Michele Matthews is someone to behold ““ describing herself as a “person who says unpopular things.” I first met Michelle at a conference on body image, wherein she stressed the idea that as we talk about fighting media images with consumer dollars, not everyone has those consumer dollars. She is currently a social work student at New York University and a case manager and counselor for one of the city’s domestic violence shelters. She is also a fat activist and runs Fatpocolypse, a website dedicated to ways of helping people understand fat acceptance and fight against harmful prejudice. Her blog, The Fat Social Worker, is a musing on body privilege and acceptance, her experiences as a social worker and every little thing in between.
PM:What drew you to social work?
MM: I came to social work kind of on accident. I struggled for a long time trying to figure out what I wanted to do for the rest of my life. I did AmeriCorps for a while after majoring in English and Gender studies, and I just wasn’t finding anything that was a good fit for my interests. I thought about going to law school, but something about that wasn’t fitting right, either. At the time I was volunteering for a hotline for queer folks, and I had this one call that was so fulfilling, so heartwarming and heartbreaking, that I realized that working with people on that kind of level was something I was good at and drawn to, whether I liked it or not. I had done some research on social work schools while considering law school, and I just started going to info sessions. And then at some point, I realized that social work was what I always wanted to do but just didn’t have a name for. When I was 16 years old, I said I wanted to be a feminist when I grew up and social work is how I’m learning to do that.
PM: What do you think the differences in social work practice are in, say, academic environments versus “real world” environments?
MM: It’s hard to say because I honestly have such little experience with the real world. That’s part of the problem I think with teaching something like social work. I mean, I think to my classes and I think about some of the great ideas my peers and I come up with, and the truth is, so few of these ideas could ever be implemented. We don’t live in a culture which values our profession, and such little funding is getting thrown in the direction of public agencies right now.
PM: You currently work at a domestic violence center (a short-term emergency center) as a case manager and a counselor. Can you describe the day-to-day life that happens at the center and your role?
MM: I’ve been interning there for a few months. The day-to-day reality is always in flux. Clients are always in and out. Case management is particularly difficult, and it tends to get a bad rap among social workers. A client will come into the shelter, and due to safety concerns, they’ve usually had to quit their job if they had one and they’ve pulled their children out of school. My role as a case manager is to help them put the pieces of their life back together so they can live independently. How this process looks varies radically from client to client. Some clients will take a task and run with it, while others need more pushing. I’m not really sure how I feel about being the one who pushes, you know? I feel like at the root of case management I should be an advocate for the client, but I feel like more often than not, I am advocating that the client hurry up and do x, y, and z or else. The power dynamic isn’t something I feel is conducive to healing for these women and their families. I feel like I am put in a position that is so delicate because many of these women have felt a lack of control in their lives, and I don’t want to be the person who revictimizes them.
Counter to that, I also do supportive counseling, which is a role I really love. There’s not a whole lot of time, nor do I have the expertise yet, to do things like intensive psychotherapy, but supportive counseling is an opportunity for them to get some serious stuff off their chest about being in shelter, which can be a very degrading experience for some residents. I also try to teach coping skills and I throw in a little bit of basic cognitive behavioral therapy in there. I have had some really amazing experiences performing counseling. It sometimes amazes me how resilient human beings can actually be.
PM: What are the most common issues and obstacles you see in this setting that people may not be aware of?
MM: Finding safe and permanent housing is the number one obstacle that women in domestic violence shelters face. In NYC, the emergency shelter system caps them at 135 days, and that is including a 45 day extension. Most women who come to shelters can’t afford any alternatives, so they’re not exactly swimming in money–they’re living in poverty more often than not. Low-income housing is really difficult to come by in this city. NYCHA has domestic violence priority, but that application process is ridiculous. Women have to furnish orders of protection and police reports and hospitalization records to qualify, and then it still takes several years to get a spot. Section 8 is closed. The most recent housing program, the Advantage program, just had all of its funding cut, meaning women who I saw work their ass off to get this program are now at risk of being evicted. Housing is key to helping women escape these dangerous situations, because if they don’t have it, they’re just going to go back to their unsafe situations and a lot of women end up in shelters more than once because of housing concerns.
