Originally published in the book Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation and republished here with the publisher’s permission.
I am going to write an essay describing my experiences with fat oppression and the ways in which feminism and punk have affected my work.
It will be clear, concise and well thought-out, and will be laid out in the basic thesis paper, college essay format.
I will deal with these issues in a mature and intellectual manner. I will cash in on as many fifty-cent words as possible.
I lied. (You probably picked up on that, huh?)
I can’t do that. This is my life, and my words are the most effective tool I have for challenging Whiteboyworld (that’s my punk-rock cutesy but oh-so-revolutionary way of saying “patriarchy”).
If there’s one thing that feminism has taught me, it’s that the revolution is gonna be on my terms. The revolution will be incited through my voice, my words, not the words of the universe of male intellect that already exists.
And I know that a hell of a lot of what I say is totally contradictory. My contradictions can co-exist, cuz they exist inside of me, and I’m not gonna simplify them so that they fit into the linear, analytical pattern that I know they’re supposed to.
I think it’s important to recognize that all this stuff does contribute to the revolution, for real. The fact that I write like this cuz it’s the way I want to write makes this world just that much safer for me.
I wanna explain what I mean when I say “the revolution,” but I’m not sure whether I’ll be able to. Cuz at the same time that I’m being totally serious, I also see my use of the term as a mockery of itself.
Part of the reason for this is that I’m fully aware that I still fit into dominant culture in many ways. The revolution could very well be enacted against me, instead of for me.
I don’t want to make myself sound like I’m think I’m the most oppressed, most punk-rock, most revolutionary person in the world.
But at the same time I do think that revolution is a word I should use as often as I can, because it’s a concept that we need to be aware of. And I don’t just mean it in an abstract, intellectualized way, either.
I really do think that the revolution has begun. Maybe that’s not apparent to mainstream culture yet, but I see that as a good sign. As soon as mainstream culture picks up on it, they’ll try to co-opt it.
For now the revolution takes place when I stay up all night talking with my best friends about feminism and marginalization and privilege and oppression and power and sex and money and real-life rebellion.
For now the revolution takes place when I watch a girl stand up in front of a crowd of people and tell them about her sexual abuse.
For now the revolution takes place when I get a letter from a girl I’ve never met who says that the zine I wrote changed her life.
For now the revolution takes place when the homeless people in my town camp out for a week in the middle of downtown.
For now the revolution takes place when I am confronted by a friend about something racist I have said.
For now the revolution takes place in my head when I know how fucking brilliant my girlfriends and I are.
And I’m living the revolution through my memories and through my pain and through my triumphs. When I think about all the marks I have against me in this society, I am amazed that I haven’t turned into some worthless lump of shit.
Fatkikecripplecuntqueer. In a nutshell.
But then I have to take into account the fact that I’m an articulate, white, middle-class college kid, and that provides me with a hell of a lot of privilege and opportunity for dealing with my oppression that may not be available to other oppressed people.
And since my personality/being isn’t divided up into a privileged part and an oppressed part, I have to deal with the ways that these things interact, counterbalance and sometimes even overshadow each other.
For example, I was born with one leg. I guess it’s a big deal, but it’s never worked into my body image in the same way that being fat has.
And what does it mean to be a white woman as opposed to a woman of color? A middle-class fat girl as opposed to a poor fat girl? What does it mean to be fat, physically disabled and bisexual? (Or fat, disabled and sexual at all?)
See, of course, I’m still a real person, and I don’t always feel up to playing the role of revolutionary.
Sometimes it’s hard enough for me to just get out of bed in the morning. Sometimes it’s hard enough to just talk to people at all, without having to deal with the political nuances of everything that comes out of their mouths.
Despite the fact that I do tons of work that deals with fat oppression, and that I’ve been working so so hard on my own body image, here are times when I really hate my body and don’t want to deal with being strong all the time.
Because I am strong and have thought all of this through in so many different ways, and I do have naturally high self-esteem, I’ve come to a place where I can honestly say that I love my body and am happy with being fat.
But occasionally, when I look in a mirror and I see this body that is so different from my friends’, so different from what I’m told it should be, I just want to hide away and not deal with it anymore.
