Monday, October 1st, 2012
Hi! I’m a new blogger. Let’s jump right in.
So last year I was lucky enough to be offered an opportunity to live and work in Fiji for a year. Naturally I jumped at the chance, but now after returning home I have the time and the inclination to start stepping up more in my social justice involvement. I specifically wanted to share some of my Fijian experiences because so many of the issues faced by Western fat people come from the culture that we’re steeped in, and it was a really interesting time to go and live in another culture that has some different nuances to weight.
But first some stuff about me. Aside from being the sort of person who jumps at a chance to move to a third world country (when I’m feeling cynical I think they refer to these countries as ‘developing’ because of all the stomach bugs, skin infections and other health problems I ‘developed’ while I was there, but that’s a topic for another post). I’m a cissexual heterosexual late-twenties woman, classically educated, fat, and extremely white. As in hey-I-wonder-if-any-of-these-freckles-will-turn-cancerous, reflective WHITE. And of course my attractiveness in the Pacific was entwined with my whiteness from a colonialist fair-is-good and white-people-have-money sort of thing. But what I really want to talk about today is the experience of fatness.
First of all: DO NOT MOVE TO FIJI UNLESS TALKING ABOUT WEIGHT IS DESCRIPTIVE FOR YOU, NOT OFFENSIVE.
Fijians are the world’s best observational comedians in training. If they’ve observed something, they want to tell you about it. Not necessarily with any commentary, just that they’ve noticed it. I’ve had people approach me to tell me their cousin saw me in the street wearing a red shirt and talking to a guy drinking a coke. No judgement, no story, just the observation. But when it comes to observing weight, Fijians are on it faster than your Aunt Francis. “Hello, you’ve put on weight/lost weight!”
It’s kind of strange, because Fiji has over recent years absorbed a lot of the health messages around weight (there is a lot of diabetes there) as well as cultural messages from the West – so comments on weight loss are often quite complimentary. But then again, comments on weight gain are often quite complimentary too, as I’ve been told gaining weight is a sign that you are happy. At least this is what I was told when my boss was confused about how his “compliment” of weight gain to my thin Australian co-worker didn’t go down as planned. I’m not sure whether a Fijian would mean it in a complimentary for me, seeing how I’m already fat. But it is refreshing to have gaining weight not be completely stigmatised, just as an observational point.
But even if someone only meets you once and therefore can make no comment on any weight change, commenting on your weight is pretty normal. I’ve had a lot of taxi drivers comment on my weight when I got in the cab – and then about half of them would go on to hit on me, so they can’t mean it too insultingly – and one masseuse who slapped me on the thigh as soon as she saw me and exclaimed “You are big! Like Fijian girl!”
(She also went on to tell me how I could seduce boys by telling them “Try me: we won’t need a mattress.” I haven’t tried that out yet but I’ll be sure to let you know if it works).
There is this strange inverted privilege that goes on about being objectified. Understandably (and rightly so!) many people don’t enjoy having all their wonderful human complexity squished down into existing simply for someone else’s sexual pleasure. However for those of us who live on the edges of the Attractiveness Spectrum, I know there have been times when I’ve wanted to get eye-stabby on friends or acquaintances who complained of being objectified whilst I’ve been struggling with sexual invisibility.
Do we all remember Gwyneth Paltrow’s comments on her experiences wearing a fat suit for her role in ‘Shallow Hal’? “People wouldn’t even look at me, wouldn’t make eye contact with me at all. I felt no sexual energy from men [on the set]. Normally, in the film, I have all these tiny little clothes on, but when I come to the set with the suit on and feel none of that, it is palpable.” Swinging between two extremes is definitely a strange experience.
Having an actual lived experience of being in a country with different definitions of beauty hasn’t been dizzying or ego-inflating (I usually have a very healthy ego: any difficulty fitting through doors is fully attributable to the size of my head, not the size of my butt). What it has been is a very refreshing reminder of how culturally constructed beauty is. I got hit on there about 400% more than I do at home, without changing anything about myself. I’m sure it’ll be a good thing to remember once I start hitting the Australian dance floor again.
