Early in Fat Girl Dancing (Text Publishing), author Kris Kneen offers a valuable insight into their creative process. “My motto,” they write, “has always been to run quickly and blindly towards the subjects that scare you. These will be the important subjects, the difficult discussions and the most revealing conversations.”
That authorial bolt – a potent mix of emotional vulnerability and intellectual acuity – has become a hallmark of Kneen’s extensive body of work, which ranges from memoir and other nonfiction to poetry, novels and screenplays. When an issue captures Kneen’s attention, strap yourself in. Whether it’s tasting their dead grandmother’s ashes for a poetic exploration of grief or fantasising about the seduction of an octopus for a novella about sexual perversity, Kneen has never been cowed by social stigma or convention.
Until now. “Fatness is the thing that I don’t talk about,” Kneen confides. “Fatness is the thing that scares me the most about myself.”
It is a heart-rending admission, but an understandable one. Movements such as Black Lives Matter and #MeToo may have stymied the common use of racial slurs and sexist epithets, but “fat” has only been weaponised, as the world tilts to reflect the curated and idealised forms presented by social media.
Don’t be fooled by the slew of influencers and advertisers embracing “body positivity”. With an eye for detail, Kneen documents what it is really like to move through the world in a fat body – and there is little to feel positive about. Kneen’s ungainliness renders them seemingly invisible to cashiers and waitstaff, while the reverse occurs in medical settings, where health professionals fixate on their need to lose weight, regardless of the symptoms they describe. Kneen later uncovers plenty of scientific research suggesting fat is not the primary cause of many of the ailments for which it’s been blamed. But even when they succumb to the pressure to lose weight, they are thwarted: few fitness shops cater for larger bodies, and those that do charge a premium, as if applying what Kneen calls a “fat tax”.
“By berating us, the thin community insists, it is helping us commit to losing weight,” Kneen writes. “But how sincere are they if they won’t let us have clothing to exercise in? Are we meant to meditate in our bedrooms till we are magically thin enough to walk out in size-ten activewear?”
It is poignant, enraging, heartbreaking. Kneen is emotionally raw when describing the toll such routine shaming takes on their mental health, but somehow they keep an ember of hope alive. Not everyone who has been “othered” (the often subtle experience of being excluded from the mainstream) can maintain such resilience. But Kneen recognises the great beauty and potential in diversity and defiantly embraces it, despite their fears and hideous prior experiences. The alternative – melting mutely and meekly into the safety of convention – is not for them.
Like all of us, Kneen has multiple identities and each beautifully wrought anecdote introduces us to another facet of their humanity: the schoolkid who discovered a talent for discus and shotput, only to be shamed for excelling at a “Porky Pig” sport; the teenager, starved to a size six, who cruelly shuns a larger friend at the beach because “the sight of her was a chastisement”; the free spirit who delights in the attentions of a lovesick dugong in Vanuatu (until it tries to swim off with them); the talented artist whose naked self-portraits illustrate this book.
Appropriately, the final chapters of Fat Girl Dancing feature Kneen embodying the contradiction they have explored in the preceding pages. Enrolling in burlesque classes, they grapple with the physical limitations and ungainliness of being fat, but discover they can be swept up in the joy and sensuality of a striptease anyway. In this triumphant act they not only reveal their body, they also reveal their heart. And, amid the sequins and feathers, what a sparkling thing it is.
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