Fat Myths – BUSTED!

(You have to say the above in the gravelly voice of a movie trailer voiceover man.)

Yesterday I got a very long comment on my ‘Too Fat for Fashion” post from last week. It pretty much showcases the kind of fat-hating ideas that are accepted by most and I wondered whether to publish it or not. Does a calm but very sexist and very wrong comment have a place on my blog? Although I would  usually say ‘NO!’ and instantly delete personal or aggressive comments, I didn’t delete this one. I disagree with its content but I didn’t want to give any ammunition to people who might accuse me of silencing different viewpoints. Some of my lovely friends suggested that this is an opportunity for me to bash some of the myths that women, fat and thin, face, every day. So this is what I decided to do. I approved the comment so it now shows below that post and, I have taken what I see as the main myths about fat from this comment and write my own response to them. Please be aware that this post really needs to be a book, and I’ll let you know when that’s done. In about a decade.

 Fat Myth #1: “Fat people are not sexy”

This is silly. In fact, it’s the easiest for me to refute. Fat people are sexy. I think fat people are sexy and I know lots of people, both men and women, who are both fat and sexy. I am hot and other people find me hot. I considered posting gratuitous pictures of me and friends on this blog, but decided you have already seen enough of me in the buff. And stealing pics of my hot friends off Facebook and posting them here probably wouldn’t be consensual (darn that consent!). I therefore kindly link you to this post, drawn to my attention by my friend Pearl. Although Kate could only be considered ‘fat’ in the crazy fashion industry, the rest of the women are fat (and hot, duh!).

 Fat Myth #2: “Fat is unhealthy”

This is a hard one to refute. After all, all health authorities tell us that fat is unhealthy and we will die earlier if we are obese. So, I am just going to go with my gut on this one.

It is possible to be fat and healthy. I was very unhealthy when I was skinny – I was depressed and mad and hungry all the time. Even though I looked conventionally beautiful I was miserable. Barely sleeping, barely eating, my intellectual capacities greatly dimmed, I know I was unhealthy.

Physical and mental health are connected. I think exercise is a good thing – I love endorphins – and I feel good in my body and mind when I exercise. I also know that exercise doesn’t make me lose much weight. In fact, I enjoy food more when I exercise and tend to eat more. I feel sexier because my body feels more fluid. I am more healthy.

My experiences with health authorities have led me to greatly distrust them. I have been lauded my doctors for being healthy when I felt really unfit. I have been told I was too fat by nurses who asked me nothing about my diet or exercise habits, at a time when I was cycling up to 14 miles a day and felt healthier than before. I have been given wrong information about both my sexual and general health owing to assumptions about my queerness and fatness and I know the health system is flawed. Of course there are great health professionals out there, but who gives them their information? How can they better assess my health in a 10-minute session when I live in my body every day? I trust some doctors to help me when I need them, and I grant that they know more about a lot of health issues than me. But I also use my own judgement when listening to their information and take some of it with a pinch of salt. I have already linked it, but in case you missed it, here is a great video about fatness and health from a health professional. 

Lastly and, perhaps, most importantly, I don’t believe that society’s aversion to fat people is really about our health. If society really cared about fat people, it wouldn’t laugh at us and characterize us as lazy, stupid and greedy. It’s very easy to laugh and point a finger. I think our collective hatred of fat people reflects our own insecurities. Most people are so miserable, we put other people down to make ourselves feel better. Maybe we’re just all so hungry from those superfood salads that we are secretly jealous of the food that fat people get to eat?!?!

Fat Myth #3: “Fat people are greedy”

From a feminist perspective, the idea of wanting too much fascinates me. For women, it totally makes sense to me that we want more than society tells us we are allowed. We want to be successful, to love and be loved, to have babies, a career, to travel, to be artists… In short, to fulfil our individual potential. We are constantly sidetracked from embracing our desires, of all kinds, by the pressure to fit sexist beauty ideals. We spend so much energy, time and money trying to fit this ideal, we forget our own paths. Unhappy and tired because we are undernourished, we try to achieve an ideal of thinness that by definition slips further and further away.

Some fat activists see the desire to eat and take up space with our fat as fat women’s refusal to be shrunk into the tiny box that society allows us. Told that we should disappear, we do the opposite. We want and so we take.

In terms of overeating as a disorder, which it is, it can also be seen as an expression of thwarted desire. I know I eat sugar when I get the anxiety in my stomach that means I actually want to write. Sugar come downs and the sleepiness of being too full combine with TV to dull my senses, lead me away from my creativity. I eat to dull my desires and in this way deliberately obscure my talents. I want to I hide from the world and live in my dreams rather than my reality. The big bad world is scary. Being miserable is seductive; it seems easier than being happy.

