27 March 2012

Interview: Fat-Activist Jenn Leyva

I'm a huge proponent of modesty. I prefer baggy over tight, no midriff over exposed, long jeans over daisy dukes. I believe that the human body is sacred, and should be treated as such.

And even more so, modesty hides my belly pooch. Win-win.

But when I found out that an old friend of mine, Jenn Leyva, had become quite a prominent "fat activist," primarily through her blog "Fat and the Ivy," but also in outlets like the Huffington Post, I decided that honesty may override modesty in this case. Maybe I should be honest with my belly pooch and love it for what it is! (I'm cringing at the thought. Obviously I'm not there yet).

Friends, brace yourselves. Today we will be talking about our bodies.

photo by liz naiden
I recently sat down with Jenn to ask her some questions about her work as a "fat activist." Here is what she had to say:

Interview after the jump:

Allison: Jenn, why did you decide to start blogging about your body and “fat activism”?

Jenn: I was reading some blogs for a while, but none of them were written by college students, so a lot of what I was thinking, like about power dynamics, were not being addressed.

I kind of got into all of this before blogging, like aware of it. A friend recommended a book—she’s also fat, and in these words, fat-acceptance, and fat-activism, and she quazi-recommended a couple books, but I ended up reading “Fat History” by Peter Sterns, and in the first two chapters, I was completely radicalized. It opened my eyes to see how health is so politically constructed, and challenging all these notions we have about non-normative bodies, and what it means to be healthy, and what it means to have a body in the larger political context.

A: So you filled a realm that was previously un-explored, I guess.

J: I’m trying! There are other people who are blogging fat-acceptance stuff, but its more of a personal blog, where they talk about this stuff every now and then. But I feel it’s more central to my blog than anything else. That’s where I’m focusing my gaze. I also named it “Fat and the Ivy” after Lena Chen’s “Sex and the Ivy” because I really like what she did in terms of being frank about things that were difficult and complicated, and how they mattered to her. It was very personal, but also very “aware” writing. I try to emulate that.

jenn and i, by gary barnes

A: How did you come to the point where you could accept your body for what it is?

J: I think it’s a long journey. For me it was like, well, I have no other option. There is nothing else left. I came to “fat activism” through a lot of academic work, and that’s when I saw value in it, and started believing it. It was published through this academic press, and I looked up these authors online, and they were published, and working in universities, and I said, well, this must be real! For me it was a lot of dismantling this notion we have of what is healthy, and challenging—what does healthy mean?, and coming to my own definition of it. And also being hyper-aware of the politics of bodies. There is no such thing as a neutral body. No matter what size you are, no matter what color you are, no matter what shape you are, what you are or not wearing, that means something, and it’s not ever neutral. I couldn’t ever find a neutral body, because it doesn’t exist! So working with my body, and accepting my body, and accepting and working with the politics of that.

That’s kind of vague, I’m sorry. Ok, practical steps.

I started buying more fabulous clothes. Not necessarily the more expensive clothes, or clothes that fit better. But things that were more outlandish and fierce. I stopped caring if I looked thin in something, and more of looking ridiculous in something, and owning it.

Other practical steps. I stopped weighing myself. Stopped caring about what I ate, in terms of caring about what other people thought about what I ate. And even owning it in a mischievous way. Like, if I’m eating something, and someone’s giving me a weird look, just kind of smiling and, “hey, hey baby, I see you, I’m still eating this!”

A: So after all of that research, and learning and growing, how do you feel about your body now?

J: The point of my body now is to get reactions from people, including myself. Make people think.

For more from Jenn, check out Fat and the Ivy.

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