One of the sayings that Groucho Marx was famous for was, ”I don’t want to belong to any club that will accept people like me as a member.”
When I received an email early in the year from Ms. Virgie Tovar congratulating me that my submission was accepted for her upcoming book, I was thrilled. As much as I love blogging, there is a different kind of validation that comes from someone else deeming your work valuable enough to be published.
At the time of Ms. Tovar’s email, I knew very little about the book, except that it would be an anthology of pieces written by fat women about being fat. Almost a year passed and I all but forgot about the book, until recently when I received a package in the mail from Seal Press. I didn’t remember ordering anything, so my curiosity was piqued as I opened the padded brown envelope.
Staring at me was a redheaded woman (April Flores) in a leopard t-shirt, arms akimbo, and a sassy, sexy, come hither look on her face beside the title of the book, Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love & Fashion. I was intrigued, but still a bit confused until I read “edited by Virgie Tovar” and it clicked.
This was THE book! My piece was somewhere in this book. I had no idea how many other authors were in the book, I had no idea who the other authors were, and most of all I had no idea that I was a fierce fat girl!!!
WHAT? ME FIERCE?
Today’s world of social media requires that we all become masters at self-description. Whether it’s a profile on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or your website, distilling ourselves down to a sentence of quippy adjectives is a mandatory skill. Condensing an entire personality and lifestyle is no easy task, especially considering most of us are shy about tooting our own horn, or reluctant to share TMI. Of course, we want to be humorous, serious, engaging, accessible, unique, approachable, and unforgettable, but not trite, annoying, superficial, or too trendy. I have a collection of profile words that I use for different venues and purposes that range from clinical to academic to artsy to playful, but one word that is not found in any of my bios or profiles is the word fierce.
I started to wonder about this Fierce Fat Girls Club to which I suddenly belonged. For some of us, belonging to a club elicits a wonderful feeling of being accepted. Even the word belonging encompasses so many aspects of this phenomenon. The longing to be a part of something, without apology, without excuses (and without getting into the dark side of clubs that involve the exclusion of others), it feels safe and reaffirming. But I was intrigued about what it meant to be fierce, especially considering that once I opened the book up to the Table of Contents my excitement was rapidly being replaced by a tsunami of insecurity that, by all definitions, is the antithesis of fierceness.
I saw that there were 30 other fierce fat girl authors in the book and I panicked. What if my piece was the worst in the whole book? What if I didn’t really belong in this club? What if I stuck out like a sore thumb? What if I didn’t fit in? Not fitting in is nothing new to me. In fact it is rather egosyntonic; but it’s one thing not fitting into a society that excludes you for being too fat, and quite another not to fit into a collection of stories by fat women writing about fat. THAT was a failure I never contemplated. Honestly, I could have used a little fierceness in that moment”¦which I defined as a protective, powerful force to be reckoned with like a mama tiger protecting her cubs. Fierce was primal, jungle-like, untamed, feral, strong and invincible; something to be feared.
I stood in the hallway in my Sponge Bob Squarepants slippers as my brain churned away at warp speed: Do I turn to my chapter and read it to make sure I don’t sound like an idiot? But what does that say about my respect for Virgie? If it was really awful, she would have pulled it. She is a professional, this is her work and she has a huge investment in its success. If it wasn’t okay, we would have had a discussion. Why don’t I ever think my work may be better than another writer? Oh that would be worse, I could never tolerate being better than someone. Then they would feel badly and may not like me!
Luckily I have been in therapy for A Very Long Time and before I spontaneously combusted, I mustered all of the Cognitive Behavioral Tricks of the Trade in my arsenal and confronted the demons of my mind:
“I am in charge here, not you!”
Oooh, did I detect a tad of fierceness there?
I poured a glass of wine, curled up on the couch, and started reading Hot & Heavy from the beginning, as if I wasn’t in the book; as if I was just another person who had gotten the book because the topic appealed to me. And here is what I found.
