The 2010 Olympics and Gender Roles: Highs and Lows

Sarah Seltzer

The Olympic games allow us to take stock of how we view women athletes and of the flawed ways we talk about gender and the performance of gender roles in public.

The Olympics are a wonderful event for female
athletes, who get the rare and coveted chance to have the eyes of the entire
world upon them. I know I’m finishing this first week of events with a brand
new set of heroines, as I do every four years. The Olympic’s female dynamos are
rightly raised to the level of superstars for their physical and mental
prowess, and unlike with other major professional sporting events, during these
games the spotlights is shared evenly, gender-wise.

But the Olympic games, which are carefully-choreographed for the public and
covered to death by the media, are also a moment to take stock of the progress we still need to make in
terms of how we view women athletes
. They also remind us of the flawed ways we
talk about gender, and the performance of gender roles in public. As the Caster
Semenya controversy reminded us, traditional attitudes towards
male and female categories still hamper our ability to appreciate pure
athleticism.

Kept off the Course:

Veronica Arreola over at AWEARNESS blog
rounded up
most of the
issues viewers have noticed when it comes to female athletes. She has a good
summary of the most egregious barrier, which is the inability of talented female ski jumpers to get
official Olympic recognition and inclusion of their event:

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Why? Apparently
it’s because women are "too fragile," along with an outdated system
of rules that allow the International Olympic Committee to keep "American
Lindsey Van, who holds the world record for the single longest jump by anyone,
male or female" from competing for a gold medal. When the IOC tries to
explain that women can’t compete because there aren’t enough women jumping, the
conversation circles around to, How can we increase interest and participation
if women’s ski jumping isn’t allowed at the Olympics?

And I’d also add that if it’s true that the top women are competing at the same
caliber as the men, why not allow the smaller number of women jumpers to get in
on the main competition and compete directly with the men, at least until the
sport is more popular?

Hopefully we’ll see these women jumpers with their own event in 2014.

Tough Gals:

We know that watching female ski jumpers would be wildly exciting based on the
other women who performed feats of daring with their feet strapped to planks
this week.

Right now, before any of the solo female figure skaters have taken to the ice,
the heroines are a group of badass mogul and downhill skiers:  Lindsay
Vonn, Hannah Kearney, Julia Mancuso and Shannon Bahrke. Snowboarders Hannah
Teter and Kelly Clark and Australian Torah Bright also utterly wowed with their
spins and tricks on Thursday night.

Who wouldn’t get a thrill watching these women jump and flip and speed down the
mountain in record time? But their competitors who took brutal falls and then
got back up after flying hundreds of feet in the air or sliding down snowbanks
also proved the toughness and mettle of women competitors. For some reason, the
horrific wipeouts we witnessed on the  mountain this week have a different
significance than the hair-raising, can-they-keep their-balance falls we see
the more demure gymnasts and figure skaters take. These skiers are aggressive,
hungry, and on an edge between perfection and catastrophe. And the sanguine
snowboarding women who took ten-foot drops, flipped over, and then got up and
grinned were a great model for the sheer joy of the competition.

And yet these dominant athletes still are consistently referred to, officially
and unofficially, as "ladies," "young ladies" or girls.
Their physical beauty is often thrown in when commentators discuss their
skills. The announcers and cameramen really love panning to views of the men in
their life, and when we watch women perform, we hear constant reference to their
boyfriends, husbands or brothers. Why, after Vonn’s victory, were we treated to
ten minutes of her sobbing into her husband’s arms. What was with the endless
pre-race chatter about her seductive Sports Illustrated swimsuit spreads? There’s still a level of condescension here
that would be eliminated if we took women’s sports more seriously during the
non-Olympic years.

I wish women’s year-round sports got the same kind of play these Olympic events
do. It’s sad that professional women’s sports on both the team and individual
levels seems to disappear for three years.

