Interviews

A Body Politic: An Interview with Virgie Tovar

Virgie Tovar is a woman of color feminist whose projects foster body-positiveTovar1 communities. Based in the California Bay Area, Virgie is an activist, scholar, and writer with a global readership, who regularly deploys personal narrative in her political work. Her edited collection Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (2012) has served as a groundbreaking, foundational text for the body-positive movement; it includes personal stories about living in the intersections of fat phobia, racism, and sexism. Her recently launched “Lose Hate Not Weight” Campaign, which focuses on “unlearning self-loathing and practicing self-loving,” has continued to transform the politics and projects of fat activism.
 
We are drawn to Virgie’s work in part because we read it as political practice that posits life writing as a compelling tool. We have been fortunate to converse with Virgie over the past few weeks, our discussions happening through email and in person.

 


Personal Storytelling

SNS Network: How would you define your (and your activist community’s) use of personal storytelling? What specific terms would you use to describe it, and why? Testimony? Personal sharing? Intimacy?
 
Virgie Tovar: The word “testimony” speaks to me, as someone who grew up Pentecostal. I have a friend who told me that the first time she saw my video blog series (the now defunct “Virgie Tovar’s Guide to Fat Girl Living”) that she knew I had grown up in the church because of the way I talk. So yes I use words like “preaching” when I describe the way I talk about fat politics and my life. Otherwise I use words like self-documentation or archiving: these words speak to the political nature of telling a story that is often silenced or taboo. In the tradition of testimony/testimonial in diet culture, the story is only told after one has “overcome” a lifetime of being fat and is talking about the sad reality before and the joy and freedom that have come after. Because all my work is about losing hate, not weight, the storytelling that I/my community does is about documenting or archiving an alternate kind of story in which we are fat now and the transformation is not corporeal but political or perhaps even social/spiritual.
 
SNS Network: On a similar note, what aspects of what we might call “life writing” (personal storytelling, narrative, autobiographical engagement) are unique to fat activism? How specifically does this practice function in body culture?
 
Virgie Tovar: I feel that the fat movement is deeply engaged in first person story telling. I have mixed feelings about this. It is a powerful tool but it is also a tool that requires its user to give a lot of themselves. We are in a time of incredible fatphobia, which is sanctioned by the public health sector. The public’s attitudes toward fat are mired in what they believe is the indisputable and empirical fact that fat is inherently unhealthy. So, I see first person narratives as a way to “hack” that kind of environment – especially since quite a lot of life writing that comes from fat activism engages with ways to navigate things like fatphobic doctors or family members, or how to alter or find clothing. Again my concerns lie with the ways that first person narratives or “confessions” become required of a largely femme/woman led movement and how this relates to sexism: women always have to do this extra emotional labor. I also have complex feelings because this movement is essentially about human and civil rights which all people deserve, and yet – as with many movements, unfortunately – we have to “make the case” for our humanity and our rights through the retelling of incredibly personal and often painful things for the movement to be considered legitimate.

Selfies, Self (Re)presentation, Selves

 SNS Network: The life writing aspects of your activism and pedagogy are particularly evident in the visual component of your work. Why is the ability to create and circulate visual self-representations central to the project? How does digital culture compel this visuality and circulation? Why, specifically, is the webspace important and how do you manage and communicate this necessity with your community? Are there drawbacks, and why?
 
Virgie Tovar: I recently gave a talk about selfies and the future of representation. I researched the history of portraiture and also articles on the topic. One PhD pointed out that there are more images of non-professionals/regular people than models now available online. That is incredibly powerful. The Internet and the democratization of the camera / mobile technology has led to this major shift in the visual landscape of the Internet. And as new media become more pervasive this will continue to be the case. Because much or maybe even most of the images from or about the fat movement are user generated there is this kind of control of the story telling and subjectivity that really shines through. This is important and I think unique to things like selfies. Furthermore I think it’s a human or perhaps cultural thing that our sense of self is not static but that this internal idea of self is in conversation with other things, like people’s attitudes toward us and even the way that images of ourselves are received by our friends or followers online.
 
SNS Network: Given the sense of control that you relate to selfies, could you talk a little bit about the Lose Hate Not Weight Virtual Babecamp program, and how you use selfies and journaling as teaching tools in the program? Why selfies? Why journaling? How do people respond?
 
Virgie Tovar: The Babecamp starts on Nov 17 and I’m super excited! It’s a 30 day virtual program, broken up into 4 modules, with daily action emails and weekly deep journaling exercises. At the end of the program there will be a virtual open mic for the participants of camp.
When speaking to people about creating Lose Hate Not Weight Babecamp, a friend and mentor told me to create the program I would want to be a part of. Any program I would want to enroll in would include selfies and journaling.
Selfies are a really incredible and powerful tool, I think, to promote self-archiving, putting the representation-generating tool of the camera into our own hands, becoming familiar with what we look like and deciding what images we like and don’t like. This is obviously a bit of a fraught process but that’s ok! I think selfies make cameras less scary and they promote fun self expression. Journaling promotes reflection and the space to interrogate our thoughts and beliefs with the added capacity to look back at what we’ve written and learn and reflect again.
People seem to be really excited about Babecamp. I’m expecting about 50 people to be a part of this year’s Babecamp. 
 
