Can the word “fat” be reclaimed?

Belly Songs was made “in celebration of fat women” (Stinson 0). The term “fat” has a negative connotation attached to it when it is simply another adjective, a way to describe a person. Why is it seen as a derogatory term? Reclaiming that word into a positive context is difficult today that pushes for the Western ideal of beauty. However, that does not mean we should stop urging for change from society’s values which Stinson helps to alter. This specific poem’s title, “The Good Servant,” hints at how society views fat people. The first stanza has our narrator call out to a rich man who walks by and tells him “I drink oceans. / I eat mountains of bread” (Stinson, 31). This is all to make her presence known, she will not shy away from being honest about her eating habits and appearance. The rich man then says “be my servant,” which hints at the fetishization of bigger women. This degrading language shows how society views fat people as beneath others, to belittle them solely based on appearance. This is important because for so long fat people were treated differently from skinnier people and this degradation from a wealthy man shows his effort to assert his dominance and superiority. She then goes on to say, “He has read enough / to show cordiality to oddities,” which explains a lesson many children are taught at an early age which is if you do not have anything nice to say it is better to not say anything at all (Stinson, 31). Also, to be polite to people who look “different” from the norm and be extra cordial. Does this stem from a place of concern, guilt, or both?

Many features that are down upon in society that may be described as “unflattering” or “unwanted” include: fat rolls, sweat, or stretch marks the list is infinite. Stinson writes of how she “glisten[s] in [her] tight clothes,” to show how proud she is of her appearance despite the “the stains over [her] breasts” (Stinson 31). She has her hem of her pant legs dragging along the dirt on the floor as she walks which may allude to her height, meaning falling on the shorter side. The western ideals of beauty typically include being tall, skinny, blue-eyed, hairless, and blonde. Being a fat, short person is not seen as the ideal when these attributes are all normal and what makes us human. Stinson beautifully describes her stretch marks as “colored marks [that] web [her] upper arms, / breasts, belly and thighs” (Stinson 31). Imagining a graceful web of strings that a spider creates is unique to think of when describing a beauty mark that is seen as unfeminine or unattractive. She describes herself as a wonder, which can mean as hard to interpret, understand, a confusing yet fascinating idea. She is admired, beautiful, captivating despite these supposed flaws she possesses in the eyes of society. Eating disorders and body dysmorphia is heavily prevalent today and Stinson admits to starving herself “to unmarbled red meat” (Stinson 31). Searching up the term “marbled meat” which means to have streaks or layers of lean and fat and so she admits starving herself to make herself skinny. She “bleached [her] heart” meaning she damaged her heart and health both physically and mentally all to reach a false conclusion of happiness. Why should we aim to follow a false reality of happiness when we are enduring more harm than good to gain this ideal of beauty? This poem matters because it serves as a reminder that we should learn to love and embrace our insecurities and supposed “flaws.” The reclaiming of the term fat is a continuous process, one that is lengthy and against difficult odds, but it begins with the individual. The individual holds the power to fight at society’s toxic values and begin to care for themselves both mentally and physically, heal from a society seemingly against them.

The gay man and the Mormon

Tony Kushner’s, Angels in America, tells the story of people who struggle with dealing with the AIDS virus that ravages the queer community at first. The lack of support and attention for this epidemic led to the loss of many lives and these fictional accounts share a glimpse of the difficulties that followed the neglect. An unexpected pair share an intimate moment between Prior and Hannah who come from opposite ends of beliefs and upbringings. Prior, a gay man, who is suffering from the effects of being diagnosed with AIDS, and Hannah the mother of Joe, a closeted gay man, who is a Mormon from Utah. After an attempted confrontation with Joe and an ensuing panic attack from his health complications, Hannah assists Prior to the hospital despite her hesitations.

In Act 4, scene 8 sets the scene in an examination room at the hospital. Emily, who is Prior’s nurse-practitioner, is critiquing Prior for over-exerting himself causing him to worsen his health and lose weight. Kushner utilizes capital letters to emphasize Prior’s tone and carry gravity to his panic and anger after dealing with this virus for so long. Kushner also uses the hyphen-minus to demonstrate how Prior cuts off Hannah whenever she speaks to get the genuine answer to his question of whether she thinks he seems insane? Irritability and lack of patience seem to be a given when in a state of mental and physical fragility. The trials following this virus do not only affect the physical aspect but also the mental state especially after Louis left Prior by himself.

