Interview: Virgie Tovar

Virgie TovarVirgie Tovar is a widely-known queer activist, feminist, and author who is an expert on body image and fat discrimination. She is the editor of the anthology Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love, & Fashion, a book from the voices of women declared “fat” by normative standards. The book is a radical reclamation of self and a proclamation of self-love in spite of patriarchal and heteronormative attempts to make women hate their own bodies. In addition to this important work, Tovar also heads the #LoseHateNotWeight campaign, which aims to free women from dieting as they learn to powerfully love and accept themselves just as they are. Tovar has also been featured on MTV, The Ricki Lake Show, Women’s Entertainment Television, Bust Magazine, Jezebel, and The New York Times. After her first book came out, she was named the Best Sex Writer by the Bay Area Guardian in 2008. Virgie Tovar currently lives in San Francisco and hosts lectures, camps, and workshops across the country.

TCJWW: Could you tell us a bit about your journey into radical body love?

Tovar: I identify as a fat babe, a woman of color, a writer and activist, a scholar, and someone who was put on this earth to eradicate diet culture.

I am and always will be a fat girl. I spent the first few years of my life surrounded by super loving people: my family and then the kids in preschool. I had a boyfriend in preschool named Ray Ray and he loved me for my body. After preschool, things started to deteriorate very quickly as body policing and fat shame were taught to me in a very vicious and unrepentant way by my peers. I learned that I was fat and that fat was bad and furthermore, I experienced a lot of gender confusion because I was fat and that made me bigger and stronger than the other girls. So I was always expected to play the boy role during recess. Not to mention that there were no girl clothes in my size growing up. Fashion was a definite site of trauma for me and a big reason why fashion is such a big part of my healing process now that I’m a fat activist.

My ultimate decision to refuse to bow to the expectations of fat assimilation/my own oppression, came slowly. I dieted for a very, very long time, having accepted the notion that I was, of course, the problem, not the bigotry that positioned my body as a threat to normative culture. I think my ascension into big jewelry wearing, unapologetic fuck-you fat girl status came in maybe 3 stages:

SLUT PHASE: After being told that no one would ever love me or sleep with me because I’m fat, I was utterly AMAZED when I was able to find an unending supply of wang veritably being delivered to my doorstep. I think that was the first time I ever realized I’d been lied to. And I thought, “Well if they lied to me about this, then what else did they lie to me about?” The dudes I slept with and dated really helped me see that I was sexy and desirable, and that I could be and feel feminine.

FEMINIST CULT PHASE: I had a really funky 70s style feminist “awakening” in college when I was essentially part of this feminist cult. I think I kind of needed that intense experience to really jar me out of my patriarchy-induced stupor! I was mostly taught the language of “body image,” not fat positivity at that time.

RADICAL FAT QUEER POLITICS: I was researching fat women of color in grad school and that led to my being introduced to a thriving, amazing community full of fat queers/allies who were all about wearing two piece bathing suits covered in donuts and pizza cats. Their politics made me realize I could be a fat feminist who determined the trajectory of my life and my body without having to diet.

TCJWW: What made you decide to write Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love, & Fashion? How did you choose who would be in the anthology and how did you come up with the title to the book?

Tovar: I’ll start with the title because that story is kind of absurd. I had literally found a bunch of copies of O Magazine sitting in front of my neighbor’s house. I lurve people who redistribute the magazine wealth! I was not a particular fan of O Mag per se, but I’m not one to turn away perfectly good second hand paper. The one I started with had the Christmas guide for 2011. And one of the suggested gifts was a crock pot. And it was described as a “hot and heavy” gift. I loved the clever pun so hard! I had been really working on finding the best title ever and when I saw that crock pot description I knew that was going to be the title of the book.

As far as who ended up being in the book, there were a few people I knew through NOLOSE whose stories I had heard and I specifically asked them to submit. I did an open call online to anyone interested in submitting. I also literally went up to fierce-looking women at Costco and asked them if they wanted to submit. I was looking for stories that had complexity—humor, resiliency, vulnerability, and an even distribution of essays that addressed the topic areas I had chosen—life, love and fashion.

Before I submitted the idea for Hot & Heavy, I had submitted another book idea for a manifesto called Fatties of the World Unite. That book got rejected in 2009, right as I was entering graduate school. I ended up doing research on fat women of color and narratives of gender, race, and size. This research brought me into an incredible world I had never been exposed to before: the queer fat activism community. I met so many fat people who had opted out of diet culture and were living these full, sexy, embodied lives. Once I met them, I knew this was what I wanted. And the more people I met, the more I realized that the book I was destined to propose was an anthology.

Anthologies are powerful, especially around a subject that is as taboo as fat women loving themselves and living fab lives. I knew that if I wrote a book by myself that it would be easy for someone who read it to think that maybe I am just super unusual and there is no way they they could live a life like that. But when there are 31 people writing about this, it’s much harder to dismiss the possibility that lots and lots of people, including the reader, have access to this lifestyle and these politics.

TCJWW: In the introduction to the book, you describe fatness as political, which is so powerful. We love that. Can you tell us more about that concept?

