Thursday, December 4, 2014

Dr. Phil's Diet Bullshit Extravaganza

I have decided to do this as a "live blog" of sorts. I will blog about Dr. Ridiculous as I go through the episode. Since it's on youtube, I will be able to pause the episode to elaborate on certain moments, so in that sense it's not exactly a live blog, but basically I'm writing as I go. This is because weight loss shows are too painful for me to watch more than once without my non-fascist fat positive interventions. If I had my academic shoes on, I would probably watch it at least once all the way through before going back to key moments. I would also organize my critique coherently. Fuck that.

Dr. Phil's weight loss episode starts with some strange imagery. As women's submissions are shown, where the women ask Dr. Phil for weight loss help, there are spotlights next to the women and then fireworks in the background. Where do they come up with these things? Weight loss is so great we need lights and fireworks to prove it? It's clear that these connections, between weight loss and celebrating in the spotlight, are as arbitrary as they could possibly be.

And part of what is so unfortunate here is that all the women look great. I have to tread lightly here. Ultimately, how the women look doesn't matter. Everybody's appearance deserves to be appreciated and everybody deserves to be approached as more than the sum of their external physical traits and fashion choices. It wouldn't matter if these women looked like really spooky aliens. Spooky aliens are awesome and don't need Dr. Jerkwad to insult them and guilt them into changing their appearance. This is the, "oh, you look good because you're not so fat" argument as if being "so fat" were a physical and moral problem. No. I don't accept the "you're not that fat" bull. Fat is awesome as I know from my own experience with it.

However, I think it's worth pointing out that to me these women all look really good. Their stomachs are nice. Their faces are pleasant, their shirts pretty. They do not resemble spooky aliens as cool as that would be. They look like other women. Their stomachs are bigger than some and smaller than others. Why would that make them look ugly or be in need of help? This is what fat activism and fat acceptance can do for us. Because I'm passionate about celebrating diversity in body size, because I practice appreciating the goodness of my own body, and because I try to expose myself to fat positive blogs, books, and tumblrs, I've been able to open my eyes somewhat. I can now see with little effort that fat doesn't equal ugly and these women look great just as they are. I see zero problems. That's how I've been bucking the tide with the help of some amazing fat activists and friends out there. I'm not saying this to brag. I still struggle at times. Sometimes I catch myself having attitudes about fellow fatties that I don't like. And when that happens I reflect on the fact that like everyone in our culture I have internalized fatphobia. But I can identify it, not believe in it, and choose to appreciate that person's body, or, if that is too hard in the moment, I can at least hold the attention to value how all bodies manifest in the world. I can catch my assumptions and I can choose a different path. Over time this changes how I see. And I am fortunate to be young in the midst of this movement and to have people who have come before me who have changed how they see.

So because I can see fat as beautiful and morally neutral instead of ugly and morally terrible, I can pick up on the sadness here. There is no reason for these women to be opining to the evil doctor, but they are so caught up in fatphobia themselves that they can't help it. They really think this guy can and should help them change something. They judge their own appearance and then put it out there as something that needs to be fixed like a broken car. They're not broken cars. They're living beings and they count, too. I wish they knew that.

Then Dr. Phil asks the crowd (and the home viewer), "are you like them?" to which the studio audience replies with a resounding "yes!" I assume they were prompted. Apparently we are all supposed to identify with these supposedly pathological women and want to change our bodies. It doesn't even matter what we look like. Dr. Yuck is basically saying that we should all change. Weight loss ideology acts as if "fat" women need to become "thin" and then they can "stop" dieting and be "fine," as if weight loss were a finite project you could put in your planner. Lose 50 pounds forever. Check! But the system is devised for women in particular but for men as well to always feel inadequate about what they weigh, never to stop attempting change, simply to see themselves as unsatisfactory no matter what. Diet culture pretends to say one thing -- weigh x number of pounds and you'll be good enough -- but really says something else, something even worse. To reiterate, diet culture really communicates that you are never thin or beautiful enough, that you never look adequate, that you always need what Dr. Douche calls "a changing day in your life." Diet culture pretends that it gives you the secret to happiness in order to keep you perpetually unhappy. It is like a mirage in the desert. It seems to promise you that there is a beautiful place to get to, but that place is never there because it was an illusion from the beginning.

Dr. Difficult points out that the audience in total has tried and failed 2,000 diets. This could be because diets don't work. But apparently this one is different. Hmmm...

Then a video package introduces two chatty Southern schoolteachers, Candy and Lyndsey, who gain and lose weight together. They are the Abbott and Costello of self-loathing. One says, "I can tell you my problem in three words: I am fat." These apparently terrible words flash on the screen as the soundtrack gives a resounding bang for each word. Guess what, readers. I can tell you one of many joyous aspects of my life. I am fat. There! I said it! Not seeing the problem. The problem I do see, however, is that these women act so delighted to put themselves down. They are shown going out to eat together. (Of course! Because only women with weight problems do that!) "You could go ahead and put that bread right on my ass," says Candy. Bread is tasty. Large asses are lovely. It's a shame she speaks so disparagingly about two of my favorite things in the world. Incidentally, and I'm not completely sure this is true, I've learned from modeling shows that male models put pieces of bread against their penises to get a nice shape for underwear modeling. In this case, having bread relatively close to your ass, against your genitals, is considered flattering. But you don't see men at the table getting lunch and saying, "I hope this will go on my penis so I look great in my next underwear commercial." If only.

The women order food, how dare they, and what they order is listed on the screen in red. God forbid! The women get zucchini, mozzarella, and calamari. *gasp* Now I would understand the shaming if it were around chocolate or steak, but those are not conventionally "harmful" dishes. You can talk about not having too much cheese and the perils of calamari being fried, but if a person of a different size ordered those things would you bat an eye? Then the women really sin by agreeing with the waiter who encourages them to get the house special ranch dressing. The fact that he suggested it doesn't seem to matter. One of the women says, "we never turn down ranch dressing!" putting the emphasis on her self-loathing and her normalizing of it, not allowing any consideration of the role of restaurants in diet culture, the capitalist cycle of overselling the food that is supposedly shameful to eat, driving up cravings and profits. This is not to call restaurants evil. I enjoy them a lot. I just think that it is worth being aware of their role in a larger profit-driven system. This show, and diet culture more broadly, pretends that if the women simply "ate virtuously" there would be no problems with things as they currently are. This blaming, including self-blaming, of the (often female) fat person prevents everyone from being able to see larger systemic flaws and from working toward changing that system. As a shockingly perfect example of this, my youtube video of Dr. Dummy was interrupted by a multiple choice question that asked me, "which restaurant would you prefer eating at?" and listed Chili's Applebee's, Olive Garden, and Outback Steakhouse. You see, there is no question that these things are linked. It is not the women's fault. There is not even a problem with their bodies for them to be at fault over.