Flying Guys

The performance and perception of gender norms affects both female and male
athletes. This year, the wide-open field of top contenders for male figure
skating has made it a more popular even than usual. One of the American
contenders is the flamboyant, outspoken, publicly-beloved Johnny Weir, a
fashion-loving Russophile who has become something of a gay icon (although he
refuses to discuss his sexuality).

There’s almost too much to unpack when it comes to the gender issues with the
male skaters. In a world where all the men wear sequins and spandex, twirl and
wave their arms to music, Weir is still controversially "out there"
and it couldn’t be more obvious that he makes people uncomfortable in this
notoriously conservative sport. The announcers on NBC made so many awkward
allusions to Weir’s "soundbites" and "personality" they
reminded me of schoolkids still unable to say the word "gay."
Meanwhile they gushed over his arch-rival, the supposedly more masculine Evan
Lysacek–the eventual gold medalist who skated with black feathers or a
glittery silver snake on his costumes.

Weir doesn’t have Lysacek’s pure athleticism, but he does have a rabid
following among old-school skating fans who love his style and miss the days
when grace and artistry mattered as much as jumps. It was strange that NBC
didn’t do a segment on Weir, even a traditional cheesy redemption narrative.
The commentators weren’t the only ones who seemed predisposed against Weir:
both his bobble-free performances were wildly applauded by the crowd, thousands
of fans who then booed for what seemed to be undervalued scores from the judges
(this explanation for Weir’s low scores is: "Simply put,
the judges didn’t like his routine much.")

The skating establishment seems traumatized by their status as an artier sport,
one routinely mocked by those who think it shouldn’t count as
athletic. For that reason, and maybe for others, the powers that be appear to
have embraced Lysacek’s persona over Weir’s. In 2008, in a cliche-ridden but
fascinating piece about the Weir-Lysacek rivalry, the Times reported:

During a figure
skating broadcast last year, the announcer Mark Lund, who is openly gay, said,
“I don’t think he’s representative of the community I want to be a part of,” and,
“I don’t need to see a prima ballerina on the ice,” before praising Lysacek’s
masculinity.

Sounds like a sport with an identity crisis. Whether there’s outright
homophobia at play here or just panic about being the "girliest" of
Olympic sports, to us fans it feels like the skating establishment needs to
loosen up.

What do you think?

What have you observed, gender-wise, while watching the games this year? What’s
impressed you or ticked you off? Please share in the comments section.

Analysis Human Rights

He, She, Us: Emma Watson, the White House, and Efforts to Change the Culture on Women’s Rights

Emily Crockett

Campaigns like It's On Us, from the White House, and HeForShe, launched by Emma Watson as part of her UN ambassadorship, are part of a cultural shift toward recognizing that women’s rights can’t be considered in a vacuum.

Read more of our articles on consent and sexual assault on U.S. college campuses here.

On Friday, the White House unveiled a new public relations campaign called It’s On Us, which urges all Americans, and young men in particular, to take responsibility for preventing and ending sexual assault.

Over the weekend, Harry Potter star and new UN Women Goodwill Ambassador Emma Watson gave a powerful speech in defense of feminism that issued a “formal invitation” to men to make gender equality their issue too—partly because gender inequality and binaries can hurt men as much as they hurt women, and partly because it’s just the right thing to doas part of a campaign dubbed HeForShe.

Both campaigns have slick websites where visitors can sign pledges to make a personal commitment to being part of the solution to gender inequality and sexual violence.

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And both campaigns, however effective they end up being themselves, are part of a cultural shift toward recognizing that women’s rights can’t be considered in a vacuum. That survivors of sexual violence can’t be the only ones fighting for their own justice. That men have a stake (even a selfish one) in the goals of feminism, because gender binaries limit their humanity too, and because women prospering means society prospering. That you can’t talk about “social issues” like reproductive rights without also talking about the economics of being able to afford birth control, abortion care, or child care, and how the ability to do that is doubly crippled by the fact that women earn less, whether it’s due to discrimination or “choices” that often aren’t choices at all.

