Photography by Olivier Fermariello.
Photography by Olivier Fermariello.

Representations of nudity in Western popular culture are rarely inclusive of “physically disabled” or “non-normative” bodies. If nude disabled bodies are represented at all, it’s usually in a medicalized, Othered context–case studies of the “disfigured” or collections of outrageous pictures of “freakish” bodies. Our cultural relationship with physical disability is contradictory; we’re trained to look the other way when clothed non-normative bodies enter our field of view, but we’re encouraged to gawk at nude disabled bodies on display for our entertainment and wonder. Exposure to positive portrayals of disabled bodies in the nude isn’t something that most people in Western culture experience without seeking it out. So it’s no surprise that our attitude towards nude disabled bodies as a society is generally a negative one, since of course, our culture’s attitude towards disability itself is rarely positive. Institutionalized ableism serves to marginalize non-normative bodies and keep empowering representations of them, nude or not, from becoming part of mainstream visual consciousness.

Because our Western society values the concepts of “strength” and “self-sufficiency” so highly, a disabled body is judged by its perceived lack of either. Disability is seen as weakness, and is not only socially undesirable but undesirable sexually, and in a sex-saturated culture desirability is a large part of a body’s worth. For men, from whom society demands unwavering strength, this is a harsh blow to their ability to express themselves sexually or to be seen as a sexual being. Inferred weakness or helplessness in a man shifts the gaze of desire onwards for a great many. Women are given more license to be viewed as helpless or weak, however, if any disabled body is shaped in a way that is radically different than what we’re taught to see as normal, it’s deemed “disfigured” and any value it has is primarily based in its usefulness as a specimen or as an object for fetishization. Rarely are we treated to the bodies society calls “disfigured” being presented as desirable in a non-exploitative manner. Thus for many people, seeing a nude disabled body can bring up negative emotions, feelings of disgust, fear, pity, etc. Disgust because we’re so trained to view bodies through a narrow lens of normalcy, we can’t imagine a body that looks radically different than the bodies we’re told are “normal” could be anything but “disgusting”. Fear because our response to anything unfamiliar or that we don’t understand tends to be a level of fear, and pity because our culture drums it into us that living in a body that isn’t “normal” and is harder to operate couldn’t possibly be worth it. The concept of “normal” is, of course, incredibly flawed. Western values dictating that worth lies in productivity lead us to devalue bodies that don’t live up to our idea of how a body must function in order to be productive. All of this cultural training skews the lens through which we view a nude disabled body.

This worldview on disability leaves little room for productive discussions of disability and nudity with everyday people. When portrayals of nude disabled bodies are relegated to the Discovery Channel’s “Extreme Bodies” or TLC’s “The Woman With Giant Legs”, there’s no opportunity to discuss how disability justice must include sex and body-positivity. There’s no back-and-forth about why society presents disabled bodies this way. But disability activists and artists are and have been working to create positive representations of nude disabled bodies in both a sexual and a non-sexual context that actively challenge the societal construction of disability and open a dialogue on how we determine a body’s “worth”. Tanya Raabe, a disabled British artist, has painted a series of portraits, many nude, of disabled people’s bodies in a collection entitled “Revealing Culture: Head On”. Holly Norris’ “American Able” series of photographs spoofs American Apparel’s use of nudity in their ads and challenges their lack of inclusiveness of non-normative or disabled bodies. And Jim Ferris’ “Uncovery to Recovery: Reclaiming One Man’s Body on a Nude Photo Shoot” requests a discourse on disability and the performative nature of gender via the presentation of a queer disabled man’s nude body.

Although our sex/body-positive work surrounding disability should not necessarily be aimed at having nude disabled bodies be validated by mainstream society as desirable, the body-positive principles of affirmation and celebration of all bodies dictates that we must work towards having disabled bodies represented equally in mainstream media and accepted as natural variations of body type. A “disabled” body, as any other body, can be used to express sexuality and personality, can give affection, can lay damp and naked on the bed letting the cool fan breeze dry it off. Disabled bodies can dance, can skinny dip, can feel stress deliciously melt away when a lover lays their hand upon it. All that, just maybe differently than yours can. And differently than another disabled person’s might. Our work, as always, should be focused on highlighting the commonalities between bodies and lovingly appreciating the differences–functionally and aesthetically.