It would be easy for me to say being fat is a wholly positive thing. That I have a great relationship with food and that my fat is 100% good. But it’s not. I know that my fat is both a natural body shape and a symptom of my thwarted creativity. Nothing less than starving myself would make me thin, but there is a level of fatness at which I feel too fat. I know this might seem to undermine some of my fat-positive beliefs, but, like all realities, fat is complicated. Only you can know when you have a positive relationship with food, fat and your body. Only you know when you feel good in your body; when you are healthy. Everyone is different, and it is this individuality that both the cult of thinness and, in some cases, overeating, strives to obliterate.

My most personal response to the characterization of fat people as greedy, as wanting too much, as “incapable of restraint” is why should we restrain ourselves? Why should we downsize our dreams to fit into the tiny, awful mould that society allows us? If overeating is the desire for more, more than we are allowed as women and as human beings, then it is a truly rational response to the life of emotional and artistic subsistence that our capitalist and consumerist society allows.

All my childhood and early adult life I was told I was wrong: too fat, too clever, too different. I wanted too much. Now, I am trying to stop railing against myself. I think the world is a better place if I am who I am meant to be. I receive and give more love the happier I am, I put stuff out there into the world that is a force for good. Who is going to say the unsayable if not me? Who is going to be the crazy artist, if not me? We need our different and crazy people. The truth is, taking up space and acting out our desires, our personal truths, makes us happier and better people.

There you go! All done! Feel free to comment with your own responses to these common fat myths so we can build a fattie army of resistance. Hurrah!

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my breasts and the bras that don’t fit them

Yeah, I said I wouldn’t be on here for a while, but I am so you guys are just lucky. Buy me an ice cream to say thanks.

On having socially unacceptable breasts and trying to find bras that fit them. Includes gratuitous picture of me naked. NSFW bitches.

I have socially unacceptable breasts. When I was 18 my Mum offered me a boob job. She would pay, she said, because she had always been unhappy with her breasts. Hers were large, mine were uneven. I considered the option seriously for a while, and then decided against it. Major surgery and scars probably wouldn’t make me any happier with them. I was also worried about how they would feel. Later, I became glad that I made this decision. To keep my breasts, imperfect as they are.

Walking into Marks and Sparks I am already stressed. Hot in the summer, down to my last bra that doesn’t really fit. The underwire has pinged out of all of my favourites. I really need some more bras. I’m extra stressed today, because it is my last chance to buy English sizes before I head back to Germany (European sizes confuse me, and bras are way more expensive here) and I’ve put on weight. Being a responsible, feminist woman who wants her bras to be comfortable as well as sexy, I know I need a fitting.

I book myself in for an appointment and fill in the next hour trying bras of every size. The only bra I can find looks like it’s from the 1950s with the amount of material it has (not necessarily a bad thing, I’m way into retro) but it’s disheartening to imagine that all the other bright young things are wearing cute skimpy bras, while I am stuck with a heavy wad that even my Mum might shy away from.

You see, not only am I a fat chick, I am a fat chick with different sized boobs. Combine the fact that the fashion industry only caters to thin ladies plus the fact that it’s a gamble that any cup size will fit both my breasts, and trying on bras becomes a Russian roulette of chance.

You see, lingerie shops make me approach my breasts as if they are a problem. There must be something wrong with them. They don’t fit into most bras, they are a challenge to me and a challenge to fitters. And I refuse to wear a prosthesis to balance them out anymore. I just fucking refuse.

‘Teach me to hate my body, make me fight it, and I will be subservient. I will expend all my energies on dieting and become too neurotic to create art that fights this norm.’

Buying a bra for me is like tackling a huge problem – a mathematical equation there is no logical answer to. It’s a game of hit and miss and forget choosing style or colour. I’ll be lucky to find one bra that fits!

I go with the fitter into a booth and explain to her my problem. I don’t know what chest size I am any more and I have different sized breasts. She looks at me as if she doesn’t believe me. Oh, she has no idea what she’s in for, this fitter. No idea at all.

Several bras later the fitter sweats at the impossibility of my breasts and asks in exasperation, ‘what do you normally do?’ Pretty much this, I reply. Yup, battle shame and self-loathing and trawl the shops until I find one bloody bra that fits. That’s my shopping experience.

