Miraculous Bodies with Kimberly Dark
It’s time for riots, not diets. This week we talk about bodies, health, food, and fatness with Kimberly Dark, author of the new book, Fat, Pretty, and Soon to be Old.
Kimberly is a writer, a storyteller, a performance artist, a professor, a yoga teacher, a queer mother, and so much more—and she delves into all of it in this interview. From being shamed as a fat child to starving her way through her teens to finally leaving diets behind forever, we loved hearing how Kimberly learned to love and nurture her body—and how we can all change the way we think and talk about fatness, beauty, and aging.
You can’t hate a person’s body and claim to want to help them.—Kimberly Dark, author, Fat, Pretty, and Soon to be Old
We talk about:
- How our healthcare system fails fat people. “I don’t use the word ‘obesity’ because it’s a medicalized term to describe a fat body, which, fat bodies are not inherently diseased.”
- Why eating well and exercising shouldn’t be prerequisites to respect. “There should be no requirement for anyone to have to uphold health practices in order to be considered a worthy human being.”
- Coming out as fat: “If you want to know me, if you want to know me in my full humanity as a human being, then I should be able to talk about my experiences in the world.”
- How to sit next to a fat person on a plane: “We’re going to occupy this space together; let’s acknowledge it, and let’s treat each other nicely.”
- The double-bind of beauty expectations. “Women are supposed to be on a quest for prettiness and we’re not ever supposed to acknowledge it.”
- Unpacking our own relationship to weight, food, and health
- How anti-fatness affects people at work
- Getting dressed up for the abortion ball
- Fat, Pretty, and Soon to be Old: A Makeover for Self and Society
- Kimberly on Twitter and Instagram
- Kimberly’s website
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Katel LeDu And I’m Katel.
SWB And this is Strong Feelings! A podcast about work, friendship, and feminism—and what happens when you bring them all together.
KL Today’s guest is Kimberly Dark, whose new book is called Fat, Pretty, and Soon to be Old. It’s a collection of essays about weight, and size, and body shame, and choosing to break free of all that shit. Sara, you got to talk to read the book. What struck you most about it?
SWB Well, I really noticed when I read it how much Kimberly talks about her childhood, and how early her relationship with food and her relationship with her body was pretty warped. Like doctors telling her to literally eat 500 calories a day when she’s 10 years old, and her mother just being so uncomfortable and ashamed with having a fat daughter, and how that played out throughout her childhood and adolescence.
KL Ugh. I mean, it’s so heartbreaking to think about anyone being judged for how they look and how much they weigh, but especially children.
SWB Yeah, and it got me thinking a lot about how I grew up, and all of the messages about my body that I received and how many of them I internalized very deeply. I didn’t have the kind of super extreme experience she had—nobody ever took me to a doctor or anything like that—but I definitely grew up in a home where I was called chubby a lot. My dad would poke my belly and specifically comment on the size of women’s stomachs, and that was treated as everyday discourse. And that’s just how I grew up! That was just normal, that was just what I knew.
SWB I didn’t really notice actually how much [laughs] that had been emphasized until much later when I realized I was hyperaware of my own stomach—does it pooch out, do I have love handles, is there a line where my tights stop? That kind of stuff really bothers me still; it’s something I still notice and think about. And then it really hit me that I was also being really hyper-aware of other women’s stomachs.
SWB Did they gain or lose weight? Should they tighten their abs and stand up straighter? Should they be wearing more flattering pants—which like flattering is a whole bullshit concept in a lot of ways too.
SWB You know, I realized that was [laughs] just a really small and sad place to be. It’s a place of self-hatred and it’s a place of projecting that hatred onto others and judging them. I realized that was something I had to break out of.
KL Yeah! It is a place of self-hatred and judgment. I really [laughs] want to hug baby Sara so bad! [SWB laughs] I didn’t hear those things directed at me, but I remember noticing how much attention was being paid to women’s bodies and the size of women’s bodies all over television.
SWB Yeah. It’s weird how long it takes to unpack some of that stuff. It was only maybe one or two years ago that my sister in law mentioned something totally off the cuff one day, just a small comment about how our family—my family—has a lot of body talk that she didn’t grow up with. Like commenting on someone else’s body is relatively normal. And I was like, “oh.” And that was the first time I really realized how normal it was, how frequent it was, not just toward me, but in general. And I hadn’t thought about that much before because it had just been so baked into my experience, but to this day, [laughs] my dad will, within a few minutes of me seeing him for the first time in 6 months, pointedly look at my stomach and then say something like, “so, are you still working out?” Or worse, “so, did you stop working out?”
SWB Which, like, what the fuck is that about? [both laugh] Also ps. Dad, I work out a hell of a lot more than you [KL laughs] and I can probably benchpress you…back off!
KL Yeah! Ohhhh god, that is awful. And A) can everyone just cool it on commenting on other people’s bodies in general.
