Is “look, you’re a fat person!” really supposed to be an insult to a fat activist who writes a blog all about being fat? Shockingly, I know that photo makes me look fat. Because I am fat. I’ve been aware of that fact for some time now.

In all seriousness, though, this is the kind of abuse most fat women receive when they dare to have a presence online. It happens all the time: we are taunted, our photographs are stolen, and many of us receive far worse harassment than I have experienced today, including stalking and death threats. Websites like imgur offer very little protection for people who are targeted with this kind of abuse, and trying to get stolen images taken down is an exercise in futility more often than not. When a troll used this same photo of me as a userpic on a fake Twitter account and I requested they remove the image and suspend the user, I was told that using my photo without my permission and pretending it was theirs did not constitute impersonation and they were not going to do anything. Luckily a friend of mine had already asked the user to stop using my photo and they had, although they were rude about it, so the problem was solved (no thanks to Twitter). When I asked friends for advice about the imgur incident today, several people said they had never had success getting stolen images taken down from other sites. I’ve sent imgur a notice of copyright infringement, but I don’t know if it will result in anything.

As attempts to deflate my self confidence go, this one was laughably pathetic, but others are not, and the lack of seriousness with which host sites approach this kind of thing is very disturbing. These websites are willing to enforce their own Terms of Service only when it suits them, or when big media corporations with well paid lawyers are breathing down their necks. Ordinary people trying to protect their own image are offered no recourse.

So what’s the solution? Plenty of people would say that by putting photos of myself on the internet I am relinquishing my ability – if not actually my right – to control what happens to them. It’s certainly true that once something is online it is, to some extent, out of your hands. You never know who has saved or screencapped something, and the internet has a long collective memory. And yes, the internet is full of horrible people who either care more about their cheap laugh than your dignity, or are actively trying to hurt and undermine you and people like you. But host sites could do more to respond to issues like this. In Twitter’s case it wasn’t that they didn’t have time to investigate my complaint – indeed they did investigate it – or that it wasn’t clear the photo originally belonged to me and is associated with me as a person – I sent them links to my blog where the photo was originally posted and other parts of my online presence, including my own Twitter account. They just didn’t care. And they knew I wouldn’t be able to do anything about it.

Maybe I should take down all the photos on my blog and never post any new ones. That won’t take this photo off the internet – it has thousands of likes on imgur and it’s on Reddit now too, so who knows how many people have saved it, reposted it elsewhere, emailed it to their friends, whatever. It’s a bit nauseating to think about, but I don’t want to let it change my behaviour either. I’m not ashamed of that photo, and I refuse to be made ashamed. I will feel easier if imgur upholds my copyright claim and takes the image down, though.

The one thing about all this that is funny, though, is that before today nobody had ever said I looked like Taylor Swift, and today multiple people have. I don’t see it myself, but I think that means the joke backfired.

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Sexism, Entitlement and Santa Barbara

I live in Australia, almost as far from Santa Barbara as it’s possible to get, and tonight I felt my heart race as I walked from the house to my car in the dark. I felt as if someone was about to leap at me from the shadows, and I checked the back seat of my car for attackers before I got in.

If it seems weird or over the top to you that I felt triggered by the mass shooting in Santa Barbara yesterday, in which gunman Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured seven more before killing himself, you might be right. I certainly felt silly about it once I was in the locked car with the radio on. But on the other hand, when you think about the fact that Rodger appears to have committed this horrifying crime because he was angry that women wouldn’t pay attention to him, it’s not so weird. Men with a sense of entitlement to female attention aren’t that uncommon, after all.

If you think Rodger is an outlier, a fringe wacko or a “madman,” then you are over simplifying the matter. More to the point, if you think this sort of violence has nothing in common with everyday sexism, with rape jokes, with theendemic online harassment of women that we’ve seen getting media attention lately, you are not paying enough attention. Elliot Rodger’s views about women, expressed in videos and writings that are disturbing to read, are extreme in the sense of being awful but not in the sense of being unusual. Men say things like that to and about women on the internet all the time. Most of them don’t act on their threats – or at least not on a scale that gets them on the news, though I have no doubt plenty of them are real life rapists and abusers – but whether or notevery creepy guy ranting about how much he hates women really is a bonafide mass murderer, there are many more men expressing similar views out there. Since the shooting, comments have appeared on Rodger’s videos (Trigger Warning: violent misogyny) that call him a “hero,” express sympathy for his pain at being rejected, and gloat that women could have prevented his crimes by sleeping with him, as if it is women and not this entitled and deeply misogynist man who are to blame for his actions.

This is the extreme end of the Nice Guy phenomenon and the so called “friend zone”, the sense of entitlement to women’s attention and affection held by men like Rodger and a whole lot of other men who don’t think of themselves as scary or extreme, but justified in their anger. And as I saw someone else say on Facebook, every man who has blamed women for not being attracted to him has contributed to the culture that made this happen. If you’ve ever complained about women dating “brutes” instead of dating a “gentleman” like you, take a long hard look at yourself, because the proliferation of objectifying, entitled beliefs about women and who they “should” show affection to is where mindsets like Elliot Rodger‘s come from. Women do not owe you sex or romance, even if you’re nice to them, even if they’re attractive, even if you really really want them. Believing that they do or should is wrong and dangerous even if you don’t go out and murder anyone.

When men make threats like these and women express their fear and alarm, we’re usually told not to take it so seriously, that they’re just empty threats from internet trolls and if you ignore them they’ll go away.Obviously that’s not always true. Rodger had been seriously planning this killing spree for months, and he posted disturbing videos weeks ago in which he talked about suicide and killing people, and which concerned his family so much they called the police. But when police interviewed him and found him to be a “perfectly polite, kind and wonderful human” (in the words of his father’s lawyer) they pursued it no further. Rodger’s own writings tell that at the time of this interview he had already collected weapons and ammunition and had written extensively of his plans to murder large numbers of people. If the police had taken his family’s concerns and the threats he had already made on YouTube more seriously, he could have been stopped.

But the police saw a young, middle class man who was well-spoken and polite and assumed he couldn’t possibly be dangerous, that the threats he had made about killing other people and himself were just letting off steam or a harmless joke or a misunderstanding. It’s not a huge surprise that they came to this conclusion, because people often don’t take misogynist threats seriously and treat them as harmless posturing, but it is awful to think that if they hadn’t been so quick to accept that he was a nice young man this tragedy might never have ocurred. It’s outrageous and tragic that people had to die in order to make this clear, but misogynist beliefs breed hatred and violence, and threats of this kind need to be taken seriously.

