Guest Blog

By | October 1, 2008

This was too good to pass up. Regarding the recent NOLOSE conference, blogger Adrienne had a few questions and a call for discussion to put up on the interwebs. We thought the folks at would enjoy a chance to chomp the bit…..

I am in favor of a conference about queer fat politics that attempts to take into account “the intersection of all our identities,” providing a forum for much-needed conversations. As I reflect on the conference, however, I continue to feel uneasy about some of the ways in which intersectional politics were framed. Conversations conference attendees seem to reveal that one of the principal criticisms of the conference was that, while workshops and other events focused on foregrounding identities other than queerness and fatness, specific conversations about queerness and fatness and their intersection were all but absent. Indeed, I agree that there was an extent to which the connections between queerness and fatness were assumed, within the context of the conference, to be a “done deal,” apparent and obvious to all attendees. Which is, of course, not the case, and we have to be careful not to make that assumption.

More specifically, though, my principal concern with the framing of intersectional politics at NOLOSE– in the keynote speech, and in some of the workshops I attended– was the assumption that these discussions about intersectional politics are taking place in the context of a movement that already exists. In other words, one of the conference’s founding assumptions seemed to be that all attendees have equal access to an in-person movement where discussions about queerness and fat oppression are already taking place, and that our principal concern with intersectional politics is to inject a broader analysis into a conversation that is already taking place, everywhere.

As a queer fat woman in a small town, I do not live in a place where the intersection between queerness and fatness is a “done deal.” In fact, I don’t live in a place where queer and fat issues are separately taken into account. Again, as a graduate student, I have access to resources that not all small town residents enjoy, but I still wouldn’t say that I belong to a queer “community” here so much as a group of queer friends– and, because of queer alienation and invisibility in small towns, even that has taken months to cobble together. Here, I’m just beginning to hear the barest whisper of discussion about fat politics– and again, that only because I have access to a campus.

In workshops, I heard quite a few people from urban settings note that NOLOSE was a safe space for them, because most of the time they felt surrounded by thinner people, and thus marginalized as fat people. I suppose it’s true that fat bodies are more visible in my Midwestern small town. But I’d like to remind people that, just as being surrounded by women does not necessarily mean that one is in feminist space, living in an area with more fat bodies does not necessarily mean that one lives in a fat-positive environment. I have many fat friends, but quite a few of them are enrolled in Weight Watchers, and many others struggle in less formal ways with accepting their size. Consequently, the conversations I have with people face-to-face are still quite elementary: debunking the obesity epidemic, explaining Health At Every Size, attempting to demonstrate that fat acceptance is a valid social movement. I cannot afford to assume that queerness or fatness, let alone the intersection between the two, is something that does not need explanation.

This is not to say that I have no use for intersectional politics. In general, I think that the trajectory of most social justice movements is problematic and needs to change: you know, begin with a single-issue movement, universalize the experiences of the most privileged members of that movement, piss off a bunch of marginalized groups, and then attempt (or don’t) to build a more intersectional approach once the already-biased base has already been formed. It would, I think, be really nice if, in my current environment, I could help to build queer and fat communities and movements that are intersectional from the get-go. But in order to do that, intersectional politics needs to be reframed as the founding basis for a movement, not something you work to achieve once certain structures are already in place. And that reframing, I assume, is something that would benefit all queer fat folk, not just the ones who don’t have urban privilege.

Different Stakes, Different Strokes

I’d like to thank GM for help on this next point: it was his offhand comment in the “More Than Just Fashion” workshop about rural settings that helped me solidify what was, until that point, a series of inarticulate misgivings into a full-fledged analysis. In that particular workshop, we discussed what C has called the “NOLOSE Fashion Olympics”: the perceived pressure on the part of several conference attendees to dress in certain fashionable ways, possible issues of exclusion that issue from the pressure to dress up, and the meanings of fashion and exclusivity in a conference where a) sexuality and sexual desirability are foregrounded, and b) issues of race, class, gender, size, shape, age, and so on are always already present.

All but absent in this conversation, I think, is the particular effect the Fashion Olympics may have on rural conference attendees in particular. Foremost, of course, is the question of material access for fatties in small towns. Internet access may work to some extent to level out the playing field in terms of clothes shopping, but shipping costs, the logistics of having to return clothing that doesn’t fit, technological savvy, and other factors may work to limit equal access in a small-town setting.

Throughout the course of the conference, both Gini and I heard some urban conference attendees display contempt for some of the major brick-and-mortar plus size clothing stores, such as Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug, and so on. I’m very much in favor of supporting independent vendors whenever possible, but the fact is that because I live in a small town, I’m basically thrilled whenever there’s a store with clothes in my size that I can walk into. I’m lucky enough to live in a place with a Lane Bryant, Fashion Bug, and Torrid in relatively close proximity– but even then, all three stores are in towns half an hour away, and because I don’t own a car, I’m at the mercy of friends whose shopping moods and financial windfalls coincide with my own. Let’s not forget that being able to shun the principal paths to plus-size fashion is, in and of itself, a privilege.

More important for me, I think conversations on the Fashion Olympics and NOLOSE sexual economies failed to take into account that, due to our differing geographical locations, attendees have differing emotional stakes in the conference. In particular, I am thinking about a comment during the “More Than Just Fashion” workshop asserting that conferences are perhaps more fun, and less stressful, if one does not attend with the expectation to participate in some sort of sexual economy, and/or if one does not attend with the expectation that NOLOSE will be the place where one is accepted. I think that kind of nonchalance is much easier when one lives in an urban setting, with a vibrant queer community and a significant fat-positive voice, where access to social acceptance and sexual currency is much easier to come by. But while, for some attendees, NOLOSE is a place where they can focus their energies and bring their experiences back to already-vibrant communities, for many rural attendees, NOLOSE is the only place where we can hope to depend on social and sexual acceptance. Many of us come to NOLOSE– I certainly did– with the knowledge that what community and connection we don’t find at the conference, we will almost certainly not find at home. That automatically raises the stakes for us.

As such, when we talk about fashion and exclusion in a setting like NOLOSE, we need to take into account not just differences of material access for conference attendees, but also emotional access. We must also realize that small-town queers may not have access to the social connections enjoyed by urban queers, and as such, gaining entry to the social life of the conference may be more difficult– a problem compounded by these increased emotional stakes.

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