The Democratic Party has seized on many of these points in recent months, ahead of the midterm elections. President Obama and congressional Democrats have been pushing a policy agenda with a more holistic approach to the idea of “women’s issues”—equal pay, family leave, minimum wage increases (since women make up about two-thirds of minimum wage workers), campus sexual assault prevention, and trying to repeal setbacks to women’s health like the Supreme Court’s decision in the Hobby Lobby case or state-level abortion restrictions cynically designed to close clinics.

This Congress being this Congress, we aren’t likely to see that kind of change through legislation any time soon—advocates have to hope for executive orders or significant cultural shifts.

But thanks to the democratizing influence of Internet and social media, cultural shifts are at least a little easier to come by these days. Fewer gatekeepers to media access means more avenues for marginalized people to be heard and even to work their way up into more mainstream venues.

“I know that the Internet has been one of the biggest reasons why the campus sexual assault movement even made it to the White House,” campus sexual assault activist and writer Wagatwe Wanjuki told Rewire. (Wanjuki is a former Rewire employee.) “If it wasn’t for that, who knows how much longer we would have had to wait to have the president acknowledge that college rape is an issue and we need to do something about it.”

Publicity for the It’s On Us campaign is mostly online at this point, which may be a function of its intended outreach to Millennials. Cable giant Viacom and video game giant Electronic Arts are joining the push through their social media and online properties for now, although White House officials told reporters last week that there may be a push on broadcast TV in the future. There’s also a significant “IRL” grassroots push, with student leaders at over 200 campuses committing to participate in the campaign; the star-studded PSA from the campaign’s website is supposed to be shown on Jumbotrons at major college sporting events.

The visibility afforded by the Internet has a dark side, of course. That was on display this week when Internet trolls threatened to release nude photos of Emma Watson for having the audacity to say in public that men and women should be treated equally.

Bizarrely, the threat—a “countdown” to when her photos would be released—turned out to be a Russian-nesting-dolls-style hoax, in the end the work of serial spammers seeking clickbait. The incident was a potent illustration of why Watson’s message mattered: many still think that women’s privacy and safety is at best a joke. Women who speak out on feminism are reliably targeted for it, and the more high-profile the woman speaking out, the more high-profile the attacks on her can be.

But there are many benefits to high-profile women speaking out. The United States has more female senators now than ever before, many of whom have championed attention-getting women’s rights causes in the last several years. The celebrity angle cuts both ways: the more cultural idols like Watson or Beyoncé speak out in support of feminism, the more people hear the message.

As Laura Dunn, founder of the sexual assault survivor advocacy group SurvJustice, told Rewire, campaigns like HeForShe, with an icon for the “Harry Potter generation” behind them, make issues around feminism and sexual violence prevention easier for younger generations to understand.

“It shifts their mindset, and maybe challenges the norms accepted by older generations too,” Dunn said.

That is more than a symbolic change. Take our legal system: “The reason a lot of sexual assault cases aren’t prosecuted is, ‘The jury won’t understand, they won’t like that you were drinking,’ that kind of thing,” Dunn said. But when today’s kids grow up to prosecute these cases or serve on juries, “you won’t need an expert to explain rape culture.”

Dunn said that another big part of this shift, especially on the issue of campus sexual assault in the last few years, is due less to celebrities speaking out than to survivors like herself telling their stories to the media, sometimes coming out with their full names and faces. They were no longer anonymous Jane Does but real women demanding real justice, which made some people start to sympathize with them and share their outrage.

The issue has gotten the most attention this decade, but campus sexual assault really emerged into the national consciousness starting around 1991, S. Daniel Carter, director of the 32 National Campus Safety Initiative, told Rewire, which is when a “Campus Sexual Assault Bill of Rights” amendment to what is now called the Clery Act was introduced. The standards for enforcing these rights actually haven’t changed much since then, Carter said, but many colleges still weren’t aware of their obligations to prevent and address sexual assault before the administration released a “Dear Colleague” letter in 2011 clarifying those guidelines. That letter, and the unprecedented number of investigations today against colleges that violate Title IX civil rights provisions by poorly handling sexual assault cases, are almost solely thanks to a groundswell of advocacy over the last few years from survivors like Dunn, Wanjuki, and the networks they created through social media, Carter said.

