Guest blogger Rebecca Rabinowitz: Fat-positive children’s books, part two

This is the second section of a two-part post recommending children’s books that have something to offer in terms of fat politics. Section one is picture books; section two is middle grade and young adult books. I wish the list were longer, but these are, sadly, all the fatpol-friendly children’s books I have found so far. (I’m only one person, of course, so there may well be more out there that I don’t know about. Please holler if you know any!) Because fatpol-friendly children’s books are so rare, I’m taking off my regular book-reviewer hat and including some books that are artistically/literarily weaker than I would normally recommend. (Though you’ll probably be able to tell which ones I consider highest quality.)

Parameters: I focused on main characters rather than secondary characters. The characters’ levels of fatness range from slightly fat to very fat — although the status quo narrative definition of “very fat” is problematic, as has been discussed here before. Because defining levels of fatness is so problematic, I decided not to distinguish between levels of fatness in my capsule reviews. I’m frustrated and apologetic not to have found many “supersize” characters, nor many queer characters or characters of color. Although I’m not including any books that are too heinously offensive along general progressive lines, some of these books do include some sexism and racism at times, because they exist in the World, and it’s hard for things that exist in the World to avoid sexism and racism completely.

Please note: while some of these books warrant an unreserved fatpol-friendly rating, many require caveats. The list was tragically short without the mixed-message books, and I wanted y’all to be able to make your own choices. Please don’t take an inclusion on this list to mean that a book is 100% fatpol-friendly and doesn’t warrant a critical eye.

DAY TWO: CHAPTER BOOKS.

Middle grade books:

THE FETCH OF MARDY WATT, by Charles Butler. The single fantasy book on this list! Mardy is fat and hates it. A dark and slightly surreal adventure into a noxious parallel realm takes her energy and almost her soul until the evil force is conquered by an unorthodox (but never twee) group of friends. Intelligent book. On the not-quite-FA side, Mardy never stops hating being fat; but on the plus side, there’s nary a hint of her dieting or trying to lose weight, and her fatness is no hindrance to her success in the plot arc. Another nice quality is that while Mardy herself dislikes her own fatness, the narrative voice doesn’t mind it at all.

RODZINA, by Karen Cushman. Set in 1881 (but written in the 21st century), this solid and tender historical novel features a young girl who happens to be fat. The fatness has no symbolism and no baggage. Rodzina and other orphans ride an orphan train across the country seeking new families. Poverty and sadness, but much strength as well.

THE MISFITS, by James Howe. Four seventh graders try to change the atmosphere of their school by running a political campaign to ban name-calling. Each of the four is an outsider in some way: too tall, too fat, too odd, or just plain gay. Fatpolwise, this book is pretty good. A fat boy narrates in first person, and over the plot arc, he gains a lot of confidence without losing any weight. The girl he likes likes him back even while he’s fat. A few randomly-placed comments undermine the positive fatpol message, but the protagonist doesn’t diet in the course of the book. Caveat: strange, sketchy narrative messages about gender and race.

Young adult books:

THIS BOOK ISN’T FAT, IT’S FABULOUS, by Nina Beck. A fat, rich teen with no desire to lose weight is sent to fat camp by her father and stepmother. Initially spoiled, she becomes likeable almost immediately. Her growth arc is about emotional openness; one major theme is lying versus telling the truth. No weight loss, no negativity associated with fatness, just a fresh and hilarious new voice. I’d give this to fat readers without a single caveat (except maybe the title, which implies that fatness and fabulousness are at odds; luckily, the rest of the text doesn’t think so).

FAT KID RULES THE WORLD, by K.L. Going. A fat teenage boy, emotionally distant from his family, makes friends with a hyper homeless boy who’s on drugs but is a brilliant punk rock musician. I’m including this book because as the protagonist learns to drum, bonds with his family, and makes his first friend, he never loses weight. There’s no implication that he’ll lose weight, or try to, at any point. Caveat: Going objectifies this protagonist’s fat body to an extreme degree. The narration is first-person, but the fat boy is always the FAT boy, never just a plain old human being. Even at the end, when he’s a fuller human being to himself and his family, his body and gait are always, always marked as fat: he lumbers, he waddles, etc. This descriptive repetition, though stylistic, undermines the fatpol-friendliness of the non-weight-loss plot arc.

THE EARTH, MY BUTT, AND OTHER BIG ROUND THINGS, by Carolyn Mackler. I struggled over whether to include this one. It’s 98% wonderful, with a fat teenage protagonist who morphs from an insecure girl who idealizes her problematic family and eats for comfort into a confident, kickboxing website-founder with an eyebrow ring. Caveats: two irksome sentences. One says that the protagonist can “see” her stomach and arms tightening up (from exercising). The fact that she sees it rather than feeling it is rather anti-HAES and implies loss of fat as well as growth of muscle. The second cringeworthy sentence is a comment that her Fat Pants are “feeling a little loose.” These sentences render this book one of the many that equate emotional growth with weight loss. However, they seem unusually brief and unessentialized here; consider using those two sentences as discussion points.

