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Can we accept that fat is just fine? Author Sarai Walker is on a mission to make us think differently about fat, starting with her talk at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas. By Emma Joyce
Sarai Walker prefers ‘fat’ to the more clinical words ‘overweight’ or ‘obese’. When the writer moved from New York to the UK to complete a PhD (where she wrote her first novel Dietland), she attended Fat Studies conferences, where the word ‘fat’ was a neutral, positive adjective – and everything changed from there.
“People are very freaked out when I use the word ‘fat’ on book tours and interviews,” she says. “It reminds me that I used to be very uncomfortable as well, but once you get used to using it you forget that it has a lot of baggage.”
Speaking ahead of her visit to Sydney for FODI, Walker says fat acceptance is still taboo. People aren’t questioning their assumptions about it. “It’s very radical – the idea that you can be fat and that it’s OK, like somebody who is tall or short. People get angry and find the idea very threatening. I’ve had people react in total rage when I suggest that fat should be accepted.”
Walker’s novel, published earlier this year, features a fat girl called Plum who works at a teen magazine. Through the book, Walker takes on our culture’s obsession with weight loss and she introduces a violent collective called ‘Jennifer’, a mysterious gang that throws rapists out of planes.
“People describe the story in different ways,” says Walker. “Some say ‘this isn’t a book about fat, it’s about rape culture.’ I started off with the question ‘why are fat women so hated?’ and that led me to other issues. I see these things as interrelated: the fat body, the way we distain women who don’t adhere to ideals, the objectification of women, dehumanisation, violence. It’s very complex.”
Walker is currently en route to New Mexico to work on her second novel, which she says will be set in the past. “I can’t imagine me writing a book that doesn’t tell women’s stories or deal with women’s lives somehow,” she tells us. “Dietland is so plugged into the contemporary moment, that I just need a break from that.” The 42-year-old enjoys digging up advertising posters and photographs from decades gone by to remind her
and others that fat shaming wasn’t
“People find the idea threatening”
always the norm. “People think that our aversion to fat is natural, and it’s not; it’s socially constructed and therefore can be undone.” In particular, Walker is fascinated by the 1968 protest against the Miss America pageant, at which women threw items into a ‘freedom trashcan’. When asked what she would discard into that trashcan today, she laughs and says, “I don’t know how you throw ‘waxing’ into a trashcan!
“Women are judged first and foremost by how they look, so it becomes more important for women to challenge that.”
Festival of Dangerous Ideas Bennelong Point, Sydney 2000. 02 9250 7111. fodi.sydney operahouse.com. Various times and prices. Sep 5-6.