[This piece originally appeared in Corset Magazine.]

Being raw and emotionally vulnerable in public is not something I’m very comfortable with. Talking loudly about sex acts, bodily fluids and consuming large quantities of cake products in public doesn’t bother me. Having my tits hanging half out or my skirt hiked up past my ass in public barely registers on my “for shame” meter. Even describing elaborate sexual fantasies in detail on public transportation next to elderly women who are clearly scandalized doesn’t make me bat an eye. But when it comes to what’s going on in my head, the non-superficial stuff, laying bare my dysfunctional thought processes, I just can’t. Not to anyone but those closest to me. At a young age I learned that most people don’t want to deal with the unpretty stuff. The things that aren’t resolved by reassurances and pep talks. The ugly crying. Dark moods that last months, suicidal panic attacks that occur every day like clockwork, and self-loathing so intense it has a distinct and palpable feeling. Days spent just surviving, not living, not growing, just continuing on the same broken path because that’s all you can do. I have been there and I have been silent because that is not the voice I want people to hear. It’s not the voice I think other people want to hear. But a lot of the time, it’s the voice I have.

Illustration by Pheobe Wahl
Illustration by Pheobe Wahl

There is so much pressure to be “okay”. During the short time I’ve had this particular blog, I’ve received a lot of messages from folks, fat, queer, and otherwise, who feel really crappy about themselves for feeling crappy about themselves. They feel like all their “role models” are able to reach that high level of self-esteem, and they can’t because they’re fundamentally flawed. It’s basically meta low self-esteem, and I think the internet and social media in general really contribute to the illusion that there’s some kind of pinnacle that you reach when you’ve achieved something like OT 7 of self love (excuse the Scientology reference). Because we do want to put our best face out there, and we do create an image, whether consciously or unconsciously, that doesn’t necessarily reflect our inner world. Society at large isn’t exactly accepting of what is popularly considered “weakness”, so it’s not really shocking that when given the opportunity to filter what other people know about our lives, we leave out the negative. I’ve always thought I tried to be true to life on the internet, but I’ve been surprised when I meet people who only know my life from what they read online and have this illusion that it’s one big fat awesome party with lots of sex and food. I ended up buying into that trap of thinking that I HAVE to be this certain way to be accepted, that I can’t be real and have varying feelings that aren’t all I AM HOT, BEING FAT IS AWESOME, I LOVE SEX. When my voice changed from a confident, clarion call for body acceptance and open fat & queer sexuality to a plaintive cry for help out of the dark place I found myself in, I retreated. Like I said, vulnerability is extremely hard for me (and many people) to share and work with in a public way. It opens you up to attack by so many people who want nothing to do but hurt you. People who have been chomping at the bit to see you fall down.

I now know that in vulnerability is strength, but we’re not made to feel like it. To so many, talking about actual feelings is “overshare”. Sharing negative feelings is just annoying and inconvenient to listen to. If you’re feeling less than joyous about life, you must be putting some kind of intention out there that is inviting bad shit onto your doorstep. This is victim-blaming. It impedes openness and real talk. Yet being able to talk things out and share each others’ struggles is so vital for building community. I don’t endorse letting your personal crazy run roughshod over everyone around you, but we need to make it easier to fall apart for a minute, or an hour, or a month, and still be supported & validated. Those feelings are REAL and whether other people want to admit it or not, they feel them too sometimes.

I’ve been doing a lot of internal work during these past few months, and also thinking A LOT about the way we represent ourselves in community spaces and how that can contribute to our feelings of isolation. Because it’s been really difficult for me to handle socializing lately, even online socializing, I’ve taken breaks and thus reflected on how I’m affected by the push to be perfect. I, too, have suffered and still do suffer at times from meta low self-esteem. The confidence I once had in abundance is often hard to find these days, so I’ve kept online communications to a minimum. But I’m finally coming here to share my imperfections and how I’m growing, and hope that maybe knowing that someone who is supposed to be beyond this shit actually ISN’T all of the time will help a few people feel less isolated.

