A recent article highlights the practice of Swedish model scouts seeking new talent outside of the Stockholm Center for Eating Disorders. The doctors at the center reported that last year patients were approached by modeling scouts while on walks outside the clinic. Employees at the center have since had to change protocols to avoid these incidents. From the article:
"Many of the girls approached... were teenagers and some had a body mass index -- a measurement of a person's height-to-weight ratio -- of as low as 14. A healthy BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9 for an adult woman."
As alternative-universe as this all seems, this practice falls well within the parameters of our understanding of western beauty standards, right? That sense of confused shock you might be feeling is perhaps due to the fact that the effort to diffuse the insidiousness of western beauty standards has been ratcheted up recently. The War on Obesity has provided an effective platform for codifying western beauty standards.
The public health rhetoric has allowed for the culture's fatphobia to rear its head under a new, more palatable banner. Yesteryday's "but you'd be so pretty if you just lost some weight" has become today's "I just care about your health."
In a recent radio interview with KPFA's Kate Raphael, I discussed the way that US standards of feminine attractiveness had nothing to do with health, and that, in fact, ill-health was at the heart of what the US (and the west more generally) find most attractive in women. If you're unclear on that, re-read the quote on patients' BMI above.
Keywords: Stockholm Center for Eating Disorders, model scouts, war on obesity, beauty standards
I met Jen Larsen a few weeks ago at San Francisco's Booksmith when she was in town for a reading of her new book, Stranger Here: How Weight Loss Surgery Transformed My Body & Messed with My Head. Weight loss surgery (WLS) is a highly charged topic, especially in fat activist community. As a fat activist and fat studies scholar it's easy for me to criticize the pervasiveness of WLS propaganda and decry the literal and figurative danger this practice presents; as a radically pro-choice feminist it's much more difficult (as of yet, impossible) for me to criticize or decry individuals who have opted to pursue WLS. Before I knew that Jen's book had been released by Seal Press (who also published Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love & Fashion), I read a review of it in People Magazine. I was immediately interested in its critical engagement with such an important topic. Yesterday KPFA's Kate Raphael interviewed Jen and me about our respective books, our views on the War on Obesity and the different ways that our lives interact with fatphobia. Listen to the interview right now (the interview begins halfway through the episode).
Keywords: WLS, Weight Loss Surgery, Jen Larsen, Stranger Here, KPFA, Kate Raphael, Women's Magazine, Hot & Heavy (#hotandheavy)
I'm deep in the preparation work for this Saturday's NAAFA-sponsored free teleseminar "Fat & Sexy: 5 Things You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask." In thinking about the most important lessons I've learned over the years - as sexuality expert and as a woman who has an avid dating/relationship life - there's one lesson that took me a little longer than others to learn. Because it's not a tip or a trick; it's a state of mind. One of the secrets I'll be discussing the in-and-outs of this Saturday is this one:
Secret #3: Cuteness is a state of mind
Otherwise put: become your #1 fantasy. As a fat woman I remember entire stretches of time where I was no where near the scene of my fantasy landscape. I had internalized the culture message that my body wasn't sexy so deeply that I was unable to even imagine myself - as my actual self, not a future "ideal" - during fantasies. I learned a lot of amazing lessons in body love from friends and books and then came the part where I had to practice.
Ok, so I told you this secret wasn't about tips and tricks, but here's one practice that involves tricking your brain a little bit. When you're getting "busy" with yourself, try to imagine yourself as you are now doing something that you find sexy. If this is your first time doing this, have patience with yourself. You might be dealing with resistance to the centering of your body in your fantasy. That's ok! Touch yourself erotically without the end goal necessarily being orgasm. Do this once a day for 2 weeks. This practice beings to suggest to your brain that this is a new habit that it likes, and it will begin to remap your neuroanatomy.
Want to diversify the fantasies that can bring you to climax? I have a secret for you, but you'll have to wait til Saturday...
Sign up for Virgie's free NAAFA-sponsored teleseminar, "Fat & Sexy: 5 Things You Always Wanted to Know about Sex but Were Afraid to Ask" this Saturday at 4pm (Pacific).