SWB I mean—
KL Just…please. [laughs] And of course when someone does make those comments or has to say something about your body, it says more about their misconceptions or insecurities or lack of understanding, but it’s still so fucked up. And while they’re maybe not dealing with their insecurities or issues, you are left to deal with the aftermath of their behavior.
SWB Right. Okay, so what about you? Because to be clear, you’re a thin person, you’re a petite person, right? I’m a much thicker person and a much taller person. I was always the one standing in the back row in my class photos. [both laugh] So, I’m sure you experience things a little differently, but that doesn’t mean you don’t get weird body messages and food messages.
KL Yeah. I mean, I grew up in the eighties when there was an absurd explosion of diet foods and diet systems. And at some point—I think I was maybe 12 or 13—my mom and stepdad at the time decide to try NutriSystem…? [laughs]
KL And if you don’t know it, it’s a diet food system of basically pre-packaged and pre-prepared foods that are delivered to you. And they are disgusting! Lacking any real nutrition and all these lo-cal in-between snacks. My stepdad was the one who had spearheaded this decision because he was wanted to lose some weight I guess. And I think my mom saw it as an opportunity to try dieting herself under the guise of “I’m going to eat healthier.” I’m petite, so is my mom, and she would’ve definitely gotten I think weird looks if she’d just outright said, “I’m dieting now.” [laughs] I think she also liked the idea of prepared meals, but it was so expensive! And, I mean, it didn’t last very long.
SWB Gosh, in my home, diets were actually out of the question, which I think was really good for the most part. Both of my parents were against the fad-ness of it and they believed really heavily in cooking food yourself, making things from scratch, and natural foods. We were more of a “buy our bulk brown rice from the co-op” family. [both laugh] You know what I mean?
SWB For a couple of reasons, one of which was in the eighties that was a very cheap thing to do and also it was a healthy thing to do. There was this idea in my home that if you just ate homemade natural foods, you should just stay thin and that was that.
SWB And if you weren’t, you were doing something wrong. So, in middle school, that is why I basically just started hiding my disordered eating. I engaged in some mild disordered eating, I would say. But what I would do is I would just skip meals. I skipped breakfast most every day, and then I would bring maybe an apple for lunch or I would make these truly disgusting [KL laughs] fat-free sandwiches—
SWB —because it was the nineties. And so [laughs] my fat-free sandwiches would have maybe wheat bread, [KL laughs] fat-free mayonnaise or just mustard, and then fat-free turkey breast and then sprouts and that was it.
KL Oh my god, this is hitting really close to home. [laughs]
SWB God, they were so sad! Anyway, I would eat something like that maybe. And then I would go home and I would have a normal dinner at home with the family! And I remember getting all of this praise for getting thinner during this time period and nobody was asking any questions about why that was happening, it was just assumed it was just because I was being good. And I ended up meeting expectations; I could be closer to the quote-unquote “right” size that people wanted me to be, and I could sit and eat our family dinners together and pretend like all of this was normal and fine. And it was only recently that I explained this to my mom, that I told her what I had done.
KL Oh wow.
SWB I told her how much time and energy I’d invested in this. And it was a lot! It was very time-consuming and exhausting to be controlling what I was eating all the time. It was a lot of fucking work! And I was like, “look, I put in so much work and I beat myself up so many times for not being thinner. I made myself feel so bad for so long and guess what? I never got thin!” [KL sighs]
SWB I worked really hard at this and it still didn’t fucking work!
SWB And I think it kind of opened her eyes a little bit about the impact this had had on me and that maybe she had made some assumptions about thinness being inherently good that….weren’t.
KL Yeah. I think about my mom and how she definitely grew up with weight critique from my grandmother. She’s told me this story about how she had a job in a bakery during college and she’d come home for holidays and my grandmother would be like, “oh, you need to lose a few pounds.” Mind you, my mom probably only ever fluctuated around ten pounds here or there. And my grandmother also just commented on the weight of women in our family a lot in general. And she weighed herself every day until she was in her nineties!
SWB That makes me feel so sad.
SWB Like what a waste of time. [laughs]
KL [laughing] Yeah!
SWB What a sad state of how we perceive a women’s value—a women’s value being so tied to her weight that she had to weigh herself every day. Anyway, families—oof! I remember I was in Munich last year for my grandmother’s funeral and the next day I was trying to have kaffee and küchen with my aunts and my mom. And my one aunt was just like, “oh, you’re wearing all black to look thinner.” And I’m like, “no, bitch, [KL laughs] I’m wearing all black because I packed last minute for a funeral and most of what I brought with me is black! Also, who the fuck are you and also just let me eat my fucking küchen in peace here, okay?”
KL [laughing] Yes!
SWB Can we not?! But you can’t really say that to your grieving aunt, even when she kind of deserves it.
SWB And my German is pretty good, but coming up with comebacks on the fly is kind of hard for me. [KL laughs] I just leave those conversations and I just feel so deflated and small!
