Excerpt from an interview conducted and published by Advocates for Youth (permission pending).
June 22, 2001,10:30 a.m.
Hanne: Well, not only have I been a musician, historian, and writer, I've always been a fat person. I grew up fat, which meant that I grew up with all of the baggage and all of the myths about fat people. I was also very interested in sex, as many people are, when I was a teenager, and I started to learn about it when I was quite young. My dad gave me some opportunities to read about sexuality at an age when most of the kids that I knew didn't know much about sex education. When I was about 15 or 16 years old, I started to do some peer outreach type things and also just a lot of sort of on-the-streets, grassroots, in my school outreach to students, answering questions.
I started really doing that kind of stuff, and it's always been a part of my life. There's never been a large chunk of my life when I haven't really been doing some sort of sexuality advocacy work. The fat stuff really comes into that, because a lot of people's fears, worries, and concerns about their sex lives are really not about sex. They're really about concerns people have about themselves, like "Am I good enough?" or "Am I thin enough?" So all of that body image stuff is really part and parcel of doing sexuality-related work.
I was able to speak out about these issues at such a young age, partly because my father was an anthropologist and my mother teaches middle school. So it was the combination of parents who were both very outspoken; they're both educators and not really abashed about speaking to people about whatever it happens to be. That's very much part of what my family does.
H: No. I think that most people who grow up fat—like people of color who are growing up in a white-dominant culture and people who are disabled who grow up in an ableist culture—you grow up and you do internalize a lot of those messages. It does take time and work to get to a point when you can feel at peace with your body, you can feel good about who you are, what you look like, and what your body can and can't do.
I don't think that there's any secret way to escape the negative messages, unfortunately. Our culture's just too pervasive. And even for me it's still very pervasive. Most days are fine for me—most of the time I feel like life is cool and I do what I want and people can either take me or leave me. But every so often something will happen that's just really devastating. Last summer I was in a small town in western Massachusetts with my partner, who is half-Chinese. This Jeep full of boys drove past us, and they were all yelling and screaming and they threw bottles at us. We looked at each other, just stunned, and we had actually no idea whether they were doing this because I [am] fat or because my lover is part Chinese. We were really quite upset for a couple hours, and would have been no matter which one it was.
H: Yeah, it really is. There is a lot of sort of generalized xenophobia, or fear of people who are different in our culture. This means that anyone who isn't exactly like you becomes a problem a lot of the time. Unfortunately, that really does exist and it means that anyone who is physically different and visibly different ends up being a target. That goes if you are visibly queer or if you're engaging in some sort of behavior that makes you visibly queer. It also goes if you're transgender, if you're fat, if you're a person of color, if you're disabled in some way, or even if your body is just different. There are a lot of ways that people can have different bodies that aren't necessarily disabilities.
H: Well, there are some very simple things that you can do. First, be nice to fat people. It is very simple. Just to intentionally be nice to other fat people creates a little ripple effect. It could be as little as letting someone make a left turn in front of me, or whatever it happens to be. It means that, for a change, that fat person who I let turn left in front of me just got treated preferentially. Or they got treated well, instead of having someone honk at them, mutter fat slurs, and cut them off, which is what happens altogether too often. Little things like that can make a big difference.
A second thing that can make a big difference is something that most people don't think about - don't discuss weight and food issues in public. People constantly obsessing about the calorie count, or how fat it's going to make them, or how they shouldn't eat certain foods, is all sort of the body obsession of our culture, [and] we are trained to accept that that kind of obsessiveness is normal. This kind of talk can really be hurtful, not just to fat people, but to a lot of people who have trouble with body image issues and people with eating disorder issues as well. There are a lot of thin people who have very similar issues around food as fat people do. You don't know who they are and it's really not a visible thing. You really don't know when you're going to make a comment that could trigger some recovering bulimic to go and throw up whatever she just ate. It's that kind of insidious subtle damage that you could do just by running your mouth about something that really isn't all that important. I encourage people not to have that kind of negative discussion about food and calories and weight in public.
Similarly, a third thing that a lot of people do is [make] comments about how people look in their clothes. People will say things like, "I can't believe she's wearing that dress, it makes her butt look so fat." I have a T- shirt that says, "DO I LOOK FAT IN THIS?" Of course, I look fat in no matter what I wear, because I am fat. The point of the T- shirt is, Why Ask? And why make a point of it? Why does that matter? Of course, the reason why it really matters is that people use it as a superiority thing, and it can be really hurtful. If I can say so-and-so's butt looks fat in that dress, then it makes me feel better because my butt obviously doesn't look fat.
There really is a big hierarchy of [body] size. Another thing you can do actually to combat size oppression is to treat people of all sizes the same. I think that a lot of people and fat activists find that there is sort of a cut-off, an upper limit where they stop thinking of fat people as "normal." It's like it's OK to be fat unless you're bigger than such and such size or weight. It's like saying it's OK to be black unless you're darker than such and such color. It really makes a lot of difference in your own mind if you just remember that people are people and their size really doesn't change that. Getting over your own internalized fatphobia is a big deal, and it's very hard work.