Of course, because the “women cruelly overlook nice guys” myth is so ingrained, I expect most people will prefer to stick with the explanation I’ve already seen in several places; that Elliot Rodger was a “madman,” and that his actions were the result not of sexism but of personal defects. Lots of people have been quick to point out that he was being treated for mental illness and that he had been diagnosed with Asperger’s Syndrome. To that I will say that I happen to know several men on the autism spectrum, as well as several more who have experienced mental illness, and amazingly enough not a single one of them has ever murdered anyone. It is insulting to autistic people to imply that someone who isn’t neurotypical is capable of going on a killing spree at any moment because of the way their brain works. Autistic people are no more likely than any other group to commit violence, and as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network urged in a statement today, we must “fight against any attempt to exploit such incidents to advance an agenda of bigotry and prejudice.”

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Let Me Communicate Something to You…

A video everyone needs to see. An extremely important life lesson for our youth. One of the most vital messages that everyone needs to hear. We need to spread this message before it’s too late!

It’s total click bait, and the “vital message” could be anything really, from the deadly truth about plastic bottles to the three weird foods that will make you stay young forever. In this case it’s the deadly truth about the internet and an urgent request that you “take in your surroundings and make the most of today” instead of going online. It’s a video of a spoken work piece called “Look Up” by Gary Turk and it is absolutely everywhere along with very serious remarks about how important it is.

Look up what? You mean like on Google? [A screencap of the title screen from Look Up, a white background with the title in black capitals]

Look up what? You mean like on Google?
[A screencap of the title screen from Look Up, a white background with the title in black capitals]

I said on Facebook – where I saw dozens of friends sharing the video – that I wasn’t going to watch it, but I figured if I was going to write a blog post about it I probably should. Maybe it would contain something surprising that I hadn’t heard before and completely change my perspective.

Guess what? It didn’t.

I found the emotional appeals very heavy handed (and I enjoy sentiment; I regularly cry at baby shampoo commercials and episodes of Grey’s Anatomy) and the overall message pretty boring and unoriginal. The sheer hilarious irony of a moral panic about social media going viral aside, this stuff is not even a little bit new. We’ve been lamenting the way new technologies will destroy us all since time immemorial, particularly with appeals to romance, nostalgia and fear for The Children™. To highlight the ubiquitousness of such panics, a friend of mine shared this great collection of quotes on Language Log [http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2177] from older people lamenting the good old days and the decaying behavioural standards of contemporary youth throughout history. I especially love the last one, a diatribe against obnoxious youths acting up during a lecture in Ancient Rome. Roman kids sound like jerks.

For the most part, the isolation and lack of authentic interaction that Look Up describes isn’t actually happening. Do you know what most of the internet is full of? PEOPLE. COMMUNICATING. People writing blog posts and commenting on blog posts, people posting their thoughts, jokes, photos, experiences on social media of all kinds, people sharing and discussing news, hobbies, craft projects, parenting advice and everything else you can imagine. It’s hugely social. Social interaction with the aid of a computer is still social interaction, and it is perfectly authentic and perfectly capable of moving people and conveying emotion. If Gary Turk really didn’t believe it was possible to convey emotion and meaning through the medium of a computer or phone screen, he would not have made a deliberately emotive youtube video to express his message. Look at that, guy expresses opinion on internet, thousands of people all over the world receive his message and have feelings about it, then express those feelings to others! Just look at all that communication going on!

For some people online communication may be the best interpersonal interaction they have, whether because they’re geographically isolated or have anxieties or other conditions that make it difficult for them to access face-to-face interactions. Or because they’re just extremely shy. For others, it may augment their daily face-to-face socialising and expose them to people and ideas they might not have had a chance to encounter locally.

It’s probably true that there are some people who lose themselves in the internet and find it overwhelming, isolating and a drain on their lives, and that’s unfortunate. But it is not true that everybody who expresses love or caring for each other via a Facebook post or a text message is getting less out of that interaction than they would do in person, nor is it true that nobody expresses authentic emotion online. The outpourings of sympathy and support that come through avenues like Facebook when someone gets fired from their job, has a breakup or loses a parent or a child are proof of that. Nobody ever worries that a handwritten letter is incapable of conveying true feeling. What’s the difference? That letters take longer to arrive?

It’s reductive and plain silly to presume that because somebody talks about something online they never talk about it in person, or in more depth than the brevity of a tweet.  Supposedly Gary Turk has 422 friends, yet none of them really know him, which is baffling because you’d think someone who feels so passionately about communication would talk to his friends offline as well.  I’m pretty sure at least half of my modest 282 Facebook friends really know me, because I tell them about myself all the time, and I even see some of them face to face!  It’s very romantic to think that people who didn’t have the internet were more emotional and connected than people are now, but it’s just not true. If anything they might have been less connected, because it took more effort to talk or write to someone. Today if I am feeling depressed and spend the day in bed I will probably talk to a dozen people across the course of the day and some of them will respond immediately. Twenty years ago it might have been nobody, and I would have ended the day feeling worse than I started.

This is me right now, but I'm fatter and the room is much messier. [A screencap from Look Up in which a slim white woman sits on a bed staring blankly at the screen of her macbook]

This is me right now, but I’m fatter and the room is much messier.
[A screencap from Look Up in which a slim white woman sits on a bed staring blankly at the screen of her macbook]

And honestly the idea that you might miss meeting the love of your life because you’re texting and don’t bump into them on the street is idiotic. Most people do not meet the love(s) of their life in some romcom meet cute, they get to know each other through a shared interest or job or mutual friend. As a matter of fact, I know far more people who met their beloved partners on the internet than met them by knocking them down in the street.

Don’t you dare tell me socialising online doesn’t count, or dismiss the additional access it gives people to all kinds of information – including non-mainstream ideas – that they would never have encountered otherwise. The internet gave me the Fat Acceptance movement (which saved my life), taught me to be a better anti-racist ally, made world news and politics into topics I felt competent discussing and forming opinions on, and made me a better writer and communicator, two skills for which other people often praise me. The internet has given me many new friends – whose friendship is extremely real and important, even if I have never seen them in person – and made some of my face-to-face friendships deeper by facilitating more frequent and in depth conversations.

The internet is not evil any more than it is without flaws. It’s a tool, and an extremely effective one for a lot of things.

I’ve been commuting on public transport since before smartphones and Facebook existed, and people didn’t talk to each other then, either. If anything, commuters were less social when their travel entertainments were music, books and newspapers, because smartphone users are probably communicating with someone somewhere, just not the complete stranger sitting next to them. I don’t want to talk to strangers on the train. I want to talk to people I know, or meet new people in contexts like special interest groups (both off- and online) where there’s a chance we’ll have something in common.

