The Kate Harding Interview

Hi! Did you want to know what I thought about the finale of "So You Think You Can Dance"? How about who I'd pick as my celeb BFF?

The way I know today's interviewee is kind of funny: one day I was getting my hair highlighted (it's our little secret) and the wonderful guy with the tinfoil said "Do you know a girl named Kate Harding? She's one of my clients. For some reason I think you gals would just get along great, and you have a lot in common." He gave me her card which I held onto for a while until I saw her face on the cover of the RedEye here in Chicago which spurred me to email her and say hi. I won't exactly take credit for my meeting being the thing that catapulted her into the blogosphere spotlight, but I'm sure it had 98% to do with it. Anyway, she is the co-author of the new book Lessons from the Fat-o-sphere: Quit Dieting and Declare a Truce with Your Body. Before the book, Kate was the founder of Shapely Prose, a blog about body acceptance and the treatment of fat people in the media, and now you'll find her writing spread far and wide across the web.

You've been writing about fat acceptance for a while: why this book and why now?
Well, I've been sitting on these questions for so long, "now" is sort of stretching it. But that aside, the book deal actually came together less than a year after I started Shapely Prose in 2007, so I wasn't blogging very long before it was underway. 

I started the blog around April 1, with the hope that I could build up enough of a readership to sell a book. (It was a slightly crazy hope at the time, and I totally didn't expect it to happen as fast as it did.) By the end of that summer, Marianne and I were talking about writing a practical guide to liking your body. We had no idea if we could sell it, but we were both watching our traffic go up and figured if it hit a certain point, we would officially have a "platform." Then the New York Times called that fall to interview us about the "fat-o-sphere" -- and having worked in publishing, I knew the day that article ran would be the day to start querying agents. 

Conveniently, although we did the first interviews in October, the story didn't run until January, so we had plenty of time to get a proposal together and let our traffic grow a little more. Turned out my prediction was correct -- when the article finally ran, I had agents and editors contacting me within hours (though we eventually went with one we queried separately). Since we had the idea and the proposal ready to go, it was really easy to hit the ground running. After a few revisions with our agent's help, the proposal went out, and we sold the book in March, just before our first blogiversaries. 

"Why this book?" will be answered in the next question.
 
How is it different from other books out on the same topic?
Well, first, there aren't that many other books out there on the same topic. There are a few fat acceptance books, Health at Every Size books, love your body books... but Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere is all of that and something else entirely. Basically, Marianne and I set out to answer the question: "No, really, how the fuck do you go from hating your body to liking it?" We'd both taken a long and twisty path to self-acceptance, and we wanted to identify the milestones and a-ha moments that might have some practical value for other people, because most of the self-help stuff on body image is like, "Look in the mirror and give yourself a compliment! Take a bubble bath! Light some candles!" Which, you know, barf. Also, not helpful. 

We sat down and hammered out a list of 30 things that actually made us like ourselves a little better -- e.g., not watching so damned much TV (and comparing ourselves to actresses/absorbing 8 gazillion "you're not good enough" messages from commercials); buying clothes that fit; finding decent shrinks; trying forms of exercise that sounded like fun instead of calorie-burning torture; refusing to get sucked into the unfortunately common "I'm so fat and gross" female bonding rituals; learning to read media reports on THE OBESITY CRISIS BOOGA BOOGA BOOGA with a critical eye. Little stuff and big stuff, just anything that made a real difference for both of us. That's the heart of the book. And I don't think there's anything else like it on the market, really. 