SNS Network: Your use of journaling drew our attention to Babecamp being framed as a process rather than a singular event or workshop. Given the ways Babecamp deploys journaling, why the infinite temporality of process? How do you understand change (radical, organic, constructive?) and what do you envision changing through this process?
 
Virgie Tovar: I’m curious about this observation (process vs. an event). I think the length of the program felt important to me.. like I think it’s radical to be at least somewhat immersed in body positive culture for an extended period. The experience is meant to be immersive because I think this allows not only for a thorough introduction to what I consider the essentials of body positivity but also the opportunity to rewire our brains a little. I have the Daily Action Emails arriving in the mornings because this is the first thing I want them to see in the morning.
 
SNS Network: The emails and virtual open mic foster a clear sense of community. Yet, the physicality, or perhaps “materiality”, of an online community is also distinct from traditions of community organizing that rely on the (often generative) intimacy and affect of bodies gathered together in spaces. Why did you choose a digital realm as your primary organizing space for this process? What effects does this distinction have on the Babecamp process? Benefits and drawbacks? What work does digital corporeality (in terms of community building) do?
 
Virgie Tovar: Some of it was logistics: I wanted to get people from all over – not just the Bay area – involved in Babecamp. I wanted to create the possibility for folks with mental or physical health barriers to be comfortably involved. I wanted to create something that was comprehensive and affordable.
I knew that getting folks to the Bay Area or some other location would be very expensive for all of us. I knew I couldn’t ask people to come to something for a month also. I wanted the program to be effective but not obtrusive. I also think the online environment creates opportunities for a different kind of intimacy, an intimacy that many people in the fat movement or body poz movement are already familiar with. People have been remotely supporting each other online for a long time.
I feel that the benefits far outweigh the drawbacks and I think that many fat and disabled activists have pointed out the complications of in person meet ups as well as the privileging of in person meet ups over online organising or gathering.

Hot and Heavy: History and Future

 SNS Network: When discussing the Hot and Heavy project, you comment that “Bodies are extraordinarily political, especially fat bodies.” How are bodies, and especially fat bodies (in comparison to Black bodies, women’s bodies, femme bodies, and so on–recognizing that these can be intersections) political? 
[This question is not suggesting that bodies are not political, but rather asks for a specific, clear context so our readership can meet your project exactly where it is and run with you]
 
Virgie Tovar: There are so many answers to this question…
Let’s starts with an anecdote. In 2003 as the US was preparing to go to war in Iraq the surgeon general at the time, Richard Carmona, stated that “obesity” was a greater risk to the US than terrorism. Almost anything is a greater risk to the life of someone living in the US than terrorism, but he used this statement as a rhetorical device to position fatness and by extension fat bodies (though there is a popular dieting narrative that fat is an alien substance that occupies the body of an otherwise healthy and maybe even ‘innocent’ person, it is in fact inseparable from fat people) as hostile to the state and by extension to the intention of empire and “progress.” I see the fat body as consistently rhetorically positioned in this way.
Foucault speaks of the idea that the state owns the body, a machine that generates power or energy that the state feels it can harness at any time. Tantamount to empire is the notion of expansion and maintenance through military occupation/invasion. This leads to the “fit” body or military-ready body as an expectation from a nation that is actively engaged in imperialism. The fat body – and the “out” fat person – is read as anti-assimilationist and anti-imperialist.
As relates to gender, the scholar Sander Gilman points out that dieting is part of women performing our understanding of the expectations of our gender – expectations of obedience and of the limitations of our value based in corporeal adherence to patriarchal norms. There’s a lot more but I’ll stop there.
 
SNS Network: So, given the way you describe fat bodies as political in your activism, we were wondering about the role of the notions of “hot” and “sexy,” as defining characteristics and as political rallying cries. What is the difference between being sexy and feeling sexy?
[We ask this because we think your use of these terms in your politics critically touches on the distinctions and connections between representation, demonstration, and embodiment through feelings or experiences].
 
Virgie Tovar: Mmmm I’d need to think more about this one. But generally I think open and explicit/ in-your-face sexuality has been a touchstone of many movements involving women. I don’t see the fat movement as divergent from that history.
SNS Network: Hot and Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion (2012) is an anthology of stories written by “fierce fat women.” On your website you state that “the purpose of this anthology is to re-examine a word that impacts everyone and to recast it as a tool for empowerment. Beyond that it is a book about change and how when we stop apologizing and unleash the fierceness, life becomes about love, liberation and the pursuit of crème brulee.”   
This anthology is clearly an opportunity to situate fat bodies as political, but more so, in editing Hot and Heavy, you seem to be imagining this project as building a (counter) history through personal narrative. Why the use of the notion of history, and how do you see life story as history building, as well as challenging and disrupting notions of history? Why and how do stories about fat bodies do this, and why is the project in part about incorporating these bodies into the idea of history (with its implications of progress and linearity)?
 
