19 July 2010

Interview: Amanda Piasecki

I recently had the great fortune to spend some quality time with Amanda Piasecki in Oakland, California. Super-smart, thoughtful, gorgeous, funny and generous, she got me thinking about the Bay Area, and about the influence of radical groups on early fat political movements, amongst other things. We also filmed ourselves dancing Janelle MonĂ e's Tightrope dance in her front room. Amanda is a 21st century activist through and through, she understands popular culture, and radical fat embodiment, and she uses interactive media skillfully and seamlessly. Her depth of knowledge enables her to bring a fresh and critical perspective to the current state of fat activism. She is one rad fatty! Read more and swoon.

Please introduce yourself

I'm Amanda Piasecki, I'm a working stiff, a tired artist, and an aspiring public intellectual who is interested in the intersections between bodies, identities, and aesthetics. I'm interested in fatness in part because of my lifetime struggle to peacefully occupy my own body. Fat, female, queer, cancer-surviving, and otherwise – I seem to be relentlessly living despite the hype. Fat bodies' contemporary role as death symbols is also particularly interesting to me, partly because scaring the shit out of people is an interesting social proscription to live with. I'm also more pragmatically interested in the challenging, sometimes tedious work of fat people and other outsiders resisting hate and developing vibrant, self-supporting cultures.

The most wide-reaching thing that I've done is coin the term "Fatshionista" and start the online community of the same name. I also served on the NOLOSE board for six years and have done some good and bad performance and installation work that explores fatness.

I grew up in tiny, remote town, three miles from the Canadian border in Northern NY, US, and now live in Oakland, CA, US. My family are immigrants and working class freethinkers (not an oxymoron!). I'm a born world-straddler – I learned very early to accept dialectical realities simultaneously – a quality that has served me well in the work of building culture and community among people from radically different backgrounds who may only have their size in common. I'm both tough and lucky.

I'm also unemployed at the moment, so if anyone wants to give me a job, I'm really good at building online communities, running websites, teaching, and curriculum development. Hire me! Got a PhD program? Pay me to enlist.

What's it like to have invented a mass movement?

It's tremendously discombobulating to see this seemingly exponential stream of on- and offline cultural production related to fatshion and Fatshionista. Of course, there's thousands of people now involved in the "Fatosphere", so building this "movement" is not even remotely all about me – in fact, there's plenty of people involved who have no idea that I started Fatshionista, especially since I'm not involved anymore and the internet attention span is so abominably short. However, sometimes the community's wide-reaching impact smacks me over the head and I'm reminded that I made that thing. I find it both mind-blowing and alienating to see so many people directly changed and challenged by my thinking.

What do you think of the state of fatshion at the moment? What are the things that you like? Where would you like to see it go?

I'm relieved on one hand that enormous companies are starting to understand that there's money to be mined in the plus-size fashion market so that fat people have more access to the resources to adequately cover our asses. On the other hand, I don't think that having more consumer choices in the Anglosphere is at all the measure of fat liberation. I think that fatshionistas should take the sartorial resourcefulness and creative zeal learned from historical scarcity and leave the sweatshops behind. When possible, I encourage folks to buy used, make their own, and buy from small designers.

I'm tremendously pleased about the ways in which the cultural zeitgeist toward valuing the handmade, at least in North America, has expanded to include plus-size fashion. I love the designers I've seen selling their work on Etsy and in venues like the Kiss the Curves fashion show in Oakland. This is the direction I'd like to see fatshion go.

Some of my favorites are, in no order of preference:

Chocolate Sushi Couture

Cupcake & Cuddlebunny

Size Queen Clothing


I'm also so impressed with small business owners like Deb Malkin at Re/Dress NYC who are doing the work of selling affordable vintage and used clothing and serving as fat-positive community hubs at the same time.

Whenever possible, my dollar is allocated to these folks way before Lane Bryant.

Fundamentally, I believe that style is not about cash outlay, but is about creatively working what you have. I also think that style and fashion are fine, but being a badass fatass is even more important.

Charlotte: Amanda talks more about fashion and style over on the Big Bum Jumble blog.

What are your tips for fat people who want to dance?

Fat people who want to dance but are hung up on social stigma need to start dancing right now – like right this minute, in your living room, in the bathroom, only by tapping your toe, whatever you've got. If you can't do it, message me, I'll dance in front of Skype with you, and way more foolishly. Now's the time.

