Shadow on a Tightrope: 30 Years Casting a Powerful Shadow

Debbie says:

It’s thrilling to participate in the blog carnival for the 30th anniversary of Shadow on a Tightrope:Writings By Women on Fat Oppression, edited by Lisa Schoenfelder and Barb Weiser, hosted by publisher Aunt Lute, which is releasing a 30th anniversary edition. In a sense, this book has always been there for me; I started flirting with fat activism in the early 1980s, thanks in large part to Laurie’s outrage at some anti-fat comments I took for granted. Laurie and I started to envision the project which turned out to be both Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes and a life’s work, in 1984, only a year after Shadow was published.

naked fat woman in her kitchen, from Women En LargeThis Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color.

In 1982, Evelyn Torton Beck came out with Nice Jewish Girls: A Lesbian Anthology.

In 1985,  we saw With the Power of Each Breath: A Disabled Women’s Anthology, edited by Susan E. Browne, Debra Connors, and Nanci Stern.

There were certainly more, but these (along with Shadow) are the ones that I remember–not only the books themselves, but the power they had in the feminist and Lesbian communities (which were not the same thing in that period, but were very closely interconnected). Everyone I knew in that world read all of them from cover to cover, and thought about them, talked about them, internalized the complex political/social/personal range of their messages.

And so it was with Shadow. Some of the essays in Shadow were photocopied and sent to interested people through an informal publication network long before there was a book. Others were written for the book. The title comes from a glorious poem by Sharon Bas Hannah (“whoever I am, I’m a fat woman”):

she’s a blues singer

a flautist    a drummer

a hiker       a kite flyer

your shadow on the tightrope

she’s a fat womon

leaping on laughter’s echo the rhythms of her life

The whole poem is in the book.

The essays and poems are by giants in the field and women who have never published anywhere else, by women new to fat liberation and women steeped in it. The sections begin with the cultural myths about fat, and take us through memoir, exercise and sport, daily life, and the medical system, to a final section on survivorship and identity.

Thirty years later, like so much else viewed through that lens, the book is both depressing and relieving. Some things have gotten better for fat women in thirty years: we have much better options for clothes, we have better “role models” on television, in the movies, and in public life, we have a much greater literature and research to draw on, and we have the ability to find the community of fat women in many ways and many places. And some things are the same or worse: weight loss surgery, quite new in 1983, is still growing in numbers in 2013; our First Lady made childhood obesity her do-gooder priority, medical nonsense abounds; and so on and so forth.

Here’s what I know: no fight for justice ever ends. And this particular fight for justice has gone as far as it has in large part because of the groundbreaking work of Lisa Schoenfelder, Barb Weiser, and the women in Shadow on a Tightrope. Whether your copy is old and tattered, or you’ve never read it, whether you’re a giant in the field or new to the concepts, buy the a copy reprinted for the 30th anniversary. Something in it will help you with something you struggle with.

five naked fat women on a beach, from Women En Large