One of the women says that her boobs are the size of basketballs and her ass is the size of Montana. Again, I don't see a problem with this. The issue is how strong her self-loathing is, how she makes it a sport. She seems to revel in it. It's like she's going hunting and she's the prey getting shot over and over again. It is amazing how mean women are encouraged to be toward themselves (and toward other women) and then they're supposed to laugh as if they're having a great time. It is really the strangest thing when you think about it. Both women are doing the classic self-shaming fatty move of wearing large, baggy shirts. I grew up learning to do this and there are people I know deeply immersed in diet culture who continue to do this. The idea is that stomach fat supposedly looks terrible. Its lovely, sensual roundness should supposedly be banished rather than appropriately adored. Therefore, the story goes, shirts need to camouflage fat instead of showing it off it proudly. Candy and Lyndsey's shirts are pretty colors, both women look nice, but as someone who has been through this racket (as in any woman 8 years of age or older, sadly), I know that the shame is pouring off of them. For some reason thin women are encouraged to wear tight clothes, perhaps to show off the curves and flesh that they don't have. Then women who are fortunate enough to have luscious breasts and beautiful fat rolls are encouraged to dress "tastefully" like nicely colored paper bags. 

Dr. Doofus stresses that the women hide behind humor and the women are quick to agree. Well guess what. I disagree. I think the insidiousness of diet culture is behind their humor. Humor is the acceptable way to self-flagellate and self-shaming is the only way in which women are allowed to be fat. There is a reason Dr. Douchecanoe and his staff of evil minions has led the show with these women. Their self-hatred is entertaining. They normalize their self-loathing and our culture's disregard for the humanity of fat people by making it look pretty. It is everyone else -- the diet companies, advertisers, restaurants, gyms, the supposed saviors, the uncompromising fitness gurus who pretend to preach self-love and tell you to lose half your body mass -- it is they who hide behind the humor of these women. The women do not hide behind humor; they are clearly suffering. They are suffering for an ableist, classist, racist, misogynist patriarchy that returns their favor with more blame. This is what obedience gets you, apparently. And Dr. Phil does immediately return the favor. After we hear about how these women have suffered at the hands of a fat-hating culture -- one of them was anorexic, the other was taunted mercilessly by sorority sisters -- Dr. Doom tells them that they have internalized the mean messages that they were told and are now torturing themselves. "They were makin' fun of you and you started makin' fun of you and you never quit" he says. He says that they have "a bad internal dialogue" and "cheat everyone in their life [sic]."

Now, I agree that they have internalized negative messages about themselves from people who were unfair to them. But what this means is that they deserve supportive, not-Dr-Phil therapists who help them see through that meanness and embrace themselves as they are. The point is to combat the messages, not to lose weight. In a context that supports weight loss, however, Dr. Philistine's point is yet another way of blaming the women. The "doctor" is basically saying that the women in question have made themselves fat by believing people who said mean things to them. As if they have that much control over their internal dialogue, as if they don't respond to the ways in which they have been mistreated by learning those thought patterns, just like everyone else. Because of their "bad internal dialogue" -- notice how their internal world is being judged even though he never disagrees with any of their self-shaming statements -- they are being mean to the people around them, they are "cheating" innocent, probably thin people. And thin people need to be treated well until they become fat! Then they should be chewed up and spit out on national television, or so it would seem.

I would also like to point out that Dr. Philthy treats these two women, Candy and Lyndsey, as if they were the same person. Candy had an eating disorder but he says to both of them that they started making fun of themselves and never quit. Blaming a woman's eating disorder on the mean things she says to herself (partially unconsciously, mostly uncontrollably, and approved of by society) is a deeply offensive trivialization of anorexia. I do not know a lot about anorexia, but I know that people who struggle in this way deserve a much more reasonable and compassionate treatment than Dr. Phil is giving them here. But apparently if they read his new 20/20 book they can turn it all around. Thank goodness!

The next story is much more upsetting. A woman named Kate is so ashamed of her weight that she is endlessly postponing her wedding and feels that she does not deserve her husband's love. Let me briefly remind you that I was a proud wide bride this summer. At no point before or during my wedding did I feel any guilt or even discomfort about my weight. I chose, and partially created, an unconventional outfit I loved and felt great in. More importantly, I married the love of my life. Fat love is possible, people! So Kate is trapped in a prison that the bridal industry does a lot to build.

Dr. Phil addresses Kate's suffering at the hands of diet culture and the bridal industry by asking her, while she's crying, "how did you get this way?" I sure that Phil learned during his doctoral program that pathologizing people is really therapeutic. He even hands her a tissue to dry her tears. He announces her height, weight, and BMI, telling her that she is in the morbidly obese category. The fact that she gives him approval to do this before he says it does not make it any less appalling in its objectification of her. All you need to do is watch Martha Rosler's "Vital Statistics of a Citizen, Simply Obtained" to have a sense of this. Dr. Doofus then says exactly what was implied in the previous segment: he tells Kate, "if you had this negative internal dialogue, you generate the results you believe you deserve, and you know that to be true." You see, it's all her fault! And blaming her for everything she doesn't like in her life really helps her! If we blame fat people enough they'll lose weight! Life is so simple when the bald mustache man is guiding you through it. 

"People are not overweight because of eating" Dr. Unethical explains, "people are overweight because they abuse food." How dare they! We fatties apparently mistreat ourselves, our spouses, our children by weighing more than some arbitrary standard, and to top it all off, we're even cruel to the very food we put in our bodies! He adds, "you gotta get your mind right and we gotta heal your feelings." This statement implies that people who are within a certain weight bracket have "right" minds, whatever that means, and healed feelings. All thin people are sane, smart and completely healed from any trauma that they have ever been through. That is why our society is such a happy, healthy place. That is why policemen who are not stigmatized for their weight are so kind and intelligent at work that they shoot innocent people, put them in choke holds, and sit on them until they die at the hospital. Right minds and healing feelings at work.