Dunn said she was especially pleased with the It’s On Us campaign and Obama’s speech about it, not just as an advocate but also as a survivor. She got emotional recalling how much it meant to hear the president acknowledging the heavy burden that survivors have carried for so long, and the need for society to help them lift it by taking shared responsibility for the problem. “It was so well-spoken and so very true,” she said.

Wanjuki said the White House has done a better job than any administration before it on the issue of sexual assault in general. “Their willingness just to talk about it, and to have it be so visible and get the president of the United States involved, is really groundbreaking,” she said. “And they’re actually talking to advocates, survivors, people on the ground, not just ‘experts.’”

The Obama administration is talking about reframing sexual assault as a cultural problem, which is also what Watson and HeForShe are doing with women’s rights across the globe. While acknowledging that sexual assault can be perpetrated by and against people of any gender, both campaigns imply that the cultural problem lies with men—not because they are all blameworthy, but because they haven’t been encouraged by culture to take a stand on the issue. White House officials pointed last week to research that shows most young men aren’t comfortable about violence against women, but don’t speak out because they overestimate their peers’ acceptance of it. Watson’s speech gave men similar credit by officially inviting them to join a conversation in which they might have felt unwelcome.

Of course, cultural campaigns have limits. Dunn says there were sexual assault awareness campaigns in place when she was in college, but that didn’t change anything about her 2004 rape at the University of Wisconsin, or her long struggle for justice against hostile campus and law enforcement officials.

And Wanjuki, while she thinks that It’s On Us is a great start, fears it might encourage oversimplification of a complex issue: “They talk about ‘It’s On Us.’ Well, who is ‘us’? Is ‘us’ excluding survivors? Or rapists?” It’s easy for people to absolve themselves of responsibility, she said—people think of rapists as shadowy boogeymen, not people they might encounter in real life, much less be friends with, or even be themselves. How about “It’s on us to ask for consent” as a slogan, suggests Wanjuki, to impress upon people that it’s not just their responsibility to intervene, but also not to rape? And in the case of serial predators, which most rapists are, bystander intervention might only deflect their attentions onto a different victim and not actually stop them from raping.

Still, Dunn said, “Anytime you have an institution of power shining a spotlight, it does have an effect.” That goes for both the White House and the United Nations, although the UN “has been thinking about violence against women on a bigger level than our country in so many ways,” she said. The United States has yet to ratify a major international agreement on women’s rights, and while other countries commonly give women a private cause of action to sue for sexual assault, it was declared unconstitutional in the United States’ landmark Violence Against Women Act.

The White House has been taking plenty of policy action against sexual assault in addition to conducting awareness campaigns. There was the Dear Colleague letter in 2011, and also the launch of a new sexual assault task force this year, complete with a report including guidance for schools called Not Alone. The administration is releasing additional guidance as well as $6 million in grants from the Department of Justice in the wake of the It’s On Us announcement, and the Department of Education has a long list of schools under investigation for Title IX violations. Dunn most wants to see the administration focus on enforcement, since it’s what the federal government has the most power to do.

“Not alone,” as a phrase rather than a program, may be the most succinct summary of how things are changing for victims of gender-based violence and oppression, and what advocates are pushing for. Victims are coming out of the shadows, women are making their voices heard, and men are saying enough is enough.

“The public is ready for us,” Dunn said. “They see it, there’s no question that it’s happening, they’re outraged, and they’re asking, ‘What do I do, how do I get involved?’”

Q & A Media

Discrimination, Doxxing, and That ‘Louie’ Episode: A Q&A With the Filmmakers Behind ‘Fattitude’

Annamarya Scaccia

Rewire recently spoke to Lindsey Averill and Viridiana Lieberman, who are crowdsourcing funds for Fattitude, their documentary about fat prejudice. The filmmakers discuss the core principles of Fattitude, the harassment they've experienced while making the film, and much more.

