Reading through Belly Songs by Susan Stinson makes me think a lot about the gendered nuances of fatness. As a male identifying person, I can’t quite relate to the experiences depicted in Stinson’s book because of how it is specifically about more female experiences in regards to being fat.

However it’s hard to still discuss the concept of body image and fatness without talking about it in terms of gender and different experiences. The goal of Belly Songs is to capture the female experience of fatness in a positive manner. We see moments like poems with the words whale (possibly the lowest hanging fruit insult) being used positively, helping to reclaim fatness as a positive experience and regain agency of their body image perception. Poems like “Ways A Whale Gets Hungry” and “Passing” use the word ‘whale’ in the opposite way of its intended insulting use.

The interesting bit to me is that whale is often thrown at fat women, and fat men are perceived (negatively) differently. Fat men are stereotyped in media from every way to unwanted nerd to comic relief. In my own personal experience, I’ve received a fair amount of backlash for being fat. I’ve received comments about not being attractive as a chubbier male, and told to go gym/exercise to get back into shape. I notice a distinct disconnect between the current body positivity moment and fat men, because while on one hand a lot of fat men don’t get the same experiences like Stinson describes in Belly Songs, but there’s less positive reinforcement in our appearances. There’s a culture of toxic masculinity surrounding being fat, but also tropes like the “dad bod” exist which can be sometimes portrayed positively in certain cases. But fat men still serve as punchlines in real life and media, I mean, look at how Jack Black’s entire career consists of fat characters serving as the butt of the joke in most movies. And without positive reclamation of male fatness, we end up with many men wanting to be slimmer in order to be perceived as more masculine, specifically more ‘macho’.

I think there’s a lot of work to be done in talking about male body variety, especially for plus sized men and make the effort to shift the narrative to something that makes it more acceptable to be comfortable in their own skin. I would love to see a male version of Belly Songs , where we not only discuss the reclamation of male fat bodies but also talk about male queerness and fatness, because that’s another layer of dynamics that could’ve been its own discussion topic. Either way, my conclusion is that there’s a lot of ground to be covered here in regards to the male fat experience.

Parallels between the AIDS crisis and COVID-19

It’s really uncanny how many parallels you can draw between the AIDS epidemic and the current COVID-19 pandemic.

It’s even more uncanny how just in the last few weeks (and really, the entire year) we’ve also seen how similar the Asian-(American) experience has been in regards to AIDS and COVID.

The Manifesto from the Caucus of Asian & Pacific-Islander AIDS Activists details the historical problems AAPI people faced at the heights of the AIDs crisis. The rallying cry at the end of pg 637 almost mirrors sentiment today about COVID-19 and AAPI violence: “FIGHT RACISM, FIGHT SEXISM, FIGHT HOMOHPHOBIA, FIGHT GOVERNMENT NEGLECT, FIGHT INVISIBILITY, FIGHT AIDS


The wording is almost similar to many a social media caption or hashtag today, and the manifesto reads like an extended infographic one might see today on recent AAPI violence and commentary surrounding causes of violence against the AAPI communities.

A lot of the AAPI hate today stems from prior racist ideas such as fetishization of Asian women, the model minority myth and so forth, and many of these are historically present in issues like the AIDS crisis as well. The manifesto notes issues the AAPI community face like the threat of deportation in positive cases of AIDS, lack of treatment and resources from the CDCs and cities and even lack of recognition racially, being categorized as ‘other’ (pg 636,637). If you look at the tweet below, you can see some of the concerns raised by AAPI folk today in regards to recent hate, and it honestly appears that much hasn’t changed since AIDS was at its worst. Social media posts today denouncing hate are just more modern takes of the Manifesto here, but the issues are almost all the same.

The Radical Empathy of Eli Clare

“Complicit brutes, dumb brutes. I sit at my computer and imagine
you, my reader. You have never seen a clearcut, or if you have, you
were a tourist. Regardless of what you think about the timber industry, you believe loggers are butchers, maybe even murderers. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying. Maybe your people are coal miners or oil drillers. Maybe you’re a logger or fisherman. Or maybe, like me, you grew up among them. If so, you will understand my
need to talk about complicity and stupidity, although our understandings may differ dramatically.” (Clare 55)

I really loved this passage from Eli Clare’s Exile and Prejudice. One of my key takeaways from Clare’s writings is how well he breaks down different perspectives, especially that of perception of peoples and the “clearcut: brutes and bumper stickers chapter” is a great example of his ability to see things alternatively.

The chapter begins with Clare recounting the story of loggers who felt threatened by environmental activists, particularly the radical activist group Earth First!, where an article describe the loggers as “Neanderthal thugs” and no better than the Ku Klux Klan. Clare’s response to this is as follows:

“To clearly and accurately report unjust, excessive, and frightening violence is one thing; to portray a group of
people as dumb brutes is another” (Clare 52). Clare makes a powerful statement here on how we understand class structure in society. The general assumption being made are that the loggers are uneducated folk, who are actively harming the environment by their profession and being, and their retaliation of feeling threatened is blown up to a point where it is described as violence by a group fundamentally opposed to them. Clare however, in the original quote that I’ve brought in continues to further ponder what this dichotomy implies. He emphasizes the word ‘oversimplifying’, claiming there is more to what meets the eye. Clare goes on to recount a few stories to prove this, including one about Jim the timber cruiser turned environmentalist, and this passage accurately presents how nuanced identities can be:

“Is Jim the dumb brute you expect a logger to be? Probably not, but you don’t like the ambiguity. Or maybe you’re feeling tricked. Did you expect a story about a working-class redneck, a faller or choker setter, a bucker or truck driver, or maybe the man who pulls green chain — pulling the fresh-cut lumber off the saw — at the mill?” (Clare 56)

Clare is not afraid to embrace the nuanced complex worldview, and is not afraid to take a stance here some might find controversial. He is humanitarian in that aspect, willing to give benefit of doubt to people who might be seen as wrong to others. Some of these included people in his own hometown, and his ability to show compassion and empathy makes him a strong person, and it drives a larger theme in the book of acceptance and how complex identity can be.