FULL FRONTAL DISCLOSURE
Before I write any further, in the spirit of full disclosure I have to point out two things. One is that that I am not receiving any royalties on book sales, so any positive recommendation to read Hot & Heavy is not motivated by personal financial gain. Secondly, as you may have already figured out, I may not be the most objective person to be writing a review of this new anthology edited by Ms. Tovar given that my piece, “Take Off the Damn Shoe,” is the fourth essay in the book. With those two caveats, I promise to write as objectively as possible and to tease out what may be my personal projections or unconscious bias.
The book is divided into three sections: Life, Love, and Fashion with a total of 31 pieces contributed by 31 women. Other than gender, the common denominator is fat. I am not going to comment on each of the 31 pieces, and especially won’t write about my piece. For those of you who have read my work in the past, you know that it is quite difficult for me to “talk myself up too much” lest I appear to be boasting or giving the tiniest impression that I think I am all that.
Of course, one of the reasons that I am such a harsh critic of my own work is a result of my own deep-seated insecurities stemming from years of being told that as long as I was fat, no other successes I achieved held any weight. Messages like these, when repeated and reinforced over a long period of time, get internalized and generalized until they become an integral part of a person’s identity.
The road to self-acceptance, Fat Acceptance, or Size Acceptance may be unique for each person, but one of the commonalities in the journey is learning how to undo the damage and reclaim an identity that is based on self-love, as opposed to self-hate. And that common thread, in my opinion, unifies this eclectic collection of autobiographical stories written by fat women who share their intimate thoughts and revelations, while offering the reader hope that there is another way to live a life as a fat woman in a fat-hating society.
We are introduced to a group of women diverse in ethnicity, ages, weights, and walks of life. We meet a dancer, teacher, accountant, sex worker, porn star, fatshionista, mother, cancer survivor, therapist, and scholar, among others. All have written honestly and openly about their bodies as viewed by others and themselves. No topic is off limits in this collection, and if a reader thinks that they are the only one who has ever felt or thought a certain way about their body, they will close this book with a satisfied sigh knowing they they are not alone. They’ll also know that they belong to a club that they can be proud of. Sorry Groucho!
The stories are funny, serious, heartbreaking, heart-mending, and heart-opening. Like a box of Forest Gump’s chocolates, the reader may not relate to or fancy every piece, but without a doubt, she will find at least one that satisfies her palate. We get glimpses into worlds that most of us don’t usually come across in our day-to-day lives, but in each story is the familiar drama of someone being judged based on their body size, and having to navigate their life journey around these fatphobic speed bumps.
The perseverance and tenacity of each of the women in the book are qualities to be admired, and as we follow their stories we see how the attainment of self-love differs from person to person. For some, it starts on the inside, and learning to love themselves allows them to open up to others loving them. Others needed a jump start from external validation before they were able to see that they were worth loving.
Many of the pieces talk about wanting to make the world a less hateful place for the next generation and how great it would be to redefine, or even deemphasize, beauty in our society as a primary measure of success. But this is a real life book in real life time, and women ARE judged by their bodies and held to narrow standards of what is considered beautiful and sexually desirable, so some of the authors write about that as well.
They go deep and they get explicit. If you are squeamish about sex, then you may want to skip some of the “bon bons” but because fat people are all too often desexualized in our society, I savored reading these well-crafted memoirs that let the reader in on a rarely-discussed fact: that fat people have lusty appetites and juicy love lives just like anyone else. And yes, there is fierceness in the way they claim the right to feel sexy, be sexual, and deserve to be loved, body and all.
When I finished the book I felt satiated, hopeful, and energized. This was a book I could feel comfortable recommending. I marveled at how 31 individual voices and different writing styles felt so cohesive and in harmony with each other. Naturally, I related more to some essays than others, because I’m not particularly involved in fashion or some of the more girly-girl experiences, but in the end I felt honored to be part of a unified voice claiming the right to be at peace with my body. Of course, I can’t be entirely certain, but I believe I would have felt this way even if I wasn’t Author # 4.
Have you read the book yet? What are your thoughts?
Til next time!
Incidentally, there will be a reading at Modern Times Bookstore in San Francisco on November 30th at 7:30 p.m. Several of the contributors, including myself, will be reading portions of the book. Come join us!!