So often in pop culture, fat is used as a symbol of immorality.

From Colin Farrell’s fat-hating boss in Horrible Bosses to “Fat Monica” on Friends to Ursula in Disney’s The Little Mermaid, fat bodies frequently are a substitute for something disturbing, something laughable, or something that’s villainous. Even if the fat-shaming is not overt, as in Lifetime’s series Drop Dead Diva, there is still an underlying message that fat equals impiety.

Yet, despite widespread acceptance that pop culture drives and defines how we feel about our bodies, there has yet to be much acknowledgement of how society is not only rife with fat discrimination, but is complacent about it.

That’s where Lindsey Averill and Viridiana Lieberman come in. Through their feature-length documentary, Fattitude, the Florida-based filmmakers and long-time friends are taking a concentrated look at the ubiquity of fat prejudice through media analyses and interviews with some well-known activists—like Marilyn Wann, author of Fat! So?, and Sony Renee Taylor, founder of global movement The Body is Not an Apology. They also plan to develop an educational activist campaign around the film, much like those related to the documentaries An Inconvenient Truth and Miss Representation, that centers on raising awareness of fat discrimination.

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“Our media tells a lot of lies about fat bodies and about the experience of living in fat bodies,” Averill told Rewire. The film project is “close to both of our hearts because we both have lived in bodies of changing sizes throughout our lives and we both battled how fat discrimination functions, how fat hatred functions, how fat-shaming functions.”

Fattitude is still in the production phase, though, and Averill and Lieberman have turned to the community to help fund their project through a Kickstarter campaign, which ends on Sunday, May 25. Funds raised through the drive will go toward travel costs for the crew and production team to shoot additional interviews, equipment purchases, revenue for an illustrator/animator and sound editor, and costs of film festival applications.

So far, their Kickstarter campaign has more than exceeded its goal, bringing in nearly $5,000 more than the original $38,050 they set out to raise. With only a few days left, the duo is now pushing for $50,000, hoping to raise enough for additional production items such as professional color correction, original music composition, and a fair use lawyer.

But the entire process has not gone smoothly. Earlier this year, Averill and Lieberman became the victims of a horrible online attack. Shortly after launching their Kickstarter, a YouTube user by the handle “GODBLESSADOLFHITLER” posted the Fattitude trailer under the title “Cakes: The New Comedy Hit,” which Averill immediately reported for copyright infringement, and YouTube removed it. Apparently angry about being reported, the YouTube user began to harass Averill, Lieberman, and their supporters on Twitter, posting their contact information online—or “doxxing” them—and soliciting his followers to also stalk and abuse the filmmakers. In a matter of days, Averill and Lieberman were receiving rape and death threats, hate mail, and frightening phone calls. The abuse continues to this day. (The incidents were reported to local police, which subpoenaed Google, YouTube’s parent company, but the filmmakers have yet to hear back.)

While the experience has left both Averill and Lieberman shaken, they say it’s validated the importance of both the film and their work in exposing fat hatred. “I feel more aggressively determined that this is an absolutely necessary film,” Averill said.

Rewire recently spoke with the filmmakers about the core principles of Fattitude, the latest episode of Louie, the importance of featuring diverse voices, and more.

Rewire: Fattitude aims to educate about “the harsh and very real realities of fat shaming and fat hatred.”  How so?

Lindsey Averill: We felt that there wasn’t a strong documentary that really looked at how popular culture intensifies fat discrimination in everyday life. For us, we believe representation plays a huge role in how we formulate our ideas about the culture we live in. What we did is really examine popular culture and say, “How is the everyday experience of media representing the fat body?” So our film [is] really delving into that. We’re saying, “In our culture, when we talk about fat bodies, it’s in a negative context, period.”