Keywords: NAAFA, fat sex, sex positive, sexuality
Not many people know this but when I originally pitched Hot & Heavy the book was going to be all about fat girl sex... Sexuality has always felt like my political nest, the place from which I stretched my baby feminist wings. I am drawn to talking about sex openly and honestly because I experience it as a deeply political and pleasurable act. Dirty stories have brought people together for, well, a really, really long ass time. I never feel closer to people than when I'm telling them about that one time I queefed in my boyfriend's face (seriously, that was my opener when we would hang out with new couples) or they're telling me about that time they found glitter in their pussy, like, 8 days after that one orgy they went to.
Interestingly, whenever I talk to people who haven't read Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion they presume that the book is a full-on salacious read about hot times at Fat Ghurl High. I'm not sure if it's because of the cover (featuring duhliciously sexy April Flores), because I'm a pervert (or maybe they are) or because the title is a reinterpretation of a sexy turn of phrase. Just to set the record straight: as much as I love the idea of a book all about the secret sex lives of fatties, H&H isn't actually all about sex. Though, I will give you a little secret: when I originally pitched the book to Seal Press, it was. My idea was to interview a bunch of fat girls about their sex lives and share all the juicy details thus blowing the mind of all society, kick-starting an orgiastic fatty revolution. The senior editor at the time, the too-fab-for-words Brooke Warner, had a vision for a book that delved deeper into other arenas of fat girl life. It turned out that I LOVED that idea! We collaboratively came up with the idea for what is now Hot & Heavy.
I heard from Good Vibrations a few months ago and they said they were thinking about buying the book. They were one of a few local bookstores who really supported me during the sale of my first book (about boobies, in case you didn't know), and I was stoked that H&H was a fit for them. I was also excited because I immediately saw the opportunity to focus on the naughtier parts of the book in a reading... which is happening this THURSDAY at 1620 Polk Street! Yes, March 14 from 6:30-7:30 catch me and Miss Kitty Stryker reading from the book's more adult chapters. Kitty's chapter, "Fat Sex Works!", is an incredible look into her experience as a fat sex worker in the US and abroad. I will be reading choice morsels from chapters "2Fat2Fuck" by Rachel Kacenjar, "Journeying Into a Fat, Fleshy Vulva" by Shawna Peters and "The Fat Queen of Speed Dating" by Golda Poretsky. And there might be a little peak into my chapter, "Pecan Pie, Sex & Other Revolutionary Things." There will be truffles, there will be naughtiness, there will be cleavage (personal guarantee on mine at least; feel free to bring yours). Hope to see local folks there there! And if you're not around enjoy a couple chapters and raise a glass. We'll be there with you in perv spirit.
In today's New York Times post, "Plus-Size Bloggers Are Role Models," Bethany Rutter of Arched Eyebrow, spoke about how fatshion can lead to people “...examining their relationship with their body for the first time, questioning why they feel they should lose weight or why they feel they don’t deserve to enjoy fashion.” Bethany's words made me think about my history with fashion and the ways that fatshion has become such an integral part of the body liberation movement - and why.
I come from a long line of fatshionistas. My grandmother, Esperanza, was a master seamstress - having learned all her skills from her mother, Manuela - until she got Parkinson's. Her sewing subverted the patriarchy of my grandfather, who was threatened by her skills and her secrets; they subverted the post-production capitalism we had inherited, which said we could abdicate those skills in favor of mass-produced looks palatable to Western aesthetics; they subverted the thin-centric clothing manufacturers who said there was no room for her body or mine. My mother, Maria, liked to use glittery puffy paint to enhance denim skirts she'd turned into minis. She'd draw entire scenes from The Little Mermaid on the pockets of the skirts, and she'd turn discarded, seemingly hopeless things into elaborate and beautiful gifts for me. She made me leopard-print jumpers and fashioned my hair into gloriously high side pony tails. She helped me practice fierce quippy one-line retorts to defend my body against the rapid onslaught of attacks it constantly buffeted. I didn't have the skill to understand their labors of love. I hated that I couldn't find clothes in my size. I didn't want to be special or seen.
Clothing has always made me interact with my body in a very real way. As a little fat girl, it was clothing that became symbols of my body's failure to conform, and as a grown & ferosh fat lady, it is clothing that has become a claim to visibility and a challenge to conquer, alter and radicalize. I have to understand the dimensions of my body - how wide my upper arms are, how big my bust is, how my hips are shaped, how many inches I need to account for when I sit down (and my belly pops more!) - when I'm buying or altering clothes.
I feel like my wardrobe - the hair birds, the sequins, the tiny veiled hats, the endless nautical-themed outfits - is part of my healing process. It's the intentional flouting of feminine convention. It's the conscious refusal to make others feel comfortable by putting my lumps away. It's laying to rest my old, little girl ambitions of invisibility. And it's laying claim to a new politic of customized disobedience.
