TEDxSydney

Kelli Jean Drinkwater: Enough with the fear of fat

Filmed:

In a society obsessed with body image and marked by a fear of fat, Kelli Jean Drinkwater engages in radical body politics through art. She confronts the public's perception of bigger bodies by bringing them into spaces that were once off limits -- from fashion runways to the Sydney Festival -- and entices all of us to look again and rethink our biases. "Unapologetic fat bodies can blow people's minds," she says.

- Artist, activist
Kelli Jean Drinkwater is a multi-disciplinary artist and activist recognized for her creative practice and voice in radical body politics. Full bio

I'm here today to talk to you
about a very powerful little word,
00:12
one that people will do almost anything
00:17
to avoid becoming.
00:19
Billion-dollar industries thrive
00:22
because of the fear of it,
00:24
and those of us who undeniably are it
00:26
are left to navigate a relentless storm
00:29
surrounding it.
00:31
I'm not sure if any of you have noticed,
00:33
but I'm fat.
00:36
Not the lowercase,
muttered-behind-my-back kind,
00:39
or the seemingly harmless
chubby or cuddly.
00:42
I'm not even the more sophisticated
voluptuous or curvaceous kind.
00:45
Let's not sugarcoat it.
00:51
I am the capital F-A-T kind of fat.
00:53
I am the elephant in the room.
00:57
When I walked out on stage,
01:01
some of you may have been thinking,
01:03
"Aww, this is going to be hilarious,
01:05
because everybody knows
that fat people are funny."
01:07
(Laughter)
01:10
Or you may have been thinking,
"Where does she get her confidence from?"
01:12
Because a confident fat woman
is almost unthinkable.
01:16
The fashion-conscious
members of the audience
01:20
may have been thinking how fabulous I look
01:22
in this Beth Ditto dress --
01:25
(Cheers)
01:27
thank you very much.
01:28
Whereas some of you might have thought,
01:30
"Hmm, black would have been
so much more slimming."
01:32
(Laughter)
01:34
You may have wondered, consciously or not,
01:36
if I have diabetes, or a partner,
01:38
or if I eat carbs after 7pm.
01:41
(Laughter)
01:43
You may have worried
that you ate carbs after 7pm last night,
01:45
and that you really should renew
your gym membership.
01:49
These judgments are insidious.
01:53
They can be directed
at individuals and groups,
01:55
and they can also
be directed at ourselves.
01:58
And this way of thinking
is known as fatphobia.
02:01
Like any form of systematic oppression,
02:05
fatphobia is deeply rooted
in complex structures
02:08
like capitalism, patriarchy and racism,
02:11
and that can make it
really difficult to see,
02:15
let alone challenge.
02:18
We live in a culture
02:20
where being fat
is seen as being a bad person --
02:22
lazy, greedy, unhealthy, irresponsible
02:27
and morally suspect.
02:30
And we tend to see thinness
02:33
as being universally good --
02:34
responsible, successful,
02:37
and in control of our appetites,
bodies and lives.
02:39
We see these ideas again and again
02:44
in the media, in public health policy,
02:46
doctors' offices,
02:49
in everyday conversations
02:51
and in our own attitudes.
02:53
We may even blame fat people themselves
02:55
for the discrimination they face
02:58
because, after all, if we don't like it,
we should just lose weight.
03:00
Easy.
03:05
This antifat bias has become
so integral, so ingrained
03:07
to how we value ourselves and each other
03:11
that we rarely question why
we have such contempt for people of size
03:14
and where that disdain comes from.
03:20
But we must question it,
03:22
because the enormous value
we place on how we look
03:24
affects every one of us.
03:27
And do we really want to live in a society
03:30
where people are denied
their basic humanity
03:33
if they don't subscribe
to some arbitrary form of acceptable?
03:36
So when I was six years old,
03:42
my sister used to teach ballet
to a bunch of little girls in our garage.
03:43
I was about a foot taller and a foot wider
than most of the group.
03:48
When it came to doing
our first performance,
03:52
I was so excited
about wearing a pretty pink tutu.
03:54
I was going to sparkle.
03:59
As the other girls slipped easily
