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‘I Came into Fat Pride Through Sex’

Fat activist and author Virgie Tovar on her sexual awakening, the politics of dieting, and finding a really great bikini.

 

This is "Think Tank," an occasional series of conversations with Bay Area power players, conducted by San Francisco editors. Interviews have been condensed and edited for clarity. 

Name: Virgie Tovar
Occupation: Author, activist, and founder of Babecamp
Age: 36
Residence:
San Francisco

San Francisco: In your new book, You Have the Right to Remain Fat (August 14, Feminist Press), you write about the politics of fatness. What ultimately led you from feeling shame about your body to now having this great pride in yourself?
Virgie Tovar: In a lot of ways, I came into fat pride through sex. I grew up being told that no man would ever love me or want to have sex with me or want to marry me if­ I was fat. And then I went through my own sexual awakening where in fact I was having sex with men who were telling me I was beautiful. It really caused me to question what I’d been taught. I essentially found out that I’d been taught a lie—and I could prove it! The evidence was, like, my orgasm! I always say sex with dudes, ironically, was my first breadcrumb on the trail to feminism.

You write a lot about fat liberation, rather than body positivity. What’s the difference?
The concept of liberation is complex, but it’s essentially the idea that you’re free to exist exactly as you are without the fear of discrimination, cruelty, or violence. Our humanity is questioned every single day in overt and sometimes subtle ways—like being considered inadequate romantic partners.

And yet this concept of body positivity has gained a lot of cultural cachet lately—you see all kinds of plus-size models in catalogs now.
I’ll tell you the exact moment that body positivity took over as an idea: It began with a community of queer women who had a LiveJournal called Fatshionista posting images of their outfits. That was, in my opinion, when fat activism went from something very underground and insulated and political to being [co-opted] into the mainstream. We can have more demands than just access to pants that fit us, you know?

That said, finding attractive clothes that fit is a certain kind of progress.
Yes, definitely. I remember several years ago walking into a Forever 21 and seeing a wall covered in plus-size bikinis. I started to cry. Because I just never thought that in my lifetime I would ever have a bikini, that anyone would make one for me. It was inconceivable to me that a company would have bikinis for people my size out in public, where people could see them.

Another important semantic shift is toward “wellness,” rather than dieting. What’s your beef with dieting?
Dieting is considered self-improving behavior—a positive. If you lose weight, it’s always a positive thing. But the truth is, a lot of people go to extraordinary lengths to meet that expectation. And so often, the weight loss isn’t retained. So what are we really talking about when we say “self-improvement” if we know that we have an epidemic of eating disorders; if we know that women are not living satisfied lives because they’re constantly pursuing a smaller body? We know that the cost of all of this is the extraordinary cruelty toward people who do not conform. So at the end of the day, what does “self-improvement” mean?

Surely, though, there are people who would be healthier if they lost weight.
It’s complicated. On the one hand, people should do what they want to do with their bodies. The important thing is for people to know the context of the behavior they’re choosing. A lot of people are saying they want to be healthy, but they’re actually starving themselves in the name of health, or exercising to the point of exhaustion and injury, or living with extraordinary anxiety because they’re so terrified of what would happen if they weren’t the size they are now. They want to be healthy, but they’re doing things that are destroying their bodies, their mental wellness, and their spiritual health.

What’s something a fat person can do to start feeling good about their body?
I run a program called Babecamp, which is a four-week online course for women who want to break up with diet culture. I do retreats as well, which have components that we can’t do online. Like one of my favorite things is this thing called “jigglecising.” Every morning we get up and do body-focused meditation, and then we stand up and jiggle for a full minute. It is so liberating and fun—we finally get to use our bodies in a playful way.

 

Originally published in the August issue of San Francisco 

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