Children still play outside. They do. My street only has a couple of young families, and their kids are always outside making a racket and dashing out of the way of cars. When I was a kid I didn’t play outside very much myself (although I did sometimes). You know what stopped me going outside when I was a kid, in the nineties, when our house didn’t have an internet connection? Reading books. I spent hours reading. I read at the dinner table. I read while walking around. I read under the desk in boring classes. Can you imagine if the Look Up video were about the evils of reading? Better yet, can you imagine if someone wrote a novel about how reading too much is ruining children’s lives and tried to get it on the bestseller list?

Sounds about as sensible as trying to get a video that says social media stops people from communicating to go viral.

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Selfies, Beauty and Objectification

A big collage of my selfies!  I am: looking off to the side, drinking a slurpee in the car, showing off a new bra, poking my tongue out, smiling in front of books, wearing makeup and a quiff, looking downcast, eating ice cream, displaying elaborate eye makeup, smiling outdoors, wearing a hat and sunglasses, bug eyed in smeared makeup, wearing a blue santa hat, looking dismayed by One Direction branded conversation hearts, showing off another bra, wearing purple makeup and a floral headdress, wearing gold lipstick and making a kissy face.

A big collage of my selfies! I am: looking off to the side, drinking a slurpee in the car, showing off a new bra, poking my tongue out, smiling in front of books, wearing makeup and a quiff, looking downcast, eating ice cream, displaying elaborate eye makeup, smiling outdoors, wearing a hat and sunglasses, bug eyed in smeared makeup, wearing a blue santa hat, looking dismayed by One Direction branded conversation hearts, showing off another bra, wearing purple makeup and a floral headdress, wearing gold lipstick and making a kissy face.

This post was inspired by two different conversations, a facebook thread following a friend’s post of an old quote from The Reclusive Leftist and the wider conversation about feminism and selfies that’s going on across various locations at the moment.

Here’s the quote. The discussion that followed was out of context of the post it came from, but for the sake of attribution see this 2009 blog post.

“Look, if posing naked were empowering, then the rich men who run the world would be lining up for it. We would be awash in naked dick shots of Warren Buffet and Bill Gates and Barack Obama; magazines would be filled with male politicians and financiers and moguls with their bits hanging out. Softly lit, perhaps; head coyly tilted, bunny tail on the ass. Power.”

It’s a zingy little paragraph. I laughed out loud and nodded my head when I read it, and was deeply entertained at the mental image of powerful men acting coyly flirtatious on the covers of magazines. But even so, men in image-based industries do appear as sex symbols. Consider David Beckham in H&M underwear or “Sexiest Man Alive” articles in magazines or images like this. The difference is that apparently women’s power is diminished by being seen in this way and men’s is increased.

The reason, of course, is sexism. In a patriarchy men who follow the rules always win and women always lose, no matter how little the rules make sense. I’ve never heard a man accused of “objectifying himself” for sending dick pics, but women whose nude texts are leaked get lambasted as fools for daring to think they could trust a lover or a device with their privacy. When a man shows someone a photograph of himself naked it is an act of aggression, but when a woman does the same thing it is seen as an act of submission, and even of consenting to become less than a person. Or consenting for all women everywhere to be seen as less than people. A woman who accepts money to pose nude in a men’s magazine is setting the cause back decades for all women everywhere because she’s colluding in the objectification of her own body, and theirs by extension. A woman who photographs herself and posts it on the internet where people can see it is vain and obsessed with her looks, and therefore also setting the cause back decades for all women everywhere because she’s colluding in the patriarchal plot to define women by our appearance.

I agree that culture where being sexy or beautiful is the only or most important way a woman can be accepted or have power is awful, and clearly excludes some women as well as limiting all women; even the conventionally attractive are always more than just conventionally attractive. But I do think it is possible for feeling sexy or beautiful to be a positive, empowering and not objectifying experience, working within the confines of the society we live in, and I also think that looking at yourself and inviting others to look at you doesn’t have to be about beauty.

Tumblr is full of women who do not fit into the mainstream beauty paradigm – whether because of race, body shape or size, disability or gender presentation – taking selfies and posting them to a public viewership, including naked ones and sexy ones and glamorous ones. There’s even a photography challenge along these lines, the 365 Feminist Selfie Project created by Veronica Arreola of Viva La Feminista. The project challenges participants to take a selfie every day for a year, at least partly in rebuttal to that infamous Jezebel article about how awful women who take selfies are (no linking for that one, google it if you’re curious).

Not unexpectedly, plenty of people are upset or concerned about women photographing themselves under the banner of feminism. I think there are interesting things to be said about how an act qualifies as “feminist” as opposed to simply “not anti-feminist” – for example feminism means women can choose whether or not to shave their legs so shaving isn’t anti-feminist, but it isn’t a feminist act either – but that’s not the discussion I’ve seen happening about selfies. The discussion about selfies seems to be much more focused on vanity, and on beauty and whether or not women should care about it. Take, for example, this article from concerned father-of-girls Black Hockey Jesus:

Put simply, all I’m saying is this: I see your need to redefine beauty and raise you one need to question the female defined by her appearance. Women can be more than how they look and deserve to be. Step away from the cameras. Seek new ways to appear. As you explore new adjectives through which to be defined, you will emerge as more complicated nouns than pretty ones. This is perhaps the direction toward a feminism beyond beauty.

Now, I recognise that Black Hockey Jesus is trying to be supportive here. He worries about the future in store for his daughters and wants women to be comfortable as complex, nuanced human beings. And I agree with him, women are more than how we look and the mainstream beauty paradigm does harm us, even those women who are privileged by it. I’m not even referring to this guy’s article so I can crow “Look at the white guy shaming feminist selfies!” as he fears (poor darling) but because that quote right there demonstrates a fundamental misunderstanding of the reality of a bunch of people that is being repeated over and over in the handwringing over “selfie culture”.

See, if the great diversity of women who participate in internet selfie sharing like the Feminist Selfie Project “step away from the cameras” a lot of us are plunged back into a world still saturated with images of beautiful women who don’t look like us, where we are not only told that we are not beautiful, but where it’s implied by the mainstream culture most of us are immersed in that we don’t even exist. We don’t have control over that to a great extent, that is the kyriarchy at work, and the capitalist beauty industry. And living in that world where we never see our own bodies or faces reflected back at us doesn’t make it easier to let go of the idea that beauty is a woman’s most important or powerful attribute, it makes it harder. Because beauty, a very specific and limited idea of beauty, is the only attribute of womanhood that we ever get to see.