into their Lycra and tulle creations,
04:02
not one of the tutus
was big enough to fit me.
04:06
I was determined not to be
excluded from the performance,
04:10
so I turned to my mother
04:14
and loud enough for everyone to hear
04:17
said, "Mom, I don't need a tutu.
04:20
I need a fourfour."
04:24
(Laughter)
04:26
Thanks, Mom.
04:29
(Applause)
04:30
And although I didn't
recognize it at the time,
04:34
claiming space for myself
in that glorious fourfour
04:36
was the first step towards becoming
a radical fat activist.
04:40
Now, I'm not saying
that this whole body-love thing
04:45
has been an easy skip along
a glittering path of self-acceptance
04:48
since that day in class.
04:52
Far from it.
04:54
I soon learned that living outside
what the mainstream considers normal
04:56
can be a frustrating and isolating place.
05:00
I've spent the last 20 years unpacking
and deprogramming these messages,
05:04
and it's been quite the roller coaster.
05:09
I've been openly laughed at,
abused from passing cars
05:12
and been told that I'm delusional.
05:16
I also receive smiles from strangers
05:19
who recognize what it takes
to walk down the street
05:21
with a spring in your step
and your head held high.
05:24
(Cheer)
05:27
Thanks.
05:28
And through it all, that fierce
little six-year-old has stayed with me,
05:29
and she has helped me
stand before you today
05:33
as an unapologetic fat person,
05:36
a person that simply refuses to subscribe
05:39
to the dominant narrative
05:42
about how I should move
through the world in this body of mine.
05:44
(Applause)
05:48
And I'm not alone.
05:56
I am part of an international
community of people
05:58
who choose to, rather
than passively accepting
06:01
that our bodies are
and probably always will be big,
06:04
we actively choose to flourish
in these bodies as they are today.
06:08
People who honor our strength
and work with, not against,
06:13
our perceived limitations,
06:16
people who value health
06:19
as something much more holistic
06:21
than a number on an outdated BMI chart.
06:23
Instead, we value mental health,
self-worth and how we feel in our bodies
06:26
as vital aspects
to our overall well-being.
06:32
People who refuse to believe
that living in these fat bodies
06:37
is a barrier to anything, really.
06:40
There are doctors, academics and bloggers
06:45
who have written countless volumes
06:48
on the many facets
of this complex subject.
06:50
There are fatshionistas
who reclaim their bodies and their beauty
06:54
by wearing fatkinis and crop tops,
06:59
exposing the flesh
that we're all taught to hide.
07:02
There are fat athletes
07:06
who run marathons,
teach yoga or do kickboxing,
07:07
all done with a middle finger
firmly held up to the status quo.
07:11
And these people have taught me
that radical body politics
07:17
is the antidote
to our body-shaming culture.
07:20
But to be clear, I'm not saying
that people shouldn't change their bodies
07:25
if that's what they want to do.
07:30
Reclaiming yourself can be one
of the most gorgeous acts of self-love
07:32
and can look like
a million different things,
07:36
from hairstyles to tattoos
to body contouring
07:39
to hormones to surgery
and yes, even weight loss.
07:43
It's simple: it's your body,
07:47
and you decide what's best to do with it.
07:49
My way of engaging in activism
07:52
is by doing all the things
that we fatties aren't supposed to do,
07:55
and there's a lot of them,
07:58
inviting other people to join me
and then making art about it.
08:00
The common thread
through most of this work
08:05
has been reclaiming spaces that are
often prohibitive to bigger bodies,
08:07
from the catwalk to club shows,
08:12
from public swimming pools
to prominent dance stages.
08:15
And reclaiming spaces en masse
is not only a powerful artistic statement
08:20
but a radical community-building approach.
08:25
This was so true of "AQUAPORKO!" --
08:28
(Laughter)
08:31
the fat fem synchronized swim team
08:33
I started with a group
of friends in Sydney.
08:36
The impact of seeing
a bunch of defiant fat women
08:40
in flowery swimming caps and bathers
08:43
throwing their legs in the air
without a care
08:45
should not be underestimated.
