Chewing the Fat: On Body Positivity

Kimberly Williams
Sep 22, 2016 · 7 min read
Kelli Jean Drinkwater

In the second installment of Chewing the Fat, I chose to focus on Australia-based artist and activist Kelli Jean Drinkwater.

Drinkwater’s work uses the body as a site of exploration of identity, queer and feminist theory, and society’s obsession with perfection. She is an interdisciplinary artist working within the genres of performance, sound, film, and fashion. Recurring themes in her work include ideas of taking up space, queering fat embodiment and how this reclamation transforms realities and re-imagines the self and community. Her work is motivated by the exploration of what is forbidden and prohibited for the fat, femme body. The costumes, themes, and subject matter of her work engages with existing tropes regarding fat bodies, as well as the kind of magical thinking with which people of size are all too familiar.

Kelli Jean Drinkwater

Kelli Jean Drinkwater holds a Bachelor of Arts in Visual Art from the University of Newcastle, and has also studied at the University of California at Irvine. Drinkwater has collaborated with several artists, including Shelly Love, Justin Shoulder, Scottee, Penelope Beuton, and the performance troupe Force Majeure. Drinkwater has curated, hosted, and performed in various shows internationally, in such locations as London, Dublin, and Tokyo. She is also the resident artist with The Glitter Militia performance collective based in Sydney, Australia.

Force Majeure, founded in 2002, is a group of artists who push the boundaries of contemporary dance and produce works that communicate in new ways with the audience. Force Majeure collaborated with Kelli Jean Drinkwater to produce Nothing to Lose, the award-winning hit of Sydney Festival 2015, which has subsequently been performed in several countries. Created by Drinkwater and Force Majeure founder Kate Champion, Nothing to Lose delves into the real life experiences and stories to challenge norms and reclaim a performance space for large bodies. The kind of brazen abandon with which these performers move onstage is amazing. They are moving in ways that people of size have only dreamed about, as some members of the size community are still too embarrassed to dance in the privacy of their own homes.

One of the performers in Nothing to Lose

Kelli Jean Drinkwater then turned her focus on the collaborative, creative, and personal stories of the cast of Nothing to Lose. Their stories are featured in Nothing to Lose: The Documentary, which is now in post-production after a successful crowd funding campaign on Pozible.

Aquaporko!, a documentary co-directed by Kelli Jean Drinkwater and Anna Helme, focuses on Drinkwater’s fat synchronized swimming group. Aquaporko! won the audience award for Best Documentary at the 2013 Mardi Gras Film Festival, and has since been selected at more than thirty film festivals around the world. The trailer of the documentary is a short, bright look at these synchronized swimmers. They laugh, explaining the name of both the group and the film, saying, “We’re porkers!” Affectionately adopting the normally derogatory moniker “porkers,” while having fun swimming and feeling the movement of their bodies, shows that they are thwarting expectations from both themselves and others.

Another founding member, Jackie Wykes, states, “Aquaporko is intrinsically political. It’s about visibility — a group of fat women in flowery bathing caps doing synchronized kicks in the pool is pretty unmissable. It’s also about movement and strength and physical skill and learning that our bodies — which we’re told over and over again are weak and flawed and pathetic — are actually capable. That we can do things that are physically difficult, and that we can do them in a way that is beautiful and elegant and fun and wonderful.”

What Wykes says is completely true, but ignorant attitudes persist around the world. Rachel Colls and Bethan Evans write in their 2010 article “Challenging Assumptions: Re-thinking ‘the obesity problem’” that the co-morbidity of obesity and ill-health is presented as “truth” and that there are multiple false truths imposed upon the obese population. These “truths” include the use of the BMI scale to measure fatness, that this measurement is a good indicator of an individual’s health, that overweight children become overweight/unhealthy adults, and that an overweight individual should work to reduce their BMI to lengthen their life expectancy. Colls and Evans focus on the fact that BMI includes bone, muscle, and skin mass — not just fat, as so many people seem to believe. The BMI actually runs counter to medical advice, and is harmful to children. Nutritionists advocate a HAES (Health at Every Size) approach, meaning that an individual can be both fit and fat. Obesity is not a problem: looking at individuals as numbers, and especially as numbers that need changing is a problem, particularly in terms of people of size and their frequently violated human rights. Without a HAES approach, people of size (particularly women) grow up hating themselves, trying needlessly to change themselves, and living within a truncated psychological space which precludes free thought and expression.