What lessons did you learn putting the book together?
Most of the big lessons were related to co-authoring -- figuring out who does what is tricky -- but that's probably boring for your audience. One very cool thing we learned is that people were a lot more receptive to this concept than we expected -- lots of publishers were at least somewhat interested, and we ended up with three ultimately bidding. We thought people would be much more hostile to the very idea of fat acceptance, but because body image issues are such a widespread problem for women (and we were mostly dealing with women in the industry), a whole lot of people, fat and thin, were intrigued. We kept hearing, "It's not just a fat thing -- everyone needs to read this book!" Which is flattering, but incredibly sad, really. Given the way this culture treats fat people, at least it's easily understandable why so many fat women hate their own bodies -- but loads of thin women, and in-between women, and women recovering from eating disorders, etc., have really found it resonates with them. If you have a female body, you've probably been conditioned to believe it will never be good enough. 

Do you have a policy on how you deal with commenters on your blog?
Oh my, yes I do. The full version is here. Some elaboration is here. The nutshell is: Don't piss me off. You can rail about how unfair I am, how I'm quashing dissent, how I'm creating an echo chamber all you like, but the bottom line is, I won't tolerate abuse or foolishness. If you can't act like a grown-up, get lost and start your own blog. There's your freedom of speech, right there. 

And as it turns out, the Shapely Prose comments are really lively, smart, funny, thought-provoking reading. They're one of the most rewarding parts of blogging for me. The Draconian comments policy isn't shutting down debate and discussion; it's shutting down assholes and making room for fun, interesting, thoughtful people to speak up. 

Obviously, people feel free to say whatever hateful thing they want in comments sections thanks to anonymity.  Have you ever had dissenters come to you personally to discuss their opinions, like at a reading?
In person, no -- people have been fabulously sweet at readings. I do get e-mails (especially after I ban people) demanding that I respond to certain criticisms RIGHT NOW. Thing is, they're inevitably issues I've covered ad nauseam on the blog and in the book. But, but... obesity crisis! But, but... I lost weight and kept it off! But, but... I think fat chicks are gross, and if everyone listens to you, we'll all get fat and there won't be anyone left I want to fuck! (Sadly, I am only paraphrasing there, not exaggerating.) If you can't be bothered to read the thousands of pages I've written on all these topics, I can't really be bothered to respond to your snotty e-mail. 

Do you think your skin is thicker than the average writer's?
Probably not. But my boundaries are pretty firm and I don't hesitate to enforce them, which makes a big difference. Of course it still hurts to be told I'm stupid/crazy/ugly/untalented/bringing about the downfall of western civilization, whatever. But nobody gets to say that shit publicly on my blog, for starters, and I deliberately avoid it as much as possible everywhere else. I don't read comments at Broadsheet, even though I'd like to engage with a lot of the sane, interesting readers there, because so many of the comments are simply abusive -- and I ain't getting paid enough to take abuse. I don't read the forums I know are out there talking smack about me. What's the point? It's not like it's constructive criticism I could actually learn from; it's just hate. 

Where I might have a thicker skin is in terms of my actual writing, not content-related hate. I went through a lot of years of self-doubt about my work (before much of it was published), but after working in publishing, going through an MFA program, and writing a lot of really bad juvenilia, I'm pretty comfortable with what I'm doing now. I have a decent idea of what I do well and what I suck at, so I play to the former. It's not for everyone, but when someone complains about my writing (other than an editor I'm actually working with), I tend to think, "Well, you're probably not my audience," as opposed to "OMG, I am such a hack, I should hang it up!" And man, that is an invaluable skill to have as a writer. Being able to take useful criticism is incredibly important -- but so is being able to identify what's not useful and ignore it. 

When it comes to fat acceptance, is there anything for you that's a deal-breaker, like "OK, maybe that IS unhealthy"?
No. I mean, sure, there are fat people who engage in unhealthy behaviors, just as there are thin people who do. (At this writing, I remain stubbornly addicted to cigarettes, so I can hardly talk.) And there are a few people out there who are big enough that their weight itself really impinges on their quality of life. But it's still not a "deal-breaker" for a couple of reasons. 

1) Every human being deserves the same rights, respect and dignity as any other, and that applies to unhealthy people just as much as healthy ones. 

