Shadow on a Tightrope : Writings by Women on Fat Oppression a 30th Anniversary Celebration

186b0e0a-6db1-43ef-8f9b-148456613195When asked to read and blog my reflection of Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression for its 30th anniversary celebration sponsored by Aunt Lute Press, I jumped at the chance to do so. Many of my friends and cohorts in the Fat Activism/Liberation movement speak of this book as their first experience or exposure to Fat Liberation.  I’ve spent years hearing it mentioned during discussions and casual conversations with long-timers and budding new activists…I often felt as if this book was as important to Fat Activism as the Bible is to christian religions.  And I knew I needed to read it, and yet years in to my work in Fat Activism and I’d yet to pick it up. Now that I have, I can’t imagine why I didn’t do it sooner.  I’ve read the bible, more than a few times, and it never left me weeping as Shadow did. I read the essays and other writings in Shadow over two sittings and both times within minutes of scanning the pages, tears were rolling down my cheeks.  I thought about why this is, what about the poems, essays, stories shared in this anthology made it so poignant to me? And beyond the obvious, “I can relate” response came swarms of thoughts and emotions that required sorting through.

I’ve often felt I was born to a wrong generation, jealous in a way of the women who’s hard work, struggle and tears have paved the way for all the liberties I enjoy today.  I don’t quite feel I belong in the “second-wave” feminist category and yet I’m much too young to be  “first-wave” and much too old to be “third-wave.” And really, these classifications are arbitrary and relevant maybe only to historians. But it doesn’t stop me from feeling like I belonged to a different time when activism was more…well, active. Because I sit in rooms with women who have long been a part of the fat liberation movement and listen to their stories from the past and musings on the present, I’m often hit with phrases like “today’s fat girls have it much easier with the internet, Facebook, and blogs.” And its true, in many ways, the internet generation does have a connection and a resource for activism that didn’t exist previously.  And yes, we often sit safely in our comfortable homes behind a screen with a blog written under an alias that protects us from the kind of political struggles that sent the original members of the feminist fat liberation movement literally fleeing from Los Angeles in 1976. But this tool that helps us to move activism forward more quickly and with perhaps fewer repercussions, also isolates us. I long to be in that room in 1972 where the Fat Underground was birthed.  Where the radical, untested concept that if a person would just “stop trying to lose weight, their ‘eating problems’ go away and weight eventually stabilizes” originated (Mayer xiii). This is the very tenement of my fat liberation faith and it happened just down the 101 in what I imagine was a small room with a handful of women speaking their truths and needing to see change in our world, bravely spoke those truths out loud to those who would listen and help move change forward. As I write now, tears are welling in the corners of my eyes…these women are the mothers, the sisters, the partners of my fatness; my ability and freedom to live so much more comfortably in my fatness than they were able to 30 years ago.

But the fight isn’t over, and I can not rest comfortably.  In the 1970’s the “sexist industry that has made the lives of fat women a living hell” aka the diet industry was an 11-billion dollar a year enterprise (Mayer 3). Today, its 65-billion dollars a year. Is that progress? This industry feeds off what they tell us are our failures as women, as human beings, as members of a society that promulgates the “thin ideal.” 30 years ago, this was a hard-to-publish, radical anthology. Women speaking out about their experiences on being fat? Who would want to read that? And wouldn’t that just encourage women to continue to be fat?  But the memories that are contained on these pages are just the beginning of the struggle for fat liberation and as Lynn Levy reminded me “the outrages are not all memories–they continue, even after I refuse to play the game.” Our liberation “does not prevent a man from harassing me on the bus, it does not prevent airline seats from being too narrow, it does not prevent my being unable to find clothes that will fit in the styles and materials I like.” And this is how she felt in 1980. 1980! This is MY story TOO! Today, in 2013. “Passing cars, passing strangers, I harden myself to words I have trained my ears not to hear, hurled at me on the streets.  It all continues, and I look forward to the day when I can no longer control my rage” (Levy 81).

