From this weekend – Detroit Dance: From the Street to the Stage

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 complexd and amazing people.

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Just No Jennifer Lawrence

For those of you who own a TV and would actually spend time watching Barbara Walters’ interview people her yearly special on people she thinks are fascinating is airing soon, mind you she’s interviewing famous people. I’m pretty sure she isn’t interviewing activists, community builders and others who spend their lives helping people in need (but that’s another post entirely.) If watch her yearly special you will be able to see an interview with Jennifer Lawrence, where she talks about how Jennifer has been critical of the way the media talks about the bodies of women on red carpets and elsewhere.

If you aren’t aware Jennifer has made comments about body policing quite a bit in the past and continues to make comments that appear on their surface to be body positive. Though overall her career she has also made quite a few problematic statements that make me wary of almost anything she says.

This is what she had to say,

Because why is humiliating people funny? And I get it, and I do it too, we all do it. But I think when it comes to the media, the media needs to take responsibility for the effect that it has on our younger generation, on these girls that are watching these television shows and picking up how to talk and how to be cool. So then all of a sudden being funny is making fun of the girl that’s wearing an ugly dress or making fun of the girl that’s, you know. And the word fat. I just think it should be illegal to call somebody fat on TV. If we’re regulating cigarettes and sex and cuss words because of the effect it has on our younger generation, why aren’t we regulating things like calling people fat?

Most of what she said about how the media creates and participates in a culture of body policing is true. They are pivotal in the way women in the media are spoken about and continue to create new media that feeds off of promoting white cis heteronormative thin beauty ideals. The issue with her statement is the way she is blaming this kind of climate on people using the word fat and not on how they use it as a weapon.

This kind of thinking has been around for awhile, particularly within body positive spaces where discussions about “fat talk” or negative body talk are being discussed. The framing of fat as a negative word, a word that hurts people, is completely ignorant of how the word is being used and the context of the statements being made. The word fat is nothing more than a description of someone’s body type, but when someone like Jennifer Lawrence is telling the world it should be illegal there is a huge issue.

When people are calling someone who looks like Jennifer Lawrence fat we shouldn’t be telling them that they shouldn’t use that word. We should be thinking about how fat phobia and stigma is so pervasive in our society we body shame people who live in thin bodies by making them fear fat people, appearing to be a fat person or becoming fat themselves. It’s not a coincidence the people who are telling others to not use the word fat are more often than not never going to be defined as “overweight” or “obese” and revel in a thin privileged reality by being able to frame words like fat as something that should be considered illegal. Nor is it a coincidence that the people who face the real harm are fat people, not the thin people being called or taught to fear fatness.

Their bodies will never be pathologized or thought to be inherently diseased like fat people’s bodies are. They will find no problem in denying how fat positive communities have used the word fat to build spaces where fat political identities are empowering fat people daily. That’s why when I hear statements like the one Jennifer Lawrence said; I know that those words are not for me. They are only for the people who look just like her.

If we wanted to actually challenge the media to create a landscape where white cis heteronormative thin beauty ideals aren’t able to thrive, we need to deconstruct how body policing isn’t just about saying mean words but a structure that denies people with specific bodies access to it. We need to question why we fear the word fat but are completely comfortable with using medicalized terms that imply pathology like “overweight” and “obese,” in all of my years dealing with the media they fear using the word fat but will drop o-words in a second. We need to question why we are only talking about the media being critical of the bodies of women who already have access to those spaces, but not the people who are regularly denied jobs within the industry due to issues with racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, fat phobia etc. (the list continues).

Once Jennifer Lawrence starts talking about that, I may take the time to listen.

**A reader reported Jennifer decided that it would be awesome to dress up like a fat person for halloween. Not surprised at all.

For the Love of Selfies

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The photo above was taken in 2008 when I was 22 after spending 16 years in hiding. Over those 16 years my photo had been taken by family members or other people where the way I was photographed was more about how others settled their gaze upon me and I wasn’t able to control or dictate the way I was captured. Much like what Melissa from Shakesville wrote, having my photos taken before the age of 22 meant it wasn’t for myself. I lacked the ability to move beyond how others decided to view my body and instead was forced into being visible in ways I wasn’t comfortable with.

