Updated: Aug 11, 2019
I don’t know if there’s such a thing as an innate feminist, but I could almost swear that I was born with Susan B. Anthony’s name on my lips and Audre Lorde’s Zami in my back pocket. Even as a kid, I had a keen sense of injustice and the fact that the world was inherently unfair to girls, especially girls who were different (queer, of color, disabled, non-binary, multilingual, etc.). But, this doesn’t mean that I wasn’t socialized as a girl (more specifically, a white girl)--and by this, I mean that I was socialized to scrutinize other girls, to notice and critique their differences, and to judge the kind of girls they were. Girls who wore bras “too soon” were showing off. Girls who wore that kind of lipstick were easy. Girls who chose short skirts, well, you know. Although I was never fully comfortable taking the inventory of other girls, this is the stuff of American girlhood--Mean Girls isn’t that far from the truth. Somewhere along the way though, I’m guessing around the time I read Naomi Wolf’s book The Beauty Myth as an undergraduate I decided that my feminism wouldn’t tell women what to do with their bodies. This included the choice to get an abortion, the choice to wear any article of clothing (or not), the choice to have as much consensual sex as they wanted, and the choice to modify their bodies if they chose to. So, no more making fun of women with breast augmentation, no shaming women for Botox, and no comments on the decision to get weight loss surgery (WLS). But, I have to be honest here--I struggle to not judge the women around me when every cultural and social cue is telling me to do otherwise. Not to let myself off the hook, but maybe not judging is doubly hard because I’ve chosen a career path that expects me to judge and critique all the time. In spite of this discomfort, I persist in my desire to resist these urges and to hold myself accountable. As a known judger and critiquer of so much, I wrestle with the spaces between theory and practice, between ideas and lived experiences, between critique and compassion.
For years, (like, decades) I pursued the argument that being queer is natural, normal, biological. I remember reading about homosexual dolphins, penguins that choose same-sex relationships, female swans that mate for life. Undoubtedly, I was making an argument, “See, Mom and Dad, it’s natural!” Although this emphasis on the natural, and thus the normal, has served as a cornerstone argument on equal rights for queers (especially those seeking same-sex marriage), this emphasis on natural and normal also, in some ways, erases choice. Choice is natural and normal too, right? As I mentioned above, the choice to modify our bodies is natural. Choosing sex and life partners regardless of sex or gender is natural. And, while it’s fun to wrestle with natural and normal at the conceptual level, it’s something different when we look at how these concepts are deployed in practice. Because I’m still struggling to articulate this tension, I’m going to work through a few examples of what I mean.
If we’re truthful, there’s not much that’s natural about modern human existence. As a writing instructor, I often spend time discussing writing as technology with my students. For most of them, they’ve been writing for so long that it’s difficult to imagine a life without it. Like most technologies, writing is not neutral--it changes and shifts the way that we think and the way that we organize thought. In other words, writing isn’t natural. Or, at least writing isn’t any more natural than other modern advances such as prosthetics (e.g., eyeglasses, false teeth, hearing aids, etc.) or medical science like antibiotics and vaccines. Without going too far adrift, it might just be easier to say that what’s natural for humans is to work against nature, or what is natural.
In many spaces we hear arguments in favor of nature or the natural. Medical spaces might be the easiest example to explore. It’s a well-established fact at this point that medical spaces are not friendly to fat bodies--these are the spaces that are often trying to fit fat bodies into arbitrary norms such as weight and BMI charts, into a more “natural” state of being that isn’t so “burdened” by the fat of our modern society. Again and again we hear that we’re fatter than ever (not entirely true) and that the culprit is technology--fast food, television, sedentary lifestyles. So, the solution is to “fix” these bodies with diets (and dieting technology) and, more and more often, with WLS. The idea being that if we could just “fix” these unruly bodies and return them to a more natural, a more normal state, then there would be no more fat people. Further, nobody would choose to be fat if they had the option of being thin. Bottom line, fat isn’t natural.
In many corners of the fatosphere, there is resistance to the assertion that there is one kind of natural, one kind of normal that all bodies should be striving for. There is an insistence that we should we reframing what’s normal and natural in light of the body diversity that exists all around us. Being fat is not something to be cured or to be “fixed.” In fact, the deepest form of self-love is to love the body that you have. Moreover, your body is nobody else’s business. It’s hard to argue with this logic.
My partner is trans (he’s given me permission to disclose this fact and what follows) and fat. This is simply a fact. It’s also a fact that he’s unable to fully love the body that he’s in--it’s a body that has never really lived up to his expectations. Bit by bit, though, he’s been able to augment his body through surgery and hormones to make it a more comfortable place to live. Each step of this process, however, has been fraught with fights with our insurance company, with policy that challenges his autonomy and agency to make decisions about his own body, with current definitions of mental health and suspicions about the ability of trans folx to know what they need and to “make good decisions.” The underlying issue is that medical folx can’t understand why someone would want to make such unnatural, radical, and permanent decisions about their bodies. These are the same medical professionals who encourage fat folx to unnaturally, radically, and permanently alter their bodies through diets and WLS.
So, where does that leave us?
The opinion of this fat feminist professor is that all people, regardless of size, gender, ability or race, have the right to live their lives with integrity and autonomy and the right to control their own bodies. Each of us as individuals have to wrestle with what that means for our own bodies and sometimes that means reaching out for help. I have a message for those readers who are in the medical health professions: If you really care about my health--about my fat body--and about the health of my fat and trans partner, you will help us to live in our bodies as we choose. As my friend, Marty, points out, “if we own nothing else in this world, we own the right to our own bodies.”
If we really cared about the health of fat folx and trans folx, then we would normalize difference, normalize body diversity, and normalize choice. Do you choose to be fat? That’s your right. Do you want to change your body to better fit the world you live in? That’s your right. Is it anyone’s business what you choose to do with your body? No. The answer is simply no. It turns out that normalizing kindness, compassion, and none of your business is the most powerful form of feminism that I possess.