Tag Archives: fat history

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

Betty Rose Dudley: 1951-2011

Laurie and Debbie say:

Betty Rose Dudley, head shot in a purple shirt

Betty Rose Dudley often described herself as “a fat working-class dyke from Missouri.” She wrote for us once, on food and class:

I remember a friend gagging because her boyfriend had put peanut butter in scrambled eggs. I asked her if she’d eaten it in Africa, cooked by a poor tribesman, would it not be wonderful? She had to admit it would be different, and yes wonderful. Even meat that was not red might be okay. This is where I really learned about class and food. And I learned that discussing it usually left a very bitter taste in my mouth.

In 2006, she wrote “one of her stories,” a brilliant series on her LiveJournal on the flowering of the fat acceptance movement in the Bay Area, and her personal experiences of being there (click on “next entry” at the top of each page to read them all):

It has been, and continues to be both personal and political. And in retrospect I realize just how much I have loved and continue to love my life.

1982: I still remember how I felt the first time I heard Sylvia [Kohan] sing. I was standing right next to her, and she started singing protest songs, songs of empowerment, etc. And her voice was so big and wonderful. In between songs and chants she started telling me about fat acceptance, and a new group that had just recently formed and was getting ready for their first public performances.The name of the group was Fat Lip Readers’ Theatre.

That night I masturbated resulting in one of the best orgasms I’d ever had. In that moment I thought Sylvia Kohan was one of the most beautiful human beings on the face of the earth and it was not just inner beauty I was seeing. I liked the way I felt when Sylvia looked at me, and I began seeing myself in her eyes. Maybe for the first time in my life I felt whole. I had a body and I was someone who just might be lover material. I masturbated and cried as I remembered the day, Sylvia’s words, and how she looked in that white jumpsuit as she stood there singing….

I masturbated and I cried, and I started to heal from wounds I’d never let myself feel before. It was as if my whole being was numb and starting to wake up, like when your foot or hand goes to sleep when you lay on it wrong. That night I began to wake up and come alive, to heal, and to stop holding my breath because of the tension created around being fat. I began to stretch and take up my space; space in a world that was beginning to grow and expand and become big enough to accommodate me. I began to make a world that fit; where I fit. I also stopped accepting the idea that this was a world that didn’t fit me, because if that was true, and I had let it become true, well now it was time to make alterations. And so I began my life, and I stopped dreaming about becoming thin. There were so many other dreams hiding behind that one ill-conceived notion that you had to be thin to live. I dreamed them all, and lived many of them, and they are now my stories.

At a Fat Women Only early performance of Fat Lip Readers Theatre, a] woman in the audience had had her stomach stapled. She was still fat, but felt discrimination and ostracized because of the surgery. She said that others treated her as if she were an enemy. There was a lot of feeling about this, and I remember speaking up and suggesting that people who had surgery were more like victims, our war wounded. Some agreed, some did not, and the weight- loss surgery goes on, even today. We talked about discrimination from the dyke community. I still have these conversations today, but this was the first, and it was incredibly exciting. That night I forever lost the feeling of being alone and isolated because I was fat. I had always had sisters who were fat, so I wasn’t as isolated as some, but unlike my sisters, many of these women were dykes. Now that took my breath away. Here was community. There must be a goddess because this was heaven.

Betty had a rare clarity of mind; she could look at an issue and pull out important points and valuable perspectives. She had the kind of courage it takes to live as yourself in a world where you don’t fit. She wasn’t conventionally “nice”; she was frequently sharp-tongued, and she had moments of extraordinary compassionate kindness.

If you read through the LiveJournal series, you’ll also find a link to a very personal piece that Betty’s partner Carol wrote, with a little bit of insight into how Betty felt about their relationship: “Oh, I love this woman! And I love to read what she writes. Damn she’s good!

Debbie says: I had the rare privilege to spend a night taking care of Betty just a week before she died. I didn’t really know what she would need or how she would feel about having me there. She was slipping in and out of lucidity, but when she was lucid she was totally and completely Betty, and I got great pleasure and satisfaction out of being with her.

She died in late June of this year, and her friends and family are holding a memorial service for her tomorrow. She is much missed.