What taking selfies and sharing them does is fill our immediate environment with a far more diverse visual language of bodies than we have access to otherwise. If I turn on the TV or open a magazine I’m lucky to see one or two fat people and a scant handful of POC. Maybe one person with a disability (more likely a currently able bodied actor pretending to be disabled) or one trans person (more likely a cis actor pretending to be trans). To Black Hockey Jesus, who appears from his photo and blogging history to be a thin white cis man, it probably wouldn’t even register that this is something which happens, because people who look like him are the default template from which all other people on TV diverge. If a person who looks like him is portrayed as a villain, an idiot or a joke it doesn’t matter, because the next person over looks like him too. It’s similar but a bit more limited for thin, white, cis, able bodied women, because most of the versions of themselves they see are hollywood pretty. But for anyone who doesn’t fit that mould, representation – especially neutral-to-positive representation – is hard to come by.

Black Hockey Jesus urges women to “seek new ways to appear”, but we already are doing that when we take selfies. In selfies we simultaneously determine the method in which we will be seen by others and get used to seeing ourselves in different ways, unlike looking to popular media where we are always portrayed in the same ways. If you take the time to trawl through the #365feministselfie hashtag on Twitter, or the Feminist Selfie Project pool on Flickr, you’ll notice women appearing in a lot of different ways. Rock climbing, watching TV and pulling faces with a friend were among those at the top of the Flickr page when I wrote this. And you should see the camera roll on my phone!

Assuming the Feminist Selfie Project or any enthusiasm for selfies is just about feeling beautiful is very limited. The thing about taking a photo of oneself every day is that sticking to glamour shots gets boring and time consuming, so the participants are increasingly photographing themselves doing things, or just being themselves as is, no makeup, pyjama clad, unstyled, whatever. Maybe when you just take one selfie for your facebook profile picture you’re going to be concentrating on looking pristinely pretty, but if you do it all the time you get used to your own face and (in my experience, anyway) get a lot more relaxed about beauty and whether or not you have it. Taking self-indulgent pictures of myself had a large role to play in the fact that I can now look at unflattering photos of me that other people post on facebook and laugh my butt off instead of feeling ashamed and miserable.

Two unflattering photos of me.  In one I'm sitting cross-legged in a yellow dress and appear to be mid-sneeze.  In the other I'm making a surprised face and look remarkably like George Takei.

Two hilariously unflattering photos of me. In one I’m sitting cross-legged in a yellow dress and appear to be mid-sneeze. In the other I’m making a surprised face and look remarkably like George Takei.  What even is my face.

Returning to the original quote about posing naked, another issue occurs. Ultimately, it’s not appearing naked or being sexy on purpose that makes women into sex objects, because women are objectified even when they’re not doing those things. Consider my friend and fellow fat blogger Kath, who gets angry hate mail from trolls complaining “you’re ugly and I don’t get a boner when I look at you.” That’s objectification based on the premise that to exist she should appeal to the sexuality of those trolls and their boners. Gross. What about the many stories of female gamers and sci-fi geeks who get harassed at conventions and online by male geeks and gamers? Those guys are casting women in their fandoms into the role of sex object. And then there’s young female performers like Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and Emma Watson, who all had websites dedicated to counting down until they were 18 and “legal”, because the only consent you need to have sex with a woman is the law’s, right? In a patriarchy, women are objectified whatever they do. Blaming women for making sex objects of themselves by posting naked selfies comes dangerously close to blaming rape victims for dressing provocatively. The people responsible for the objectification of women are not the women who are objectified.

You might say that’s all well and good for fat girls, but those who are conventionally attractive and take pictures of themselves or pose for sexy shots are just adding to the flood of images that I lamented earlier in this article! How can that be ok?  Well, I know plenty of women who I would expect to be serenely confident in how well they fit the mainstream beauty paradigm who actually have poor self esteem (up to and including eating disorders and other mental illnesses) because the approval of the patriarchy is fickle and impossible to live up to.  If it’s ok for fat women – or other women who’ve been excluded from the mainstream beauty paradigm – to feel powerful by controlling the image of themselves, which I think it’s pretty clear I believe, can we really say it’s not ok for women who are conventionally attractive to do the same thing? Who gets to decide which women fall on which side of the line? Patriarchy certainly doesn’t agree. It comes down to the leg shaving argument for me, in the end. While the act of appearing nude, sexy, beautified is not necessarily inherently feminist in every context, individual women have a right to make themselves feel good in the ways that are available to them.

For me, taking and sharing selfies reminds me that I can challenge the received narrative of beauty my culture has given me and either place myself in it – which I’m not supposed to be allowed to do – or discard it completely as the situation warrants. If I look at my collection of selfies I certainly don’t think I look beautiful in all of them, and that’s frequently deliberate. Being able to look in a mirror or at a photograph of myself – even an ugly or unflattering one – and like the person I see there after a lifetime of being literally afraid to see my own reflection, that feels very powerful.

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Behind the Scenes

An old and slightly overexposed photo of me with short black hair.  I'm standing outside in a leafy environment, wearing an orange and green floral dress and a mint green leather jacket, smiling down at the skirt I am holding out to either side.  I'm wearing glasses and orange lipstick too.

A slightly overexposed photo of me with short black hair. I’m standing outside in a leafy environment, wearing an orange and green floral dress and a mint green leather jacket, smiling down at the skirt I am holding out to either side. I’m wearing glasses and orange lipstick too.

It’s Fatshion February! A month where the fat blogosphere focuses on clothes, not just pretty photos (although there are lots of those and they are delightful) but thoughtful discussions about beauty culture, clothing access and other social justice issues that relate to fat people clothing ourselves. I freaking love it.

A quote from Melissa McEwan’s recent Shakesville post on fat fashion has been making the rounds of tumblr and it’s had me nodding my head every time I see it go past. I recommend you go read the whole post (and the one about high heels linked therein that the quote actually comes from!) but here’s a teaser:

For fat women, being stylish isn’t a luxury. It’s often a necessity to get hired, to get access to healthcare, to get treated like a human being.

Fat women have all kinds of narratives about sloppiness, laziness, dirtiness to overcome. Sometimes heels are a crucial part of looking “put together” in a way that sufficiently convinces people that we care about ourselves, that manages to counteract pervasive cultural narratives that fat people don’t care about ourselves. That we have “let ourselves go.”

Being “put together” is part of the way many of us convey to a judgmental world that we are worth caring about.