KL Yeah. One of my mother in law’s friends says—every time I see her—she says, “oh gosh, how do you stay so skinny?” And I realize that some people would be…maybe flattered? It just makes me so uncomfortable! Because why is she paying attention to my body like that and why does she feel like she gets to say that out loud?
SWB Right! She thinks it is flattering!
SWB I know when I have lost five pounds or whatever, I have gotten comments about it. And it sucks because it always reminds me that people are just hanging out judging my body constantly. And that I am supposed to feel good because today they happened to judge it as being more acceptable than before. And I’m like, “yay?” [KL laughs]
SWB Like I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with this, and it just sort of sits with me as added recognition of the kind of constant surveillance that women’s bodies are under. Okay, so I do want to ask about something because I have no relationship to it at all! [KL laughs] Which is thin privilege! Is that something that you notice in your life?
KL Yeah. I mean I absolutely do, although I probably don’t notice it as much as I should. Hearing about the experiences fat people have with doctors and how disrespected they are.
KL And, on the other hand, I sometimes feel ignored a little bit, but it’s so much less offensive. I’ve gone to the doctor and had my health status assumed simply because I’m thin—like “oh, you’re really healthy, and you run a lot, and you weigh this much.” But that is not the same as being written off because I look like I don’t take care of myself.
SWB Right. But it also means that you could have a health issue that goes undiagnosed because people are like, “well, just look at you! You’re healthy, you’re fine.”
KL Yeah, that is true. I’ve also never wondered if a clothing or shoe store is going to have my size, and I’ve never worried that I was taking up too much space in an airplane seat or in a lot of spaces for that matter. And I know I am granted many more privileges than that because of my thinness.
SWB Ugh. Yeah, I mean, I feel like I never fit right anywhere. And, again, I am not even that big! I am 5’11, which is tall for a woman, but not that tall overall. I’m not even in plus sizes. And in an airplane seat, I can’t put my shoulders back.
SWB But if i go to the doctor my BMI is often in question, which is so bullshit! I actually found a new doctor last year and I love her because she’s this teeny-tiny woman. And I was a little worried, “is she going to look at my weight and make assumptions about me?” But she has never once made a single, shitty, judgy comment in any way. And, in fact, when I go in, she’s like, “okay, all of these metrics say you’re extremely healthy, and you exercise, and you don’t smoke, keep it up! And there has never once been any kind of judgment made whatsoever. And I am like, “I am going to go to you forever!” [laughs]
KL I love that. And I hate BMI and all manner of supposed health metrics that don’t do a goddamn thing to actually tell you if you’re sick or not.
SWB Right! And those metrics? We have been fed all of them as if they are these scientific truths. So, we internalize them, and we think we know things about people based on their body size. Something we didn’t talk about with Kimberly, but that I think is really important to think about here is how those assumptions then play out at work. I was reading this U Penn study from a couple of years ago that noted that fat people get characterized at work as quote “lazy, incompetent, unattractive, lacking willpower and to blame for their excess weight.” [KL sighs] And because women are already so heavily judged by their appearance, I think it’s even harder for us. And what happens at work is we have all these biases about body size and what that means for your work performance. So, thin women are women in control, they are women with drive and determination. Successful women—the kind you see on a stage or delivering a keynote or running a board meeting—they are poised and elegant. All of those are codes for “not fat.”
SWB And there are a lot of studies that back this up. Fat people are assumed to be less competent, they’re passed over for promotions, they work longer hours for less pay. Those biases run so deep.
KL That makes me so mad! So, I want to everyone to listen really carefully to Kimberly and assume that she’s poised and competent as fuck.
SWB Because she is!
KL Yep! [short transition music plays]
Interview: Kimberly Dark
SWB Kimberly Dark is a writer, a storyteller, a performance artist, a professor, and the author of a new book of essays called Fat, Pretty, and Soon to be Old, which just came out. We can’t wait to talk about it! Kimberly, welcome to Strong Feelings!
Kimberly Dark Oh, I’m so happy to be here!
SWB Yeah! I’m really excited to talk about this book, which I couldn’t put down this weekend!
KD Great to hear.
KL So, first up, can you tell us a bit about what led you to write Fat, Pretty, and Soon to be Old?
KD Gosh, you know, I have been writing essays for years for various publications and doing storytelling performances. So, a lot of these essays are the kinds of work that I’ve been doing for a long time. Putting them together into a collection felt like an obvious thing for me, particularly because one of the things that interests me is how we learn to embrace more of who we are and show up as more of ourselves as often as possible. So, a lot of those essays are about appearance and identity, but also just the complexities of being human.
KL Yeah! What were you doing in your life that made you sit down and say, “now’s the time to write something like this?”
