What do I say about Marilyn Wann? I mean really, how can I introduce the most inspirational of the inspirational women in my life? When I first encountered Marilyn’s writing online, something in me just shifted. It’s a cliche, but a light really did go on inside me. Of course I rushed out and bought her book, Fat! So? and devoured it in a sitting, and that light just got brighter and brighter. I realised there was another path for me in my life, and that I was going to forge that path myself, rather than let a world that thinks less of me because of my fat body push me along a road that it thought I should be travelling. That’s an amazing thing to be inspired into by one woman.
Then of course I connected with Marilyn online, and discovered that as well as being incredibly inspirational, she is also a lovely person with a wicked sense of humour and a generous heart. On more than one occasion I have asked Marilyn for advice and she has always been generous, open and very kind with her time and advice. I have found every encounter with Marilyn has been a positive one for me.
But what I think inspires me most about Marilyn is that she is unapologetically herself. Her authenticity and genuineness shine through and inspire me to find that kind of authenticity in myself.
So without further ado, here is my interview with the one and only, Marilyn Wann.
Was there a defining moment for you as a person that made you decide that fat activism was for you? What was it?
I came across the book “Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression,” at a book fair in my early 20s. It was a blast of consciousness, for me—seeing all the painful experiences and social exclusion and weight judgments as part of a larger system of prejudice, and not something that was wrong with me or my embodiment. But I would call myself an armchair size accepter, until a year or so later, I had what I call my Really Bad Day. Two things happened, a double whammy. First, I was having dinner with this guy I liked and he told me that he was embarrassed to introduce me to some of his friends because I was fat. That hurt. I was also outraged. I came home, opened the mail, and a letter from Blue Cross told me they wouldn’t sell me health insurance because of my “morbid obesity.” That was the defining moment. It has been wonderful ever since, because even if I encounter rather intense and ugly hatred or discrimination, I no longer agree to go along with it or believe it. By disagreeing with fat hate, I keep a healthy boundary inside which I can live without fear. Of course, I still carry plenty of that old, fat-negative training around with me, but I don’t blame myself for that. I just try to notice it and divest from it, while also embracing diverse ideas about human value, beauty, sexiness, health, etc.
What projects or achievements are you most proud of in your fat activism?
I’m proud of being able to confront prejudice pretty much full time and for nearly two decades now and enduring, even thriving in the process. I’m proud of my role in passage of San Francisco’s height/weight anti-discrimination ordinance. I worked with an amazing team and a fabulous community. Carole Cullum and Jo Kuney used their political experience to lobby groups and legislators. Frances White brought NAAFA’s presence as a civil rights organization. Sondra Solovay was brilliant in working with the city attorney to craft the guidelines for implementation of the ordinance, which set a standard. My piece was putting together an extensive packet of information for legislators with data that debunked common weight stereotypes, proved the widespread occurrence of height/weight discrimination, and included stories I gathered from people about being excluded from employment, education, housing, and public accommodations because of height/weight. I also found people who could come and tell powerful stories and expert testimony at two hearings (before the city’s Human Rights Commission and then before a committee of our legislators). The whole opportunity also came along because I organized a street protest outside a health club that had a hateful billboard. (It showed a space alien and said, “When they come, they’ll eat the fat ones first.” Our protest said, “Eat me!”) It’s an amazing feeling to feel oneself to be a social outcast, to go for years not expecting any welcome or help from people, and then to be in a community and be able to ask people for help and get such eager support. And then for legislators to agree and put into law that yes, fat people belong in society and are welcome and anyone who treats us badly deserves censure. For that, I’m not so much proud as grateful.
I’m also proud of how the FAT!SO? ‘zine and book and Yay! Scales and now, the new 2012 FAT!SO? Dayplanner, all use a kind of joy and sense of humor to combat fat oppression. Aside from all the data and the identity politics (which are both super important!), I think people respond to the example of an unoppressed response to oppression. Kinda like the movie hero who faces terrible odds with a sassy quip and then pulls off an improbable victory. Occasionally, I hear from readers who say that FAT!SO? has made it possible for them to stop feeling bad about themselves and just enjoy life with less worry. That feels wonderful for me. It keeps me going as an activist, a fat rebel. I also hope to convey that anyone can give this boost of consciousness and liberation to other people, and then feel wonderful to know you’ve helped someone free themselves of an unnecessary and harmful burden. You don’t have to be a full-time activist. Just in conversation or by your example, you could share that powerful concept with other people of all sizes. I hope they’ll let you know the awesome effect you’ve had!
