Vulnerability is not something I do well. I have put a lot of time and energy into creating my armor - the emotional encasing I create to arm me against a culture that attacks my body because I am a woman and I am fat and I am a person of color. So, when I saw the main image used in a recent article on the American Medical Association's decision to classify obesity as a disease I fought the feelings of betrayal and intense vulnerability that I felt.
The article's author asked if the Chronicle could come into my home and photograph me blogging about the AMA decision. When the photographer arrived he in fact did take multiple images of me blogging in my home and at a cafe near my apartment where I often blog. Not a single one of them made it into the article.
I wrote to the Chronicle voicing concern and asking for answers on their choice, but I wanted to share the letter I wrote to the photographer because I spent over an hour with him, sharing my thoughts, my history and my home:
I'm writing because I wanted to voice a sense of the vulnerability that I shared with you and the Chronicle in letting you into my home to allegedly take photos of me blogging, and the feeling of betrayal and disappointment I feel now. I am unclear whether you were specifically told that you were actually going to take pictures of me doing mundane things in my bedroom in some of the most vulnerable positions imaginable.
I am so disappointed with the sense of gawking fatphobic voyeurism that came through in the main image for the article. Let me be clear - it is not my body that makes me feel disappointment; it is the clear intention of that image and the callous use of my body as a fetishistic object held up for scrutiny; it is the desire to showcase my body as part of a landscape in which I am constantly in struggle or tragically at odds with my body - neither of which are the case.
After having done work with the Chronicle previously and found my image (and my body) treated respectfully I thought that I could trust you. I have defended media outlets and affiliated photographers to friends, activists, and colleagues, but you have become part of a valuable lesson - one that will make stories like this increasingly more difficult to find any friendly collaboration on, as I do plan to write about my analysis of this experience and this image.
This image of my body attempts to evoke the kind of sentiments that promote fat shame and fat discrimination and that help to perpetuate an emotional and political climate that makes decisions like the AMA's possible.
Let me be clear: my body is not an object of shame to me. This image does not elicit a sense of shame or disappointment in or toward me. My body - and images of this radical, outlaw body - cannot be used against me. It will not be used against me. These images have already become part of my archive, for my pleasure, for my wonder, for my enjoyment and interest and contemplation. I have reinterpreted them, disrupted their intention and their meaning. Every day I live the resistance against the public's desire to see me as an object upon which it can hang its anxiety, guilt, shame and fear. Every day I fight to make my body my own.
Let me be clear: the intention of this image and the circumstances under which it was taken are hurtful to me, but this image, this body - they are mine.
Stigma Loading: The Effects of Disease Classification & AMA’s Decision to Call Fat a Disease
*I wanted to publish this blog asap. Addenda may be added later this week.
I am a bit late on the American Medical Association’s decision to categorize obesity as a disease. But, ghurl, when the news hit I was in the middle of the woods at Harbin Hot Springs, naked, eating kale and tri-tip hash with seven other babes (and wishing you there, duh). And then I had to go to a pool party and a wedding and then dance to Taylor Swift in a barn. So, yeah, mama’s been busy. I’m literally writing this as a San Francisco Chronicle photographer is shooting me in my kitchen.
I’m sure that you can list 10 (100?) reasons that this decision is horrible. I’d like to put into words the biggest reason that this decision is problematic to me. I call it “stigma loading.”
Stigma Loading is the cumulative effects of dealing with multiple axes of discrimination/oppression. After some research I was unable to find literature that used this verbiage; please send me a citation if you know of any.
The AMA’s decision is not only a dangerously flippant dismissal of the complexity of body size (and body diversity) in the heterogeneous United States, but also a complete refusal to engage with the realities and dangers of stigma loading. A disease classification may lead to Health Related Stigma (HRS), which is considered both a “feature and a cause of many health problems.” (italics added). HRS would, of course, be on top of other stigma a fat person is likely already facing from peers, family, media, and, oh yeah, doctors.
Obesity (fatness) – as an identity or an experience - does not exist in a vacuum. One’s experience as a fat person is mediated by their gender, race, class standing, ability, and citizenship status; these realities overlap, intersect and complicate the way that a disease classification may be stacked onto other marginalized identities. Furthermore, because women, poor people and people of color are likelier to be classified/seen as fat in our culture, the AMA decision de facto upholds sexism, classism and racism.
Fat cannot be viewed with myopic unidimensionality, and that is exactly the lens that some members of the AMA have adopted (NB: not all members of the AMA supported the classification).
Though it’s difficult to gauge the effects of disease classification in our particularly germophobic/disease-concerned culture, I feel confident in my guess that the effects will lead to stress for some (many?) of the 79% of Americans who qualify as “obese.” In a 2011 CNN article, writer Alex Berezow called the United States a “nation of germophobes.” And we are uniquely globally positioned in our fear of contamination. When you add something like a disease classification to an already pre-existing socially mandated stigma (fat) in a uniquely disease averse nation, you can be looking at stress levels that become dangerous – even though the daily effects of stigma loading may be imperceptible.
