Fat Studies: A Critical Dialogue was INCREDIBLE. I truly can’t put into words how wonderful it was but I’m going to attempt to at a later stage. There were so many fabulous people to meet and ideas to action and a buttload of fun and friendship. In the interim please accept a video of my presentation, and the paper it’s based on. I was very nervous but it seemed to go ok!
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My name is Natalie and I’m fat, I like the internet and I should preface this by telling you that I’m so unacademic I had to ask Google how to write an abstract for a paper when I was encouraged to submit something for this presentation! Gratefully, I also had the support of Australian Fat Studies academics as well as complete strangers on the internet, and I want to tell you a story about how I’ve come to be here, loving and accepting myself with the help of the World Wide Web.
Chubby teen finds the internet
I started using the internet in 1995 as a 14 year old at a private girls school. While my friends were swapping X-files fanfic and accidentally swearing at our headmistress via PM over our Novel network, I was helping other students circumvent the ban on chatrooms by using Telnet talkers. I’ve always been interested in communication and community on the internet, rather than downloading porn or music and other stuff. I sought people I could connect with because most folks just didn’t get me; I had crazy ideas that human beings should be treated equitably and I was an introvert who communicated much more comfortably via the written word.
Despite running the gamut of teenagehood and being exposed to conflicting messages about what my female body was supposed to look like, I never wanted to be skinny and I never really was. At a size 14 I felt kind of trapped between being properly skinny and properly fat. I remember many times thinking that if I was going to be chubby I ought to be properly chubby with the benefit of soft flesh and rounded bits. I was attracted to chunkier people and while I felt my thoughts went against the grain I never questioned or repressed them.
At 17, I was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes and found I had to change my whole life. Suddenly I had to inject insulin four times a day and monitor my blood sugar levels in relation to what I put in my mouth. My regular meals had to be balanced, planned, measured and predictable. I had hypos in the middle of the night, and woke disoriented and pouring with sweat; the only way it could be fixed was by eating food to bring my blood sugar back up again. I put on weight even after I lost a lot of weight pre-diagnosis, even after establishing really healthful and doctor-approved, diabetic-friendly eating habits. My body became properly fat and I felt a sense of relief to belong to a group – even if it was a feared and harassed group. I started to get really curious about fat bodies. I tried to talk about fatness with friends and family but the conversations never went very far. People, mostly female, felt genuinely panicked when I brought up the topic.
My Mother was concerned about the weight gain and accompanied me to Weight Watchers meetings. I went along to a few and ate the diet, but it never felt right to me. As a diabetic, my food intake was already policed (by myself and by other people) so submitting myself to more policing and having to pay for it felt wrong and unhealthy. I never felt as if I had disordered eating, nor as if what I ate contributed to my weight gain. My General Practitioners and every Endocrinologist up until my current one would treat me as if I were some kind of terrorist, waging war against my body by intentionally putting on weight. My current Endocrinologist actually says something new: I could have Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome symptoms. Back when I was doing Weight Watchers I knew that my weight gain couldn’t be explained by my food habits and it didn’t make sense for me to further damage my relationship with food by doing a diet that reduced nutrition to numbers so I dropped out. My Mum was baffled but dropped the issue with me, while continuing to pursue various diets herself, yet always remaining the same, familiar and lovely Mum-shape. I broke up with dieting because it seemed like a crock.
Fat girls on the internet
I wanted to connect with other people who were fat and didn’t want to be treated poorly for it. I decided to start calling myself fat, without knowing anything about the fat acceptance movement in the USA in the late 90s. (In fact, I’ve only just read Marilyn Wann’s seminal book, “Fat! So?” this year!) In 2000 the internet was starting to mature, and lots of online communities were developing. I was interested in body modification as a way to own my body so I’d joined iam.bmezine.com, a community developed around bme.com. This community was the first of many revelations, and I connected to several people who identified and labeled themselves as fat amongst many other things. Through iam, I also met a boyfriend who introduced me to the notion of the fat woman as an object of fetish.
The fetishisation of fat bodies sat uncomfortably with me but the discovery of Big Beautiful Women (BBW) and their Fat Admirers (FAs) was definitely another revelation. My now-very-ex boyfriend showed me a message board associated with Dimensions magazine, and I was introduced to many people within the fat acceptance movement in the United States. While I didn’t interact as much within this community, I took the opportunity to observe and learn. My resolve to love my body was strengthened, I wanted to defy the western world’s obsession with and control over the female body.
