Defining My Identity

Published October 21, 2011 by Fat Heffalump

I’m a little high on adrenaline tonight.  I’ve had some more work done on my left half sleeve tattoo today, which always gives me an adrenaline rush afterwards, but it was just an intense day all up.  I have mentioned before that I am working on a project with Dr Lauren Gurrieri of Griffith University, which I cannot share much about yet (I promise I will as soon as I can) other than it involves my being photographed around the subject of my identity.  Of course, a major part of my identity is my tattooed body, so it was obvious that was one of the events we needed to document.  I’m really pleased and honoured that my fabulous tattoo artist, Victoria R Lundberg of Wild at Heart Tattoo was willing to be photographed (and filmed) during my appointment.  She’s a good sport and a talented artist, is Victoria.

Anyway, my eventful day really started when I was sitting waiting for the bus to head into town to meet Lauren and documentary photographer Isaac Brown and head to my tattoo appointment.  I was sitting at the bus stop in the shade, minding my own business, reading twitter on my phone when a white tradie van pulled up on the opposite side of the street, and the guy driving lifted his iPhone, took a photo of me and then drove off.  I know, I know, I should have said something or flipped him the bird, or took his photo… but when shit like that happens you’re just so stunned that you can do more than give them an indignant look.

It just goes to demonstrate just how much surveillance we fat women (and it is a mixture of fatness and womanhood that draws the surveillance) are subjected to in our culture.  It is both surveillance and the policing of our bodies.  If a fat woman is too visible, doesn’t hide herself away in shame, dress in black and minimise herself, she is scrutinised, photographed, judged and harassed for it.  But fuck hiding away.  Fuck letting other people police what I wear, how I do my hair, what I look like in public.  I think I look pretty fucking awesome:

Anyway, it got better when I was in town, I was walking through the Myer Centre when a young woman reached out and touched my elbow and exclaimed “Cool hair!”  I find that people who are complimenting me or being cool are happy to do so to my face, not by sneaking photos or whispering about me.

So it was particularly apt that today was the day I was a) adding to my half sleeve tattoo, which is a celebration of my identity and b) being photographed for Lauren’s project.

I have to say, it was pretty daunting.  I’m not used to just relaxing and letting someone photograph me as I go about my business.  I’m so used to having my appearance judged, and of that old mode of scrutinising every photograph of myself because of self consciousness.  I only saw two of the hundreds of photographs taken today, one each from Lauren and Isaac, so I have no idea how any of them look.  To be honest, that does make me feel nervous.  It’s all a learning and growing process – after all, it wasn’t that many years ago that I never let anyone photograph me EVER.  That vulnerability is very hard to let go of.  But I’m determined to let go of those old feelings of self consciousness because I want there to be a photographic record of my life.  I regret those years I didn’t allow people to photograph me.

As well as feeling vulnerable, it was an incredibly empowering experience for me.  I trust Lauren and Isaac to give me the space I need to feel comfortable with the process, and enough say in the process that if I’m not feeling comfortable or happy, I can say so and they will respect that.  Besides, from what I’ve seen of Isaac’s work, he’s a talented photographer and who wouldn’t love to work with someone with that much talent?

This whole process has been quite cathartic to me, it’s had me thinking about how I identify myself, and how through things like my bright clothing, bold hair and tattoos, I reclaim my right to determine my own identity.  Because that’s the thing about identity, it’s our own to determine.  I read this wonderful quote from Chris Graham in relation to right wing… media personality (I cannot call him a journalist) Andrew Bolt’s policing of Aboriginal identity, that I think is an excellent universal statement about identity:

No-one, no matter how hard they might stamp their feet, gets to tell you how you should identify.

Just to give you a teaser, here are a few photos that Lauren took on my little compact camera.

Victoria getting into the detail.

It doesn’t hurt that bad, really! (Lauren has a photo of me wincing in pain, so that’s not entirely true!)

Here you go.  The work after today’s session.

