On the Subject of Pie; or, Thoughts About Language and Radicalism

By | August 4, 2009

A hundred million years ago, I was a graduate student. Actually I was a graduate student for a ridiculously long period of time and it resulted in a few important bits of paper that do me little service today, but in this circumstance I am talking about the first graduate program I attended. I had a professor & mentor in this program (who would, interestingly, later go on to get made fun of on Penn & Teller’s Bullshit! with hilarious results, but I digress) who was a self-described radical Marxist feminist. Though I had dabbled in idealistic-college-student activism going to back to my undergrad days, this was really my first exposure to true radicalism, which, as anyone who’s experienced both will assure you, is a horse of a different color. The context in which I came to understand the difference was that of liberal feminism and radical feminism. It was here that I first heard the feminist “pie” concept. The idea behind this is that liberal feminists are just asking for their “piece of the pie” – basic rights, equality, and cultural inclusion, but with no special treatment, no special recognition, and no major social upheaval. The liberal feminist approach, as taught to me by a radical a decade ago, was that liberal feminists want women to simply get their fair share of what men have – the “pie”.

Of course the punchline to this analogy is that radical feminists don’t want a piece of that pie. They want a different pie altogether. A new pie. Ideally one that they helped to make from scratch.

That professor and I ultimately came to disagree on several key points and as a result our academic relationship came to an end. In the intervening years, I’ve parted ways with a lot of what I learned back then, up to and including no longer identifying myself as a feminist (though I am not anti-feminist, nor do I judge, ridicule, or resent women who do identify as feminist). But the pie analogy, as applicable to a broader concept of ideological activism, has always stuck with me. This is probably mostly because — feminism aside — I continue to be a radical on a great many and varied topics, both political and mundane, and the pie analogy has always given me a useful touchstone when negotiating my positions on various subjects – do I want a piece of the pie in question, or do I want a whole new pie?

I’ve been fat for a long time, my entire adult life. And though whether it was always true it debateable, I’ve thought of myself as fat for as long as I can remember. My life has been different because of this, on many levels, one of the most minor aspects (in the grander scheme of things) being the clothes I can wear, and the limited options available to me in this arena. I’ve been fat enough to skirt the very edge of being sized out of the Lane Bryants and Avenues on which so many fat people rely (and whose “fashion” I disdain anyway). I’ve been fat enough to experience paralyzing rage at the impossibility of finding a simple article of functional clothing – say, a swimsuit – that actually fits all of me at the same time. I’m not even asking that it look appealing; what I am saying here is that finding a swimsuit that fits my bust, waist, hips, and backside all at once, off the rack, is impossible, because I am both fat and also shaped in a way that defies the normal standards of pattern-making for women’s apparel. Even beyond the nigh-universal swimsuit albatross, this is true for many other types of clothing for me, in case anyone was curious as to why I never wear pants. Things that fit my top half, don’t fit my bottom. Things that fit my bottom half, don’t fit my top. Things that fit my waist don’t fit my legs. Things that fit standing up, cease to fit sitting down. Things that fit my torso are inevitably snug in the shoulders. I could go on.

When it comes to plus-size fashion, I don’t want a piece of the existing pie. I don’t want a bunch of clothing simply sized up with no adjustments made for larger sizes, such that a dress that’s adorable on a size 10 becomes a shapeless sack with an oversized neck opening when brought up to a size 26. I have a different shape, a different size, and different expectations and needs than someone who wears non-plus sizes. Yes, this is occasionally true even of people who wear the same size; bodies are different. But the scale of the difference changes the fatter you get. Finding a dress that’s simply unflattering is annoying; being unable to find a dress that you can try on in the first place is a little more dramatic. I want fashion — fabulous, mindblowing, amazing, gorgeous fashion — that is made for fat people. It’s “just wanting a piece of the pie” that gets us ridiculous and insulting shit that fails to take our opinions into account — like Torrid’s often way-behind-the-curve promotion of last year’s “trends”, or Faith 21’s sort-of-but-not-really plus sizes, or, yes, even More to Love’s fattened-up reality-TV circus.

On the subject of the fashion that I have available to me, I can say unequivocally that I want a whole different pie. Ideally, a pie that doesn’t privilege some sizes or shapes over others, and that has a fair number of options available to bodies of all sorts, and a fashion culture that doesn’t pass judgment on people’s character and morality and value based on the way they look. Ideally, a pie that is produced by different people with different ideas, enough that pretty much everyone can find something they like. Ideally, a pie that does not include even a pinch of Anna Wintour. We’re talking a totally Wintour-free pie. You don’t have to be a radical to agree with this, but it helps.

Years after first learning the pie analogy, I took another feminist theories class at another university and was quite a different person, and in that class I first read a poem by Pat Parker entitled “For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to Be My Friend”, a poem that has stuck with me just as strongly, and which applies to many groups of people who are othered, oppressed, or otherwise shut out of mainstream cultural discourse.

“For the White Person Who Wants to Know How to Be My Friend”
Pat Parker

The first thing you do is to forget that i’m Black.
Second, you must never forget that i’m Black.

You should be able to dig Aretha,
but don’t play her every time i come over.
And if you decide to play Beethoven–don’t tell
me his life story. They made us take music
appreciation too.

Eat soul food if you like it, but don’t expect me
to locate your restaurants
or cook it for you.

And if some Black person insults you,
mugs you, rapes your sister, rapes you,
rips your house, or is just being an ass–
please, do not apologize to me
for wanting to do them bodily harm.
It makes me wonder if you’re foolish.

And even if you really believe Blacks are better
lovers than whites–don’t tell me. I start thinking
of charging stud fees.

In other words, if you really want to be my
friend–don’t make a labor of it. I’m lazy.

It is for these reasons and many others that I will keep the fat in fatshionista, a neologism originally chosen for its revolutionary-evoking appeal. If you feel differently, I support your expression of that. I hope you support mine. I have energy and conviction enough for the both of us. Because we don’t yet live in a world where it doesn’t matter, and no amount of idle wishing is going to make that change. We alone make that change. You and me.

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