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Da'Shaun Harrison hates the word thick. After reading their debut book, Belly of the Beast: The Politics of Anti-Fatness as Anti-Blackness, I've had a change of heart on the word, too.
"I hate curvy. I hate fluffy. I hate big-boned. I hate all of the language that we've come up with to try to soften the blow of naming ourselves as fat," Harrison told Scalawag in an interview. "The reality is that all of it is excess weight, and the only reason why we even have to create language that separates the two—thick versus fat—is because of this hierarchy that we tried to create with bodies and the way that we dichotomize fatness."
But that dichotomy is not just a matter of "thickness," they argue—it's about all the ways we label, punish, and other fat Black bodies in particular for how they show up in the world. "The deadliness of anti-fatness is in the fact that it's predicated on desirability," Harrison said.
The "hierarchy" that Harrison refers to is a society that reveres some fat people as more attractive than others, depending on the proportions of fat in the stomach, or the thighs. We rarely use terms other than "fat" for people with a double chin or arms that hang. And as Harrison illustrates in their book, all of these things can translate into who gets housing, employment, health care—the list goes on.
It's legal in all but one state in the U.S. to fire fat people based on their weight. Stigma in the medical industry can lead to misdiagnosis, poor care, or altogether avoidance. As Harrison points out in a chapter that draws parallels between the War on Drugs and the "War on Obesity," faulty research from the CDC has led to decades of wrongly condemning fat bodies as walking morgues.
That's not actually true
Celebrated author Kiese Laymon considers economic and intellectual class, white supremacy, and Black Southern art in this lyrical essay, exclusive to Scalawag.
To be Black and fat is to know what it means to be policed. It is no mistake that many of the people murdered by police since Mike Brown was killed in 2014 were both fat and Black, Harrison writes.
Beyond policing by the state, fat Black people are under constant surveillance from bystanders, family members who make flip comments about waistlines and full plates, and ambivalent doctors who often blame ailments on weight.
In Belly of the Beast, Harrison explores liberation from the vantage point of a Black, queer, disabled, and trans abolitionist, and asks us to imagine the world anew: What happens when we win?
As a person getting used to the mouthfeel of calling myself fat—which I have been for almost my entire life—I was grateful to talk with Harrison about their newly released book and surface the connections between anti-fatness and anti-Blackness, as well as the need for us to envision "the beyond." Kiese Laymon said it best in the intro: "I am a fat Black and I'd like to help Da'Shaun Harrison destroy our worlds. I know you will, too."
This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Ko Bragg: I wanted to ask about a Tweet you wrote once, about how people frame your work in an untrue way. Can you talk a little bit about that distinction and like how people maybe conflate it?
Da'Shaun Harrison: Yes, I love this question. Actually, no one has ever asked me this question before, so thank you. People oftentimes would be like, 'Da'Shaun is writing about racism and fatphobia' or 'Da'Shaun is writing about white supremacy and fatphobia.' I wanted to make the distinction clear that I'm talking about a very specific form of racial violence—and that is against Black people.
I'm not talking about the violence that happens to people who are not Black. Of course, because of how rich anti-blackness is, it affects not only Black people, it affects everyone in the world, even those who benefit from it. And, I'm still writing specifically about Black people because that's my people, and because that is who is at the heart of this violence.
I don't like the term fatphobia. I think that the way that it has been used, since its popularization, has been very bastardized. I think people use the word fatphobia and it trivializes what the full weight of anti-fat violence is. Oftentimes you'll hear fatphobia in relation to someone not being able to get inside of a club or something like that. All these interpersonal things do matter, of course, but anti-fat violence is not just your plug not giving you extra weed or whatever. It is an actual, violent thing that has a very long, long history, and which permeates every part of our world.
I think that anti-fatness sort of gets more to the point—in a very similar way that anti-Blackness does—more than just saying racism and fatphobia. When I think of those two words, I think a lot about liberalism, and how liberalism bastardizes language and removes all contexts and all meaning from the language that we use.