This blog was edited from the original version on 9/28/12, 4:15pm.
NB: I got some fantastic feedback from two people related to this blog, and I want to thank them for taking the time to write and also for their ideas about how to make this blog/my ideas engage even more critically with systems of oppression! As a writer I find the process of feedback so important, and I don't always get a second pair of eyes before publishing. Some minor edits have been made to the original post, but the premise/thesis of this piece has not changed.
Lady Gaga’s recent response to being called “meaty” is one in a relatively long line of (indisputably) thin women spouting the rhetoric of body revolution while being deeply involved in the machine that churns out impossibly arbitrary beauty standards. Yes, Gaga, I give you props for putting yourself and your body out there because I realize it likely felt vulnerable. But really? It’s taken you this long to realize that these standards exist and that they affect you too?
Women all over the United States affirm and reaffirm body standards through a kind of confessional process, referred to in popular culture and by some fat/gender studies scholars as "fat talk." A confession might begin with something like "I hate my thighs!," followed by a reciprocal outpouring/confession meant to bond us women in our mutual, dogged pursuit of the "perfect" body. In the book Fat Talk, MiMi Nichter notes: "The statement 'I'm so fat' is actually much more than an observation about how a girl looks or feels. It is a call for support from her peers." Another emanation of fat talk is a meme with which we are all familiar: “You look like you’ve gained a little weight,” often followed quickly by “You look great no matter what!” This confusing criticism-comfort model is part of this long-time feminine pastime.
Women engage in this kind of conversation publicly and privately: What did you eat? How much fat does that have? Did you lose weight?! It’s what scholars have deemed a “uniquely feminine” conversation tendency. Sometimes we’re expected to offer tough love and other times we know that a dose of unconditional adulation is what’s called for. The outpouring of earnest replies from fans fits perfectly with this conversation pattern. The thin Lady Gaga has been called fat and engages with this by launching the "Body Revolution" campaign. In so doing she begins the chain of reactions women have been taught, from our baby days, to enact. Her fans comfort her. Her fans resonate with her and the campaign, but will this campaign be the fix to our feminine body woes - or even the start of a new conversation? My bet’s on no.
It doesn’t engage with women and our bodies in a fundamentally different way. The conversation – and the way it’s playing out – follows all the trappings of fat talk and makes this body revolution a lot more like high school mirror talk redux.
Because “fat talk” isn’t about change. It’s about reaffirming body policing. It’s about keeping the conversation fundamentally about our focus on the female body and not on liberation ― and certainly not on revolution. This Body Revolution campaign is not a new idea. Upper class women have found the concept of system overhaul titillating for centuries. Furthermore, the campaign's phraseology borrows from fat positive ideology that's been around for several decades. Lady Gaga’s show of near-nudity becomes an invitation to commiserate and comfort; remind her that she does, in fact, have an “enviably” thin body. We become her best friends in that moment, engaging in the ritual that feels familiar. Her exposed body becomes a thing that we are supposed to pity and envy. We play out the roles; we derive pleasure from playing out the roles, and once everyone is suitably fulfilled and reassured we go back to counting calories.
I’m a firm believer in the politics of size. Hell, I’m a fat activist. And if we were at a different point in the history of fat, women, feminism, whatever, I think it would be obvious that the the Body Revolution campaign is a problematic attempt. But we’re not at a different point. We’re still at this one: where fat is considered an act of personal failure, where women bear the moral brunt for body “aberrance,” where women are mostly just bodies to be approved and gawked at or loved or loathed depending on the camera angle or the Instagramonomics, and where we all live in fear of that one little word: F.A.T.
Gaga’s campaign is not a method to unravel an oppressive, obsessive system of body rules that has us reeling. It’s the same old ethics misleadingly packaged in body-positive language.
Alicia and Kori at the September 1 Picnic & Swap at Dolores Park in San Francisco. Outfits styled from clothing brought to the swap.