You see, I agree with Kate and Dr. Annoying that we bring distorted mental patterns and unresolved feelings to food and we eat more or less than our bodies need because of that. But those mental patterns and those painful feelings need to be approached with the support of a compassionate and qualified therapist. Somehow we have this naive collective belief that if we change our appearance and have less body mass our inner life will follow suit. There is no reason that would be true. From this perspective, diet culture is about a collective denial of pain. Instead of finding effective ways to work with our pain, to come to terms with our lives and our histories, we distract ourselves with weight loss projects. We can distract ourselves with food, too, or with the internet (my amazing blogging is exempt from all faults, though), or emails or sex or even graduate work, trust me, but the only way to deal with these things is to bring compassion, skill, tenderness, and more compassion to those tough places, to work on these things over time and try, as hard as it may be, to be patient with the delicate healing process. The way to approach our wounding is to approach our wounding, not to create even more pain by stigmatizing people of certain body sizes.

Dr. Witless finishes Kate's segment and cuts to a commercial break. He says something pretty scary to the audience: "be thinking about where and when you have heard somebody say something to you or about you that stuck with you." This is incredibly vague. Later he talks about mean comments again, but he still seems to see weight loss as a solution to other people being mean about weight. (Just ponder how little sense that makes.) I think his ambiguity sends another message. He is actually saying: "audience, remember when someone has shamed you about your weight either to your face or behind your back, both of which are unacceptable but I'm absolutely fine with it. These shaming statements stuck with you not because meanness hurts and we should change the dialogue around weight in this country and beyond but because, as a TV therapist I totally support shaming as a viable approach to strengthening mental health. In fact, I engage in it myself -- that's what this whole show is! But I'm a white guy in patriarchy so I'm beyond reproach. You should listen to those people and lose weight to please them, and to please me. You should bend for other people and constantly worry about how they judge your body. That's how you keep your mind right and heal your feelings." Okay, buddy, I'll get right to it...

Then Dr. Dastardly has some "success stories" from his 20/20 diet test group. A woman and a man talk about how much they love the diet. This segment stresses portion control. They say that in "phase 1" they eat much smaller portions than they are used to but learn to savor the food more. What is interesting is that Dr. Numnuts seems to encourage people to apply his prescribe plan to all of their eating instead of listening to their bodies. They are supposed to go through phrases where they eat portions he has chosen in advance. They are supposed to eat 20 foods he has chosen over 20 days. They are supposed to combine those foods in particular ways. Well, what happens when they stop doing that? They'll gain the weight back of course and maybe gain more. It happens a lot with diets. But for some (promotional) reason the "doctor" guarantees that you won't gain weight back on this diet. Ha! I've heard that before!

There is one more story. A girl named Nicole used to do body building to such a degree that he had to put vaseline on her lips to help her smile. After that she gained 60 pounds. The body goes from starving itself to eating heavily in compensation. It's natural. The "doctor" promises Nicole that in a matter of weeks on his diet she can "return to health." Who said she was unhealthy at her current weight? She certainly needs healing around food, as we all do, frankly, but there is nothing to "prove" that her physical health is in jeopardy at her weight. If she has health problems, there are many ways to approach them that are not weight dependent. Unlike with Kate, treated the worst because she's the heaviest, her height, weight and BMI are not coldly rattled off. So there is no way for anyone to claim that her weight causes her health problems, and even if it did, she is still a worthy human as she is who does not deserve to be shamed. As Ragen Chastain beautifully says, body size is not a barometer for worthiness.

There is still more to say, but I am dismayed and worn out. Dr. Douche is not going to dominate my life. I do think it would be worthwhile if someone bought this 20/20 book and deconstructed its method, explaining its false assumptions. I am not science-oriented enough to go into these kind of details. My focus here has been on deconstructing ideologies, not on dealing with statistics. In conclusion, both Dr. Phil and our diet-obsessed culture in general are absolutely unconscionable. There is no justification for the distortions, shaming and cruelty that weight loss culture promotes. It claims to be the solution to the problems it perpetuates. We don't have to be trapped in cruelty and ignorance. It can be really tough, but we can be free.

During this writing I have been thinking about a story commonly told in Buddhist circles. There used to be a large animal (I don't remember if it was a lion or tiger) at the Washington zoo that had spent most of her life in a cage. When she was given a better environment to be in, she continued to pace the length of her cage until she died. She was so accustomed to suffering that she couldn't see her increased freedom. Another Buddhist story reaches the same conclusion. A monk once asked his students, "is the rock heavy?" They all said yes. He said, "no. The rock is not heavy if you don't pick it up." Freedom is closer than we think. We are all being treated like Ingrid Bergman in the movie Gaslight. The things her husband claims are happening -- that she forgets where she puts a letter, that she hears sounds that aren't there, etc. -- are actually not. They are designed to make her go insane so he can rummage through the attic and steal her jewels without her being able to object.

We don't need to be victims of gaslighting. We don't need to stay in the imaginary cage or pick up the heavy, pointless boulders of the diet and weight loss industries. Whatever analogy we prefer, we can be free, and freedom is actually right here. Bodies in their diversity are here, and they are all great. They are limited and do not represent everything about us, but they also have wonderful things to recommend them, like keeping us alive, giving us pleasure, allowing us to get from place to place, and giving us a way of experiencing the world. All bodies are here to be loved. If we directed more energy to that love and less to weight loss products and ideologies, we would be too busy loving each other to care about what anyone weighs. Diet books would grow moldy as we would all hug and dance and jiggle together. That's the kind of world I want to live in. And I think that world is there to be experienced. We just need to put down our boulders and walk out of our imaginary cages toward the sun, toward the big, wide, hot, fat sun.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Preamble: Dr Phil Just did a Weight-Loss Episode and It Is Not Okay

In my academic life, there are certain things I go for. I like to be somewhat off the beaten path in my arguments, and I like to be at least somewhat subtle and open to the ambiguity of my subject. I like things that are transitional, ambivalent, doubting. I try to describe the complexity of something while still making a strong argument. This is not so easy but I think I do okay most of the time. And I feel at my most liberated and creative when I don't distinguish between high and low, when I take "Beavis and Butthead" or "The $64,000 Question" as seriously as I take (neo-)avant-garde artistic production from Rauschenberg and Whitman's contributions to "Nine Evenings in Art and Engineering" to Magritte paintings to performance and video art to Bresson films (a stark modernist pleasure of mine). I am not interested in condemning "crappy" TV for being TV, which is still a surprisingly popular thing to do academically, even though television studies is also a fairly big thing these days.