KB: I was paying attention to the way that you use language in your book, too. Can you tell me about the choice to refer to the fat or the Black? Kiese Laymon in his intro says "I'm a Black fat," and that's a very specific way to name it. Talk a little more about that structure.
DH: I'm referring to an entity of sorts—or a body of people, or a body of subjects. I try to stay away from the language of "people," or of "persons," etc. in the book, because the way that I am moving through this piece of writing is by acknowledging the fact that the folks I'm writing about are subjects—they are objects, and not necessarily people—or things not recognized as human, things never actually given access to humanity. I write about it as "the Black fat" or "the Black" or "the fat" because I think that it names us as an entity. It names us as a thing or something that has been "thingified," but not necessarily something that has been granted access to humanity.
KB: You are talking about fatness and Blackness, but within that, you name throughout the book that you're talking about specifically the trans-masculine experience, which is not often included when we talk about fatness. You say this book is the first book in the canon of fat studies through this lens. Can you tell me about stepping into that space?
DH: This was so important to me because I've read just about every book out there in fat studies—at least the most popular ones. None of them ever got to the heart of my experience. They're either all about cis white women—or a couple, literally two, were about cis Black women. Kiese Laymon's memoir is about his experience as a fat Black boy, but there was nothing that directly named the violence of gender and the way that anti-fatness and anti-blackness show up specifically to trans-masculine folks and men—or people who are read as men—both cis and trans. I knew that this was going to be really important to be written, because there has been so much discourse around fatphobia and all of that, and I think that they all fall short, because they don't acknowledge the way that gender and transness is affected by anti-fatness at all. If you allow what's in the canon to instruct you, or if you allow what gets the most retweets on Twitter to instruct you, you would never think that anti-fatness is something that harms everyone of all genders.
I was following Toni Morrison's advice where she said if the book hasn't been written, write it—and I wrote it. Because it was way too important for me as a trans, nonbinary person to own that space and honor the fact that this is something that is groundbreaking. It shouldn't be; it shouldn't be something that's groundbreaking, but it is. And because of that, I wanted to make sure that I wrote something that was clear, that was concise, that gets to the heart of the issue so that other fat Black folks who are trans, trans-masculine, etc. are able to read something that actually reflects their experience, and that then makes them want to learn more about anti-fatness.
KB: You include a chapter of interviews, prefaced by the fact that you wanted to collect stories of nonbinary fat Black people because there's such a lack of data about their experiences. I loved this section. It also has a different flow from the rest of the book, because it incorporates other voices that are not just yours. Can you talk about the feeling of putting that chapter together?
DH: This was one of the harder chapters. I'm gonna pat myself on the back for this. That's actually one of my favorite sections of the entire book, because I really, really, really hate gender. One thing that everyone in the world should ever know about me is that I hate gender. I was really excited to write this, and then I sat with myself for days and was like, "I don't know where to take the rest of this chapter."
So I tweeted, like, "Hey, if you are a trans-masculine person or a trans man, a nonbinary person, nonbinary masc-presenting person, and you want to be a part of this, DM me, hit me up." And several folks did. I had to limit the amount of people that I could put into the book. I didn't want to turn anything into my own paragraph from their words. I wanted this to be interview-style, because they've given me so much in their answers, and so much about their answers were the same. I wanted to put all of their actual words as interviews so that we can really read that these are the experiences that people are having across the board. These are folks who don't know each other, they were not interviewed together, they were interviewed individually, they don't live in the same part of the world—and yet these are all of our experiences.
When I was finished with that, I was so proud, because I was happy that I got to bring in other trans voices, especially voices of folks who are trans-masculine and could, in some ways, sort of produce this data that is missing. We have all the research, and we have the sociological aspect of things, we can name all these things, but we don't have so much of that data.
KB: I wanted to ask you your perspective on Southernness in particular, and how that intersects, or embraces, or complicates fatness. I was raised both up north and down South, and the way my body is treated up north versus down South is totally different. There's a totally different culture around, even just like dieting and food in general.