At those times it doesn’t seem fair to me that I have to always be fighting to be happy. Would it be easier for me to just give in and go on another diet so that I can stop this perpetual struggle?
Then I could still support the fat grrrl revolution without having it affect me personally in every way. And I know I know I know that’s not the answer and I could never do that to myself, but I can’t say that the thought never crosses my mind.
And it doesn’t help much when my friends and family, who all know how I feel about this, continue to make anti-fat statements and bitch about how fat they feel and mention new diets they’ve heard about and are just dying to try.
“I’m shaped like a watermelon.” “Wow, I’m so happy, I now wear a size seven instead of a size nine.” “I like this mirror because it makes me look thinner.”
I can’t understand how they could still think these things when I’m constantly talking about these issues, and I can’t believe that they would think that these are okay things to talk about in front of me.
And it’s not like I want them to censor their conversations around me… I just want them not to think it.
I know that most of this is just a reflection of how they think about themselves and isn’t intended as an attack on me or an invalidation of my work, but it makes it that much harder for me.
It puts all those thoughts inside me. Today I was standing outside of work and I caught a glimpse of myself in the window and thought, “Hey, I don’t look that fat!”
And I immediately realized how fucked up that was, but that didn’t stop me from feeling more attractive because of it.
I want this out of me. This is not a part of me, and theoretically I can separate it all out and throw away the shit, but it’s never really gone.
When will this finally be over? When can I move on to other issues? It will never be over, and that’s really fucking hard to accept.
I am living out this system of oppression through my memories, and even when I’m not thinking about them, they are there, affecting everything I do.
Five years old, my first diet.
Seven years old, being declared officially “overweight” because I weigh ten pounds over what a “normal” seven-year-old should weigh.
Ten years old, learning to starve myself and be happy being constantly dizzy.
Thirteen years old, crossing the border from being bigger than my friends to actually being “fat.”
Fifteen years old, hearing the boys in the next room talk about how fat (and hence unattractive) I am.
Whenever I perform, I remember the time when my dad said he didn’t like the dance I choreographed because I looked fat while I was doing it.
Every time I dye my hair I remember when my mom wouldn’t let me dye my hair in seventh grade because seeing fat people with dyed hair made her think they were just trying to cover up the fact that they’re fat, trying to look attractive despite it (when of course it’s obvious what they should really do if they want to look attractive, right?)
And these are big memorable occurrences that I can put my finger on and say, “This hurt me.”
But what about the lifetime of media I’ve been exposed to that tells me only thin people are lovable, healthy, beautiful, talented, fun?
I know that those messages are all packed in there with the rest of my memories, but I just can’t label them and their effects on my psyche.
They are elusive and don’t necessarily feel painful at the time. They are well disguised and often even appear alluring and romantic. (I will never fall in love because I cannot be picked up and swung around in circles…)
All my life the media and everyone around me have told me that fat is ugly. Which of course is just a cultural standard that has many, many medical lies to fall back upon.
Studies have shown that fat people are unhealthy and have short life expectancies. Studies have also shown that starving people have these same peculiarities. These health risks to fat people have been proven to be a result of continuous starvation — dieting — and not of fat itself.
I am not fat due to lack of willpower. I’ve been a vegetarian since I was ten years old. Controlling what I eat is easy for me. Starving myself is not (though for most of my life I wished it was).
My body is supposed to be like this, and I’ve been on plenty of diets where I’ve kept off some weight for a period of several months and then gained it all back.
Two years ago I finally ended the cycle. I am not dieting anymore because I know that this is how my body is supposed to be, and this is how I want it to be.
Being fat does not make me less healthy or less active. Being fat does not make me less attractive.
On TV, I see a thin woman dancing with a fabulously handsome man, and over that I hear, “I was never happy until I went on [fill in the blank] diet program, but now I’m getting attention from men, and I feel so good!
I don’t have to worry about what people are saying about me behind my back, because I know I look good. You owe it to yourself to give yourself the life you deserve. Call [fill in the blank] diet program today, and start taking off the pounds right away!”
TV shows me a close-up of a teary-eyed fat girl who says “I’ve tried everything, but nothing works. I lose twenty pounds, and I gain back twenty-five. I feel so ashamed. What can I do?”