However, for this post, most of what I wrote is going out the window. My academic shoes are being replaced by activist shoes. (I don't wear hats but have loads of different colored sneakers, so I thought writing shoes would be more appropriate. I have an Adidas shoe addiction. I love those 3 stripes.) Even though I think it can get curmudgeonly, cultural critique is an incredibly important and powerful tool because our late capitalist culture does present a lot of bullshit in very convincing ways. To be thoughtful and free one needs to see through it.

Cultural critique at its best is like the sword of Manjushri, the bodhissatva of wisdom, as it cuts through elegantly presented delusion. As I discussed in a previous post, ideology tends to be presented as fact. It's naturalized. French theorists like Barthes, Althusser and Foucault (everybody's fave apparently, though I like Barthes better) point to the ways in which ideology masks itself as an apparent truth. Of course it's "bad" to be fat, right? (No!) Someone recently wrote sarcastically on my wall questioning why I would be critical of weight loss promotion and incredulously asked if fat could really be beautiful. The thought! This person has been unfriended and the comment has been deleted.

Hating the kind of body I have is absolutely not okay with me. There is no way for me to emphasize this enough but writing it in bold on my blog is a start. I don't permit fat hating on my Facebook wall or in my life. So it takes some work, often valuable and satisfying work, to see through that, to wield Manjushri's theory sword. And that is what I intend to do here.

For while I enjoy seeing issues from multiple angles, there are things I'm sure of. Weight-loss ideology is crap. It's about keeping people down, particularly women, and encouraging them to buy products they don't need. It is capitalism operating at the expense of happiness, which, sadly, is nothing new. Our culture is bigoted against fat people and this needs to end.

It is difficult to shift this tide, and so I don't think there is any need to be ambiguous here: all bodies are acceptable and wonderful as they are and weight-loss bullshit like diet books and TV shows should all end. There should be no reason to oppress yourself, to decide that you need to lose some weight to be acceptable, that you should work on being "moderate" or "good." The way to approach food "moderately" is to tune in to your body's intuition without judgment, and this is precisely what weight loss culture makes impossible. Having been through the diet racket, this is still hard for me. But there are amazing fat activist and fat acceptance communities out there that help make this possible. I am so privileged (in a good way!) to be part of these groups. I have amazing online conversations with fellow proud fatties all the time. It is really special and absolutely enriches my life. I also have a really sweet and wonderful husband who supports my fat activism.

What does not enrich my life, however, is Dr. Phil shilling his latest weight loss book. (How's that for a segue?) There is no doubt in my mind that this guy is full of shit and that he is an embodiment of patriarchy promoting not only its values but more insidiously, its penchant for shaming people into submission. I am fascinated by the bald mustachioed man I like to call Dr. Fuckface, but my fascination turns to indignation when he hops on the weight loss train. That is why I am devoting my next blog entry to tearing apart the weight loss episode that aired on television yesterday and is now on youtube. Diet culture is not okay with me. No promotion of it is okay with me. So I am going to go through the episode and write about everything I feel is wrong with it. I will also provide links to amazing fat activists who argue against weight loss in ways that are tougher for me. I am not science-minded. I'm a humanities brain. So if you want statistics and studies on why weight loss is shit and deconstructions of studies that supposedly support weight loss, there are other people to read. Like Ragen Chastain, Lucy Aphramor, Linda Bacon, and Angela Meadows. I'm doing links later but just look up these bold amazing women.

I have to go out now, but stay tuned. I'm hoping to deconstruct Dr. Fuckface later today when I get back.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Diet Culture, Shark Tank and the Cold War, or, Just Eat the Cookie

Oh no!

I wasn't sure it was possible, but Shark Tank has reached a new low. And yet, it is a revealing low, one that deserves some critical attention and analysis.

On Shark Tank, entrepreneurs pitch their products to a panel of "shark" investors, hoping to get a certain amount of money and the investor's expertise in exchange for giving the shark a percentage of their company's profits. With its combination of television spectacle, dramatic bargaining, and over-the-top infomercial-esque product presentations, Shark Tank is explicit about the connection between contemporary media, claims about "reality" (it is billed as a "reality show"), and the condition of late capitalism. In this sense, Shark Tank can be seen as a perfect show, because it is so much more open about the relationship between television and capital than any other show on the air. The Voice, for instance, markets a certain image of pop music and sells iTunes singles of its latest songs,  but it is less obvious to see its selling behind its rhetoric about artists expressing themselves for the supposed purity of the act. (And indeed that's the point.)

Shark Tank is less ashamed of itself. It is the proud descendant of the earliest TV programming where the 1950s and 1960s camera lovingly focuses on the sponsor's name and/or logo -- Geritol tonic for instance (said to help "tired blood," whatever that is), or Hazel Bishop cosmetics, among others. On postwar TV, the focus would ostensibly be somewhere else. The set of a quiz show or a biography show like "This is Your Life" would have a strategically placed logo on it, and the sponsor would be mentioned several times, but this would be presented as an aside. In some cases, the disjunction between the products featured the show and the theme of the show reached morbidly humorous heights.  On "This is Your Life," celebrated citizens would receive either charm bracelets or gold cuff links (gender specific, of course) from Marshall's Jewelers, even Hana Bloch Kohner, profiled in 1953 as a Holocaust survivor. (I love TV.) The extent to which sponsors effected the show -- the knowledge, for instance, that the Revsons of Revlon Cosmetics had substantial say over which contestants were kept or sacked from the quiz show "The $64,000 Question" for instance -- was carefully kept hidden until the late 1950s quiz show scandals made it to the Supreme Court. (Oh God, they're rigged!!!) Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz did shill for Philip Morris, and their animated images were used in Philip Morris commercials between segments of the show, but a distinction was still made between the cigarettes on the one hand and the show on the other. In the image below, What's My Line? may have been shilling Kellogg's in 1961, but the product display and the blindfolded contests do not seem related.



