Dedicated to all of the fat girls who feel they must apologize
And to all of those who don't
I was born into a world where fat women are outlaws: a band of lawless revolutionaries, fighting against myopic standards of beauty and archaic forms of femininity. A world where fat women are like Che Guevara meets RuPaul, like Thelma and Louise meets Madonna—the stuff of fantasies and legends. We are the eaters of the crème brûlée and the tiramisu. We are the cupcake warriors, the sensualists, the plus-size queens. We are flag-bearers in a turgidly anti-pleasure society.
Fat is a delicious, cute, little word. The f and the a slip off the tongue as if they were dipped together in melty mascarpone. And the hard t at the end reminds you that there's a little punch to whomever is graced with the title. Oddly, the f-word is used to scare women, but it doesn't scare me. My fat is political because when I show it off it really seems to piss people off. My fat is political because I'm keeping it. My fat is political because it's fucking hot. My fat is my flag, my claim to fame, my battle scar, my secret fat girl society badge.
I live in a time of unprecedented freedom for women, the daughter borne of immigrant dreams and feminist fantasies. I have the freedom to own a company, terminate a pregnancy, remain fabulously single, and yet my freedom to be fat is heavily contested by my government, my community, my television set. As this book was written and edited, the War on Obesity had created a platform for polemicists to comment on the immorality of fat parents and for scientists to describe the alleged dumbing effects of fat on the brain.
As Don Kulick and Anne Meneley succinctly stated in Fat: The Anthropology of an Obsession, "It isn't just a chemical or biological fact. It is also a supremely cultural fact." Discussions of fat people, especially women, become texts, documents, artifacts that we must dissect, analyze, and explore. As the deeply flawed public health sector decries fatness as a medical pathology, an epidemic that threatens the Western world, we can hear the familiar sounds of an age-old reminder: "be good."
In the face of such platitudinous admonitions stands a bunch of big-ass, mouthy fat girls who wear fuchsia and feathers, who walk out in the world with bellies exposed and middle fingers raised. Take heed. Our bodies, our attitudes belie the polemics, unveil the truth: that being good doesn't get you much besides the title. Our day in the sun is only as far as we make it. And for girls willing to forsake good, there is deliciousness of a different kind to be had.
In soliciting submissions for Hot & Heavy, I asked fierce, fabulous women to tell the stories of how exactly they came to be that way. This thing called "fierce" is a single word meant to capture an infinite number of possibilities. It is not a single destination arrived at through the same infallible process. In my life, fierce looks like pencil skirts and cleavage, burlesque stardom and satin sheets. But we each decide what this word means to us. We do fierce the way that we do fierce. And what you're about to read are the ways that thirty-one women walk in fierce fatness. One for every day of the month.
When I conceived of the idea for this book, I thought, "This will be my chance to show the world how hot and amazing and fabulous fat girl life can be." And as with any project of fabulous-making, I secretly sought to hide the stories that complicate what fabulous really is. As a burlesque performer, I can tell you that fabulous looks flawless. When we're on stage, no hair seems out of place, no sequin seems amiss. When we're backstage, we are madly sewing things onto other things and gluing stuff to other stuff, and we do this to create an experience of perfection for the audience. If we can be that for you, then some part of us can be perfect, too. We hold your expectations, and they nourish us.
Sometimes we need someone who is—to us—flawlessly fabulous to give us the strength to do the things that might change our lives forever. I wanted to show you that and only that, but as I talked with the women who contributed to this book and as I read their words, I knew that editing out the complexity would be dishonest.
So, no piece in this book presents the picture-perfect image of body love nor is any piece in this book a tale of what life at the end of fat hatred or body hatred looks like. There is no such thing as "perfection." There is no such thing as "the end." But for those willing to step out into the limelight, there are beautiful secrets no diet or measuring tape can possibly reveal.
Fierceness is complicated. Fabulous lives in this book: in the words about great joy and hot sex and deep love, about delicious meals and amazing outfits, but also in the words about frustration and pain and loss.
Fabulous is so much more than just the sequins.
It's easy to be a lot of things, but it's not easy to be a fabulous fat girl. So, you're an over-achiever! You like that little extra bit of attention, those envious glances, those moments of glory.
You're in the limelight. So, strike a pose.
