I was asked by Maya Stovall from Finite Studios to speak at the workshop she was organizing for the Movement Movement track at Allied Media Conference. Her original inspiration for the workshop was the idea of performing survival so I centered my portion around how I navigate the world to survive while as a fat person and an activist. I was really happy to be part of this workshop as it was the only non-Abundant Bodies workshop I was part of.
I wore this outfit to a photo shoot a few days ago. The photographer asked me to pull the crop top down because they were convinced the inch of skin showing would distract people from my face. As someone who thinks about bodies professionally my mind instantly began to question whether they were assuming people would be distracted because I’m wearing a crop top or because I’m a fat lady wearing a crop top.
I could tell the photographer was unprepared for my response, “Regardless of what I wear my body will be a distraction.” They stopped for a moment but quickly began to right themselves, as they had to readjust the foundation under which they had been taught to think about fat people.
My work exists in those small moments. I exist in a space where I redefine the very idea of who fat people are and how we are perceived. The photographer didn’t know the first line of the article that shoot was for reads, “Amanda Levitt is fat.” So I’m already prepared for my body to be a distraction for whoever gazes upon it.
I learned a long time ago to stop caring about how my body is a distraction for other people when I first realized the way I was taught to hate my body had little to do with my body itself and more to do with living in a society that was fat hating. I cannot stop other people from ascribing a narrative to my body that I haven’t created. To most people my body is the embodiment of an epidemic and the way I navigate through the world, the way all fat people navigate through the world is as people who are under constant surveillance. As are so many people with nonnormative bodies.
A few months ago Janet Mock, a trans women of color, spoke about how the simple act of leaving your house was powerful. Being visible for me means the act of being in public has turned into a performance. That is the only way I have learned how to survive. I am reminded on a continual basis that I am not suppose to exist in the state I am in, as a fat happy person who doesn’t care about being thin. I am reminded every time someone tells me I need to hide the fact that I’m wearing a crop top. The casual glance at the food I’m buying, eating, standing next to and the imaginary food they assume I eat by seeing my body.
When I told that photographer that my body would be a distraction regardless of what I wear it’s because I don’t fit into the script many fat people are told they should follow. I wear clothing without sleeves and skirts and half of my wardrobe has horizontal stripes. I take up the space around me without feeling like I need make excuses for my body. I eat in public. I eat in public.
But outside my body I also reject the normative discussions surrounding fat bodies and really all bodies that so many of us feel like we need to be part of. I normally respond to someone talking negative about their own body with something positive. When someone tries to talk to me about dieting I divert the conversation, because clearly as a fat person all I think about is how to no longer be a fat person.
I move through the world hoping that those small moments of challenging the narratives people have been taught to believe about fat people and our existence will change.
But even with that I still have these moments where I think about how just existing without feeling constrained by fat hatred has turned these small actions into something that is far larger than myself. Because regardless of the script I was given to follow other people still reinforce it by reminding me I’m acting out of turn. On a daily basis I am asked by people who read my blog or talk to me on twitter how they should deal with a situation that happened at work, at home, on the street, in a store, at any place a fat person exists.
They ask me how do I deal with being fat shamed while working out. How do I tell my parents I’m trying to learn how to love myself and get them to stop making negative comments about my body? How do I get my doctor to stop suggesting I lose weight when I’m in recovery from an eating disorder? How do I get my doctor to treat for what I actually came into see them for? What do you do when someone makes a comment about the food you are eating? How do you respond when someone yells at you from a moving car about how you’re fat? (They are always in a car with me) The questions never end.
Sometimes people are too tried and angry to perform. Sometimes I’m too tired of performing to respond to fat hatred and the consistent onslaught of hatred that feels like it comes at me at every angle. Sometimes I am unable to give people the right advice because how someone decides they want to navigate through the world needs to be set by their own standards. There is no right way to live and when people ask me for advice I tell them what I’ve done to make my life easier. That I have a really good bitch face. That I don’t own a television. That I try to feel really powerful about the fact that I’m so scary people cannot yell ridiculous insults at me while standing right next to me but instead do it from their car so they can get away quickly. That I spend the entire time driving to any family event preparing myself for the consistent erasure of my work and passions because they are more invested in fat hatred than my humanity. That sometimes survival means to be silent.
So many of us are also taught to believe that in order to fight back against the constraints on us and how we are dehumanized it means you need to be out there in the way I am. That’s a lie. I truthfully love the work I do but in no way do I advocate for people to speak out at every moment. When I was in my teens the best way I learned how to navigate fat hatred was by being a sarcastic asshole. I found out that if people didn’t like me in the same way I didn’t like myself they would leave me alone. As I’ve gotten older being a sarcastic asshole has given me the ability to brush off the moments when I’m too tired to redirect or challenge. I’ve also found that being a sarcastic asshole that likes themselves and doesn’t reinforce fat hatred makes people hate me more than when I was just mean.
Surviving also means accepting the parts of the script that you can live with and makes your daily life easier. It means wearing clothing you know will minimize the comments people make about your body. It means not leaving your house on days you can’t deal with the onslaught of hatred.
For me on the days I am unable to deal it has meant connecting with communities of people who are invested in my humanity. It means helping build a community of fat people that gives everyone that one space where people can feel safe enough to be the person they dream of. It means acknowledging that the world is unsafe for so many people but we can still build connections with others by acknowledging how our experiences are not the same but come from the same fear of difference.
I cannot remove myself from the reality that I embody so many different things. I embody an epidemic even though discourse around obesity treats it like an autonomous thing that is outside of whom fat people are as people. I also embody fat positivity as I move through a world that tells me I should hate myself. Part of being fat positive has meant that I also live in my body. That may sound weird because we all clearly live in our body but I’ve found that body hatred teaches us to feel disconnected from ourselves. I am in my head constantly so I often need to make a conscious effort to reconnect and recenter myself in my body.
For me that means partaking in self care when my body disassociation gets to the point I feel like my mind is floating away. When you are wrapped up in hating your body it means you often aren’t thinking about how to center yourself in your body. You have spent so long ignoring it. Pretending your body isn’t part of who you are that you need to take a moment to reconnect yourself with it. For me it means doing little things. Doing yoga. Painting my nails. Taking an extra long shower. It means flexing and stretching my muscles. It sometimes is as simple as reminding myself that my body is a good body, that all bodies are good bodies.
For me survival often comes back to remembering that I have the right to envision a world where all people given their humanity. That we should all be allowed to move through the world as complex and amazing people.