Episode 1: The F Word

Hosted by: Ash

Guest: Virgie Tovar

(ASH) Fat. It’s a tiny word, but it means “big.” It means abundance, and it means excess, and in modern Western culture, we’re taught to want to be anything else. Hello and welcome to The Fat Lip: a podcast for fat people, about fat people, and hosted by a fat person, and that’s me; I’m Ash. Thank you so much for listening. This is Episode 1, our first official episode, and today we’re talking about the word “fat” and its significance. Even in this moment in popular culture where a fat ass is highly desirable, being actually fat is still considered shameful. But frankly, I don’t want to live like that, and I don’t have to, and neither do you. We don’t have to fear the word “fat” or feel shame that it describes us. When I dreamed up this podcast, I knew that I wanted “fat” in the name. It’s brash; it has attitude. It’s everything I want this show to be. But “fat” is also fraught. Most of us didn’t make peace with this word overnight. I am very excited that with me today to talk about the word “fat” and the fat movement is the editor of the acclaimed, groundbreaking anthology Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love & Fashion, creator of the body pos hashtag #LoseHateNotWeight, and designer and host of Babecamp, a course on body image, self love, and breaking up with diet culture. Hi Virgie!


(ASH) Thank you for being on the show; thank you for talking to me today.

(VIRGIE) Of course!

(ASH) Today we’re talking about the word fat, and I know that you do a lot of work in body positivity, and I wanted to talk to you about the word fat. So, can you tell us about your experience about the word fat? Growing up and how it shaped you , and how you reacted to it when you were younger.

(VIRGIE) Yeah, so I have a very intimate history with the word “fat”, of course! That has changed over time and I think will continue to change. What’s so funny, is, to sort of preface the entire story, is that the word “fat”—we culturally and socially charge that word, so it doesn’t have any inherent meaning, either positive or negative. So anyway, I want to mention that I always knew that I was big. I knew that I was bigger than other children when I was a little girl, but I didn’t have any shame or feelings attached to it until I was taught those feelings at around age 5. So I kind of had this like really curiosity-oriented relationship with my body before I was taught to feel ashamed of my body. I was a fat baby, you know, I’m from a fat family, and so I grew up with chubby fat people who thought that my chub was adorable. One of my favorite memories that I had totally forgotten, that I had literally buried was being a little girl and coming home from preschool when I was four years old and just stripping all of my clothes off and running down the hallway from the bathroom to the kitchen where my grandma was always cooking, and I would stop at the end of the little hallway and I would spread out my arms and legs and I would jiggle every part of me that would move. Because I loved the sensation of my undulating body, you know? Like the jiggle of the fat and the movement of the fat was a big part of the pleasure of the experience. And so that changed when I was about age 5 when I was in kindergarten, and all of the sudden I was on the playground with kids as old as 12 years old, and I think in some ways that diversity of age ended up causing the perfect breeding ground for really intense body policing. And also statistically, at least in the United States, most children are aware that “fat” is negative by age 5 and are able to recognize that “fat” is a bad thing in our culture. And so maybe it was just par for the course of being 5, I don’t know. And I can vaguely recall the first few times that somebody called me fat and they said it in a tone that I knew meant that that word was negative, but I was really confused because I didn’t have any real meaning attached to it at the time, and slowly kind of recognizing that I was this word, that this word encapsulated the totality of who I was and that nothing else about me mattered as much as me being this word. And so there was definitely a process of like education and almost, I don’t know, I feel like it’s a very particular…the word I’m thinking of is like I was tamed or like I was systematically browbeaten or something.

(ASH) Groomed, somehow.