Shark Tank takes shots of sponsor's products, combines them with late night infomercials, and the business-related suspense and judgment of its reality predecessor, The Apprentice, and turns it all into a show where distinctions between television programming and product placement have completely eroded. The show takes on a meta dimension where viewers at home figuratively occupy the same space as the investor shark judging panel -- we get to decide how well products are presented (with Kantian disinterest?) and if their creators deserve help to make these products easier to buy. Product selling is acknowledged as an art that can be judged, though it is interesting to note that when artists and entertainers come to the tank wanting backing for their latest project, they are nearly always rejected.

Since I am not a depressed Adornian or Debordian decrying the ascendancy of the culture industry or criticizing the ways in which our lives are "colonized" by spectacle, I am usually not upset by this show. It makes connections clear. It's a humorously perverse theater of (the cruelty of) the object where investor Kevin O'Leary makes stereotypically cold-blooded capitalist statements (I don't care if it's useful as long as it can sell, you're dead to me) and is at least the most straightforward of the panel of five. Typically I get a kick out of this show. But the show reached a new nadir when it marketed an insidious project that champions weight loss. As a fat activist, I can't sit by. Shark Tank: this sucks.

On the latest episode, Ryan Tseng and the absurdly enthusiastic, fist pumping David Krippendorf peddle a product called "Kitchen Safe," a container that can be locked for a specific period of time. The safe is supposed to prevent you or your children from accessing "unhealthy snacks" for a set duration. Tseng and Krippendorf boast that the system has no overrides. There is nothing anyone can do to open the safe if it is locked! The Kitchen Safe is marketed as a "commitment device" that helps you in your challenging yet noble quest to behave with willpower and self-control.


Ryan Tseng calls it "fun, effective, and easy to use." Guest shark, GoPro CEO Nick Woodman, feels that this product satisfies a consumer need. After Kevin O'Leary repeatedly calls the safe "a piece of crap" -- there is a reason he is nicknamed Mr. Wonderful, after all -- Krippendorf adamantly disagrees. He feels this producing is about "helping people out" which is more important than its (also admittedly important) money-making potential. Several sharks immediately praise Krippendorf for his "passion." "I've seen a lot of people who are overweight," Krippendorf intones as sad music plays softly,

"and it's hard. It's hard to have that temptation around your house every day. We used to buy a thing of ice cream, and we'd eat half of it and then I'd throw it away because if it was there I would eat it...We deal with the customer emails all the time and when someone's like, 'thank you, I've been looking for this for ten years, I've finally found something that makes a difference,' that keeps me going." 

QVC shark Lori Greiner is "touched" that Tseng has been crying during Krippendorf's impassioned speech. Woodman calls them a "strong team." By the end of the negotiations, the Kitchen Safe men accept an offer from Lori Greiner and Nick Woodman who offer them $100,000 in exchange for a 20% stake in the company. Greiner says to them, "both of us believe in you and we believe in what we can all do together as a team." Woodman promises to become "personally invested in the business to help you guys succeed."

The problems with this product are legion. I actually don't know where to start. The product endorses what fat activist Virgie Tovar calls "diet culture," the mentalities that American culture, and Western culture more broadly, hold around weight loss and food intake restriction. Kitchen Safe assumes that food is bad and that the only way to handle the caloric devil is to fight against it.  Krippendorf makes this antagonistic attitude clear when he starts the company pitch. He yells, "Sharks! America is fighting a battle we must win! The enemy is junk food, temptation, and it is everywhere!...It's no wonder that two thirds of us is overweight! There must be a better way!"




In his crazed carnival barker style, David Krippendorf couldn't be more clear. For him and for so many of us, food has a moral valence, and it's not a good one. If you do not "defeat" the "enemy," you become "overweight," the supposedly kind word for fat, and even this gentler word makes you cry. The problem with this attitude is that, in case you didn't know, people have to eat food in order to live. (Newsflash!) You must constantly fraternize with the enemy for your very survival.



You become like a tragic comic book character: what keeps you alive is also your biggest threat. The word threat is important here. The enemy is actually not food, which is a necessary, nutritious, and pleasurable part of life, but the perceived or imagined threats of having an "overweight" body and of being "unhealthy," in other words, of departing from the body type and values around food our culture finds appropriate. In this way, reality TV has not changed substantially from television's Cold War beginnings. That many 1950s game shows were designed to manage invisible threat is apparent even in their titles, like  "To Tell the Truth" or "Truth or Consequences." The title here plays on the halo/pitchfork, angel/devil dichotomy the show relies on. Typically people answered questions incorrectly on purpose so they would get to do whatever silly stunt was the "consequence" of their incorrectness. Whether consequences are valued over truth or vice versa, the polarity is maintained through humor and ritualized play.


In its earliest period, TV was haunted by the fear of Communists and spies (or both in one); the new threat, food, is more personal and perhaps even more lethal. In each case, the enemy is inside us. In each case, television uses standardized, reality-based formats to proclaim and eradicate, or literally contain, threat. Through these attempts, television reveals the anxieties of its age.

It also reveals the kinds of solutions to anxiety that its age envisions. On Shark Tank, the solution to food as enemy is action-directed punishment. Instead of doing something as ridiculously New Agey as examining your relationship to food and bringing kindness to your cravings, the solution is to ignore your desires and lock food away in sadistic containers. The creators of Kitchen Safe point out that this punishment-oriented device can be used for more than just food. A remote control can be put in the safe for a few hours so that a child learns to do his or her homework before watching television (which clearly one should never do). In this model of parenting, children and adults do not discuss how to handle homework together. Parents do not try to empathize with their children's feelings and needs and allow solutions to emerge from collaboration and connection. Treating children like capable, worthy humans would indulge them. "After all," someone might say, "no one indulged me, and I'm proud of how cruel I've become, so I am happy to use a new product to perpetuate the punishing attitudes I resented growing up. This is great!" Children, too, are a threat to be contained.

