One of my biggest, long-time internet crushes on a person I have never, ever met goes to Ragen Chastain. I started reading her blog, Dances with Fat, several years ago as it not only affirmed some struggles and suspicions I had regarding the talk around bodies and health, but it also opened my eyes to the sheer pervasiveness and subtlety of this talk. With a gauntlet of logic, she destroys claims of health that are really about shaming and demands respectful treatment of people of all sizes. And she does this all backwards in heels. (Okay, maybe not all the time, but she does do competitive partner dancing, so it’s true some of the time.)
On September 23-25, 2016, Ragen and the Conference Organizing Team will host the third Fat Activism Conference, a virtual conference designed to be accessible to all. I reached out to her for an interview about her activism and her conference. This is what she had to say.
How did you get started in fat activism?
I’ve been an activist for as long as I can remember. My first organized activism was in kindergarten, and I continued to do activism through high school. When I got to college I got seriously involved and did a lot of queer and trans activism. While I was fat at the time, I didn’t realize that being fat meant being part of an oppressed group until I was quite a bit older.
The credit for that realization goes to a judge in a ballroom dance competition who told me that, due to the fact that my waltz gown had spaghetti straps, she “couldn’t stand to look at me.” She just kept telling me over and over again that she “couldn’t stand to look at me,” and she actually made a deduction in my score for “appearance” (a deduction usually reserved for those who break costuming rules or forget to wear their dance panties). I realized then that if I wanted to be a fat dancer, I was going to have to be a fat activist to get it done. I started blogging about my experience at www.danceswithfat.org and it went from there.
How did the fat activism conference emerge from your own activism?
Knowing that nobody is ever obligated to participate in activism, one of the main focuses of my work is making activism (the concept, the opportunities, and the skills to do it) to those who are interested in participating. I have always been a big fan of all kinds of activism —from posting something on Facebook to protesting in the street and everything in between. I often offer activism opportunities on my blog, as well as creating and moderating the Facebook group Rolls Not Trolls, which is over 1,000 people who put fat positive comments in fat negative spaces online.
I think that activism is one of the ways that we can react to the unfair treatment we face, advocate for ourselves and others (and feel like we are fighting back, regardless of the outcome), and ultimately create the change we want. I also think that conferences create community, which is so important for groups of people who face oppression. It allows us safe spaces to share our experiences, a community from which we can seek advice and support, and a chance to be in an environment that is created to be free from the shame, bullying, stigma, oppression, and harassment that we so often face.
I was discussing this with Jeanette DePatie (www.thefatchick.com), and she and I decided that we wanted to put together a conference that would help people with skills and ideas to do Fat Activism from an intersectional perspective and that supported the people doing the work. So we committed to paying those who work on the conference instead of asking speakers and organizers to donate their time and skills. We also wanted to make it as accessible as possible. We decided to make this an online conference to make it accessible to people who don’t have the resources (not just money, but time off work, childcare, etc.) to travel to a conference and to create a pay-what-you-can-afford option. We also decided to supply recordings so that people could listen on their own time regardless of work schedules, timezones, and health statuses or disabilities that might make sitting and listening to a conference for hours on end difficult. This year, we’re excited to be able to provide transcripts of every talk thanks to our sponsors.
I started following your blog, Dances with Fat, about five years ago, but it dates back to 2005. Do you think the conversation on body size has changed since then? And if so, in what ways?
I hope that the conversation is becoming more intersectional, that we are becoming more aware of our own privileges and biases (racism, healthism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, ageism, classism, and more), that we are listening to and centering the voices of those who are often not heard because of these privileges and biases. I don’t want to speak for anyone else, but I’ve certainly made many mistakes, and I imagine I’ll make more, so I think it’s important to be constantly learning, doing the work of self-educating, centering those voices, and correcting our mistakes.
In other ways the conversation is very much the same. The core of my argument is still that fat people have the right to exist in fat bodies without shame, stigma bullying, harassment, or oppression. It doesn’t matter why we’re fat, what being fat means, or if we could (or want to) change our body size. The rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are not and should not be size (or “health” or “healthy habit”) dependent. And that goes for people of all sizes.
Can you elaborate more on what you mean by “fat meant being part of an oppressed group?” How is it an issue on not only an individual level (the case of the judge), but also systemically and/or culturally?
I grew up in this fatphobic culture, and as I became fat and was mistreated for that, I was often told that if I didn’t want to experience mistreatment because of my size I should “do something about it.” What they meant was that I should change my body size—to give my bullies what they wanted. I made the decision that “doing something about it” meant fighting mistreatment and insisting that I deserved to be treated with basic human respect regardless of my size (or why I was that size).
But I was still looking at this as an individual battle. What I realized as I started to examine things more closely is that it’s not just an individual issue—that sizeism is rampant, widespread, supported by our government, and has negative effects on the lives of fat people—regardless of our thoughts and beliefs about being fat. Research shows that fat people are hired less and paid less than our thin peers, the government’s “War on Obesity” encourages people to stereotype and stigmatize us, size-based prejudice among healthcare practitioners lead to barriers to getting appropriate evidence-based healthcare, street harassment is ubiquitous and, like me, fat people are often told that if we don’t want to experience these things we should focus on changing ourselves, rather than fighting the sizeism that is the root cause.
This also affects people intersectionally, including fat people of color, fat disabled people/people with disabilities, fat people with health issues, fat queer and trans people and more are oppressed and marginalized as part of both groups individually and at the intersections of these groups (for example, fat people with disabilities who use mobility aids are often doubly oppression and mistreated because of the combination of fatphobia and ableism).
What makes fat activism a feminist issue?
Fat activism and feminism are highly intertwined. A specific example can be found in the way that sizeism is so often couched in the male gaze—such that fat women and femme people are oppressed, marginalized, and mistreated using the idea that fat is not attractive to men and is therefore undesirable. But on a global level, size diversity should be part of intersectional feminism, because if we are only liberated if we meet size (or health or dis/ability) “criteria,” then we are not liberated at all.