I was just chatting with the SF Chronicle photographer and he asked me what I thought the day-to-day effects of this decision would be. His question was emblematic of most people’s concerns: the average person wants to know if this will affect their family, their income: the concrete, tangible elements of their life.
The problem with stigma is that it is not so simple. Not to get too drastic, but think of stigma as radiation… no, no that’s too intense. Think of stigma as a cavity. Cavities are not built in a day. Rather small amounts of cavity-causing elements build up over time and their effects are cumulative. It sometimes takes years for the enamel and then the tooth to erode, but it will if unabated. The stress of stigma works the same way. It is difficult to gauge because it manifests differently in different people and it builds up slowly over time. But its effects have been linked to things like low birth weights among Black Americans and shorter life spans among gay men.
You know I’m always talking about minority stress (and I’m going to talk about it ah-gain). It is a well-established body of theory in social psychology that convincingly posits that the daily stress of interpersonal discrimination – things like stares, micro-aggressions, as well as the perception or anticipation of these experiences – can lead to cardiovascular problems and shorter lives. If we know that stigma erodes at health and life, and that presumably more stigma causes greater harm, then one must call into question the AMA’s validity and reasoning in this matter.
I see the AMA’s decision to classify obesity as a disease as adding to the stigma load of some of the United States’ already most marginalized populations.
Someone once told me that a nation must be judged by its treatment of the most vulnerable. Because I believe that the AMA has further endangered some of the US' most vulnerable, I oppose and refuse to recognize the AMA's disease classification.
Body Love & Skivvies Make News
On June 15, members/supporters of the body image focused organization, About Face, called for a direct action in front of Victoria's Secret Union Square (in San Francisco) to protest restrictive sizing in stores like VS. I happily joined forces with my Fat & Fabulous sign! Most braved the fog in their skivvies while asking tourists and SFers to sign a pledge to love their bodies.
Golda Poretsky is Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion's resident "Fat Queen of Speed Dating." But didya know she's teaching anonline course this summer on body love? Well, we'll get to that in a minute. But first, here's an excerpt from her fab chapter in H&H:
Back on that muggy April evening in 2006, I wasn’t the fierce fatty that I am now. This was the “Before Time,” before my fat era, before I knew that calling myself fat could be a great thing, before I heard of Kate Harding or Paul Campos, before I devoted my life to being a Health At Every Size counselor. I was just a “plus-sized” late-twenties lawyer who was looking for a few good men to date. And so I found myself at a non-descript Soho bar at a Speed Dating For Young Professionals event.
I got there just as the event was about to start and took a quick scan of the room. There were the usual speed dating suspects — men in suits looking bored, women with impossibly flat-ironed hair wearing the latest Banana Republic offerings. No one other than me was wearing the latest Lane Bryant dress, and I had a feeling that most of these women wouldn’t know what Lane Bryant was if you asked. I caught a glimpse of a tall, broad-shouldered guy in a really well-made suit, who my brain registered as “hot,” but I soon shifted my attention to the event organizer, a compact, blond young man with thespian mannerisms who was motioning to me to get signed in and take a seat.
The first round of speed dating went by in a blur. Apparently, the event was overbooked, so we only had three minutes to talk with each guy before he was off to the next table. Three minutes is absolutely no time to get to know anyone, but it’s also the perfect amount of time to get to know someone when you realize that you instantly dislike him. Most of the guys were friendly but sort of non-descript. I was supposed to be taking notes on each of them so I would know which ones to check off at the end of the night, but I started losing track after Dude #4.
The weird thing was I actually liked speed dating. Just a few months before, I had come to the conclusion that I had to start changing the way I thought about myself and my life. Until then, I had held every negative, horrible belief about being fat and dating that one could possibly believe. I believed that for someone to date me, they would have to “get past” my fat. They would have to love me in spite of my fat. The idea that someone could be attracted to all of me was something I couldn’t even consider. Every time I went on a jdate or an okcupid date or a match.com date I went in with the expectation that the dude would be disappointed.
Then something started to shift for me. I still hadn't heard of fat acceptance or body acceptance, so, instead of starting to accept my body for its own sake, I made a different sort of crazy decision (or what seemed crazy to me at the time). I decided that I was going to focus on having fun. I was going to seek out fun in every aspect of my life. I was going to seek out the fun in different experiences. I felt that if I could focus on fun, I would attract more fun, and I’d be happier.
The amazing thing is that it actually worked. I started to have more fun dating (and trying on clothes, and looking at myself in the mirror). When I went on a date with someone new, I decided to have fun with that person. If they wanted to have fun with me, the date went well. If the dude wasn’t feeling it, that was his problem. It’s an incredibly healing thing to come home from a date that didn’t go so well and not feel like your prodigious belly was the cause.
So, as a result, I was actually enjoying speed dating, and the first round flew by. After I'd met ten guys in about thirty minutes, the organizer called time and told us we’d have a ten minute break. Knowing that there would be a rush on the ladies’ room, I said a quick goodbye to my last date and made a run for it.