And it is this cruel shoving off to the side, of course, that incites rebellion. The product's founders and its website stress that the safe helps with "temptation." Of course it doesn't. It increases temptation by making something "bad" more difficult to attain and therefore more desirable. It increases the mentality that causes you to ignore your body and eat more than you actually want: you rebel against restriction by overdoing and lose any sense of how many supposedly evil cookies you would have actually liked, which may have been just one or two. (Or it may have been the whole damn box. Whatever.) Products like this use absurd and mean-spirited rules to replace inner knowing around what your body needs or simply wants.

It is the paranoia that Kitchen Safe encourages that turns food into a threat, an all-consuming enemy that you fight with your timer container before it annihilates you. When you actually listen to your body around food -- a task that is harder and harder to do in our society -- your body will kindly tell you what it wants and when to stop. Is it really so bad to eat a little or a lot? Is it going to ruin your health to have a bunch of cookies? Let's say that whether you restrict yourself around food or not, for a variety of genetic or environmental reasons or the pressures of diet culture, you become "overweight." Did you know you can be happy anyway? Did you know it's possible to be happier fatter rather than thinner? Did you know your weight does not have to determine your happiness at all?

The great monk Ajahn Sumedho says that approaching the world with lovingkindness means taking on an attitude of not fighting. A non Cold War attitude. No Communists, no threats, no spies. We don't have to fight food, and we don't have to fight ourselves. We "win" because there is no war to lose. There is just our humanity, our pleasure, and our own sense of rightness.




Sunday, October 19, 2014

I am Shiklah, Queen of the Undead, or The Joys of Fat Cosplay

It's October 2013. My fiance and I go to Comic Con together, as we've done the past few years. My honey is dressing up as -- or doing Cosplay as -- his favorite Marvel character, Deadpool. Every year he refines his Deadpool costume and is often asked to be in photos. I am too hesitant to dress up myself. My fat activism is only a month old. I'm shy, but I'm getting fired up. And here I am at Comic Con, a temporary community that accepts and even embraces the unconventional. As my guy and I are walking around, we hear someone say, "now that I want to do this Cosplay, I have great motivation to lose weight." On fire with my new body positivity, I can't resist replying: "hey, you can do your Cosplay at any weight." He replies excitedly, "no, for the specific effect I'm going for, I need to be thinner."

I want to say more, but we get separated in the crowd. I continue to make comments, and not in a quiet voice, about the incident. Isn't Comic Con about enjoying weirdness and not conforming to societal expectations? Why should such prejudice be here? I feel so hurt. Just as loving my fat body is becoming a real option in my life, someone rejects that possibility in a venue that typically encourages self-acceptance. In addition, my guy is a BHM or Big Handsome Man whose adorable teddy-bear stomach has never stopped him from doing fantastic Cosplays of a character who is drawn with a thinner body. Nonetheless, he is much calmer about the situation than I am. His priority is to move on while mine is to vent the injustice. We are frustrated at each other for approaching the situation so differently. Neither of us knows what to do.

A year goes by. A lot of things happen. We get married that summer. I continue with my fat activism full speed ahead: I read blogs and look at tumblrs, join online communities, do e-courses about body love at any size, read gorgeous fat poetry, get more comfortable wearing clothes that hug my stomach and thighs. I deeply enjoyed listening to Ragen Chastain and Jeanette DePatie host the first annual online Fat Activism Conference and I appreciate Stephanie Payne's great talk on plus-size Cosplay. I start my own fat blog. I see the fat troupe Rubenesque Burlesque perform live at the New York Burlesque Festival, meet them and get pictures with them. Now I'm ready. I want to do Cosplay, too.

My now husband (!) comes up with a great idea. Just as we got married over the summer, so did his Marvel obsession, Deadpool. He suggests we go to Comic Con as fictional and real husband and wife. Deadpool's wife is Shiklah. She wears purple and black, some pretty cool jewelry, and is a succubus who is queen of the underworld and lord of the monsters. Cool, huh? I am not the avid comic reader that my husband is, but I read some comics with Shiklah in them and did some online "research" and decided that this was a cool character. The next week, hubby and I went to a costume store and basically bought a nice purple and black witch costume to adapt into a Shiklah Cosplay. I was feeling down that day, sad about unrelated things, so I mostly sat there and pouted while my husband resourcefully put together an amazing plus-size costume. I did not appreciate the astonishment of some skinny sales ladies when we announced that we were looking for large purple tights, as if no woman over a size 8 has wanted to wear such a thing, but somehow we found those, too. Okay, the tights were a little bit small in the end, but they were good enough for a one-weekend costume.

Here is how my Shiklah, Queen of the Underworld, Lord of the Monsters, came together:

I'm Shiklah. Fuck you.

We stopped by a Halloween shop in our neighborhood so Hubby could do my make-up before the Con.



Husband and Wife Kiss! I had to rub some of my black lipstick off of his mask after this.


Ruler of the Deadpools! My husband is the one in the cap. I took off one of my gloves so I could actually use my cellphone and stay in touch with people...it's easy to lose track of them at Comic Con!


Here I am with Wonder Woman (above) and a gender-bending Thelma (below).

Jinkies!


As you can tell from these photos, I had a great time doing my first Cosplay! There were people of all shapes and sizes, and we were all fine. Fancy that!
At Comic Con I was able to buy awesome Adventure Time clothes, which I love to do. I got a BMO sweater in XL and a fitted 2XL black polo shirt with Lumpy Space Princess on it. I decided to layer these items a few days later and hubby took a (blurry) picture of me, which I present below:




I can think of conservative not-fat-appreciating people (mother, cough cough) who might think that my stomach here is unflattering and I should wear something looser. But this is exactly what fat acceptance and fat activism do not require of me. Personally, I love the look. I love that I can proudly present the cuteness of BMO the talking game console, my breasts, and my stomach. If a "muffin top" is a bad thing to have, well, I just don't agree with that.

There's no reason you have to be a particular weight to do Cosplay, to pose for pictures, to wear a sweater. In a culture brimming with pictures of skinny women, it's easy to feel that it's a problem for you not to look like that. I hope that my playful Shiklah and BMO pictures can point to the arbitrary tyranny of such a standard. Magazines, movies, tv shows may discriminate, but images, whether photographed or drawn or digitally composed, don't have to: they can celebrate all bodies. And they can present bodies not as impossible ideals to identify with or try to match, but as sturdy and flexible inhabitants of a changing world. It's amazing how easily we make the conceptual leap from "there's a thin body" to "that is desirable and I need to be it." Aren't there other ways of relating to images than feeling the need to conform to them? Of course, and I hope that my little photos, humble and awkward and fun and lovely as they may be, help point to that.

