Weight Stigma in Diverse Populations: Virgie Tovar

BEDA promotes cultural acceptance of, and respect for, the natural diversity of sizes, as well as promoting a goal of improved health, which may or may not include weight change.  The views expressed by our featured bloggers are their own.

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Virgie Tovar, MA is an author, activist and one of the nation’s leading experts and lecturers on fat discrimination and body image. She is the editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (Seal Press, November 2012). 

She holds a Master’s degree in Human Sexuality with a focus on the intersections of body size, race and gender. After teaching “Female Sexuality” at the University of California at Berkeley, where she completed a Bachelor’s degree in Political Science in 2005, she went onto host “The Virgie Show” (CBS Radio) in San Francisco. Since 2010, her work has focused on developing the coaching and speaking practice, Lose Hate Not Weight. 

Virgie has been featured by MTV, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Huffington Post, Bust Magazine, Jezebel, 7×7 Magazine, XOJane, and SF Weekly as well as on Women’s Entertainment Television and The Ricki Lake Show. She lives in San Francisco and offers workshops and lectures nationwide. Find her online at www.virgietovar.com.

A Fat Latina Writes on Citizenship & Home

Esperanza is my grandmother’s name. She is the woman who raised me, the person after whom I modeled myself for a long time. She has been preoccupied with her short stature and her weight for the entirety of my life. She loves figs and perfume. She taught me how to eat tripe and how to act like a lady. When I think of what it means to be me – a fat feminist, a Latina, an activist and writer – the story always begins with her.

In some ways Latinidad feels like a home I feel shy to claim. When I read about what it means to be Latino in the US, it seems to mean fatness, poverty, imprisonment, labor, alienness, young motherhood,  gang involvement, misconstrued religiosity, and colorful iconography that inspires jewelry and tote bags for white consumption.

To me, Latinidad is about resiliency, secrets, the undeniable complexity of family, tradition and the things that immigration forces us to leave behind.

What I’m interested in right now is the fact that in so many ways, at the core of what it means to be Latino is a great anxiety about citizenship.

I – like my mother – was born a citizen of the United States. My grandmother considers this her greatest gift to us. Unlike her, my anxiety about not belonging does not have to do with intergovernmental borders. It has to do with a different kind of citizenship: cultural citizenship. I do not wish to conflate or equate my experience f of cultural alienation with the struggle that exists at the intersections of relocation borne of necessity, xenophobia and government-sanctioned violence, which many immigrants from Central/Latin America face. As I write this piece in my home in San Francisco, I know that fewer than 5 miles away Salvadoreños are subject to gang injunctions that fracture families and Mexicanos struggle to get paid $10 an hour to build million dollar condos. My struggle is a different kind, a kind buffered by the privilege of my citizenship status – but it – like my fat brown body – connects me to my family’s history. It is an inheritance, which my privilege allows me to deconstruct and own.

My fat body is the subject of debate, weight stigma, a target in the War on Obesity, and it marks me as having failed to meet my duties as a “healthy” and capable citizen. As I say in the introduction to Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love & Fashion, “I was born into a world where fat women are outlaws… (and) I live in a culture in which my right to be fat is heavily contested by my government, my community, my television set.”

Virgie Tovar InterruptI am fat because I was born that way, but my fatness is more than that. It is a political statement that I refuse to shed – or hate or incise or harm – the body that I was gifted by my lineage. It is a claim to what blogger Jackie Wang characterizes as “impoliteness.” It is the refusal to bow to colonialist notions of heterofemininity. Because my fatness is my birthright in the same way that my brown skin is – to rebuke one is to rebuke the other; to love one is to love the other. It is a claim to autonomy, to choice, to non-compliance, to visibility, and all of these things feel – and are – incredibly subversive.

As a fat woman of color, I often feel unreadable – undocumentable – to the greater culture in which I find myself and even to Latinidad itself. When I refuse to navigate cultures in the way that I am supposed to, I lose certain privileges but gain other things I prize: radicalism, freedom from self-loathing, new understandings, relationships based in the mutual desire for liberation, creativity borne of resilience, secret loves, cryptic knowledge, and the untouchable conviction of my beauty.

When I look at state-funded projects like the War on Obesity I see that it is quite obviously just the newest manifestation of the war on women, on people of color and on poor and working class people. “Fat” has become shorthand for undisciplined, immoral, lazy, idiotic, selfish, unprofessional and insatiable. It has become the banner under which the mother-blaming discourse blazes forward. It has become a source of anxiety that men’s bodies are becoming woman-like and women’s bodies are becoming too large to control. It has become shorthand for poor and Brown/Black. When I write or speak about the intersections of racism and fatphobia, the words of bell hooks echo in my mind:

“Since shame about the black body has already been taught by the white supremacist aesthetics coming from white media, when fat is added to the picture in a culture where thinness is seen as both a sign of beauty and well-being, then children suffer.” – from Rock My Soul: Black People & Self Esteem

She writes on Blackness, but I extrapolate her words out to include others whose bodies are subject to public discipline and experience multiple marginalizations. I feel that her words hold resonance for me. hooks writes about cultural/state-mandated understandings of “well-being,” and unveils the way that beauty and well-being have become conflated ideals deeply tied to whiteness. When we understand this it is easy to understand how the War on Obesity is inherently racialized.

As a child my greatest ambition was to be thin. I understood that desire, but it took me years to realize that tied up in my feelings of fat inadequacy were the deep roots of racism and sexism. They were completely inextricable. It is easy to forget that words like “health” also contain this history. When health is discussed as an idea with inherent value and universal resonance, I remember that for a long time to be a woman – let alone a woman of color – was to be considered deficient and unfit. It was my grandmother who, in large part, taught me that I could be both subject to and resistant of that legacy.

Once, a while ago, when I asked her why she ate foods that “everyone” knew had no nutrition she looked at me confused, unable to grasp the idea that food could lack nutrition and that things with known toxins would be at a grocery store. I realized how dumb I sounded, how dumb I was for having thought I was right because I just accepted this atrocious state and living by it as if it were completely natural, how easily I’d given into the classist and racist rhetoric that only people who were “oblivious” (i.e., uneducated) didn’t “get it.” This is the rhetoric that fractures communities and families. As younger generations of native daughters are born we battle with the chasm that the deceptive allure of assimilation creates.

Though I do not long for the unreachable home my grandmother remembers on the other side of decades past across the Mexican border, I struggle to feel tied to her and to this fat brown body I call home.