08 November 2013

Shadow on a Tightrope, the book that made me fat

A group of fat activists have decided to write about Shadow on a Tightrope to honour the thirtieth anniversary of its publication in the US. You can find out more about this blog carnival on the Aunt Lute website: Shadow on a Tightrope’s 30th Anniversary Blog Carnival celebration is this Friday!

Shadow on a Tightrope wasn't my first encounter with fat feminist activism, but it is the book that has had the most influence on me over the years. I got a little kick the other day when I saw it on Amazon and my book, Kathleen LeBesco's Revolting Bodies, and The Fat Studies Reader were listed as titles that readers also liked! (Cooper 1998, LeBesco 2004, Rothblum and SOlovay 2009) I'm proud to be a part of the lineage Shadow on a Tightrope established. I treasure the book deeply and want to share some thoughts inspired by it.

As I write, I realise that this blog carnival is honouring the work of older fat feminists. Some of us are older fat feminists! That's quite rare in the movement today, which is often orientated to youth, consumerism, and which has trouble claiming feminism. Once more I want to prod people and remind them that they wouldn't be here without that bunch of unruly women who made it possible.

Rotunda Press

My copy is brittle, age-flecked, annotated and dog-eared. It's an anomaly; it looks the same as the Aunt Lute edition, but it was published in the UK by Rotunda Press (Schoenfielder and Wieser 1983, Schoenfielder and Wieser 1989). Technically there are a few years to go until we can celebrate the book's anniversary in the UK! Maybe we can have another party in 2019? There's no list of contributors at the back, only some blurb about Rotunda, who disappeared without trace after republishing the book. I've scanned the back page so that readers familiar with the Aunt Lute version can compare and contrast. It's only occurred to me just this minute that I might have a pirate knock-off. Perhaps there were other unofficial translations and editions.

Rotunda Press back page
I'm fairly sure that the Rotunda edition came about in the flurry of activity that surrounded the first London Fat Women's Group. I got a copy, it must have been around 1989, about the same time as the London Fat Women's Group Conference, which took place in March at the London Women's Centre in Holborn. This event spawned TV programmes and appearances, and is where Shelly Bovey researched the first edition of her book Being Fat Is Not a Sin, and went on to produce a series of thoughtful books about fat (Bovey 1989, Bovey 1994, Bovey 2000, Bovey 2001). I know, too, that the Aunt Lute edition was crucial in enabling fat feminism to travel to different places. In an interview with Spare Rib, Heather Smith, who was one of the prime movers at that time, talks about a friend giving her the book (Jenkins and Smith 1987). Shadow on a Tightrope itself does not get cited as much as it should, but these British initiatives and, I'm sure, other early fat feminist activists who were getting things done outside the US at that time, are beyond obscure. It's as though they never existed. US-based fat activists don't help in this respect, I find that non-US fat activism is largely written out of the few tentative histories that have emerged from the States, and that we are often invisible in fat community, or assumed not to exist. This is unacceptable and has to change.

I have a hunch that I know who published the Rotunda version, but I can't be sure. Some years ago somebody involved with Feminists Against Censorship sold some unsold boxes of the book to a second Fat Womens' Group that I had set up. We continued to distribute it cheaply to people who subscribed to Fat News until one day someone came and took them back and that was that. They seemed really angry and I never understood why. Even though this happened over 20 years ago, the schisms that emerged at that time are still unresolved and ended up having horrible consequences. It remains impossible to name names, or clear the air.

I got my copy from Silver Moon, a feminist bookshop with premises on Charing Cross Road. There were other feminist bookshops in London at the time, and a handful of radical booksellers too. Not now. Times have changed. The other thing that's changed, and rightly so, is that trans people, queers, sex-positive feminists and sex workers too have instigated useful critiques of essentialist, fundamentalist or separatist feminisms. People of colour have pointed out, repeatedly, how feminism reproduces the centrality of white voices and marginalises others. Shadow on a Tightrope emerged from a feminist sensibility to which I am grateful, and of which I am wary. Its discursive locations are not necessarily ones I might uphold now. Although this is a text I hold dear, I would have been classed as one of the enemy by some of the contributors and the world they represented in 1983. I wasn't the right kind of feminist for them at that time, and perhaps I'm still not. It wasn't until much later that I began to find my people, and although reading Shadow on a Tightrope for the first time was life-changing, it was also where I re-experienced my own marginalisation in those moments. This was primarily about the kind of feminist or queer I was, and also because I lived far from the networks of coffee shops and lesbian feminist community and amenities that many of the Shadow on a Tightrope contributors referenced and appeared to take for granted. Elana Dykewomon and Greta Rensenbrink document this period beautifully (Dykewomon 1983, Rensenbrink 2010).