Monday, October 6, 2014

In the Flesh

Last week I had the incredible pleasure and privilege of seeing Rubenesque Burlesque perform LIVE at the New York Burlesque Festival! Rubenesque Burlesque is a fat, fat positive burlesque troupe based in Oakland, California. There are lots of neat things about living in NYC, but I miss out on many cool fat positive events in the San Francisco area. Since it's rare for RB to be in my neighborhood, I knew I had to go see them. Plus, some of their members, Juicy D Light and Magnoliah Black, spoke beautifully at the Fat Activism Conference in August, and I chat with them in fat positive Facebook groups.  I bought two tickets so I could take The Husband. That's right, I took my husband, to whom I have been married for a bit over two months now, to a show involving nearly naked women, entirely of my own volition. He is a very trustworthy and attentive guy, and I wanted us to celebrate our mutual appreciation for fat positivity and big breasts. We also shared some amazing chicken wings. His caesar salad was the only thing at the event that was overdressed.

This is me rockin' some not-so-feminine fatshion before the show.


Here's me with the amazing women of Rubenesque Burlesque after the performance! Look what respectful people we are...




There were plenty of great acts, and I am completely biased, but let's face it, Rubenesque Burlesque was completely the best, and I really do think they received the most applause of anyone. They started out wearing bright red shirts that said Fat Camp on them in glittering letters. They were following an annoyingly perky skinny woman who was guiding them through an aerobics routine. Some of them were into it, but others were aggravated and listless. Then the four women surrounded the aerobics teacher and carried her to a table. She disappeared and the fat women walked downstage while chomping on her head and limbs. The skinny bitch was so annoying they ate her! Then they took off their shirts and wiggled their gloriously voluptuous breasts which had sparkly red tassles covering the nipples. At one moment they turned their backs to the audience, impressively shaking their thong-clad fleshy asses at the cheering crowd. Their moves were truly fantastic. I felt a little shy to talk to such awesome ladies after the show, but I was determined and my wonderful hubby was there to cheer me on and get pictures. It was so nice hugging and belly bumping Kitty vom Quim, Magnoliah Black, Lucia N. Hibitions, and Juicy D Light! They were gracious and fun. It was nice being close to their super sparkly lipstick. Impressive! 


The show was a success to me not only because of the glorious beauty of the fat performers but also because of their parodic exaggeration of tropes about fatness. They took the idea of the gluttonous fatty to a ridiculous, transgressive degree: instead of eating "too much food," as fat women are said to do, they eat their exercise instructor. They give new meaning to the phrase "eating everything in sight." Their cannibalistic act exaggerates stereotypes about the gluttony of fat people to such an extent that the flimsiness of these stereotypes is exposed and they fall apart. They have no legs to stand on because their legs have been eaten. (Forgive me.) The women of Rubenesque Burlesque subsume the false dichotomy of the active, perky thin woman and the lazy, surly fat woman so that what remains is not the oppressiveness of both real and television versions of Fat Camps but the dynamic beauty of their fleshy bodies.  

lovely drawing by Luma Rouge


Saturday, September 27, 2014

Notes on Fatshion

I have conflicting feelings about fatshion. On the one hand, it's great for us big women to show off our bodies. We get to say that we are beautiful at our current weight. We contradict stereotypes about fat women, disproving, for instance, that our weight shows a lack of self-care, that you can only be pretty, desirable, and proud of your appearance if you're thin enough. We don't have to wait for pounds to drop to look awesome. We don't have to keep ill-fitting clothes in case we're "lucky" enough to get "thin" again. We get to occupy space.

The main thing that concerns me about fatshion is its emphasis on the hyper-feminine. I'm not willing to name blogs because my goal is not to throw anyone under the bus; I'm speaking about fatshion as a whole, or you might say fatshion trends. I've looked at a lot of fatshion blogs and pretty much all of them showcase very feminine modes of attire -- flowy dresses, tight, curve-enhancing skirts, or whimsical a-line skirts, ruffles, 'skinny' (or tapered leg) jeans, jewelry, bright lipstick, etc. If you know of exceptions, please tell me in the comments or on facebook because I'd love to see them. It seems to me that quite a bit (though in this case certainly not all) of fatshion is vintage-inspired, a take on the 1950s pin-up.

You might ask, why would I be concerned about this? On an individual level, there is nothing wrong with having a feminine take on fashion, regardless of weight or gender identity. I wouldn't go up to a fellow fat woman and say, "how dare you wear a dress!" In fact, I would probably say, "nice dress, I love the color!" because I believe in supporting my fellow fatties in the world. I make a point in New York City of noticing fat women who look awesome and complimenting them on it. It's may way of saying, "we're allies in this. Maybe despite your awesome self-presentation you worry about being a fat woman in the world, but I know what you're dealing with and I support you." I often ask the woman where she got what she's wearing so I get more ideas about fat friendly stores. And it's a way for me to challenge my own internalized prejudices about what kinds of bodies are desirable and even just acceptable. Sometimes I feel self-conscious about my belly and my thighs, and if I can acknowledge to myself that other big women look great, I can accept myself more easily and move through my shyness about a tight shirt on my belly and feel proud of it.

Complimenting fellow fat women, for me, is a kind of code, a secret hand shake or belly bump. I just wish it were more successful. Usually when I compliment a woman, often on the subway, she thanks me sheepishly and returns to what she was doing. I don't tend to get the "I understand your code and send it back to you" feeling I dream about. Maybe the women in question don't want to be bothered during their train ride. Maybe the book they are reading on their iPad really is that amazing. But maybe the lukewarm reception indicates the importance of my gesture. It isn't really okay to compliment fat bodies out there, even if you have one, too. And that's why I feel the need to do it.