The first time I saw that commercial, I started crying and memorized the number on the screen. I know that feeling of shame. I know that feeling of having nowhere left to turn, of feeling like I’m useless because I can’t lose all that “unwanted fat.”
But I know that the unhappiness of not a result of my fat. It’s a result of a society that tells me I’m bad.
Where’s the revolution? My body is fucking beautiful, and every time I look in the mirror and acknowledge that, I am contributing to the revolution.
I feel like at this point I’m expected to try to prove to you that fat can be beautiful by going into descriptions of “rippling thighs and full smooth buttocks.”
I won’t. It’s not up to me to convince you that fat can be attractive. I refuse to be the self-appointed full-figured porno queen.
Figure it out on your own.
It’s not good enough for you to tell me that you “don’t judge by appearances” — so fat doesn’t bother you. Ignoring our bodies and “judging only by what’s on the inside” is not the answer.
This seems to be along the same line of thinking as that brilliant school of thought called “humanism”: “We are all just people, so let’s ignore trivialities such as race, class, gender, sexual preference, body type and so on.”
The more we ignore these aspects of ourselves, the more shameful they become and the more we are expected to be what is generally implied when these qualifiers are not given — white, straight, rich, thin, male.
It’s unrealistic to try to overlook these exterior (and therefore meaningless, right?) differences, because we are still being brainwashed with the same shit as everyone else. This way we’re just not talking about it.
And I don’t want to be told, “Yes, you’re fat, but you’re beautiful on the inside.” That’s just another way of telling me that I’m ugly, that there’s no way that I’m beautiful on the outside.
Fat does not equal ugly, don’t give me that.
My body is me. I want you to see my body, acknowledge my body.
True revolution comes not when we learn to ignore our fat and pretend we’re no different, but when we learn to use it to our advantage, when we learn to deconstruct all the myths that propagate fat-hate.
My thin friends are constantly being validated by mainstream feminism, while I am ignored. The most widespread mentality regarding body image is something along these lines: Women look in the mirror and think, “I’m fat,” but really they’re not.
Really they’re thin.
Really they’re thin.
But really I’m fat.
According to mainstream feminist theory, I don’t even exist. I know that women do often look in the mirror and think that they are fatter than they are.
And yes, this is a problem. But the analysis can’t stop there.
There are women who are fat, and that needs to be dealt with.
Rather than just reassuring people, “No, you’re not fat, you’re just curvy,” maybe we should be demystifying fat and dealing with fat politics as a whole.
And I don’t mean maybe, I mean it’s a necessity. Once we realise that fat is not “inherently bad” (and I can’t even believe I’m writing that — “inherently bad” — it sounds so ridiculous), then we can work out the problem as a whole instead of dealing only with this very minute part of it.
All forms of oppression work together, and so they have to be fought together.
I think that a lot of the mainstream feminist authors who claim to be dealing with this issue are doing it in a very wrong way.
Susie Orbach, for example, with Fat Is A Feminist Issue. She tells us: Don’t diet, don’t try to lose weight, don’t feed the diet industry. But she then goes on to say: But if you eat right and exercise, you will lose weight!
And I feel like, great, nice, it’s so very wonderful that that worked for her, but she’s totally missing the point. She is trying to help women, but really she is hurting us. She is hurting us because she is saying that there’s still only one body that’s okay for us (and she’s the one to help us get it!)
It’s almost like that Stop The Insanity woman, Susan Powter. One of my friends read her book and said that the first half of it is all about fat oppression and talks about how hard it is to be fat in our society, but then it says: So use my great new diet plan! This kind of thing totally plays on our emotions so that we think, “Wow, this person really understands me. They know where I’m coming from, so they must know what’s best for me.”
And there are so many “liberal” reasons for perpetuating fat-hate. Yes, we’re finally figuring out that dieting never works.
How, then, shall we explain this horrible monstrosity? And how can we get rid of it? The new “liberal” view on fat is that it is caused by deep psychological disturbances.
Her childhood was bad, she was sexually abused, so she eats and gets fat in order to hide herself away. She uses her fat as a security blanket.
Or maybe when she was young her parents caused her to associate food with comfort and love, so she eats to console herself.
Or maybe, like with me, her parents were always on diets and always nagging her about what she was eating, so food became something shameful that must be hoarded and kept secret.