PM: Does rape culture play a role in the women you see or in the perception of your work in a women’s shelter?
MM: Rape culture plays a huge role in my work at the shelter. Rape culture essentially reduces women and non-normative folks to simply bodies. These bodies are not valued as anything more than objects to assert power over. It dehumanizes people. And when you live in a rape culture like ours, it’s not hard to imagine something like domestic violence existing. When you dehumanize someone, what then is violence committed against them? It’s not the tragedy that it really is, it’s just someone else’s business. What is the point of providing housing, a basic human need, to someone who is, in a rape culture, less than human? It’s definitely not a priority, because in a rape culture, throwing women and children out of their homes and putting them back into abusive situations or out on the streets is not an injustice. It’s a reality.
PM: You are also a proud fat activist and are committed to fat acceptance on a larger cultural scale. Can you tell us about this advocacy work? What are the goals? What are the setbacks?
MM: To be perfectly honest, a lot of this is a work-in-process for me. The fat acceptance movement, as wonderful and amazing it has been for me, lacks centralization. There doesn’t seem to be a list of common goals. Do we want to see ourselves on TV or do we want to see ourselves getting promotions? Where do we focus the energy? Because that’s what social justice movements are all about–energy. There’s a lot of energy in the movement, but it’s so scattered into all of these thousands of causes. I started Fatpocalypse.com in order to foster ideas and a way for all of us to focus that energy and to take that energy off the internet and into our communities and our streets. I would really like to see it grow into an activist and educational hub on the subject of fat acceptance. The fat acceptance movement has been insular for a very long time. With the talk on food that’s going on in the media and in the bigger public discourse, it’s time to open up our conversations to the bigger world. That is hard. There’s a reason we’ve been insular, and that’s because people don’t want to hear what we’re trying to say. And many of us have experienced abuse and bullying surrounding our fat, so to hear it when we’re trying to liberate ourselves can be really scary. It’s essentially experiencing trauma all over again, which I can say from my own experience, is damn hard. It’s an important risk that I hope those of us who are able to are willing to take.
PM: How do you think we as a culture can have a better dialogue about body privilege and recognize health at every size?
MM: It’s the same way we can have a better dialogue about any form of oppression or any type of identity. There’s really five pillars to this.
First, make no assumptions. Don’t talk about fatness or blackness or queerness or ableness without talking to a fat person a black person or a queer person or a disabled person, and doubly, don’t assume that experience speaks for everyone in that box. Nothing about us, without us, right? The thing is, you can’t look at a person and assume anything. Most of us have been there when we talk about class and gender. You can’t accurately assess if a person is female by looking at them any more than you can tell if they’re queer or straight. So, you can’t really tell if a person is healthy by looking at them either. You also can’t tell if they’re lazy or stupid or any other number of things we assign to being fat.
Second, if you know a fat person who is unhealthy, question why that could be. Is it really the adipose tissue on their body that is causing whatever ailment it is? Recognize the fact that experiencing stigma can cause some of those same ailments, as well as dieting, and like Kate Harding and Marianne Kirby said in their book Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere, who diets more than fat people? No one.
Third, recognize the idea that health is not a moral imperative. Being healthy is not more “good” than being unhealthy anymore than being white is more “good” than being black. It says nothing about the moral fiber of that individual whether they have type 2 diabetes or not. Numbers on a scale don’t measure worth.
Fourth, if you really want to understand the war on obesity, you need to recognize who is “obese” in this country. According to CDC data, the largest population of obese people are women of color. A disproportionate amount of those who are “obese” are also in poverty. The war on obesity is, in other words simply put, the war on poor women of color. You can’t fight fat oppression without fighting racism and sexism and wealth inequity or any other -ism you can pull out of a hat.
Finally, trust fat people. We’ve been policing bodies for too long. Just as women have the right to make reproductive decisions on a spectrum of choice, just as all of us have the right to become consensually intimate with whomever we like, fat people have the right to be fat. Fat people have the right to exist as they are.