FAT HOOCHIE PROM QUEEN, by Nico Medina. A fat and happy Puerto Rican teen girl, who never minds being fat and is clearly attractive, gets embroiled in a prom queen competition with an old nemesis. There’s girl-on-girl bitchiness and some unsettling classism; however, there’s also a fabulous straight fat girl cheerfully surrounded by queerness. This is (frustratingly) the only book on this list with a protagonist who’s a POC. I heartily recommend this one.

MYRTLE OF WILLENDORF, by Rebecca O’Connell. Myrtle is a college student, though flashbacks show earlier periods of her life. She’s fat and she’s an artist. She’s also a binge-eater, and she lives with a thin and health-snobby roommate. Major themes include “goddess” mythology and menstruation. Caveats: boys are never attracted to Myrtle (though she wishes they were), and her bingeing is certainly a fat stereotype. However, I’m including this book because, despite the fact that it’s a stereotype, some fat people do binge, and O’Connell’s narrative voice is respectful. Also, although the bingeing and lack of boys shows no sign of changing – even at the end, when Myrtle finds public success as an artist – there’s also no implication that Myrtle will lose weight as part of her growth arc. Consider this a BED book as much as a fatness book.

BIG FAT MANIFESTO, by Susan Vaught. Fat power messages overflow – and mix with a few old stereotypes too. This attempt at a direct fatpol novel is romantic, passionate, emotional, and political. Jamie’s a high school senior writing a column called Fat Girl Manifesto for her school newspaper. She’s very active and she has a (hot and fat) boyfriend – who decides to get WLS. Vaught’s groundbreaking messages include assertions that fat people are attractive and that WLS is the only way for a fat person to become thin because dieting doesn’t work. However, Vaught includes so very many messages about fatness that they reach chaos point. You’ll find some offensive old anti-fat chestnuts in this warm and energetic page-turner, but you’ll also find lots of cheer-worthy fat acceptance messages. A great place to start, for young adults who have never encountered fatpol before.

Guest blogger Rebecca Rabinowitz: Fat-positive children’s books, part one

Fillyjonk says: Hi guys, remember me? I’ve been planning a wedding, which I realize is not as good of an excuse as when SM wasn’t blogging because she was studying for her orals, but it’s the best I’ve got. To make up for my absence, here’s a guest post I requested a few months ago when children’s literature expert Rebecca Rabinowitz did a guest post on The Rotund. Loads of people had been asking Aunt Fattie for fat-positive books they could give their kids or other people’s kids, so I asked Rebecca to make a few recommendations. Little did I realize that she would put in months of work (well, she also has that whole job thing) and give us not one but two guest posts on fat-positive books for kids and teens. Here’s part one.

This is the first section of a two-part post recommending children’s books that have something to offer in terms of fat politics. Section one is picture books; section two is middle grade and young adult books. I wish the list were longer, but these are, sadly, all the fatpol-friendly children’s books I have found so far. (I’m only one person, of course, so there may well be more out there that I don’t know about. Please holler if you know any!) Because fatpol-friendly children’s books are so rare, I’m taking off my regular book-reviewer hat and including some books that are artistically/literarily weaker than I would normally recommend. (Though you’ll probably be able to tell which ones I consider highest quality.)

Parameters: I focused on main characters rather than secondary characters. The characters’ levels of fatness range from slightly fat to very fat — although the status quo narrative definition of “very fat” is problematic, as has been discussed here before. Because defining levels of fatness is so problematic, I decided not to distinguish between levels of fatness in my capsule reviews. I’m frustrated and apologetic not to have found many “supersize” characters, nor many queer characters or characters of color. Although I’m not including any books that are too heinously offensive along general progressive lines, some of these books do include some sexism and racism at times, because they exist in the World, and it’s hard for things that exist in the World to avoid sexism and racism completely.

Please note: while some of these books warrant an unreserved fatpol-friendly rating, many require caveats. The list was tragically short without the mixed-message books, and I wanted y’all to be able to make your own choices. Please don’t take an inclusion on this list to mean that a book is 100% fatpol-friendly and doesn’t warrant a critical eye.

DAY ONE: PICTURE BOOKS.