2) Whether you weigh 150 lbs. or 700, permanent substantial weight loss is virtually impossible. Practically everyone gains it back. Most of us can lose a bunch of weight temporarily -- I've done it more than once -- but even weight loss surgery often doesn't result in more than a very modest long term loss (with serious risks), and non-surgical weight loss has a ridiculously high long-term failure rate. We really don't know how to make fat people permanently thin. 

The people who lose a lot of weight and keep it off for longer than 5 years are statistical outliers -- yet we just keep acting like the 90-odd percent of people who gain it all back must be individually screwing something up. They must be lazy, they must not be properly motivated (which is absurd, given all of the compelling reasons not to be fat in this culture) they must be too unwilling to give up eating donuts by the gross. It's ridiculous. The simple fact is, diets just don't work.

So let's say you do have serious health problems that can be directly attributed to your weight (usually, it's nowhere near that clear cut). That's a terrible, tragic situation to be in. It still doesn't mean that trying to lose weight and keep it off will magically work for you, just because you have a better reason to do it than most. Again, we still don't know how to make fat people permanently thin.  

Appreciating that fact is really crucial to understanding what fat acceptance is all about. I get variations on this question a lot, but if you fully grasp that permanent weight loss is virtually impossible for all but a tiny handful of outliers, it's obvious that there's no point at which someone really should try to lose weight for their health. There might be a point at which, in an ideal world where we knew of a reliable means of achieving permanent weight loss, it'd be worth a shot. But in this world, with a mountain of evidence showing us that people who lose weight eventually end up just as fat as or fatter than when they started, it's a sucker bet. You put yourself through the physical and mental stress of losing weight, and you end up right back where you started -- feeling like a failure, to boot, and possibly with some new health problems caused by weight cycling. Unfortunately, that's true for nearly everyone, no matter how many health issues they suffer from. 
 
I have no actual numbers to back this up, but in my estimation, the majority of the population is either normal-weight or overweight, with a minority being underweight, so that means, to me, that the majority of people who are fat-haters are not actually skinny themselves (feel free to contradict me because this might be totally wrong). So what gives?
Well, about two-thirds of us qualify as overweight or obese according to a BMI chart, so it's safe to say that the majority of Americans are being told they're "too fat," whether they are or not. (People in the "overweight" category live longest of all.) In light of that, what gives is internalized oppression. Fat is so thoroughly demonized in this culture, of course most fat people hate themselves. 

And in fact, you get brownie points for hating yourself, and hating other people like you. If you're dieting because you're disgusted with yourself, you get more approval than someone who isn't on a diet. If you only wear a size 18, you get to identify with thin people for a moment when you look at a woman in size 28 jeans and say, "Ugh, I'd never let myself get as fat as her." If you talk about how much you need to lose weight, you get points for not being "in denial." As long as you're ashamed of your fat body (and disgusted by other peoples'), you're behaving appropriately in this culture, even if you don't look appropriate. As soon as you say, "Yeah, I don't actually think there's anything wrong with my fat ass, or hers, or his or your mom's," you've graduated from being a pathetic fat person to a pathetic, deluded fat person in many people's eyes. Who wants that? 

It takes guts to refuse to hate yourself for being fat -- because then you're not just ostracized for the fatness, but for refusing to follow the cultural script. Obviously, I think it's the healthiest, most satisfying way to go in the long run -- but I can understand why a lot of people don't even try. It's hard to deal with the reaction to admitting openly that you don't want to lose weight. A hell of a lot harder than dieting, frankly. It just has a much better outcome.

You are going on an airplane ride and you have absolutely nothing to do and you go to the Hudson News and there are only two magazines left on the stands: one features a cover on Lindsay Lohan's terrifying weight plunge, the other on Jessica Simpson's weight gain.  Which do you buy and why?
Oh man, neither. I take a Xanax and go to sleep. 

Do your readers ever assume anything about you, personally or physically, based on your writing?