But as I described in my post on interpellation, there are limits to approaching fat issues only in terms of the personal. The personal is where and how we act (it's political, after all), but subjecthood is a loaded and problematic position. The personal often expresses our own unconscious participation in the oppressive systems we've been born into, to which we submit ourselves "freely." And so it is worrying to me that the personal on fatshion blogs is so overwhelmingly represented through feminine tropes. Against the wills of the bloggers involved, this trend as a whole conveys the idea that fat is only acceptable when it is framed in a particularly feminine way, when fat means big breasts and thick lips and sensual curves even though not all fat bodies have these qualities.

Many fatshion outfits show belts around the waist with a dress or skirt because fatness is most accepted when the waist is smaller than the hips and when large thighs are camouflaged by fabric. This trend -- and not any individual person -- runs the risk of communicating that fatness is inherently feminine, that the only argument to be made for fatness is that it enhances a narrow view of femininity and is actually not allowed outside of those codes. If fatness is only to be associated with the hyper feminine, it can easily slip into other feminine stereotypes, for instance, that fatness is secondary to a strong and taut masculine, that it stands for the excessively emotional, the histrionic woman who cannot control either her moods or her appetites. It is easy for fashion, fat or otherwise, to express a woman's subordination rather than her power, and not just her historical subordination to men but her economic subordination to the whims of the market, and her philosophical subordination to the Western paradigm that bodies are composed of an inner essence and an outer presentation with the latter expressing some kind of deep truth about the former.

These are the risks of fatshion. These problematic messages are in there even though the women in question do not consciously believe those messages. I would like to see a bigger variety of fatshions to dilute the sad connotations that accompany fatness and femininity. Does fatness have to be dressed up or can it rest in t-shirts that show muffin tops, jeans that don't elegantly taper at the bottom, sneakers instead of leg-lengthening heels? What if online plus size stores other than ReDress had a butch styles section? Fatshion is worth it, and that is why it is worth being critically assessed and hopefully broadened.


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

I'll Take That Milky Way, Good Sir

Tonight I was at my film class which is almost four hours long and goes through traditional dinner times. In this course, we begin with a screening or two, have a break, and then have a discussion until 10pm. Naturally, during the break people go get coffee if they didn't have it already or eat some food. I had half a turkey sandwich, a lemon-lime seltzer, and some pretzels left over from lunch. Toward the end of the break, my eagle eyes picked up three mini Milky Ways on the table the professor uses as his desk or station. I thought, "when did those get there?" When Proffie came back into the room, he was just as surprised as I was to find candy there. It turns out that another student had leftovers and didn't want them, so she put them on the desk for anyone to take. He was about to speak, so he did not take one but offered them to everyone else.

And no one moved. Not one person in a pretty crowded classroom.

I thought to myself, "I love Milky Ways. Why shouldn't I have one?" From my position toward the front of the room, I reached out to the table, took one and ate it. Besides fulfilling my desires, I thought this move would give other students permission to take the remaining two, which I would have been happy to take myself if I were so damn self-sacrificing.

The Milky Way was amazing. It definitely made slogging through early Antonioni more bearable. It was a few seconds of delight.

And yet nobody followed suit. The other two fun-size bars just sat there, neglected.

Why did no one eat the other Milky Ways? Well, on an individual level, there is no way of knowing exactly. I can't speak for everyone (or anyone). I'm sure there was a variety of motivations in the classroom. Maybe some people were just not hungry. Maybe some people don't enjoy the deep pleasures of chocolate with caramel. Maybe others felt they were too far back in the room go to get them.

Academic environments are also strange in that there is a sense of decorum people don't want to break but no one has articulated exactly what it is. At my department's lecture series, they serve Chardonnay and Perrier in plastic cups. The tone of the event is indecisive. Tonight a fellow spent time worrying about what seat he should take so as not to usurp what he expected would be the visiting lecturer's position. Then she chose to stand at the front of the room instead of sitting toward the back (actually at the head of the table) as is more common. Everyone is tensely guessing what is appropriate to do while laughing a bit and pretending to be relaxed.  As strange as the academic environment can be, and trust me, I could elaborate on this point, this probably wasn't the main issue here because the professor invited people to have the candy. The chocolatey goodness was unambiguously approved for us.

So why didn't most people have any? At a broad level, I think it relates to myths about food consumption. It is gluttonous, unrefined, inappropriate to show an interest in food, especially fattening, decadent food like a Milky Way. I was once chastised as a young child for showing too much enthusiasm as I asked someone about a type of food I had never seen before. You're not supposed to want to eat, besides your coffee and possible bag of nuts during the break. I think there is a largely unconscious desire among many people to prove cultural refinement and discipline by abstaining from food. In addition, taking a small candy bar would involve moving to the front of the room and back for most people. Making yourself visible in relation to food is also not generally considered acceptable. In an academic environment, it might seem that you are supposed to draw attention to yourself through the mental, through sophisticated comments, rather than through the corporeal and the carnal, the act of getting up for a chocolate and sitting back down again.

I try to live as freely as I can. I wish I were better at it, but fat activism is one of the most powerful ways I know to live more freely in the body I have. I knew that I could worry about disturbing people or seeming gluttonous or immature or drawing attention to myself for the wrong reasons by take the Milky Way. But I didn't care. I feel enough confidence in my body to know that I'm not a terrible person for having chocolate or for being fat. As a fat activist, I work to see how attitudes about food can enslave and oppress on the one hand and how they can liberate on the other. And in this case I was able to choose a liberating option for me, to just have what I wanted. I still participated in class. I was still a "sophisticated" "intellectual" person who had come prepared and motivated. And I also had some fucking god damn chocolate.

As I end, I want to be clear that I am not trying to read the mind of everyone with whom I was in class. I am not saying that people were "wrong" not to have the candy. It is completely fine for people just not to want it. I'm not interested in saying what people "should" do but in analyzing what happens. The point is to speak more broadly, more systemically. I like to concentrate on the structural and not the personal. We're all affected by cultural norms and I am guessing that harmful cultural attitudes about food were, probably unconsciously, affecting quite a few of my classmates. The point is not reading my peers' minds but just noticing the unspoken norms and restrictions in the room with us. And I easily could have been affected in turn because I am a fat woman in a room with thin people. I could have stayed away from the chocolate out of embarrassment; what if the thin people judge me for eating something caloric and non-nutritious? I could have been too shy and oppressed to go for it. But I saw the restrictive ideologies in the room with us and I didn't feed them. Instead I fed myself.