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“This Workshop Was My Dream Come True”

I had the great pleasure of organizing Marion Ouphouet’s North American Large Women’s Workshop held near Baltimore, Maryland (USA), in September 2019.

ORGANIZING AS A LIBERATION PROJECT

When I chose to organize the workshop, I decided I would not just plan the event; I would also use the organizing to move large women’s liberation forward.

About a year before the workshop, I reached out to three women in different RC Areas near me and asked them to be on my organizing team. For many months we did a weekly phone call. We focused first on our re-emergence as large women and next on doing the organizing work together. After a few meetings I asked each woman to identify a key early memory she could return to in each session, so we could “track” each other as we discharged on the memories. Our goal was to see the effect of sustained discharge, the “draining” of an early memory connected to how fat oppression and sexism had come in on us.

Without planning to do so, each of us uncovered early memories of being “tortured” around food, eating, our female bodies, and our minds. There was an unexpected theme: our perception of reality and sense of right and wrong had been severely interfered with as irrationalities about food and fully using our bodies came in on us as little girls. All the work we did together helped us go into the workshop as a team with a lot of slack and be ready to welcome the other large women.

It was important to me that the workshop environment not be oppressive or unnecessarily restimulating to large women. Fat oppression is so “normal” that it can seem “normal” to have events in places where fat people have difficulty sitting or physically navigating the space. When we cannot easily fit into a space, it can seem “normal” and appropriate to shame us for being “overweight.” At many workshops, I have been in constant pain because of the seating or haven’t been able to fit in the restroom stalls. So I selected a site that had good chairs and was set up well for big bodies and/or people with mobility issues (for example, there were handrails on the walkways, and an elevator). There was also good, healthy, fresh food. And the setting was beautiful. I was determined that the environment reflect back to the attendees that they were good and beautiful and deserved to exist and be out in public. I also did not want the site to distract us from the work we were gathering to do together.

A LIVING CONTRADICTION TO THE OPPRESSION

Marion (once again!) created an amazing “container” in which we could move on our material [distress] and our liberation as large women. Her perspective permeated everything she did and created enormous safety for us to work on the oppression as well as our bodies, health, and lives.

I continue to marvel at how Marion is a living contradiction to large women’s oppression. She does not have to stretch or reach for a perspective outside the oppression—she knows that we are good, that we are not broken, that any distresses we have are not different from or more severe than the distresses carried by anyone, that our minds work, and that Co-Counseling works! She does not dramatize any worry, concern, dislike, disgust, or discouragement at us. For those of us who live at the intersection of fat oppression and sexism, this is like water in the desert.

On Saturday night, Marion asked us to share what we would want our female allies to know about how fat oppression comes at us. We showed the depth of our thinking and pushed ourselves to be hopeful enough to show what the oppression actually looks like. She had someone take notes, and on Sunday morning the allies, who were in a parallel workshop led by Teresa Enrico, joined us for an hour and Marion read the notes. She did it with a benign tone, and with smiles and little jokes throughout. Her hopefulness about our liberation extended to the allies, as she shared the information without condemning them or otherwise “acting out” distress. (Her tone was very different from the one we’d had when we were generating the list!)

REACHING FOR THIN WOMEN AS ALLIES

When I was organizing the workshop, I pushed myself on my relationships with female allies—or, as I think of them, thin women—and invited to the workshop two women I am very close to. Both of them are RC leaders, but they didn’t have much awareness of or perspective on fat oppression. After I invited them, I talked more about fat oppression in my sessions with them. They still didn’t have much attention or perspective but were curious. I realized that in the past I hadn’t talked much about the oppression, which, significantly, is a context for everything I work on as client. I decided to keep “showing.” I also encouraged other large women to reach out to thin women who were important to them and personally invite them to the workshop. When the registration opened, the first two registrants for the allies’ workshop were the two women I had invited!

On Saturday afternoon I led a topic group, “Reaching for and Showing More of Ourselves to Our Female Allies.” Two women came arm in arm, looking like they were dragging each other to the group. Then they started complaining about how much they didn’t want to attend, and we all were laughing uncontrollably. That inspired me to start the group by asking each woman to share, without editing, what runs in her head about the thin female allies. People’s sharing included not trusting and feeling betrayed by thin women and feeling like they were mean, evil, and willing to do anything to feel superior.

I said that to have thin women as our allies we need to understand some things about them and be willing to lead them. I talked about sexism and fat oppression and the intersection of fat hatred and woman hatred (misogyny). I said that most women still struggle to face the depth of sexism and its impact on their lives and that it’s particularly hard for them to face the widespread hatred of women. Society bribes women to exempt themselves individually from the hatred, and thinness is like a golden ticket—it gives them a chance to not feel hated and to be less vulnerable to sexism and its violence. For example, when (often thin) women get a man’s approval (for example, through marriage), they may feel more safe and secure. Because fat hatred is so vicious and open, thin women can be quite desperate to avoid it.

I shared that there is something powerful about large women reaching for our thin sisters and all of us being a unified group of women challenging the hatred of women. I also said that because thin women are confused here, we will need to be their leaders.

SHOWING, AND BEING FREE FROM, THE OPPRESSION

On Sunday morning Marion did a demonstration with me in a combined class of large women and allies. I did my best to show how I am mistreated under fat oppression—the big stuff that impacts my career; my life options, like having a family; and my ability to access public space and move fully and freely throughout this world. I also tried to show what it’s like to have no one take a stand against the mistreatment and to have no sense that anyone would be courageous in that way.

After the class, one of the allies I’d invited to the workshop came up to me and said that she’d had an epiphany that what I’d talked about was a systematic institutionalized oppression. (I think that before my demonstration she had thought of large women as women with a “weight struggle.”) She said that she was going to change how she thought about and counseled the large women in her life. Later she shared that she had never before seen what I looked like, and other large women she loved looked like, when we were away from thin women. She had observed us across the dining hall and noticed how different we had looked. I think it had been her first glimpse of the everyday impact of the oppression.

For me, a highlight of the workshop was the difference between introductions on Friday night and farewells on Sunday morning. The tone at introductions was sadness, grief, shame, and despair. At farewells the large women were open, connected, hopeful, and radiantly beautiful. It was amazing.

THE POWER OF WORKING FOR LIBERATION

As I organized the workshop, I experienced huge shifts in my life related to fat oppression: I was asked at work to apply for a significant and highly visible leadership role and am now in that role. I got my first real boyfriend, at the age of forty-seven. I shifted some dynamics of fat oppression within my family. And every once in a while, I asked myself, “Is this because I am organizing the workshop?” I think it was.

It was a great reminder of what Gwen Brown wrote in her pamphlet Why Lead in RC. Yes, I live at the intersection of fat oppression and women’s oppression. But as I stepped out on behalf of my liberation, things in my life that had seemed intractable moved. Barbara Love [the International Liberation Reference Person for African Heritage People] often talks about how when we don’t settle for the limitations that oppression attempts to place on our lives, and instead go for [pursue] our dreams, the universe will organize itself around us.

This workshop—its profound contradiction to large women’s oppression, and what it meant to all the women who came—was my dream come true.

Nikki Stewart

Washington, D.C., USA

Reprinted from the RC e-mail discussion list for leaders of women

(Present Time 198, January 2020)


Last modified: 2021-06-01 12:29:59+00