Shakesville’s Melissa McEwan joins the show to talk about fat hatred and fat shaming, and her own journey to loving and accepting her fat body — and allowing herself to feel the breeze.
For the homework section, we’re talking to fat and not-fat folks alike. Melissa talks about how to shut down diet talk and body negativity, offers some essential reading from fat activists, and recommends a film comedy with big laughs that aren’t at the expense of the fat woman at the center of the plot.
Can’t listen? We’ve posted the episode script below — something we’ll be doing for all of our episodes as part of our commitment to accessibility.
But first, here are links to the organizations and resources we talk about on this episode:
- Health at Every Size
- First, Do No Harm
- Cat Pausé at Friend of Marilyn
- Kat at Fat Heffalump
- Ragen Chastain at Dances With Fat
Become a Traitor! Donate $5 to support the podcast at Patreon.
On to the transcript!
TRAITOR RADIO EPISODE 5: FEEL THE BREEZE
ANDREA: Hello Traitors! Welcome to episode five of Traitor Radio, the podcast for people who are mad as hell and ready to bring the resistance home.
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ANDREA: I’m your host, Andrea Grimes. Traitor Radio is a way to focus our energy and our anger into making positive change in our own communities, one issue at a time. The format is pretty simple — we introduce y’all to real people who will tell real stories about their real lives, and how they’re affected by racism, sexism, transphobia, xenophobia and all those nasty -isms and predjudices that are making America un-great. Then we’ll give you some homework so you can do something about it — stuff that goes beyond calling your elected officials, which you should totally do, but which will help you start making change in your own community.
I wanna shout out some folks who are doing that work by supporting Traitor Radio on Patreon! Our storytellers always get paid for their emotional and intellectual investment, but I can’t write those checks, or buy microphones or editing software, without your support. So shout out to our Traitors of Record, Jake, Caitlin, Teresa, Aspen, Shannon, Jonathan, Robin, Scott, Merritt and Aria, who are making it literally possible to for me to be talking to you right now. If you wanna join this badass bunch of donors, head over to Patreon.com/TraitorRadio.
I care about your money but more than that, I care about you sharing what you learn on Traitor Radio with other folks. This shit only works if we’re all in it together, and every activist, new or seasoned, is welcome here. Hello, old-school resisters! But this is a 101-level space; if you’ve never done activism before, or you’re just getting into the swing of it after the election, I’m so happy to join you on your journey to un-fucking this country.
So let’s get started.
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ANDREA: Okay. So. I’ve been sitting on this episode for a few weeks because I’ve been wrangling some other stuff on hurricane relief and white supremacy and disability, but I’ve decided you know what, fuck it — I have this great, timeless piece recorded by a brilliant woman, let’s just release it.
That woman is Melissa McEwan, the founder and proprietor of Shakesville.com, a progressive political blog that analyzes politics and culture through an intersectional feminist lens. I’ve been a Shakesville reader for many, many years — Melissa is a funny, furious, fabulous thinker whose work influenced and inspired me before I even thought of myself as a “feminist” journalist. Her work has also been published at a number of other outlets, including the Guardian, the Globe and Mail, and Geez Magazine, and can find her doing some righteous hollering and snarking on Twitter @shakestweetz. When I asked her for a bio for this episode, she wrote that “she loves being a guest on her friends’ podcasts” which is great, because now she’s a guest on mine.
This piece is, fittingly enough, adapted from Shakesville, and it’s on a topic that Melissa completely revolutionized my thinking around — being fat. You’ve probably heard of “body positivity” but there’s a whole world out there — mostly on the internet, because let’s be real, very few mainstream magazines are about to really seriously feature fat women with any regularity — encompassed in the fat acceptance and health at every size movements. We’ll talk about that stuff after Melissa speaks her piece, but going into it, I want you to think about how it makes you feel to hear a fat woman talk about being fat — not berating herself for being fat, and not promising to be thinner, but just being fat. If you’re fat, like me, does that stir up any emotions about your own relationship to your body? If you’re not fat, does it challenge how you think about fat people, how you think we should act or present ourselves? You don’t have to make a final decision or a judgment about it — just notice what you’re feeling and thinking. I’ll see you after the story.
