“Feeling okay about being fat was much more difficult than feeling okay about being queer or gender queer.”
This is what Bill Savage says to me over the phone. I’ve called them to talk about the intersections between fatness and gender, specifically fatness and butchness. They are part of Unskinny Bop, a club night that has been “promoting non-normative standards of disco since 2002“, welcoming people of “all shapes, sizes, ages and persuasions”.
These days, Bill no longer feels they can identify as butch: “I have felt an affinity towards butchness, because it felt like the only available way to define my gender. But once terms like ‘gender queer’ or ‘non-binary’ started to be used, I thought they made more sense for me.” Bill does however spend a lot of time thinking about gender and fatness in their academic work. “There’s a trans studies tradition that doesn’t think about fatness but thinks about the body as something that can be shaped and changed.” There’s also the other side. “The fat studies people don’t think of gender in terms of transness or gender queerness, but their goal is to say that some bodies are fat and they can’t change. So what do you do if you’re both?”
To be fat and gender nonconforming is to explicitly, physically go against what is expected of you by societal prejudices and expectations. These expectations impose restrictions on people, which can have painful, damaging consequences. For Nina Eriksson, a 21-year-old butch lesbian from Sweden, embodying her fatness and butchness is her way of letting go of that pain. “Being fat and butch is a blessing, and is so closely tied to not hurting or limiting my body through restriction, and just letting myself exist.” She goes on to say she would not feel desirable and sexy if she felt exhausted and frail. “In this body and this expression, I feel really strong. I am finally, unapologetically existing and demanding others admit I exist.”
In order to deem them ‘beautiful’, [fat people] are expected to make up for this perceived ‘flaw’ of fatness, which is an equal strike against non-binary people, trans people and gender nonconforming women.Nina
There is a similarity to the process of accepting both these parts of your identity, with some fat activists even employing the queer framework of ‘coming out’ as fat (aka no longer fighting to change your body). While the appropriation of that trope can tread problematic lines, it can be useful and empowering for some, even if they are cis and straight. But it narrows the definition of what fat looks like. If you’re not privileged in other ways (based on race, gender presentation, ability, etc.) this ‘coming out’ as fat can be a lot harder. In Bill’s case, they accepted their queerness long before their fatness. “I was out, proud and very into my queer, feminist politics but still wishing that I was thinner. Why didn’t that kind of awakening spill over into thinking that way about fatness? It did eventually, but it took a really long time.”
The fight for radical fat acceptance and the fight for the acceptance of butch, trans and gender nonconforming people are separate movements that largely don’t interact in the public sphere. Bill tells me: “Fat activism is quite queer, but it’s still dominated by cis, heterosexual women.” Especially, they say, at the less radical end. “They bear the brunt of fatphobia so I don’t hold anything against them, but their way of being fat definitely comes to the fore. People who are queer and gender queer don’t necessarily have the same relationship to fatness.”
Nina echoes this. “Long before I gained weight, fat acceptance was really central to me learning to embrace my body. But I found that even in fat acceptance spaces and fat activist spaces, such a high level of assimilation to gender roles is expected from fat people: in order to deem them beautiful, they are expected to make up for this perceived ‘flaw’ of fatness, which is an equal strike against non-binary people, trans people and gender nonconforming women in general. Such a high level of femininity is demanded of fat women and it’s been a struggle for me, trying to understand that not only the traditional feminine is sexy. My saving grace has been other butch women and other lesbians.”
The expectation of femininity can extend to queer spaces, too. Nina goes on to tell me: “I frequent a lot of queer spaces, especially surrounding drag culture. In a lot of these spaces, subversiveness is governed by the understanding cis gay men have, and it’s assumed that femininity is liberating for queer women too. It definitely can be! But not always.” In her view, this is further encouraged by the commodification of LGBTQ+ spaces and experiences.
“[Femininity is] also much easier to capitalise on, so people keep selling that to us, even though it doesn’t work for everyone. Butch and gender nonconforming women are not marketable – we are an undesired, undesirable client to have.” However, this can also be a form of freedom, when separate spaces are created: “Our spaces can’t be commodified quite as easily. In lesbian spaces, I feel three-dimensional in a different way. Being butch in predominantly male gay spaces or straight spaces is very simplified. Lesbian spaces are the only place where butch women are not boiled down to sexualisation or masculinity in itself.”
As Nina argues, finding a community that doesn’t gloss over your experiences is fundamental to finding self-acceptance. But it is a tricky balance to pull off. “Both fatness and butchness affect how I am perceived: being fat could be okay, if I made sure that people still understand that I am a woman within the confines of femininity.” But, she says, being butch also comes with a stereotype of an aggressive, mean woman. “I’ve experienced so much suspicion and lack of patience [since] coming out as butch. It’s so clear it’s because I don’t want to meet people’s limited understanding of what a woman can be.”
People who are queer and gender queer don’t necessarily have the same relationship to fatness.Bill
Prejudices go beyond the projection of femininity. “There are so many stereotypes about butch women that lead to expressions like ‘soft butch’,” referring to the label commonly used in queer circles for people who are read as butch but don’t identify with all the stereotypical characteristics of butchness. She goes on: “That, in my opinion, is such a bad expression: it implies that a butch who is not a “soft butch” is a person who overstep’s people’s boundaries and doesn’t listen to their partner. And that leads to the assumption that overstepping boundaries is somehow part of butch identity, when the chivalry involved in butchness clearly shows the opposite.” In general, she says, trying to navigate being perceived as predatory in many spaces is difficult, and made only “more difficult by being fat and worrying people may see you as disgusting.”
“It interferes with my perception of my own sexuality and desirability, but it would be way worse if I were not a lesbian. That is my saving grace: it feels so powerful to not only be fat and butch, but be very clear that it is attractive.”
For both Bill and Nina, being the subversive outsider has now become a form of freedom. In Nina’s case, that comes from the release of being fully, unapologetically herself – in doing so, she challenges both fat activists and queer spaces to be more inclusive. “Fat activism is a movement that depends so heavily on diversity and representation: everyone has to be represented, because if one person is not allowed to be fat, it’s useless. The display of subversive masculinity in fat activism is very important.”
Bill takes it a step further, seeing their fatness as a subversion of gender norms. “If you’re fat you’re not doing gender right anyway, so why bother? ‘Normative gender is slender’ as they say.” They acknowledge that this doesn’t work for everyone, but there is something wonderfully optimistic about it – recognising that if these systems will not accept you, then you don’t have to take part. In doing so, you can forge a new path and help others redefine what ‘normative’ can be.
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