It’s undoubtedly true that all women are expected to put more effort into their appearance than men in order to be taken seriously (and that submitting to these cultural requirements is ALSO used against us as evidence that we are superficial and obsessed with appearances). But I feel the pressure to look “put together” very keenly as a fat woman, and it’s different as a very fat woman than it was when I was smaller. I don’t always feel compelled to dress up, but I do have a far less casual everyday wardrobe than some of my friends. And when I do feel compelled to go the full fatshionista – makeup, styled hair, accessories and so on – it’s usually because I feel vulnerable in the situation I’m going into and I need the additional defence of looking well-dressed.

Reading Melissa’s post, I was reminded of an experience I had several years ago when I was complaining about the trouble I had buying clothes in my size.  A friend told me I must be either lying or exaggerating because I always looked well-dressed to them. This was a weird kind of backwards compliment and I didn’t really know how to respond. It was a long time ago and I was thinner than I am now, but I was still firmly within the plus size range and besides, plus sizes were – forgive me – slimmer pickings than they are now. It is still true, though, that I like pretty much everything in my wardrobe. I don’t tend to settle for clothes that I personally think are ugly (unless I have to for uniform or costume purposes), and I did and do always look well put together when I go out in public. That isn’t an accident.

I do it on purpose, but not because I think that’s the way things should be done, or that I have some kind of belief that women owe it to the world to look pretty at all times, although it has taken me many years to unlearn the Rules of Dressing While Fat that my well-meaning mother instilled in me as a chubby child. I do it because not only is it almost impossible to find comfortable jeans and cute t-shirts in my size, but also I have those “narratives about sloppiness, laziness, dirtiness to overcome” that Melissa mentions. I dress up in part because I’m scared of how I’ll be treated if I dress down.

The other side of my friend’s comment that I was “lying or exaggerating” is that they underestimated how much time, effort and money I put into always looking well-dressed to them. It can be true that there are few decent and affordable plus size options AND true that I dress well, because I track down and buy all the decent and affordable options that fit me, as well as some that are not so affordable. I spend a lot of my free time looking at and shopping for clothes, and a large percentage of my available funds go towards clothing. And any time I see a clothing sale at a major store (online or off) where I know they stock my size and ship to Australia, I look at everything in the sale, even if I haven’t got much money, even though a lot of it will be ugly, on the off-chance there is something there I like and can afford.

Every time. Do you look at every item in every sale of every major store that stocks your size and ships to your country? If you do it’s probably either because you are a hardcore fashion blogger or because you have as few stores that fit this bill as I do.

Evans, Autograph, ASOS, Yours, Target, Kmart, Old Navy. That’s it. And I buy almost nothing from Old Navy because their plus size stuff turns baggy or falls to bits after the first wash.

Part of the reason I do this is because it’s fun for me. I find clothes shopping enjoyable, especially online, although I know a lot of women my size hate it. I collect pictures of cool plus size clothes on Pinterest and Polyvore. I even like looking at clothes I can’t wear because they don’t come in my size; I sized out of City Chic years ago but I still follow them on facebook because I enjoy looking at the regular drops of new stuff. Of course, this would be more fun if I had a hope of wearing any of it, but it’s still something I enjoy.

But part of it – a large part – is because if I want to have nice clothes on my budget and with my body, this is what it takes. So yeah, decent plus size clothes do exist. But they are few, inconsistent, expensive and difficult to find in my size. And the ones that do come in my size don’t always fit.

For every couple of items I buy online that I love, there’s a few that are not quite right and require adjustments, and one that outright does not fit. Shipping returns to the US – where most of the larger plus size clothing industry is based – costs a bundle for a return of nothing, so I tend to just keep the things that don’t fit and pass them on to other fatties who are smaller, a different shape or just like a different fit than I do. This is a pretty expensive kind of altruism, but it balances out when they do the same, though it’s rare that you find the labelled size is too big instead of too small, and I don’t personally know many women bigger than me.

Thin ladies scrimp and scour sales for basics they need (for work and so on) and for fancy stuff that makes them feel good, I know this. But it’s worse when you’re fat. Just ask any size 26+ woman who’s just been invited to a wedding with a formal dress code. Panic stations! It’s difficult even when the items in question are so bog standard you’d think they’d be everywhere. For example, a few years ago I got a job that required me to wear black suit pants as part of my uniform and I spent over a month looking for any that would fit me, no matter how daggy, no matter how expensive, from anywhere at all. I found one pair of pants, and they were too short, but I had to wear them anyway. My choir performs Christmas carols every year with a dress code that involves a white shirt, and every year I panic that my one white shirt (which doesn’t quite fit the code anyway because it has no collar) won’t fit or will be missing, because you cannot get a plain white shirt in my size for love nor money.

Thin people and smaller fats just flat out don’t believe me when I say it is impossible for me to find a white shirt or a pair of black pants that fits me. They must either think I’m lying or that I’m too lazy or stupid to have checked out the super obvious thing they always suggest when I complain about this (“Have you tried Target? I got a white shirt there yesterday!”). But it’s true. I have lost many hours and shed many frustrated tears over these things. I’ve scoured websites you’ve never even heard of. If I sound bitter it’s because I really, really am.

I’m lucky I’m femme, because if I were seeking masculine style clothes in my size and shape I’d be doomed.

On that note, as well as shopping relentlessly, another way I ensure I always look put together is that almost every item of clothing I own is a dress. The handy thing about a dress is you put it on and you have an instant outfit! No need to match anything, and they’re usually fitted, a shape that typically reads to others as more tidy or dressed up than loose clothing (though there is a fine line for fat women to walk between “that’s loose, you look sloppy” and “I can see your rolls, quelle horreur!”). The dresses I buy are usually stretchy, because stretchy fabrics are comfortable and forgiving, not in the sense that they cover up “flaws” but that a stretchy dress that isn’t quite the right size or shape can still look good, whereas a fitted dress with no stretch is far more likely to just not fit, or to look “sloppy”.

When I talk about all the work I put into dressing myself, I don’t mean to say I am forced to do this or that it isn’t pleasurable for me (well, apart from the uniform stuff, that sucks). I like clothes and I enjoy shopping for them, thinking and talking and writing about them, looking at them and looking a certain way in them. But it’s not an unweighted choice, either. I could wear black skirts and loose t-shirts every day, like I did when I was in high school and internet shopping wasn’t a thing (and the only plus size stores in Australia were My Size, Maggie T and the BIB – “Big Is Beautiful” – section at Myer) but I would be treated differently if I did.