Fatty clothing swaps are revolutionary. They are revolutionary because they subvert the expectation that we not gather - because when fat-bodied people gather we are more visible. They are revolutionary because they challenge capitalism. They are places where we pool the resources we have and share them. And then we celebrate that sharing. They are revolutionary because they undermine traditional gendered ways of relating. The culture of clothing swaps encourages the exchange of "girl, you werked that!" and "that looks so good on you!" They are revolutionary because they refuse to accept that we, as fatties, ought to wear only muted colors in conservative cuts. Fatty clothing swaps take the frownies upside downies and take fashions' lemons and turn them into lemonade spritzers with a cran twist. That's why I love fatty clothing swaps. That's why if you've been thinking of hosting one you really ought to!
Last weekend Kori Bias of Buxom Vintage and I decided to coordinate and create a plus-size clothing swap + picnic at the very tail-end of summer at Dolores Park in San Francisco. I would say I'm a bit of a veteran of the swap, having been to a little under ten of them myself. There's often food (hummus, wine, and cupcakes seem to be swap favs). There's always chisme. And there's plenty of love. But I had never really organized one. So, when Kori messaged me about Sep 1, I was all over it. I thought I'd make a quick how-to guide for the newbies who are considering doing it, but aren't sure about the ins'n'outs.
1. Your Vision Now, the vision portion is where most people begin and end (when it comes to swaps, careers, relationships, adventurous outfit choices). They get scared (what if no one comes?!). They get overwhelmed (what if 80 people show up?). They get mired in unnecessarily high expectations (I need boys in gold lame hot pants passing around smoked salmon mousse and capers on mini-toast or I'll diiiiiiiie! Trust me: I've so been there). That's what I'm here for: to remind you that you can make this swap happen!
When you imagine the swap you want to have, is it mostly friends or mostly people you don't know well yet? Is it at your house or at a park? Is there food? Once you figure out what your swap looks like, figure out what you need: mirrors? somewhere people can change outfits (some people will be more likely to want to change in private than others; so a place like a bathroom can be great, but the most recent swap I did was at a park, obviously, and people didn't mind trying on clothes over their outfits or their leggings/chemises)? ice? food? If the list starts getting long, ask yourself if you can live with doing a little less. The answer is almost always: Yes! Do not abort the mission!
Virgie's Vision Swap Rule: 99% of what you need for the swap you must already own or have access to.
The most low-maintenance/novice-friendly swap might involve your/a friend's place, some empty floor space, and the Dirty Dancing soundtrack. I highly recommend for the first-time swap organizer, that you commit to a low-maintenance swap, plan to offer 1 or 2 simple snacks, with an expected turnout of 5-10 people.
2. The Date & The Time Figure out when you want to do it and set the date and time. Whether you feel you need 6 months or 6 days, figure out what works for you (the organizer/s) and those who may be attending. If most of the people you're inviting are long-term planners, you may need to give them a 1-2 months heads-up. If they're last-minute people, you may need only a couple weeks. Weekends are often the best, but people who want to show up will show up on a weekday evening. I don't recommend early mornings, but any time between 11am and 9pm are prime swapping times.
Virgie's Date Rule: I don't recommend giving less than two weeks or more than 2 months notice for a swap.
Virgie's Time Rule: Always expect that most people will show up an hour late.
3. The Venue My #1 choice for a novice swapper is your place or a friend's place. Choose a venue that works for you, your vision and that's as easy as possible. You can hold a swap outdoors in a park, for example, if you live in a place with clement weather, but make sure to advise guests (in the invite) to wear things like leggings and tank tops under their clothes so they can easily try things on while getting close to a true-fit and not having to get nekkid in public.
Virgie's Venue Rule: Steer clear of venues you have to pay for or that require strict reservation times.
4. Invites The invite is where you share the details from steps 1-3. Excellent things to include are: (1) time (start time and end time), (2) location, (3) whether there's going to be food and how much of it/what kind you want your guests to bring, (4) how private or public the venue is (back to Step #3), (5) if you definitely do NOT want certain items (like shoes, which are heavy and don't move as easily or quickly as clothing, but that can be amazing if you or your guests love shoes), (6) what the accessibility sitch at your venue is (could your venue accommodate someone with a disability or an 80 pound bag of clothes? If you live in a 5th floor walk-up/have any stairs, for example, this is important info for your guests and you can figure out how to make things work before the day of). Make a Facebook page for the event, send out emails, write a blog or a tumblr post and feel free to ask friends to promote it mindfully (you don't want Mike from the bar showing up... unless you do want Mike from the bar showing up) on their page/feed if you want to meet new friends.
Virgie's Invites Rule: If you're inviting a lot of people who aren't close friends, however many people RSVP, divide that by 2 and then multiply that number by 0.7 and you'll roughly have your number of attendees. Do not panic if the number is low!