Picture books that blatantly address fatpol:

STARRING HILLARY, by Kathy Caple. This is a strong HAES picture book. Hillary is a young girl character (a cat, anthropomorphized) who aspires to be on stage. Hillary is “a little on the round side.” Her wise mother says “’I wouldn’t worry about it….We come in all shapes and sizes. You are just right the way you are.’” But older sister Felice imposes dieting pressure, insisting, “You’ll never make it, as round as you are.’” Felice takes charge of restricting Hillary’s food and enforcing weight-loss-specific exercise. Hillary loses sleep and becomes newly anxious (calorie-deprived) until she sees a glamorous famous actress – a “round” adult cat. Hillary abandons the diet, eats food again, and sails through a theater audition the next day. Her conclusion: “’If I eat normally from now on, I’ll be just right.’” Victorious! (NOTE: because this is a picture book, be aware of the “don’t put beans in your ears” phenomenon. A very young child who’d not thought of dieting before could get the idea here, despite the adamantly anti-diet narrative message.)

I LIKE ME, by Nancy Carlson. This is an energetic and unabashedly didactic salute to self-esteem. A fat young girl character reads, skates, draws, dances, eats, bathes, rides a bike, and rows a boat. She likes her “round tummy” and says so. Caveats: although secondary child characters exist in the background, the protagonist seems to have no friends and to exist distinctly alone (with the exception of a mother that shows up late in the book). Her solitary self-sufficiency sometimes sounds defensive and reactive: “When I feel bad, / I cheer myself up” and “I have a best friend. / That best friend is me!” Also, despite the long literary tradition of anthropomorphized animals in picture books, Carlson’s choice to make this protagonist an anthropomorphized pig may trouble seasoned activists or readers who’ve been called pig-related names. (Reclaiming fat pride is key, but I’m not convinced that we need to reclaim a connection with actual pigs.) Absolutely HAES-friendly.

Picture books that don’t mention fatness but portray fat characters going about their regular lives unhindered by being fat (to find more on your own, simply look for fat characters who aren’t symbolically bad and whose fatness doesn’t hamper them):

HOTTER THAN A HOT DOG, by Stephanie Calmenson, illus. by Elivia. A young girl and her grandmother, sweltering in the city heat, escape to the beach for a day. They stay through the sizzling afternoon and past sunset. They splash in the ocean, dig in the sand, and eat ice cream. Elivia’s spirited and lively watercolors are occasionally slightly inconsistent such that the girl looks fatter on some pages than on others; however, the grandmother is always fat, and fatness means nothing here. Nothing bad, nothing symbolic, nothing at all. Full of joy.

THE UNBEATABLE BREAD, by Lyn Littlefield Hoopes, illus. by Brad Sneed. An uncle pops out of bed one morning with a burning inspiration to bake an unbeatable bread. His wife objects because they’re snowed in tight with no one to eat it, but his passion wins out. The bread’s fragrance while baking travels out of the house and pulls in animals from their dens and nieces and nephews from afar. It wakes people up and may even start spring. Illustrated in gorgeous paintings and written in odd but wonderful rhythm and rhyme, this features a main character (Uncle John) who is fat for no symbolic reason except maybe (if you’re really reaching for symbolism) the fact that he’s a creator/baker figure who nourishes and brings bliss.

BEA & MR. JONES, by Amy Schwartz. Kindergartener Bea has “’had it’” with kindergarten – the beanbag games, the clothespin games, the colored lollipop game. Her father is tired of running for the morning train and sitting in an office all day. A swap is in order! Both are thrilled in their new positions and, unlike in traditional picture book structure, they don’t trade back at the end. Bea and Mr. Jones are both fat, but not for any particular reason. One of my favorites.

BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING, by Amy Schwartz. [MEGA-NOTE: WARNING: This book was later re-illustrated and republished by the same author/artist. For fatpol purposes, you want the 1983 black-and-white version – check your library or do an out-of-print book search. The 2005 version has color illustrations and a thin protagonist.] Sara arrives home from school with an assignment to paint a ”wonderful” (ital. orig.) picture for the art show. She has an idea for a subject but worries that it’s too insignificant. This is a classic artist’s struggle, both conceptual and philosophical, and totally accessible to very young readers. Sara and her whole family are fat, but the fatness has no symbolism and causes no hindrance.

Guest Blogger Occhiblu: More Problems with Racism and the Fatosphere

Shapeling Occhiblu sent a version of this as an e-mail to us yesterday, hoping we could post about it. But she’d basically said it all, so we asked her to guest post. Thanks, Occhiblu!

Note to commenters: This thread will be moderated with a heavier hand than usual. –Kate

By Occhiblu

Sandy at Junkfood Science linked yesterday to a syndicated column published in the Indiana paper The Star Press. Sandy’s comment on the article was, “This is a profound article on where we’re being led in the name of perfect health and bodies, and in the war on obesity.”

The linked column, “Perfect expression of the communist machine,” was written by rightwing columnist Kathleen Parker; it is a pile of racist drivel about how the Chinese value collectivism because of Communist dictators and how “free” people value humanity while Communist people do not. [Note from Kate: If you want to read it, go via Sandy’s blog or Google it.]

