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Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Read Local: Discrimination Is Unacceptable -- Unless You're Fat

Posted By on Wed, Nov 14, 2012 at 7:30 AM


New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe every Wednesday for Read Local, a new series which exclusively focuses on books produced in the Bay Area.

In this great land of opportunity, inspiring tales about overcoming adversity have a built-in audience. Racists, misogynists, and bullies are defeated and the populace rejoices. Down with discrimination! Celebrate diversity!

Except for fat people. They have a problem of their own making. A war has been declared against them, and everyone agrees on the solution: fat people need to eat a healthy diet and, according to the First Lady, get moving!

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That's what Abby Weintraub was told. When she was rushed to the ER half-covered in her own blood, doctors rolled their eyes and sent her home, barely conscious. One primary caretaker after another refused to performs tests, deeming her unworthy of such privilege, health insurance or not. Her weight was the only thing they saw when she walked in the room, and it precluded further research. Only she could remedy what was wrong, but was she willing to put in the work? Abby stopped seeking medical attention, resolving to live with the consequences of her self-imposed fate. "And for those three years, I'll carry a malignant tumor around with me, tucked into a uterine wall. Growing slowly, left in peace to stretch its little fingers toward other plush, overlooked organs."

Editor Virgie Tovar at Booksmith.
  • Editor Virgie Tovar at Booksmith.

"Truce" by Abby Weintraub enjoys an interesting distinction in the new fat-positive anthology, Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love, and Fashion (Seal Press 2012). It is by far the most powerful and, at the admission of the author, one that least matches the mission of the book. Regardless, editor Virgie Tovar did well to include it. For her part, Tovar is a great mind who has the potential to really penetrate these issues of social justice on a greater scale. She may be years away from this because, as she explains, that reflects the state of the movement: They have no advocate in government, and no means to counteract discrimination.

For now, Tovar uses popularized words like "fierce" and "fabulous" in writing, and "civil rights" in conversation. She has made a choice to prioritize immediacy and access above all else. "The intensity of fat messaging means that these women are dealing with this every day," Tovar said, and this book is meant to serve those women now. The othering starts young, and it does not go away with time or maturity. It cuts deep, and there is rarely enough time to heal before the wound is reopened. Many of the essays in Part 1: Life focus on PFA, or pre-fat acceptance, the moment when a young girl is told by her mother or brother or friend at school that they are weak, unworthy of love, and they need to stop it right now. 

Ad against Childhood Obesity in Georgia.
  • Ad against Childhood Obesity in Georgia.
Everyone says this, and they can't all be wrong, so fat women throw themselves intro extreme dieting and practically live at the gym, the least hospitable setting. Sometimes these efforts yield results, however fleeting, and everyone rejoices. Dieters are showered with attention, worthy of sustained eye contact for the first time, because a person's worth becomes clearer the closer you get to the center.

Unless you get scurvy, of course, as Tovar did during such a phase, or you are genetically predisposed to being heavy, like countless essayists who are professional fitness instructors and yoga teachers. "We're not talking about health, we're talking about thinness," Tovar explained. "Thinness shows that you have self-control, and that you're upper class, so that you have the time to be obsessed with leisurely exercise."

The essayists eventually realize that one can eat well and exercise, subscribing to a more inclusive notion of "health at every size," but it is dependent on external forces. Just as the initial hurt is inflicted by one person, it takes another to undo it. Sex is often involved, and almost all the essays reflect this correlation: Someone finds me sexy. Someone finds me worthy of love. This resonated with Tovar. "My liberation came from feeling revolution through my lady bits."

Fat discrimination is so all encompassing and normative that the dissenting voice, the one that contradicts everyone else, is a necessary revelation in the process. Make no mistake about it: This is a process. There is no untouchable state of bodily acceptance. The opposition is everywhere, and there is always a new situation to confront. A fat woman might find someone who loves her body, but that doesn't mean she is suddenly included in the meritocracy at work or given proper health care. Tovar hopes this book will provide an alternate perspective in world where there is, at the moment, no accepted counter critique. "The transformative power of community has long been at the heart of radical change," Tovar said. That community is full of women of every size, in every town and city in America.

Indeed, the book incorporates the breadth and depth of experience in a diverse community, providing a broad range of essayists. This is not an anthology that will alter the literary world, but it engages in an conversation that needs to happen on a national level. Society is seemingly inflexible when it comes to discussing what healthy looks like, and how to then appropriately rectify the injustices people who are deemed overweight suffer in every facet of society. 

Tovar was recently lecturing to a group of college students asked to define word "fierce" in the title of the book. Most of the answers shared a common element, an impression garnered mostly from television. Boldness in terms of fashion was a popular reply. Someone who is saucy.

"Among all these definitions that felt similar, someone answered that being "fierce" is just an armor, and I was completely floored by their perceptiveness of what this word really is," Tovar recounted. "Women in general, not just fat women, are not immune to the message society projects, and being "fierce" in response is a part of the process."

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