I’ve been having some problems with belly dance costumes. It can be hard to find plus-size costuming, but that’s not really been the issue — the issue is that costuming is handled by the director of the studio and the wardrobe mistress, with no input from students or teachers (we don’t even know what they’ll look like until a few weeks before the performance). This alone wouldn’t be a huge deal, though as a friend pointed out, it’s a little bit children’s tap performance. But on top of that, costume elements are frequently “one size fits all” (which, as usual, is a crock) or come in limited sizes or (according to another Shapeling who used to dance there) come with a “fat tax” because plus sizes require special ordering. It’s hard to find plus size costume stuff, but not THAT fucking hard — with a modicum of self-determination we could all, for instance, find pants that come in six sizes and three lengths. But we don’t get that.
Last semester, for various reasons, I got my top only a few days before the performance, and it didn’t fit. As a person who’s passed FA 101, I buy great clothes in my size instead of trying to squeeze into tiny pants. If a piece of clothing doesn’t fit me, I return it or get rid of it, because the piece of clothing — not my body — is wrong. I’ve never been a bridesmaid for someone who doesn’t recognize that people come in sizes, and my current social group is such that I never will, so I also haven’t been subjected to having my hard-won body truce endangered by cheap satin and ill-fitting strapless bodices. So this was genuinely the first time in memory that I’d put on something that didn’t fit and felt something more serious than “bummer, that’d be cute on someone else.” It was not only upsetting but sort of disorienting from an identity standpoint — this is not something I let myself do to my body or brain.
But I was already signed up for this semester’s performance, so I thought I’d see if it would happen again. It almost did. Unexpectedly (because we’d originally been told we could wear pants we already owned), the decision came from on high that we would wear one-size harem pants for the show. Now, this is a class with at least three people over 200 pounds (including me, of course) and three over 5’10” (no overlap). We are clearly not one-size-fits-all dancers, so how are we going to wear one-size-fits-all pants without some serious tsuris?
One of the tall girls had also felt really burned by costume inanity before, so we both expressed consternation. And we must not have been the only ones, or we reached some kind of boundary condition, because somehow this time it made a difference. The studio director stopped by class last night to talk about it, and since I wasn’t there (snow) she called me tonight at home. They’re changing to pants that come in several sizes and she wanted to apologize.
After being sort of polite but reserved for a while, I finally took a deep breath and told her everything I’ve said here. I also told her that I was part of the size acceptance movement (“stock answer for anyone who might not be prepared to hear the words ‘fat’ and ‘acceptance’ right next to each other”), that a lot of readers here are belly dancers because it’s usually a great gateway to self-love, and furthermore that I’d usually experienced a lot of body positivity in my classes — making it extra disorienting when I came up against a wall of one-size-ism at the end of each semester. She’d never heard of size acceptance but said that body positivity was a conscious goal of the studio, that she was happy to hear I’d encountered it in classes and sorry that the costume-ordering process tended to feel like the opposite. I told her I appreciated that and was glad to hear that body positivity was one of the studio’s explicit objectives. It was, in short, pretty damn productive.
We may disagree on what activism means — both what it should mean for the community, and what it means for us personally. Some people are awesome in-your-face street activists who never pass up a teachable moment. Some people write — for blogs and newspapers, for experienced activists and brand-new 101ers. Some people organize; others are activist through art [potentially NSFW] or radical visibility. Some people will drink a bowl of gravy for fat acceptance. Not everyone wants to speak up every time — and even when we’re speaking up, we may disagree on tone and approach, honey versus vinegar. Personally, I have a tough-to-shake tendency to go pretty limp in face-to-face situations — my FA tendencies, so pronounced in print, go head to head with my dislike of making myself disliked. But it’s worth remembering that some people who appear to be acting thoughtless just genuinely aren’t thinking, and a gentle or even not-so-gentle reminder of your existence as a person who doesn’t want to be marginalized can have real effects. You don’t have to be all super-activist all the time — I’m not. But if someone is mistreating you and you don’t think they mean to (because they mean well, because they probably want your money, or whatever), try letting them know, with whatever level of gravity or breeziness you think it requires.
Kate recently defined privilege as “the luxury of not thinking about it much,” which I think is perfect. One of the consequences of privilege, then, is that if you want people to be inclusive of you, you often have to remind them that you exist. It sucks to have to do this all the time, which is part of why so many people — particularly those struggling to understand their own privilege — confuse privilege with prejudice or ignorance. Even if you’re not actively oppressing those who lack the privileges you have, you are oppressing them by failing to consider them part of the status quo, by requiring them to make explicit requests for basic representation or consideration. We need to be aware of that when it comes to the privileges we have — do you, by default, consider everybody or only the people whose experiences you find familiar? But when it comes to privileges we lack, it’s worth remembering that as much as it may suck to have to ask explicitly for consideration, you get to ask for it. Even if you’re not a born activist, you can still be an advocate — for others, and just as importantly for yourself.