Viridiana Lieberman: And using pop culture as a lens is very accessible in conversation because everybody can relate or has seen one or all of the forms of media we’re discussing—whether it’s a show you really like or a story that you read about in the newspaper, or just reality television that is just in your ear all the time, even if you’re not watching it.

LA: For us, we feel that [the first step in] educating the populous about fat discrimination is opening people’s eyes to the reality of the fact that they already are complacent in fat discrimination because it’s so acceptable in the media that that message is imbedded in our lives. Our film is our first action item. It’s the first space in which we put forward, “Open your eyes. Realize that this is one of the invisible cultural assumptions that you’re not paying attention to, and you’re not realizing how cruel, how frugal, and how aggressive this assumption is when it plays out in everyday life.”

Rewire: You write on Fattitude‘s Kickstarter that, through this journey, a lot of your own views about fat prejudice and how it is to live in a fat body evolved. Can you talk about that?

LA: I became really conscious of where my failures of body acceptance were. Yes, I was already an activist saying everyone should love their bodies, but [being] in front of these people who so totally have taken on the reality of that, I realized I hadn’t yet. There were moments where even if I wasn’t saying something negative about my body, I was looking in the mirror and assessing it in my own mind. There were these very subconscious whispers that I was able to figure out how to dispel.

On top of that, an academic argument makes sense, but it’s very different seeing it crystalize in real life for you. A lot of the arguments I have seen people make, I hadn’t formulated my own opinions about, per se. Even with regards to “How do we manage this airplane [seat size] issue?” Through the process of listening to all these academics and talking with them, all of a sudden I was like, “No, no this is totally serious. The corporations need to be responsible for this. This is just flat-out discrimination.” Whereas I hadn’t thought deeply about it until I was listening to others really talking [about it].

VL: The pop culture reference we used to like to say [in women’s studies] is that you got unplugged from the matrix—the whole idea that all of a sudden you can see it everywhere, and in everything. That definitely happened to me right when we started working on the project with different aspects of fat activism. But the biggest thing for me, personally speaking, is when interviewing people, I remember walking out of those interviews and thinking, “How did they unplug [from the matrix]?”

I remember I used to wait to do things. I really gauged a lot of big moments in my life on the concept that I should wait until I reach a goal weight or I’m more fit or blah blah blah. And that was such a weird concept to sit back and be like, “Wait a minute, not only is this perhaps the way my body will be no matter what I do, but on top of that, you should never wait.”

What a terrible reason to wait to do things! [laughs]

I remember sitting back and I felt so much more free. [But I] also became very conscious of what people were saying around me from what they ingested in pop culture, and how they feel about their bodies—when we eat and they feel guilty.

LA: The other thing that was amazing to see was that a lot of the people we met [who] totally embraced body positivity and fat positivity have literally unplugged from popular culture. They said, “I’m no longer going to look at these images that tell me my body is not OK because that is totally detrimental to me.” And they had no television, didn’t see movies, just totally unplugged from the popular media because they felt popular media was constantly harassing and torturing them.

VL: We’d start rattling off the list of shows that we want to hear their input on, and they’ve never seen it. “Oh I’ve heard of that one, never seen it.” “I don’t own a television.” I mean every single person [laughs] and that was a huge revelation.

Rewire: In last week’s episode of Louie, the character Vanessa, played by Sarah Baker, made a speech about dating as a fat woman, which was praised by media outlets. Critics, however, like Willa Paskin at Slate, question the scene’s intent. How does that scene challenge or propagate the perception of fatness in pop culture? 

LA: That moment on Louie is rife with both the good and the bad. For example, it is amazing to see someone on television acknowledge the fact that the way we lie about the reality of a person’s body size is insulting and demeaning. Regularly when I refer to my body as fat, people try to tell me it’s not. Obviously, they are lying to me because they believe that being fat is something to be ashamed of, something ugly, something awful. Of course, in reality being fat is just a fact. It doesn’t have to have moral or aesthetic resonance—and the attempt to “hide” me from my fat points out that they believe that if I know I’m fat then I can’t possibly like myself. So I think the fact that this character is on television pointing out the ugliness that is intrinsic in dismissing the reality of a person’s body size is amazing and also really unheard of in mainstream media.

