Why this Instagram influencer calls fat a feminist issue

Virgie Tovar (Photo: Courtesy Virgie Tovar/Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle)
Virgie Tovar (Photo: Courtesy Virgie Tovar/Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle)

To mark the International Day of the Woman on March 8 and Women’s History Month, Yahoo Lifestyle is exploring notions of feminism and the women’s movement through a diverse series of profiles — from transgender activist Ashlee Marie Preston to conservative campus leader Karin Agness Lips — that aim to reach across many aisles.

Virgie Tovar is sitting by the pool of her Tucson, Ariz., hotel. She’s wearing a one-piece covered in a print of $100 bills, though she often opts for a “fatkini,” which, she says, “makes me feel sexy, and like I’m disrupting the narrative of what respectably educated women can wear.”

Tovar is speaking to Yahoo Lifestyle by phone as she lounges, in the midst of a road trip through California, Arizona, and New Mexico with the fellow writers and influencers of Sister Spit: QTPOC (Queer and Trans People of Color), a revolutionary traveling open mic now in its 21st year.

The writer and body-pride activist, known by legions of faithful readers for her impassioned essays, has become a champion of fat pride. Her Instagram feed — followed by 33.8K fans and counting — is full of kitschy, celebratory pics of herself posing cheekily in brightly colored swimsuits and crop tops, as well as eating — doughnuts, ice cream, pomegranates, barbecue, you name it — and just straight-up living, with gusto and pride. That the approach is both revolutionary and feminist is an idea that the 34-year-old Mexicana explores a bit in a recent Ravishly essay and more deeply in her forthcoming book, You Have the Right to Remain Fat (August, Feminist Press), and about which she chats easily as she’s sitting by the desert pool.

“One of the reasons for me that fat is a feminist issue is because women getting to choose what their body looks like and not spending their life becoming the cultured expectation of themselves is a feminist act,” she says, distinguishing her own premise from that of British therapist Susie Orbach, whose seminal 1987 work, Fat Is a Feminist Issue, Tovar says “pathologized” fatness. “Any act of women expressing autonomy is, in my opinion, a feminist act. Women expressing desire is a feminist act, particularly around food.”

It may at first seem like a reach. But, Tovar explains, “why does culture love little girls and hate women so much? It’s because when she expresses sexual desire, she becomes a woman, and she is no longer under the protective wing of the culture.” Tovar sees evidence of the shift over and over again — particularly in sexual assault cases when, if there was any possibility that the girl expressed any desire, she’s no longer protected by the police. “They’re like, ‘Girls need to take care of themselves.’”

And the connection, as she sees it, is that “sexual desire is obviously connected to hunger [in that] women are being asked to exercise self-control and discipline around all these different kinds of desires in order to be considered good, worthy people.”

It’s a pressure that women feel even — if not especially — from other women, Tovar notes, adding that it’s something she’s learned a lot about from the participants in her annual empowering Babecamp, which aims to help women “break up with diet culture.”

desert selfie a must

A post shared by Virgie Tovar (@virgietovar) on Mar 5, 2018 at 6:29pm PST

When she started asking women where they were experiencing the most fatphobia, Tovar says, she was “absolutely certain” they would say from men, specifically from their relationships. “But it’s the workplace,” Tovar says she was told. “And they weren’t experiencing it as someone calling them a name or something really aggressive … rather, it was the constant, never-ending diet chatter and what they experienced as ‘food surveying,’ where everyone notices every time you’re eating and tells you you’re being ‘good’ if you’re eating a salad. Which is super-patronizing and very invasive.”

So the office, Tovar explains, “has become this venue of fatphobia, but it’s this softer fatphobia — not this aggressive, epithet-hurling experience.”

Much of it isn’t even meant to be hurtful, but “women use diet talk as a way to create intimacy. … They’ve been taught this is a safe discussion topic they can share in order to create friendship.”

But it’s not a new phenomenon, Tovar says. “It’s a way in which women can communicate that they are nonthreatening with one another. It’s a subtle way of saying, ‘I’m playing the game too. I’m not a threat. I’m not interested in destabilizing the culture.’ That’s, like, super-insidious and weird and creepy,” she says. “But if you kind of accept that dieting is symbolic behavior, which I do, then it’s obvious that linguistics would play a role in maintaining that submissive position.”

“I actually feel like, when we’re talking about fatness and men, we’re still talking about feminism,” she says. “Because fundamentally, when women are fat, they’re violating the cultural rule around what is expected of women, which is that we are small, and that we don’t take up a lot of space, both metaphorically and physically,” she explains. “When men are experience fatphobia, they’re being punished for having a feminized body. In the book, I say the most common anxiety for fat men is about feminization — there’s anxiety about growing breasts, about higher estrogen levels.”

And then there’s the mess of issues that come up around fatness in regard to men and women together, and sex and romance.

“These [Babecamp] women — and this is a hetero scenario — understand that a man who expects them to be thin by any means necessary is probably an a**hole. They intellectually know this. But inside, in their bodies, they’ve been taught all they have to do is be thin and they can have love,” she says. So unpacking and dismantling that lifelong belief can be tricky.

“Diet culture is really good at positioning dieting as something as simple as learning how to brush your teeth: All you have to do is learn how to control a fundamental human instinct for the rest of your life,” Tovar notes wryly. “Who can’t do that?”

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