Take the Girth Guide pledge and fight fat stigma

Published on The Vocal, November 2015

In a world that is becoming more and more switched on to the realities of racism, sexism, religious intolerance and other forms of discrimination, the issue of fat stigma is still one that is poorly understood. Fat people are subject to harassment and micro aggressions from all directions: in the street, at work, at the doctor, while watching TV. In recent years, the size acceptance movement has sprung up to promote the radical idea that fat people should be able to go about their lives without anyone bugging them.

Brisbane artist and designer Natalie Perkins (or Definatalie as she’s known around the internets) is one of the fighters at the forefront of the movement in Australia, bravely campaigning for fat rights and facing down the backlash that comes with it. While she’s made a number of media appearances in the past, these days her activism is mainly channelled through her creative work, which includes handmade jewellery, craft projects and prints of her illustrations that unapologetically depict fat bodies in all their stretch-marked glory.

Natalie’s work typically comes with more than a dash of wry humour, but her latest project is straight up happy fun times. Inspired by the merit badges kids earn at scouts and girl guides, Natalie recently launched Girth Guides – a series of cloth patches with fat-friendly slogans like I Quit Dieting, Thunder Thighs and Fat Merbabe. Big spenders will even get a sash to sew them on! The project was launched on Pozible and hit the target without too much trouble. The campaign will run until 24 November – after that Girth Guides will move to a standalone site and will also be available from Natalie’s online store, Fancy Lady Industries.

In the middle of a pile of Pozible admin, Natalie took some time to tell us all about the Girth Guides project, life as a fat person and her many creative interests.

Where did the idea for Girth Guides come from? Were you a Girl Guide when you were a kid?

A few years ago I was chatting with friends on Twitter about how nice it would be to have a formalised support group for fat activists, because doing fat activist work is hard and exhausting. At the time I was doing a lot of public-facing activism as well as dealing with the world as a fat woman, and bearing the brunt of criticism daily was getting on top of me. I joked with friends that we could be called the Girth Guides, because I had fond memories of being a Brownie and Girl Guide growing up. Within the Guiding movement I remember having a really lovely and supportive space to learn life skills and be recognised for my own talents. Plus – patches. Little bits of fabric that told the world how clever I was! Wouldn’t it be cool to be rewarded for the big and little moments we face daily? Hell yeah!

You’ve been part of the fat acceptance movement for many years. What does it mean to be a fat activist? How did you become one?

Fat activism simply posits that fat people are human beings deserving of respect. Fat people are maligned in the news media and have their cute little heads chopped off in TV footage; they face job discrimination because fatness is characterised as lazy (not to mention finding work-appropriate clothing is HARD); medical treatment of fat people is at best negligent and at the very worst life threatening; and at a basic level people treat you like you are subhuman. Fat activism isn’t practiced purely by fat people, in fact many average-sized and thin people are fat activists as well and we are all working hard towards fairer treatment of people who are fat.

I learnt about fat activism online about 15 years ago. It made sense to me, but I have learnt a lot over this time. I’ve learnt about the politics of food and the intersection of class, race, ability, and gender and fatness. It’s a personal learning curve as well as an intellectual endeavour. Not having a lot of fat allies in Australia, I did my activist “growing up” with fat people from around the world. It’s been hard being fat and outspoken in Australia but I think more and more people (including academics and many health-care professionals) are becoming more sensitive to the lived experiences of fat people.

What is your everyday experience of being a person with a fat body like? Do you experience fat stigma?

On a day to day basis I’m made aware of my body being excluded from the man-made world. From waking up on my bed specifically made for fat bodies; putting on clothes I’ve made myself because it’s hard to find fashion at a size 26/28; sitting in narrow chairs with armrests; enduring abuse simply walking around my suburb; getting yelled at by Michelle Bridges on TV; having people recoil when my elbow brushes theirs when I sit next to them on a plane; constantly worrying that people are monitoring me when I’m eating; taking up a whole footpath when I go on walks with my fat husband; going to the doctor for a script refill and having him do my BMI calculation and recommend bariatric amputation as soon as I sit down… that’s not even a complete list. It’s just what sits at the top of my mind.

You do a lot of different crafts and following you on social media it seems like you’re always trying something new. Why is craft so important to you?

I have always loved creating things, and I think it’s one of the ways I seek validation for my existence in the world. I’m a fat activist and I struggle with self-worth. (People think becoming an activist means you get an automatic pass to self-worth. Incorrect! It’s hard work.) Some things I make, like clothes and accessories, because it’s hard to find them for my body. Other things I make because I love to learn new skills. I’ve recently learnt to spin yarn and knit. I don’t know what I’d do without the internet – it’s meant I can do self-directed learning which suits my learning style, and it exposed me to fat activism. I studied art at uni but I didn’t get a lot out of it. In fact I’ve taught myself nearly everything I know.

Your (gorgeous) artistic work also explores ideas of fatness and body image. Has your creative work changed the relationship you have with your body?

My art practice has developed alongside my relationship with my body. At first I shyly drew bodies that were mostly acceptable, perhaps with fuller cheeks or bigger hips, but as I’ve grown older I’ve moved towards self-portraiture. I don’t have a Rubenesque, hourglass shape. I am built like a refrigerator! I have acne and messy, constantly changing hair. I have two chins and stretchmarks! This impolite fat female body is not represented in popular art.

What has the response to the Girth Guides patches been like?

The response to Girth Guides has been overwhelmingly positive. The funding goal was hit 17 days before deadline! I can count three or four negative comments on the project. It hasn’t had a great deal of promotion in the wider media so I suspect that is why I’ve had so few detractors. The fat community online is growing year after year, and we’re supportive of everyone’s projects. It’s special.

How did you feel the moment you found out the project was fully funded?

I was relieved when I hit the funding goal. I second guess myself a lot, and I was terrified that a project I had invested so much care in might not come to fruition.

Which badge is your favourite?

My favourite badge is “My Adipose Tissue Is Not Your Issue”. It has a simplified version of a fat cell. They’re cute.

How do you think people will use the badges? They’re styled as merit badges – how do you know if you’ve ‘earned’ it?

I know some people with amazing denim vests and jackets full of really rad patches. It’d be an honour to see mine on theirs! But I also know some people might want to just display them – for the highest tier pledges I am including sashes they can put their whole collection on. (I will be doing that for my own historical record but I’ll probably also chuck a few on my own vest.)

Some people have asked if they have permission to “earn” patches if they aren’t fat, or don’t identify as fat. A number of the patches apply to so many body types and lived experiences, like “eating mindfully”, “joyful movement”, and “decorated by stretch marks”, and I am more than happy that they can see themselves within this framework and endeavour to accept themselves in any way that is healing and helpful to them.

It’s not a rigid merit system. It’s self-monitored. It’s about mindfulness.

What happens after the campaign? Will there be new patches released in the future so people can keep collecting?

I have ideas for a second release of patches already! I will stock this first release in my store as well as display sashes, and people can purchase them whenever they feel like they deserve some recognition for being a Girth Guide. I want this to grow. I’m invested in it personally, politically, and creatively!

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