(VIRGIE) And so that education was very acute and incessant and it was very successful. So I went from a person who found a lot of joy and curiosity in my body into someone who, you know, I found a little diary that I had written that I was probably 7 or 8 years old, very young—there was an anthropomorphic bear in a ballerina outfit on the cover of the diary just to give context to where I was developmentally—and I’m writing about wanting to take a knife from the kitchen and cut off all of my fat. And so the word fat was just used to really put me in my place, and I feel like that’s how the culture still uses it—it’s a word to put people in their place or the place that society feels that fat people should be relegated to. So my childhood experience with that word was incredibly hard and painful. I used to get teased every single day. And if there was one day that I didn’t get teased which was such a rare occurrence, I would try to replicate that day exactly the next day. Like I would try to wear the same outfit and try to figure out if there were certain behaviors that I did that made that day a “lucky day” for me. So that was how intense fat shaming and fat phobia was for me growing up. And in a lot of ways it totally changed the trajectory of my life in the way that any oppression does. Essentially the culture seeks to ghetto-ize people that are seen as non-conforming. And that’s what happened to me, and I think about all of these behaviors and outcomes that happened because I believed that I was worthless. And because all of these other people were—I was kind of a pariah, you know—and I’ve been thinking about how this romantically played out for me, you know. I had maybe a sort of typical story for a fat girl or an outcast or whatever, but my first dating experiences were with men that were like 40 years old and I was 17 and there were like really interesting, kind of cool benefits to that, but also there were really weird developmental strange things that happened as a result of that. So in a lot of ways, as intended, if effected the trajectory of my life. And it still does, and I was introduced to feminism when I was in my very early 20s—probably 20 or 21 years old—and we talked a lot about body image and I was surrounded by mostly women who were very supportive of me and my choices as feminists, but I did not have fat friends or an explicit fat community and I was still pursuing weight loss for a long time even after I began identifying as a feminist. And it wasn’t until I was in grad school researching fat women and fat women’s lives that I began developing my own identity as a fat person. I began to hang out with a lot of fat people who were really into being fat and who were real about, like, dealing with stigma, and we were able to talk about it honestly with one another while also placing the blame on society. And that’s really important when you’re a fat person! To be around people who aren’t invested in self-blaming. Like, fatphobia is a social construction. I didn’t come into this world wishing to be treated like shit! That wasn’t my heart’s desire or the universe’s intention, in my opinion, for my life—it’s society that created this problem so society bears that responsibility to fix it, in my opinion. So anyway, it’s really important to be around folks who are like ok, how do we deal with this massive social problem that isn’t going anywhere for a minute.

(ASH) Right, and acknowledge that it’s not us.

(VIRGIE) Right, totally! And so that was really important to me and also just honestly seeing fat women living in bodies and lives that I saw as fabulous, that are fabulous, was incredibly important to me, and that was probably the turning point for me. The first time I ever saw a group of fat women—mostly fat women—gathered together was at this queer conference for fat people called No Lose and being able to watch them in a pool in a bathing suit laughing and looking fearless—that really changed my life. And so the word “fat” began to really change for me, and it became still a charged word, but like it became a word that I decided to wield, a word that I decided to kind of reclaim for the purposes of healing from experiencing so much stigma growing up. And it’s still a word that ‘s very dear to me—it’s a very cute word, in my opinion, it’s a word that I heavily identify with now. And also you know I think that in some ways I think that when we reclaim a word we essentially tell society “I see you.” What I think is so interesting about people who pass or people who are very normative and who don’t cause a stir in society every day, they kind of get the benefit of unspoken invisibility, Like their behavior becomes obscured through the mechanizations of normalization. So when I use a word like fat, it interrupts a play in some ways. I feel like when I use the word fat it turns the light up in the theater and all of the sudden I’m not the only one on the stage. So that word has a very particular intention behind it. It’s not simply to de-charge a word that has been used to hurt and dehumanize me, but also in fact to be a very sharp political tool in sort of the art of unveiling that which is normally invisible.

(ASH) Right, right. Okay, So, fat as an insult. I always feel like fat haters are always super jazzed to call you a fat bitch, like they’ve been waiting their whole day and they’re so proud of themselves, and sometimes I feel like “wow, you have a very sad life, and like if that’s what you aspire to, then good job. You did it man, you treated someone like shit today. You were an asshole to a complete stranger.” If that’s what they aspire to, then I’m proud of them that they got what they wanted, but then I feel like, okay, I have to stand up for fat-kind here and teach them a lesson somehow. So what should we say? Is there anything we can say to someone like this that they will actually hear?