Speaking about the substitution of Lin Miaoke for Yang Peiyi in the Olympic Opening Ceremonies because, she claims, Peiyi had imperfect teeth, Parker writes:

Sentimentality doesn’t enter into the totalitarian equation. In such a world, innocence is irrelevant, and deceit is a lesson best learned young. Who cares that a little girl was told she wasn’t pretty enough to be seen by the world and that her voice — though lovely — belonged not to her, but to the homeland?

That single gesture, relatively small amid the extravaganza, said more about China than all the fireworks, human kites and dangling dancers. It said: The human being — the individual — is of no importance. The objectification of that child, her voice commodified for the purposes of the state, was the real ode to the motherland.

As I commented at the Star Press site, while one could certainly make an argument that dictatorial countries prize perfection over humanity, this article is not that argument. Ms. Parker does an excellent job, however, of ignoring the United States’ mass-produced and internationally distributed form of aesthetic perfectionism — our Hollywood actors and actresses are not exactly known for their “normal” and “human” appearances, and the entire industry is pretty open about discarding the imperfect, the old, and the odd — and she quite glibly ignores the cultural importance of collectivism as a Chinese value, not just a Communist one.

Putting others first, working in harmony with the whole, and striving for the good of the family and the community rather than the glory of the individual were not invented by Lenin. Anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Eastern history and thought can trace these values back through Confucianism, through Buddhism, and through Taoism. Anyone with even a modicum of humanity can see the beauty, power, and wisdom of these ideals. While these values may have been co-opted to support a corrupt political system in China, presenting China as if it were the only country in which religious ideals were exploited in order to prop up a power-hungry leader and deny the humanity of large segments of the population ignores what’s going on in our own country.

Parker does not stop at ignorantly categorizing collectivism as some sort of totalitarian mind-trick, however, she also goes straight for the Godwin gold:

Inevitably, comparisons have been drawn to the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany. Just as China’s selection as host country signaled its emergence as a global power, Germany’s marked that nation’s return to the international community following its defeat in World War I.

Although Adolf Hitler was already busy rounding up Jews, gypsies, homosexuals and others for detention and/or sterilization, the Games allowed him to pull a propaganda coup of peaceful tolerance. The Holocaust and World War II soon followed.

By implying that only totalitarian countries oppress their citizens, Parker ignores the United States’ wretched history of human rights abuses, including internment camps for Japanese- and other Asian-Americans during World War II, and sweeps away any bad that the West has committed (and there’s been a lot of bad). She’s also arguing that collectivist world views, which are strongly held by many non-Western cultures, lead to holocausts.

Sandy calling this article “profound” and explicitly linking it to weight-based discrimination in the U.S. is problematic, to say the least. Saying that this is where “we’re being led in the name of perfect health and bodies, and in the war on obesity” endorses this view that somehow the Chinese are more oppressively perfectionist than the West and uses the racism of the original column to erase the reality of Chinese culture in order to make a point about fat discrimination. She tosses Chinese culture and values under the bus in her effort to talk about why fat discrimination is bad.

I think it’s instructive to look at how the popular feminist site, Hoyden About Town, dealt with the same event. Writing about the substitution of one girl for the other, tigtog reinforces ways in which Chinese culture and Western culture are creating the same pressures on women. She writes, “Here’s just one high-profile example of how women are trained from a very young age to believe that their looks matter more than anything else about them, not just when it comes to finding a sexual partner, but also in terms of recognition and reward in other aspects of life.”

I am not Chinese or Chinese-American, so it may be possible that I’m missing ways in which tigtog’s piece glosses over or misses Asian cultural pressures that are different from the West’s, but I was really struck by how the feminist site took this event and used as a way of finding similarities in oppressions and of reaffirming the humanity of the two girls, while the site on the fatosphere linked to an article that erased the humanity of the Chinese and reaffirmed the primacy of weight-based discrimination.

And given that the linked article included the Holocaust and Tiananmen Square Massacre as the natural outcome of the Chinese worldview, that’s a very large claim that Sandy is making.

Sandy’s site does not allow comments, so the fatosphere feed now has an entry linking to a nasty racist screed, calling it “profound,” and aligning its argument with the struggle for FA, with no way of publicly questioning the blogger on this statement.

I find that really disappointing, especially since there has been so much discussion lately about racism in the FA movement. So this is my public statement.

Guest Blogger Tari: Want to Save the U.S. Economy? Go on a Diet!

So this morning, Australian Shapeling Marg sent us an article with the headline, “Americans must diet to save their economy.” Yeah, really. The basic idea is, since producing food uses so much energy, we could halve our energy demands and hold off fuel price increases if we all just stopped eating so much. Yeah, really.