KD The performances—the storytelling performances I do—I do those often at colleges and universities in North America and then also some theaters and festivals in various parts of the world. But those only reach the number of people that are in the audience, right? [laughs] It’s not a way to reach huge numbers of people. And I think that this is a really important and timely message that we need to reclaim our power as social creators. And this is another message in the book. It is possible to actually change the culture by deciding who you will be in social interactions and what you will say when the kinds of…gosh, maybe not blatantly discriminatory—although maybe that also—but just the habitual, not helpful things that we say and do a lot. For instance, diet talk is one of them. It’s one of the ways that women bond socially by talking about food and our bodies in really not helpful ways. So, I think that’s what’s happening. I’m interested in larger numbers of people reclaiming their power as social creators and a book is a good way to do that. There are things that work better on the stage than on the page, so part of this process is figuring out which is which. A lot of the stories that are in the book are stories that I perform and, in fact, there will be a performance version of the book that is available for colleges and universities and really any public events that want to book it. So, I don’t know that there’s a huge difference other than the stories on the page are tighter and a bit more tailored to the page rather than audience interaction, for instance.
SWB Yeah! So, I want to talk a little bit more about what’s in the book. So, it’s this collection of essays, many of them are very personal, talking about your experiences in life. And I want to start at the beginning a little bit. At the beginning of the book, you describe growing up as a fat child in a household where that just wasn’t acceptable. And I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit about those early experiences and how they ended up reverberating and shaping the life that you have now.
KD So, look. I want to first point out that there is almost no household where it is acceptable to be a fat child.
SWB Oh gosh, absolutely! [laughs & KD laughs]
KD So, in many ways, this is not a unique experience. I think that sometimes, even if parents are really accepting of different body types, I think sometimes their concern for the child can lead them to want to try and change the child. But the fact is, for a variety of reasons, people come in different sizes! [laughs] People come in different shapes! So, I think that particularly when I was a child, which would have been forty-plus years ago now, there was really no understanding of that, and there was also a lot more tolerance for really limiting what fat children should do. And I mean that—you’ll notice a lot of the stories in the book are about movement as well and exercise and yoga and sexuality. And I think that this is one of the things that we do to fat kids. It’s a bizarre kind of [laughs] paradox to say, “well, you should eat less and move more, but actually don’t move at all in public because somebody might look at you.” So, I think we’re divorced early from the joy of movement in our bodies. So, that’s one thing, but certainly that is a difficult thing growing up different. And fat is one way to be different from other folks. And sometimes you’re the only fat person in your family, sometimes there are other fat people, but just because there are other fat people doesn’t mean that people are at peace with their own fat! Right? [laughs]
SWB Mhmm, mhmm.
KD I talk in the book about my mother. Our family business was modelling in finishing schools, so the idea that one should have conforming beauty and appearance was really powerful. But, again, I don’t think it was more powerful than in households that didn’t have that professional focus. I just think that it was more pronounced.
SWB And you talk about how early on in your childhood, you learned that because you didn’t fit, that you should be doing anything possible to try to fit in. You talk a lot about these extremely restrictive diets and disordered eating behaviors that you engaged in for a long time, trying so hard to reach what people wanted or expected and never getting there. And I’m curious, how did that finally change for you?
KD We are still doing this to children today. It seems like it’s a long time ago and one of the essays that I think you’re referring to is talking about severe dietary restrictions placed on me by doctors. Literally a doctor was telling me 500 calories a day as a ten-year-old child! We know that to be unhealthy. I’m not sure that you would hear exactly that from a doctor today, although one might. But there just recently was this whole new Weight Watchers program for kids that is horrific in terms of its language and the way that it is prompting children to restrict food and to think about food as the enemy. The kinds of things that are in their “red light, green light” kind of program—the kinds of things with red lights are huge numbers of really common foods. So, all of this is a recipe for eating disorder, right? Food restriction and food obsession. So, I was definitely one of those folks for whom the restrictions that I was being encouraged to make by family, and by doctors, and by pretty much anyone who ever laid eyes to me, were leading to eating disorder. And, you’re right, I was one of those people that restricted to the point of malnutrition. I restricted to the point of not being able to spend the day without passing out or sleeping. I would go weeks and weeks without eating at all and I never became emaciated. There are more medical studies being done right now about higher weight people with anorexia, with food restricting behavior. So, the fact is that some of us have these miraculous bodies that don’t let us starve to death. And this is how I see it now! My body is a miracle; that’s an amazing thing to spend as many years as I did as a pre-adolescent and adolescent in literal starvation mode and not die, and literally not get below a size twelve. So, at some point, I really became respectful of the fact that, “oh, something is happening here.” And I hope it’s also clear in the book that sexuality was a part of that. I came to understand the erotic power of my body and that became a path back to eating and loving myself. By the time I was 25, I had made the commitment to never diet again and to instead pay attention to what it really means to be healthy, which is, “oh, what are the cues my body is giving me, what are health-inducing behaviors?” Like, it feels really good to exercise even if people might be looking at me! [laughs] You know?
SWB [laughing] Yes! Yes! I love the commitment to not dieting. I love the “riots, not diets” message.