I believe now, wholeheartedly, that to truly be confident you have to accept vulnerability, and embrace it. I’d often been asked how to start loving yourself wholly, and I never really had a good answer other than “just start”. I have another answer now–I think that expressing vulnerability, getting past that shame that we have internalized, letting it be known that hey, I’m not there yet, or I was there and right now I’m not, is the first step, and the fifth step, and can really be any step you need to take along the never ending journey that is loving yourself. I want to see a community that encourages vulnerability. Whether you feel shame surrounding your body, or your queerness, or your gender identity, there should be no shame necessary in acknowledging that.

And I’ve felt a lot of shame in my life about being fat, queer, femme, mixed race, slutty and all that. I wasn’t born “fierce”. It took me a long, long time to get to where I am now, and fuck it, sometimes I backslide. And I have to admit that, and own it, and hold in my heart a place for that girl who was abused, who was shamed, who is a survivor that still needs nurturing and reassurance sometimes.

We all need to hold a place for that person–for ourselves and everyone else we love, and everyone we should love.

There is a widespread belief in Western culture that it is necessary to police the health of every fat person. Judgments are made about the state of the inside of fat bodies based on the appearance of the outside of their bodies. Most people don’t see that as a negative thing, or an inappropriate thing. We’re used to diagnosing illnesses from afar. We call drug-fueled, out-of-control celebs “crazy” without having a clue as to their actual mental health status. We cattily tell people whose bodies we feel are too thin to “eat a hamburger,” assuming they have an eating disorder. But with fat people, there is a hate and a system of oppression behind our culture’s so-called “concern” for their health. It’s beyond simple comments and offhand remarks. There is a concerted effort by the diet industry, government, media, and our culture to use the guise of concern for health to shame fat people into dieting or continuing to diet, regardless of the health problems the dieting may bring. Urged on by the media and the current “obesity epidemic” hype, ostensibly well-meaning people nag family members and friends to lose the “unhealthy” weight. Yet more and more studies are showing that it’s completely possible to be fat and healthy. What can be deadly is the stigma associated with being fat. The question is, why are we so stuck on fat equaling poor health, and why do we feel that based on their assumed poor health, it’s okay to treat fat people as second class citizens?

[read the rest of the article on Clutch Magazine…]

I did a post on Bitch called “Unicorns, Better Head and Other Myths” in which I briefly brought up the commonly-held belief that fat girls are better at blowjobs. Namely because they have such low self-esteem that they’re grateful for the opportunity to get anywhere near a dick, so they get really good at it. This myth is recognizably heterosexist and cissexist in that it refers solely to fat girls’ relationships with cis men’s penises. But since that’s the common usage, I’m going to talk specifically about the act of giving a cis guy a blowjob.

Blowjobs and I have a complicated relationship, and that has a lot to do with me being fat. See, I’m good at giving blowjobs. Really good. I make men stutter, I produce euphoria that lasts hours after I finish swallowing, I learn quickly and I love doing it. I’ll go down in an instant if I like someone, not because I’m trying to get guys to like me or really do much more for them–it’s because I like doing it, it gives me pleasure. For me it’s not really something I’m doing for their benefit until I have more of an emotional relationship with them. In fact, I tend to hold back on going down on guys for a few dates when I’m interested in a relationship. I haven’t been as vocal as I’d like to be about my love of giving blowjobs because I’m fat, and when fat chicks go down on a cis guy, they’re doing it because they’re desperate. Or emotionally damaged. Or seeking male attention. Whatever the reason, it’s never a positive one and it’s always related to fat being something you have to overcome when dating. So I’m reluctant to go ahead and fulfill that stereotype. It’s like how I want to make sure my hair doesn’t smell so people don’t think all black women’s hair is dirty. You know?

The “fat girls give better head” stereotype is of course fatphobic but is also inherently slut-shaming because it’s representing being proficient at a sex act as something negative. And in a lot of people’s minds, being good at sex means you’ve had more, which equals slut/whore for women. It’s tied in to the stereotype of fat girls as “easy” (aka slutty) because they have low self-esteem, and not because they simply love sex. When you’re a fat girl you’re not allowed to have a lot of sex unless you’re desperately searching for attention. The sex-loving, confident fat girl is in this case invisible. Our sexuality is always complicated by the difference between our view of our own sexuality and society’s view of what fat sexuality should look like. Meaning, it should be either kept completely behind closed doors or fit within the framework of self-loathing and body hate that all fat women are expected to experience on a daily basis. This is why cultivating a sex-positive culture is necessarily important to fat/body acceptance, and why we have to make fat visible in sex-positive movements and spaces.