Luckily, at this moment, he is accompanied by Hannah who is very patient with him despite his attitude and insults towards her son. Prior says he has “been driven insane by… your son,” alluding to him as a home-wrecker after discovering of the affairs Louis and Joe had (Kushner, 239). The ellipsis may refer to his continuous train of thought that is never-ending which leads to jumping from thought to thought after arguing with Emily. Another hint at his passive-aggressive comments was when he introduced Hannah as his “ex-lover’s lover’s Mormon mother” (Kushner, 238). By mentioning that she is Mormon this may connect to his dislike for Joe even more since he is a closeted-gay, republican, and Mormon; all aspects of a typical, cisgender, straight male that may be homophobic. After Prior shows Hannah his lesions in a moment of distress an interesting comment was made by Hannah. She refers to Prior’s AIDS virus as cancer, “Nothing more. Nothing more human than that,” which can imply her difficulties with understanding the queer community (Kushner, 241).

When to test for HIV: Part 1

The Copperheaded Waitress

The “copperheaded waitress,” Ella, lives her common life withstanding the struggles as a woman in a society that actively works against her (63). In Judy Grahn’s collected poetry, The Work of a Common Woman, she can speak on topics of the vengeful feminist narrative that dictates resentment against women who speak up or act out of the innocent, soft-spoken bubble placed upon women. In the poem, “Ella, in a square apron, along Highway 80,” the title indicates the story of a common working woman as a “copperheaded waitress, / tired and sharp-worded” (63). Women who work in the foodservice industry often are harassed through catcalling or unwarranted sexual advances that they feel they must endure in order to keep their jobs. Being described as sharp-worded may be seen in a negative connotation as rude or impudent for speaking their mind, their truth. This can grow to be a defense mechanism since the word ‘tired’ implies she has endured much of this harassment for a while.

As the poem goes along it becomes evident that she is not foreign to these advances and often responds back to not feel as though she needs to bite her tongue. Ella “flicks her ass / out of habit, to fend off the pass / that passes for affection” (63). The catcalling women endure as harassment are a common, everyday occurrence yet women are told to accept them as compliments. In a society that actively works against women and establish an inert gender hierarchy will go at lengths to pit women down even through menial remarks or gestures. By using her body, specifically her bottom, she can reclaim what is hers and use it to her advantage to fend off men quickly enough to not endure any feelings of remorse. Those feelings of remorse or guilt come from the idea instituted through society that women should be grateful for these “compliments” and thus at the very least give men the time of day and make small talk out of obligation.

Even so, Ella is human and has her own struggles, and it is exhausting having to constantly dismiss these advances. The struggles that haunt women leave her to understand “the necessity for pain, turns away / the smaller tips, out of pride, and / keeps a flask under the counter” (63). These unhealthy coping mechanisms of abusing alcohol has its faults, yet it is her way of coping, enduring a not only laborious but also menial job with everyday annoyances from customers. By deflecting the tips, she can keep her pride, a seemingly menial task that keeps her going as an independent woman. Another struggle imposed by society is the faulty government system of handling domestic and sexual cases. She is sorrowful of losing her child after “she shot [her] lover who misused her child,” hinting at rape or sexual abuse. Yet, “before she got out of jail, the courts had pounced / and given the child away” alluding to how the system that should have helped her gain justice after being wronged as a mother was further let down.

