Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Women's History Month- honoring a wonderful woman in fat history: Marilyn Wann

It's been women's history month for about two weeks now and I've noticed something. No one knows it's women's history month. No one except a few feminist blogs and forums, but the general population seems to either not know or just not care. When March hit I expected some noise- a few news mentions, lots of talk on facebook, something on Sprout (a preschool-esque kid's channel with zero commercials). Okay.. maybe not lots of talk on facebook.. but a few mentions? Two weeks in and I haven't seen anything. Not in the news, not on facebook or plurk, not clips in between TV programs.. nothing. I myself posted on facebook hoping to get some reposts and some mentions going but all stayed quiet. Of course, I'm just another female blogger joining other feminists in talking about women's history month while the rest of the world ignores it, but here goes.

Today I want to honor Marilyn Wann. We all (hopefully) know her. For those of you who don't, she wrote Fat! So? which was published in 1998, about 4 years after her magazine by the same name came out.. right about the time that "the obesity epidemic" started becoming a wildly popular idea as a way to blame all the world's ills on fat people... oh, and to sell billions of dollars worth of diet products per year.

While it was Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby who first got me into fat acceptance and who changed my life through their book, Lessons From The Fat-O-Sphere, I'm honoring Marilyn because in many ways she's the mother of the modern fat acceptance movement. Though fat acceptance and fat pride can be traced back to the 1960's (while some hippies were staging the famous bee-in a group of fat acceptance activists were staging, in NYC, a fat-in in which they ate ice cream), Marilyn's witty book really started making the rounds and exposed so many people to FA in the second half of the 90's and helped make the idea more mainstream. While there was fat pride and fat acceptnace before her, she made it popular (well, as popular as fat acceptance can be in an overly sizist and fat phobic society) and has never stopped fighting for human rights.

Marilyn is also the creator of The Yay Scale and has been a major activist in fat rights, especially in health care discrimination. Marilyn is not only an amazing activist, but also just a really nice person. She let me ask her a few questions  and her answers were incredibly insightful, completely inspiring, and wonderfully interesting to read.

Q: Firstly, you got into the FA movement back before the internet was really common place and there certainly wasn't the kind of easy searching and networking that we now have. Because of that the FA movement wasn't as well known or as popular.. what kinds of challenges did you face when you first became an activist and how (if at all) do you think the internet has made it easier? 

Thanks tons for interviewing me! First, I have to say that I don't call it the FA movement. When I came into fat pride community (I like that name!), that acronym was already totally owned by people who identify as being attracted to fat people (or fat admirers, FAs). I also don't tend to use acronyms because I believe that the world needs to hear us speak about our experience, so I say the whole words and I type the whole words all the time because so many people have not heard them. I admit I also don't use the word "acceptance" because it sounds like one might be accepting something one still doesn't like. (I don't say "size" acceptance because it sounds closet-y to me; we're talking about our experience as fat people.) I like to aim high and go farther. So I talk about fat liberation, about celebrating weight diversity, and about fat pride. (I want to include people of all sizes, because I think we all suffer from weight-based stereotype, prejudice, and discirmination and we all have a stake in ending them.)

To answer your question: I first read "Shadow On A Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression" in 1992 or so. (I found it at a book fair.) The first issues of the FAT!SO? print 'zine came out in the summer of 1994. I didn't get email or go online until 1995, as well as I can recall. A friend made the FAT!SO? website (which is still up there, totally outdated), at that time. (Yes, I'm working on setting up a new, updating, interactive FAT!SO? website!)

As I recall, there were actually a lot of fat pride community resources in the mid-90s, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live.

I enjoyed Radiance magazine and Fat Lip Readers Theater and Laurie Toby Edison's black-and-white photography project and book and Patricia Schwarz's color photography and a weekly swim for fat women and Cinder Ernst's fat-positive aerobics class and Pat Lyons's advocating for an anti-diet approach or what we now call Health At Every Size. Pat also hosted a quarterly meeting for people in the Bay Area who were interested in HAES, which is still going now. AHELP was a short-lived HAES organization that held ground-breaking conferences. I got to attend the last one in Chicago. Nationally, I joined NAAFA and attended my first NAAFA convention in 1995. There was a fat activist group in Seattle that put on conferences for fat women, called SeaFATtle, which were total fun. Miriam Berg of the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination organized fat women's gatherings on the east coast and Judy Freespirit ran NAAFA's fat feminist caucus which held several conventions here. (My first big fat gathering was the event Judy created in fall of 1994.) There were cottage-industry plus-size clothing makers that people would shop from by mail-order or in person at fat conventions. I remember Peg Lutz, who's still making fabulous clothes. Also Jody from Myles Ahead and others whose names I've forgotten. Soon, Cathy Miller founded Big On Batik and Janelle Lowe started Love Your Peaches (with the goal of getting fat women into bikinis and thongs). (I'd had to have Fat Girl collective member April Miller make me a thong to wear to my first fat pride community pool party. It was political, dammit!) Which brings me to the beautiful, fierce Fat Girl 'zine collective, which had parties at Max Airborne's house, just five blocks from where I happen to live in SF, so I got to hang out with a wonderful group of rad fatties who inspired me so much. I also got copies of Nomy Lamm's landmark fat 'zines from up in Olympia.