Is there a song that defines you or that you particularly identify with? Will you share it with us?
Oh, dear. There’s not one song that’s my anthem. I’ve appreciated so many over the years. I love Candye Kane’s songwriting and singing on fat pride. Minna Bromberg has a wonderful song called the Bathing Suit Song. An old cd by Toshi Reagon has gotten me through some dark times. Tracy Chapman’s song, “All That You Have Is Your Soul” is wonderful. Also Ani DiFranco’s song, “Face Up and Sing,” especially the verse that goes like this:
some chick says
thank you for saying all the things I never do
the thanks I get is to take all the shit for you
it’s nice that you listen
it’d be nicer if you joined in
as long as you play their game girl
you’re never going to win
Which is more bitter than I feel, 98% of the time. But I also just appreciate the appeal she makes in the whole song and it’s great to wail along with it.
When Heather MacAllister (aka Reva Lucian, founder of Big Burlesque & The Fat-Bottom Revue) and I did a pirate radio show called Fat-A-Tat-Tat—Soundtrack for the Fat Revolution, we played so much satisfying music that either had a fat-positive message or that was created by fat musicians (or both). I should not that Heather and I always had a playful disagreement about the name of the show. I said “the” revolution and she said “a” revolution, because she argued the revolution isn’t here yet. We got kicked off the air by the uptight guy who ran the pirate radio station (ironic, huh?) because he couldn’t stand C+C Music Factory. What he didn’t realize was that we occasionally played Martha Wash singing “Everybody Dance Now” specifically because she was excluded from the music video for that song and a thin woman was used instead, pretending to sing her part. Heather loved to play Candye Kane, Nomy Lamm, Nedra Johnson, Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys.
And of course! Now that I’ve gone on about all sorts of music I love, the obvious answer to your question comes to me: the song “Fat Girl,” by Max Airborne. Her band Creamy Goodness has recorded it. I believe she wrote this song before she and her friends decided to start the FaT GiRL ‘zine, perhaps a bit inspired by it. So it’s great that you ask about music, because it can make all sorts of great stuff happen!
Also, last spring, I worked with Alan Garber, the brother of my good friend Linda Garber. Alan’s a rocker from way back. I wanted a funky dance song that I could play for people to dance to for an action I planned. Alan took my ideas and created an awesome tune. Instead of the children’s song, “Heads, Shoulders, Knees and Toes” we did a syncopated, grownup, body-poz version called, “Chins, Bellies, Hips…and Ass.” It worked, too! Seventeen people joined me at an “obesity” conference for the keynote talk by Xavier Pi-Sunyer. (He’s the guy behind BMI standards being lowered, back in the late 90s. A major wanker.) This conference was happening in San Francisco (a home to fat pride community!) on the only major fat pride holiday (International No Diet Day)!!! I couldn’t let that offense pass. Our group of rad fatties of all sizes (including wee children) interrupted the speech: I blew a loud whistle, turned on the boombox, and we all boogied our way to the front of the hall. The speaker didn’t know what to do. He tried to keep talking, stopped, started again, stopped again. People in attendance thought we were some kind of hired entertainment, then took our handouts. Some of them refused to make eye contact or gave us mean stares. Others were clapping along. We left when the event organizer started to wave her finger at us. She kept telling us, as we danced out of the room with the music still playing, “You should be ashamed. You don’t have permission. You can’t just walk into a room if you don’t belong.” Yup, she cares about fat people.
(Note: Marilyn sent me this awesome song “Hips & Ass” but WordPress won’t let me upload the MP3 file – I’ll try to add it or a link to it later when I can.)
Many fat activists refer to having a “coming out as fat” moment in their lives, where they take their fab fat life to the people in their lives (friends, family, colleagues etc). Did you have one of these? How did it happen for you?
