When Kyla suggested that we do a post on non-normative bodies for Love Your Body Day, I was enthusiastic. The more I thought about it, though, the more difficulty I had defining a non-normative body. Non-normative with reference to what norm? This is an important question for determining body-related policy goals, because a body might appear “normal” but be strongly mismatched with a person’s identity. If we want to encourage feminists to include non-normative bodies in body-positive messaging and policy, we need to be aware that people relate to their bodies in different ways.
The feminist goal of body positivity and acceptance is a good one, and I don’t support policies that encourage body shame and negativity. But rather than spreading an unqualified “Love Your Body” message, it is important to pay some attention to how people define their own normal.
For example, I support health at every size (HAES) policies in public health, which avoid shaming fat bodies that don’t meet an unrealistic thin “normal.” I am opposed to policies that exclude transgender bodies that don’t meet the standard some call normative for transgender bodies–a standard that requires genital surgery and/or hormone treatment, and little ambiguity in one’s gender presentation.
On the other hand, I am aware that by most standards, my body is extremely normative. My genderqueer identity is invisible, so most people aren’t aware that my body doesn’t “match” my gender (there’s no match for my identity, in fact). So I am sensitive to feminist messaging that unequivocally encourages body love. For example, in a room full of people who seem to be women, it is dangerous to spread an essentialist message focusing on feminine wisdom that comes from menstruation and the ability to make babies. Are you sure that everyone in the room feels comfortable with “feminine?” Are you sure that everyone in the room menstruates, or can make babies?
Yes, oh my lord, yes! The annual Love Your Body Day is always a tricky one for me on a personal and political level. While I think it is essential that we create more and more space for people to live in their bodies, express themselves through their bodies, and feel comfortable navigating this world in their body, I recognize that this is no easy task in our body-negative society. Also, “loving your body” means different things to different people depending on their relationship between their body, their identity, and how society perceives them. My concern is that often the rhetoric of “love your body” doesn’t go deep enough or reach enough people. Who is being left out of the conversation? I think that often fat people, trans people, and people with disabilities, for example, are not included.
As a fat, tall woman, it is a daily struggle to inhabit my body. I have worked to love my body as soon as I discovered that it was an option to do so. My college admissions essay was about frumpy sweater day—a day I invented in high school to deal with the constant judgment I faced. Whenever I got sick of people commenting (with words or just looks) on my body, I donned this frumpy sweater that used to my father’s. It was my shield. I knew I looked ridiculous; that was the point. I was daring peope to judge me on what I was wearing rather than what I said. If they couldn’t get past the superficial, then it said more about them than me. It was my way of saying, “I give up. I no longer care. On to more important things.”
Even though this coping mechanism made it easier for me to navigate the tumultuous hallways of a preppy high school, it did nothing to help me find strength in my body. In fact, it may have alienated me further. I figured that loving your body didn’t apply to me. If the cute girl with perfectly coiffed hair sitting next to me hated her body, how could I be expected to love mine?
Our society is so saturated with body hatred that saying “love your body” to cisgender, able-bodied, non-queer, thin (the list goes on) people is a radical act. But surely you don’t mean that a fat woman should love her body, right? Or that people with disabilities should find power in their differently abled bodies? Or that transgender and genderqueer people should find pleasure in their bodies that defy assumptions?
But I think that’s exactly where we need to go to counteract pervasive body negativity. On this Love Your Body Day, I want to explore how we create space for people with so-called non-normative bodies (for lack of a better term) to truly love their bodies and how that inclusion will alter the conversation. I’m not going to even pretend that I have the answers. Instead, I’d like to highlight some fantastic work already being done on this front:
A community for fat dykes/lesbians, bisexual women, transgender folks, and our allies seeking to end fat oppression!
White, disabled, and genderqueer, Eli Clare happily lives in the Green Mountains of Vermont where he writes and proudly claims a penchant for rabble-rousing. He has written a book of essays Exile and Pride: Disability, Queerness, and Liberation (South End Press, 1999, 2009) and a collection of poetry The Marrow‘s Telling: Words in Motion (Homofactus Press, 2007) and has been published in many periodicals and anthologies. Eli speaks, teaches, and facilitates all over the United States and Canada at conferences, community events, and colleges about disability, queer and trans identities, and social justice. Among other pursuits, he has walked across the United States for peace, coordinated a rape prevention program, and helped organize the first ever Queerness and Disability Conference. When he’s not writing or on the road, you can find him reading, hiking, camping, riding his recumbent trike, or otherwise having fun adventures.