Yesterday Jezebel posted an article declaring that people who take selfies are really “crying for help,” not only pathologizing those of us who take selfies but also completely ignoring how the dynamics behind selfies are more than just taking a photo or about vanity. Like many other people on twitter wrote, selfies can also be incredibly powerful in the way they directly challenge how marginalized people and their bodies are viewed by the world, while also challenging how mainstream imagery of marginalized people rely on stereotypes.

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As a fat woman who has been told repeatedly I don’t have the ability to be attractive, beautiful and shouldn’t be visible the use of selfies not only has allowed me to reclaim a part of myself I was told I wasn’t allowed to have, but has served to be part of a larger form of political resistance against those people who gaze upon my body. My visibility politic dares them to not look at me. Being visible as a fat person happens regardless of how you perform your visibility politic. As a fat person, much like other marginalized identities, your body is hyper-visible and are often reminded through interactions with others that they disprove of the way you present yourself. In the media, visibility is only allowed if you conform yourself to specific tropes related to the identities you possess. As a fat woman I am limited to only being visible if I am participating in a weight loss show, am attempting to no longer be fat or headless and completely dehumanized. (Edited to add link to “Headless Fatties”)

Selfies change all of that, they allow me to reclaim that part of myself I was told to never allow to be visible. They allow me to remove my body from the constraints on how others think I should be looked upon and instead let me shift their gaze elsewhere. They let me look back on past photos and be reminded how blissfully happy I was when I’m having a bad day. They also allow me to see how I have evolved as a person over the years and have found my more authentic self. Viewing the selfies other people take reminds me that I am not alone. There are other amazing, gorgeous and powerful people out there who are also reclaiming their own visibility. They are sick of letting other people dictate how they should present their bodies.

Aside from that for those of us who are still not ready to be visible, it’s ok. Being visible isn’t mandatory; it’s a process that sometimes we aren’t ready for or want to be part of. Visibility politics can still be limiting and I totally understand people who don’t feel the need to be visible, I still feel that way some days. The most important thing is living how you want to, not allowing others to attempt to change or dictate how you do it.

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For further reading,

Hashtags #FeministSelfie & #FeministSelfies <- Look at all the selfies!! (#feministselfie created by @thewayoftheid & @convergecollide)

The Radical Politics of Selfies – The Feminist Griote

Selfies – Shakesville

A Study of the Self – Fat Heffalump

As always, connect with me on tumblr and twitter.

Bullying It’s Not Just for Kids

October is National Anti-Bullying Month and along with the video from Wisconsin newswoman Jennifer Livingston the conversation surrounding bullying culture in our society has ramped up yet again. Much of the discussion has not focused on the video itself but whether or not the email Livingston received was in fact her being bullied. In these responses you can find the issue that can come up when you have a movement like the one for anti-bullying that continues to be more focused on the interactions between children than the underlying reason for prejudice.

The current framing of bullying in our society treats intolerance with kid gloves. We are led to believe that bullying stops when a person gets a high school or college diploma. We are told “It Gets Better” when this is not always the case. Worst of all this treatment of intolerance as something that needs to be dealt with as delicately as possible removes the terms that most anti-oppression activists use that could further the discussion surrounding the unbalanced power dynamics. If we actually started calling bullying what it is and address it as racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, fat phobia and classism it would actually give children a better way to deal with the very same power dynamics they will face as adults, while also giving adults more responsibility to challenge the intolerance that is rooted within our society overall.

The idea that there is a distinct difference between the bullying we learn or participate in as children and the power relations we are forced to navigate through as adults is just as harmful to the culture of bullying as the actual bullying itself. It ignores that children are not the only people who are participants in the cycle of violence. If you are the product of this culture and have been bullied there is a large possibility that an adult in your life has used the same tactics against you. More often than not this has continued throughout your lifespan within everyday relationships at work and home.  One of the main reasons that adult to child power dynamics are so common is due to the lack of personal autonomy that children are given. We often treat them like we have unwavering authority over them as an adult or parents treat them like they are property. This kind of thinking continues through bullying culture and we come to accept these power dynamics once we are adults ourselves.