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MELISSA: I was a thin kid, who became a curvy girl, who became a fat woman.
This particular trajectory, at the intersection of womanhood and fatness, meant that the first part of my life was an exercise in covering up.
The summer of 1982, I am eight years old. Like all the little kids in the neighborhood, I am running around shirtless. In the middle of some important kid project, we run across the front yard of two of the boys in our gang. They’re not particularly nice boys, and their father is a cruel man.
From his perch on their front stoop, their father yells my name. I stop in my tracks; all of us stop in our tracks. I look at him and he narrows his eyes at me. “Put on a shirt, for god’s sake,” he snarls at me. “You’re getting boobies!”
His sons, and all the neighborhood boys, laugh. I remember his expression—pleased, smug—as I searched his face for some explanation.
“I’m sorry,” I stammer, before running home to put on a shirt.
That is the beginning of my covering up.
It is followed by years of covering up more and more, little by little. Because I hear that “nice girls” don’t show off their bodies. Because I hear adults around me talk about fat women wearing something they “shouldn’t be.” Because my friends see images of fat women in various stages of undress and sneer, “No one wants to see that.” Because plus size stores only sell clothes designed to drape and conceal my body, not to highlight or reveal it. Because people tell me I should.
Over the course of my journey through adolescence to adulthood, I go from a carefree girl who runs around in shorts and flip-flops to a young woman who is deeply ashamed of her body, who covers it in long sleeves and oversized garments and layers, even in the unrelenting heat of a Chicago summer.
I bury my body in a tomb of drab, monochromatic fabric.
I am hot all the time. I am miserable. But at least I’m not wearing anything I shouldn’t be. I am covered up, the way I am supposed to be. At least I am compliant, which communicates to a fat-hating world that I hate my body, as I am meant to.
In my 30s, I find fat advocacy. I find fat activists, who write things that make me feel fully human; who post pictures of themselves wearing whatever the fuck they want to wear.
They are wearing clothes that reveal their figures. Clothes that are brightly colored and fashionable and cute. Clothes that are sexy. Clothes that, sometimes, are barely there at all. Clothes that I frankly never considered someone who looks like me deserves.
These women beckoning me to accept and love myself are brave and happy and project something approximating freedom, as much as any person with a transgressive body can feel in a culture structured to limit them. I have never had this feeling, and I want it like the cracked earth of the desert wants rain.
I resolve that I will no longer hold myself to standards to which I would never hold anyone else.
Eventually, I start uncovering, too.
2008. I wear a bathing suit in public for the first time in many years, because my husband surprises me with a holiday for my birthday on which there will be swimming. Which I love. I haven’t been swimming in years. I have been to the beach—there is a beautiful beach just minutes from our house. But I have gone to the beach in shorts and a t-shirt, and I have waded in the water, and I have not swam.
I am tired of not swimming.
I put on my new bathing suit, and I walk outdoors, and I feel the breeze on my skin. It is like a memory coming back to me. My skin reacts with goosebumps, although I am not chilled. I stand for a moment, with my face lifted toward the sun, and let my skin reacquaint itself with the breeze crawling around me. My entire body feels like a foot freed from a too-tight sock at the end of a long day.
I walk to the water and I slip into its cool embrace and I float. The wind caresses me and welcomes me back. I feel tears begin to slip down my cheeks, and I quickly wipe them away, so no one will see my private regret that I have denied myself this pleasure, this permission to feel the breeze, for so many years.
2010. I am running errands, and it is the middle of summer, and it is hot. So hot. I am wearing a tank top I love, knit chevrons of turquoise and navy and white and gold, covered by a cropped sweater. I cannot bear the heat, but I don’t go out with uncovered arms in public. My arms are too fat.
Suddenly the urge to be less hot overwhelms my self-consciousness about my fat arms. I ditch the sweater and walk across the parking lot with my arms uncovered. A Black woman who is almost my exact same size, wearing a long-sleeved jean jacket on this hot day, is walking to her car, parked beside mine. We smile at each other. “Cute top!” she says. I tell her thank you so much, and I give her a grateful smile that I’m sure she understands. I want to hug her. I want to tell her that she can never know what it means that she said that exact thing, in that exact moment.