Our friend Tari is not only a fat rights activist but a goddamned hippy an ecologically conscious badass who pays serious attention to where and how her food is produced, in hopes of having the smallest possible impact on the planet. I figured she could rant about this one far better than any of us could, and I was right. (She’s also dang speedy with a rant!) Tari, thank you so much. Shapelings, please enjoy. –Kate

By Tari Follett

Want to save the US economy? Go on a diet.

So says New Scientist environmental reporter Catherine Brahic (big time Sanity Watchers on the comments, of course). I have to admit, although I was skeptical at first, by the end of her writeup, I totally saw her point and was on the verge of calling Jenny! Or, you know, NOT.

So, why is it that we must diet to save the economy? Because the economy is tanking due to the energy crisis:

That’s the message ecologists are trying to get across this week. They say the apparently looming energy crisis could be averted if US residents cut their calorie intake.

David Pimentel of Cornell University and colleagues have drawn on an extensive body of existing studies to highlight the wastage in the US food production chain. To bring their point home, they have estimated how much energy could be saved by making a few relatively simple changes to the way corn is produced.

Wait…where’s the part in there about going on a diet? I mean, anyone who’s read their Michael Pollan has heard about how horrible the industrial food system is, putting corn into every fucking thing in the grocery store, supporting inhumane CAFOs and environmental devastation, oppressing farm and factory workers around the world, yada yada yada. Telling Americans to go on a diet is NOT the same thing as changing the way corn is produced, and considering how much “diet food” is chemically-flavored corn byproduct, I don’t think it would have quite the effect Brahic seems to think it would.

‘Cause, see, the big problem with corn production is not that people eat too much. It’s that corn farmers grow too much. (Hint: it’s the system, not the people.) Moving swiftly on…

Their conclusion is that energy demands could easily be halved. That could stave off the prospect of further rises in the costs of fuel, they say.

To do that, however, would require a considerable change in the average US diet. The average American consumes about 3747 kcal per day compared to the 2000 to 2500 kcal per day recommended by the US Food and Drug Administration.

The 3747 kcal per day figure does not include any junk food consumed.

Producing those daily calories uses the equivalent to 2000 litres of oil per person each year. That accounts for about 19% of US total energy use.

Okay, so I used some advanced Google-fu to try to track down what David Pimentel (a noted biofuel skeptic, longtime ecologist, and generally reasonable science type) and his colleagues actually said in whatever published report Brahic is talking about. I just couldn’t imagine that someone who knew the intricacies of the industrialized food system, and its devastating environmental and economic impacts, would boil it all down to telling people to stop shoving baby donuts in their pieholes. Especially since, in the very quote above, it’s the reporter drawing that false conclusion – energy demands being halved is not the same thing as people eating fewer calories. Most of the food-related calories Pimentel is referring to come from the fossil fuel-based fertilizers and pesticides being sprayed on the production end of the system, transit costs, and that sort of thing….not so much the actual kcals in the baby donut itself.

I couldn’t find any recent statements or research from Pimentel. (If anyone else tracks it down, pass it on – I’d dearly love to review it.)

Brahic (who, as far as I can tell, is using Pimentel’s research – wherever it came from – as a vehicle to promote her own views) next moves on to the ever-popular “go veggie” argument. Now, as a committed flexitarian (meaning I eat mostly veggie with occasional meat), I agree that reduced meat eating has a huge environmental impact – especially if it’s mostly (energy intensive) factory farmed meat being cut out. Seriously, I think taking money away from those sick de-beaking fucks at Tyson is a wonderful thing…but it has nothing to do with going on a diet. Just switch it up to some nice ethically-raised free range chickens from your local family farmer, and you’re cutting the fossil-fuel kcals in your food without necessarily changing your caloric intake one whit. (Of course, that’s disregarding the limitations of class, location, and finances that make this not so much a workable solution for lots of people.)

Even Doc Pimentel agrees with that:

In 2004, Pimentel estimated 6 kilograms of plant protein are needed to produce 1 kg of high quality animal protein. He calculates that if Americans maintained their 3747 kcals per day, but switched to a vegetarian diet, the fossil fuel energy required to generate that diet would be cut by one third.

The next part is a little trickier. Brahic is using some crazy new math I don’t really follow.

In addition to the 3747 kcals, the average American consumes one third of their calories in junk food and Pimentel and colleagues suggest this could be cut by 80% and the total calorie intake be reduced by 30%. That could drastically cut the amount of energy which goes into feeding Americans, as junk food is typically low in calories, but energetically expensive to produce.

