Breaking Down “Breaking Boundaries”

by Michelle Matthews (Silver School of Social Work) and Katie Koumatos (Draper Program)

A week ago, we (Michelle and Katie) attended the 13th Annual Women’s History Conference at Sarah Lawrence College together. Entitled, “Breaking Boundaries: Body Politics and the Dynamics of Difference,” the conference incorporated scholastic voices from a variety of very different but interconnected disciplines, including a strong presence from the disabled community, the fat activist community and scholars studying the specific experiences and needs of African American women. We both had a really wonderful time and wanted to share our experiences with you.

The conference was scheduled to begin Friday evening with a keynote address by Marilyn Wann, author of Fat?So! and fat-activist extraordinaire. When we arrived, Marilyn was already there, inviting people to step on her Yay! Scale. An excellent example of the way that Fat Activists are creatively subversive, the Yay! Scale is a scale in which the numbers have been removed and replaced by compliments. Repurposed for the task to creating body self-esteem, this scale weights you and then gives you compliment. While the Yay! Scale told Katie that she was “the definition of Cute”, Michelle was reportedly “Fine, bordering on Perfect.”*

Marilyn’s keynote address was a basic introduction to the arguments behind the Fat Acceptance and the Health at Every Size (HAES) movements. She led the group in an analysis of the cultural associations of the fat/thin binary and challenged the common misconceptions about fat bodies. This ended up being a very useful exercise as people who were well versed in the culturally constructed ideas around race and gender were able to see how many of the same associations – dirty, ugly, messy, lazy, dangerous – as are used to oppress other marginalized groups are used to oppress fat people .

I (Katie) felt that one of the most salient points that Marilyn made revolved around the money that we spend on dieting in this country. Despite the fact that scientific studies have consistently shown that diets fail 95% of the time, last year Americans still spent over $59,700,000,000 trying to lose weight. Putting this into perspective, that is enough money to build a house for every single homeless person in this country and still have more than twenty billion dollars left over.

Wann offered valuable knowledge, but it was her engaging demeanor and happy dances that turned what could have been a cold lecture of facts and frustration into an enjoyable shared learning environment. Ending on a fat mad lib and a song, Marilyn’s keynote was engaging, informative and fun.

The evening continued with some dinner and a night of spoken word poetry. Maria James-Thiaw, Lara Frater, Tatiana McKinney and other poets all contributed to the event. By holding it in the Slonim Living Room, an intimate and safe space was created for personal and political expression.

Saturday began with a plenary panel that included presentations by Kathleen LeBesco, Susan Schwiek and Zoe Spencer. While the presentations by LeBesco and Schwiek were compelling and informative, we both felt that it was Spencer’s work, entitled “The Sexualized Body Politics of African American Women: From Enslavement to Hip Hop,” that really engaged and challenged the audience.

In my (Michelle) opinion, Spencer’s presentation was the highlight of the day. Not only did I love the fact that she is a fellow social worker, but her work was truly gripping. Several times she pointed out the race bias of the audience in a challenging but non-judgmental way. Her lecture was organized around the historic stereotypes of African American women and included categories like the Jezebel, the Mammy, the Sapphire and the Welfare Mom.

In the beginning of her lecture, she carefully presented the true horror of African American women’s slavery. Working to help the audience fully grasp the extent of their oppression, Spencer reiterated that these women had been treated like animals. They were raped, used to breed more slaves, and denied the chance to be mothers to their children. It was clear that she felt the need to impress upon us the intensity of this trauma and how her community is still feeling the effects of it. She moved through history, discussing the changing stereotypes of African American women and how their sexuality has continued to be controlled, manipulated and adjusted to fit the needs of the dominant culture. It was towards the end of the lecture that she interrupted herself to tell the mostly white audience that their lack of personal interaction with the African-American community probably left them with skewed views of African-American women. “You don’t go over to our houses for dinner. You don’t invite us to your house for dinner. For many of you, your ideas of African American women come from these constructed stereotypes.”

I (Katie) was particularly impressed with Spencer’s courage in challenging the notion of liberal safe spaces and her decision to present her work in a style that differed from the traditional academic model. Her lecture was equally filled with intense scholastic research and casual stories, random thoughts and personal interjections as she visibly negotiated how to best share this information with our particular audience. After the presentation, I (Michelle) sought her out to thank her for her lecture and talk with her more about teaching difference within the field of social work. We came to the conclusion that teaching difference and politeness are really incompatible, as it takes the uncomfortable experiences of being confronted with your privilege to allow students the chance to learn their biases and better understand “ethnocultural issues.” Spencer didn’t shy away from creating this same uncomfortable space with the audience and we both greatly respected her fierce candor.

The conference broke up into a series of smaller sessions, intermingled with a lunch break and some more hands-on activities. While the smaller presentations were engaging, it was truly these two larger lectures that captured our attention. We both networked a great deal, meeting scholars from other institutions and establishing the beginning of what could be very beneficial collaborative projects.

That first night, Marilyn Wann said, “If we can’t be at home in our own bodies, where are we supposed to go?” This beautifully sums up the entirety of the conference. As women, we must fight to regain psychological and physical ownership of our bodies above all else. If we are undermined in the control we have over how we conceive of our own flesh, everything else that we do in the world is weakened.

Katie Koumatos is a first year student in the Draper Program. She is trained in psychological anthropology and uses a multi-media approach to study the burgeoning fat activist movement. Michelle Matthews is a first-year master’s student in the Silver School of Social Work, where she focuses her practice on health and women’s issues. She founded the Size Diversity Coalition of Social Workers and blogs as the Fat Social Worker. Katie and Michelle are both fat activist who first met on a list-serve created to support the writing of the Fat Studies Reader. They met in person two months ago when Katie arrived in New York and have been planning mischief ever since. Currently they are working on creating an NYU student group affiliated with fat activism out of which they plan to run the Fat Studies Writing Workshop, a writer’s group for academics in this developing discipline. They are also planning on attending the Endangered Species: Women international summit at The New School this coming weekend. They welcome their fellow students to join them at this upcoming conference. You can reach them through their nyu emails at ksh287 or mmm608.

*We are planning a “Make Your Own Yay! Scale” Workshop for the Spring. If you are interested in joining us, please shoot us an email.

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