Happy 30th to a Fat Pride Staple

Photo by Substantia Jones of the Adipositivity Project
I’ve identified as a feminist since I was twenty-three and took my first women’s studies course. Shortly thereafter, my oldest sister, Lauri J Owen, and I developed a PowerPoint presentation that highlighted ads' pernicious effects on women’s body image and senses of self. We presented it everywhere anyone let us in hopes of encouraging women to regain their right to define themselves.

During one presentation, a woman from the audience spoke up. “You’re right!” she exclaimed. “Advertisements are trying to sell us a sense of dissatisfaction with our bodies. They’re always telling me I’m too fat. But you know what? I’m not fat! I’m beautiful!”

Several murmurs and head nods splashed into the silence.

You don’t get it, I thought, but never said. You just don’t get it.

This may have been the first, but it wasn’t the last time that happened.

Did I mention I was (and still am) fat? I was that from which these women distanced themselves in order to reclaim their body esteem. My fat was their terror. Shortly after that, I wrote a poem that begins: “How do you think I feel / being the boogeywoman?”

It was the late-90s. All around me, feminists talked “body image” and “killing our TVs” to protect our psyches from homogenized, consumerist-driven representations of humanity. Sister and brother progressives railed against the pain of poverty and the agony of alienation. And still, when the topics of national health, consumerism, or body image came up, my fat body served as scapegoat, threat, butt of the joke.

I had researched fatness and diets and knew the literature; I knew I was fat for good. Learning that, I started working on moving beyond body tolerance and into body celebration. (Truly, it wasn’t too difficult, since I’d always been more attracted to fatter peeps.)

I busted my behind to deconstruct thin beauty ideals and debunk fat myths. It seemed so clear to me: Fat was a civil rights issue. Yet my sister and brother progressives would not or could not join me on my journey down the road to size positivity.* I felt frustrated. Hurt. I wanted someone to understand, to commiserate with me.

I don’t remember how I stumbled across it the first time, but I do remember the elation I experienced when I read Schoenfielder and Wieser’s Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression. After devouring this anthology, I felt I’d gained a new vocabulary, a history, a way of talking about the issues that affected my life. I’d found my people.

This anthology, published in 1983, wasn’t an academic analysis of fatphobia but instead a moving and political collection of memoirs from fat, mostly White, lesbian feminists. I know not every politicized fat person could or can identify with these authors, but for me, their tales of forced diets, body shaming, and burgeoning body acceptance hit all the right spots. I can still remember crying like a kindergartener while reading Judy Freespirit’s “A Day in My Life.” “I make sure,” she writes, “that when I walk to the Xerox machine I breathe evenly and heavily so [my coworkers] will not interpret my asthma as the huffing and puffing of a fat slob” (118).

You get it, I thought then and think now, weeping. You get it.

I am the proud owner of this gorgeous painting
by Judy Freespirit. She painted it in 2010,
the same year she passed. RIP, Judy Freespirit.
This wasn’t the first book written about fat or even fat rights. As far as I know, however, it was the first book written by fat women for fat readers. It wasn’t a psychoanalytic analysis of fat people, a cultural history of dieting, an exploration of the function of fat civil rights groups. Shadow on a Tightrope served two central purposes: It provided a microphone for these fat (and mostly White) women, and it aimed to empower fatties. It was an early fat manifesta.

This is the thirtieth anniversary of the book’s publication. I have known it for half its life. Since reading it in 1999, I have written a dissertation on coping with fatphobia, participated in and even led fat rights groups, and currently serve as a fat studies co-chair for an international organization. I met both my partner and my best friend at fat pride events. I have published novels and poetry that celebrate fat, strong characters – including me.

Did Shadow on a Tightrope do all that for me? No, but it helped me find the seeds of body positivity to sprinkle through my personal garden. Heck, I cite the book several times in my diss. A year ago, I sent a copy to my partner. I make my Social Policy students read Judy Freespirit’s heartbreaking essay. Maybe it makes them cry, too.

Happy birthday, SoaT. Thank you for getting it.

* I’m not trying to vilify all liberals and progressives, then or now. I get that fat rights was a new concept to folks in the late-90s. Heck it’s still a pretty new concept. I’ve found great support from many feminist, queer, and disability rights activists, but I eagerly await the time when all progressives will eschew the still-common practice of throwing fatties under the political progress bus. 


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