I walk to the front door of the store, swinging my fat arms with the stride of a person who is allowed to take up space in the world. Like a person who is wearing a cute top. I feel the breeze on my bare arms.
2011. I cut off my hair. I tell my hairdresser I am okay with accentuating my round face, and I am okay with my double chin being more prominent, and I am okay with the discolored skin on my cheeks and neck, and I want short hair. I advocate for the short haircut I’ve been told fat women aren’t supposed to have.
I walk out of the salon with my fancy $20 haircut, and I feel the breeze on the back of my neck.
2013. I get my first tattoo. And then my second. They are places where they are seen, seen on my fat body, and I have the uncustomary experience of having people look at my fat body with admiration. I didn’t expect this, and I’m not prepared for it. I am shy when people touch my arms and tell me that something on my body is beautiful.
One day, I go to the doctor, and two of the nurses admire my tattoos. They ask for the tattoo artist’s name and information, which I happily share. I leave the doctor’s office and go to the drugstore to fill a prescription, where the pharmacist admires my tattoos.
On the way home, I go through a drive-through at a cafe for iced coffee. When I reach out my arm to pay, the young white girl working the window asks if she can see my tattoo, the one with the Virginia Woolf quote. I extend my arm and she leans in to look at it. She takes my hand between hers and holds it, my arm extended from my car window to the drive-through window, and I feel the breeze drifting across my skin as she tells me that my tattoo is beautiful.
She passes me paper and a pen through the window, and I write down the artist’s name and number for her.
I drive home with the windows down. The warm air comes through the windows. I feel it on my bare arms, my tattooed arms, and on my face, and on the back of my neck. All of this skin that I hid under hair and clothes, because I was told that I should. Because I believed that I should. Because I was apologizing to people who hate my body, who want to deny me the breeze.
I love the breeze. I missed it so.
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ANDREA: Hey y’all! It’s Andrea again, and I’m here with Melissa on the line to talk about the incredible story she just shared with us, and then move on to your homework.
ANDREA: One of the things that rang so true to me about your story is how it’s about growth and change over many years. Do you think the woman you were in your 20’s would believe that she could become the woman you are now?
MELISSA: Would she believe it? Yes, with both doubt and relief. I think the woman I was in my 20s very much wanted to be the woman I am now, but had no idea how to get there. Except of course to be thin, which was the only option, but it wasn’t really an option. Which is one of the primary reasons the desire to be young again never resonates with me. The gift of comfort in my own skin that aging has given me is something I wouldn’t trade for youth. I love being in my 40s, and the absolute absence of fucks that I have as a woman of a certain age.
ANDREA: Awesome. Yes. Absence of Fucks 2017!
MELISSA: Yes! And forever thereafter.
ANDREA: So, homework. I’m a currently fat lady who was thin for most of her life, and once I decided to stop fighting my body, I started my sleeve tattoo. That was a huge moment for me, (and something I really loved about your story) because I had sort of felt like, as a fat woman, I didn’t deserve to have beautiful art on my body, or that I had to make my body smaller to decorate it. And then one day I just woke the fuck up and decided, fuck it, there is no “should” when it comes to how beautiful my fat body can be. Right? Let’s talk about how we talk about our bodies.
MELISSA: Yeah. If you’re fat, and looking to find your way back into the breeze, you’ve got to start by refusing to participate in the culture of judgment. No more “should” or “shouldn’t” be wearing. No more “should” or “shouldn’t” be eating. No more auditing and policing other people; no more judging people as “good fatties” and “bad fatties.” Let it all go. And then don’t hold yourself to those garbage metrics, either. That can be the hardest part – refusing to judge yourself using standards you’d never use to judge anyone else. Be kind to yourself. It’s impossible to avoid denying yourself the breeze – or whatever your personal equivalent is – if you still believe you deserve to be denied.
ANDREA: What about our not-fat friends, family and community members?