And while you ponder that, bear in mind that I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to do this at all. Fat women who are poor frequently struggle to be taken seriously as job seekers, as parents, as healthcare consumers, as human beings because they can’t afford to wear the defence of “dressing well” that makes others think you care enough about yourself to be worth caring about. Fat women who are bigger than me struggle to find any clothing at all, let alone anything that others will read as stylish, professional or even neat. Fashion is great fun for many of us, but the extent to which participating – or not participating – in it can determine what kind of treatment, jobs and care you receive is seriously fucked up, especially when you are a fat woman.

Looking well-dressed is a whole lot of work for a fat woman, even if she makes it seem effortless. Just like a swan swimming on the surface of a lake, there’s a whole lot of paddling going on beneath the stylish exterior. Remember that before you presume we must be “lying or exaggerating” about how few clothing options there are for us.

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On Fat Admiring Men at Fat Positive Events

I’ve had this written for a few weeks now and have been unsure about whether or not to post it. It’s based on an experience that put a downer on something excellent for me, and as such the post is itself a bit of a downer. But it’s something that concerns me too, so I’ve decided to go ahead and put it up for discussion.

When you go to see a performance, there’s a kind of unspoken contract that goes on between the performers and the audience; they invite you to look, and you agree to behave in particular ways. When you go to see a play you sit quietly and clap at the end. When you see a classical music concert you clap at the end of the work, not in between the movements. When you see a comedy show you laugh at the jokes (hopefully). And at a burlesque show, as Va Va Boombah MC Lisa-Skye encourages, you “bay like hungry angry wolves”. In other words, it’s fine to be vocal about the sexiness of the performers, because you’re being invited and encouraged to do so!

But I think some people assume this invitation goes further than is actually reasonable.

After the Va Va Boombah show last week, while I was staffing the merch table, I had an encounter with a guy who had really enjoyed the show, seemed to find me attractive, and wanted to take a photo with me. He asked my name (a couple of times) and whether I was single, and then put his arms around me and kissed me on the cheek while his friend took a photo of us.

I’m not going into more detail on this; the way I handled it has a lot to do with my own personal history and I don’t really want to get into it. Let me just say that he made me very uncomfortable, invaded my personal space, and made me feel like an object he thought he was entitled to. As I made my apologies to the other merch table volunteers and went to hide in the toilets until I calmed down, it made me think about the presence of fat admirers at fat burlesque shows like Va Va Boombah.

It makes sense that fat admirers are going to be among the audience of fat burlesque shows, because the premise of the show is fatties taking their clothes off. It also makes sense that this part of the audience – the part that finds fat people sexy – could include fat admirers who are not even slightly progressive or fat positive. Remember, enjoying fat bodies as objects of lust is not in and of itself fat positive, just as men who like looking at naked women are not necessarily feminists. For all that Va Va Boombah is radical, queer and body positive, and run by radical queer body positive people, not all the audience members are going to fit that mould. Some are just there for partially naked fat dancers.

And I kind of hate that, even though I know that may not make a lot of sense.

Like I said in the beginning, it seems fair to say that by performing burlesque and inviting a public audience to come watch them the dancers on stage are implicitly granting you permission to gaze on them in a sexualised way, while they perform at any rate. You don’t necessarily need to be thinking about their nuanced identities and personal lives while watching them dance, though it’s good to remember that they have these things. But that doesn’t mean you are being invited to look at every other other fat woman who happens to be at the event in the same sexualised way. Just because I am present at a fat burlesque gig – even as a member of staff – and happen to share some traits with some performers (fat, female, wearing lots of sequins) does not mean I am part of the show. It does not mean I am a decoration or exhibit you can get your picture taken with (actually, taking photos of burlesque performers is a big no-no anyway; they will let you know if it’s ok but assume it isn’t). And it definitely does not mean you have inherent permission to put your hands or lips on anyone, staff, audience members or performers.

The guy who hit on me was probably harmless. I say this not to diminish his poor behaviour but to make myself feel better about it. But he made me feel small and ugly when the show immediately preceding our encounter had made me feel powerful and beautiful, because he treated me like a thing that was present for his enjoyment, instead of a person who was there for my own reasons just like he was. And despite what I’ve said about being invited to look, it would not be ok if he treated one of the performers that way either, because performing for your enjoyment is not the same as existing for your enjoyment.

Perhaps it seems hypocritical of me to complain about fat admirers at a burlesque gig when I myself am pretty damn sexually attracted to fat women, but here’s the difference; I don’t treat fat women as if they belong to me because I find them attractive. I do not treat fat women like I’m doing them a favour (and therefore they owe me one in return) by expressing my appreciation for their bodies. I do not expect fat women to be so surprised and delighted to receive attention from me that they don’t require anything else from me other than affirmations that they are beautiful or sexy.

I’m just not interested in fulfilling some kind of fantasy for fat admirers. It’s nice for them that my appearance gives them some kind of pleasure but that doesn’t mean I need or want to hear about it. This seems to be something a certain subset of (mostly straight, mostly cis, mostly male) fat admirers don’t understand about what their desire means to fat women. You’re not doing us a favour or helping us by desiring us as sex objects. I actually don’t care about your desire. I care about my desire. And my desire is to be treated like an autonomous human being by the people I choose to share my space, time and body with. I am not grateful for your purely superficial attention because, difficult as it may be to believe, I don’t need or want it. I can do better.

It kind of boggles my mind that a person would ask a stranger for their photo, a stranger who is not even a celebrity or performer (though see above re: asking burlesque performers for photos), as if she were a pretty flower or piece of scenery they wanted to be able to look at again later. I’m not a thing. I’m a person. Next time someone I don’t know asks for a photo with or of me I’m going to charge them for it.

What’s interesting is that I had no such experience at the Glitterdome dance party the following week, even though I presume the crowd present was probably pretty similar and contained many of the same people. Is this because a performance gives some audience members a feeling of entitlement to be performed for? Was being at Glitterdome with a dude who was obviously my lover a protective factor (depressing thought)? Or was I just luckier the second time?

I most definitely don’t think Va Va Boombah or burlesque are the problem. As I’ve said already, I loved the show and felt moved and empowered by it. The problem is sexism and the belief that women’s bodies – of whatever type – are objects for men’s personal enjoyment. Both fat hatred and objectifying fat admiration reduce our bodies down to a thing that exists for someone else’s pleasure, the difference is that fat haters think the body is failing and fat admirers think it is succeeding. A self-entitled fat admiring man is just the flip side of the kind of man who hates fat women for being unattractive to him, because both believe a woman’s job is to look nice for his enjoyment.

Yes, the Boombahs are sexy as hell, but they’re also excellent dancers and musicians and artists. You can let them know you think they’re hot stuff in a respectful way, like cheering and whistling for them while they’re on stage as you have been invited to do. And you should also appreciate that they are complex human beings, and skilled and hardworking performers who aren’t just there to please you.