Yes. I came out as a proud and unapologetic fat person the day after my Really Bad Day. I also started the FAT!SO? ‘zine that day. Coming out felt really awkward the first few hundred times I did it. I imagined people would laugh at me or think I’m wrong or socially shun me. That almost never happens. People who do have a bad reaction are the people I wouldn’t really want to know anyway, so it’s not so much a shock or a surprise or painful as it is information I’d rather know than not know. The vast majority of the time, people react with relief and interest because they too have felt judged and excluded and unworthy because of their weight. And this is true for people of all sizes. By coming out, we can all expand the liveable space for all of us, not just for ourselves. If we aren’t able to feel at home in their own bodies, where are we supposed to go?
If you could have someone make you the ultimate outfit for your body, what would it be? Tell us that dream outfit/garment you’d love to see in plus-sizes.
I sew, so I have made some of my own dream outfits. My mother and I sewed a fuchsia satin wedding gown with marabou trim that I wore for the book party when FAT!SO? came out. It was sleeveless (of course!), had a low U-neck, fitted bodice, flaring skirt, and both a petticoat and an optional fuchsia lace overskirt. I wore it with satin fuchsia evening gloves and a plastic tiara with a big-ass fuchsia veil made from cheap tulle.
When I attended my first NAAFA convention, I knew the pool party was a big deal the first night. I wanted a bathing suit that would express my politics. This was back in 1995. There weren’t any vendors making thong bikinis for fatties. (Hurray for Janelle at Love Your Peaches, for creating this important resource not long after.) I didn’t have the kind of sewing machine that can sew on stretch fabric back then, so I hired fat activist April Miller to make me a scuba-inspired thong bikini. It was black with fuchsia piping. The crop top came to just under my boobs, had teensy cap sleeves, and zipped up to a little band collar. Under the crop top, I wore a black fishnet halter top that April also made, so if I wanted to lower the zipper, my cleavage was extra interesting. She also made me an optional non-thong bikini bottom. I was so sad when the spandex finally aged out on that suit. I can’t bring myself to let go of it. I wore it to the NAAFA pool party. One fat woman (who, I think, expected her string bikini to be the smallest suit in the water) made a catty comment meant for me to overhear. I had to laugh. I wasn’t there to steal attention from her. I was there in a thong bikini to publicly claim my fat ass. Also, I think that what people are allowed to wear in a society says a great deal about who people are allowed to be in that society. If fat people aren’t allowed to wear power suit or thong bikinis or protective safety gear because they’re not made in our size, that limits who we can be and what we can do in life.
I don’t know what outfit I still crave. Perhaps a really good tutu. Or some Astro-Turf chaps with the occasional plastic daisy. Or a bra that is totally comfortable and lets me have two separate boobs, not the bridge/shelf effect. And sadly, no, underwires no longer work for me—they’re just not contoured for my shape, so they torque painfully. (I’m planning to concoct this engineering wonder myself when I find time.)
Who has been your biggest “real life” support in your activism?
Oh, wow. So many people, at different times. My secret resource (I won’t say weapon, because that’s needlessly violent) is an old friend from college. We get together every Thursday for scotch and backgammon and conversation. Geoffrey was involved with Queer Nation in the early 90s and has radical politics. When I need to gripe about some vexation (a fat oppression thing or a community/interpersonal thing or a how-do-I-make-this-happen thing), he listens generously and often comes up with brilliant strategy.
Who has inspired you in your activism?
I am inspired by Lynn McAfee, for the sly way she does her activism and for her endurance all these decades. I have also been inspired in my political analysis by local fat/queer community.
Do you have any tattoos? (If you would like to share a photo/s, please do!)
I don’t have any tattoos. I have sometime joked about getting a highly realistic tattoo of a freckle. Then I could point out my tattoo and people would say, “That’s not a tattoo, that’s a freckle!” But I would know it’s real. Or really a fake. Kinda an Umberto Eco thing. But I admit that’s more of a joke than a genuine intention. I’ve been delighted to hear from people who have gotten tattoos inspired by some of the art in the FAT!SO? book. I think that rocks!
What piece of advice would you like to share with all fatties out there?
Oh, there’s so much to say. Mainly, I want people to remember that fat hate wasn’t always a big part of human societies. It may seem right now like that’s “just the way things are,” but it won’t always be so. In part, I think human beings outgrow stupidity over time. I also believe it’s necessary to reject and resist and unlearn fat hate—and have fun doing it!
Check out Marilyn’s website FatSo.com for upcoming news on her Fat!So? Dayplanner and other projects.