Dylan Vade and Sondra Solovay. 2009. Shared Struggles in Fat and Transgender Law. In The Fat Studies Reader, ed. Sondra Solovay and Esther Rothblum.
What if our laws and courts assumed this: Every person is different. We move differently, work differently, dress differently, express gender differently? What if difference were the given? And, what if bodies were a given? We all have bodies. Our bodies come in different sizes, styles and shapes.
We need to recognize there is no bright line dividing man from woman, fat from thin. Let’s stop visualizing a continuum, with man at one end and woman at the other, or thin at one end and fat at the other. Dividing lines and continuum-style lines lead to the law of norms and make it far too easy for courts to threaten those who fall outside the norm with loss of children, employment, and opportunity — unless, or course, they support the norm, pray to the norm, and reinforce the norm.
“Why I’m Fat Positive” from You’re Welcome, blog about the impact of public policy on marginalized communities
I’m fat positive because I identify as queer, a category designed to upset essentialist thinking about sexuality and gender. There are tidy lines of thought that prescribe that male = man = masculine = straight, and female = woman = feminine = straight. Fatphobia is one of many things that props all that up. By regulating what our bodies can and can’t look like (in a very gender-specific way), fatphobia perpetuates normative gender and sexuality in a way that keeps all of us trapped.
Can a Fat Woman Call Herself Disabled? Disability & Society, Volume 12 Number 1 February 1997 pp. 31-41
As an ostensibly able-bodied fat woman I discuss my experimental usage of ‘disabled’ to self-define, asserting that this is a problematic label. I criticise some of the mutual misconceptions fat and disabled people share, especially the rle of medicalisation, and I explore some similarities and differences in our respective struggles for civil rights. I suggest that identifying as disabled is political in origin, and that disability politics offer and important precedent for fat people.
The Adipositivity Project aims to promote size acceptance, not by listing the merits of big people, or detailing examples of excellence (these things are easily seen all around us), but rather, through a visual display of fat physicality. The sort that’s normally unseen.
Tasha Fierce, “Sex and the Fat Girl” column at Bitch Magazine.
Tasha Fierce is a 31-year-old sex-positive feminist of color, queer high femme, unabashed fat chick, cupcake lover and Los Angeles native. She’s written about body image, fat acceptance, queer issues, race politics and sexuality for various independent publications online and offline since 1996.
Shooting Beauty tells the inspirational story of an aspiring fashion photographer named Courtney Bent whose career takes an unexpected turn when she discovers a hidden world of beauty at a center for people living with significant disabilities. Shot over the span of a decade, this film puts you in Courtney’s shoes as she overcomes her own unspoken prejudices and begins inventing cameras accessible to her new friends. Courtney’s efforts snowball into an award-winning photography program called “Picture This”—and become the backdrop for this eye-opening story about romance, loss and laughter that will change what you thought you knew about living with a disability—and without one.
Adios Barbie (blog)
We say “adios” to narrow beauty and identity standards. We say “hello” to frank talk about race, class, age, ability, gender, sexual orientation, size and how our multiple identities shape the way we feel in our bodies–and in the world. (Yeah, it’s a mouthful. But it’s also real.) We’re committed to creating a world where everyone is safe, powerful and at home with who they are.
Dances with Fat (blog)
Regan Chastain is 5’4, 284 pound dancer and choreographer who blogs not only about fat acceptance and fat positivity, but about using a fat body to do glorious, creative things. She challenges the stereotype of a thin dancer and in general helps to break down barriers around a narrow concept of what a dancer looks like, encouraging readers to use their bodies and criticizing those who equate “fat” with unable to move.
Jacyln Friedman, What You Really Really Want (Seal Press 2011)
This manual to reclaiming your sexuality, using an enthusiastic consent model, includes body love exercises that don’t have any particular requirements about body type–the book is inclusive of fat women, trans women, genderqueer people, people with disabilities, etc. and acknowledges the difficulties in body-love, particularly for survivors of sexual assault.
Genderfork is a website that offers examples of different gender expression that aren’t often available elsewhere, from photos to quotes to profiles of those who identify as gender variant in some way. Genderfork focuses on genderqueer, gender variant, gender fluid, and other non-binary genders, but also includes transgender contributors and cis people with non-normative gender expressions.
This post is part of the 2011 Love Your Body Day blog carnival