SWB And I want to talk a little bit more about exercise because that’s something that comes up in the book a lot. You talk about the relationship—or maybe the lack of relationship—between fitness and health. I think at one point, you talk about how there’s always this claim that fat people should lose weight because of their health and that that’s the reason everybody is so concerned. But there’s actually evidence that the worst health outcomes that we often hear about for people who are larger might not be because they’re fat, but might be because they’re shunned for being fat. And I wonder if you can tell us more about that and talk about that flawed relationship that we believe exists between our size and our health.
KD I think it is really important that we start to look at health holistically in terms of the fact that we are social creatures. So, what this means is that things like fat hatred—you can’t hate a person’s body and claim to want to help them; it doesn’t work that way. And this is the position that most of us that are fat are in with doctors and the medical industry in general. We either have a difficult or strained relationship with medical professionals and we actually know that the medical industry is not there to help us. So, for instance, I’m arthritic at this point in my life; I’ve got problems with my knee that many thin people have. Knee replacement surgery is a very common reparative surgery. It is absolutely not available to me under my health plan because they’ve decided not to offer knee replacement surgeries to people with a certain BMI, which is not a good proxy for health, but body mass index is still how medical professionals talk about weight. So, that’s just one example of how medical industries’ health plans are not out to help us.
SWB What happens to people when we shun them or ostracize them for being fat? How does that end up manifesting as health concerns? Or how do we get back to a place where we can actually see people’s real health needs independent of whatever shape they come in?
KD The kind of thing about having your society shun you is that it’s the same with racism, it’s the same with sexism. The details are different, but anytime you live in a body that is not thought adequate, not thought “good,” then there is going to be these kinds of repercussions. And it’s not like it’s a one to one relationship like, I don’t know, two units of fatphobia equals [laughs & SWB laughs] this kind of result in the body. But cumulatively, there’s a social burden involved with, as I say, fat hatred, racism, sexism, ableism, all of these things. And there are some studies about this, but not nearly enough because our medical industry focuses less on bodies in social relationship and more on what are the functions of the liver or the brain [laughs] or these very discreet parts of the body. But definitely there is public health data that is coming together to show that, yeah, how do you separate the effects of fat on the body from the effects of being fat in a society that hates fat people? It’s very hard to do. So, so far as we know—like I don’t use the word “obesity” because it’s a medicalized term to describe a fat body, which fat bodies are not inherently diseased.
KD There’s no inherent disease there. There are correlations with illnesses that conveniently also have correlations with oppression—things like diabetes and heart problems. We see those across stigmatized groups. So, it’s important to sort these things out, but I don’t think we can just tell a story that says, “oh, this causes that.” That would be going too far. And to be clear, medical people cannot tell that story about fat either. Nobody is trying to say, “fat causes diabetes.” That’s not true. There is a correlation between those two things, but what is the cause of that correlation, that is another matter.
SWB Yeah. I really appreciate you drawing some of these parallels to things like race. We’ve been reading a lot about things like the rate of maternal mortality amongst black mothers or the way that we under-diagnose the pain of black people more broadly speaking. And all of these issues have to do with, you come in with the quote-unquote “wrong body,” and you’re not taken as seriously and your needs are not heard or met. A lot of assumption about what you need that isn’t what you are actually coming to the table with, which is very frustrating. And I think we see that in so many different places.
KL I want to pick up on something that you were talking about—being fat and also active. You are active and how unexpected that is for some people. What was it like to subvert expectations and become a yoga instructor? [KD laughs]
KD Well, I want to say, first of all, that when I discovered that exercise was really great—like it felt good and it was really fun to sweat and to have a heart-pounding workout—I just felt entitled to do that. I’ve always been big on the dance aerobics classes, I was a big jazzercizer [KL laughs] in the eighties and nineties. Big jazz hands!
KL Oh yeah! [KD laughs]
KD I do still sometimes go to a jazzercize class—I say that like it’s in the past and it’s not! [KL & SWB laugh] It’s just not as popular as it used to be!
KL I love it. [KD laughs]
KD Yeah. I became used to being the only—no, I shouldn’t say it that way. Not the only fat person in class, but the fattest person in class! [laughs] I don’t want to take away other people’s ability to define themselves as fat even if I don’t see it as readily. This became true with yoga as well. I think that before yoga became super popular in the United States, it was more common to see a range of bodies working through those poses because it was sort of this fringe activity. [laughs] People were thinking about Eastern philosophies or they were into meditation, this sort of thing. But now there is a different thing happening! There are people using social media to show their bodies doing practice, doing athletic pursuits, even if they are larger. Because part of what happened was as yoga became more popular, it became a fitness pursuit, and pretty soon it was only marketed to young, slender, muscular, athletic sorts of folks. There’s no mystery here really; those people are a solid market [laughs] for fitness activities. They pay, so this is part of why those activities are marketed to them. But that leaves a whole lot of people behind. So now, you’ve got folks like Jessamyn Stanley, Amber Karnes, people who are really using social media to put images of themselves—fat women doing yoga—into the world. And it’s made a difference. So, I think for a long time, I was very accustomed to being the fattest person in the room for various fitness pursuits, including yoga. And now we’re seeing slightly more diversity. I want to be clear though that still I am not employable at most yoga studios in America. Even though things are getting better I think as a result of visibility—like on social media—it still is absolutely true that most studios would not consider hiring someone who doesn’t look like they belong in a yoga magazine.