Okay, for starters, where the fuck is she getting the data that says the average American consumes 3700 kcals, PLUS a third more calories in junk food? Say what? That’s over 5600 kcals. Every day?
Seriously? I mean, the odious Morgan Spurlock didn’t even quite pull that off by eating at Mickey D’s three times a day… and I somehow doubt that’s a habit of the average American. In fact, per the latest data (2004) from the UN Food and Agriculture Office, Americans average 3770 kcal per day. Now, I’m not sure if FAO is including junk food in there or not, but I’m guessing they probably don’t count junk food calories separate from regular ones (especially since they have a dietary breakdown that includes fats and sugars and other junk-food-type ingredients right there on the same page).

What’s really just pants-pissingly hilarious, though, is the bit about reducing that phantom third-of-overall-calories-from-junk-food by 80%, which somehow reduces the overall number by 30%. Now, I wasn’t a math major, but lemme see if I can add this up: 3747 + 1874 (the extra third, assuming that 3747 is two thirds) – 1499 (80% of the 1874 junk food calories) = 4122 kcals. Hang on a sec, 70% of 5600 is only 3920! Hey, wait…maybe she lives in a land where numbers don’t have a constant value?

I also particularly LOVE the “junk food is typically low in calories” line. Make up your own joke.

Don’t get me wrong, I agree with a lot of the actual, substantive points of the article. Factory farming is horrible for animals, the environment, the economy, and for people. Eating less meat demonstrably reduces overall energy usage on a global scale. Single serving packaging wastes energy and materials needlessly. Reducing the amount of meat and processed food we eat is a step towards better physical and environmental health for most people.

But you know what it ain’t? A diet.

In trying to stay abreast of what’s going on in the environmental movement, I see a lot of fatphobia. The constant flourishing of a fatass as the foremost symbol of Classic American Overconsumption is a popular theme, and speaking out against it in environmental circles often a difficult and thankless task. In that context, quite frankly, this is a pretty mild example of the usual “if we stopped burning fossil fuels and eating meat, we’d all be skinny vegans riding bikes everywhere” rhetoric.

It’s a cheap shot, though, and the reasons for making changes to how we look at what we eat are strong enough to stand on their own – without bashing fat people, without using Madison Avenue marketing smoke and mirrors, without playing on the engineered fears and insecurities of a constantly bombarded populace. But then, Brahic and her editors (who knows which of the two slapped the headline on this article?) aren’t in the business of actually making the world a better place. They’re looking for clickthroughs and ad revenue… and everyone knows, chicks can’t resist an article with “diet” in the
title!

Guest Blogger LilahCello: Yes, I’ve got facial hair

I was delighted when LilahCello offered to write up her experiences with facial hair as a guest post. I know this is a topic that hits close to home for many Shapelings; we’ve talked about the politics of head hair here before, but facial hair is a subject that occasionally arises in comments and always spurs a lot of interest. Like LilahCello, I’ve had facial hair since I was a teenager — first on my upper lip, then on my chin — and have spent an inordinate amount of energy on trying to hide that fact. Like fat, facial hair is a reminder that “femininity” is not an inevitable consequence of having a female body; instead, it takes a lot of work — and often, a lot of shame.

My (online) name is LilahCello. I am 33 years old, have been married for 12 years, have 2 children, home school the older one, go to school (training to be a philosopher/ethicist), am fat, have rosacea, have facial hair, have a dog, recently lost his brother, love sunsets and the mountains, and so much more. So, that’s about it. Oh, you saw that? That teensy tiny, little admission? The one thing that I still have trouble talking about, even though I can deconstruct any misogynistic television ads, call myself fat publicly, discuss male circumcision (my field of ethical study) in graphic detail, or explain trans issues to my eight year old? Yes, I have facial hair. I do not have PCOS, I have little body hair elsewhere (although I have thick, thick hair on my head and cute hair on my toes), and I have chin hairs. A goatee, of sorts. And I am embarrassed as all hell about it. I don’t even talk about it with my very kind, loving partner of 14 years who has watched me give birth. He has literally watched my body open itself to let our sons enter this world, and I can’t talk to him about some hair on my chin?

It didn’t happen overnight. When I was a teenager, I had a couple of long, stray hairs on my cheeks. No big deal, right? Clip ’em off and they were not thought of until I noticed them again. Then, one day, I had more hair, this time on my chin. I don’t remember the exact moment that it happened, nor do I remember much of a build-up. I just know that one day, I suddenly had hair where I hadn’t had it before. I mentioned it to a nurse practitioner during an annual exam once and said that I had to shave it off. “Oh! Don’t do that!” No? Don’t get rid of dark hair on my chin the only way I know how? Cutting it with shears was too difficult and didn’t produce the desired degree of invisibleness. I am too chicken-shit (and embarrassed) to get it waxed, and have not had the money to get it lasered off. Besides, I have heard from friends who wax that you have to let it grow out in order for the wax to adhere. No thanks! So now I shave everyday, or at least every other day, if I happen to forget (then notice it at an inconvenient time). I do it on the sly, which is no easy task in a house that is freely naked, co-showering/bathrooming, etc. I know that I will be coming into a little money when my financial aid comes in, and my plan is to go in and have this arch-nemesis laser-ly removed FOREVER! (Let’s hope that I can afford that when the time comes!) But what do I tell my husband when I go? I have a nursing baby, so I can’t be gone for long. I am guessing that there will be some sort of discomfort and redness afterward, so I can’t deny it. I think that my best bet will be to tell him after I have made the appointment.