Jes Baker, the fat activist known as The Militant Baker and author of the book Things No One Will Tell Fat Girls, interviewed Kelli Jean Drinkwater about her work in the body acceptance movement. KJD says that, “For me, I just refused to believe I was worthless because of my body and every insult just became fuel for my fat activist fire.”

Baker asked Drinkwater how she feels about the term “fat acceptance,” and KJD remarked that “fat acceptance” implies that fat is inherently negative, functioning as an apologetic way of engaging in body politics. Drinkwater prefers the terms “fat activism,” or “body liberation.” I agree with KJD: “acceptance” has the connotation of a disease, or something otherwise negative in every respect, and because there is nothing inherently negative or problematic about having a fat body, “acceptance” is the wrong word.

In her article “Navigating Public Spaces: Gender, Race, and Body Privilege in Everyday Life,” Samantha Kwan writes about Peggy McIntosh’s use of the term “white privilege” and uses that ideology to discuss body privilege. Those who have privilege in a society can perform tasks, see themselves represented, etc. These acts allow the dominant group to practice avoidance, aversion, and separation from the Other (here the Other are people of size). Thin privilege allows our society to signify these other bodies as “ugly, dirty, defiled, and contaminated,” which then translates directly into downward economic and social mobility for women of size (Kwan, 146). Many women of size report feeling they are the object of a constant watchful eye, and this, in turn, creates a culture of self-correction and control within the fat community. Body management and body consciousness are forms of self-surveillance; this is important to note because society’s gendered body norms delineate fat women as failures.

Drinkwater’s work in each genre directly addresses this kind of self-surveillance. Her work is based on visibility, not just of her own fat body, but also the fat bodies of other performers. Drinkwater does not shy away from visibility and frank discussions of what it means for herself and others. She puts herself out there, in the public eye, and she brings with her other fat performers and their stories.

This year, Kelli Jean Drinkwater spoke at TEDxSydney, doing a talk titled “The Fear of Fat: The Real Elephant in the Room.” KJD appears onstage in a fierce print dress. She begins by unpacking the word “fat,” a word that strikes fear into the hearts of large and small persons alike. Drinkwater draws on the audiences’ preconceived notions about women of size, remarking that they may wonder if she is diabetic or if she has a romantic partner.

She inhabits the word “fat” without embarrassment and highlights the insidious judgments handed down by the media and individuals; “fat” is morally suspect, associated with a lack of control, while thinness is associated with beauty, goodness, and self-control. These insidious judgments, or fatphobia, are rooted in complex structures like capitalism and racism, which makes it hard to recognize and even harder to eradicate. The emotion in KJD’s voice is palpable as she delineates various prejudices and assumptions against fat people. She identifies herself as part of the fat population, calling herself “the elephant in the room.” She tells the story of her first step toward activism, the first time she claimed space for her fat body: a ballet recital required a tutu, yet Drinkwater was too large even at the age of six to fit into what the other girls were wearing. By loudly and unashamedly proclaiming that she needed a “fourfour” instead, KJD made a huge, incredibly brave move toward not toward self-acceptance, but toward forcing the world to change.

Much of Drinkwater’s work is based on her own personal and experiences and activities. Knowing the stories and the work behind the performances makes them more meaningful to the viewer and gives fat artists and performers much needed visibility. I cannot stress enough how representation of fat bodies is necessary to both emotional and physical survival of people of size.


Features Supplement to the Online Journal of Literature and Art

Kimberly Williams

Written by

Kimberly Williams is a writer of fiction and memoir. She can be found online @keswilliams19.



Features Supplement to the Online Journal of Literature and Art

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