The body will tell the truth when all else fails, with or without you.1
Misty DeBerry, Performance Artist
I am a black woman who wishes for a time
That I could gain my weight back
And still be fine
Four years ago I lived as a fat black female, actress and teacher, trying to learn to love my curves and to maintain a healthy lifestyle. I was failing miserably. I ate McDonald’s and Zaxby’s nearly every day coupled with home cooked meals. I imagined myself unattractive, undesirable, and unworthy of love and attention from men. At the same time, through weight loss advertisements, public ridicule, and size discrimination, society made it very clear that I was the gross unwanted “other.” My body was classified as morbidly obese, and I was getting larger every month. Even I began to view my largeness as unacceptable, and the only way I knew to rectify my situation was to lose the weight. As body image scholar Kathleen LeBesco has affirmed: “the possibility of passing, trying to lose weight, wanting to become ‘normal,’ is about the only recognized option available to fat women in twentieth century Anglo-American culture.”2 However, losing a large amount of weight is extremely difficult, and even if this nigh-impossible feat is accomplished, only 5% of people who achieve substantial weight loss are able to keep the weight off for long periods of time.3 Still, we diet and diet again in hopes that one day we will cross the border that separates fat from skinny.
Though the efforts of Fat Studies4 scholars have not gone unnoticed, their textual and political reach has not yet proved significantly influential in the weight loss and health industries. Both Fat Rights by Anna Kirkland and Human Rights Casualties from the “War on Obesity”5by Lily O’Hara and Jane Gregg highlight the need for America to end the vilification, harassment and abjection of the fat body. As SanderGilman has noted, “Obesity presents itself today in the form of a ‘moral panic’—that is, an episode, condition, person or group of persons that have in recent times been defined as ‘a threat to societal values and interests.’”6
As my dieting failures multiplied, the constant, disapproving scrutiny of the world affected my well-being, and I spiraled into a deep depression. In America, a fat person is classified as diseased, one who must be cured of a pathological and physical illness, despite the acknowledgement that most people will fail at dieting; thereby making the border-crossing from fat to skinny a remarkable feat. In addition, physicians argue that an obese body creates exorbitant health costs and is directly correlated with mortality risks,7 while sociologists and cultural observers assert that the size and appearance of one’s body determines marriageability, upward mobility, and/or perceived attractiveness, especially for women.8 Feminist scholar Sandra Lee Bartky argues that “the disciplinary project of femininity is a‘setup:’ it requires such radical and extensive measures of bodily transformation that virtually every woman who gives herself to it is destined in some degree to fail.”9 Yet, “diet we must . . . to be saved.”10 Thus my doomed quest to achieve “normal” weight was never-ending. My depressive state of failure rendered me hopeless. The sadder I got, the bigger I grew, until I experienced my first nosebleed. The illness of my body must have scared me skinny because only a few months later I enrolled in a low-calorie shake diet and lost nearly 100 pounds within 8 months. Having succumbed to the physical and mental attacks from society by nearly starving myself, I crossed one of the most contentious, palpable borders known to women in America: the border that separates fat from skinny.
This essay recounts how my border-crossing journey from morbidly obese woman to slender11 woman shaped my awareness of my outsider-within12 identity as a black woman, a theatre artist, and scholar. It is an exploration of how straddling vastly different physical and psychological identities led me to performance, what I term transweight performance, as a means of understanding this experience for myself and as a means of communicating and perhaps illuminating such experience for others. Just as the Latin prefix trans has been attached to various identity markers to signify crossing from one condition or location to another, as in transgender, I employ transweight as a term to identify someone who willfully acquires a new size identity by losing or gaining a large amount of weight in a short amount of time.13
Recently, there has been a proliferation of studies on the black female performing body, including solo/black/woman, an anthology of scripts, interviews, and essays edited by E. Patrick Johnson and Ramón H. Rivera-Servera; Troubling Vision by Nicole Fleetwood, which considers the visual commodity of black bodies; and Embodying Black Experience by Harvey Young, which investigates the black performative body in various socio-political contexts.14 While these works are all significant studies that explore the black female performing body, none focus specifically on the issue of weight, or the performance of “weighted” (fat/thin) identities. This lack of literature on the black/female/transweight performative body is most likely due to the absence of black transweight women writing about and/or performing weight loss, and can also be attributed to the fact that the fat body rarely transforms. Thus, my research aims to carve out a space in scholarship for the transweight black female, one that is intensely personal and, at the same time, profoundly political. With this exploration of my border crossing, I offer my slender palimpsest of a body as an entryway into a liminal world largely unexplored.