Victoria made the outlines bolder, touched up some of the colour in spots that were patchy, coloured the moon and the owl’s belly/eyes and added the words on the spines of the books.  All in all I’m very pleased with the progress.

Everything about today was about identity for me.  From choosing what to wear (which today, was 100% for myself, unlike on days I work or go to events for other people), being photographed without my consent, having a stranger compliment my hair, being tattooed, and indeed the subjects of my tattoos, and being photographed in the process.

I wish for all of you to be given the space and the opportunity to be able to define and own your identity.  It feels powerful and cleansing, particularly after having it denied of me for most of my life.


27 comments on “Defining My Identity

    • You mean my tattoo Nancy? She is inspired by an artist called Rubens Cantuni (the whole tattoo is) who does marvellous fat lady artwork. My tattooist and I came up with her in a celebration of me. She’s meant to be a kind of cariacature of me.

  • LOVE your tattoo soo much!!
    It makes me more determined to get my own one day.

    Also really loved the points you raised here about owning your identity. I’ve often spoken to my friends about how my appearance defies who I am. I appear very bland and normal, I blend in pretty efficiently – but that is NOT who I am at all. I’m a fierce feminist, very political, a conspiracy theorist, extremely left wing. I love and own those parts of my personality, but I’m afraid to ‘wear them on my sleeve’. I still feel, as a very fat woman, that I am not allowed to bring any more attention to myself. I’m trying hard to correct that line of thinking.


    • You are allowed AnotherFatPrincess. You get to choose, not anyone else.

      But I do understand. I’ve always loved colour and movement, because I feel like it reflects my extroverted personality. However, I spent over 30 years of my life trying to suppress that extroverted personality, and I found the most effective way was to try to hide. Dark “flattering” clothes (ie, shapeless sacks), and trying to be as “normal” as I could. Only it wasn’t normal for me. It was other people’s normal. And of course, the minute I started shedding the performance of other people’s normal, out of the woodwork people came to tell me that I was trying to prove something by being colourful, bold, outgoing. As we’ve seen by the comment below, there’s always someone who likes to pipe up and say “You must be doing it as a backlash, you must be objectifying yourself…” and so on. It’s very hard for people to accept that someone’s intrinsic identity might be colourful and bold, that being normative is the performance.

      But, as the quote I posted illustrates beautifully, no-one gets to tell you how you should identify. No-one gets to define you, to label your feelings and thoughts and experiences.

      I look forward to seeing you wear your identity as you wholly wish AnotherFatPrincess.

  • Kath thanks for sharing that story. Love the art, especially that awesome girl. Whilst I don’t think I will ever get a tattoo, I can understand why others do it. Your post has given me something for my brain to chew on in regards to identity. My own identity in fact. This is something I struggle with. I am unsure if I could clearly state what mine is. At the age of 47, I would like to explore this more and posts such as your provoke and stimulate my thought processes. Watch this space. Lol

  • When you decide you have an identity based on hair color, tattoos or being fat, you are seeing yourself as an object as much as those who only see only your weight. Objectifying yourself in a proactive manner is little different from allowing others to do it to you in a passive manner. It’s still a shallow identity.

    It seems that you’re working on a deflection. You know other people will stare at you and say things, so you create a reason by adopting an atypical appearance (and people would take your picture with your hair color and tattoos regardless of your weight). You are, in essence, giving people who want to stare “something to look at.” It probably makes you feel empowered rather than powerless, which is how we feel when we are gawked at for our weight alone.

    It seems that you’ve very deeply internalized your status as an object of unwanted attention. That is your identity. If you’re happy with that, more power to you, but I think ultimately this will not be satisfying.

    • Oh look, it didn’t take long for someone to come along and tell me my own intentions, my own feelings and define my identity for me. I’m so lucky to have an expert on ME in my life… who isn’t ME!

      Thank you Screaming Fat Girl for illustrating my post beautifully for me.