DH: I'm not from up north, but my mom was born and raised in New York. A lot of my family was either born and raised in New York or New Jersey. So, I definitely, definitely know the difference between the two. The way that I like to explain this is the same way I like to explain overt versus covert anti-Blackness. In the north, you know, when you're Black, you may not hear people calling you nigger with the hard -er. You may not see the confederate flags. You may not see plantations—but everywhere you look, there's redlining, there's gentrification, there's policy being written that affects you. I think of anti-fatness in a very similar way.
In the South it's like: most people down here are bigger, so it's like obviously people can't be hating on fat folks too much. But even at a dinner table with your grandma—who has low-hanging arm fat, and the rest of your family who does too—everyone's still watching your plates. Everyone's still watching what you eat. Everyone's saying—even though they're not going to go to that gym—they're gonna say you need to lose weight. They're asking why are you getting so big. They're asking why are you eating so late, or things like that, which are controlling your relationship to food, and are controlling your body in so many ways.
I think there's a culture in the South that sort of gives room to this oxymoronic relationship people have to fatness. It's because of their own internalized anti-fatness, of course. We are taught this violence, we're taught that gluttony is a sin—and in the Bible Belt, you try to move away from as much sin as possible. So they say, "If gluttony is a sin, and I want to be right with God, there's something that I have to do to control this type of sinfulness." That's not happening in the north.
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Sabrina Strings names anti-fatness as an inherent ideology of Protestant Christianity—this idea that overconsumption or sinfulness, or greediness, or whatever, is something that you should be shamed for or ashamed of. And because of that, it creates this idea that Blackness—because this ideology becomes coherent through Europeans seeing fatness on Black bodies. So, what it really is saying is that Blackness is sinful, and, therefore, any Black person's relationship to their body must be conditioned by whiteness, and what whiteness approves of is to be removed from this sinful nature.
The reality is that this is not who we were. We only hold on to that, in the South in particular, because of the way that it has been so deeply ingrained in us through chattel slavery. I think that the north is still very anti-fat, but the north does this sort of covert thing where everything about how they interact with fat folks is covert. But what I also want to name is that I mean there are no protections for fat people anywhere.
KB: Back to social media: You used it to connect with some of your sources in the book, but it's also, as you write, a place where fat people experience a lot of toxicity, and where the concept of toxic body positivity reigns supreme. How do you balance that?
DH: I think that I am very transparent about my journey with social media. On Twitter and on Instagram, my whole naked-ass body has been on both, and is on both. I do that because I know some others can't. I am trying to create this balance of recognizing that fatness is political, and that I can just be posting my body because I think that I look good. I think that trying to find that balance is sometimes hard, but where I land is where I'm like: Today, I'm posting these pictures of my body, but I'm also being very honest in my caption by saying, "I'm not feeling this body today; I don't like the way that I look right now in these pictures. I don't like how my stomach is sitting; I don't like how wide my thighs look here. I don't like the way that my chest is sitting. I don't like this body right now. And yet it's keeping me alive. It's allowing me the room and the grace, especially in this moment to survive a pandemic." I just try to be truthful about what I feel about my body, and always return back to honoring it for what it's doing—and also honoring it even if it never did any of that, because it's still my body and therefore still deserves honor.
The rest of the world tells us that these bodies are killing us, that we're dying, that we're dead, and still our bodies show up for us every single day. I think that is so beautiful. On social media, like you said, it is hard. It's difficult to create a boundary that honors all these feelings and also see the way that everyone else posts their pictures and doesn't have to think about any of this.
In my head I'm like, "I know you want me to be embarrassed of this body, and because you want me to be embarrassed with this body, I'm more happy with it." And because of that I want to show it off more. I want other people to see it more so that maybe they will also show it off more. That's why I chose that cover for the book. I want a person who does not know who Da'Shaun Harrison is to see this book and say: "If this person, whoever this nigga is, can show up like this on the cover, then so can my fat ass."