I've always been a not-particularly-skilled but extremely enthusiastic dancer. I'm no Burlesque, ballroom, or bellydancer – I don't belong in a public performance of any kind – but I think that pursuing embodiment through dancing for regular people is tremendously worthwhile. Dancing for five minutes in my living room or three hours at a party completely knocks me into my body like few other pursuits, and I want everyone who is so inclined to experience this.

About my favorite way to dance is dance-karaoke style, with my dear friend Devra and anyone else who's willing. Here's how it works: you get some YouTube videos, you clear a space in your living room, and you dance along. Hijinx ensue. It can be embarrassing and possibly dangerous, but I really recommend it. Devra and I have run workshops at the last two NOLOSE conferences called "Master of Dance" in which we lead groups in this ridiculousness.

Could you share a few online clips of your favourite dance sequences, and say why you like them?

Here are some favorite videos:

Fat Dancer This fat Belgian guy is my hero. I think he's sexy as fuck while having a wicked sense of humor about what his fat sexuality might mean to people. And his moves, Jesus Christ! I think he must be the child of fat punks. He makes me feel old, but I love him. I can only last like one minute into dancing along with this video before my knees give out and I need my asthma inhaler.

In the Bush dance 2 - Part 13 I aspire to be Ms. Tengobaila. She's my dance leader of choice lately – she just dances, films herself, and puts it on YouTube – she has hundreds of videos! I found this video because I love the song – 'Push, Push In the Bush,' by Musique, and love the video because Ms. Tengobaila was clearly there in 1978 at Studio 54 getting her thing on, and because she really goes for it – sweat, pelvic thrusts, delicate hand movements and all. She's no joke.

Kamal Haasan - Tamil Bollywood Star What can I say about this video? The way that this guy locates his masculinity in his fierce dance moves is something that completely trumps American Marlboro Man or GI Joe masculinity in my eyes. This video makes me want to be more butch.

Could you say a little bit about your interest in medical self advocacy for fat people?

My experience having rare cancer at age 18 taught me much earlier than most people that doctors only really know part of the story when it comes to all of the weird-ass maladies that afflict the human body. I also learned that each individual is definitively the authority on her body's own experience, and that there's no morality attached to disease or bodily diversity.

Fat people are under such attack by the healthcare establishment that it feels crucial to me to share what I know with whomever I can, even if I don't have the entire story myself. I also think that the power dynamics between healthcare providers and patients are so deeply imbalanced, especially in the American healthcare system, that it's almost impossible for anyone to get good care, let alone people as seriously medically pathologized as fat people. I've run medical self-advocacy workshops for the last ten years or so in part so that people have a forum in which to deal with being so deeply shamed by the healthcare system, and figure out how to maximise the care that we get anyway.

What makes Oakland a compelling place to live?

Oakland is historically a tough working class town, home in the 1970s of the Black Panther Party, the Symbionese Liberation Army, and an infamous Hells Angels branch. It's an incredibly diverse city and where many Bay Area radicals and regular people who lack the money to pay San Francisco rents make their homes. It's a beautiful underdog city, and I'm proud to call it my home.

Speaking of Oakland, what can fat activists learn from the Black Panthers?

The Black Panthers' militant reputation doesn't begin tell the whole story about them, nor can I tell it here. In addition to being armed revolutionaries, the Panthers were also hard-working social change pragmatists who created amazing community programs like the Free Breakfast for Children program, which was the model for the breakfast programs that now exist in public schools throughout the US.

The Panthers' Ten Point Plan is a powerful and incredibly well-articulated example of what self-determination might look like and the Free Breakfast for Children program is one practical way the Panthers helped make their vision a reality.

While comparing the struggle of fat people to the struggle the Panthers faced is not possible, nor is it the goal, I challenge fat activists to take inspiration from the Ten Point Plan and articulate our own vision for a self-determined reality, then take practical steps to make it come to fruition.

What's next for you?

Next for me is figuring out how to pay my rent if the US Senate votes down extending unemployment benefits. Stay tuned for the rest.

What else do you want to say?

Thanks for giving me a forum to express my thinking and for being a fierce, hardworking dynamo, Charlotte. I tremendously appreciate all that you do. (Charlotte: Thanks! Sob! And backatcha!)


Anonymous said...

Yay! Yay, yay, yay. Marvelous amazing interview, and those videos made my Monday superb. I love the Belgian guy (his ninja video is awesome, also) and Kamil Hassan, woo hoo.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Yayayaya too! I love the vids. Let's dance.