As a woman, feminist, fat liberationist of the 21st century, the digital age, I’m frequently told that I’m much too open and honest about my life, my struggles, the things I want, need, expect. I have chosen to expose my life through blogging, Facebook, Instagram. I grew up a fat child in a family of other fat people and the only time we talked about it was when someone lost weight or someone was being shamed in to not eating something because they “needed” to lose weight.  As an adult, I will not live that way.  I will not be shamed in to stealing green apples from a neighbors tree and sneaking home after school to quickly make a tiny apple tart, eating it so immediately from the oven that it burned my mouth, and cleaning up before my mother got home from work just because I wanted it but knew it would not be ok to ask for. I will not live a life of denial for acceptance. And I will tell my stories as they happen, today and everyday. But only because these women, the women of the Fat Underground with their Fat Liberation Manifesto paved the way from me to do so. And I will continue to weep…but they will be tears of determination, born from the strength and hard work of those who came before me and the hope for those who will come after me.  I look forward to a future where the only writing being done about fat oppression is in our history books.

The poem below is by Sharon Lia Robinson and was published in Shadow on a Tightrope. It speaks to the deepest parts of me.

whoever i am i’m a fat woman

the space of a silhouette
entering the space of a silence

curvatures of silk
caverns flooding
welcome to a canyon:

she’s a horsewomon
a tennis match
a champion runner

she’s an artist womon
a desert womon
a dancer

she’s a fat womon

a fashion hall for dreams

she’s a seeker your lover your sister
a dreamer a bohemian a thinker
your doctor she’s a healer
a psychic her stories will set you free

herb lady
masseuse
mathematician
architect
sexologist
clothes designer
museum curator
sculptress
archaeologist

a farmer

2.

 

a laughter’s echo
she’s a fat womon
a fat womon
a womon
bound to cut
this earth of the shadows inside her

cliffhanger
ballroom dancer
go-getter
bartender

scene stealer wheeler dealer

a leaper a runner a roller

she’s a fat womon and she’s breathing

the unknown womon
the womon who flavours her own song

she’s a genius
she’s extraordinary
she’s an ordinary girl
she’s a fat womon

cab driver copper welder tea drinker
street walker prude

she’s a blues singer
a floutist a drummer

a pin up girl
an ice skater
an icecream lover
a hindu

3.

 

a hiker a kite flyer
your shadow on the tightrope
she’s a fat womon

your shadow
a brake mechanic
a concert cellist
a jazz saxaphonist
leaping on laughter’s echo the rhythms of her life.

poet playrite witch nun jew

surfer
bathing beauty
high heeled sexy tramp

scorpio rising
rubenesque pearl

priestess potter shoemaker
hairstylist jeweler
thankyou. a furniture design.

the womon procurred by money
the womon who is heard above laughter

the womon who walks beyond
the streets of desire
the womon who has always walked these streets
with passion
the womon who has taken over the space of her body
and the womon who has refused to conquer that space.

worker bohemian boss scholar aristocrat
roadrunner sailor weaver

a fat girl
she’s a wallflower
socializer leader recluse wanderer

4.

 

an advertisement for love:
in lillian russell days
you’d follow her
her bare ankles
down the rivers muddy edge by foot
making love to her on your knees

she’s a stallion a fleet of rivers.

feel the womon
whose river bathes in mammoth luxury
tracing the moons
that are inside her

she’s an aesthetic womon
she’s a plastic womon
she’s a junkie
a hobo
a housekeeper

candlemaker
chiropractor
stuck up bitch
fast smiler
on welfare
or could be
she’s a fat womon

the silent womon
worn
with a mask around herself

the womon who is challenged to a duel

the womon who is tortured

tied to the bed and raped

the womon who always sleeps in black
the womon who never says “excuse me”
or smiles when she’s supposed to

5.

 

the womon whose existence is in question

rough outrageous dull graceful ingenious

exciting to be alive as being a fat womon

she’s a deep sea diver
a windmill climber
a motorcycle mama
and a bicycle rider
she’s a fat womon

she’s a snow shoveler
a short stopper
a wind lover
a heart breaker

certain truths
will make your heart beat fast
when you hear them from a fat womon

you’ll grow pale
get chills
disbelieve
but she’s marching toward you
she’s here and she’s taking back her life.

a tough springer
a dead ringer
watch the stones
they throw
her will turn
to looks of beauty

the stones
they throw to works of art
will turn to looks of beauty.

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