Virgie Tovar: Well, I think a few scholars – I’m thinking of José Muñoz – have written about the radical nature of envisioning ourselves in the future – as non-conforming bodies / people. The notion of our imminent death – as explicitly conveyed by public health rhetoric – disallows our envisioning ourselves into old age, i.e. the future. I think writing ourselves into history is radical for some of the same reasons. It disrupts heteropatriarchal/white supremacist trajectories and arguably the necropolitical agenda of hetero/homonormative future making projects. The documentation of our existence belies claims to our absence – this fantasy of an ever increasing population that has become unruly relies on the intentional omission of body diversity, especially of fat people.

#losehatenotweight

 SNS Network: Before Babecamp and Hot and Heavy there was Lose Hate Not Weight. This campaign seems to be the starting point. How did the original campaign come to life? How has it grown and what has the response been so far? How has it affected your life and collaborations? The story of this campaign is also a story of your growth, how?
 
Vorgie Tovar: The phrase “Lose Hate Not Weight” came to me one morning in a sort of pseudo cinematic way. I shot up out of bed and those 4 words were in my brain. For a long time it was just a phrase I sometimes invoked to describe my work. And then I decided to officially make it a hashtag. The hashtag got a lot of attention recently when I was interviewed by Color Lines and then Yahoo! picked it up. I think it so perfectly captures what I believe in. Hate in this phrase is about unveiling the true heart of fatphobia as both a social/interpersonal matter and an institutional one. Furthermore, it is my true belief that people lose weight because they believe that being thin will give them love, success and freedom. But we cannot starve our way into freedom. In the process of trying to acquire these things we end up having a hate based relationship with our body because we feel it is stopping us from getting the things we want most in life. The dieting industry and other social and cultural mechanisms have taught us to think this way. So I argue that it is not weight that needs to be shed but the ideology that positions us as perpetually falling short.

Tovar Image2

political landscapes of the sunset: entire video interview


Postscript: Notes on Method and Long Walks in the Park
 
After a few conversations about the ways we might conduct the video portion of the interview, Virgie and I settled on a stroll. Virgie led, choosing the general space and direction as well as the stops along the way. She chose her neighborhood, the sunset district in San Francisco; as she makes clear in the interview, the sunset is formative to her growth as an activist and writer. The video portion was to be about the connections between Virgie’s daily life and her community work; we expected the camera to center Virgie’s voice and body, and understood this centering as a political as well as thematic choice. In contrast, I chose to omit my physical presence, and, as it happened, voice as well. This choice was also political, though the ways my gaze framed the recordings are of course subject to critique. 
 
Virgie and I ended up having lengthy discussions in between recordings as we walked from one key location to the next. This is to say that much was said and happened that will never circulate on YouTube. For example, as we approached the dunes leading to the beach, a visibly hostile, middle-aged man interrupted our conversation, yelling that we were not supposed to be “doing that” in “this place,” and adding obscenities. He was referring to our video, but the encounter exposed one of the menacing underpinnings of public life, particularly what it means to enter public space while female. Virgie and I understood our reactions as similarly telling; our quick silence and avoidance betraying our sense that, as a man, he might hurt us. 
 
Other moments were lovely. For example, we relaxed for some time in a tiny clearing in Golden Gate park, secluded, as it was, from everyone else. Most enjoyable was the movement of the stroll itself. We encountered distinct, significant landscapes of Virgie’s sunset home and in doing so traveled from the at times hostile gaze of the white-hipster gentrifiers to isolated enclaves of city forest, and back again. 
 
Virgie’s insight on the mandate and compulsion to make her self and work legible to those unlike her became a critical component of her relationship to me and to the network in general. In this way, our conversation navigated differences that are fraught yet also productive in certain circumstances. Determining useful empathy from voyeurism is difficult yet critical. Chatting between filming, we touched on the nuances of emotion as and in movement building, political praxis, and labor, and the multivalent socioeconomic and racial registers of public scrutiny. The in-between moments generated the most critical dialogue. Perhaps the interview genre actually produces the conditions for the most transformative and ethical work to happen off the record. 
 
— Maria Faini

SNS Interviewers – text: Maria Faini, Orly Lael Netzer, and Emma Maguire
SNS Interviewer – video: Maria Faini
SNS Interview Editors: Maria Faini and Orly Lael Netzer
 
Emma Maguire is a PhD Candidate at Flinders University of South Australia. She researches automedia, digital life narrative, and girlhood. 
Maria Faini is a PhD Candidate at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work focuses on US military culture, social media and digital activism, and art practice as radical sociality. 
Orly Lael Netzer is a PhD student at the University of Alberta, Canada. She researches cross-cultural relations in contemporary Canadian literature.

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