MELISSA: If you’re not fat, and looking to create safe space so that fat people can feel the breeze, the same thing. Not participating in that culture of judgment. And no more diet talk. No more talk about being “naughty” for eating something. No more saying you “feel” fat. You may believe that merely not being an active asshole at fat people is enough, but it’s not enough! [laughs] You have to make space where it’s okay, really and truly okay, to exist as a fat person in your presence.If you’re not fat. You need to educate yourself on fat issues, beyond a sort of nebulous understanding that fat people are harassed and body-shamed. And truly understand what it means to create a safe space around yourself.
ANDREA: Because fat hatred and fat shaming do real harm — it’s mean shit, for sure, but they also affect how or whether people are able to live their lives, right?
MELISSA: Right. Fat is a feminist issue and a social justice issue: There are implications for fat people in healthcare access, public accommodations (including emergency services and public transportation), job opportunities, pay equality – an entire raft of issues, some of which are life and death. And there are smart people talking about these issues every day: Yr Fat Friend, on Twitter and at Medium; the Health at Every Size Blog; Ragen Chastain at Dances with Fat; Kath at Fat Heffalump; Cat Pause at Friend of Marilyn; the First Do No Harm blog, just to name a few.
Listen to fat people talk about their own lived experiences and you’ll soon understand why fat is a social justice issue. Did you know, for example, that drugs from birth control to chemotherapy mostly have never been tested on fat patients? Have you considered how it may limit someone’s career if they are afraid to fly because they may be charged for an extra seat? There are a lot of not-fat folks who have simply never made even the most cursory effort to really understand how being fat affects so many aspects of our lives.
Include fat in your social justice thinking. You know how we tend to have a list of the marginalized communities that warrant progressives’ consideration: Women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, disabled people… Those aren’t mutually exclusive groups, and we acknowledge (or should) the necessity of intersectional analysis – that is, as Professor Kimberle Crenshaw detailed, how a Black woman may experience misogyny inextricably intertwined with racism. When you leave “fat people” off your social justice list, you’re already ignoring how, for example, misogyny inextricably intertwined with fat-hatred functions in the oppression of fat women. Start consciously vizibilizing fat people and fat hatred.
ANDREA: Speaking of making fat people visible — you wanna recommend a movie for some lighter-hearted homework?
MELISSA: I would love to do that! Listen, I don’t know about you, but I need some humor in my resistance, like desperately! So I’m going to recommend the amazing Melissa McCarthy film Spy, written and directed by Paul Feig, who is both wickedly brilliant and abundantly kind. Even if you’ve already seen it, watch it with an eye for how Feig’s story so cleverly turns the cultural invisibility of fat women on its head: The fact that no one would notice McCarthy is what ostensibly makes her perfect to “track and report” for the CIA. And the thing is, they would keep her invisible forever; it’s she who has to make herself visible, and she has to go out and buy the clothes that attendantly show off what she’s truly capable of. She feels the breeze like whoa.
ANDREA: Brilliant. Listeners, you can check the show notes at TraitorRadio.com for links to resources and data to back up some of the big-picture stuff we’ve talked about here. But mostly, y’all go out there and feel the breeze. Thanks so much, Melissa!
MELISSA: Thank you, Andrea!
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ANDREA: Thanks for tuning in — and thanks to the dozens of donors who have made Traitor Radio a reality. If you want to join badass bunch of Traitors who get thanked by name on every episode, check us out at Patreon.com/TraitorRadio. We’ve got three different donation tiers with some pretty cool rewards, everything from behind-the-scenes updates to exclusive calls with our producers and guests. Because we’re committed to paying our contributors for their time and their emotional and intellectual work, we can’t do what we do without your financial support.
If you would like to contribute to Traitor Radio, we are always taking submissions, especially from people who are willing to share their first-person stories with listeners, just like M did on this show. Journalists are also welcome — if you want to do radio reporting on social justice activism, let us know! Our email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
This episode was produced by me, Andrea Grimes with storytelling by Melissa McEwan. Our music is by Emily Meo. Follow us on twitter at @TraitorRadio, and find us at Facebook.com/TraitorRadio and TraitorRadio.com.
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