When we don’t address how the power dynamics in our society are based on real life forms of oppression it allows for children to be led to believe that those forms of oppression do not exist. It allows for the most privileged of people in our society to continue to dismiss the calls of discrimination from marginalized groups or as with the response from Livingston it allows for us to question the validity of her claim that she was being bullied. By disassociating forms of oppression from bullying culture it also lays the burden of proof of that marginalization on the person being discriminated against.  This reinforces the way people with privilege are not expected to own up to their own ignorance or prejudices.

As the product of bullying myself the notion that my experiences were not due to the way sexism and fat phobia is rooted in our society denies that those experiences have happened at all. It ignores that we have a history in our society of othering people due to their differences from what we consider to be “normal.” All the while continuing to shift the responsibility on the people being oppressed to speak up and challenge those of us with the most power. The binds on our access to power and the need for us to stand up for ourselves means that we are expected to challenge authority no matter the harm or violence that we might receive. This harm can even come through the dismissal of a person’s reaction to bullying because it makes people feel even more silenced by their oppressors as well as feel like their connection to reality is being challenged.

This is why the idea that some among us are willing to dismiss Livingston’s interaction with her bully is so harmful. It further frames the subject of bullying as something that only happens to children from other children but it also is continuing the cycle of violence where we do not address it for what it truly is. We need to start taking responsibility for the way all of us contribute to a society rooted in intolerance. The first step is to stop acting like we need to only address bullying with children because one day they will become adults thrown into a world where there are no kid gloves.

The Right to Talk about Fat Experience

When fat people try to talk about their own experiences with body shame, fat stigma or weight based discrimination they are always challenged in a way to undermine the significance of them with people exclaiming that some of those experiences also happen to people in thin bodies. While the truth is that many of the shaming tactics used toward fat people do happen to thin people as well, the outcry from thin people to also feel as though we must validate their experience ignores the reality that they always have their experiences validated by every mainstream body positive organization or campaign that has ever existed.

The dominant discourse that surrounds the body acceptance movement as a whole is one that is directly geared toward thin bodies and the lack of voices from fat people are not noticed unless you are fat yourself. People who think that the voices of thin people are not being talked about enough in fat positive spaces are inadvertently reinforcing fat oppression. They do this by undermining the experiences of fat people because they feel as though it happens to everyone. Not only is this incorrect because the motive behind body shaming and stigma of a fat person and a thin person can be drastically different but the ways fat stigma takes part in being a fat person in society turns into actual discrimination. When dismissing fat experience by saying that thin people also have those same experience a person is completely ignoring that they still have the privilege that comes from living in a thin body.

Fat people do not have to make space for thin people when discussing their own experiences because of this privilege and due to the reality that thin people do not make space for our voices in their own discussions. When a dominant group tries to invalidate the experience of an oppressed group it is actively working to silence them. Coming from a place of privilege and expecting an oppressed group to make space for your experience is not only insulting but shows that you are not really interested in understanding the difference among experience or forms of oppression. This also happens within the feminist movement when white feminists expect black feminists to open their spaces to be ‘inclusive’ when those same white feminists do not make their spaces open for all women or experiences.

As a white fat female with some thin privilege I do not have the right to expect fat spaces for people who are larger than I am or any other group that I do not fit into to open and validate my experience. If they allow me to be part of their space I am not only grateful for it but I spend my time listening and learning not expecting them to include me. I also actively try to understand the privileges that I do have so that I can understand the difference between my own experiences and theirs. We should be celebrating difference not pushing it aside and ignoring it.

As fat people we have the right to talk about our experiences without being bullied into validating the experiences of thin people who feel like we don’t talk about the similarities among us. We need to start expecting people with thin privilege who are also advocates of body acceptance to make our voices heard and not brush them aside. We need to call people and organizations out for creating a form of acceptance that doesn’t challenge fat stigma or discrimination. We need to tell them that our experiences matter, that they are different and that difference is something that can help all people regardless of size.

