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I See You, Fat Grrl: Fat Pride and Fat Visibility

It’s the end of the semester and this fat professor is feeling reflective. In Wisconsin, it’s finally beginning to look like spring and the clothes are coming off. Of course, in these parts the mere suggestion of temperatures above 50 degrees Fahrenheit necessitates the annual shedding of clothing, the hauling out of couches to the front lawn, games of corn hole, and other “wholesome” springtime rituals. And, while I welcome the warmer temperatures, I’ve always felt a bit self conscious about summer fashion. I’m a devotee of the cardigan, I live for tights, but my own body insecurities and discomfort in being fat and hot in public have prevented me from living my best summer life for as long as I can remember. My decades long search for undergarments that prevent thigh chub rub could fill volumes. I know I am not alone in this struggle.

I sometimes think about all the wasted summers of my 20s and 30s--summers when I wouldn’t wear sleeveless shirts (or only rarely) because of my fat arms, or I wouldn’t wear shorts because my thighs have an innate ability to suck up fabric into my crotch (this means chub rub, bunched fabric, and constant yanking). I felt like summer wasn’t for me, which really sucked for that decade I lived in Kentucky. These complaints are not mine alone--I know my fat sweats in solidarity with many other fat folx. I also know that I’m not alone in feeling unwelcome or invisible during the summer. And, it’s more than the fact that for years it was nearly impossible to buy any kind of flattering bathing suit if you were over a size 12 (thank you, fatkini, for being a thing now!). It’s that being fat and sweating is one of those stereotypes that fat folx try to avoid--unless, of course, you’re a good fatty who is working out. All of this is to say, that I always approach summer with some trepidation even though there is more summer fa(t)shion now than there’s ever been. Or, at least this is true if you’re Lane Bryant fat (thanks, Roxane Gay, for this term!). For super fatties, the summer continues to be a fashion wasteland--and an expensive one at that.

Walking across campus the other day on the first nice day of spring, I was thinking about when I decided that my arms were too fat--when did I decide this? Or, was this decided for me? Mid-thought, it was at this moment that I looked up and found myself a bit slack jawed and in awe at the fat beauties I saw sauntering across campus--bellies exposed, arms out, shorts on point. I began wondering why I hadn’t noticed these womxn before. Have they been here the whole time? What else have I been missing? At the risk of feeling like a creeper, for the last month I’ve been on the lookout for fat womxn in their summer finery and, in fat solidarity, giving a chin nod to these womxn, fat pride, and fat visibility. I’m feeling this forbidden love right now. It feels radical. It feels right.

There is an anxiety about “health” and “healthy lifestyles” that smolders beneath the surface on our campus, and on campuses across the nation. This anxiety announces itself in the kinds of essays that my first-year writing students want to write: essays on nutrition, diets, exercise, being “healthy.” Like a talisman warding off the mythical freshman 15, the young women in my classes write in almost pleading tones about wanting to “stay fit”--and if they only do [X], then they won’t get fat. This is nothing new, though, I clearly remember women in my residence hall during my first year of college who used laxatives, compulsively exercised, and calorie restricted to the point of passing out. This was normal. This is still painfully normal.

While there are many examples I could choose to discuss what I mean by fat pride and fat visibility, I’m going to offer you one recent example. Earlier this month my partner and I attended a Lizzo concert in Minneapolis. For those of you not in the know, get in the know. I love Lizzo for lots of reasons--she’s bold, she’s fat, she loves herself, and she’s an incredible artist and performer. It wasn’t until I attended her concert, though, that my love for Lizzo was complete. During her performance she wore a long-sleeved leotard, stockings, and ankle-high boots. The sides of her leotard were high cut, revealing her belly roll, which seemed daring to me. However, this belly roll only seemed daring until she turned around at the end of her first song and I saw that the back of her leotard was a thong. A THONG. I was enthralled, entranced, enchanted. I grabbed my partner’s thigh and we locked eyes. This is the contagious fat pride that I’m talking about. I could have cried with the swelling of joy I felt in my chest. Yas, queen. Yas. (To digress a bit further, while in Minneapolis I visited Cake--a plus-size resale shop that is a must-visit destination for fa(t)shion conscious folx in the Twin Cities).

But, what does this have to do with summer fa(t)sion, fat pride, or fat visibility? Here’s my point--every time a fat womxn gives zero fucks and wears exactly what she wants to wear, she is disrupting powerful cultural norms--norms about summer bodies, fat arms, and jiggling thighs. She is reclaiming her right to space in public (e.g., on campus, on stage, in pools, etc.). What’s more, she is tacitly giving permission to the womxn around her to do the same. Fat visibility is powerful. Fat pride is contagious. And, fat has just as much a right to be a part of the physical and cultural landscape on our campus (and other spaces) as the incessant exercising and moralistic health chatter.

Last month, Dr. Laurie problematized the faux concerns associated with “promoting fatness,” and I’ve been giving this some serious consideration. The notion itself is absurd, but if we play with it a little, if we queer it a bit, I begin to wonder if maybe we should be promoting fatness, especially if it saves lives. Research seems to indicate that teens who are fat, or who perceive themselves to be fat, are at a greater risk for suicide. I worry about my students, many of whom are still teenagers, and how they might be feeling--especially when you add other risk factors such as increased stress, lack of sleep, and drinking to the mix. And, I’m not trying to be dramatic here, but what if promoting fatness through fat visibility and fat pride actually saves lives--what if we lived in a world where our bodies, regardless of size, shape, ability, race (or the season) were bodies that other people (including yourself) actually regarded without judgement. What if?

So, this summer, I’m going to go sleeveless, I’m going to find some shorts that don’t ride up, and I’m going to be in a bathing suit as much as possible. Because fat visibility isn’t just about being fat in public, it’s about being present and about taking up space not just for ourselves, but for all the other fat folx out there as well. I’m reminded of the first tenet of the Fat Liberation Manifesto, “1. WE believe that fat people are fully entitled to human respect and recognition.” Let’s recognize one another--give a chin nod and a high five to your fellow summer fatties and remember we have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

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