Mean (fat) girls
I found a couple of communities on LiveJournal, a journaling site where you could join “communities” and meet other people to discuss common interests. The first non-sexualising non-fat hating community I found was nonuglyfats, a parody community that was based on one that took itself VERY seriously, called nonuglies. Nonuglies rated applicants on their “nonugliness” and fat people were always deemed ugly. Nonuglyfats was started as a response to this policy. Nonuglyfats had a reputation for meanness, and even though it was meant to be in jest, many of the members rated applications for real and said really cruel things to people. Admittedly, I participated in rating and critiquing applicants. I said cruel and hurtful things. I had little care for the impact of my words on the people who so desperately wanted to belong to a community of other fat people.
When I discovered the Fatshionista LiveJournal community it was very challenging for me. Not being American, or having much academic experience, made me feel like I was a bit of an outsider. At that stage I thought the mods were WAY too politically correct, and because lots of us (many from nonuglyfats) enjoyed critiquing outfits and posters in a way that was frowned upon by the mods, I started up a community called unfatshionista. It was a place where we could bitch without being slapped on the wrist and for a while it was a great place to go blow off steam if you’d been given a mod warning or just wanted to have a gossip.
After a while I became very aware that I was participating in negative behaviours that didn’t just impact the people I was bitching about… my “lighthearted gabbing” was having a significant impact on my own self esteem. I engaged in body and fat diminishing activities such as taking photos of myself from high angles to disguise my chin and posing in ways that would hide my large stomach. Eventually I got to a point where I understood that if I was to accept my body I would have to stop hiding it, and if I stopped hiding it I would probably be a target for exactly the kind of critique that I dispensed so cruelly. I withdrew from communities like nonuglyfats and unfatshionista, because I was able to see the classist, racist, ableist, even sizeist stuff happening in my interactions with the people in these communities.
When that light went on, it was as if I’d taken the red pill from the Matrix, and I was able to fully investigate the conditioning I’d undergone that led me to believe that such cruel behaviour was perfectly acceptable for women. It’s now my position that body and fashion critiquing are both very negative and harmful things, yet many women don’t think twice about participating in such damaging activities, it is in fact accepted as part of our feminine conditioning. I am very open and upfront about engaging in really hurtful behaviours in my past, because I think it’s more realistic to show women that it’s ok to rethink and disengage from nasty, bitchy activity. It’s why I so publicly owned my past actions when trying to persuade Mia Freedman (blogger and chair of the National Body Image Advisory Committee) to stop inviting spiteful comments on celebrities in her regular Frock Watch segment.
So you’ve started a blog
When I started blogging on definatalie.com in 2007 I’d already had a failed blog so I was determined to make it stick. At the time I was working as an in-house graphic designer in the marketing department of a building company but wasn’t enjoying it. Three years ago niche blogging (blogging for advertising revenue) was starting to take off, and in order to make money you had to use a particular style of writing in order to attract hits from Google searches. I’d been blogging since 2000 on various sites (mostly LiveJournal) so this money making thing sounded interesting… like a way out of a job I didn’t enjoy, a job that made me cry every night because I was so stressed.
I decided to jump on the “niche” blog bandwagon, selecting art and design as my area of specialty. Even though my passion for these topics was strong, I just couldn’t get on board with the Search Engine Optimisation stuff bloggers were encouraged to employ. I missed being personal… personable too! So as my writing voice developed so did my desire to write about other passions of mine. Let’s be honest, I was pretty awful at planting keywords and worshiping at the altar of Google Adsense! I decided to start blogging for me, and about me, and found I enjoyed it a whole lot more.
As the personal started to become more public I found I just couldn’t shut up about one of my core beliefs: that fat people shouldn’t be demonised. I wrote about my limited choices in fashion, shared experiences from my life as a fat woman and found a platform for a topic that was, for all my life, considered taboo. I came out as fat on my blog and the funny thing was… it helped other people come out too. I found that by pushing aside the cold, prescriptive blogging style meant to attract hits and not readers, I felt more fulfilled and connected. Finally I had a voice. Finally I was part of the grumblings of an Australian Fat Acceptance movement in the bloggersphere. For years I had longed for the sense of connection I’d seen on the US based sites and in the fatshionista LiveJournal community, but I’d never really had any idea about how to connect with Australians in the same way. But once I started to write with my “fat voice” I found that other fat Aussies were listening, Aussies who’d been mistreated, disenchanted and disadvantaged because they were fat.