(VIRGIE) Yeah, so, of course there are things that we can say, and maybe they will hear and maybe they won’t. I actually think that the answer to this question is a very individual answer. You know, what do you as a person who is hurting need in that moment. And in this point in my life, what I need is to take care of myself. And what that looks like for me is to allow myself to feel the pain and to not feel beholden to perform the emotional labor of educating this person, because even if we’re talking back or something like that, that is emotional labor. And sometimes that emotional labor feels very fulfilling in the way that sometimes labor feels awesome like if it’s labor that centers us and honors where we are at that moment labor can feel amazing, but you know, it’s also work. And I think for me I’m in the business of doing as little uncompensated labor as possible in this life. And for me as a woman of color and a woman who’s fat and grew up with immigrant parents, I feel like I’ve given this culture enough labor. Like I could retire today and I will have fulfilled like 2 times the emotional labor that any mediocre white man has done in his entire life! And so for me when someone is being really weird, one of the things I do mentally is I actually imagine if they were saying this about any of my other treasured identities, would I be able to take them seriously? So for example if a person came up to me and started yelling at me about how I was inferior because I have a uterus, I think I and most other people who are witnessing this would think that this man was kookoo–they would think he was wackadoo. Because that’s exactly where we are in the culture around this issue—we understand that we don’t get to say that we believe that women are inferior, right? So when a person says something about my body size, I try to get into that same headspace. I’m like “wow, you really embarrassed yourself” and it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, it doesn’t matter if other people are on the same page as him because they’re just as barbaric as he is then. SO for me getting into that headspace where I take back my power is the most important thing for me. And in that moment just kind of witnessing and being like wow you just made a fool of yourself is where I derive my power in interacting with these people. Like recently I came under attack by fox news.

(ASH) Yeah, I saw that!

(VIRGIE) Yeah, I didn’t see the extent of the coverage but like they completely essentially fabricated—like the headline says “this fat lady says thin privilege is bad and you’re bad” or something but I never used the phrase “thin privilege” in the entire talk, nor do I ever really talk about thin privilege because it’s just not something that interests me as a scholar. And it was so funny because there was another woman there who was thin and white and older than me and she talked about thin privilege, but they never mentioned her! But the point is, for me, there was a lot going on, there were a lot of people attacking my twitter feed in particular, and I was like, I mean, there are three things for which I will do work at this point. 1) are you paying me to do this work? 2) am I personally committed and will I feel personally fulfilled for doing this work? and 3) is this a cause that really matters to me? I guess 2 and 3 are sort of similar. It’s like there are three criteria: will it fulfill me personally, will this forward a movement that matters to me or am I getting paid? And the truth is that arguing with basement-dwelling fox viewers is not going to give me any of the three things I need, and so I really encourage people to figure out what those things are for them. Like what are the things that you are willing to do and for what and refuse to do anything beyond that. So that’s my idea of how to powerfully engage with fat haters.

(ASH) Yeah, I think that’s great advice. Like decide what talking back to those gives to you.

(VIRGIE) Yeah, exactly.

(ASH) Ok, so let’s break down some of the other words or phrases that we use or that other people use in place of fat and talk about them and how loaded they are and whether or not we like them. So the first one is “overweight.” How do you feel about “overweight?”

(VIRGIE) I don’t like the phrase “overweight;” it just seems really like distant and it seems pathologize-y and medical. So, it’s not my fave.

(ASH) Yeah, it seems like the shamiest to me, like you’re too much of something. It feels very shamey to me. Okay, you mentioned medical terms, but how do you feel about “obese?”

(VIRGIE) Yeah, similar, though I do think that there are some really fun people on instagram and tumblr who have kinda reclaimed like “obese lifestyle” which I actually love, so in general I feel similar about it being a clinical term, but I really love the folks who have reclaimed it and I totally can relate to that!

(ASH) Yeah, all of those people with their glorifying obesity banners make me so happy.

(VIRGIE) Right, totally!

(ASH) Okay, so how about “plus size?”