That is the reason I decided to stop worrying about fulfilling stereotypes and start making myself visible as a sex-loving, confident fat chick on my own terms. I’m not just talking about loving giving head, but also about owning my sexuality. That’s also pretty much the reason I started this blog, because I wanted to represent a different way of viewing fat women’s sexuality. This space is important to me, and I hope by being open about myself, I can encourage other fat girls who maybe haven’t yet to start down the path of owning their sexuality. Also, I like talking about sex.

And that’s about it.

This column has come to an end! I hope what we discussed helped you learn to love yourself a bit more. And, of course, I hope it made you think a bit and challenge assumptions about fat sexuality and societal beauty standards. My goal is to enlighten and deconstruct, to help fat women empower themselves and take their body image and sexuality into their own hands. So if anyone started on the road to self-acceptance because of this column, I’m happy.

I feel like talking loudly about fat sexuality is important, and I hope you’re interested in keeping this dialogue going, whether with other fat women or just with yourself. I want to work towards changing societal beauty standards and then eliminate them. I want society, or at the very least the FA community, to recognize that choosing to be fat is as valid as the claims of innocence. I want fat women everywhere to enjoy their bodies and learn what pleasure they can bring. I want to untangle fat from health. And I want you to do it with me.

It’s doubtful that this column alone will be revolutionary, of course. It’s just one voice. But if all fat people, not just women, start singing the same song, I think we can move mountains. And not just mountains of flesh. With time and persistence, eventually the revolution will come, whether or not it’s in my lifetime. But I hope I get to see the day when being fat is just as valid as being thin, when fat sex is not met with “eww, keep it indoors,” and when our paragons of beauty come in all shapes and sizes.

If you’re interested in reading more, you can check out my blog, also called Sex and the Fat Girl. You can find me on Twitter as @misstashafierce and on Facebook.

Keep in touch, and thank you for supporting this column. Much love.

EricaWatson1

I had the pleasure of attending the April 30 performance of Erica Watson’s “Fat Bitch!” The show incisively cut through the societal baggage attached to being a fat woman using humor (hilariously!) and personal anecdotes. The finale video is something I hope everyone eventually gets to see because it is a work of comedy art. I got the chance to meet Ms. Watson after the show and she graciously agreed to answer some questions for me about her performance via e-mail.

Tasha Fierce: Your show uses humor (very deftly) in addressing issues like the media’s constant attack on fat women’s self-esteem. Have you found that dealing with the pain of society’s treatment of you as a fat woman in a humorous way has been effective in your personal journey towards body acceptance?

Erica Watson: Life is funny! I can’t control the things that people do to me, but I can surely control my reaction! I have chosen to take it all in stride. By pointing out the absurdity of society’s obsession with weight it helps me cope because I can show that I am not the one with the problem! If you do not like a person because of their size then YOU have the issues…..not me!

[read the rest at Bitch Magazine…]

On Facebook today, Marilyn Wann shared an article on CNN.com about the health benefits of touch. She added “If being fat makes a person ‘untouchable,’ then that’s a powerful confounding variable for claims about weight and health.” I definitely agree, and of course media don’t present fat people as worthy of physical contact particularly of a sexual nature. However, I think we do need to recognize that sometimes we shield ourselves from anticipated rejection by shunning the desire for touch, which is in and of itself unhealthy. It’s not always that no one wants to feel the tactile pleasures of your body. We have to open ourselves up to receiving the sensory experience of intimate touch, which requires us to feel safe not only with a partner but with ourselves. Unfortunately, society doesn’t make this an easy job.