Disclaimer: Any “not all men!” or “not all fat admirers!” comments will not get past moderation. I hope men and fat admirers who would not behave this way don’t need to be patted on the head for not being assholes.

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Va Va Boombah, Hip Hip Hooray!

So far 2014 is a wonderful year for being fat in. A couple of weeks ago I attended Va Va Boombah’s third fat burlesque gala, and last Sunday night I danced myself silly at a 90s dance party also hosted by Va Va Boombah: Glitterdome! Va Va Boombah is Melbourne’s first fat burlesque troupe, a group of radical body positive fat babes who dance, sing, make you laugh, make you swoon, and have been putting on excellent burlesque shows and other events for several years now. As a result of all this fat fabulousness I am writing in this blog for the first time in almost a year! Hopefully 2014 will be a year of more fat blogging too.

I had never been to the burlesque before my first Va Va Boombah show, and I’ve still never been to any burlesque performance that wasn’t Va Va Boombah, so I’m no great expert on the genre. I know that mainstream burlesque is pretty fashionable at the moment, and I understand it’s defining characteristics to be striptease, dance, kitsch and camp and a buttload of glitter, all qualities Va Va Boombah shares. But Va Va Boombah isn’t just burlesque, it’s fat burlesque, and it’s the fat part that makes it most interesting to me.

It’s the fat part that had me so overwhelmed there were tears in my eyes during Miss Kate Quaintrelle’s pink, sparkly, fan-waving belly dance number near the beginning of the show. It’s the fat part that had me spellbound as Cleo Torres bathed in glitter, and clapping my hands in glee as Harry Potter (aka Cupcake Kitten) summoned a shimmering sexy patronus (Bambi Lipschitz) to ward off a Dementor (Madame Derriere in disguise). Okay, that was equally the fat part and the Harry Potter fangirl part, but Bambi Lipschitz is totally my patronus now.

The reason I felt so emotional about the VVB gala is that all those performers and all the other Boombahs on stage, they’re me. They are people I can identify with and see myself reflected in, doing things people who look like me are told we can’t do, and they are absolutely rocking it.

In a technical sense, the ever expanding Va Va Boombah troupe puts on a more polished and professional show every gala, and I am excited to see what is coming in the rest of 2014 and beyond. In an emotional sense, as well as being my friends, they mean a lot to me as a fat woman. I can’t quite explain how it feels to see fat bodies on stage in all their glory, not airbrushed and squeezed into shapewear and photographed from just the right angle to diminish them and make them as small and manageable as possible, but letting it all hang out. Not to mention covered in glitter and rhinestones. It means the world to see fat femmes just like me (not that all the Boombahs are femmes) who are not being diminished to fit the public idea of how fat women should feel and behave, but are larger than life. And hey, to tie in my blog title in a nauseating but apt sort of way, being radically visible.

Glitterdome, a week after the gala, was an equally empowering experience for me. I used to go clubbing a lot when I was in my early twenties, but I don’t remember it being like this. I remember panicking about what I was going to wear, feeling self-conscious on the dance floor, feeling – whether reasonably or not – as if I was an unfortunate, ungainly lump surrounded by beautiful, glamorous people having an awesome time. With a delightful sprinkling of sleazy dudes either hitting on me or conspicuously not hitting on me while they swarmed around my thin friends. I’m not saying I didn’t have fun clubbing back in the day, but it was emotionally fraught.

Glitterdome before and after: on the left, a selfie of me in a car, looking made-up and wearing a necklace with neon skulls on it, on the right, a picture of me lying down in bed with no makeup and a weary expression.

Glitterdome before and after: on the left, a selfie of me in a car, looking made-up and wearing a necklace with neon skulls on it, on the right, a picture of me lying down in bed with no makeup and a weary expression.

Glitterdome was a dark, overheated room full of sweaty, sparkly, gyrating people of all kinds of body types, having the absolute time of their lives, and it was amazing. It was a more varied crowd than any goth or alternative club I ever went to when I was younger, and what’s more it was a really friendly crowd. A lot of people knew each other, but I chatted and danced and exchanged femme compliments (I love your hair! I love your dress!) with people I didn’t know, and everyone was so nice. Some of the change between what clubs were like for me when I used to go to them and what Glitterdome was like for me resides in me personally – I’m more confident, more relaxed, less worried about what strangers think of me, and I’d had more food and less alcohol before Glitterdome than I ever would have when I was last going to clubs. But a lot of it was that Va Va Boombah draws and encourages people who are either fat themselves or fat friendly, as well as frequently queer and feminist. My highlight of the night was a room full of people who fit this description screaming along to “You Oughta Know” by Alanis Morisette! The 90s were an excellent decade for very satisfying angry girl music.

The music on the whole was great, too, plenty of long strings of songs I knew and loved that had me dancing well past the point of needing to sit down. I went home sweaty, sore and smudged and completely exhausted, but on such an emotional high I was babbling gleefully all the way home.

The long and short of it is, you should support Va Va Boombah (and follow them on Facebook). They are wonderful people who are doing wonderful things!

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On Fat Mandi And Being In On The Joke

A pale pink unfitted tshirt with a cartoon chocolate donut over the place where each breast or nipple would be.

A pale pink unfitted tshirt with a cartoon chocolate donut over the place where each breast or nipple would be.

So, Rebel Wilson released a “clothing line” (two printed tshirts) in January called Fat Mandi. I saw info about it recently on WTF Plus, a tumblr I follow about the horrors of plus size clothing, and was linked to this article on Jezebel from back when it first came out.  Says Madeleine Davies:

Cool news! Rebel Wilson, beloved star of Pitch Perfect and everything she touches, has created her own plus-sized t-shirt line called Fat Mandi. Less cool news, you’ll only want to wear the t-shirt if you’re a bigger girl who’s really into food motiffs, which — hey! — of course you are! You’re fat therefore your eyes are only drawn to things you can put in your mouth.

Similar things have been said about the tshirts elsewhere as well, as I discovered when looking around for more information. Like this commentary on the WTF Plus post from Filmme Fatales:

Another example of the singing, dancing, inoffensive fat girl whose movie roles (and now clothes) don’t let you forget that “she’s Fat first, Amy second”.

Every time I see this commentary I think: do people not get it? And then I stop and wonder: do I not get it?

What’s the matter with not letting people forget you are fat? What’s the matter with taking the inevitable mockery that being fat is likely to attract in the sizeist entertainment industry and shoving it in your detractors’ faces?