      See that thing that flew past you there… no? Didn’t see it? That was the point you missed. It was a big bugger, you’re not paying attention very hard, are you?

      Any further attempts to label, pathologise, psychoanalyse, define, or police anyone’s identity will be removed and the culprit blocked. I’m over people who decide they’re the expert on others.

      • This sort of “You’re just doing it for the attention/to deflect/some deep-seated psychological fuck-up” happens to me all the time. It seems whatever anyone does, someone will criticize it. If I dress Goth, I am doing it for the attention, for rebellion, or some other shit. At the same time, if I dress prep, it is because I admire the status symbols of rich people. What am I supposed to do? Identify as nothing because if you identify as anything, you are putting yourself in a box and being conformist? Wait, it I do that, then I am the rebel without a cause.:) Damn it!

        Well, I am being a conformist drone by having a job that I go to everyday and doing it well. Is that a bad thing? When I get good grades, I am conforming to the expectations of my professors. How awful!

        Because I have some involvement in Goth culture, I sometimes get accused of trying obsessively to be different, yet being slavishly conformist to Goth standards. Basically, I am not allowed to connect with anyone that shares my interests or have anything in common with anyone because it is being conformist. Well, if that makes me conformist, so be it. I am a “conformist” with a life and friends and interests and when I conform, I choose when, where, and how.

        What I find ironic about those “Don’t put yourself in a box!” people is that they are the most conformist of all. Whether they slavishly live up to others’ expectations, or slavishly try to avoid everyone’s expectations in order to be different, your life is run by other people. You have not learned to say, “This is what it is, and you know what, I like it.”

        Anyway, back to the point, what is wrong with identifying as fat? People identify as Croatian, deaf, comic book lovers, etc. They might seem like shallow traits, but they entail much deeper social connections. Deaf people who sign have a common cultural bond that was created specifically by being deaf. Croatians share a religion, language and history that is uniquely Croatian. Comic books are an art form that has standards, a history, an audience, and its own voice. People that share those priorities can relate to each other through art and lit in a special way. Likewise, fat people have a history of stigmatization, of positive and negative representation in art, share similar fashion needs and can relate to the “fat life.” So, what the hell should we not identify as fat?

        Sorry that was so long-winded, but I wanted to show support and this is one of those things that really gets me going.:)

        • I totally understand Joanna, and thank you.

          That’s the point about identity that doesn’t seem to be getting through to some. Make your own identity. Don’t let anyone tell you it’s not what you want it to be, no matter how hard they stamp their foot. It’s yours, and you get to define it, not anyone else.

  • I love that expression on your face while you are being inked. It reminds me of someone else but I can’t pinpoint who it is yet. I will let you know when it comes to me! lol

    As opposed to your commenter above, I think the ways you build your identity illustrate that you are much more than a shallow personality/identity. People mistakenly believe that looks/presentation means little and I while I get it about not judging a book by its cover etc I also think these days, especially in cases of body modification, that appearances are conscious choices and there is usually a deep meaning behind why that person has chosen to look that way. I know my style of clothes are often a ‘costume’ of sorts, my ink and my piercings (when I had them) were all conscious decisions as to how I wanted to present myself and often because I wanted to challenge people’s preconceptions about ‘what’ I looked like. I wanted to call out the assumptions and the prejudices people held by appearing a certain way.

    Basically, I get why you do it.

    • I think I was actually watching Isaac at the time that photo was taken. Watching him setting up in different spots and stuff was really fascinating.

      In a lot of ways nowdays I’m not as conscious about how I appear to others, how others see me, until I find them judging me or behaving in ways that highlight how they are seeing me, like the tradie taking my photo. The way I dress and present myself are far less a costume than they ever have. I allow myself to wear and do the things that I’m naturally drawn to more than ever before. Where once I’d have thought twice about buying a bright coloured garment, or tried to style my hair in a way that was… “normal”, or I would agonise over every outfit to make sure I could “pass”. Now, except for the fact that I have parameters at work, or at friends social occasions, or when there are practical concerns, it’s far less conscious than before, other than choosing something to wear that matches my mood. It’s strangely liberating not to wear the costume of “normality” any more. I always felt like I was performing. Now I just feel like I’m wearing what strikes my fancy at the time.