Lathering my breasts with yoghurt in my punk anti-diet piece at The Berlin Femme Show 2012. It’s all in the name of art, honest. Copyright Simson Petrol.

It’s strange really, you’d think the women that work in these shops would have seen it all. Fat girls and thin girls, large boobs, saggy boobs, wonky boobs. But all the fitters I have seen seem baffled by my breasts. It’s as if they’ve never seen any before. What, breasts that are different sizes? How bizarre! But I have it on good authority from women I have talked to that many of us have different sized breasts, so how come these women act as though they’ve never seen any like mine before?

Given the amount of shame and self-hatred I have to battle just to get myself into that changing room, I do not find it surprising asymmetrical breasts are a new phenomenon to the fitters. Not because there aren’t any out there, but because we who have them are too afraid to show them. I get my bras fitted because I think my comfort is important and I know that a well-fitting bra is worth any amount of shame I will have to combat. I know how much it takes to get me in that changing room, and I know that I will keep going it because nothing is more important than my comfort. And I will keep battling, because I will not let self-hatred and evil beauty standards beat me. It’s not my fault I feel bad about my body. I know this isn’t really about me, or my body. Or it is about my body, but only the indirect way of cultural misogyny. Beauty myths make me hate me body. But this hating is a waste of my super intelligent creative energy, so I just try to ignore the insecurities and get on with it. I always was a stubborn one.

It seems too much to ask the lingerie industry to cater to us fat women, women with bodies that won’t be contained, that don’t fit prescribed ideals, and it probably is. As a wise friend once said, they don’t make clothes to fit the women, they produce the women to fit the clothes. The fashion industry produces models and all media images of women are digitally altered to fit a whiter, thinner, younger, symmetrical ideal. Unless of course the message is just how ugly Cameron Diaz looks without makeup. It’s all about control. Teach me to hate my body, make me fight it, and I will be subservient. I will expend all my energies on dieting and become too neurotic to create art that fights this norm.

This waste of energy is exactly what the big ole patriarchy wants. So I won’t spend my energy on self-hatred. I will go out there, buy a comfortable bra and get on with my writing, activism, adventures. I will just suck it up and move on because there are more important and more fun things out there than self-hatred.

Oh yeah, and in the interests of the personal is political. I am a 38D/B or 40DD/B. Like this awesome lady, I think such ‘confessions’ help change the world. Also, here are some awesome fat chicks in bikinis.

Riot not diet, baby.

burlesque: sexy or sexist?

My response to criticisms of queer burlesque: fat, self-love and why it’s feminist to take my clothes off on stage. I am getting pretty good at exercising my intellectual muscles to argue with feminists who say doing this is inherently sexist, but I’d appreciate your input too. Any other ideas about why queer burlesque is queer, feminist and hot?! 

This post also addresses misogynist and homophobic hate and may be triggering.

So, I know I said I would be offering you a feminist hoedown this week, but I kinda got distracted by the arguments about the Femme Show. I’m gonna write something about radical vs. queer feminism soon. But first you get this lovely tidbit of my own feminism. Let me know what you think!

As a woman I am born ugly. In the eyes of patriarchal ideology, my body is scary in its fat abundance, its wobbly sensuality. So I starve myself and in the process make myself physically weak in order to try and grasp a power that will never be allowed to me. Of course, this power, which is also self-love, is always one stone away. ‘Just one stone thinner, and then I’ll be beautiful…’

I remember spending hours looking in the mirror just before I became a teenager. I would make faces at myself, tilting my head this way and that, to see if I could capture a ‘Hollywood’ face. Capture beauty just so. I found that if I raised my chin (so you can’t see the fat) and tilted my head slightly to the left, while holding my eyes wide open (makes them bigger) and slightly pouting my lips, I looked beautiful.

For much of my life, it was only through altering my body, either in poses in front of the mirror, or semi-permanently, that I could find myself beautiful. I would wear a prosthesis to make my boobs look more equal (one is bigger than the other) and, at my most ill, starved myself for half a year. Then, at my thinnest, I looked the most conventionally beautiful. I remember my uncle telling me in surprise how good I looked. I remember this because it was probably the first time one of my relatives called me attractive. At this time, aged 17, I was eating one apple, a bowl of cereal and a bowl of pasta every day. At a generous estimate, this is 900 calories a day. I was also swimming for half an hour every morning, exercising in my bedroom and not sleeping. I was, by medical and social standards, starving myself and going mad.