Life—we are told—is what waits at the other end of a body transformation, a complete overhaul of the current self, the loss of our fat selves. We are taught to live in a counter-factual future that, somehow, never stops feeling just beyond our reach. We lose bits of life to these fantasies.
The truth? Life happens now, not fifteen or thirty or one hundred pounds from now. You can wear that bikini now. You can go on a date now. You can play in the ocean now. You can wear a ridiculous hat or a sparkly pink miniskirt now. You can travel now. You can dance in your underwear now. You can savor and gasp-with-delight while eating that double crème brie, that ganache-smothered chocolate cake, that succulent pulled pork with a side of pickled okra right now. You have permission not to waste another hour on self-denial. There's no need to mourn the time you've lost, unless you really want to. We make mistakes. Savor them because they are truly what exist at the heart of who you have become and who you will be. And even on the path to self-love, you will make many, many more sweet mistakes all along the way. As my lover says, "Take the crunchy with the smooth." I love life advice based on peanut butter metaphors! Dedicate your remaining days to deliciousness, to sating your hungers, to trying on lipstick, to breathing mindfully, to touching your skin, to taking bubble baths, to practicing your strut.
In this section, you will read about fat girls living loudly. You might want to listen to this....
Shiny, Sparkly Things
I have always been fat. I will always be fat, and I'm okay with that. There's a picture of me when I was a little girl in a Super Girl bikini, with arms reaching toward the sky, a round little-girl belly hanging out, and a smile that could rival the brightest summer day. I love that I am still that little girl inside, only now I have my superhero moments mostly naked on stage. Well, along with a nerdy day job that affords me a whole assortment of extra sparkly costumes. Today, I'm like Lois Lane and Superman combined.
I am a fat burlesque performer. Before that, I was a fat belly dancer. And before that, I was a chubby poet raised by lesbians, with a really fabulous grandma who instilled in me a love of all shiny, sparkly things. I come from an artist family, but unlike my family I choose a career of crunching numbers by day to spend my nights engaging in activities that amuse and delight me. It's kind of awesome that I lead a secret double life.
I'd be blowing smoke if I didn't acknowledge that being a fat girl in love with the stage has been, at times, a pain-in-the-ass journey fraught with dismissive and downright hateful people. But I like to think witnessing the spectacular fuckups and misadventures of another person can sometimes illuminate the way for someone who may feel themselves lost or directionless. Besides, life is no fun when we pretend it's rainbows and unicorns all the time. So this is the story of how I became body positive.
You could say that my life has been a little different. I mean everyone's life is different, but I was raised in a log cabin with a backyard of organic gardens, fruit trees, and edges of woodland and wilderness. It was not one's standard sort of family, but it worked for me. I was also a fat kid who moved around a lot growing up, so flack about my body was a given, an ever-oncoming background noise.
My mother was pretty supportive of all my childhood girlie tomboyishness. She never discouraged me from being the fattest girl in jazz class or at tap dancing lessons or playing GI Joes with the boys in the neighborhood. For as butch as she is, she still cannot figure out how something so femme came out of her body. She humored me for the most part, even through my pre-teen, pink-haired, mopey poetry-writing phase.
Being a fat girl with purple hair in yearbook, newspaper, band, and drama, I was quite accustomed to load-balancing overcommitments. So I spent my last two years of high school in college because that was the fashionable thing for angsty fat alternative teens to do. I got to indulge in classes in astronomy, figure drawing, and philosophy . . . and explain basic quantum physics to my typing class. It was wonderful.
Plus, I had pretty teenage punk boys in my Film As Literature class who didn't give two shits about my dress size. I ended up dating the grumpy one who colored my hair red on Valentine's Day and infused my music collection with punk and ska. I gave him a blue Mohawk, and he brought me flowers once a week at my crappy mall job.
For all the cups of diner coffee, matching combat boots, and hot teenage car sex, diverging ideas of growing up were causing us strife. We had the kind of fight that leaves a rift of silence between two people who love, and fight, and fuck, and do everything else with a deeply invested sense of passion.
"You' d better not take it for granted anymore. I'm not taking nothing for granted anymore."
There are a million ways my life would be different if I had picked up the phone. Instead I paused in the doorway and let the tears fall as the answering machine apologies echoed through an empty house. I took a deep breath and let the door click shut behind me.