PS. Here is a link to an archive of Earth First! journals, if you want to see what they were like and the kind of writings they used to publish

The Paradoxical Singularity of the American People

Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself is an American classic. The poem’s attention to the various iconographies of America, its natural beauty and its people alongside Whitman’s own reputation have cemented it and him as a centerpiece of classic American literature.

Yet it cannot go without saying that Walt Whitman’s attempt to condense the American experience into a singular monolith, as portrayed in one of the most famous lines of the poem — “I am large, I contain multitudes” (Whitman section 51) — creates an odd, paradoxical singularity of America. Walt Whitman’s whiteness in an era where segregation and slavery was still legal cannot go without saying. Whitman’s poem references many comparisons to slavery, such as

“The hounded slave that flags in the race, leans by the fence, blowing, cover’d with sweat,
The twinges that sting like needles his legs and neck, the murderous buckshot and the bullets,
All these I feel or am.” (Whitman section 33)

So when we revisit the “I contain multitudes” line, we are made aware of how Whitman attempts to not only contain his own identity, but the identity of other Americans, including the enslaved into a uniform line representing them all.

In The Work of a Common Woman , a poetry collection from Judy Grahn we are treated to a different experience of America. Grahn’s poems about common women are anything but common— in direct opposition to Whitman’s singular multitudes we are treated to the unique common experience, poems about specific people and their specific lives and personalities. We get names of women like Helen, Vera and Ella. We are told they and others Grahn writes about are the common women, yet we also get lines that emphasize anything but common. Ella’s poem has a line that goes “Once she shot a lover who misused her child. Before she got out of jail, the courts had pounced and given the child away.” (Grahn 63).

It is lines like this that make us wonder what ‘common’ here is to mean, when Ella’s experiences aren’t the same as the next poem’s subject Nadine, “sitting on the doorstep counting/rats and raising 15 children,/half of them her own.” (Grahn 64). Common here is anything but common, and Grahn brilliantly avoids the same trap Whitman set for himself trying to lump America into one bubble. One might feel like this is Grahn’s answer to Whitman’s famous line, her own way of trying to inform Whitman that his experience isn’t representative of everyone, and that each person is their own unique identity, even with similar experiences and commonalities this uniqueness makes them their own individual being and they deserve to be seen as such. Grahn’s poems end up thus affirming America, and America’s women as a nation of different peoples, alike but never the same.

The Ambiguity of “Dialogue”

Adrienne Rich’s poems offer a vibrant look into thoughts of gender and sexuality. Dialogue is one such poem that offers a cross-examination of gender conformity, the nature of sexuality and an ambiguous reading of queerness in different forms.

Dialogue’s main plot can be read and interpreted as the narrator (of an unspecified gender who speaks in first person) referring to a ‘she’, who responds to the narrator with a monologue represented in italics : “ I do not know if sex is an illusion
I do not know who I was when I did those things
or who I said I was
or whether I willed to feel
what I had read about
or who in fact was there with me
or whether I knew, even then
that there was doubt about these things.” (Rich 100)

Now this can be read one of two days in the context of a queer lens reading. The first is the narrator is the only figure present in the story, with the I and she being two aspects of the narrator having an internal dialogue, where sex can be read as gender. The second is obviously much more straightforward, with two separate people having a conversation with each other about sex, in this case intercourse.

The beauty of this poem lies in its ambiguity and how it works to support either way. The ambiguity of defining who the ‘I’ and ‘she’ are can allow readers to interpret either opinion. The first is an interesting read of transness, where the ‘she’ is the trans personality speaking to the clearly conflicted original ‘I’. The italics can be read as inner monologue, so this ends up being the trans identity of the narrator describing sex as an illusion as their gender is a lie, expressing ‘doubt’ over their past actions (“I do not know/ who I was when I did those things). The fact it also line breaks into the inner monologue in a different stanza is both a literal transition for the poetry, and also metaphorical, because the ‘speaker’ changes. Thus the poem then becomes a dialogue of transness, of doubts of gender identity.

The alternative reading can be read as a potentially queer conversation between two partners, who discuss their intercourse and how it plays into their relationship. The “sex is an illusion” here implies more explicit subtext, which makes the second speaker’s (the ‘she’) dialogue more about the doubts that come with embracing their sexuality and queerness. It could potentially refer to them feeling uncomfortable about their previous encounters being with partners they weren’t attracted to.

Personally, I prefer the first reading as it makes a lot more use of the poetic form to take advantage of reader ambiguity and lean into us being conflicted alongside the narrator as to the identity of the speaker — much like gender identity conflict, we as readers are made to question who to identify in the poem, and their struggle about being themselves.