Reading the article, you can see that it’s not just sexual touch that’s beneficial, which to me offers hope that you can begin to appreciate how it feels to let that touching in without having to immediately immerse yourself in a situation that you find uncomfortable. When you’ve used the defense mechanism of bottling up the desire to be touched for so long, it takes time to reintroduce yourself to it. It doesn’t matter if you’re partnered or not, things like getting a neck rub from a friend, hugging family members or petting a dog can clearly be done without the need of a romantic relationship. Since this column focuses on sex, I want to point out that in the article, the author mentions that solo sex is beneficial as well, which is my number one way of connecting with my body.

I suggest that any fat girl get down with masturbation. Not only do you connect in a tactile way with the pleasure centers of your body, but the endorphins and other chemicals released make you feel so damn good, it’s impossible not to eventually come to find pleasure in your body automatically. It teaches you what you like and what you don’t, which is enormously beneficial when you have sex with a partner. You know exactly which spots do what, what fantasies enhance the experience, and you learn how to exist as a sexual being. Honestly, I was a lights-out only girl before I started regularly masturbating, and now I’m totally comfortable with the lights on because, basically, I’ve seen that shit before. And when you find pleasure in your own body you care less about what negative things the person you’re about to have sex with is thinking about your body.

Masturbation is not a cure-all for your body image issues. It’s part of a healthy self-esteem diet that includes other more cerebral aspects of fat acceptance. It’s important to note that the defense mechanism of avoiding touch isn’t an invalid coping method, but it’s one that ultimately harms us. It’s an insidious consequence of our fat-negative society, and when we recognize that, we can work toward changing our attitudes towards touch.

Many of the ways we’ve talked about to combat dominant societal beauty standards and, in the process, boost your self-esteem/self-image, are subjective in nature. They involve presenting in a certain way to elicit the desired results: a new way of looking at fat sexuality. There’s nothing particularly wrong with subjectivity in this sense, but when you take subjectivity to the personal level, the one-on-one level, it presents a problem. One commenter pointed this out in a roundabout way by complaining about women who say things like “Well, my boyfriend finds me attractive so that’s good enough for me.” Whether or not that attitude is annoying, it is certainly dangerous. Using perceived attractiveness (to a partner or potential partner) as a means to maintain your positive self-image is cheating on doing the work necessary to promote self-love.

I’m sure we all know a fat girl who feels like crap about her size until she receives some positive sexual attention from someone. Unfortunately, healthy self-esteem is not built on the slippery slope that is random affection from potential partners. If you only feel good about yourself when you’re with a partner to validate your attractiveness, once that partner has moved on (and they most certainly will when they figure out your feelings about yourself are inextricably tied to them), you’re back in the same, leaky, no-self-esteem boat. And by making statements like “I know I’m attractive because my partner finds me attractive,” you’re basically inferring that if you’re not partnered up, you need to take a seat and think about what’s wrong with you that YOU don’t have a partner to tell you you’re attractive. That’s not going to earn you many brownie points with people, honestly.

There’s nothing wrong with reveling in the desire of your partner for you. But I hear so many fat girls lament that they’re not sure if this person finds them attractive, that they worry about getting naked because a new sex partner may or may not be disgusted by them, that they are starting to feel good about themselves because they got a boyfriend, etc. The desire of a partner for you should be the icing on your self-image cake. (Mmm, cake.) Feeling good about yourself starts with feeling good about yourself, it doesn’t start when someone else starts feeling good about you. As I’ve said, self-love is a journey–and a solitary one at that. If you haven’t done any internal work (and I’m not saying that you have to be completely free of negative thoughts about yourself), starting a relationship may only serve as a distraction if you don’t recognize that your self-image is slowly being wound up in their feelings for you. Of course, this kind of thing happens to smaller girls as well, but for fat girls who are already so marginalized sexually, it’s especially important not to fall into that trap.

So in formulating your master plan for the journey towards self-love, just as you would ignore what society thinks about your attractiveness, you also have to ignore what individuals think about your attractiveness. Let a partner be a complement to your positive self-image, and not the key.

I recently noticed that two commenters on my “Too Fat to F*ck” post expressed dismay at the idea of seeing ANYONE displaying sexual affection in public, not just fat people. I want to address this because that was not the point of the post. When I talk about bringing fat sexuality out in the open, I’m not talking about encouraging fat people to go have sex in a crowded parking lot. However fun that might be, it’s not really effecting change to just have mass displays of public fat sex. I’m talking about not excluding fat people’s sexuality in discussions about and representations of human sexuality. I’m saying the sexuality of fat people should neither be reviled nor ignored.