A fat Gala Darling?!
In 2008 I came across a number of female fashion and style blogs, the most popular seeming to belong to Gala Darling. Most of these women were basically carbon copies of accepted femininity in the real world: thin, white, able bodied, cis-gendered and middle class. I wanted to know if I could achieve such popularity, because while I am white, cis-female and middle class, I’m also significantly disadvantaged by my fat body, acne, Type 1 Diabetes, depression and anxiety. Could someone like me reach the dizzying heights of bloggerdom? I’m still trying to find out, but it’s been an interesting experience. Instead of buying in to my privilege, protecting it and defending it, I’m more concerned about exposing it and discussing how various issues intersect with fashion and style. It seems to me that most fashion and style bloggers are about creating a veneer of glamour over their lives, building a brand based on aspiration and consumerism. I wanted to be a blogger who dissects these things and shakes up commonly held assumptions and cultural conditioning in a really accessible way.
I wanted to be honest and have my story be visible. Inspired and encouraged by Gabi of youngfatandfabulous.com, Christina from musingsofafatshionista.com and Lesley from fatshionista.com I started posting photos of my outfits. I realised that if people could see the kind of fashion a fat woman could consume was vastly different to the kind of fashion a thin woman could consume, something had to be up with the world. However, this visibility came at a cost: One of my outfit photos was stolen from my site and uploaded to a Facebook group entitled “There’s a weight limit on skinny jeans and leggings”. I decided to blog about it instead of feeling ashamed, and instead of being angry like I RIGHTFULLY could have been, I reached out to the person who posted my photo and asked them to consider their actions.
Coming out as fat
Community, readers and discussion seemed much more important to me than making revenue from words written more for Google’s algorithms than people. Of course I meet people who disagree with me, but their motivations are typically not driven by such a personal thing. While I accept that keywords and links are helpful for bringing people to my blog, I’m more interested in building relationships because it feels good to find a bond with other people who understand what it’s like to be treated like crap just because your body is fatter than some arbitrary ideal. When you feel isolated and very much like an “other” in your society, being able to share your experiences with people who can empathise is a very powerful thing.
Google thinks you look fat in your blog
As I continued to blog about fat acceptance and the other topics I wanted to explore, I noticed Google’s ads were conflicting with my message. I’m anti-diet talk, and my blog ought to reflect my enthusiasm for maintaining a space where people aren’t constantly assaulted by self esteem and health destroying messages that pervade our every day experiences. Because I started to use the word “fat” freely, and Google Adsense advertisers place ads based on keywords, I found the amount of weight loss product ads started to rise quite dramatically. As soon as I would block 10 domains, 20 more would pop up! I decided to give it the boot, figuring that I wasn’t losing a great deal of revenue. In the year I had Adsense on my blog, I made about $150. It was hardly worth it for the amount of work I had to do.
One day I discovered, to my dismay, that my Mum had created a Facebook account. She wanted to be my “friend”. This concerned me because until that time my family knew little of my online activities and my strident activism and advocacy for fatties. At the time I had a feed set up to notify my Facebook friends whenever I made a post on my blog and when I made the decision to friend my Mum this was at the top of my mind. My Mother is a normal, modern day woman, she takes a lot of pride in her appearance and does all the sorts of things a feminine woman does in order to perform femininity and implicit in the conventions of femininity is the notion that a woman’s body mustn’t be fat. I am a self-identified feminist who is fat and disabled and wants to question the conventions of femininity, our worldviews are somewhat different!
So I was understandably a little wary of my family’s reaction, but if I could come out as fat to strangers on the internet, my Mother should know I was fat too. It sounds utterly ridiculous but we live in a world where euphemisms like “curvy” and “voluptuous” are preferable to a three letter word. Fat is a descriptive word to me, and while I use it with only only a very small amount of fear (mostly regarding how people will react to it!) for most people the “f-word” is used to make people feel bad about the bodies they inhabit, whether those bodies are fat or not. I think that people fear fat because they fear being observed as disadvantaged, because fat is shorthand for so many negative characteristics: lazy, undisciplined, smelly, unattractive, unsexual, unlovable, poor health and disease (and many more!)
