Shadow on a Tightrope

I came of age in the 1980s. When Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression was published in 1983, I was fifteen years old. I was a smart, bookish, self-conscious young fat woman who had spent nine years in Catholic school, and whose biggest desire was to be swept off of her feet by a boy and live happily ever after.

My size acceptance journey started a few years later, with Big Beautiful Woman Magazine. I have spent most of the ensuing years struggling with relationships, with what I wanted to do with my life, and with circumstances beyond my control. I’m giving up the struggle, and am learning how to just be and to do things that make me happy.

I didn’t read Shadow on a Tightrope until Marilyn Wann (author of Fat? So!) suggested on Facebook a month or two ago a blog carnival for its thirtieth anniversary. Who knows why I didn’t read it before – maybe I was just finally ready.

I record each book I read in a book journal, so post-it note flags are a necessary companion to most books. I mark beautiful sentences or quotes that I want to remember as relevant to my life.

This is what Shadow on a Tightrope looked like when I was done:

photo (1)

I found something to relate to in just about every piece in Shadow on a Tightrope. Thirty years ago, the contributors expressed ideas and told truths that have been rolling around in my brain, difficult to admit and express. Each quote could spawn its own post.

We believe that our bodies’ sizes are chosen and reflect personal control and we ignore or reject all evidence that contradicts this belief…If you are fat, you can choose to count calories or grams of carbohydrates….the range of choices hides the fact that you are compelled to choose. As for the choices themselves, no matter which you choose you are choosing pain through hunger. If therefore you choose to reject all reducing options, you are punished with ridicule and social rejection.”

The Fat Illusion, Vivian F. Mayer

Growing up in the 1970s, the social rejection was real but never acknowledged. My mother remembers how, on the cusp of womanhood, I came home from school crying every day one year.

Women are divided into those who fear getting fat and those who are ashamed of being fat….[Thin women] are rewarded with male approval and with permission to feel superior to fat women.”

The Fat Illusion, Vivian F. Mayer

We used to have only these options. Now, thanks in part to these brave writers, fat acceptance is a third option.

Like the pressures to marry and bear children, the universal, self-styled concen for fat women’s health is rooted in the axiom that every female’s first desire is to attract males.”

Some Thoughts on Fat, Joan Dickerson

It took reading The Feminine Mystique recently for me to realize how ingrained this cultural conditioning is. And the expectations to be partnered and to be thin are intertwined. Fat, single women who bear children outside of marriage rebel against all of these expectations.

Society punishes fat men and women by taking their sexuality away. Fat women are punished most severely. For, in a society where women are chiefly sex objects, a woman’s sexuality is really all that she has to bargain with in the first place.”

Fat Women and Women’s Fear of Fat, Lynn Mabel-Lois and Aldebaran

I realized a while ago that one of the reasons I became a lawyer is because people listen to lawyers. Despite all of the jokes about greedy, unethical lawyers, you still call a lawyer when you are in real trouble. If I couldn’t be desired as a woman, I would have respect from being at least a decent lawyer.

I want to be held but have no lover, and when I have no lover I don’t feel loved. Even though I know I’m loved by friends, I don’t feel loved . . . I tell myself it’s not true. My friends love me. I am lovable even if I’m alone in bed.”

A Day in My Life, Judy Freespirit

I have felt like Judy Freespirit often, but I have been trying to get past it, as I wrote here.

Dieting, not unlike foot-binding, is a male-created institution which obsesses, weakens, sickens, and kills womyn; enforces class oppression and the assimilation of ethnic peoples. It’s easy for us in this country to condemn cultures which practice clitorectomies—and not so easy for us to look at how we participate with our “own” patriarchy in defining a natural condition among womyn as a disgusting sickness.”

Traveling Fat, Elana Dykewomon

Fat oppression is still so ingrained, most people don’t even recognize it as a problem. There is still a lot of work to do.

Amid the sexual revolution sweeping my generation through the late sixties and early seventies, I remained on the sidelines – permitted to cheer the participants on but never to join in.”

Attraction and/or Intimidation: Fat Women’s Sexual Dilemmas, Karen W. Scott-Jones

Like Oscar Wao in the Junot Diaz novel, and this author, my adolescence was like being locked in the closet on Venus when the sun came out every fifty years. 

