Smashing BarriersMara Altman and Virgie Tovar On Body Acceptance, Fatphobia, and Imagining a New World for Women

Bringing Mara Altman and Virgie Tovar together made perfect sense: Both women are releasing books this month. Both women fundamentally understand that patriarchy is predicated on creating and upholding ideals that control, and in the process, oppress women’s bodies. And both women are using their platforms to encourage women to free themselves. In this conversation, Altman and Tovar get real about everything from stretch marks to diet culture to unlearning fatphobia. We hope you love this conversation as much we’ve enjoyed putting it together.

Virgie Tovar: While preparing for my chat with Mara [Altman], I went to my favorite local coffee place and purchased a sparkling Americano and one of their signature tiny adorable chocolate muffins. I promptly dropped the muffin, and considered asking for a new clean one, but then realized I actually didn’t care that it had been on the dirty ground and shared with Mara my frustration with performing a level of concern for floor food that is simply not merited.

Mara Altman: Hi, so great to get to speak with you.

VT: Hello! I just dropped a muffin on the floor and ate it right before you called. So first and perhaps most important question is: Would you eat a floor muffin?

MA: One hundred percent. I’ve eaten a lot of floor quesadilla myself. Slippery, I guess.

VT: Floor quesadilla sounds next level! So, let’s segue smoothly from floor snacks to your book. Gross Anatomy: Dispatches from the Front (and Back) is about the body—hair, sweat, vaginal smell. What led you to explore these themes?

MA: There are so many parts of our bodies that are not only natural, but essential, and yet we tend to consider them gross and shameful. I wanted to figure out why we’ve come to feel that way about our very own lovely and highly functional parts and, through research, get us to see that maybe they aren’t so awful after all. How about you? How did you come to explore the themes in You Have the Right to Remain Fat?

VT: I think the book is really about my wish to see a better world for women. I’m eager to see women live better lives. I see dieting as not only evidence of sexism, but also a mechanism used to erode women’s spirits. We deserve to live free from the fear that we need to earn love, respect, and dignity through weight maintenance. I wanted to rip open the myth that dieting is part of “self-improvement.” Dieting creates anxiety and depression in a lot of women. For many women, dieting is a survival technique; we’ve been taught we have to be small in order to avoid being treated really, really horribly. And that is so fucking unconscionable. I think I also wanted to highlight the beauty and specialness of being a fat babe. It’s pretty rad, actually. Speaking of, I’ve noticed more and more books being published about bodies, specifically women writing about bodies. Why do you think your work is speaking to people right now?

MA: We’re in the middle of an incredible moment. Just like women are no longer willing to accept and hide the harassment they experience in the workplace, I think they’re also no longer willing to [apologize] about their bodies. We’ve got vulvas that don’t always fit into the tiny space allotted in a bathing suit, our anuses don’t always look like sweet little puckers, we’ve got hairs on our chins and rank armpits, and I think it’s just a huge relief, even empowering, to put it out there! We are coming out of the shadows in many facets of our lives and realizing that we’re not alone. There’s power in numbers, but also comfort. As you mentioned, this definitely pertains to your work as well. What do you think is going on?  

VT: Rank armpits five-ever, girl. I agree that this is a significant political moment for women, and I think bodies have long been the battleground for our biggest struggles for liberation. I sometimes sit in my 1993 gold Ford Thunderbird and think about the ways social media has created a global community where people who were silenced and abused can talk to each other all day. And how funny it is that the tech industry is so masculine [and] terrible, but every day, as they bro down, they’re creating the networks and channels of communication that made #MeToo possible. In order for oppression to really work it requires a sense of isolation. Social media and digital communities break isolation and silence. Women have been pissed and dissatisfied for a long ass time. What makes this moment different is that we know there are thousands of us who feel the same way.

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MA: Amen! Was there anything that kept coming up as you were writing this book that surprised you?

VT: I was surprised [by] how much the book ended up being about the crisis of women’s joy, which I see as a global phenomenon. Why are our economies, workplaces, and ways of relating so dependent on women hating ourselves? For me, the right to remain fat is about the right to not prioritize body conformity; that is, when the chips are down I will not prioritize patriarchal expectations at expense to myself. Period. This issue is about women choosing themselves over the rules set forth by men or systems made by men, which is still a punishable offense, as we can see from vitriolic fat hatred [directed at] women. I say in the book, “For years I thought I was afraid of weight gain and food, but I realize now that I was afraid of a culture that did not want me to thrive.” 