The Common Woman

Judy Grahn and her collected poetry, The Work of a Common Woman, highlights the struggles women, especially those that identify as a part of the LGBTQ+ community, endure in their everyday life. Specifically her poem “IV. Carol, in the park, chewing on straws,” with a seemingly unrelated, futile title. To the outside observer, a woman is doing mundane tasks, going about her everyday life without a thought to her actions. However, the woman is facing conflicts that a passive observer cannot understand, and her actions and tasks are not mundane to her. Grahn’s diction purposefully imitates a feeling of despair ends with triumph. Some of those struggles are about how difficult it is for “women [to] go without protection from men,” the idea that women are not able to be fully independent and need men to survive (67). It is difficult to survive in a patriarchal society that constantly works against minorities; eventually she feels the need to go throughout the day and “she smiles and lies and grits her teeth and pretends to be shy, or weak, or busy” (67). Women constantly feel the need to “dumb themselves down” in order to attract a man or seem incompetent in order to not intimidate men. The problem with being confident or assertive is that it is misinterpreted and women get called bossy, conceited, or even a bitch. Yet, the woman “goes home and pounds her own nails, makes her own bets, and fixes her own car, with her friend” (67). Meaning she has no problem being independent, but only feels comfortable enough to do it in the safety of her home. “Her friend” is her partner who “she has taken [as] a woman lover” which was highly criticized especially given the time period: this was written from 1964-1977 (67). Confidently coming out even now is a difficult task for many to do and feel optimistic to share, so one can imagine the fear of doing this over 50 years ago before same-sex marriage was legal or LGBTQ+ rights were recognized. The illustration paired with this poem can be interpreted in two ways; first, either a duality of two faces or second, two women kissing. Nevertheless, both relate to the poem depending on the perspective one views the image. If one views it from the front it looks like one face with two different sides or viewing it as a side profile it looks like two different people kissing. The duality of faces can refer back to Carol feeling the need to hide her independent side from the outside world and the one she shows publicly which is more timid and quiet. The side profile can represent Carol and her partner in an intimate manner. Yet, at the end she may “she may walk around all day quietly, but underneath it she’s electric;… the common woman is as common as a thunderstorm” (67). This simile is comparing women to a thunderstorm being complex yet powerful in nature, which is a beautiful comparison to highlight the strength behind women. 

Internal Dialogue

This collection of poems by Adrienne Rich poses many questions that intrigue the readers to attempt deciphering the meaning behind the several imagery and symbolism. Specifically, when analyzing Dialogue the irony behind the title and the rest of the poem. The word dialogue insinuates conversation between two people, yet in this poem, one can only locate one voice. The narrator seems to be deep in thought with herself, thus meaning an internal dialogue one where she is confronted by conflict and confusion. The structure of the poem is reaffirming of an internal conflict within the first sentence there is an enjambment. May be representative of her continuous, repetitive thoughts that seem to be never-ending. Thoughts that seem foreign and uncomfortable for the narrator to confront based on her own “doubt about these things” (100). Those “things” being questions of sexuality as she questions if she knows “sex is an illusion” (100). Sex may represent the act or the questioning of one’s sexuality, in this case, it may refer to the act which is commonly accepted between a woman and man. Following this quote is a sudden break in the poem as the narrator may have the internal conflict as to whether to continue with this train of thought of questioning her sexuality. 

Early on in the poem, the narrator seems to be fidgeting and “turning an old ring to the light” as if she was conflicted with her true feelings regarding her idea of traditional marriage between a man and woman. Although it was written in 1972 the cultural context varies from today in terms of sexuality questioning awareness and homosexuality thoughts were not commonly accepted. The imagery behind the “rain against the screens” signifies the violent, rattling against a figurative window and her thoughts that provoke her everyday activities (100). They distract her from attending to her usual tasks and these thoughts seem to follow her as she goes to make tea and go about her day. The cluster of related terms including “August, heat-lighting, and tea” can signify heat, possibly an illusion of how she feels overwhelmed by her thoughts (100). Tone and word choice throughout the poem has a negative connotation when she says “and this is what I live through over and over” which is indicative of how she seems exasperated with these penetrating thoughts (100). 

The latter half of the poem is a personal reflection of her running thoughts as we glimpse into these questions she poses for herself. There is a sense of desperate questioning of identity when she asks “who I was when I did those things” (100). The narrator seems to be repressing her feelings based on what she views around her as socially acceptable, by learning through current readings and in that current political climate questioning sexuality was not as commonly accepted. “Those things” possibly being engaging in a heterosexual marriage and reflects on how as though she cannot associate herself with that same person. The disconnect haunts her throughout the day with this personal dialogue that is repetitive and seemingly never-ending.