I have said before that vulnerability is a sign of strength. Through my sneezy haze this morning after a fitfull night unable to breathe, I asked the twitterverse for everyone's favorite allergy tips.* Tonight's trip to the coffee shop for the third cup of the day (so tired and woozy from congestion and meds) confirmed that I am not the only sneezy, sniffly mess in Brooklyn.
This is a letter I wrote to Oprah Magazine in response to a call for reader input in the August 2015 issue. It is in response to the totally banal and fatphobic response to a reader question in O Magazine that folks should wear crop tops “If (and only if) they have flat stomachs.” I generally skim or skip the style and beauty content in O Magazine every month because it’s written towards folks who are seeking a more neutral style than I am looking for. But given the deep internet controversy I thought this was a great time to offer Oprah some unsolicited advice about how she could be doing better.
Since posts are better with photos of lots of folks with different bodies, I have asked my friends to be part of a crop top army, their photos and links are throughout this post.
I am writing this from the place of being very steeped in Oprah culture. Like many folks, I am a longtime fan. Growing up watching your talk show at my babysitters and getting more interested in your message of self-improvement once I got to college in the late 90s. I remember saving up to buy an Iyanla Vanzant book I saw on your show. I’ve always identified strongly with you and your interview style, my friends even started calling me “The Queer Oprah” about a decade ago because of my way of asking the right follow-up questions and getting deep into someone’s story, similar to your skillset. I like to ask questions until I really understand something and walk through the world with curiosity, which I believe you do as well and what makes you so good at what you do. I buy all the book club books. I’ve had a subscription to O Magazine for several years, and maintain a hoard of back issues for reference.
Photo of Laura Luna, one of my favorite folks on social media. Her insights and vulnerabilities and fun are very inspirational. Here are her words as a caption to this photo. I highly recommend an instagram follow! “That time at #amc2015 when I got pulled up on stage by @leahrosegallegos from @lascafeteras to share a dance and everything around me felt magical cos femmes and a little of LA in Detroit and how because of seeing so many brilliant fats strutting their stuff at the conference I felt safe and even a little liberated to wear this outfit and dance dance dance in front of what seemed like a sea of people.#femme #queer #qpoc #qwoc #femmesofcolorvisibility #fat #xicana #latina #femmeofcolor #fatvanity #pocbodyposi #effyourbeautystandards #fatpoc.” Photo was taken at the Allied Media Conference by Ara Howrani.
Ever since you started OWN, I’ve been an even stronger fan, your spiritual programming really resonates with my eclectic mix of spirituality. I kept cable much longer than I could afford to because I wanted to continue to have access to OWN. (Because it streams online the parade of spiritual thought leaders on Super Soul Sunday is still part of my life, but if you made Next Chapter and Iyanla Fix My Life available for purchase like Bravo does with their shows I would be a very happy camper who doesn’t have cable.)
I say all of that to position what I’m about to say from a place of love and constructive feedback. I get what you do in the world, I get where you have been going recently, and I think you can do a whole lot better when it comes to talking about people’s bodies.
Surprised to see this level of #bodyshaming (👎🏻) in Oprah magazine. The feature is about women feeling healthy. Part of health is self-esteem and that's intrinsically connected to body image. Stop telling women what they CAN'T wear. We can wear and do and be ANYTHING that makes us feel strong, powerful, passionate and in charge of our own destinies. I hope young women and women of any age don't feel like they're restricted by editorially imposed fashion "rules." The only rules are there are no rules. Wear what you love, what makes you feel confident, and own it. Confidence is power, and it's contagious. 👊🏽👊🏾👊🏿👊🏻👊🏼👊
The original instagram post that started it all, according to news reports.
You were at the forefront of diet culture for decades, folks watched you openly struggle with controlling your body. Your value for your body echoed the dominant culture, that you should be thin. I think it’s important to recognize that the diet focus you had for many years influenced people, and caused harm by reiterating body shame and body hatred for all of the people watching who view you as a role model.
People change and people evolve, and I’ve noticed in the past few years much less emphasis on dieting in the Oprahverse–that has been a welcome shift.
I hated my body for so many years. So when I watched you dieting growing up, I identified with feelings of futility and wanting to try yet another thing to control my body. I hated myself so much that it consumed me. More often than not, my idle thoughts were spent berating myself, rather than focusing on bigger ideas or being open to seeing the world around me. I didn’t know how to be present. I was always focused on the future, the thin body I would one day have that would solve all of my problems. Or I was focused on the past, my failures, and deep depression.
Ironically, though the Oprah show reiterated my body hatred, it was an Oprah Book Club selection that helped me begin my journey to stop hating myself. Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone featured a fat main character who hated herself so completely I felt shame for identifying with her so strongly, and vowed to work to stop hating myself.
Photo of Pizzacupcake, one half of the duo GAYMOUS, showing the important relative to the crop top–the side belly cut out. You can buy the incredible GAYMOUS EP here. (Their Let’s Pretend We Don’t Have Feelings video is also worth watching!) Photo by Danielle Billingsley.