The book is a culmination of almost 10 years of research, starting from the time I was in grad school. I did my Master’s of Arts in sexuality studies, but ended up studying how race and size affected gender. I’ve always found it weirdmazing [and] terrible that the characters who come up in the history I had to learn as a sexuality scholar were the same people who came up when I started studying fatphobia. Like Reverend Sylvester Graham, who started the Dietary Reform Movement and is credited with the invention of the graham cracker, was a rampant sex hater and essentially believed that you could curb sexual desire through eating crackers. His movement solidified the relationship between morality and eating in the United States. I became a sexuality scholar because I was a horny fat Mexican nerd who thought she’d never get laid, and when I finally did, it was so goddamn miraculous that I had to spend two years of my life studying sex. Studying the history of sex led me to researching fat. It was like a fat girl full-circle moment.

MA: I love that Reverend Graham’s crackers are now best known for being smothered in chocolate and marshmallows. Ha. So, what would you like people who are not fat to know about the fat female experience? Would other body types also get something from your book?

VT: I want people of all sizes to understand that fatphobia is a harmful form of bigotry with real consequences. For example: Fat women are being peddled weight-loss surgery; which is barbaric, surgically-enforced starvation; the efficacy of some important medication is not tested above a certain weight (in Europe, the morning-after pill is literally not effective [if you’re] above 176 pounds); and fat women are routinely denied proper medical care because all symptoms, no matter how seemingly unrelated, are blamed on high weight. These are our friends, parents, neighbors, coworkers, partners, and fellow global citizens. I want people of all sizes to understand that everyone deserves to live a life free from bigotry and discrimination regardless of size or health status.

Dieting is a metaphor for the way our culture forces women to submit or face social punishment. Diet culture is just the newest form of women’s subjugation. Yes, there’s a specific vocabulary around it, but you can substitute diet culture for any number of oppressive historic instances that women have faced. For me, refusing to diet is about the refusal to accept my role as a second-class citizen. I think all women can relate to that.

Dieting is a metaphor for the way our culture forces women to submit or face social punishment. Diet culture is just the newest form of women’s subjugation.

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MA: Absolutely. It’s similar to many other (often painful) beauty regimens women are expected to practice that I looked at in Gross Anatomy. For example, [you have to] wax your legs and armpits, or you [will] face marginalization. In essence, society tells us that in order to be a complete woman, we need to get rid of parts of ourselves.

Here’s something else that’s been fascinating me recently: I was recently pregnant with twins, and I got stretch marks. Many women kept telling me that the striations were my “warrior markings” and that I “earned” them. I have complicated feelings about the terminology, but I’d be interested to hear about stretch marks from your perspective. When one embraces being fat, what is the viewpoint on stretch marks? How does it make you feel when people say that they are “earned” only if you’ve procreated?

VT: Stretch marks are a human reality for people of all genders! I remember once I was walking past a high school and a young woman began to shriek loudly and scream “STRETCH MARKS!!!” at the top of her lungs, like she was sounding an alarm. I realized she was talking about the stretch marks on my breasts (I do love showing off ye olde cleavage, to be honest). It was both highly absurd and weirdly hurtful. I think I used to be really terrified of my stretch marks, particularly the idea that once you have them you never “recover” from them. They are certainly a source of anxiety for women, but I personally don’t think about them much nowadays. I remember being new to fat activism and I was naked or semi-naked with fat ladies, like, all day. Now that’s just my life. When you’re around other fat people often you start to see the diversity of fat embodiment, and it just rewires the brain. Only one body type is consistently available to us in mass media, and as I’ve gotten deeper into this work, my social world has become populated with more and more people who have body hair, stretch marks, and scars.

MA: For my epilogue, I visited a nudist resort with my mother. It was filled with people of all shapes and sizes. The bodies had all of the human things editors try to cover up in magazines—rolls, sag, cottage cheese, stretch marks, moles, scars, hair, etc.—and each and every person was having a blast. There was even a nude ukulele band jamming near the pool! It just seemed so clear to me in that moment that as a whole, we spend far too much time perseverating on our “imperfections” instead of reveling in the fact that we have bodies at all, bodies that allow us to do incredible things like extract a massive and gratifying ingrown after a warm relaxing bath.

VT: I love love love the image of this nude ukelele band. I want that lifestyle. Okay, what do you want people to do with the information you share in the book? Is the book a call to action?

MA: My book is filled with personal stories—my dog’s obsession with sniffing my crotch, my inability to walk anywhere without pitting out, the bitch narrative surrounding PMS (my husband says I shit into his soul once a month)—but at its core, the book is a journalistic mission filled with studies, research, and interviews. I aimed to get to the bottom of why we feel the way we do about our bodies, but a wonderful bonus has come in the form of feedback from early readers. They’ve felt empowered and liberated by the information. I couldn’t ask for a better outcome. There really is greatness in our grossness! And you?

VT: It’s definitely a call to action. I’m highly invested in women living the lives we deserve, and empowering us to smash the cultural barriers to achieving what I feel is a highly plausible future filled with women’s joy.

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