The truth was I didn’t really need to use the bathroom. It’s probably a sign that I have undiagnosed social anxiety disorder, but I sort of like going to the bathroom and “getting away from it all.” I like the privacy, the moment alone to think my own thoughts. I often let my mind wander, and forget that I'm actually supposed to be somewhere. So I was sitting in the stall, pondering away, when a group of women walked in.
“Did you meet that guy, Bill, yet?” the woman in the red heels said.
“Which one is he?” the woman in the black heels (I think?) said.
“The big one in the suit? The cute one? He works in television,” Red Heels said, as if she learned it from pillow talk.
“Oh, yeah! He was hot!” Black Heels agreed.
“I hope he checks me off,” Peep Toes chimed in.
“I hope he does more than that!” Black Heels whispered.
I felt like a fly on the wall in that ladies’ room (even though there were actual flies who might have disagreed with that assessment). It seemed that Bill was the guy they were all after. Bill was the guy that everyone wanted to be checked off by. Bill was the tallest monkey, and we were all hungry for impossible-to-reach bananas.
When round two started, Bill was the first one to sit down at my table. He smiled and I smiled back. You could tell he was tall and big—he seemed almost unwieldy behind that tiny little bar table. He was wearing a really nice suit, and his dark blond hair was straight and cut pretty short. His shoulders were hunched in a little, in a shy, almost protective way.
He seemed like a man of few words, so I started the conversation with the only thing I could think of to say. “I was in the ladies’ room earlier and everyone was talking about how they want you to pick them,” I said, instantly regretting it. I get three minutes with a guy and I’m going to talk about the bathroom?
“Oh, really?” he said, leaning back a bit. “I’m probably not going to pick any of them.”
I was kind of surprised. A lot of the women in the first round seemed like the kind of women every straight guy seemed to like. And if online personal ads were to be believed, didn’t every straight guy want a petite, athletic woman with straight hair who is as comfortable wearing jeans to a Yankee game as she is wearing a ball gown? I could imagine Black Heels, Red Heels, and Peep Toes meeting these important criteria. “Why not?”
“They’re not really my type,” he said, with a smile.
Ok I've got two pieces of good news for you:
(1) You can read the whole story if you order Hot & Heavy!
(2) You can get all the Golda you can handle this summer through Everyday Feminism's Summer of Body Love Online Course!
If you're ready to free yourself from body shame and embrace your body - no matter what its size or shape - then check out the Summer of Body Love online course. You'll get the most powerful techniques to heal from negative body image issues and begin your body love journey – all while having the summer of your dreams! Click to learn more.
- tweeted Sunday by Professor Geoffrey Miller, Dept. Psychology, UNM
Below is the letter I wrote to the University of New Mexico, where Miller has a permanent post. I'm asking everyone who reads this to email (feel free to cut and paste this letter) and/or call (which I will be doing this week) and use the hastag #FireGeoffreyMiller this week.
Phone: (505) 277-4121
Fax: (505) 277-1394
I recently saw the article about Geoffrey Miller's fatphobic tweet stating that fat PhD candidates ought not apply because they lack the discipline to complete a dissertation.
I feel it is my duty to personally contact you because of not only the egregiousness of this statement for its obvious fatphobia, but also because of the gendered and racialized nature of the issue of fatness/weight in the United States. I hope that it is clear that - through this statement - he is further discouraging women (under-represented in tenure track positions) and people of color (under-represented across the board in academia by nearly every measure) from pursuing academic careers. I hope that you understand the seriousness of his statement.
I have faith that you will deal with Mr. Miller's decision with the severity it merits.
Celebrate Your Body Fashion Show!
I was asked by Kearny Street Workshop to walk the runway for their May 31 event, Celebrate Your Body, representing my new fav SF upcycle/vintage spot 31 Rax. On Friday night SOMArts was packed with San Francisco's finest fashionistas (including some of my closest friends), vendors and lots of wine.
These were the looks that competed for top two: it was tough letting go of peplum and this purple chiffon Miss Piggy + fur look!
The show started at 8pm, but a lot went into prep! Me and my runway teacup pig, Miss La Chochi (formerly "Sunshine" #psh), and I had been up since, like, 9am! Our hair and makeup appointment was at 2:30, practice was at 4:30 and photo shoot was at 7:30! We barely managed to get in our coffee and mandatory lumpia snacks pre-show!
For the runway I ended up going with two looks:
a Jackie O yachting homage with pearls, white gloves, a vintage seal skin hat with veil and red pumps (pics forthcoming on Facebook) (we styled Miss La Chochi with a red leopard print scarf to keep the look modern - though pictured here with pearls).
And a vintage (80s?), long-sleeve, loud floral print with paisley highlights and faux wrap-around crop top, which I styled with an over-sized hair flower and vintage fur collar.
Here are snippets from an interview I did with Kearny Street Workshop pre-show:
Virgie Tovar, MA is one of the nation's leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp (a 4 week online course focused on helping people break up with diet culture) and the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, 2012). She writes about the intersections of size, identity, sexuality and politics. See more updates on Facebook.