Q&A With Fat-Activist Ragen Chastain

Ragen Chastain writes for her blog Dances With Fat and is an instrumental leader in fat activism. She is a dancer, marathoner, writer, ACE Certified health coach, and proud fat person.

“I understand that it’s ok to be fat regardless of health, ability, or any other factor and the suggestion that fat people have to jump through hoops of health/food/exercise is nothing more than healthism, ableism, and hypocritical.”

In Bold talked with Ragen all about fat, the next steps of fat activism, and sizeism.

How do you feel about the word fat? 

I’m a big fan of the word fat!  I like it because it’s accurately describes my body without pathologizing it (I’m fat, I’m not “overweight” does – I’m also short,  I’m not “under-tall”) I also like reclaiming the word because it tells my bullies that they can’t have my lunch money any more. I also understand that it’s not a word that everyone is comfortable with and that’s cool as well.  I’m a big fan of people getting to choose their own labels so I am happy to use whatever word someone else prefers.  Similarly, if I’m talking to a group that might be triggered by the word “fat” I might use other terms such as “people of size” or “people in large bodies”

How do you respond to the negativity that seems to follow fat activism, fat-positivity, and Health At Every Size? What advice would you give to others for dealing with this negativity? 

I think that the negativity we experience is both proof of why this work is so important, and proof of our effectiveness in doing it.  Our current culture is built on the belief that thinner = better.  The diet industry has spent billions in advertising dollars to make sure of it and misinformation is allow to proliferate as “everybody knows” ideas are considered just as valid (and sometimes more valid) than actual facts, evidence, and research.

In terms of dealing with this negativity I think that the most important thing is to be able to identify sizeist messages and remind ourselves that they aren’t true.  I suggest people create a quick mantra that they can use when they come in contact with these messages (something like “That’s BS” or “Nope, nope, nope.”) We can also choose to push back by setting boundaries (ie:  my body size is off limits, if you continue to talk negatively about fat bodies we won’t be able to be friends) educating people whether in person, in conversation, or by posting HAES and SA things on social media, engaging in other activism etc.

What do you think about how fat people are represented (or not represented) in mainstream media (TV, magazines, etc.)?

I think that there is a serious lack of positive representation of fat people in the media.  Fat people rarely get to see ourselves as anything other than the “before” picture in a weight loss ad, or carrying a bunch of bags of fast food, or as the single, self-loathing sit-com side-kick.  Every day I receive e-mails from fat people who tell me that they are going to try a dance class, or a couch to 5k, or go after a PhD because they saw it in my, or another fat activist’s blog, and it was the first time that it occurred to them that someone their size could do it. By refusing to show fat people in a positive light (despite the fact that there are many fat people leading happy lives) the media robs us of role models – and supports others in thinking of fat people as stereotypes.

 How did you get involved in fat activism?

I was on a personal journey of Size Acceptance and Health at Every Size and I had been doing Queer and Trans activism and anti-racism work for years when, at a dance competition, a judge cornered me after I performed to tell me repeatedly that she “couldn’t stand to look at me.” It was in that moment that I realized that this wasn’t just a personal journey, that fat people are a marginalized population – shamed, stigmatized, bullied, harassed, and oppressed because of how we look, and other people’s beliefs about how we look (an oppression that is intersectional with other oppressions including racism, healthism, ableism, ageism and more.)  That’s when I started looking at this not simply as my personal journey, but as a civil rights movement.  That led me to finding out that amazing fat activists had been doing this work since the 1960’s.  

Ragen Leap credit Richard Sabel

You are a wonderful dancer. What about dance empowers you and inspires you? What is your favorite style of dance? 

 I’ve always loved dancing.  I grew up in rural America which meant that I was enthusiastic, but poorly trained.  I love the way that dance allows me to use my whole body – to tell a story, evoke a feeling, entertain an audience and, as a fat person, put my beautiful fat body on display.  It’s hard to say my favorite style, I loved ballroom dancing, and I loved choreographing and dancing with More Cabaret – a dance company made up of fat dancers in Los Angeles.

 What do you see as the main issue millennial fat women face today?

 I think that a lot of attention gets placed on things like equity in fashion – which is important. But I think that we need to focus on access to healthcare.  Currently fat people often get diagnosed as ‘fat” and prescribed “Weight loss” regardless of why we go into the doctor.  This lac of evidence-based care, combined with fat shaming means that fat people who can access healthcare (in terms of having the money, ability to travel, and time off – which are issues that need to be addressed for people of all sizes) cannot access evidence-based healthcare, and often avoid going to the doctor unless and until a problem becomes very serious.  This is a major issue in terms of quality of life and life expectancy.

The public spaces we exist in are designed for slim, able- bodied individuals. Very little changes have been made to make spaces like classrooms and public transportation inclusive. Why do you think that is and what would you like to see change? 

 I think the issue here is a combination of the prioritization of profits over people, and sizeism.  If companies can make enough money without accommodating fat people, then they do that – often blaming fat people for not fitting in spaces that clearly weren’t made to accommodate us and, to add insult to injury, subsequently charging us twice as much for the same service.  They are able to do this because of rampant sizeism – many people have been convinced that fat people don’t deserve clothes or seats that fit us, or even basic human respect so when healthcare facilities don’t have blood pressure cuffs, or chairs, or beds that accommodate us, people are perfectly ok with fat people paying for sizeism with our lives.

What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishment as a fat activist, speaker, and writer? 

 The number of people who have contacted me to tell me that my work encouraged them to be fat activists in their own lives – whether it’s that they started their own blog, or they told their mom that they won’t be coming to Thanksgiving unless the fat shaming and food policing stops, or simply woke up and hated their body a little less today.

What question are you tired of people asking you? Why?

What is your cholesterol/blood sugar/food intake.  I used to make the mistake of waving my numbers and “health” around and committing the “good fatty/bad fatty” mistake where we suggest that it’s ok to be fat “as long as you’re healthy” or as long as we do the “right things” in terms of food or health (where the “right things” are always that things that the person who thinks they have the right to judge us thinks are “right.”) I no longer make this mistake – I understand that it’s ok to be fat regardless of health, ability, or any other factor and the suggestion that fat people have to jump through hoops of health/food/exercise is nothing more than healthism, ableism, and hypocritical—since we so often celebrate people who aren’t fat and who very specifically don’t prioritize their health – including X games athletes, professional football players, etc.

 What advice would you offer your 20-year-old self?

Don’t diet.  Question everything, demand the data, and do the research, and appreciate the amazing body that you have.

If you could only follow one person on twitter, who would it be? Why

@IjeomaOluo She does amazing work, she does that work intersectionally, and retweets other great work.

What advice can you give to women who don’t see themselves represented in magazines, on tv, and in the world?

 First of all, know that the world is messed up, you are fine. It can be life changing just to realize that it’s not us, it’s a sizeist world.  Of course we are under no obligation to take action, be activists, or give our emotional labor to a world that excludes us, but I encourage people to become activists. Using the example of a magazine, that might mean writing a letter to a favorite magazine and telling them that you are ending your subscription until you see yourself represented in its pages, and/or starting a petition to encourage others to do so, and/or subscribing/contributing to magazines that do represent you, and/or starting your own magazine.  Activism can seem like the slow boring of hard boards, and in many ways it is.  But I think it’s worth doing – not just because of the changes it can bring about in the world, but because of the way it makes me feel to know that I’m pushing back against injustice.

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