On fat being totally queer

In this post, I share a written interview with Anna Mollow. Instead of coming on my radio show, we decided on a different medium. Enjoy!

Joining me today is Anna Mollow, a disability scholar. She is the co-editor, with Robert McRuer, of Sex and Disability, and the co-editor, with Merri Lisa Johnson, of DSM:CRIP, a special issue of Social Text Online. She recently wrote a piece for Bitch magazine on the ways that fat liberation is *totally* queer.

Anna, thank you for joining me today! I LOVED your piece, and I shared it across my social media platforms as a ‘must read’! I appreciate you coming on the show, and I’m excited to have a chance to chat with you about this piece, and other work you are engaged in.

So, first up, what made you decide to write your piece, “Fat liberation is totally queer”?

Anna: Thanks for having me, Cat! I’m very happy to be on your blog. I wrote “Fat Liberation is Totally Queer” because I hate the way that fat people are treated in our society. Especially in the past decade or two, with all the “obesity epidemic” hype—I am not exaggerating when I say that every single day I hear at least one fatphobic remark. Whether it’s my doctor today referring to “how much you weigh” as a “lifestyle issue” or a thin acquaintance yesterday saying he was “too fat” and wanted to lose weight—while my wife, who is a fat woman, was sitting right there! People seem to have no awareness that these remarks are offensive. That’s what I wanted to do with my article: to put it out there that the oppression of fat people is a major social problem. And while you might expect feminists and queer folks and others on the Left to have more consciousness about this issue, that’s often not the case. The stereotypes about fat people and about queers are remarkably similar—it’s a “disease”; it’s a “choice”; it’s a danger to “the children”; etc.—and yet so many people whose politics are otherwise very progressive seem not to notice this, and to feel perfectly comfortable saying the same awful things about fat people that anti-gay pundits say about queers. In my article I was speaking to my community; as a lesbian and a feminist, I was saying, “We need to work together to fight fat oppression and make sure that we are not complicit with fatphobia.”

Cat: I absolutely agree about the everyday nature of fat hate & shaming, and I concur that it is important that we ask all groups to reflect on their own privileges. It’s an interesting intersection, that of being fat and being queer, because as you’ve pointed out, many of the same tools of oppression (it’s a disease, it’s a choice, etc) that have been used against those in the LGBTIAQ community are the ones used against those in the fat community. And yet, there is still a lot of fat shaming in the LGBTIAQ community. There was a piece I read recently, ‘It gets better…unless you’re fat’, where the author explores how he has never experienced the oppression of being gay in the same way that he regularly experiences the oppression of being fat, including within the gay community. How do you think activists and allies can begin to fight back against fat oppression within other marginalised communities?

Anna: In many ways, we already have begun this work—more than begun, in fact. It’s been forty years since Aldebaran (a.k.a. Vivian Mayer) and Judy Freespirit founded the Fat Underground. This group came out of the radical therapy and women’s liberation movements of the 1970s. Members of the Fat Underground had to fight to get other feminists and radical therapists to recognize that weight bigotry was a major social problem. It’s frustrating that so many years later, queer people still often reinforce fatphobia. Diet talk, pathologizing terms like “obese” and “overweight,” and disparaging comments about fat people are commonplace in our communities. Louis Peitzman, the author of the excellent article that you mentioned, writes that because he is fat, he is treated “like an outcast” by other gay men. Why aren’t queers of all sizes more upset by fat hate? I don’t know, but I think that fat activists and allies need to start getting angrier. Recently, I wrote a piece called “Mad Feminism,” in which I say that feminists, people with disabilities, queers, fat folks, and people of color need to form stronger alliances with each other—and that it’s time for all of us to seriously get mad.

Cat: I agree that forming stronger alliances across groups that are marginalized is an important part of progressing social justice. I guess the difficulty is often in people checking their own privilege; many people who recognize oppression for one group, have trouble acknowledging the role they play in the oppression of other groups. And I LOVE the idea of embracing the rage; I remember when Brian Stuart was doing his Agents of O.B.E.S.I.T.Y. series and Kath Read (of the Fat Heffalump) chose to become ‘The Incredible Bulk’. I wonder how we could use the anger at the injustices as a way to move our agendas forward? Any ideas?

Anna: Something I’ve learned from my wife, Jane Arlene Herman, a longtime fat and lesbian feminist activist (whom you will be interviewing on your radio show), is that if you are an oppressed person, just going through life and surviving daily insults and injustices makes you a political activist. You don’t have to be organizing marches and protests or staging online interventions. Those activities are great, of course, and crucially important, but they’re not always accessible to those of us, such as myself and my wife, who have chronic illnesses and disabilities, or to many others who may not have the time, energy, or financial resources to participate. But we can still, as you put it, use our anger “as a way to move our agendas forward.”

Some of the most important sites for fat activism in my life occur in day-to-day exchanges with people: at the doctor’s office, at the farmers’ market, at a family gathering, in a clothing store. Bringing my anger to these interactions doesn’t necessarily mean yelling and screaming; but it does mean that I’m becoming less and less willing to “let it go” when people make anti-fat remarks. When a family member says that he is watching how many calories he consumes, when the nurse at my doctor’s office insists that I “have” to be weighed, when a guy at the farmers’ market claims that he is “fighting obesity” by riding his bike, when a clothing store carries nothing that a large woman can wear, I push myself to say something. Where I live, in Sonoma County, California, most people have very good LGBT politics; they would not dream of publicly degrading queer folks in the ways that they put fat people down. And so I point this out to them. I say, “What you’re saying about fatness is almost exactly what everyone used to say about homosexuality.” I come out as the spouse of a fat woman. I launch into my explanation of scientific misconceptions about body size. I recommend Paul Campos’s The Diet Myth and Gina Kolata’s Rethinking Thin, and offer to lend folks a copy.

When I see people’s eyes glazing over; when they argue with me and say that they are just “concerned” about fat people’s health; when they try to change the subject; or when they say, “We can agree to disagree,” I keep talking. That’s what I mean by getting mad: I’m so tired of fat hate that I keep complaining about it, even if I annoy people. Like last week at the farmers’ market, I was all ready to buy a bag of apples from this vendor, but he would not let it go about “obesity”—and he would not listen to a single thing I said about fat oppression—and so finally I put down the apples I had planned to buy and walked away. My action communicated, “You just lost a customer because you were not willing to question your fatphobia.” Multiple small-scale interventions such as these can make an enormous difference. By showing our feelings—our anger and sadness, as well as our joy in who we are and in whom we love—we let people know that fat hate is not a socially acceptable prejudice.

Cat: So, what’s next for you?

Anna: My spouse and I will be conducting fat liberation workshops in our local community next spring. In the coming year, my main focus will be completing my dissertation in English literature at U.C. Berkeley. My thesis brings together feminism, queer theory, disability studies, and psychoanalysis. In the chapter I’m working on right now, I make connections between fat studies and disability studies. As with “Fat Liberation Is Totally Queer,” my goal is to forge alliances between fat activists and members of other disenfranchised groups. I see so many similarities between fatphobia and ableism. So often, people who are fat or disabled or both are assumed not to know our own bodies—while thin and nondisabled people are held up as “experts” whose job it is to instruct us on how to care for our health! For example, I have environmental illness, and when I tell people that products like perfume and hair dye make me sick, they often suggest that maybe I am making my illness up, or that maybe I am just “imagining” my symptoms. It’s almost exactly the same dynamic when my wife says that, actually, she does not eat a lot of food; you can tell people think she’s lying, or that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.

Just to be clear: I’m in no way suggesting that it’s not okay if a fat person (or a thin person) does eat a lot of food. I believe that appetite is biologically determined, and that people of all sizes should eat as much as they like. What I’m objecting to is the way that being disabled and/or fat means that the mainstream culture does not trust what we say about our bodies—whether it’s me saying that perfume really does make me sick or a fat person saying that, yes, she really is hungry.