SWB Mhmm, mhmm.
KD So, it’s really problematic. But I think my teacher was just very steadfast in her belief. She wasn’t trying to highlight diverse bodies in any way, she was just very steadfast in her belief that someone with a strong practice who can show poses well and knows how to talk people through them is a good yoga teacher. And I had those qualities, so I appreciate her not paying attention to the nonsense! Right? [laughs & SWB laughs]
SWB Yeah, yeah. But it must still be tough sometimes to go into those rooms where you’re going to teach a class and have people have the entire wrong idea about what your capabilities might be. I know some very big people who are very fit people! [laughs]
KD Yeah. And, look, I want to say, too, that I was very strong and especially capable as a yoga teacher and yoga practitioner through my late twenties and all through my thirties. As I’m aging now and I have some physical disabilities, I now am teaching and walking and looking like more what people expect. They expect disability from fat people and now I deliver! I am living in that body. And it’s really an interesting shift because I don’t know that I really understood how much social privilege I was relying on for being the magical unicorn that could bust out people’s preconceived ideas and show them something different. I’m not that person at this point in my life; I’m aging and I have a different body. So, I’m seeing another side of how people relate to this body. It’s an ongoing experiment.
SWB Yeah, and I love how that speaks to the problem of making people the exceptional cases, right?
KD Uh huh.
SWB You have to be the good, big person or the good representative of your race or of your gender, as opposed to being just a person who is there.
KD It’s really an important thing to say. As much as I talk about love of health-inducing things—because I really do love eating well and exercise and these things. But my gosh, there should be no requirement for anyone to have to uphold health practices in order to be considered a worthy human being.
SWB Mm, mhmm. I want to talk a little bit about something you talk about in the book that I thought that was really valuable that I’d love to have you explain to our listeners and that’s the concept of “coming out” as fat. Because, of course, people can see how big you are, so people already know if you’re fat. So, you talk about, fatness is obvious, but yet you felt like it was actually really important to come out as a fat person. So, can you talk about what that means to you and what role that played in your life?
KD It’s a huge and important issue. When someone carries a stigmatized identity, which means there’s reasons that people feel entitled to hate you sometimes. When you carry an identity like that—again, whether it is disability or fat or race or whatever the thing is—we grow up learning that we are supposed to smooth that out and make it better socially, that we are supposed to do something to let people know, “no, no, I’m okay, really, you should love me anyway.” [laughs] Right? So, this creates a situation where if I am putting forth, for instance, my charm, my wit, my intellect, all of these things work to erase the stigma of fatness. So, we all do this, it’s called identity management if we wanted to talk about it in these terms, in sociological terms, we all do this identity management. But it’s really an issue when it erases things that we need to talk about in order to create social equality. So, with fatness, people can erase that. And this is why you end up with these things where if I say something about being fat—like something completely neutral about my social environment like, “I don’t fit in an airplane seat very easily because I’m fat.” Like that is a simple statement. But immediately, if someone likes me, they will want to say, “oh, you’re not that fat!” And the fact is, well I am that fat, [laughs] and there’s not something wrong with being fat, and why can’t we talk about it? So, the idea of coming out as fat really says, “no, no, no. Actually, if you want to know me, if you want to know me in my full humanity as a human being, then I should be able to talk about my experiences in the world.”
SWB Yeah. It reminds me of this conversation I had with a friend, who told me that one of her most frustrating things is when she will say something about being fat, people will say, “you’re not fat, you’re beautiful!” [KL laughs]
KD Uh huh, yeah.
SWB And she’ll say, “I am beautiful and fat.”
KD Yep, that’s it. That’s it.
SWB “Those are not opposites!”
KD They’re not mutually exclusive.
SWB “I am both of those things.” But people are uncomfortable talking about fat, so they don’t want to talk about it and they want to sidestep it by saying she’s pretty. That does not do her any good! [laughs]
KD No, it doesn’t do her any good. It doesn’t do them any good either because they’re holding onto an idea that a social situation can be smoothed simply by giving someone a better identity, rather than acknowledging that there are problems with discrimination.
SWB Mhmm, mhmm. And acknowledging who they really are.