When I first began to translate my experiences into politics, I realized how my anger and frustration . . . was directly related to fat women’s status as sexual pariahs. This “status,” in turn, is, (directly or indirectly) responsible for our oppression. Certainly most, if not all, of the discrimination we face is based on our failure to measure up to the looksist standards of acceptability for women today. . . All this intensely negative conditioning toward fat female bodies programmed into just about everyone, fat or thin, male or female, is at the root of our feelings about ourselves as women as well as a basic cause for our mistreatment; dealing with our sexuality, then, is fundamental not only to becoming “sexually liberated” but to confronting the socially enforced taboos we encounter in other areas of our lives as well.”

Attraction and/or Intimidation: Fat Women’s Sexual Dilemmas, Karen W. Scott-Jones

The challenge is to be a fat, sexual woman who expresses her sexuality in a healthy way. It is almost impossible to do this without finding an emotionally-healthy and fat-accepting man.  

My naivete in underestimating the pressures on fat women, in social and/or sexual opportunities “offered” them, to attempt to satisfy not only their physical needs but their need to be validated as a woman by being chosen by a man – (as one woman in NAAFA told me, “I don’t feel self-conscious about my weight if I’m with a man because I’m advertising to the world that somebody finds me desirable”) – has, I think been corrected through firsthand experience since then. . . . I have become increasingly aware of the double bind facing any sexually active fat woman: the more options we create and/or take advantage of, the more we realize what the conditions attached to these options are – what we must, in effect, give up to get laid (or have a relationship, or get married, or whatever) this time.

Attraction and/or Intimidation: Fat Women’s Sexual Dilemmas, Karen W. Scott-Jones

I realized the ideas in this quote independently not too long ago, and wrote about it here.

These quotes are just a sampling of what the contributors to Shadow on a Tightrope wrote that I wish I had been able to learn and assimilate thirty years ago.

Maybe it’s taken me so long to get here because I came to feminism, like so many other ideas I now find critical to my worldview, in a roundabout way. As the first generation in my family to attend college, my female role models worked outside the home but didn’t discuss feminist theory. I knew generally about feminism through the news of the Equal Rights Amendment, but in my family, feminism wasn’t really discussed. There was too much work to be done. They taught me that I could and should work, and that I should be prepared to take care of myself. As the oldest child, I was expected to help both my Mom in the house and my Dad outside and with the car. Women were supposed to do it all: work to support the family, take care of the house, and raise the family as well. Three out of my four grandparents had been turn-of-the-twentieth-century immigrants or the children of immigrants, and women had to work. But I’ve also realized that, even though the women worked, the only unmarried female role models I had were the nuns who were my teachers.

The dominant paradigm and expectation that I grew up with was that I would go to college, get a good job, meet a man, and have a family. As far as relationships, I was always told there was someone for everyone.

I remember being told stories of aunts who had been fat as kids, but lost weight when they got to high school. Both were beautiful 1950s brides, slender, with handsome husbands, married before they turned 21. It was expected that I would meet someone and get married, too.

But here’s where the expectation collided with the reality of life as a fat woman. I never got thin. After I discovered BBW magazine, I decided not to diet, and so, I have never weighed under 200 pounds for as long as I can remember. There has never been a time that I could have passed for thin. (Although I know that I have experienced thin privilege when compared to many other fat women. I can buy clothes at a mass-merchandise store, and my body fits in chairs and standard seat belts.)

I never dated in high school, and had few, mostly casual sexual opportunities later.  By the time I was in my early twenties, I was so hungry for a real relationship that I made a terrible choice and let a man I met move in the day after I met him.

I’m a different person now, thankfully. Finally reading Shadow on a Tightrope showed me that what I experienced is not atypical for a fat woman. It sucks and it needs to change, but knowing that others before me have felt the same way gives me companions on my journey.

And knowing others feel the same is the biggest change since 1983. The internet and the rise of social media have allowed an ease of communication that could not have been imagined at that time. Blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and fat-positive Tumblr pages help by connecting us so that we know that we are not alone.

Vivian F. Meyer wrote in the Foreword that

“we have lacked a way to communicate with each other. Under the triple stresses of fat oppression, isolation, and the disinterest or even hostility with which our pleas for support were often met, fat activists have all too often taken the frustrations out on each other and destroyed our own organizations before they could take root.”

Together, we can make continue to make change, with Shadow on a Tightrope as our inspiration.  All we have to do is tell our stories and open and awaken one mind at a time.

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2 thoughts on “Shadow on a Tightrope

  1. Pingback: Get Your Shadows On A Tightrope Blog Carnival Links Here! — Body Love Wellness

  2. Pingback: Get Your Shadows On A Tightrope Blog Carnival Links Here! | Health & Wellness Chicago

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