And for a long, long time I really believed that if my parents hadn’t instilled in me all these fucked-up attitudes about food, I wouldn’t be fat.
But then I realized that my brother and sister both grew up in exactly the same environment, and they are both thin. Obviously this is not the reason that I am fat.
Therapy won’t help, because there’s nothing to cure.
When will we stop grasping for reasons to hate fat people and start realizing that fat is a totally normal and natural thing that cannot and should not be gotten rid of?
Despite what I said earlier about my friends saying things that are really hurtful to me, I realize that they are actually pretty exceptional. I don’t want to make them seem like uncaring, ignorant people.
I’m constantly talking about these issues, and I feel like I’m usually able to confront my friends when they’re being insensitive, and they’ll understand or at least try to.
Sometimes when I leave my insular circle of friends I’m shocked at what the “real world” is like. Hearing boys on the bus refer to their girlfriends as their “bitches,” seeing fat women being targeted for harassment on the street, watching TV and seeing how every fat person is depicted as a food-obsessed slob, seeing women treated as property by men who see masculinity as a right to power…
I leave these situations feeling like the punk scene, within which most of my interactions take place, is so sheltered.
I cannot imagine living in a community where I had nowhere to go for support. I cannot imagine living in the “real world.”
But then I have to remember that it’s still there in my community — these same fucked-up attitudes are perpetuated within the punk scene as well; they just take on more subtle forms.
I feel like these issues are finally starting to be recognized and dealt with, but fat hating is still pretty standard. Of course everyone agrees that we shouldn’t diet and that eating disorders are the result of our repressive society, but it’s not usually taken much further than that.
It seems like people have this idea that punk is disconnected from the media. That because we are this cool underground subculture, we are immune to systems of oppression.
But the punkest, coolest kids are still the skinny kids. And the same cool kids who are so into defying mainstream capitalist “Amerika” are the ones who say that fat is a symbol of capitalist wealth and greed.
Yeah, that’s a really new and different way of thinking: Blame the victim. Perpetuate institutionalized oppression.
Fat people are not the ones who are oppressing these poor, skinny emo boys.
This essay is supposed to be about fat oppression. I feel like that’s all I ever talk about. Sometimes I feel like my whole identity is wrapped up in my fat. When I am fully conscious of my fat, it can’t be used against me.
Outside my secluded group of friends, in hostile situations, I am constantly aware that at any moment I could be harassed. Any slight altercation with another person could lead to a barrage of insults thrown at my body.
I am always ready for it. I’ve found it doesn’t happen nearly as often as I expect it, but still I always remain aware of the possibility. I am “the Fat Girl.” I am “the Girl Who Talks About Fat Oppression.”
Within the punk scene, that’s my security blanket. People know about me and know about my work, so I assume that they’re not gonna be laughing behind my back about my fat. And if they are, then I know I have support from other people around me.
The punk scene gives me tons of support that I know I wouldn’t get elsewhere. I am able to put out zines, play music, do spoken-word performances that are intensely personal to me. I feel really strongly about keeping nothing secret.
I can go back to the old cliché about the personal being political, and no matter how trite it may sound, it’s true.
I went for so long never talking about being fat, never talking about how that affects my self-esteem, never talking about the ways that I’m oppressed by this society.
Now I’m talking. I’m talking all the time, and people listen to me. I have support.
And at the same time I know that I have to be wary of the support that I receive. Because I think to some people this is just seen as the cool thing, that by supporting me they’re somehow receiving a certain amount of validation from the punk scene.
Even though I am totally open and don’t keep secrets, I have to protect myself.
This is the revolution. I don’t understand the revolution.
I can’t lay it all out in black and white and tell you what is revolutionary and what is not.
The punk scene is a revolution, but not in and of itself.
Feminism is a revolution; it is solidarity as well as critique and confrontation.
This is the fat grrrl revolution. It’s mine, but it doesn’t belong to me.
Nomy Lamm is a writer, performer and voice teacher who lives in San Francisco. She writes for The Body Is Not An Apology, has an advice column in Make/Shift magazine, and works with Sins Invalid, a performance project about disability, sexuality and social justice. She recently finished writing an experimental novel titled 515 Clues, which is currently seeking a home.