Tag Archives: fat oppression

Laurie and Debbie: Published in the Fat Studies Journal

Laurie and Debbie say:

We are delighted to announce the publication of our article, “The trajectory of fat liberation: Where did we start? Where are we now?” in the journal Fat Studies. We were invited to contribute to a special issue, “Representing fatness through critical and artistic practice,” edited by Lori Don Levan and published by the Taylor & Francis Group. We worked really hard on the article; we had many conversations with each other and gave it great thought, and we’re really proud of the finished product.

Lori Don Levan’s partner in the editing process was Stefanie Snider, and we are greatly appreciative of the time, effort, and energy they put into walking us through the process and helping to make the article as good as it can be.

The article is a hybrid of our personal experiences creating Women En Large (and later Familiar Men and Laurie’s portrait suite Women of Japan), our knowledge of the history of fat liberation, research done specifically for the article, and personal correspondence from people we know. To explain that, we started by putting the article (and ourselves) in context for a variety of potential readers:

In 1994, Laurie Toby Edison and Debbie Notkin self-published Women En Large: Images of Fat Nudes, with Laurie’s photographs and text by Debbie. Working on that project embedded them deeply in the fat activist community, primarily but not only in the San Francisco Bay Area, at a time when the fat acceptance movement was taking shape. Some 27 years later, Women En Large, having been an independent press best-seller, is still in print. In this hybrid of first-hand participant observation, academic research, and popular culture analysis, the authors refer to themselves by their first names, to mark their closeness to the material.

We started working on this article in March of 2021; in the intervening almost-year, we went through peer review (which elicited some very useful comments and improvements). At the line-editing stage, Debbie made a deep dive into correct reference formatting and other fine style points.

We framed the article somewhat chronologically, with a brief history of fat activism in the context of the civil rights struggle and other anti-oppression movements of the time:

[F]at oppression of white people, at its worst, is in no way as virulent or as dangerous as the white supremacist war on Black, Indigenous and Brown people, which can be exacerbated for fat Black, Indigenous and Brown bodies. One way to frame this exacerbation is through intersectionality. This term, initially articulated by Kimberlé Crenshaw in 1989 to specifically describe the experience of Black women, is now used to analyze multiple simultaneous oppressions. While fat oppression is not comparable in intensity to structural and individual racism, intersectionality indicates that all oppressions take place alongside one another, and all resistance movements must contend with tension between primacy and coalition.

Ongoing marginalization, oppression, and silencing of any group happens simultaneously with increased resistance to invisibility. Generations and “waves” of feminism, anti-racism, disability rights all happen while crackdowns continue and often flourish.

Fat activism is unique among the uprisings and increased awareness of the 1960s and 1970s, because it has no obvious historic precursor. Specific policing of the size of women’s bodies is as old as male supremacy. Being lower in the class hierarchy leads to disproportionate oppression (being a poor person of color has an intersectional multiplier effect). Body image standards also fluctuate depending directly on whether women as a group are vocally asserting rights that the power structure will not concede. Women have been fighting their status for centuries. The beginning of an actual politics of fat, originally in the context of oppression of women, can be traced to the formation of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA, 1969) and the more radical Fat Underground (1973)

We look at what happened once fat activism started to flourish in that period, and how we got involved. We take note of the backlash. One person whose writing we drew on was Susie Orbach, famously the author of the 1978 Fat Is a Feminist Issue. Here’s something she said on that book’s 30th anniversary:

… we never saw the backlash coming, or the ingenious forms it would take, from the now rather innocent (“Because you’re worth it”) to the downright nefarious practices of industries that were growing rich on the making of body insecurity. And that was way before social media and the beauty bloggers with their, yes, millions of followers, would begin to reap money as daily beauty labor …. Beauty work became relentless and, with it, the ubiquity of … judgments and failures which, once internalized, destabilized girls’ relationship to their bodies and – as if that wasn’t enough – created an insecurity that hurt their minds.

We spend some time (as so many examinations of fat oppression and fat liberation must) on the health issues and the intransigent attitudes of the medical profession to what should be incontrovertible evidence that fat is not, per se, unhealthy.

And we close with a brief analysis of the role of contemporary social media in body image (the Facebook scandals on this topic broke when the article was too far along to update in the space we had).

We were especially pleased to quote Lizzo, on Tiktok:

So next time you want to come to somebody and judge them whether they eat kale smoothies or eat McDonald’s or work out, or not work out, how ‘bout you look at your own fucking self and your own god-damn body because health is not only determined by what you do on the outside but also by what you do on the inside, and a lot of you all need to do a *bleep* cleanse for your insides. Namaste. Have a great day.