Rolling down the highway, I thought of all the things I wanted to say, all the things I couldn't say.
I saw the old white car swerve in the lane in front of me. I saw the van on the right shoulder, people behind it changing a tire. I saw the big red pickup truck with no driver, crossing the center lane. I put both feet on the brakes and held onto the steering wheel, willing my car to stop with everything in me.
It took less than a second. The screeching breaks, the smell of burning rubber, and the sound of a very large aluminum can smashed full force with a baseball bat . . . times a thousand. When I opened my eyes, I was bleeding onto the dashboard behind the steering wheel. Thick red plops from a cool wet fire spreading across my forehead. I saw wisps of smoke breathing through the cracks in the shattered windshield, curling in the sunlight like incense tendrils. Tempered glass glittered across the passenger seat, tangled with embroidery thread spools every color of the rainbow thrown forward from the back seat.
I tried to move, but one arm was pinned between my tummy and a broken steering wheel. The other was trapped behind it, locked in tight by the caved plastic and twisted metal that used to be the driver's side door. Both feet were still on the brake pedal, pushed back by the crash inertia that put the engine on my lap. The floor had crumpled like an accordion beneath my knees. The dashboard rested on the shifter beside me. I was trapped in a metal cocoon, body pressed by metal on all edges, as growing flames lapped beyond the mangled windshield.
I thought I was fucked. A Bad Religion song played surreal on the slowing tape deck, singing "you'd better not take it for granted anymore; I'm not taking nothing for granted anymore." I felt burning at the tips of my toes, flowing up over my skin to the top of my head. I tilted my head back and started screaming.
I didn't see my life flash before me nor did I see Jesus. I am eternally grateful to the people driving behind me who carried a fire extinguisher and called 911. I am grateful to the police, fire, and rescue workers who spent the next two hours to use the Jaws of Life to extract me from my car. Even if they had to break all the windows and cut the roof off before lifting the engine off my chubby lap. Even if they stabbed me multiple times trying to run an IV and kept asking the same questions over and over. Even if they never seemed to actually call my mom, no matter how many times I gave them my phone number. I am grateful to all the people on the road that day who prayed for me.
When I was airlifted to the hospital, I cried.
The emergency room of a trauma center is a scary place. I mean, not only was I naked, covered in glass and blood and car guts with my neck braced, but the rest of me was strapped to a back board. A drunk in the next bed over was causing all sorts of crashing, screaming "get your fucking hands off me," adding to the chaotic emergency-room ambiance. A lot of people worked on me that day, poking me with tiny cameras to inspect my innards, scraping dried blood and car shrapnel off my face, and finally X-raying and then re-X-raying me after all my piercings were removed.
I spent one sleepless night in the neurological ward with no good drugs or anyone surrendering to my pleas to order pizza. I hope to never spend another night in a hospital. Being lucid in a trauma ward is an intense mish-mash of screaming throughout the night, metered by the soft squeak of squishy white nurse shoes. Every cell in me ached with a soreness and nightmares I had never known.
The next morning, I totally had a Blair moment—from that episode of Facts of Life where she gets a scratch across her forehead from a car accident, then holds up the food tray as a mirror with one shaking hand, and cries that she will never be pretty again. I had to laugh at myself. I think I played that out in my head to stave off realities of sitting in a hospital chair in a shower, washing dried blood, glass, and tufts of hair off my head with the one arm I could still lift. The nastiness of hospital soap mixed with the blood turned my hair from purple to gray.
Sitting there, I had a stark moment to assess my body. It looked like a map, bruise oceans crisscrossed with red scratch highways and lumps of newly formed swollen mountain ranges. There were large ridges of bruising across my lap. My left leg was a sea of pummeled blue from ankle to hip, with scabs forming solitary islands. My left arm so inky purple that only a thin islet of flesh color remained. Over the bruises were craters of embedded glass. My right forearm, also indigo, matched the two bruises on top and under my breast from the seatbelt. I had a deep crevasse of red from eyebrow to beyond my hairline. It was laced with smaller crimson streaks from the windshield. It was a horrible-beautiful landscape: traumatic, but survivable. My belly was an oasis of untouched softness.
