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The Politics of Fat: We Have to Keep Struggling to Liberate Ourselves from Self-Hatred

“We claimed the agency, we granted ourselves the authority. But we never stopped worrying about how our asses looked in our jeans.”

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Several prominent feminist bloggers focus extensively on body acceptance, but their work often goes beyond the singular relationship of gender and fat. Writer and activist Tasha Fierce is a frequent contributor to Bitch and Jezebel and creator of the blog Sex and the Fat Girl , where Fierce documents her experiences as a self-described “fat, queer woman of color.” She is particularly passionate when addressing the intersectionality of fat bodies.  

“Our approach to building fat community needs to be a comprehensive and all-inclusive one,” says Fierce. “White cisgender feminists who are fat need to recognize that there are different levels of oppression — not everyone who is fat is only facing discrimination because of their weight.” She pointed to a recent call-to-action by the organization NOLOSE which argues that people of color are too often portrayed as the impoverished, tragic face of a heavily politicized and trending obesity epidemic. Social justice organizers in both the fat-acceptance and feminist communities are responsible for facilitating inclusiveness within their ranks, she says. Fierce shared her insights for creating that environment. “When there are fat activist gatherings, the organizers need to make sure the venues and materials are accessible to those who use differing methods of communication — these are just basics to start with.”

Fierce is hardly the only feminist-minded writer who insists on an intersectional approach to feminism and fat positivity. Late last fall, Hanne Blank released an expanded edition of Big Big Love, Revised: A Sex and Relationships Guide for People of Size (and Those Who Love Them). Blank read Fat Is a Feminist Issue as a college undergraduate. Her vision for mitigating privilege is deceptively simple and profound. “Shutting up and listening with humility and openness to what other people have to say about their experiences and their needs would be a great start,” says Blank. “Then work on creating coalition politics.” There’s also the work of renowned womanists Renee Martin , Monica Roberts  and Tami Winfrey Harris, who recently posted on the harsh criticism hurled at the overweight, middle-aged Downton Abbey star Brendan Coyle’s appearance in a love scene.  

Even for bloggers who haven’t read Susie Orbach, her text’s influence is undeniable. Consider Arwyn Daemyir, who blogs at Raising My Boychick. Her 2009 post on the futility of dieting is particularly memorable. Daemyir’s mother was a subscriber to Radiance: The Magazine for Large Women and later provided her daughter with a personal subscription. Although Daemyir has not read Fat Is a Feminist Issue , her mother owned a copy. “I have a tag on my blog by the same title,” she says, noting the phrase’s influence. Yet Daemyir felt more influenced by titles that followed Orbach’s published work, including Marilyn Wann’s Fat! So? and Bonnie Bernell’s Bountiful Women , as well as the too-short-lived Hues magazine. Without Orbach’s contributions to the feminist and fat-acceptance movements, perhaps none of these works would have drawn in audiences from both sides of the proverbial aisle.  

Orbach’s radical call for open dialogue on body image and eating disorders remains an essential text for generations of activists who struggle with understanding and accepting fat bodies. But the work is far from complete.  

Within the movements, the same impossible questions cycle and recycle. In “ Tiny Revolutions ,” advice columnist Cheryl Strayed (writing as “Dear Sugar”) responded to a middle-aged woman experiencing bouts of insecurity at the thought of exposing her loose-skinned, not-skinny body to a new lover. Sugar poses a question that Orbach likely asked of her own clients in group sessions: “What’s on the other side of the tiny gigantic revolution in which I move from loathing to loving my own skin?”But was anyone shocked when Sugar pointed to a profound failure of the feminist movement to flip the script on body-hatred? Thirty-four years after Orbach sounded the alarm, there is still no collective feminist vision of the other side. “We claimed the agency, we granted ourselves the authority, we gathered the accolades,” Sugar writes. “But we never stopped worrying about how our asses looked in our jeans.”