I’ve written about Rebel Wilson here before, right after seeing Pitch Perfect. The strategy Wilson’s character Amy uses in Pitch Perfect – of calling herself Fat Amy so “twig bitches” can’t call her fat behind her back – is the same strategy Wilson appears to use herself to get by as a fat woman in the entertainment industry. By making fat jokes before anyone else can, she limits the ability of other people to make fat jokes at her expense; she’s already in on the joke. Filmme Fatales describes her as an “inoffensive fat girl” but honestly I don’t think Wilson is trying to be inoffensive or make the status quo feel good about her. She’s trying to embarrass fat haters by demonstrating just how few fucks she gives about their opinion of her body.

But even if she is trying to be a funny fat girl just so she can get work in Hollywood, who am I to judge her for that? Magda Szubanski made fat jokes at her own expense on Fast Forward. Melissa McCarthy seems to be doing the same thing now with films like Identity Thief. It makes me sad to see McCarthy having to take shitty fat joke riddled roles after first seeing her as Sookie StJames on Gilmore Girls, where her weight was never ever ever not once mentioned in all seven seasons, but if they are the only major roles made available to her I understand why she takes them. The people at fault here are the writers and producers and casting directors who only offer “Fat Girl” roles to fat actresses, not the actresses themselves who are just trying to make a living.

The author of the Jezebel article doesn’t seem to be aware of the origins of Fat Mandi and is assuming the clothes are merchandise based on Fat Amy from Pitch Perfect. In fact, Fat Mandi was one of Wilson’s stage comedy characters, and can be seen in episodes of The Wedge, a now defunct Australian comedy show that I admit I don’t know much about except that the ads all seemed to be about how funny “bogans” are. I never watched The Wedge because classist comedy is really not my cup of tea, but I have now watched the 12 original segments about Fat Mandi on YouTube, out of curiosity. Mandi is a fat british teenager who is (unwillingly, and originally unwittingly) on a fat camp reality show called “Fat Crackers”. She is unapologetic and proud about being fat, originally thinks fat camp is a place to celebrate fatness, and eventually leads the other campers in rebellion against the trainers. Her mother is shown as cloying and coddling, and her father is an abusive jerk who seems to hate her.

I’m really not sure how to feel about the Fat Crackers sketches. On the one hand, they features things I find genuinely funny and subversive, like the trainer’s absurd suggestions of how people can “easily” add movement into their everyday lives (0.30 in part 6). Mandi occasionally reminds me of Will from the delightful but short-lived Huge in that she’s a fat positive rebel in a fat-hating system. In the last episode, everyone at fat camp has actually gained weight and it causes “the demise of fat camp”, which they celebrate as a victory. The celebrity weight loss expert who runs fat camp complains that he hates fat people, and the fatties cheer.  I love that bit. It shows EXACTLY what is lurking behind the caring helpfulness facade of weight loss reality shows. For all the “experts” and trainers talk about wanting to help poor fat people live better lives, I really see nothing but contempt for the participants in the way these shows are produced and marketed. If they really believed extreme weight loss was the only way to save these people’s lives, rather than the way to make money via their exploitation, then competition and elimination would not be part of the process.

But on the other hand other characters in Fat Crackers (especially Mandi’s father, the voice-over narrator, and the head trainer of the camp) are constantly cracking jokes about Mandi eating everything (usually animals, for some reason?) and her father’s constantly hateful comments are definitely played for laughs at Mandi’s expense. In the first episode the father makes what seems like a joke about her eating the family cat, and then in the last episode it’s shown that she actually really did eat the cat, and then ate the new cat as well. I mean, WTF. Is this a hipster sizeism thing about how hilarious it is that people would make such wildly offensive assumptions about fat people?

Ultimately it’s hard to work out what, if anything, these sketches are trying to say. They’re mocking weight loss reality shows like The Biggest Loser in a way that demonstrates a pretty critical view of received ideas about weight(loss) and health. But they’re most certainly – regardless of intent – mocking fat people as well. And that does colour my perception of the Fat Mandi tshirts. The sketches from The Wedge were on (Australian) TV six years ago, and the promotion of the tshirt line this year has been on the coattails of Pitch Perfect rather than The Wedge, including references to Fat Amy jokes like “horizontal running”, but the tshirts are clearly a spinoff from Fat Mandi and not Fat Amy. The donut shirt is actually one of Wilson’s costumes from The Wedge (she’s wearing it as a nightie in part 9 of the Fat Crackers sketches) and she also wears another shirt with a single cupcake in the same style as the cupcake shirt while playing Fat Mandi.

Having said that, it can be a powerful strategy for an individual person to put a barrier between themself and fat jokes by highlighting their own fatness and embracing fat stereotypes, and there are lots of fat activists I know who do this sort of thing as well, famous or not. Check out But What About Your Health and the #obeselifestyle tags on Twitter and Tumblr. But is it potentially damaging for fat women in general when one of the few figures who “represent” us (ugh, ugh, ugh) in the public eye appears to be playing up to stereotypes about fatness rather than defying them?

Perhaps. I’m really not sure what the answer to that is, because I, like Rebel Wilson, am in on the joke. But yes, these sorts of jokes can make non-fat people think it’s okay to laugh at fat people, when the jokes aren’t really for them (it makes me think of a great tumblr post by agnesgalore I recently read, about white people and race-based comedy. It’s not the same thing, but you should read that post anyway). But I’m inclined to resent the suggestion that individual fat women have a responsibility to be fat in the right way if they’re famous, to be “role models” of fatness. And I also resent the way the Fat Acceptance community’s sometimes frantic desire to distance itself from fat stereotypes throws those of us who embody some (or many) fat stereotypes under the bus. While I would love to see more fat characters in TV and movies (in general, but also) who are like Sookie StJames – fat incidentally, and not as a key part of their character – I am concerned about the implication in demanding ALL of the fat characters be like that. The implication that fat people only deserve civil rights and freedom from abuse if they don’t make fatness look bad, if they are not too lazy, or too uneducated, or too interested in eating. Only if they’re inoffensively, prettily, quietly fat and eat all their vegetables. A fat woman who hates exercise, didn’t graduate from high school and lives on welfare in a trailer park eating nothing but fast food deserves civil rights just as much as a fat career woman who grows her own vegetables and runs marathons for fun on the weekends, because she’s a human being and shaming her for any of those things is wrong.

Of course, there’s another reason not to like the Fat Mandi tshirts. That reason is the size range, 12-18, and the thin models wearing the shirts on the photos page. What’s the point of a fat clothing label that most actual fat people can’t wear?

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