KD Telling a woman that she’s pretty or she’s beautiful is also a way to shut down a conversation because we are never supposed to fully own that either. It’s considered vain to put that forward. This is a big reason why I titled this book as I did—_Fat, Pretty, and Soon to be Old_. These are simply things that are true about my appearance and about my experience. And I want to be able to talk about beauty privilege also. This is another one—women are supposed to be on a quest for prettiness and we’re not ever supposed to acknowledge it. You’re supposed to be humble and have this humility and downcast look when somebody says, “oh, how beautiful you are!” You’re not ever supposed to say, “yeah, and actually it comes with a lot of privilege and it shouldn’t really be true, but it is, that we are organizing power for women around appearance this way.” We need to talk about that! [laughs]
SWB No, no, no. Just obsess over it—
KL [laughing] Yeah!
SWB —work on it all the time—
KL [laughing] Right!
SWB —never talk about it. [laughs]
SWB Yeah. I really love the way that you weave together those different aspects of identity that are both privileged and oppressed, and different parts play different roles in different moments of life. I thought that was really, really powerful.
KD Thank you.
SWB And I think we haven’t talked about the aging piece yet, which I think has been such an interesting part of that conversation too.
KL Yeah. I am so fascinated with that too because I am in my forties and I am always like, “ah, this is a new era of life.” [laughs] So, we’re all doing that, we’re all aging. And you tell this story about seeing an eighty-year-old woman all dressed up in heels and tight clothes and full makeup and having your partner say, “please don’t do that when you’re old.” But then you say, “I hope that fancy babe knew exactly what she was doing and that someone was enjoying her for all she was worth.” And I think it brings us to ask why are we so quick to judge women for dressing up or wearing certain clothes as they age?
KD Well, I think we’re quick to judge because the thought is that she is trying to hold onto a privilege she used to have, but she is failing, and so she deserves pity. But because we never really fully talk about the fact that appearance privilege is a huge, powerful driving force in women’s lives. We all know it. We know when we’re getting it right, we know when we’re not getting it right, we know that there are certain things that we’re supposed to buy, or wear, or do. So, when someone is showing up in public as an obvious failure, [laughs] but yet you can see that there was effort, then she is considered laughable or pitiable. And I think this is the thing. I want the world in which we are able to be fancy and wear makeup or flashy clothes because it’s fun! And not because it is the pursuit of privilege. Gosh, I hope that’s her being her fabulous self, not her trying to reclaim something that she’s lost that felt important.
SWB Mhmm. Yeah! I really think about that stuff a lot too. When are we just engaging in this obsession over youth versus when are we actually expressing ourselves and sometimes how do you know the difference in a culture that is constantly forcing things down your throat?
SWB But I want to also ask about something else that you talk about in the book that I really want to share with people. It made me think of it when you mentioned not fitting on a plane very well because you tell this story about sitting next to somebody on a plane, who was another fat person, who you found really changed some of your perspective on the concept of comfort and what it means to be comfortable. And I’m wondering if you could share some of that story with us?
KD That particular essay, yes, is about a time when I sat next to another fat man on an airplane. It begins with me having the same kinds of thoughts that I think a lot of people do when they see me, which is “oh, shoot. I’m about to be uncomfortable because here is this large person sitting next to me.” So, he did many of the things that I do when I’m on an airplane. I do my best to be kind and jovial. No one should ever feel like they have to put other people at ease, but it is part of I think what folks who have to involuntarily inconvenience others in public—because that is literally what is happening, right? I realize that it is not as nice to sit next to someone who is taking up a lot of space, but that is obviously not my fault, it’s the fault of the business that is selling us the space. So, he did these kind of friendly, lovely things. He also made an assumption that I think surprised me in its simplicity once I thought it through, which was “we are two big people squashed into little, bitty airplane seats. We are going to be touching each other.” And this is something that makes us uncomfortable. It’s why when you get in an elevator, everybody looks up even if there’s nothing there sometimes above them. [all laugh] It’s a social pact that we have with one another of, “oh, we’re in very close proximity.” Well, look, an airplane is even closer than that. So, he just didn’t play the game! He just put the seat divider up between the seats like, “oh, this will be easier this way!” You know? He just sat there comfortably! Not trying to squizzle away from me like you do when you’re close to somebody. He just was sitting there! And what an amazing thing this was. I thought, “wow. What would this be like if this is how we behaved in these situations more often?” And there, of course, is a big difference between someone who feels entitled to a bunch of space. This is a problem that men have in public in general, right? The whole manspreading thing.
KD This wasn’t that! This was simply, “this is the space I need, and our bodies are going to be touching, and we’re just regular people, let’s just act like nice, friendly people.” How simple is that? And what a huge difference between the powerplay of manspreading, for instance. I’ve had that situation before. A man who is slender enough to stay in his own seat is still getting his leg over in my space. That’s a powerplay that people do because they want to assert their primacy over space. But no…this was more like, “we’re going to occupy this space together, let’s acknowledge it and let’s treat each other nicely.” And what a beautiful lesson.