  • You look so nonchalant in that second photo. It’s refreshing to see someone taking such pleasure out of being visible and in being who they want; I think sometimes when we try to give strong signals of who we are, it’s sort of undermined by our fears and insecurities, or we try to keep it with in “acceptable” limits. (I hope that was coherent).
    Also, I absolutely love your tattoo! Especially the owls, they’re lovely.

    • I don’t think I was really that nonchalant. More distracted! It looks like she was working on that front cherry blossom – that’s one of the less hurty spots, lots of fat insulation!

      And yes, it was totally coherent.

      Isn’t the owl sweet? Have a Google of Rubens Cantuni’s work, he has lots of really cute critters, fab fat ladies and tattoo culture.

  • Love the hair, love the leggings, love the top, love-love-love the purse/bag – that is how I express my personality with funky bags-not quite ready to let it spread to the rest of me but working on it.

  • You look amazing! The tatts are adorable, and I love your hair (I’ve been thinking of a brighter color on mine – it’s been a sort of cherry/russet for the last few years – I’m mulling over the logistics of colors that, on my rather dark natural hair color, would require messing around with peroxide.) If I see someone out in town who has really cool colored hair, I will often stop and tell them so, and they’ve always been pleased that someone noticed. I think it takes a certain degree of chutzpah to go for something that stands out.

    Dressing to express myself in public has always been something of an issue for me – I was raised in the belief that having the ‘correct’ appearance (which meant conventional, neat and obsessively groomed) was the only way you could get people to like and respect you. Struggling for years to attain that goal left me feeling jaundiced about the whole business of appearance and clothing, and it’s still taking me a while to be comfortable with clothes, makeup, hair and the rest as a pleasurable way of expressing my personality, rather than an emotional treadmill. The paradox is that I can dress expressively out in public, but not around my own family – I’m very familiar with that feeling of ‘passing’. Getting over it, slowly.

    I also have two upper armfuls of tattoos from a few years back, and my family don’t know about them either; they relate to a dark time in my life and to my having survived it, and it’s not something I feel comfortable talking about to them. Maybe someday, but not yet.

    • Thanks Emerald for the compliments! It does take a bit of work to get really bright, bold colours in naturally dark hair. I bleach the hell out of mine before I turn it pink, but with it so short, that’s not such a drama, because I am not bleaching the same hair over and over. It gets cut so often it’s always fresh hair I’m working with.

      One of the things I’m finding with experience (and I turn 39 in a couple of days) is that no matter how much you assimilate, no matter what you do with your appearance and identity, someone is always going to have a bug up their arse about how you look, what you do with your own life. People didn’t like and respect me when I was trying to pass, and people don’t like and respect me now.

      But the difference is… I like and respect me.

      And that’s worth so much more than I ever could have believed it would be.

  • To me, you look like someone who is intelligent, interesting and fun to know….and that is also what your writing tells me.

    Also, I just love your outfit, it’s too adorable! Rock on, dear one, rock on.

  • I really enjoyed this post Kath – I’ve been working with Lauren and Isaac on this project as well, and it was a strange but empowering sensation to dig down and unpack my personal identity and presentation.

    Also, totes jelly of your amazing hair and nifty tatts!

    • Thanks Zoe, Lauren has been telling me about your fab photoshoot – the whole thing is such an adventure. I’m looking forward to seeing where it all goes.

      Just today, my tattoo isn’t feeling nifty at all – it’s mega-itchy day!

  • Thanks for the info about your tattoo– I like the combination of clarity, energy, and weirdness plus I just get a kick out of her expression. I found Rubens Cantuni’s websites– and and I’ve been enjoying them a lot.

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