Dear Virgie: Is There Room for Women of Color in the Fat Movement?
Sometimes I think about getting involved in fat activism, but I have some weird feelings about that scene. I’m a woman of color, and I have always been overweight. I have been involved in anti-racism for a long time, and I really like the direct action and grassroots side of things. Sometimes it feels like fat activism isn’t for people of color. I know you’re not white and there is a lot of representation in the plus size fashion stuff, but I’m trying to figure out if I want to get involved in the activism or if I should just keep doing my own thing in my personal life.
Thank you for asking this question!
Being part of a political movement often means deciding to offer our personal time, vulnerability and hard-won energy to a group of people with different personalities but a shared goal. So it’s appropriate to ask ourselves: while we’re offering this community or movement our service, will we, in turn, feel served and nourished by doing this work?
The exact details of what makes one feel “served and nourished” differ from person to person, but in general, that phrase means that even when you face challenges, that you overall feel energized by the work you’re doing and the people with whom you’re doing that work.
Some people feel that political work always has to feel like work. And I definitely disagree.
Of course, being political can be super challenging at times. I’m sure you know that you will hit walls and feel alienated, exhausted and sometimes even hopeless, and that’s all a normal part of being involved in a political movement. But overall I think that the work can and should be joyful.
Before entering fat politics myself I spent about a year thinking about what it would mean for me. In the end, I decided that despite feeling a little intimidated that I was ready to do it (obvi), but I went to a few events, met some people and did some reading before I officially was like “Ok, I’m really ready now.”
Feeling a community out is an important part of the political process.
I think of entering activism like entering a relationship.
We’ve got to be willing to go on that first date, maybe a second or third. Be legitimately open. Then we figure out if there’s resonance and compatibility. If you’re on the fence then maybe ask yourself: what do I need to make this work? And if you went on the dates and each time went home thinking “that was the worst date ever” then maybe it’s time to regroup, give some feedback and/or focus energy on finding like-minded people within the community who are going to see you and nourish you. Or it might be time to recognize it’s not a match.
It’s not your job to make it work by any means necessary.
I want to speak specifically to your question about race, though. I can totally understand feeling like the fat movement is a white woman’s movement. It’s kind of a bummer that this is the general public impression of the fat movement because there was a time when it was deeply centered in queer anti-assimilation and radical femme-ness, but some not so social justicey folks kinda descended upon the femme part, de-politicized it and turned it into something boring, resoundingly hetero and quite pro-assimilation.
Their loss, girl.
I want to point out that at this point I feel like I can safely say that there is more than one fat movement, and the radical anti-assimilation folks are still alive and well and, I think multiplying!
White femininity gets a lot of air time in the fat movement, and white femininity has historically been used to de-feminize and alienate women of color. It’s been used to leverage and bolster white supremacist patriarchy. Furthermore, white femininity is based almost entirely on the performance of frailty. That performance can be super frustrating, angering, alienating and even triggering for people who have had negative experiences with it in the past.
All of that is real, and there’s some of that in the fat movement. I urge you to recognize that mainstream media and the culture at large, I think, oversell it. I feel strongly that if you’re curious, you should check it out before you make a decision.
You’re always free to walk away at any time.
It’s also totally ok to expect and demand not to be tokenized. To me, tokenization happens when a group of people wants you present but doesn’t want to do any of the work to build or grow the resources that make you feel genuinely nourished as a member. I know it’s hard and scary to hope that people will hear you.
Anyway, the decision to enter fat activism is a deeply personal one that only you can make but I say book the date, be open to liking it, be real about the limitations and then assess how much you want to negotiate if it ends up feeling worth it to you.
You get to choose to set the pace as you’re feeling it out.
Don’t be daunted by the challenges. Sometimes our fears magnify the weird ass behavior of a tiny minority. We’re used to having to watch our backs, and in my experience it’s typically a tiny (albeit often very vociferous) minority that is acting hella bizarre-o. Sometimes it’s just one person. As you test out the waters, take a moment to ask yourself: are MOST of the people I’m meeting people I could collaborate with? Are MOST of the people here people I could see myself trusting? Are there ways to manage the person/people who give me the creeps?
It sounds like you have a critical perspective and a history of political engagement that would be super valuable to fat activism. Make sure you know going in that you’ve got a lot to offer, and know that there are like-minded people. I truly believe that we can always find like-minded people. They may not make up the majority of the fat movement per se but are very passionately there.
Dear Virgie is a weekly advice column by Virgie Tovar, MA, author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the founder of Babecamp and the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012) and the mastermind behind #LoseHateNotWeight. She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race, and gender. Virgie has been featured by the New York Times, MTV, Al Jazeera, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Huffington Post, Cosmopolitan Magazine Online, and Bust Magazine. Find her at www.virgietovar.com.
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