Saturday, July 11th, 2009
Around 10 years ago, the first hipsters (as we now know them) dragged themselves out of the post-grunge ooze. As a borderline Gen X/Yer I saw it happen – on the internet. Being interested in identity and styling, I observed the unfolding and blossoming of the iPod clutching, skinny jeans wearing individuals who were far more rooted in Gen Y entitlement than I. I remember not having a CD player, and how we’d go without music for months at a time because Dad refused to buy a new needle for our record player because we were “too rough” with it when we played his albums. I still don’t have an iPod, however Nick purchased his first just last month. I was an observer of hipster culture because I was fat, and I was not considered part of the demographic, because I was just this much <—> too fat to fit into straight sizing. My styling was heavily influenced by riot grrl bands and tough girls, so I sourced clothing from op shops and made a lot myself.
At about the same time (2001) I started getting involved in Fat Acceptance (FA) – also online. In Australia the movement would be non-existent until years later (does it exist yet? I know of a few bloggers and one academic – is that it?!) I used message boards with an ex-boyfriend, but the attitude towards fat was mostly to fetishise it, something I wasn’t entirely comfortable with. I am probably what people call a prude. Nevertheless, the idea that a group existed that didn’t completely reject fat people or negate their feelings or rights as human beings; well, it made me want to be a part of it. Time ticked on, Torrid broke up with its slender goth best friend Hot Topic, and I found more online communities that dealt with fat in revolutionary, even controversial, ways.
One was an ironic take on ratings communities (which I won’t name here) that was as shrill and biting as the communities it sought to mock – in fact many applicants even to this day consider the application process to be completely serious. Despite whatever reputation it developed, I found many friends there who I have kept to this day; we’ve actually bonded on lots of different levels – humour, fashion, creativity, etc. The next community I found was Fatshionista – which was challenging, frustrating and eye-opening; I’m still adjusting my consciousness due to its influence on me even though I’ve been wading around in it for about four years. I knew fashion was political, but I didn’t know just how political. I learnt about my own white privilege, as well as my own looks privilege and all the other privileges I have access to. In the beginning, I just wanted to talk about fashion; I had no idea just how deep the issues ran.
[img_assist|nid=16|title=What I wore today - 02/07/09|desc=|link=none|align=left|width=267|height=360]As a result, I style myself with incredible awareness these days. I mostly source my clothing from overseas because Australia’s plus size clothing is ridiculously awful. I refuse to believe that my Fat Dollar is only good for buying weight loss snake oil so instead I send my Fat Australian Dollars to the UK and the US where I can find clothing to style myself in the manner that I like. Sure, it sucks not being able to go into a brick and mortar store and buy up anything I like, but I appreciate how much extra consideration I give to styling my identity when I have to consider currency exchange, international sizing and shipping.
When one of the FA movement’s poster girls, Beth Ditto, announced that she’d be collaborating with Evans (a UK plus size clothing store) it sent many fatties into a tizzy. Yeah, I was one of them. Ditto gets a lot of shit; I think it’s due to hipster backlash, just quietly, but I respect her Spanx-exposing hijinx because I am that prudish fat girl. A woman does not have to be ladylike, nor does she have to be well behaved – and that assumption of ladylikeness seems to not only to extend to fat women, but to smother them. I struggle with my femininity and what’s expected of me but when I observe explicit directions for fat women to dress or behave a certain way – it makes me even more uncomfortable. I am not a woman who likes to be told what she can or cannot look like.
[img_assist|nid=17|title=Beth Ditto for Evans|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=376|height=240]I don’t know what makes me classify Beth Ditto as a hipster – I feel a lot of irony in her waters. The collection reclaims some of the awful body hiding plus size fashions of the 80s but everything is just drawn a lot… tighter. Via Twitter and Fatshionista, I’ve heard that many with Fat Dollars to spend aren’t impressed with the collection, and maybe it’s because there is too much painful irony for them. This post-modern irony has all the hallmarks of the vanguard of hipster styling, and now fat people have access to it (well, fat people who like femme clothes). What I think Ditto and Evans are doing for plus sized fashion is interesting – they’re bringing it out of the doldrums, and creating styling options that may not make fat people as ashamed to duck off into a store where they can find clothes to fit them. I don’t know about you, but I certainly know that a younger me used to endure shopping excursions with friends, putting up with shop after shop of straight sizing and hanger-flicking because I wasn’t bold enough to say “LET’S GO SHOP WHERE I CAN DRESS MY FAT SELF”. In a few years, marketers and retailers might just have that lightbulb moment when they realise they might make more money manufacturing consumable clothes for fat people rather than bombarding them with unhealthy weight loss methods. After all, our prudish standards of decency dictate that we need to be clothed. All of us.