What do a teenaged sex ed advocate, the executive director of an FGM advocacy organization, and a self-identified fat writer and activist have in common?
More than first meets the eye, I learned at the 2012 CLPP Conference. They are all activists advancing sexual freedom and challenged media culture by sharing stories and building community. They are all engaging in activism that is multi-generational and transnational, and that has created vibrant fat communities and communities of color, redefining sexy and demanding bodily autonomy.
Speakers at the “Our Bodies are Beautiful, Our Bodies are Political” panel included: Sabrina Andrus, Sanaz Shaghaghi, Zeinab Eyega, MSc, and Andrea Dre Domingue.
Sanaz spoke first.
“What is radical sex ed?” she asks. “It’s young women talking about loving themselves.”
“We focus on looking at media critically,” she said, “because society wants us to look a certain way. But in reality we are all different.” Her organization Immediate Justice focuses on informing young women about radical sex ed (“Not your mama’s sex ed,” as she calls it). The sessions emphasize that even though we feel uncomfortable in our own skin, we must learn to love ourselves and our body.
Sanaz’s identity as a young person and also an activist made her candid perspective very valuable and insightful for me. On her motivation for being involved in Immediate Justice, she said, “We all have attributes that make us unique. When I look at a magazine, I always see models. But how does it make you feel? It makes me feel unbeautiful at times. It persuades me try that new fad diet…to buy that Neutrogena skin cleanser product. Society is just using us for our money.”
Zeineb Eyega, the Executive Director and Founder of Sauti Yetu (meaning Our Voices in Swahili), an advocacy organization seeking to empower women to exercise, advocate and protect their rights. She spoke about female circumcision (also known as female genital mutilation) or FC/FGM.
“I know this is an emotional topic,” she began, “and everyone has a stake in it. But I want to talk about the stigmas that are placed upon women and girls who are circumcised.”
Ms. Eyega further explained:
“Stigma comes from a long history and the place of African women in American popular imagination. You can’t talk about this without talking about how the rest of the world talks about the continent and its inhabitants, especially women and girls. We have to deal with how to create spaces for self-definition.
As immigrants in this country they felt silenced and invisible. Anytime Africa comes in or is mentioned, African women are represented as being hopeless, powerless, etc. When actually, they have a voice, they can self-define and counter your narrative.”
Ms. Eyega explained that she was not there to support or fight against the practice of FC/FGM but rather to challenge assumptions of who we think we are. “We need to be critical about the source of the information,” she said.
“The point is that there are diverse experiences. Not all women and girls experience FC the same. Not all were forced to undergo the practice. Not all women remember what happened.
Some want to know, some don’t want to interrogate. We need to create space for a real dialogue about this issue without silencing many of the women and girls who were cut are the peers in this room but they won’t tell you because they will face backlash. They are professional women, they are all around you. Your inability to allow for their experience connects to American racism and contempt for black people when they limit discussion of the practice to Africa.”
She ended by emphasizing that the problem is not simply about ending the practice. Rather, the analysis, advocacy and strategies have failed to address the manner in which anti FC advocacy s not simply an effort to protect women and girls but has also served as a tool of racism: ”You need to focus on the voices of women in the communities. Even if they don’t frame their experiences in the one way that you think is productive. Be humble enough to realize that you have no idea. Always reflect that whatever you do, there may be unintended consequences. Activists can be so immersed in our goodness that we lose sight of what is important.”
Sabrina was the last to speak. She opened by making clear that she identifies as a fat person! That being said, she acknowledged that it is always important to make sure folks can identify the way they want to. It’s called fat acceptance in some circles, but she likes to use the term “fat activism.”
“Fat activism” has been going on for thousands of years, but in a more traditional sense it was born in the 60s with the movement of the National Organization to Advance Fat Acceptance. They tend to focus on legal protections for people of size. Another great National organization is NoLose, a vibrant community of fat queers and allies with shared commitment to end oppression of fat people.
Importantly, today there are various identities at play in a lot of the oppressions that we deal with. So it came from traditional nonprofit work to underground collection of stories and comics and things of that nature. Today, online and new media also reflects that all people deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.
Sabrina went on to counter someo the most harmful myths and information about her activism.
“Fatness can often be conflated with health. Fat is not the same as healthy, and skinny is not always healthy,” she said, framing the problem in another way:
“Fat people are demonized for being fat. A lot of people don’t like fat people. We take up too many resources, too much space. We identify the fat person as the one with the problem. If you do a Google image search for fat bodies, you’ll notice that many of the people don’t have heads. It is easier to see them as not human without heads.”
In all, images are powerful. When you don’t see your body in the media you get the message that your body is not desirable or attractive. “Fatshin” or “fat fashion blogs” that provide images of people who look like you and are happy can be really revolutionary in that sense.
She praised the so-called online “fatosphere” for bringing new images to the fore, but admitted that this space can be rather heteronormative and white, and that some in the movement don’t necessarily view their fat activism as intersectional (although she certainly seemed to).
All of these speakers brought a unique and important voice to seemingly divergent topics and helped reinforce values and ideals that are crucial to today’s reproductive justice movement: self love and care, myth-busting, humility, getting beyond good intentions, and fostering intersectionality. While these are all themes that may seem disparate, it’s telling that they all arise when talking about our own bodies. The site of so much personal and political attention, it seems the future of our justice movement will be at least partially reliant upon the relationship we have to our most fundamental physical selves.