Q & A: On dressing femme, being a “bad fat”, and changing the FA blogosphere.

By | January 28, 2010

Unimaginably, I am still accepting and answering questions over at my formspring page; we are at 64 as of this posting. If you’ve yet to participate, I invite you to pose a question of your own. Below are three recent questions and answers.

Q. I want to wear dresses and heels, but I always end up feeling like an elephant in drag. Being fat and femme is psychologically difficult when I’m told that my body isn’t what a woman’s body should look like. Any advice for dealing with this?

A. I really love this analogy you’ve created, so I suggest: Embrace the elephant in drag.

There’s no additional context or punchline here. This is what we do. When I first began abandoning pants a few years ago, I struggled with that elephant as well. In truth, I still do, in certain circumstances, in spaces where my stubborn commitment to not-fitting-in makes it difficult for me to feel socially adept, and not like a sideshow. Insofar as cultural reads of the body are concerned, fatness can strip a woman of femininity in the same way it can strip a man of masculinity; it can desexualize and degender a body entirely, if you let it. Luckily for us, being feminine and performing femme are two very different animals. “Feminine” is the default gender presentation of women in the United States; fashion magazines, television, movies, books, pop music, all of it contributes to the lifelong education of women on how to be feminine. The feminine body is the one we often rail against, the one that’s necessarily slender but not too slender, muscular but not too muscular, hairless, graceful, “beautiful”, reluctant to take up space.

Femmeness, however, is interrogated femininity. Femmeness is femininity dragged through some mud, kicked in the stomach, given a good scrubbing, teased into a bouffant, doused in glitter, and pushed onstage in search of a spotlight. At least, this is how I would define it, and you will find as many definitions of femme as there are femmes to supply them. The primary theme is the idea that femmeness by its nature is not a faithful reproduction of the feminine, but is instead a reinvention or reclamation (or ironic performance) of it. I’ve know many a fat femme in my life who’s felt a strong kinship to the concept of drag, and who would argue that all kinds of feminine costume are drag — just some kinds of drag are more culturally-acceptable than others.

But I know how you feel because I’ve felt it too, and I can tell you the only way around is through. The world would have to change for you to not feel the cultural dissonance of putting a fat female body in femme apparel, and the world will not change that fast, so my advice is to accept the discord and learn to make it a part of you. Femmeness is about playing WITH the role and not rotely speaking your lines; it’s about carving out your own definition and exploring what you want to express to the people around you; it’s about you. Even if what you want is as simple as the assurance to put on a dress and heels and stride purposefully out of your house in the morning. Know that you are confronting the forces that police our bodies, and feel proud to be standing up to them, even in the smallest ways. And you start by dressing up and going out and being yourself, one moment at a time.

After the jump, read two more questions and answers, on whether fat people who eat fast food can also accept themselves, and how I’d change the fat blogosphere.

Q. I see lots of people saying that they work-out and eat healthily and are still overweight. I don’t doubt this at all. However, I personally am fat because I’m sedentary and eat too much junk/fast food. Can I still accept my size/ be accepted for my size?

A. I have a button I got from another fat activist awhile back; I am embarrassed to admit I forget who it was (possibly they will see this and remind me). I keep this button stuck to a bulletin board in my bedroom, where I see it every day. It says: “I am not a triathlete.”

Size acceptance occasionally falls into the trap of breaking people into “good fats” and “bad fats”. The good fats are the ones who have gym memberships, eat like they’re gunning for vegetarian sainthood, and have no weight-related chronic health problems. By this reckoning, I technically fall into the good-fat category. Alleged “bad fats”, on the other hand, are those who hate exercise, occasionally eat from McDonald’s, or have high BP or troubling blood sugar results at their annual physical (assuming they even get an annual physical). This divide is unworthy of any size acceptance movement because in the real world, we all straddle these lines, and trying to create a homogenized group of “acceptable” fat people only further marginalizes the fat people who, for reasons both within and outside their control, can’t fit into that category. Not everyone can afford a gym membership or fresh produce; not everyone has time to cook healthful balanced meals from whole foods, or to spend an hour running to nowhere on a treadmill; and not everyone can stave off health problems, no matter how virtuous their habits may be.

The important lesson from size acceptance — arguably the MOST important lesson — is that you should not feel compelled toward self-loathing over these things. Maybe you just hate exercise. That’s not a reason to hate yourself. Maybe your doctor tells you you’re prediabetic. Again, not a reason to hate yourself. Body acceptance is about ACCEPTANCE, and the idea that anything you do with your body in your life should come from a place of self-care and self-love, not from guilt and judgment and punishment.

There are no good fats or bad fats, and like my button reminds me, we don’t all have to be triathletes. Our decisions about how we take care of ourselves are personal and individual, and are not public property to be commented upon, nor are they up for group debate. It isn’t about arguing that everyone should be fat; it’s about arguing that fat bodies deserve the same basic dignity of non-fat bodies.

To misquote bell hooks: fat acceptance is for everybody. That means you have the right to ask for acceptance too, both from yourself and from others, no matter your circumstances. When we build a culture that respects all bodies, everyone wins.

Q. If you could change one thing about the fat acceptance blogosphere, what would it be?

A. My answer to this has always been that I’d make it more diverse, and make FA bloggers in general more aware of intersectionality and the way various aspects of individual identity interact, particularly other aspects that marginalize folks. This has actually been happening more and more over the last several months, which is great, though I think it can go further still. I’m also happy to see non-exclusively-FA blogs work to acknowledge and include FA-related perspectives.

To speak more specifically, I only caught up on the most recent drama yesterday, so I want to clarify that I don’t think the fat acceptance blogosphere is an appropriate venue for weight-loss and dieting blogs. This is not because weight loss is inherently wrong, but because that sort of talk is acceptable and widespread absolutely everywhere, and fat-friendly space is intended to be a refuge from that. Not a refuge just for those of us made mildly uncomfortable by it, but also out of consideration for folks in recovery from eating disorders or other body or food-related trauma, who employ fat-friendly space as a vital source of sanity and relative safety in a world full of triggers.

All of this is to say that by “diversity” I don’t mean a broad diversity of opinions on the subject of weight, dieting, and/or health that includes conventional wisdom, but a diversity of experiences of fatness, so that we have a fuller representation of folks from different races, ethnicities, and socio-economic classes; folks with disabilities both related and unrelated to their size; and folks with variant gender and sexual identities. (I am probably forgetting a marginalized group here, and I apologize, but you get my drift.) I think the two most important things size acceptance communities should agree on are: 1) the promotion of a healthy criticism of the cultural messages around weight and body shape and size, and 2) that body-positive spaces should by extension strive to avoid reinforcing these messages. Everything else is negotiable.

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