Fun fact: in The Beauty Myth, Naomi Wolf writes that at Nazi extermination camp Treblinka 900 calories “was scientifically determined to be the minimum necessary to sustain human functioning.” Starvation rations for Jews in the Lodz ghetto in 1941 were 500-1200 calories a day. 900 is also the amount of calories allotted to patients in many U.S. weight-loss clinics. These facts speak for themselves.

Ten years later, I am pleased that, after years of working on my self-esteem, I can find myself beautiful. When I look in the mirror, instead of disappointment and crippling self-hatred, more often than not, I like what I see. At least, I like my face. I am working on finding the rest of my body, especially my fat tummy, beautiful, but I am making headway with that too. Yay me. This is the result of years of really hard fucking work.

The politics of fat for those assigned female at birth, combined with my own experiences of being raised, socialised and actively identifying as a woman, is one reason why I got so mad when, last week, some viewers of the Femme Show dismissed our performances as apolitical. Well, actually, it was one of many reasons.

As I said last week, we are told that as women we only have power by proxy. We only have power insofar as we associate ourselves sexually with men, and we are only seen as sexually attractive to men when we are thin. Now, I know many men find fat women attractive, and I love you back. So, when I say ‘men’ here, I basically mean something like ‘the heterosexualised male gaze.’ Hmm, feminist film theory 101. I am going to write about my use of the terms ‘men’ and ‘women’ in another post in the next couple of weeks.

Anyways. So, as women we are only seen as beautiful and therefore powerful when we are thin. This is why, when commenters on The Berlin Femme Show said that us taking our clothes off on stage buys into sexism and objectification, I thought they had missed the point of what we, as queer femme performers, were doing. In one of my first blog posts, I wrote how I find my own beauty and my own agency when I perform burlesque. As choreographer, I decide what vision of myself I will present to the audience, and therefore have at least some control over the way they see me. I choose what type of sexual woman they are going to see tonight. In a following post, I argue that this active engagement with the audience is different from the objectification and sexualisation of women that does happen in media everywhere, every day. Everyday objectification first classifies us women as silly little girls, good for nothing but fucking, then forces us to comply with this image by telling us that if we want even this little bit of power we need to fit into an impossible ideal of ‘beauty.’ Here, objectification and sexualisation are working to disempower women and keep us in our place.

But queer burlesque is different.  When I perform burlesque as a fat femme I am demanding to be seen as beautiful. I get my audience to cheer me, and if they don’t, I don’t take my clothes off. Affirmation of my sexuality and beauty is central to the performance. Standing on stage and demanding to be seen as sexually attractive in a world that wishes we queers didn’t exist, and does everything its power to erase us, is both feminist and empowering. And when I say erase, I don’t only mean that mainstream culture tells us we are ugly. I don’t only mean that mainstream media either presents us queers as they wish we were or leaves us out completely. By erasure I also mean that every day queers are murdered, yes, killed, for not looking and behaving how we are supposed to as good ‘men’, ‘women’ and citizens.

This is the continuum of invisibility and its horrifying logic. It starts with, ‘femmes are letting the feminist side down when they show their bodies on stage’, goes through, ‘I wish they weren’t in our community’ and ends with self-hatred, self-mutilation, starvation, suicide and murder.

Now, I’m not saying that when someone criticises queer burlesque they really wish I were dead. But, for me, as a committed feminist theorist, I see the connection between other queers saying I can’t behave in a certain way, and patriarchal ideologies also saying I can’t behave in that way, and the misogynist and homophobic hate that is both the logic and the starting point for this way of thinking and that causes self-hate and death. Sexism is both the small (personal) and the big (global). It’s both me not eating and the global scale of daily violence against women. It’s fine if you don’t like my performances, it’s even kind of OK if you think I’m a bad artist, just don’t tell me what I’m doing is inherently anti-feminist.

As a burlesque performer, I am doing my best to claim my beauty for myself and my power as a beautiful person when the patriarchy tells me that as a fat woman, lesbian and queer I am inherently ugly. As I said last week, standing on stage and demanding to be seen as sexy, when people in the queer scene would rather we femmes weren’t there, is political. Being naked does not mean you are buying into objectification. Queer burlesque is empowering. It is about claiming our own sexualities in a world which says they are wrong. Watching queer burlesque is an affirmation of queer sexuality.

I remember standing at the school gates, age 7, watching an outgoing classmate playing. I, shy and introverted, wished I looked like her, wished I was her. I already thought I was fat.

Further reading:

tits and tassles by me!

i’ll show you mine… also by me 🙂

Fat! So? by Marilyn Wann

The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf