super quick: thoughts on fat & disability

Over on my other blog, somebody asked me what I thought about fat as a disability. The following was my response:
Fat people and people with disabilities have a LOT in common. We live in a world that is not meant to accommodate our bodies—a world that, in fact, actively *excludes* our bodies. Our bodies are demonized, because we are not “normal”—and if there is a way to make us “normal” (i.e. surgery, etc.), we are expected (shamed, forced) to take that route. People stare at us, we have stareable bodies. They feel like they are allowed to talk to us about our bodies, ask us how we “got this way”.

People think they know something about us—our histories, our habits, our health—just by looking.

We incite fear in “normal”-bodied people; we are what they could be if they ever lost control. Indeed, most people will become fat, and almost everyone—if they live long enough—will become disabled.

I know this is probably not what you meant when you asked about my thoughts on fat AS a disability, but here is the thing: fat people—just like all people with devalued, non-normative bodies—are disabled. NOT because our bodies can’t do things, but because we live in a world that STOPS our bodies from doing things.

A fat studies scholar whom I really respect and admire wrote to the fat studies list-serve sometime last year, to discuss why there aren’t more intersections and collaborative projects between work done in fat studies and work done in disability studies. She speculated that part of the problem, at least, is a phenomenon called ‘mutual recoil.’ (Basically, this happens when each side of a group hasn’t worked through their own negative beliefs about the other group, and thus do not want to be associated with them.)

Then she asked what I believe to be a really radical question:

“What would happen if, as politicized fat people, we embraced the word ‘disabled’ and used it in the same way disability studies scholars and activists use it? Not as a label denoting a body that needs to be fixed, adjusted, cured, or sanitized, but a body that challenges narrow and normative constructs of the body and an environment that literally oppresses many of us in terms of mobility and existing in space.”

In the incredibly (emotionally, physically, mentally) exhausting world of social justice movements, the more we can work together, the better. The more we can share our experiences with each other, the better. We need more listening, more pooling our resources, more collaborative work. We need less ‘mutual recoil’. We need to recognize how society disables all of us, and we need to work together towards a world that isn’t set up to exclude any bodies—fat, disabled, or otherwise.

Fat bodies on TV: Mercedes Jones

(Originally posted at riotsnotdiets)

I love Glee unapologetically.  Breaking out into song inexplicably, dance numbers where everyone magically knows all the moves, covers of my favorite pop songs, cheesy love stories and even cheesier storylines… the show has it all.  Now that Ugly Betty’s been canceled, it’s the only hilariously uplifting dramedy I have to look forward to every week.  (And honestly?  I don’t totally disagree with show creator Ryan Murphy’s assertion that lead Lea Michele—who plays Rachel Berry—is a “once-in-a-generation voice”.  Listening to her sing makes me want to be her best friend.)

My unabashed love aside, I know that the show is incredibly problematic.  The episode on disability, for example, was almost too painful to watch.  Most of the time when Glee tries to tackle tough issues, the writers tend to get after-school special-y.  It certainly doesn’t help that most of the characters are extremely stereotypical.  Sure, sometimes the actors are allowed to give nuanced performances that delve a little deeper, but these glimmers of the subjective person behind the stereotype don’t usually come out during the “issues” episodes.

Which brings me to Mercedes Jones.  I feel like I should love her: she is fat, she is talented, she is confident, and she rocks some pretty awesome fatshion (although Amber Riley herself has an even better fashion sense, IMHO).  In a high school full of mean popular girls, bullying jocks, and comparatively thin people in general (she really is the only visibly fat person on the show these days), Mercedes—quite remarkably—loves herself. When I saw that they were gearing up towards an episode where her size would (finally-for-fuck’s-sake!) be acknowledged, I was simultaneously excited and anxious—how would Mercedes handle being told to lose weight by the notoriously snarky Sue Sylvester, her new cheerleading coach?  How would the writers portray weight and dieting?  Would she temporarily give in to societal norms but come to her senses after fainting and then round out the episode with a (very touching and well-performed, even if a bit cliched) version of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful”?  (The answer to that last question is yes.)

But the thing is, while I am a huge fan of Amber Riley the person, I feel fairly ambivalent towards Mercedes the character.

Part of this, I think, has to do with the fact that while yes, she is accepting of her body and this is SO GREAT to see on TV (especially on a show watched by so many young women), this is really the only attitude toward her body that she (as a fat Black woman) is allowed to have. She is and has been up until this most recent episode a complete stereotype of what it means to be big, Black and female according to Hollywood: “sassy,” confident, at times angry and confrontational, and yes, even a bit motherly and relatively asexual (in that although she seems to desire people, she is not seen as desirous—either by other characters or viewers). This stereotype is, essentially, a hybrid Mammy/”Angry Black Woman”. Many if not all of these characteristics, even if they seem to be empowering, actually serve to keep Mercedes (and other fat Black girls like her) in her place: she’s allowed to be angry about not getting the solos she clearly deserves, but isn’t really taken seriously when she speaks up (I think the glee teacher Will once told her they would bring in some “chocolate” so that a particular number would be more to her liking—Glee fans correct me if I’m wrong), she wants a boyfriend and talks about herself as sexy (she refuses to wear the cheerleading skirts because she “[doesn’t] want to start a sex riot”) but we aren’t meant to see her as sexy; we are supposed to like her “in spite” of her brown, fat body (just like all her friends do!). I know that part of the fun of Glee is taking stereotypes to the extreme (which can sometimes actually subvert them), but with Mercedes I don’t see too much room for selfhood beyond her “Beyonce”-osity. It’s frustrating, because I really do love Glee, and I really do want to love Mercedes (and, for what it’s worth, I think Amber Riley does an amazing job with what she’s given).

What I DID enjoy about last Tuesday’s episode was the (sort of) shout-out to intuitive eating from Quinn (the pregnant cheerleader who used to have disordered eating habits until she realized she should eat healthfully for herself and her child), and the mention by someone (can’t remember who) that diets don’t actually work (Halle-fuckin’-lujah!!!). And while I really did want to see Amber Riley rockin’ a cheerleader skirt, I actually kind of love that she insisted on wearing pants instead (as far as it can be read as a refusal to be sexually objectified).  I even loved when Mercedes got so hungry that the kids in the cafeteria turned into giant-sized food items, because seeing Rachel in a pink cupcake costume was just crazy hilarious.

Anyway, I don’t mean to imply that Mercedes isn’t good for FA or representations of fat Black women in general, just that she really isn’t anything new.  Watch any Queen Latifah comedy (especially Hairspray) or some of Mo’Nique’s earlier work, and you’ll see that Mercedes is just another iteration of the same damn thing.  However, with every re-presentation or performance of this stereotype, there is potential for change, for subversion, even if it’s slight.  The fact that Amber Riley is watched by some 15 million+ people every week, that Mercedes Jones is a character that is now near-and-dear to the hearts of millions of young girls, is in itself a bit of a revolution.  And who knows?  Maybe I’m just old and jaded, and Mercedes is actually empowering young women across the country to buck the status quo and love their bodies.  But there’s got to be a way to do this that doesn’t involve reinforcing negative stereotypes about Black female bodies.

“It’s a big fat revolution” by Nomy Lamm

(Originally posted at riotsnotdiets)

This article was published in the book Listen Up: Voices from the Next Feminist Generation by Barbara Findlen in 1995. It is the first (and only) article I was ever required to read for a class in college that dealt directly with fat identity and intersectionality.

And it made me cry.

And I’m living the revolution through my memories and through my pain and through my triumphs. When I think about all the marks I have against me in this society, I am amazed that I haven’t turned into some worthless lump of shit. Fatkikecripplecuntqueer. In a nutshell. But then I have to take into account the fact that I’m an articulate, white, middle-class college kid, and that provides me with a hell of a lot of privilege and opportunity for dealing with my oppression that may not be available to other oppressed people. And since my personality/being isn’t divided up into a privileged part and an oppressed part, I have to deal with the ways that these things interact, counterbalance and sometimes even overshadow each other. For example, I was born with one leg. I guess it’s a big deal, but it’s never worked into my body image in the same way that being fat has. And what does it mean to be a white woman as opposed to a woman of color? A middle-class fat girl as opposed to a poor fat girl? What does it mean to be fat, physically disabled and bisexual? (Or fat, disabled and sexual at all?)

For more information about Nomy “bad ass, fat ass, Jew, dyke, amputee” Lamm, check out her website here.