Tag Archives: fat oppression

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.


Follow Debbie on Twitter.

Follow Laurie’s new Pandemic Shadows photos on Instagram.


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