Well, sure. I could spend forever answering this, but one example is that, because I talk so much about Health at Every Size, I often hear from people who assume I wouldn't approve of them because they don't eat a balanced diet and get regular exercise. They think I only care about stereotype-busting fatties, not the ones who maybe do sit on the couch wearing sweats and eating ice cream. I really like to think that's not there in my writing as a whole, but I can understand how you might get that impression if you came in at a certain time or place. And it bums me out, because that is so not what I'm about. I think stereotype-busting is one important part of changing cultural attitudes toward fat people, but the bottom line is: Human beings deserve dignity and respect. Fat people are human beings. Period. 

What do you think your next book project would be about?
Oh, man. That would be way too long and way too wobbly an answer right now. I'll get back to you. 

At one point you were some chick my colorist said I should get in touch with and then suddenly you were one of the most famous bloggers I knew in Chicago. Can you pinpoint the time or pieces that seemed to break you out as a blogger?
The BMI project, which I started in October 2007, was the first thing that got national media attention. The Fantasy of Being Thin, which went up about a month later, got a bazillion links and is still basically my all-time greatest hit. But it wasn't so much specific posts as a series of lucky breaks. The aforementioned New York Times article brought waaaay more attention than I anticipated -- I don't give old media enough credit sometimes. Joy Nash, of Fat Rant fame, started talking me up at the height of her YouTube superstardom, and Melissa McEwan invited me to contribute to Shakesville, which brought me a whole new audience. In the spring of 2008, I started writing for Broadsheet, which was another audience again, plus the added cred of an online magazine, vs. a labor-of-love blog. And around the same time, I sold the book, which suddenly made me a body image "expert" instead of just a blogger. It was really a series of events that piled up over time -- I don't know that there was one moment when I went, "Hey, check me out, I'm fucking famous on the internet!" 

What's the most delicious thing you've eaten lately?
I went to Francesca's on Bryn Mawr last night and had a really fantastic chicken breast/fresh mozzarella/prosciutto/tomato sauce/basil/linguine thing. And like everything there, it was enough for three meals, so I had it again today, which was slightly less delicious but still better than anything I ever do in the kitchen. 

What blogs do you read every day?

Other than Shapely Prose and Broadsheet: Feministing, Feministe, Racialicious, Jezebel, Sociological Images, Pharyngula, Fatshionista, The Black Snob, Breakup Girl, I Has a Hotdog, Women & Hollywood... and several dozen others on my Google Reader.

Do you feel an obligation to stick to the topic of fat acceptance for a while? What if, in the future, you feel inclined to write less about that and more about another topic? Would you be worried about alienating your fans?
I feel obligated not to sell out fat acceptance, but not necessarily to stick to it as a primary subject. Like, you're not going to see me writing a "Thin Thighs in 30 Days" article for Cosmo just for the money, and you're not going to see me consciously distance myself from the subject or announce somewhere down the line that I've decided I need to lose weight. 

But yeah, I am already feeling the pull to write about a million other things. I mean, I came into this as a writer who happens to be passionate about the subject, not as an activist. And at this point, between the blog and the book, I've written thousands of pages on the topic. There's endless new material, but I also have endless interests, and now that I'm in a position to get paid for writing, I'd like to explore those as well. Like, one of my possible ideas for book 2 is an exploration of how Americans deal with grief -- unfortunately, I have zero expertise, but it's another subject I'm really fired up about. I'd really love to finish a novel -- my MFA is in fiction -- and I'm sure I'll have fat characters, but not necessarily overt Fat Acceptance themes. 

I don't think I'll ever be done with fat acceptance as a topic, but I don't particularly want to make a whole career out of it. Not because I don't think it's worthy of a whole career, but because I just have too many other things I want to write and think about. I do worry about finding an audience for non-fat stuff but hey, I never expected to find the audience I did for fat stuff. A lot depends on what other lucky breaks I might get and, frankly, who's willing to pay me to write what (within reason).  

How does it feel to be the 237th person interviewed for Zulkey.com?

Fucking fantastic.