This is the person with whom I have chosen to spend the rest of my life. I have children with him, we are equal partners in this life, and I can’t tell him this one little thing. I have talked about it with two other people. One friend who has PCOS and is studying to be a doctor, the other is a very open, unashamed woman (who had grabbed and plucked hairs from my face). Other than that, I deal with it in private. Why do we do this? Why are we so ashamed of something that A. we have no control over, and B. is a totally normal place to grow hair?

Because we are women. Women aren’t supposed to have hair on their faces (or their feet or their bellies or their nipples and so on), though many of us do. Some of us assume it is because of our heritage. All of my Italian grandmas and aunts had moustaches. I have a little bit of dark-ish hair over my lip, but not as much as on my chin. Not yet, at least. As you may remember from earlier in my post, I once had no hair on my chin. Women are supposed to be small (FAIL), quiet (FAIL), hairless (FAIL), pretty (possible FAIL), and reserved (FAIL). (Those are fails on my part. I am a loud, proud, fat, average looking, hairy-chinned woman.) Women ought to be dainty and demure, and that sure as hell doesn’t include having facial hair.

So what do we do about this? Bitch magazine had an article about this in their Spring, 2005 Masculinity issue. What struck me about the article was that women were embracing their facial hair. This is absolutely foreign to me. ME! The woman who hates gender constructs (though I willingly, and I’m sure, unwillingly, play into those constructs) was blown away. The same woman who tells her long-haired son, who is often mistaken for a girl, “So what?! Nothing wrong with being a girl or looking like one!” If I had a daughter, I would tell her the same thing if she “looked like a boy.” But I, a woman with facial hair, do everything in my power to pretend that it isn’t an issue.

Having side-tracked the Stop Her Before She Diets Again! thread to talk about this, I found out that many of you struggle with the same problem, and like me, find it very, very difficult to talk about. So, Shapelings, what is your experience with this elephant in the room –- or on our faces, to be more specific? Do you embrace and flaunt it, or do you pretend that it doesn’t exist while you secretly pluck, shave, or thread it away? How do you deal with people who notice? Do they comment on it? What methods of hair removal have you tried? And, more importantly to this Shapeling –- did it work and did it hurt [the most important question to this scaredy-cat (who has had two children with no drugs, one at home, and one preemie in the hospital, so why should she worry about a few plucky pangs — but — she — does!?!)]? I want to know how others feel, and want others to know that they are not alone or abnormal –- something I believed for years.

Guest Blogger Heather Bailey: Short Haircuts for Fat People

Yes, folks, it’s even more on hair! Shapeling Heather Bailey recently sent us the story of her latest haircut, and it was too good not to post. –Kate

My hairstylist for the last three years has been a guy who’s a bit of a wunderkind stylist in this town, awesome with the shears. The problem started when I came to him last summer wanting to razor off my shoulder length hair to pixie, and he flat out refused. He said, “I don’t think that would be right for your face.” What he meant was: “You’re too fat for a pixie cut.” So I conceded and got a chin-length shortcut, feeling a little ashamed that I couldn’t pull off a pixie (a professional said so!). I believed him and told myself, yeah, I need this bit of bang covering half my face to frame it properly.

A few months ago, I got my dream job working in a library, where I am frequently found pushing around 100 lb carts of books, doing deep knee bends and reaching high to shelve things, lifting tubs of books to and fro. And guess what? That fucking hair, it just kept getting in my face and generally annoying the hell out of me. I started keeping it in a constant ponytail and then I was like, fuck this. I picked a different hairstylist. It turns out that she has also got skillz, double-mad. Also, when I showed her the pixie I wanted, she immediately said, “That will look so awesome on you. You have great features to show off.”

Fuck me, I’ve been going to a stylist making me crazy with pixie-cut fear for the last 12 months, and now I find out that it was him, not me, all along? And that with longer hair, I look the same size as with short hair (fat, fat)? And now that I got the cut, I have gotten several thousand compliments from stray library patrons who never spoke to me before? Apparently, I have really great glasses, amazing eyes, a lovely neck, a fantastic outfit, good posture, and one charming and elderly patron thinks that I am “just beautiful!” Plus, I am playing more with makeup and styles for my new hair, and I am generally in love with the confidence it gives me.