It was a bit less convenient not to have email or the internet, but the challenges then were basically the same as the challenges now. I think there's a value to in-person community gatherings that can't be duplicated when we connect via computer. For example, there's that wonderful first-timer feeling of not being the only fat person in the room, and often not being the fattest person either. I think people value their experiences attending NOLOSE conferences or the Fat Girl Flea or a Big Moves dance concert, for this same reason. As human beings, we'll fully explore all possible means of interacting.

Q: When your book first came out what kind of (if any) backlash did you face?

There was no backlash when the FAT!SO? book came out. Readers have been overwhelmingly kind and are the reason the book is in print even now, 13 years later.

About the same time the FAT!SO? book was published, a gym in San Francisco had an evil billboard put up. It showed a space alien and said, "When they come, they'll eat the fat ones first." NAAFA leader Frances White gave a great interview to local tv news, but they didn't run it. She said, "If this were any other group of people, this billboard wouldn't be funny or acceptable. We advocate healthy exercise, not hate." I sent around an email (it was 1999 by then!), asking if local fat people thought it would be fun to gather outside the gym and wave signs that said, "Eat me!" People said that sounded totally fun, so we did it one day. We got massive news coverage. A local politician, Tom Ammiano, took an interest. He had the city's human rights commission hold a hearing about height/weight discrimination. I worked super hard, along with Frances White, Carole Cullum, Sondra Solovay, and Jo Kuney to organize people to testify about their experiences being denied housing, education, access, jobs, and medical care based on weight or height. It was so much fun to participate in political change! San Francisco legislators voted unanimously to add height and weight to protected categories in local anti-discrimination law in summer of 2000. (The wankers at the gym never apologized. They said their billboard was a public health message. They used our protest for all the publicity they could get.)

Backlash is just another word for opportunity.

Q: Also, how do you feel that FA connects to feminism and women's rights specifically? 

I'm a feminist and a woman. I have used feminist analysis and history to get ideas for how to fight fat oppression, of course. Also, women are especially targets of fat hate because of sexist notions about beauty and gender roles. I've also been inspired by queer community and anti-racism work, getting ideas and cause for hope. But I've also learned crucial things from transgender community and disability acitivists. A class analysis supports identity politics, too. There are so many ways that fat people's oppression connects with all other forms of oppression. Also, when people have multiple identities that make us targets of hate, the oppression magnifies. The haters make these connections too. If someone makes a racist comment, they're also likely to add on something homophobic and something fat-hating. I want to avoid playing oppression Olympics. If we're not addressing all forms of oppression, we're undermining everything we do. Like my colleague Jonny Newsome at San Francisco's And Castro For All group says, "The freedom bus doesn't leave until we all get on."

Q: Do you feel like books or articles written by men on the topic of body acceptance or fat acceptance are taken differently than ones written by women and what do you feel those differences are? 

Yes. We live in a sexist culture, so men's words and men's experience is valued more, given more respect. I think men can (and do) use their unearned privilege to leverage greater awareness of fat oppression. By the same token, thin people who challenge fat oppression will be accorded a different sort of respect. Linda Bacon has written brilliantly about thin privilege. I think it's powerful when fat and thin people advocate together, because it prevents people from dismissing either position. Likewise, it's powerful when people of different genders work together.

Also, when I started FAT!SO? I chose to include people of all genders. I've always especially welcomed participation by men because I see that fat men have very few places (and sometimes nowhere) to go to talk about their experience of fat oppression. Fat gay men have social resources in the bear/chub scene, but straight-identified fat men have no resources. Admittedly, if they want them, they may also need to create them. But I imagine that male gender role makes it difficult for men to talk about what it's like to be fat. I'm also concerned for trans men. I've seen some great writing and online community, but not enough, of course. Even if fat women face an extra burden of fat oppression, that doesn't mean we shouldn't also acknowledge and sympathize with what men (of all sizes) are also suffering.

Q: Have you seen any progress in society as a result of the FA movement? 

Yes. Of course! NYU Press just published the "Fat Studies Reader." The fat studies field, itself, has developed since 2004. A whole new generation of fat activists are creating fabulous cultural change online and in person. (The kiss-in response to Marie Claire (and that sad, hateful blogger) in New York was wonderful!) Instead of people saying, "What's that?" when I talk about fat activism, they're saying, "Oh, that." or even better, "That's you!?!"

Unfortunately, I also see an intensification of the witch hunt on fat people that governments, healthcare, advertising, media, and corporations are engaging in. Welcome to the dialectic!

Q: and one more- what woman do you most admire or are the most grateful to for their contributions? 

Lynn McAfee from the Council on Size and Weight Discrimination, and from the Fat Underground before that. I don't know how she survived being the only fat-positive fat person for years at FDA and CDC meetings. She's fierce. I treasure my friendship with Lynn. I remember sitting with Lynn next to the glass case that holds the Soap Lady in the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia and hearing her tell the story of how doctors got drunk one night (during the 1800s) and broke off a piece of her corpse to see if she would lather. One of Lynn's first jobs was working as a page in the library at the College of Physicians of Philadelphia, which owns the Mütter Museum collection. (The Soap Lady is the body of a dead fat woman whose flesh turned to soap due to specific conditions in the ground where she was buried.) I think this story helped me understand how Lynn could advocate for fat people in such fat-hating settings, and it continues to inspire me to go outside my comfort zone to challenge fat oppression. As Lynn says, "Be afraid but do it anyway."

I love Marilyn's upbeat and positive attitude and she is truly a woman to be honored this month. She has done so much for women and for the fat community. Thank you Marilyn Wann and happy women's history month! 

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