(VIRGIE) I really like “plus size.” I don’t necessarily…Okay, so here’s what’s weird: I use a lot of these terms kind of interchangeably—like plus size, body positive, fat— depending on the venue where I’m writing or speaking. “Plus size” to me is not necessarily interchangeable with fat; it’s like this fashion-specific term to me. And I’m somebody who—you know that whole campaign in the fashion industry “Drop The Plus”, you know, there’s people in the fashion industry who don’t want to be called plus size and who just want there to be extended sizing. I totally get where they’re coming from, and a fat person’s desire to be identified in a certain way should be honored, I think, but my issue with it is that I don’t want to get rid of the plus size idea because plus size fashion is different from straight size fashion because the canvas is just bigger. I mean, imagine, in my opinion…like one of the things that drives me a little bit nuts about certain clothing manufacturers that do extended sizing is that they’ll have the same fabrics for a size 2 and a size 24 and the truth is, for example, if I want a dress with cats on it, I don’t want a dress with cats that are like a quarter of an inch tall that might look fantastic on like a size 2 but are completely lost—like it just becomes like weird blotchy dots on my clothes as a size 20 person. Like I want huge, enormous cat faces on my clothes, and that might night look good on a size 2, and I think it would look fantastic on me. And the same thing with jewelry, like I can get away with wearing enormous glasses and enormous necklaces and I think that those things might not look right on someone who’s a very small person, so I sort of think that plus size fashion is its own thing that should be honored and seen for its very special nature. Like there are just things that because I have more real estate, you know, I just think like “why would I put a tiny home on like a hundred acres?” I can do a lot more and a lot different things with it. Anyway, that’s my thoughts on “plus size.”

(ASH) Yeah. I feel like plus size is on the front lines of this fat battle right now. There are so many plus size bloggers doing this whole fatshion thing, and it’s becoming thing and I feel like the future is getting brighter every day for fat folks, and I feel like plus size bloggers are sort of pushing that right now. I just want to know how we can support that, you know? How do we further our cause and make lives better for fat folks going forward?

(VIRGIE) I have a few thoughts. And again, this is very me, this is very Virgie. Like one of the things, when I go to campuses and I talk to organizations and they’re like “what do we do?” and I say, “what you need to do is audit your energy.” In my opinion 90% of your energy as a fat person and a fat activist should be dedicated to you and to other people like you. And I think there is a very traditional model of activism where 90% of the energy goes outward into educating other people, into like doing all of these things. And I want to say that I think that that’s important, but it’s not what I want to do and not what people I love and care about are doing, um, so I don’t want to invalidate that as a mechanism, you know, but I think if we’re talking about actually improving fat peoples’ lives, it’s centering our own selves and our own desires and our own ambitions and normalizing those desires and ambitions and because I mean the culture has taught us to give away all of our energy and labor to it, you know. To give away all of that power to these normcore boring people, right? and like why would I do that? So I think that for me personally it looks like honoring yourself, treating yourself like you’re a goddamn queen every day, acting like that’s normal, you know? I think that’s the most successful thing that I could imagine for like improving…And I think what’s great about the internet is that you can be doing all of this incredible work and documenting it and people can be seeing it. So I think that if you’re organically drawn to that, I think that, like, keep on doing that. Like I’m somebody who finds a lot of power and pleasure in social media, and so I love documenting my life, doing exactly the kind of things I just told you. And to kind of briefly return to the question two questions ago to is there anything you can say to these people that they’ll hear, I think it’s really important to… We need to be super grounded about the fact that these people, these fat haters, are sheep. They are sheeples. They’re the kind of people that, like, no matter what the culture says is okay, they’re going to pursue that with all of their energy. So the truth is that, be grounded about the fact that like a normcore person whose biggest ambition is to be a tool—there’s nothing that you’re going to do until you’re the toolmaker. And I personally don’t have ambitions to be a toolmaker per say, at least not that kind of toolmaker. And it’s like, do you want to be somebody who tools listen to? Then don’t worry about tools. Right? I think it’s pretty simple. So those are my pieces of advice. (music)

(ASH) That was the amazing Virgie Tovar. I am so excited and so grateful that she was able to speak with me today. Please check her out on her website virgietovar.com and on social media, especially Twitter (twitter.com/virgietovar.) Virgie said something so affirming, and I wanted to reiterate it. The best thing that we could possibly do for fat people is to center ourselves and center other fat people in our conversations. And that’s what we’re hoping to do with this podcast, so I hope you continue to listen. There’s a lot more to come. If you like what you heard or you like the direction we’re going in, please rate and review the show on iTunes and Stitcher and Soundcloud. And remember, I want to hear your stories. This is so important. Especially fat people of color, fat queer people, fat trans people. Anyone who feels underrepresented, I want to hear from you and I want to tell your stories. If you do have a story for me or even just a comment, please go to thefatlip.com and I would love to hear from you. Thanks for listening!