Fat Femme

This weekend, I filled out the form to participate in panels at the Golden Crown Literary Society conference. There were lots of great topics and my top choice was a panel called “Where Am I?” The  theme of the panel is the juxtaposition of diverse, realistic characters with fantasy ones. It’s something I’ve grappled with in my own writing and one I’d love to discuss with other authors and readers.

I checked the boxes, filled out my information, and was about to hit submit when one question stopped me dead in my tracks:

Diversity
I consider myself a member of a diverse group (e.g., age, color, culture, custom, size, etc.) Yes
No

As a cis-gendered white woman, I’m extremely hesitant to claim any kind of diversity status, especially among fellow lesbians. Yet, the examples clearly listed size and one of the criteria. And I am fat.

Not only am I fat, I think a great deal about size and body image. I think about being fat when I go shopping, when I’m presenting in front of a group of students, when I’m in the shower, when I write. One one hand, my fatness has been the source of deep self-loathing and cruel bullying. On the other, it’s been empowering. I wrote my entire master’s thesis on representations of fat women on television, using the framework that the standard of thinness is one of the primary means of repressing women and keeping them distracted from the legitimate power discrepancies in our society. I used a lot of Foucault; it was great. I also included a whole section on using the word fat as a way of denying it negative power. I am, if you will, a fat expert.

And still I hesitated. Even though I no longer doubted whether I could legitimately claim the status, I wasn’t sure I wanted to. By checking the box, I would claim that identity. I would, at least on some levels, agree to take up the cause. Would my cool writer friends still like me? Would my readers?

I spent a great deal of my youth trying to deny or hide the fact that I was fat. I spent a good deal of my twenties and thirties trying to make peace with it, trying to find a balance between self-acceptance and self-care. I’ve gained weight and lost it, supported friends who’ve done the same. I discovered dancing and got in really good shape for a while; I got a new job and let it slide. I’ve loved myself and hated myself, sometimes on the same day.

It’s a complicated business. In some ways, it’s more messy than sexuality or even gender identity because, even in progressive circles, fat often comes with value judgments. It’s something one can help, something one chooses.

Finding the right balance remains a work in progress for me. For now, I try to embrace the fact that I can be fat-positive and body-positive and still want to fit into my pencil skirts that are too snug right now. I can be proud of my friends who are getting in shape. I can commiserate with those who seek solace in bread and cheese and chocolate and wine. I can try to keep my own exercise regimen because heart attacks run in my family, and because I like the way it makes me feel. I remind myself I can be a size 16 (or 14 or 18 or 12 or 20) and feel strong and limber and sexy.

I checked the box. I hope I get picked for the panel. Even if don’t, I’m glad I’ve had the chance to think about what size means to me as an author, and what it means for my writing.

Out and Proud

It’s pride month, such an uplifting time of year. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve read quite a few coming out stories. Some have been funny, some sweet; some have been downright raw. There seems to be a common thread, though–hope. The luxury of hindsight helps, for sure, but it’s the spirit that counts. Even when things are hard, even when you think you might throw up just thinking about it, there is the hope that things will get better. They did, they do. If you’re questioning that right now, reach out to someone. We’ll listen.

All this has me thinking about my own experience. I was in my mid twenties when I started coming out to my mostly conservative, Catholic, Southern family. They were far away. It was complicated. The usual. But in the end, I did and I survived. Today I have a good relationship with most of them. It got better.

A few years ago, I had the privilege of taking a course with Minnie Bruce Pratt, legendary femme writer and activist. Out of that class came one version of my coming out story, inspired by the style of Aurora Levins Morales’s Remedios (which I highly recommend). Looking back, the writing feels a little rough, but it was the first time I wrote about coming out. It was also the first time I wrote about some of the tensions in my family, a topic that used to instill its own brand of panic in me. But I’ve learned a lot since then, and again I have the luxury of hindsight. I’ve come to appreciate, for example, that my Aunt Claire is fiercely protective of her sisters (my mother and her twin, my godmother), both of whom have schizophrenia. She also turned out to be one of my biggest champions and allies. I hope she knows how much I appreciate that, among other things.