That said, [the speech] also relies on popular cultural lies—like the idea that fat women are not desired or that men are “ashamed” to be seen with fat women—and it makes some really limited assumptions about the issues that fat women struggle with and in turn obscures the systemic reality of fat discrimination. I think the conversation about fat discrimination is more concerned with the reality that fat people make less money than their thin counter parts, that they often receive sub-par medical care, and that they are assumed to be lazy or stupid. 

Arguably, this scene gives fat men an edge over fat women—which is debatable. It’s true that historic understandings of femininity have relegated women to the role of object and therefore “beauty,” and long-term relationships are understood as defining and significant factors in a woman’s life, but not a man’s. Of course this is an archaic idea, and yet popular culture still perpetuates these stereotypical gender concepts. That said, ultimately fat men and fat women suffer. We can’t sit around comparing oppressions. Instead we need to work on eliminating the causes of discrimination.

Rewire: What I find interesting, though, is that some outlets, like Flavorwire, are hailing it as this moment that’s given a voice to fat people, which seems dismissive of fat activists. How does that response play into what you’re discussing in Fattitude?

LA: One of the things we can always say is that on some level, anytime we’re having a conversation about fat discrimination—even if it’s problematic—we’re starting a conversation. I feel that the conversations are not being had enough in general, so while the conversation might be problematic, there’s a part of me that feels joy any time the conversation exists at all.

VL: I totally agree with that point.

LA: While there are activists on the ground, and there are amazing people out there saying amazing things, at the end of the day, the way our culture works—and the way it sort of worked for decades—is when you have someone famous as your spokesperson and you have someone famous start the conversation, the conversation is heard. Versus when you have activists having the conversation, it often gets relegated to, “Oh, those are activists talking. I don’t know if that’s important or not.”

And I say that with complete sarcasm, because while the activists are doing amazing and unbelievable things, they’re often shown as the far left or the far right. I’m saying that we can bring the conversation to center and enable it to happen.

VL: Right. You don’t need to mediate that, though. At the end of the day, if that person may have opened the door, it’s still giving access for people to finally be heard.

Rewire: As seen in Fattitude’s trailer, you feature a lot of diverse voices from cultural, wellness, and academic fields. How important was it to tackle this issue from those different viewpoints?

LA: We entered the sphere of making this film with the belief that diversity and diverse voices were extensively important, and one of the current flaws with the trailer—which will not be true of this film—is that it is all women’s voices. It is our goal, by the time we complete this film, that it is a film about fat men and fat women of every race, creed, sex, color, all of the above, because we believe only in that space can you truly have a conversation about what’s being experienced.

Rewire: Were there any issues that you were surprised to learned about as you conducted these interviews?

LA: The reality is that I was so well-informed before we even got to this because I am writing a dissertation of fat activist and fat-shaming. So most of the time, it was about the nuance of the argument, not that an argument popped that [we never thought about]. You look at an argument that you’ve defined for yourself, but then you start listening to [Fat! So? author] Marilynn Wann or [author and activist] Virgie Tovar explaining why they’ve come to the reasoning about a particular argument, and you think, “Oh, that’s incredible.” Then you talk to someone like [Seeking the Straight and Narrow author] Lynne Gerber, and you go, “Oh my God, holy, that’s incredible too.” 

You knew it was wrong that someone on the airplane was being kicked off for their body size, but you didn’t take the step forward to realize that the corporation must fix that. The fact that people didn’t think [about it as], “We’re telling you you deserve to be punished. You deserve to be kicked off this plane because your body size is too big,” the fact that people aren’t recognizing that’s prejudice—that was the kind of nuance that became blatantly clear.