When I couldn't stand on my own, the nurse made quite an escapade of forcing me to hobble unassisted with no sympathy for my moment of sore, freaked out, self-pity–induced helplessness. This was not something I was to surrender to; this was something I would rise above. Like a phoenix, a really clumsy, accident-prone phoenix. When my friends came to visit me in the hospital, I had to show them how badass I was. I flung the sheets back and showed them how amazing my bruises were. I had survived.
"You're lucky you were carrying a little extra weight, or you wouldn't be standing here."
The doctor asked if my car had an airbag. He was in disbelief at the demise of my old Honda at the hands of a brand new full-size Dodge Ram pickup truck. The driver had leaned over to fiddle with the cruise control and crossed the centerline. I left 54 feet of skid marks between hitting the brakes and impact. I was stopped and he hit me head-on going 65 miles per hour. He never even saw me.
The doctor watched me negotiate a few hallway stairs, then discharged me to the trauma center with blessings and ibuprofen. I walked (slowly) out of the hospital the day after the accident. It was called a miracle. I know I was fucking lucky, maybe even graced with a second chance.
No broken bones. No internal bleeding. While I would not advocate going through a horrific crash to realign one's body priorities, that accident really changed how I looked at life. Not just in the lottery-style up-on-my-accident-karma kind of way, but it also disabled my ability to truly hate on my body. My body saved me. And more specifically, my fat saved me. If I had been skinny, I likely wouldn't be here to tell my story. That was a pretty profound moment for my eighteen-year-old self.
Before that, my body and I got along, but we weren't what you would call "close." Afterward, especially given all the recovery, I just could not deny myself a little body care and compassion. And pool time with the fat old ladies. And a bunch of herbal poultices because, as previously mentioned, I lived in a queer, pro-herbal-medicine household.
A few years after all the doctors and chiropractors and all the medical bills were paid, I started dancing.
The first time I performed burlesque, I literally had nude leggings under nude pantyhose under nude fishnets under regular fishnets, and a corset, and a body stocking. People loved me anyway, even if I had a moment of body insecurity. It took me a few years to become entirely comfortable with my relative nakedness on stage. But the only way to get better is to be on stage, and the only way to truly let go of one's inhibitions is to be fabulous in the face of fear.
I never took a class in burlesque, per se. I joined a troupe and started performing. We performed at fund-raisers and festivals, supporting a body-positive politic by actually putting different bodies on stage. Because of the people I was performing with, I got a crash course in making politics visible. We did acts about food, we did acts as a commentary on beauty standards, and we did acts that were campy and silly and gay. We had dialogues about integrating anti-oppression into our work and on how to best tackle body negativity in performance. We talked about art as activism. Activism as action. It was like a whole new sparkly world of awesomeness.
I've seen troupes come and go and I've seen the community shift and change as these things tend to do. I have been extremely lucky in my experiences. Burlesque has led me to some of the most fabulously rhinestoned, politically kick-ass people I have ever come across. It leads me into (sometimes uncomfortable) dialogues about body politics, fat politics, and owning your identity. I've learned to tackle being fat-positive by doing it fully engaged, with eyes open and while knowing what I stand for.
"I love seeing fat girls on stage. I think it's important to be a fat girl on stage."
I'm not saying burlesque is without its own bullshit. There are venues in my city that have a "no fat girl" policy. I have no shame in telling people that's why I won't spend money there. As a reaction to it, I want to make a traveling road show of fat girls to tour across the country. I want to support new fat girls finding their stage wings and shaking their big girl bits. I still think the world is what you make it, and I want to do my part to show how awesome fat girls are.
I no longer wear a bunch of layers on stage. I don't hide my belly in corsets or even wear pantyhose. Hell, someday I may even graduate to a g-string. In the last year, I helped teach a room full of fat girls how to twirl pasties, I've seen my boobies across the big screen at a film festival, and I've been deemed the "Burlesque Costume MacGyver" in a room full of fat performers. I'm the fattest I've ever been, and I take off my clothes in public regularly. I never really thought I would end up here, but I'm the happiest I've ever been and I wouldn't change a thing. I am my own superhero, and I have a whole collection of scars, stories, and sparkly spandex costumes to prove it.