In short, we’re really pleased to have been invited to participate, we’re really proud of the final result, and we hope you’ll read the whole thing. And let us know what you think!

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Follow Debbie on Twitter.

Follow Laurie’s Pandemic Shadows photos on Instagram.

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Heavy, by Kiese Laymon

cover of Heavy, all text

Debbie says:

Kiese Laymon published Heavy: An American Memoir in 2018, but I only got to it last month. Fair warning: this book is not for the faint of heart. Laymon is trying just as hard as an author can try to tell the whole truth as he sees it, to pull no punches, to let no one off the hook: not himself, not his mother (the book is framed as a letter to her), not the other people in his life, and most certainly not the white world which is ultimately responsible for most if not all of the miseries he recounts. Not that the book is all misery–it is much too rich for that.

The title of the book tells us right away why I would review it here. Laymon experienced himself as fat from early childhood. He describes teenage eating as self-medication, a deep fear of what the scale would say, a dislike to be seen other than fully clothed. These feelings are familiar to most fat people, and yet this book (along with Roxane Gay’s Hunger, which I reviewed here in 2018) never fail to remind us that being fat is different in a black body than in a white body. (Gay is quoted on the front cover of Laymon’s book.)  Fat bodies are frequently singled out for oppression; black bodies in America are effectively always in danger of being oppressed. One way to frame this book is as an example of intersectional oppression–and an example of a strong man’s complex and rich response to the world’s desire to keep him down.

When I imagined the insides of rich-white-folk houses, I imagined stealing all their food while they were asleep. I wanted to gobble up palms full of Crunch ‘n Munch and fill up their thirty-two-ounce glasses with name-brand ginger ale and crushed ice tumbling out of their silver refrigerators. I wanted to leave the empty glasses and Crunch ‘n Munch crumbs on the counter so the white folk would know I had been there and they’d have something to clean up when I left.

Laymon was always fat … until he shifted from eating to obsessive exercise, and took to anorexia as self-medication. To echo one of the book’s common refrains, he ate and ate and ate and ate until he didn’t. And when he didn’t, he stopped eating dramatically and exercised unceasingly, with eventual tragic results to his Black body.

I will forget how the insides of my thighs feel when rubbed raw. I will play on the basketball team. I will think 190 pounds is too heavy so I will jog three miles before every practice and game. I will sit in saunas for hours draped in thermals, sweatpants, and sweatshirts. I will make a family of people who cannot believe I was ever heavy. I will become a handsome, fine, together brother with lots of secrets. I will realize there is no limit to the amount of harm handsome, fine, together brothers with lots of secrets can do.

His relationship with his body is not the only relationship in the book; it may not even be the most central one. His relationship with his mother encapsulates the complexities of the book: love, admiration, fear, shame, disgust and appreciation are all there all the time–and we come away with a picture of a woman about whom all of those feelings make sense, and we understand how he can hold them all simultaneously.

In a simplified arc of author-in-a-fat-body, author-in-an-anorexic-over-  exercising-body, the third portion is author-in-a-gambling-body.  The gambling narrative illuminates many of the previously opaque issues his mother was having, and is as raw and insightful as the rest of the book.

I kept coming back to the casino because I felt emptier and heavier when I lost than when I won. I couldn’t win, because if I didn’t have enough to begin with, I could never win enough to stop. And if I won, I came back to win more. And if I came back to win more, I would eventually lose. And after I eventually lost, I would remember the thrill o fwinning. No matter what, I would always come back with the stated intention of winning and the unstated intention of harming myself.

Throughout his own self-examined journey, Laymon never fails to talk about who his friends and lovers were, what his life with them was like, and how much he loves them. With the keen eye of the observant lover, he brings them to life on the page. He also came very early to a realization of how women are treated, and a gut-level unwillingness to be part of that pattern … and the ways in which his refusal also made him a participant. He never lets us forget for a moment that we are all complicit, all the time, and that there are very few paths to escape complicity.

Books like Heavy and Hunger show us something that no theoretical books–about race, about fat oppression, about human pain–can ever fill. Laymon is incomprehensibly generous to let strangers so far into his own life, a journey no reader can or should come back from unscathed.

The work of bending, breaking, and building the nation we deserve will not start or end with you or me, but that work will necessitate loving black family, however oddly shaped, however many queer, trans, cis, and gender-nonconforming mamas, daddies, aunties, comrades, nieces, nephews, granddaddies and grandmamas–learning how to talk, listen, organize, imagine, strategize, and fight fight fight for and with black children.

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Follow Debbie on Twitter.

Follow Laurie’s new Pandemic Shadows photos on Instagram.

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