08:48
(Laughter)
08:53
Throughout my career, I have learned
that fat bodies are inherently political,
08:56
and unapologetic fat bodies
09:01
can blow people's minds.
09:03
When director Kate Champion,
09:08
of acclaimed dance theater
company Force Majeure,
09:10
asked me to be the artistic associate
09:13
on a work featuring all fat dancers,
09:16
I literally jumped at the opportunity.
09:19
And I mean literally.
09:23
"Nothing to Lose" is a work made
in collaboration with performers of size
09:26
who drew from their lived experiences
09:30
to create a work as varied
and authentic as we all are.
09:33
And it was as far from ballet
as you could imagine.
09:37
The very idea of a fat dance work
by such a prestigious company
09:41
was, to put it mildly, controversial,
09:46
because nothing like it had ever been done
on mainstream dance stages before
09:50
anywhere in the world.
09:55
People were skeptical.
09:59
"What do you mean, 'fat dancers?'
10:01
Like, size 10, size 12 kind of fat?
10:05
Where did they do their dance training?
10:10
Are they going to have the stamina
for a full-length production?"
10:13
But despite the skepticism,
10:18
"Nothing to Lose" became
a sellout hit of Sydney Festival.
10:20
We received rave reviews, toured,
10:24
won awards and were written about
in over 27 languages.
10:27
These incredible images of our cast
were seen worldwide.
10:31
I've lost count of how many times
people of all sizes
10:37
have told me that the show
has changed their lives,
10:41
how it helped them
shift their relationship
10:44
to their own and other people's bodies,
10:46
and how it made them confront
their own bias.
10:49
But of course, work
that pushes people's buttons
10:53
is not without its detractors.
10:56
I have been told
that I'm glorifying obesity.
10:59
I have received violent death threats
11:03
and abuse for daring to make work
that centers fat people's bodies and lives
11:05
and treats us as worthwhile human beings
with valuable stories to tell.
11:11
I've even been called
11:17
"the ISIS of the obesity epidemic" --
11:19
(Laughter)
11:22
a comment so absurd that it is funny.
11:24
But it also speaks to the panic,
11:27
the literal terror,
11:30
that the fear of fat can evoke.
11:32
It is this fear that's feeding
the diet industry,
11:35
which is keeping so many of us
from making peace with our own bodies,
11:38
for waiting to be the after-photo
11:43
before we truly start to live our lives.
11:45
Because the real elephant
in the room here is fatphobia.
11:49
Fat activism refuses to indulge this fear.
11:54
By advocating for self-determination
and respect for all of us,
11:58
we can shift society's reluctance
to embrace diversity
12:02
and start to celebrate the myriad ways
there are to have a body.
12:06
Thank you.
12:12
(Applause)
12:13

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About the Speaker:

Kelli Jean Drinkwater - Artist, activist
Kelli Jean Drinkwater is a multi-disciplinary artist and activist recognized for her creative practice and voice in radical body politics.

Why you should listen

Kelli Jean Drinkwater uses the fat body as a site to investigate the complex relationship we all have with our bodies and how that defines the world we live in.

Recurring themes in Drinkwater's work are notions of taking up space, queering fat embodiment and how this reclamation can transform and reimagine the potential of self and community. Her work is motivated by how these ideas intersect with gender, race, class and ability.

Drinkwater's work has featured in major international galleries, festivals and magazines. Now based in Sydney, Australia, her recent performances in include Force Majeure's "Nothing to Lose" for Sydney Festival, "NightCraft" for the Museum of Contemporary Art, "Tableau Vivant" for Underbelly Arts Festival, and "MonstaGras" at The Red Rattler Theatre. 

Drinkwater's film Aquaporko! won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at Mardi Gras Film Festival 2013. Drinkwater is currently in production on a documentary feature that follows the making of the "Nothing to Lose" live show.

More profile about the speaker
Kelli Jean Drinkwater | Speaker | TED.com