Being concerned about how my Mum would react seemed silly because I was in my late 20s. It felt like yet another layer of shame I had smothering me, forcing me to keep my self acceptance a secret. Silly too, when my own self acceptance led me to greater happiness and health (particularly mental health!) We didn’t really talk about me being a fat person on the internet but I knew she was reading. Over time I found enough confidence to request our conversations be free of negative body talk, a convention in many female friendships that serves to bond women while actually damaging individual self esteem and body image. When my blog started to gain a considerable readership, and especially when my Facebook page hit over 1000 “likes” my Mum became a more vocal supporter and it was incredibly touching to have that support too. While problematic body image stuff comes up in conversation still, it feels more productive now. I hope that I can help the women closest to me to question where the negative messages are coming from, it’s a moment of activism in my real life that I’ve been able to take from my online advocacy.
A public fatty
People started to want to talk to me about fat. Journalists from traditional media started to request my opinion and commentary, though typically I decline many of these requests as I’m not yet confident my message will be communicated via traditional media with integrity. It’s fairly typical for journalists to tack on standard disclaimers about “weight loss still benefiting health” without citing any source because it’s TOO radical to tell people to LOVE and CELEBRATE and RESPECT their bodies at any size! My husband Nick started getting more involved in Fat Acceptance and now actually fields a great deal of the media inquiries (and he handles it so well!) Recently we were both approached by A Current Affair and asked if we’d carry a hidden camera into a fatphobic restaurant to catch acts of discrimination. We declined. It’s too easy and does little to spotlight more concerning discriminatory actions that take place in health care and medicine.
I’m an artist, and a considerable amount of my work is about fat feminine bodies and the experience of living in one. My illustrations and graphics are infused throughout my blog, adding to the “brand” (I guess you could call it) of definatalie.com. When I blogged about rejecting the notion of the “flattering outfit”, I created a graphic that asked, “Does my fat arse look fat in this?” Readers really responded to it, and asked if it could be made available to buy on t-shirts and stickers – so I complied! One morning I woke up to a flurry of tweets. The Lane Bryant Twitter account had linked to a t-shirt with the graphic across the front and asked “Is this appropriate? We say NO!” It was a pretty incredible moment when the fat-o-sphere came out to support me, and to support fat embodiment, telling Lane Bryant that if they wanted to identify as fat they would! Considering Lane Bryant’s market consists of people who are not involved in fat acceptance or fat activism, it’s unsurprising they would object to such a message. Their market consists largely of women who will identify as curvy or voluptuous or any other euphemism for fat rather than FAT! Their market strategy is not about self acceptance, it’s about shifting units.
This year I’ve also been flown down to Melbourne to be filmed for a documentary project about my fat activism and art. I even joined a gym! I became vegetarian, started to cook more and transitioned into a much more peaceful relationship between food and myself. I’ve even been invited to give a presentation at a conference about what it’s like to be a fat person on the internet – and here I am, at the Fat Studies conference! It was in fact through the support of the fat acceptance community in Australia and around the world that I was able to make it here today – when I realised I couldn’t afford registration fees, accommodation and flights about 50 people pitched in and donated towards getting me here. I’d never felt so accepted and supported!
The internet has been powerful for my self acceptance and self awareness, and has inspired me in my activism for size positivity and diversity. It’s easy for people to come together online and discuss common interests, Google searches bring us to various forums and other people guide our education through discussion and even arguments! It’s a place where people who’ve never heard of fat acceptance and activism to learn how to question dominant cultural messages. Blogging is a platform for activism that I passionately believe in, having experienced the transformative nature of blogging and community myself I can attest to the power of discussion and support – and the benefits of being more visible as a fat person online.
It’s my belief that this Fat Studies Conference is happening at a watershed moment in Australia for fat activism. Those of us who have been blogging or tweeting for a while have been able to connect, many of us for the first time, but we’re also meeting activists and academics who have been working offline too. Suddenly, it feels like a community is forming in our country. I’d encourage those for whom blogging is a new concept to involve themselves in the fat-o-sphere – whether that be simply by subscribing and reading, commenting or even starting up a blog. Our visibility will aid our community, and prove that there are many, many people in Australia who advocate for the rights of fat people and oppose their discrimination and demonisation.