I’m a relative newbie to FA, but I consider myself pretty solid in the “diets don’t work, and Weight Watchers is a diet” mentality. I dress well, take care of myself with exercise, relaxation and enjoying the food I eat. I don’t think badly of my fat. I stand up for my body when others put it down. I found a doctor who asks me my habits rather than my weight to determine my health level. But this one area tripped me up: I believed that hair can magically make you look fatter/thinner and I was afraid of that. We are what we are, and if our culture wants us to “blend in” and feel that we have to hide the fat bits on our hips, thighs, faces – well, it’s up to us to tell them we’re not obligated to make them feel better by feeling bad about ourselves, and we aren’t going to disappear anything about ourselves.

The moral of the story is, all those dos & don’ts of the fat girl fashion & beauty diktat? Add up to one big don’t. Don’t listen.

Guest Blogger Ellie: Trying Tai Chi

Remember how back in January, I said I was going to try a bunch of exercise classes and report back here? And how, after five months, I’ve only written up belly dancing and Pilates? (Still haven’t gotten around to writing up water aerobics, but who better than an otter to tell you about that?)

But then, do you remember how I also encouraged people to send in guest posts about their exercise experiments? Shapeling Ellie remembered that part, and she sent us this awesome post about starting tai chi, which I totally want to do now. Thank you, Ellie!

As an aside, dammit, I really need to move next door to this place, because it has absolutely everything I want to try, but I frequently get hung up on the “getting there is kind of a pain in the ass” factor. (And sadly, it’s really only kind of a pain in the ass, not even a huge one.) I’m still doing Pilates around the corner, some yoga at home, walking all over the place now that it’s spring, and one of these days I’m going to get around to joining Ottermatic for Squeaky Voiced Teen’s water aerobics class on a regular basis. But if a gym like that were around the corner? I’d be taking a class every day. Why the hell does getting to the gym always seem so much more daunting than actually working out?

Ahem, anyway, please enjoy Ellie’s take on tai chi. –Kate

After several people in the great Shapely Prose exercise discussion mentioned tai chi, I was inspired to check out an open house at the local Taoist Tai Chi society. I just finished up my first beginner’s level class, and I could not be more pleased to have tried it!

What it is: Taoist Tai Chi, a version of the “gentle martial art” that focuses on health and body awareness rather than fighting or meditation. The Taoist Tai Chi society is a really cool all-volunteer organization that promotes good works and cultural exchange, and I highly recommend them if you have a branch in your town. Other forms and organizations will be different.

What I needed: Just a comfortable outfit (jeans are fine) and a sturdy pair of shoes (or not – I did most of it barefoot).

How it works: The set is a series of 108 moves (not all unique) that you learn in a beginner’s class, which takes about three months. Then you can move to a continuing-level class, which works on different aspects of the set; you can also repeat the beginner’s class, or just continue doing tai chi at home.

Because of the cumulative nature of learning the set, you learn a few moves to get a sense of how Taoist Tai Chi works. Unless you absolutely can’t stand your first class, I’d recommend you stick it out for three or four more before you decide one way or the other.

My class met for an hour, two evenings a week. We started by doing the set as far as we knew it, and the instructor took questions. After a quick tea and water break, we learned the new moves of the day (usually one or two) and finished by going through the set once more.

Cost: Low. One of the goals of the Taoist Tai Chi Society is to make it available to everyone, so it’s cheap ($30 a month for 1-4 classes/week, less for students) and they will go all the way down to $0 if you can’t afford it.

Workout level: Low to Medium. The main benefits are to flexibility and balance, and mostly will give you a good relaxing stretch. The cardio component is comparable to a long walk – more fit people won’t be strained, but more out of shape people (like me) will get a moderate workout. There isn’t much of a day-after effect – no soreness or stiffness.

Fat friendliness: Very high. There are only a couple moves where a Rack of Doom, or large thighs like mine, get in the way, and a minor adjustment clears that up. We had people of all sizes in our class. Weight loss and calorie burn were never, ever mentioned. Health and body awareness were the main focus. I felt very welcome.

Contraindications (physical): There are a few moves that involve bending over, slow kicking, or twisting the foot around, so if those things are hard, you would want to proceed with caution. However, our instructor constantly tells us to “do what you can, don’t do it until it hurts” so the troublesome moves would be easily adjusted or even skipped.

Contraindications (mental): If you have a lot of trouble learning an action by watching it done, it might be hard for you to catch on. Our instructor will answer questions, but most of it is learn-by-seeing. You don’t need a great memory (just great peripheral vision, as my instructor would say) but it might be too frustrating if you find it hard to follow along with somebody else’s movements.

Final note: I found the whole thing really beneficial, mentally as well as physically. I enjoyed always having at least two hours a week to count on being totally calm, and I met some fantastic people in the class. I highly recommend checking it out.