The Day Of
5. Keep it Simple Do not under any circumstances panic! If you said you were providing snacks, then prep them. If you have extra mirrors to bring out do that. Most of the fatties I know aren't into sitting on the floor (I know I'm not), so if you have some extra seating or pillows to sit on those are great. Make sure you have some garbage bags or grocery bags for the leftovers post-swap. Put out your swap offering if you want. Turn on some music. Get a glass of wine.
6. So everyone is an hour late. Girl, don't stress. We already knew this was going to happen and it is absolutely no reflection on you, how much people love you, or how they feel about the swap. I have been to swaps where a bunch of serious swappers (such as: me) show up as early as possible to get first dibs. At our swap, Kori didn't want any actual swapping to happen until 1 (the event started at 11) so that folks could get a chance to settle in, talk and we could accommodate late-comers. Though I'd never seen it done before, I liked the outcome! You get to decide how that plays out.
7. Swap! As the hostess you get to decide how the swapping works, but mostly I've found that people organically gravitate to pieces that suit their style and there's enough to go around. If people don't take what you brought, then don't fret! If your guests are shy, get into that pile and start pulling pieces that might work for individual guests. Encourage people to try stuff on and give encouraging feedback. It's tres infectious.
8. Clean-up The etiquette around the leftovers seems to be that the host/ess and/or people who have a car take all or half the leftovers - once they're bagged up - to the local thrift store.
9. Bask in your Fabulosity You have officially joined the annals of hostess history.
It occurred to me today that I walked blindly into fierceness, not knowing if I could pull it off, hoping it would all work out, aware that I had nothing to lose but “my precious chains.” I pieced together the bits of life’s lusciousness which I’d learned to hang onto: first for survival and then something far beyond that. I’ve been a fat girl for as long as I can remember. The fierceness came much later.
Back to “my precious chains.”
The allure of normativity – the chains - in all its forms – heterosexuality, monogamy, thinness – is incredibly potent and alluring. The promise is simple: you do this and you get that. But the payoff remains ever illusive. That’s because the payoff actualizes for very few and even those who are the seeming beneficiaries also suffer from the weight of its suffocating, merciless and incessant demands. To imagine that in a time when my greatest worry could be whether I want cilantro on my tacos, I look around me and see people living lives of prescriptiveness and not liberation. And I realize that it’s because, as Native scholar Andrea Smith once said, systems of oppression must seem like the only way; they must seem natural and inevitable or people would never participate in their own subjugation.
I remember a time when I was very resistant to fat positivity. I didn’t understand it. Even though I was undeniably, by-every-western-measure fat, it felt like something that didn’t apply to me, something I wasn’t interested in. It made me feel unsure and belligerent and sometimes it made me blush. Even when I was organizing as a feminist, I was still sold on the bill of goods, my heart was still set on the prize of passing. I wanted so, so badly to pass! I didn’t have words for the longing that had grown inside of me. I wanted to pretend that this body wasn’t this body, and in disavowing this fat body I inadvertently sought to erase it and the other outlaw bodies that were like it.
And then came fierceness.
Me and fierceness went way back. Back to pre-school when I knew I was hot shit, when my belly was a fascinating orb and not the seat of my greatest shame. But I lost it. It was taken from me, forced out, presumed dead. But me and fierceness kept bumping into each other, and one day the glittery seed of fabulousness settled in again, began to lay down some roots, brought me back to life.
Fierceness is fundamentally about resistance, about liberation, about protecting the strut, the light, the too-tight pencil skirt from all the people and ads and social forces that seek to force it out of you. Fierceness is queer. It is brown. It is revolutionary. My fat saved my life. This body, which at one time felt like it had betrayed and imprisoned me, was in fact the source of my greatest liberation. My fat reminds me that I was destined for things greater than passing. It took me through grad school, through feminism, relationships, love, through political and intellectual territory I could have only dreamed of. And, girl, I’m just getting started.
I read this quote from Zoe Saldana this morning and had to commit it to an image. The line was arresting mostly because the proponents of the War on Obesity argue that this war is about health. The line starts with her speaking about her body as an “it” and then shifts from third person (“I’m over depriving it”) to first person (“because I want to look good”) by the end of the sentence. This line, to me, exemplifies the bifurcated way we’re meant to treat our bodies. As if the body and the self are two different things.
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.