It would be years until I got to the stop hating my body part of that journey, but once I did I was free to open my mind up to the world and step into an activist role working to help all people realize that they are worthy of love no matter what their body looks like. I really believe that my purpose in life was blocked and my spirituality was not accessible to me when I let myself stay obsessed with hating my body and myself. A big part of my spiritual awakening happened because I was able to love and inhabit my body, realizing that I was here in the body I was given for a purpose. Part of that purpose is to help folks heal the shame of a society steeped in body currency. (Body currency is a term coined by Jes Baker that I explain in this post.)
I just started wearing crop tops this year. I’ve been slow to start wearing crop tops, even though I’ve been rocking a fatkini for a couple of years. I am forever indebted to my queer fat femme style icons for doing it for so long and helping me learn that it’s okay to flaunt and love your belly at any size. Photo by my friend Anne at Rebel Cupcake in June, 2015.
Now I’m present. I love my body and it frees me up to really inhabit this life. To focus on my purpose. To enjoy the world this time around. To have so much fun that it makes up for the years of depression, self-loathing and misery.
Speaking of fun, press play on this video and see how much fun I’m having in my Diet Industry Dropout crop top!
The body shaming response to a reader’s question about whether she could wear a crop top, “If (and only if)” she has a flat stomach is causing public outrage for good reason. This is a chance to get on the right side of history. More and more folks are deciding to love their bodies and wear whatever they want to display those bodies.
I was disappointed that the public response from O Magazine (as printed on People.com) was trite and shallow. “We support, encourage and empower all women to look great, feel confident and live their best lives – in this case, we could have expressed it better. We appreciate the feedback and will be more mindful going forward.” Actually, doing what you did caused harm to folks, much like the constant diet chatter caused harm on the Oprah show. Not just “could have done better” but how about instead of being just mindful you really do something different?
This is an opportunity to move forward with utilizing your platform to include body positivity. I think you can acknowledge that every person has humanity–do all humans deserve dignity regardless of their body’s appearance? Can you be open to the fact that our culture creates a hierarchy of bodies and that race, class, gender, gender presentation, sexuality, culturally approved beauty, amount of cellulite, body hair, age, ability and a ton of other factors ranks us and pits us against each other?
That keeping us hating our bodies and focused on dieting is a way to hypnotize us while folks who have their body currency on lock (white, thin, straight, wealthy men) use it to profit off of us?
This is a chance for you to use your clout to actually change our culture. You are a thought leader. What you amplify in your media makes a difference in people’s lives. You know from your experience on the diet roller coaster that body shame does not help people lose weight. It simply helps people hate themselves.
Here are some ideas I suggest to adopt throughout the Oprah media platforms, including O Magazine, Oprah.com, and the Oprah Winfrey Network programming.
1. You can talk about nutrition and body love from the perspective of “all bodies are good bodies.” You can do this from a place of knowing that working to eat in alignment with the comfortable functioning of our body and movement for so many great, body loving reasons don’t necessarily have to be focused on an outcome of weight loss. That weight has nothing to do with people’s value. You can do a whole show about Health at Every Size!
Photo of very talented performance artist Shane Shane by Odalys Diaz. I love Shane Shane’s FANCY belly tattoo.
2. Continue to suggest foods, eating patterns and physical movement that is focused on nourishing the body. You totally do this about half the time. (The other half of the time is printing a bunch of intense dessert and indulgent food recipes. Both are great! Both can be about celebrating food and bodies.) When you do this, try to not assign value to the food and movement you talk about.
Photo of Kelly Higgins, self identified body positive straight girl. (I definitely think fatkinis are cousins of the crop top.)
3. How about a lifestyle show about people loving their bodies? Doing loving movement at every size. Getting various body positive activists to work with folks one on one on the show to help them work through their body shame. I have a lot of ideas for shows celebrating body love. There is so much fun to be had celebrating body love!
Marina wore her first crop top last week! Here’s her tumblr.
4. Place a thematic emphasis throughout the Oprahverse on body love and healing aimed at young people. I imagine how different my life would have been if the Oprah Show had talked about body positivity and loving your body where it is at when I was an adolescent instead of making me want to go on a liquid diet. It would have been so freeing. It can still be so freeing to so many teens if you make this turn now.
You know who should be wearing crop tops? Everyone who wants to be wearing crop tops. Non-normative bodies wearing crop tops are important because they help make the world safer and easier for other folks to feel comfortable in their bodies. I’d love to see you in a crop top, Oprah. I don’t care what condition your belly is in, I know it is beautiful.
P.S. I want to mention in this letter, because it’s an open letter, that it’s important to talk about the fact that just because people with all bodies CAN wear crop tops they don’t have to. It’s okay to be somewhere on the body love journey (or fashion preference journey) to not wear crop tops. No one should feel shame about their body love journey because they’re not ready to Rock the Crop.
Side note: How amazing would it be that, instead of the shallow “We’ll try to do better!” statement they actually issued, Oprah instead issued an apology with a promise that she’ll be on a future cover of Oprah Magazine wearing a “Diet Industry Drop Out” crop top?
Photo of Jacqueline Mary by Courtney Trouble. Jacqueline wrote a great guest post about how to be a good ally to her crippled arm. She also is a DIY smut artist inclusive of all bodies, the link here is totally not safe for work: Heartless Productions.