It happens every month or so. Look, I'm not bragging, but it happens. Some young person -- often a woman -- tells me that I've changed her life through storytelling. She says that she never thought of herself or her behavior or her identity or her body "that way" before. What's more, she's ready to think and connect and strategize with others and change the fricking world. Because hey, we're all changing the world, whether we do it consciously or not. Our lives matter. Just listening to stories about the body in culture can move us deeply. And yet, for every person who speaks up after a show or lecture, I figure there are more, like me, who will be slower to put it all together.
This week marks the 30th anniversary of the publication of Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression, edited by Lisa Schoenfielder and Barbara Wiesner, published by Aunt Lute Books in 1983.
The first copy I saw was in the Poor Richard's used bookstore in downtown Colorado Springs where I was living in 1990, the year my son was born. I moved there with my enlisted husband when he was stationed at Fort Carson. I finished a bachelor's degree there, left my first husband, met and married the second and had a son in Colorado Springs, all before my 22nd birthday. While I was busy, being pregnant and nursing a baby gave me time to read. A lot. Often, standing in the aisles of that very bookstore. I picked up a copy of Shadow on a Tightrope and sweat started to run down the back of my neck into my sweater as I read the poem, "Whoever I am, I'm a fat woman."
Maybe I was overdressed. No. The body knows things the mind can't yet handle.
That's so sad, I thought. It'd be so sad to feel that way, to think about oneself as being fat -- like it's an identity, like it's who you are. And the sweat ran through my hair and into a rivulet in front of my left ear and the room seemed to go dark. That book contained a series of personal stories about experiences I shared, and hadn't yet let myself know I carried. I didn't buy it. Despite having been a fat baby, a fat kid for as long as I can remember, and a fat woman despite years of teenage starvation, that book could not be about me.
I was pretty. I was sexy. I knew how to dress (even though I sometimes broke the rules). I was a good dancer and I exercised every day. I looked at that chapter heading, "'I stilled the dancer in me'... and felt my body putting that book back on the shelf and going on about my day. That wasn't about me, I told myself, in that way we tell ourselves lies about who we are even though the truth shines like a blinding sun.
All I could do was sweat. And begin to assemble all of the strategies I used to prop up my best identities so as to never, ever be perceived as something awful and unlovable. Why would these women write about being unlovable as though it were an identity? Why would anyone tell the shame of being fat? I started to put together the individual instances of body tyranny I had endured, and how I had managed that unlovable identity with charm and aplomb.
See, I wasn't one of those women who stand up in my audiences after a performance and say out loud in front of everyone that her mind is blown. I wasn't the one who emails the next day to say she's not sure she can go on with her previous understanding of herself now that she knows she's been made to feel so much smaller than she should. I wasn't that quick. And eventually, I got there, because once a seed is planted, the sweat and tears of the body will water it. The mind will replay what it's able to hear and piece together the rest. I didn't buy Shadow on a Tightrope at the used bookstore. And it changed my life nonetheless.
By the time I picked up Marilyn Wann's Fat!So? in 1998, every hilarious and surprising page made total sense. I was ready for that book because I'd begun to think of my own experience as both shared and political. And I'd begun to write about my experiences as an embodied person because wow, we connect with others through storytelling and connection is vital to a healthy life.
That's why most people say they hate fat, right? It's unhealthy. Because we are social animals, feeling ostracized causes a stress response much like the stress response of being abandoned to die. It's no small thing and has no small effect on our health. The evidence is mounting to show that the effect of fat on health is not separable from the effects of feeling shunned for being fat. In essence, research can't isolate the fat from the experience of being fat, in order to know which is causal in health concerns. That's profound -- and the writers in Shadow on a Tightrope pretty much knew it back in 1983.
Because of books like this, we can find each other. The content is still relevant today and thankfully, other voices have joined those courageous contributors. I not only buy their books now, I add to the conversation through my writing and performances. I tell stories about how we construct self and identity in concert with and in spite of the cultural messages we've heard all our lives. I help people come together to discuss fat stigma and also to celebrate body diversity in its broadest sense. Make no mistake, various kinds of stigma occur against a lot of bodies in our culture. If you can't find humane representations of your body and your face in the media, I mean you. Disabled people, old people, fat people, people of color -- we all face our own forms of body oppression.
When we come together, we raise consciousness about our experiences, and we create culture. I know because I hear the revelations in audiences at colleges, universities, theaters and conferences around the English-speaking world. I know because I am influenced by others' stories too. After all, we are changing the world, whether we do it consciously or not. Our small lives matter, and so does our gratitude for all who came before.