VL: That’s why we love that quote where [Gerber] says, “We can land a person on the moon, but we can’t figure out how to get airplane seats for a human being,” because it’s true. Even “thin” people complain about those seats being too small [laughs]. There’s no relevance, there’s no acceptance of any form of spectrum in body size in the human body. Like Lindsey said, it’s just thought to be absolutely OK, undeniably OK, to discriminate and make that assumption.

Rewire: In the process of promoting Fattitude, you’ve also experienced incredible anti-fat abuse and harassment on- and offline. Tell us about that.

LA: It definitely happened to both of us. I think my household experienced the brunt of it, but I was not alone. [“GODBLESSADOLFHITLER”] got very angry and started harassing me on Twitter, initially. My reaction to his harassment on Twitter was, “This is someone who is ridiculous,” and I blocked him. Then he proceeded to go from there to calling my house and sending things to us in the mail, calling my parents’ house, calling my husband’s business, sending Mormon missionaries, having other people send horrible letters that said frightening things, death threats, rape threats. Viri got very aggressive rape threats. We got pizzas delivered to our house. Two days ago, I got a cola. It’s ongoing. It doesn’t go away. It has an anti-Semitic [element], which I think is just part of his online persona, but most of it is “fat bitch cunt” kind of stuff. It’s really anti-woman. It’s really anti-fat. It’s anti-gay, absolutely.

Rewire: Are both of you OK?

LA: I think we’re OK. That’s the best I can say. Our alarm went off the other night, and you feel like cowering in a corner because for the first time in your life, it’s not your instinct to be like, “Oh, that’s our sensitive alarm [that goes off] all the time.” Instead, you’re like, “Oh my God, who’s outside my house?!” There’s definitely a certain level of paranoia I could do without.

VL: The day after my information got out on the Web, I remember getting really nervous, looking over my shoulder. Any time our phone buzzes when somebody would come to our apartment building, there was always a hesitation, even if it was our friends or someone randomly calling the wrong apartment. But it’s where your mind goes first, which is bad.

LA: You feel more cautious and more anxious. But we’re making this film for a reason. It’s an absolutely necessary conversation, because I have now not only experienced the bullying that was experienced by living in a fat body in the world, but I have also experienced this intense level of fat hatred in the culture that I haven’t felt. The reality is, activists like Amanda Levitt [of] Fat Body Politics get this kind of trolling on a regular basis. They get this kind of brutal ugliness coming at them as they try to fight this. I contacted all the people in our film right away when this started, and activist Substantia Jones was like, “Hey, this is my life. This happens to me all the time. We are human, we are strong, and we won’t be quieted.” There’s a huge part for me where I have to remind myself that the activists now, and who came before us, experienced this, and that’s a part of it. That’s what happens, because you’re striking a nerve and you’re having a conversation that is obviously compelling, but also important.

I think at the end of the day, are we OK? Yeah, we’re OK. Is it great? Not always, but we’re OK.

Rewire: What has this experience showed you about the work you’re doing with Fattitude?

LA: We’ve seen the ugliest version of fat discrimination. Fat discrimination is that someone thinks it’s perfectly acceptable to come up to me, and go, “Oh, I’m on this great new diet, I should tell you about it,” because that person is assuming that I want to know about a diet, that I’m interested, that I’m unhappy with my body as it is now. That’s a version of fat discrimination. And, obviously, so is someone sending me hate mail and threatening my life, and calling my documentary cancerous because I am trying to tell people it’s OK to live your life even if you’re fat.

That’s what it showed us: It’s not just something subtle. We know it’s systematic. But we just looked at the brutal version of the hatred.

VL: And the hatred that happens at a time of change.

LA: Absolutely.

Rewire: In the end, what is the number one thing we should know about Fattitude?

LA: That each person’s body belongs to them. One of the things we like to do in this world is to think we have the right to judge other’s choices, and that’s one of the ways we quickly justify body prejudice. Everyone’s body is their own, and everyone’s body deserves the right to live free, equally, and with love and acceptance in this world.

VL: I couldn’t have said it better.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.