Fat at the Gym
In my pre-fat acceptance (PFA) life, I felt caught in the paradox of being fat at the gym: the fear that I didn't belong in its hallowed, sweaty halls, but if I didn't go, I would never become un-fat and finally worthy. While attending a college touted as one of the most physically fit in the country, I often watched thin pre-med majors race down treadmills, simultaneously annotating biology textbooks. They were so in control, so healthy and good in the eyes of a weight-obsessed college campus. My timid, embarrassed ventures into the gym were part of a regimen, written in tiny print in a tiny notebook in my attempts to become un-fat. These adventures involved fleeing the weight room when male friends came in to lift and plenty of guilt on days I skipped.
My journey to fat acceptance is full of sad nights, drunk-crying that I wasn't beautiful, with an implied belief that my worth was tied to being seen as sexually desirable and conquerable to the average equally drunk male at the bar. My journey frequently mirrored traditional tales of dieting and gaining and dieting again, being praised for "looking so good" when I lost weight, and feeling hateful toward my body when it returned to its natural form.
And it ended—or began, truly—when I realized I was valuable as a person, not despite my body, but for my body and my personhood and my laughter and for all of me. In almost a serendipitous manner, all of the fat- and body-positive literature I had been reading, the blogs I followed, and the pictures of beautiful fat people I admired clicked in my head, and knowledge became acceptance. If my interest in someone wasn't returned, I no longer feared that I was flawed. My negative egoism, my obsessive disparaging of my own worth evaporated.
So with newfound courage and bravery I walked into a gym again, this time as a fatty who loved her fat and wasn't trying to undo her body, or to become un-fat.
Being a fat woman at the gym is in itself an act of social disobedience. I shouldn't be in there, taking up the space of the lithe-bodied, unless it's with a face of sincere penance and shame. But I have claimed the gym as my own. I celebrate being visible and fat all over the gym—running and sweating and sometimes breaking into song, lifting dumbbells alongside muscle-laden men with uncompleted tribal band bicep tattoos, flinging my weight around in aerobics, and finally cooling it poolside in my bright, non-apple-body-shape flattering tankini. I smile and chat with women before yoga and mention how hungry I always am after class and can't wait to eat. I want to be seen. I am fat and happy in places where I should be fat and shameful, and denying this stereotype is a political action in my eyes.
I experience the transgressive thrill of exercising without the intention or effort to lose weight every time I scan my membership card at the entrance. A thin friend of mine, who typically eats little and exercises often, recently went with me to my gym. She asked me how much weight I was trying to lose, if I was dieting again like I had in college. The words "I don't want to lose any weight" sent chills of excitement up and down my spine and provoked mostly a loss of words from her. There's an adrenaline rush that comes with denying the common rules of society: that I should always be trying to lose weight, that I should always be unhappy with some flaw. To say I am perfectly content with my body and all the parts that assemble it is nothing less than radical.
I attempt to make my disinterest in losing weight as frequent in conversation as the constant bemoaning of losing just ten more, five more, some more pounds with which I am inundated by friends, advertising, and passing acquaintances. I've searched for new phrases to say when someone tells me they're starting a diet or trying to lose weight. PFA, I would have applauded them and deprecated myself, the socially approved standard response to weight-loss goals. Now, I can only offer up a watery "that's nice" and send glowing love to my big thighs.
But my most transgressive and transformative action came simply and without expectations of the ramifications it would have for my fat acceptance. I was running on the elliptical machine, absorbed in my breathing, music filling my ears, when the act occurred. Until this very moment on a Friday afternoon, if sweat was coating my face I would pull up on the neck of my shirt. Often it was already darkened with a rapidly cooling saturation of sweat, ineffectual for satisfactory drying. I had an idea, but it was daring and bold and I wasn't sure if I was ready. Then, recklessly, I did it. I lifted the hem of my T-shirt, exposing my round belly, complete with the light pink trails of stretch marks across its nearly fluorescent white skin, to wipe my sweaty face while running.
A simple, common action for the typical gym goer, at least the one who doesn't pack a travel bag complete with face towel. Something so natural as to bring that cotton fabric up to my face—I'm wearing my own towel. But years and years of experience had trained me to keep that hem a few inches below the waist of my shorts. This hem-to-waist observation followed me from being a mini-fat in pre-adolescence dance classes, to a teenage fat careful of stretching too far back during school, to a college fat who worked out at the gym in a haze of apology for forcing others to watch me attempt to become un-fat.