Back then

Like many people, I was isolated from fat community when I first came to read the book. I think the main thing for me was reading a collection of essays and knowing that there were people with a shared idea of what it could be to be fat. Perhaps one day I might meet them. Up until then I'd had odd conversations with other people, I knew that feminists were interested in this stuff in a vague way, but the things we were able to say to each other were infused with our own shame and denial about fat. Susie Orbach's book was a great hindrance, actually damaging, and it took a long time to recover from her framing of fat as pathology, as myth, or as a subject dominated by thin women. At the time I didn't have ways to pull that apart, her work was like a terrible shadow on the margins of my life, and still is to some extent. All I really had in 1989 was the knowledge that some feminists in the US and UK, far away from where I lived, including lesbians who probably wouldn't want to know me, were talking about fat. But more importantly I knew my own life and my body, even though I was isolated, I had the vital knowledge of my own fat body, and Shadow on a Tightrope validated that knowing.

More than anything else at that time, I felt that the book spoke to me in terms of my own fatness, my class and age and sexuality. I was living a somewhat marginal existence in 1989/1990, and most of the fat activism available to me was being produced by older middle class women whose struggles and concerns were not mine. The two pieces that had the most impact on me were Judy Freespirit's account of a day in her life, and thunder's coming out: notes on fat lesbian pride (Freespirit 1983, thunder 1983).

Judy's chapter is so short and simple, but she says more here than reams of Fat Studies and sociological data on fat women's everyday experiences of stigma. Her writing may be over 30 years old, but the situations she describes are as identifiable now as they ever were. I'd recommend that anyone interested in challenging fat hatred and the stigma of fat people start with Judy's account and commit to listening to fat people, rather than the poorly mediated 'expert' or academic view.

I couldn't believe that someone could just be called thunder and that it might be possible to publish an essay in lower case vernacular. Imagine being a fat lesbian called thunder! I had been called thunder thighs pejoratively, and here was someone claiming something like that for themselves, perhaps defiantly, and writing in a voice that was their own. At that point I thought that being in a book meant that you had to write as though you were upper class. Apparently not.

I remember at the time that it was important that the book named fat oppression. Oppression is a strong word and, these days is more likely to be ameliorated through the language of 'stigma' which is much more individualised and de-politicised. But naming my experiences as oppression helped me orientate my fat politics to other politics, and this has helped me make sense of things, and enabled me to connect my experiences as a fat person to other social justice themes. I also feel somewhat reticent these days in framing all of my experiences of fat as oppression. Oppression is there, definitely, but so are wonderful and life-enhancing moments in fat community and culture. These days I want to tell stories about being fat that are not only rooted in oppression, but which also draw on the things that are great about being fat.

What it means to me now

It's a while since I sat and read Shadow on a Tightrope from cover to cover, but it remains on my shelf just above my desk, ready to be consulted, and I dip into it now and again. The book has been absolutely essential to me over the past couple of years as I've put together some research about fat activism.

Vivian Mayer's Foreword is a fantastic resource, terrifically useful and important in spite, or perhaps because of, how she documents the hard times that emerged through fat feminism as well as the good (Mayer 1983). This is no It Gets Better! Creating and sustaining communities of marginalised people is very difficult. I have got to know some of the book's contributors and I know that Mayer wrote the Foreword at a very low period for fat feminism after the implosion of the Fat Underground, and that some of the hurts that arose in that period have yet to be healed. It's funny thinking about the gap between my naïveté and the weariness of Mayer's (and other fat feminists') experience as we all approached the book. I wonder what it might have been like to have to encounter people's enthusiasm for fat feminism at a time when it had really put you through the mill. Exhausting and alienating, probably. I wish its readers had been in a better position to heal and sustain the movement's founders. Today I consider it important to draw attention to the foundations they laid, and whilst I'm not a big one for gratitude, I'm extremely glad that they did what they did.

Sharon Lia Robinson, published in Shadow on a Tightrope as Sharon Bas Hannah, has been greatly helpful in orientating me to the book and its context. Sharon continues to explore fat feminism, and other themes concerning embodiment and spirituality. She worked with Vivian Mayer, also known as Aldebaran and Sara Fishman, to produce the first drafts of the anthology. The title, Shadow on a Tightrope, comes from one of her poems, whoever i am i'm a fat woman.