The story was published in G.R.I.T.S. – Girls Raised In the South: An Anthology of Southern Queer Womyns’ Voices and Their Allies (2013, CreateSpace Independent Publishing). In the spirit of pride month, I thought I’d share it with you.

“Roux”

Roux makes things thick; it gives them flavor and body. Fat and flour stirred over heat for a little while or a long long time. Cajun roux is cooked dark—not caramel dark, not peanut butter dark—chocolate dark. It is a test of will as much of skill, waiting until the exact moment before flecks of black mean you have to start all over. It’s a culinary game of chicken, played in a cast iron pot with a wooden spoon in one hand and a beer in the other. It’s the beginning of countless recipes, written or otherwise: First, you make a roux…

The call comes at about nine in the evening. I pick up the land line in the kitchen; I think the call will be quick. I am mistaken. There are serious concerns. Aunt Claire wastes no time.

“You know your Mama and Nannie will go along with whatever you say. You and Michelle could be best friends who decide to live together for the rest of your lives. We had and aunt who did that and no one ever even talked about it.”

“There’s only one bed,” I say. “Omission is one thing. All-out lying is another. I don’t want to lie to them.”

“You have no idea how they are going to react. You know when your MaMaw died, your mom cried for weeks. And your Nannie, she didn’t cry at all and ended up in the hospital because of it. This could be just as traumatic for them.”

My stomach starts to twist over on itself. I feel like I need to sit down, but I’m stuck in the kitchen and there is nowhere to go. “I just, I think they will be okay. They’re going to be able to see that I’m happy. They’ll probably have questions. I printed out some PFLAG literature.”

Claire pounces on that. “I’ve read some of that. It’s very academic and I really don’t think it would help them. Look, are you prepared to deal with the consequences if your news causes one of them to have a psychotic break? Are you going to come home and deal with it if that happens?”

I’m pacing now. Back and forth, lining up my socked feet on the faux-brick linoleum of the floor. One-two-three-four steps toward the dining room. One-two-three-four steps toward the stove.

“I really hope it doesn’t come to that. But I assure the family that if things get really bad, then I will find a way to come home and help. Yes, I assume responsibility for that. I do care about them, you know. I don’t want them to be left out of a giant part of my life for the rest of their lives. And I don’t want them to find out later and feel like I lied to them. What if we decide to have children? I have to do this.”

Claire sighs.

“I’ll call you once they’re here. I know you’re trying to do what’s best for them. So am I.”

***

Nannie and I are sitting at the kitchen table. It’s a little after 9:00, so Mama won’t be up for at least another couple of hours. We’re playing a round of kalukah—we each have a hand of fifteen cards and a little dish of nickels and pennies. The pot is up to sixty cents, a lot for just two people playing.

Nannie takes the three of hearts that I discard and goes down. She plays four sets, leaving only three cards in her hand. If she pulls the right card, she’ll go out. I’m only one card from getting kalukah, but I don’t want to get caught and have to pay her a quarter.

“You’re scaring me down,” I say with a laugh.

Nannie doesn’t laugh. She adjusts her glasses, rubs her nose, touches her short gray hair. She’s been fidgety ever since they put her on Seroquel. I know lithium has more dangerous side effects, but the twitching is hard to watch.

“So, Dawn, do you um…” Glasses, hair, nose. “Do you and Michelle do things in bed that people would call, um, lesbian?”

And here it is. Mama and Nannie said little last night when I told them. They didn’t seem upset, and the little they did say was positive—supportive even—so I was feeling cautiously optimistic. This could really go either way.

“We…” Fuck. What do I say? “We love each other very much and we’re very committed to each other and plan to be together, so yes. Yes, our relationship is physical that way.”

Wait. Wait. Wait. I’m holding my breath.

“Okay, shugah, I just wanted to know.”

Nannie takes the queen of clubs and sets down queen-king-ace. It’s a good thing I went down when I did; I only owe her for the three cards I’m still holding. I give her three pennies and add a nickel to the pot for the next hand. I pick up all of the cards and start to shuffle them. It’s my deal.