SWB I loved that. So, you have this one line in the book that really stuck with me and I’d love to talk about it a little bit before we go. It’s this quote that “living a good life is more about acceptance than it is about attainment.” So, what does it look like to reorient yourself around acceptance, and what would you tell a listener out there who is just at the very beginning of trying to start that process?
KD I think what I want to say is it is literally a day-by-day, moment-by-moment practice. Not something you do once and then you go, “yeah, I’m oriented to accept my beautiful life.” [all laugh]
SWB I checked it off the list!
KD Yeah. [laughs] Glad I handled that! Yeah. There is so much about our culture, in part being driven by advertising and media that tells us to continue to strive to attain. So, we have to first acknowledge that that is true, that there are forces outside of myself, outside of my family, and outside of the impetus for love, which is our basic human need and urge. There are forces outside of that that want us to conform for purposes other than our own. And I think acknowledging that first is a powerful way to reorient. And it’s not that I never shop and pursue; I have way too much lipstick in my purse, for instance. [laughs] It’s not that I never do that, but I also do it with a consciousness that this is not actually what my life is about. And I think that’s the shift. I think we can still be participating in the amazing, goofy things—like wearing lipstick—that life has to offer. We can still participate in social life and in the culture we’ve been given, and at the same time, have a consciousness about it. For instance, one of the things that I comment on in the book is about how we—there’s nothing wrong with knowing that if you dress a certain way for a job interview, your chances of getting the job are higher. There’s nothing wrong with that. But let that choice to dress a certain way or to put on makeup, for instance, or whatever the thing might be, let that choice be the conscious manipulation of privilege, not the mindless daily pursuit of it. So, I think that that’s the thing and that when I do have peace in my life, it often comes from a sense of gratitude for what I have, a sense of acceptance, a sense of love and community, rather than attaining certain things. And my goodness, that can be attaining good things! Like I hope lots of people buy and enjoy this book! That is an attainment oriented desire that I have, but I’m mindful not to let that take over the peace and pleasure that I already have.
KL We are nodding along with all of that. I think it’s a great place to end on. Kimberly, it’s been such a pleasure to have you on the show. Fat, Pretty and Soon to be Old is on sale now. Where else can folks keep up with your work?
KD You know, I’m on all that social media stuff. You can find me on Facebook, Instagram @kimberly.dark. And kimberlydark.com is a place where you can also learn about the live events that I do. I run a certain number of retreats each year in Hawaii, most of which use yoga and nature and some kind of storytelling to help us look at the stories we carry in our bodies and how we treat one another. So, yeah! Find me online and I will be happy to interact with you.
SWB All right. I’m going to be looking for that Hawaii retreat, personally! [laughs]
KL Yeah! [SWB laughs]
SWB Thank you so much, Kimberly.
KD Thank you. [short transition music plays]
Fuck Yeah of The Week
KL So, Sara, I think that you have a really timely fuck yeah for us?
SWB I do! Do you remember this summer we talked to Seneca Joyner from Women’s Medical Fund, Philadelphia’s abortion fund?
KL Yes, that was awesome!
SWB I love Seneca so much. Well, the night after this episode airs, I will be heading to Women’s Medical Fund’s annual gala night.
KL Ooh, amazing!
SWB I know! I feel like I’m not really a gala person, [KL laughs] but this gala is a little different because it’s quirky and weird and it’s usually around Halloween, so there will be costumes and people get really dressed up and there’s dancing. And I’m really excited because I went last year, but last year I was one week out from knee surgery.
KL Oh my god. Right!
SWB Have you ever tried to get dressed up [KL laughs] while in a leg brace that goes from your upper thigh to your ankle? [KL laughs]
KL Sounds impossible!
SWB It was tough! And also, what shoes are you going to wear?
SWB There are a lot of questions. How are you going to dance with this locked leg brace on and you’re not allowed to bend your knee?
KL True. You did look very fly.
SWB Look, I…pulled it off. I had some really fun zebra print shoes on to add some pizazz to a simple outfit.
KL [laughing] Definitely.
SWB But this year I have the opportunity to go a little bit more all out and to be a little bit more at 100%. So, I am really excited because it’s one of my favorite organizations and I really look forward to going back and, I don’t know, being able to actually dance with both legs.
KL That’s awesome. Well, fuck yeah to being able to 100% party this time!
SWB And fuck yeah to supporting abortion funds, which are, again, one of my favorite charities!
KL Yes, fuck yeah. That’s it for us this week! Strong Feelings is recorded in Philadelphia and produced by Steph Colbourn from Edit Audio. Our theme music is “Deprogrammed.” It’s a song by Blowdryer, an awesome Philly-based band you should check out at blowdryer.bandcamp.com. Thanks to Kimberly Dark for being our guest today, and thank you for listening! If you liked our show today, don’t forget to subscribe and rate us wherever you listen to your favorite show. And hey—get some strong feelings delivered right to your inbox! Sign up for our newsletter at strongfeelings.co. See you again next week! [theme music plays for 15 seconds and fades out]