Reinforcing Sexual Hierarchies in Fat Positive Spaces

For a long time I have watched as the fat rights community has continued to reinforce problematic sexual and relationship hierarchies in fat positive spaces. As a community we whole-heartedly reject the notion that fat bodies are inherently unhealthy or any other stereotype attached to our fat bodies, but what we don’t address is what I feel is almost a compulsive need to prove to others that we are not those stereotypes. While doing this we ignore the reality that people do fall into the spaces we are trying to not fill by distancing ourselves from them.

This kind of distancing continues this notion of a ‘good fatty / bad fatty’ dichotomy that makes it so those of us without “successful” relationships, who may or may not want to be in a relationship, feel as though we are somehow lesser than. If we were to be truly revolutionary we would be challenging the stereotype all together. Who gets to choose where self worth or social acceptability comes from? Who gets to decide that any person, regardless of body size, must conform to what we deem to be acceptable forms of relationships or sexual acts? Who gets to decide where someone’s sexuality comes from or what kind of sex is better? If we want to be revolutionary we should be challenging all standards of living, not just showing exceptions to stereotypes.

When is comes to sex and relationships the discussion is almost always led by someone who is partnered, is about having sex with other people while being slanted toward the idea that being a good fatty means being in a relationship. Very rarely does sex talk involve personal experiences from those of us who are not intimate with other people. It very rarely involves breaking away from the normative standards of sexual experience, which deems relationships between two people to be the best kind of relationship to be in.

Because of the widely held prejudicial belief that fat people are unlovable conversations have often centered on challenging that. It isn’t abnormal to come across blogs that tell people that they will be loved, that they will have fulfilling sexual experiences that focus on multiple partners being involved. This sends the message that intimate relationships with others, sexual experiences and self worth are related. While I highly doubt anyone has meant for this to happen, the reality is that by not making space for people who are not intimate with other people we are continuing to exclude people from this movement based on pretty archaic sexual hierarchies.

Within sex positive discourse it isn’t abnormal to see discussion about how female sexuality in particular, though I would say any gender that does not conform to the traditional role of male sexuality, is seen to have their sexuality given to them. The idea behind this is that sexuality is taught to women by men, that their sexuality is not manifested from within but from other people. Even when we remove ourselves from this traditional thought about sexuality and move into being more sex positive we still recreate this same narrative when we only talk about sex between partners or make a distinction between solo sexual experiences (aka masturbation) and sex with others.

It isn’t abnormal for me to be discussing sex with other people and a distinction to be made by saying sex with a partner is better than being alone. The truth is that I have found just as many people who don’t see the difference and the reality is that it doesn’t matter. Everyone’s sexual experience is different, I enjoy my sexual experience with my box of toys, and others might enjoy their sexual experiences to be with one partner or two or three. Some people do nothing, some do a lot. Every form of variation is valid, every form is good.

Discussions that center around only one kind of relationship or sexual experience, leaves room for interpretation that those are the only kind that matter. They continue to reinforce sexual hierarchies that are damaging not only to people within the fat rights movement but also to anyone who believes they are truly sex positive. Being revolutionary means speaking for all people, not essentializing aspects of people’s sexuality, relationships or worth.

For further reading,

“Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality” Gayle S. Rubin

Photo Time!

I have been crazy busy, between Love Your Body Detroit’s Body Positive Scavenger Hunt for Love Your Body Day 2011, class and my 2 jobs. I participated in a photo shoot for a non-profit yoga studio in downtown Detroit called City Yoga. They wanted to show that all people no matter who they are can do yoga. It was a great day. I also have been getting my back tattooed since the middle of August and it is finally finished.

The tattoo itself has a ton of different elements that I put in. The quote is from “A Vindication for the Rights of Women” by Mary Wollenstonecraft. My fat dancing lady is not only to show a fat active body but also because I love Niki de Saint Phalle’s nanas and it is a recreation of her sculptures that can be found at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. The tattoo style was for my favorite watercolor painter Stina Persson.