Tovar: Fatness is political because fat is culturally constructed as non-normative and, in some ways, being a fat person who refuses to lose weight is seen as an act of cultural terrorism. In fact, as the U.S. was preparing to go to war in Iraq a little over a decade ago, the Surgeon General at the time said that “obesity” was a bigger threat to the U.S. than terrorism. I definitely think that you are seen as hostile to Western notions of “success” and “progress” if you are fat and not seen to be performing your role: being reserved, withdrawn, attempting to lose weight, ashamed, and dressed in the most muted colors possible.

TCJWW: Sometimes you refer to fat as “the ‘f’ word,” highlighting the fact that even speaking about fat or having any other emotion besides shame and silence is not culturally acceptable. What are some ways that you break that silence on a day-to-day basis?

Tovar: What I find so interesting is that I am just being myself and I happen to be doing that in a fat body. It is the culture that makes that act political. Not me. So, I guess I break that silence by going through all the things that I think every person is entitled to experience if they want to experience: dating, wearing clothes I love, writing about my life, eating delicious food, taking selfies, going for walks, laughing, not wasting my time on trying to lose weight, and refusing to apologize for any of these things.

TCJWW: You talk about how fat is both extremely personal and extremely cultural. How do you think women can break down those cultural taboos to come into a more radical sense of self-love?

Tovar: I think the most impactful thing women can do is recognize just how vicious and harmful diet culture is. And once we can admit that, opting out of it is inevitable. Let me tell you why.

Women. Fucking. HATE. Dieting.

But most people in the culture are in this super creepy, Stockholm Syndrome-style relationship with diet culture. We hate it. It makes us feel bad. But it also makes us feel safe and like we belong. Diet culture is the abuser but every time we obey this abuser, we get a little treat—a little pat on the back or a compliment—and it keeps us committed to an abusive relationship, and an ultimately deeply unsatisfying cycle where failure is guaranteed. When you sit down and think about it, diet culture is deeply infantilizing. Dieting is about limiting women’s lives by making us obsessed with conforming to an arbitrary standard of beauty. It is also about telling women how and what to eat—yes, like you’re a goddamn baby that’s so dumb you can’t be trusted to feed yourself.

You want cake? You can’t have cake.

You think you’re hungry? Actually you’re not.

You want to eat a hamburger? Maybe in a couple of years when you deserve that hamburger.

This is totally crazy town! And yet this is what most women are settling for every day. Why? Because we don’t think we deserve better.

BUT WE DO.

Diet culture saturates so much of our daily interaction, and our language is loaded with weight loss talk. Can you imagine going one single day without hearing someone talk about calories, weight, diets, fat content? I can’t. And I’m in a feminist San Francisco bubble.

It’s time to end that shit. The fun part is that it’s easier than you think. Just stop doing all the stuff you hate doing around food and movement. Recognize that you are smart enough to decide what your body needs. And trust no one who tells you when or how to eat your cake.

TCJWW: In addition to the book, you also head the #LoseHateNotWeight campaign. Tell us more about that. How did you come up with that idea? What impact has the #LoseHateNotWeight campaign had on social media? Do you think it’s catching on?

Tovar: #LoseHateNotWeight summarizes everything I stand for. I feel lucky that I can do that in 4 words! And that those 4 words came to me one morning, randomly.

#LoseHateNotWeight is really about a paradigm shift: shifting toward the idea that it is not weight that needs to be shed, but rather the ideology that positions our weight—our bodies—as a problem. I wish it weren’t true that many, many people wake up every day and their first thought is, “I hate this body.” I was one of those people for a long time. People are entitled to more than that. And the truth is that weight loss doesn’t solve the problem of body hatred. Only opting out of body hatred does that.

TCJWW: How does feminism impact your work? Do you call yourself a feminist?

Tovar: Feminism heavily impacts my work, as does queer scholarship. I’m super influenced by scholars and bloggers like Jose Munoz, Jack Halberstam, Jackie Wang, Judith Butler, Juana Maria Rodriguez, and Peter Hennen. I definitely identify as a feminist. Feminism saved my life, honestly. I have no idea who I’d be if I hadn’t stumbled upon feminism as an undergraduate.

I see fat liberation or body liberation as a part of the pro-choice continuum. I have the right to choose my fat body. I have the right to keep my fat body. Also because fatphobia disproportionately affects women and feminine people (e.g. women are over-represented in weight loss surgery procedures) it is automatically a feminist issue.

TCJWW: What are you up to now? Are you working on any new projects or books?

Tovar: I just finished up my first ever (but definitely not last ever!) #LoseHateNotWeight Babecamp! It’s a 30-day virtual intensive that includes daily action emails, deep journaling, weekly lectures, as well as guest lectures, and a virtual open mic at the end. That was AMAZING! I’m hoping to offer it again May 2015.

I just got a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission to write a book of fiction. I’ll be traveling to Mexico to write parts of it. I’m really excited. It’s a super experimental work for me. I have not written much fiction besides erotica. This novel will be a fictionalized retelling of events in my life that uses real people as we actually exist with all our real life problems and fears and idiosyncrasies. It’s going to be about mental health and citizenship and assimilation and body and family. I’ll be debuting part of it during the 2015 Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco.

Sign up for my mailing list for future updates and follow me on 
Instagram/Twitter @virgietovar

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