Still from Uninvited Space
Sharon Lia Robinson and Susan Chancey
Recently she sent me a copy of her DVD, Uninvited Space, a rehearsal for a poetry reading at Black Star feminist theatre that she performed with Susan Chancey (Robinson 2013). Susan performed journal entries about lesbian motherhood. It was filmed in 1979 at Goddard College in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Sharon was on a Master's programme. The campus was close to a feminist bookshop and Sharon posted signs inviting other fat women to connect and organise. This contributed to the formation of fat feminist community in and around Boston, including Judith Stein's work and The New Haven Fat Liberation Front with Karen Stimson, who is the holder of the Largesse archive. She told me in a series of emails last week that she was interested in "creating fat feminist theatre and creative dance opportunities for fat women." She co-wrote a play called Shadow of Green that explored fat feminist themes and featured "a fat Jewess writer/prostitute" character. Sharon believes that she is "likely the first ever person to receive a degree which focused on fat activism and the arts". You can find her dissertation archived at The Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America, at Harvard University. There are other fat feminist holdings there too (would somebody like to fund me for a study trip, or point me to resources that would enable me to look at this stuff?)

In Uninvited Space, Sharon performs whoever i am i'm a fat woman. I have read this poem many times, but it was really fantastic to see her perform it onscreen, to have an idea of the voices and context for the book, to see what people in that moment looked like. Sharon's reading is gorgeous. As I've got to know more about the earlier parts of the movement I've come to appreciate more deeply how the book is based on Fat Liberator Publications. These were fairly ephemeral materials, though crucial for spreading the word about fat feminism. I particularly love how the book invites contemporary fat feminists to continue the discussion that the Fat Underground and its affiliated activists began. I'm so hungry to know more about early fat feminist activism. As I was watching Sharon read, I felt transported to a time and place that wasn't really mine, but which has informed how I understand fat in profound ways. I can't overstate how vital fat feminism has been to me, not only through Shadow on a Tightrope or the Fat Underground, but also via the London Fat Women's Group, FaT GiRL, NOLOSE, Fat Studies in the UK and the friends and loved ones who have come along the way as a result of it. I feel as though I am a time travelling envoy for the movement, zipping backwards and forwards between these moments, wanting the work to develop. Perhaps this blog carnival is a way of extending that discussion further. I hope that successive waves of fat feminists continue these discussions into the future too.


Bovey, S. (1989) Being Fat is Not a Sin, London: Pandora.

Bovey, S. (1994) The Forbidden Body: why being fat is not a sin, London: Pandora.

Bovey, S. (2000) Sizeable reflections: big women living full lives, London: Women's Press.

Bovey, S. (2001) What Have You Got to Lose? The Great Weight Debate and How to Diet Successfully, London: The Women's Press.

Cooper, C. (1998) Fat & Proud: The Politics of Size, London: The Women's Press.

Dykewomon, E. (1989) 'Travelling Fat' in Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B., eds., Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression, Glasgow: Rotunda Press, 144-154.

Freespirit, J. (1989) 'A Day In My Life' in Schoenfielder, L. W., B. , ed. Shadow On A Tightrope: Writings By Women on Fat Oppression, Glasgow: Rotunda Press, 118-120.

Jenkins, T. and Smith, H. (1987) 'Fat Liberation', Spare Rib, 182, 14-18.

LeBesco, K. (2004) Revolting Bodies: The Struggle to Redefine Fat Identity, Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.

Mayer, V. F. (1989) 'Foreword' in Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B., eds., Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression, Glasgow: Rotunda Press, ix-xvii.

Rensenbrink, G. (2010) 'Fat's no Four-letter Word: Fat Feminism and Identity Politics in the 1970s and 1980s' in Levy-Navarro, E., ed. Historicizing Fat in Anglo-American Culture, Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, 213-243.

Robinson, S. L. (2013) 'Uninvited Space', [online], available: http://sharonrobinson.org/ [accessed 5 November 2013].

Rothblum, E. and Solovay, S. (2009) The Fat Studies Reader, New York: New York University Press.

Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B. (1983) Shadow On A Tightrope: Writings By Women on Fat Oppression, San Francisco: Aunt Lute.

Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B. (1989) Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression, Glasgow: Rotunda Press.

thunder (1989) 'coming out: notes on fat lesbian pride' in Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B., eds., Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression, Glasgow: Rotunda Press, 210-215.

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