You can’t say that the media doesn’t sell us sex and sexuality 24/7. We’re exposed to it in every form of pop culture. In the post I previously referenced I mentioned the show “Mike and Molly” and Marie Claire columnist Maura Kelly’s disgust over the show’s display of two fat people kissing. Positive representations of fat sexuality are few and far between in the media, and when we try to include them, we get responses like Ms. Kelly’s. Talking openly and often about fat sex destigmatizes it and opposes the idea that fat sexuality either does not exist or is disgusting as compared to the sexuality of “normal weight” people. It’s confrontational, and a form of resistance. In that sense I think it’s more important to promote the display of fat sexuality—maybe not buck naked in public, but at least in our media. We need to get to the point where seeing fat people kissing is not cause for alarm.

Just as queer folks fight for their right to express their particular sexuality, fat folks need to fight to not have their sexuality erased by the dehumanization fat people are subject to on a daily basis. This is more than bombarding the world with excessive PDA. Demanding equal representation in discussions and displays of popular sexuality is one of the keys to fat acceptance and body love.

In so many questions submitted to Ask a Fat Girl, I was asked how to start loving your body. I gave many suggestions, but I want to touch on something that I think is integral to truly loving your fat body—taking responsibility for it. What I mean by taking responsibility is not denying culpability in your fatness to ward off judgment. You can’t love your body and at the same time view it as being outside your control. I recognize that a main party line of many in the fat acceptance movement is often that fatness is not a choice. And I also recognize that when you’re oppressed, it’s easier to take the path of least resistance, which in this case would be the denial of culpability. To enjoy sex you must LIVE in your body, and living in your body means accepting the state it is in and the choices you make that affect it.

Although outside the fat acceptance community it is not popularly accepted that fat people may not be fat by choice, within the fat acceptance community it is a cherished tenet. Of course many, many fat people are fat despite their best efforts. But there are also many fat people who are fat because they choose to be, who may be able to lose weight but simply choose not to attempt it. I am one of those people. I believe my fat body is beautiful, that I deserve love and pleasure no matter what my size and my self-esteem is high—yet I choose to count fast food as a major part of my diet and am perfectly happy to admit it. Many fat activists claim that if you love your body, you’ll “treat it right” by adjusting your eating and exercising habits or practicing Health at Every Size. Our worth as fat women should not rest on our doing “all the right things.” Many of the women who espouse the innocence line would be the first to give me the side eye should I start practicing HAES and lose weight. My love for my body doesn’t falter as the scale fluctuates, nor does it waver when I eat nothing but McDonalds all day and move very little. This has everything to do with your mental health and little to do with physical health. You can love your body when you’re physically healthy and when you’re not. But you can’t love and accept your body if you’re preoccupied with your perceived lack of agency over it.

Likewise, a preoccupation with control over your body through dieting prohibits you from experiencing true self-love and acceptance. When you’re constantly dieting you are existing in a state in which your self-image and ability to exert control over your body are fluid. You never truly inhabit your body because you’re constantly seeking to change it. Yet some say the feeling of self-love and dieting are in a way not necessarily mutually exclusive. Some women may diet because they love themselves/feel beautiful and misguidedly seek to have their external appearance be validated by society in the same way it is validated by themselves. This is the old “skinny girl in a fat body” trope often executed in film and TV. I would argue that believing you’re beautiful “on the inside” and that your true beauty can only be expressed by shedding the “shell” of fatness is not a belief consistent with true self-love. What your body looks like at this instant is what’s important, not an idealized vision of yourself that you feel is hiding under layers of fat. In this sense, control over your body becomes something you perceive yourself as having too much of rather than something you innately lack. Same trap, different way to spring it.

When agency over our body becomes something we willingly surrender in an attempt to shield ourselves from persecution, we’re not gaining ground. There’s no way to create a viable self-image based on body politics that encourage resignation over celebration. Coming to terms with that lays a foundation for the cultivation of healthy self-esteem and true body acceptance, and in turn starts you down the road toward total self-love.