Exploring Fat Embodiment In Urban Space Through ‘Fermented’ Poetic Inquiry

Chairs in an urban setting. Image Courtesy of Gillian Sonnad and Noortje van Amsterdam.
Drawing on an encounter in Amsterdam, Gillian Sonnad and Noortje van Amsterdam examine the intersection of urban spaces with the lived experiences of fat bodies, utilizing autoethnography and poetry to articulate such bodies' hypervisibility and simultaneous affective invisibility.
[Ed. Note: This article is part of a dossier on Creative Urban Methods.]

How would you respond when a city repeatedly tells you, “you don’t fit,” “this is impossible,” “you are impossible”? In this paper, we explore the affect that is produced when fat bodies become entangled with urban materiality and discourses around size. We use autoethnographic narratives and poetry to analyse how fat bodies become both hypervisible in urban space in terms of their appearance and hyperinvisible in terms of their affective experience of exclusion. As our starting point, we take the moment where the first author, a PhD student who presents and identifies as a fat woman of colour, plans to meet one of her supervisors — a white woman who presents as slender and has done research on the stigmatization of fat people — for the first time in real life in the historic city of Amsterdam.

***

The story of my body is a long one, and I don’t always feel like telling it, especially when I meet new people. But the shortest version is: I am fat. When I meet new people, I always hope for a connection. And: I’m always worried about where we will go. I’m always worried if I will fit. Where will this visiting, this meeting, this learning, happen?

“How about we meet in the city at a café?”

Sure of course, sure of course. That’s where people meet in cities. At cafes. So that’s where we should meet. But will I fit? I need to find a place where I will fit. I’ll have to look through all the pictures, read all the reviews, comb through any information available, find out how old the building is, try to see if the satellite view shows more. Can I tell if it has been renovated? Look for mentions of “old,” “historic,” or “cozy,” the known enemies of my fat body. I’ve been to this city before. It’s small. The streets are narrow. The stairs are harrowing. The spaces between are tight. Sometimes I feel like I can’t move. Most of the time, I feel like I don’t belong. But this is where the visiting is. But this is where the meeting is. But this is where the learning is.

“I understand that chairs are really important
So how can I help? What do you need?”

I freeze. Surprised. Immediately ashamed. They see me, I think. They see that I won’t fit in this city. Then I pause and think and try to accept. Because chairs are really important to me and to so many. So why should I be ashamed? I think most people are afraid to ask, afraid to offer. Because it is easier to pretend that I am not fat, that I am just tall, or that I am just “big-boned” than to admit that there are places where I just don’t fit.

I don’t know what to say. I’m not sure how to react. Will they still want to help? When they see how much work it is? When they see how many places won’t accept my body? When they see how many places I just don’t fit? I try to find the words to tell the story of my body and chairs. 

“I need a chair with no arms that is made of something other than plastic. That’s it.”

I think? It’s not much, is it? I’m afraid to ask for too much. And I’m not sure how to describe to reality of fragile legs. How to evoke the fear of creaking, how to convey the dread of being squeezed. How to help someone understand the pressure of the transformation. The transformation from standing to sitting. The pressure of finding out if I fit or not.

“Here’s some options
Let me know what you think?”

I hesitate for a moment before looking. Once I look, the story of my body will become more clear. But what if I don’t want to know the story others tell? I take a deep breath, wondering.

“These look great thanks. I’ll see you there.”

We’ve only met online so far, and I am excited to finally meet her in real life. We have emailed back and forth about a number of practical issues, but when we propose to meet near Central Station, our prospective student writes something that strikes me: 

“I will look into places close by and share some options with you closer to our meet-up.”  

I sit behind my laptop, reading and re-reading this line. It strikes me that she is taking control of the place we meet up. My gut tells me there is something important going on here. I am reminded of the conversations I have had with self-identified fat women who relayed how difficult it is to find chairs that are comfortable for them and feel safe to sit in. Could that be the reason our student is intent on looking for places herself? If so, shouldn’t I at least try to carry part of the responsibility for this work? I decide to email back:


“[name] and I are both familiar with Amsterdam and can provide some suggestions on where to meet too. I know that many of the fat women who participated in my study were concerned with seating arrangements at cafés. So I thought I would ask.” 

The response follows quickly:

“Thank you for recognizing the challenges of an unfamiliar meeting place… I prefer a seating option that does not have sides or arms and is not made of plastic.”

I dive into the internet and look at several cafés near Central Station. The search unfolds differently from my usual practice of picking a place for myself and non-fat friends or colleagues: only the cafes that have pictures of the interior become viable options. I use Google Maps to find additional visuals of these places. I look for armrests, the materials chairs are made of, and add sturdiness as a qualification for good measure. I feel unsure of the quality of my work. I end up sending three options through email with links to websites and Google Maps. I notice feeling somewhat relieved when the student picks one of the three places. It’s ridiculous how much time it costs to do this research in order to find a place to meet. I cringe when I think of the privilege I have in this regard: I have never had to do this work, but apparently, my student does it all the time.

***

The autoethnographic exchange above reveals the entanglement of urban materiality with fat embodiment and discourses around size. What is considered normal not only shapes the possibilities of fitting in and being included in cities, but it also produces affective circulations of shame, dread, and anxiety. We felt these clearly in our exchange, but we didn’t talk about them, shame making us both turn inward.1Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh University Press, 2014). The call for this special issue on urban methodologies pushed us into the uncomfortable terrain of exploring the tensions through dialogic autoethnography; writing down what refuses capture in conventional academic prose and producing knowledge from marginalised embodied experience in order to move through our shame. We think here of Erin Manning’s description:

another kind of stand must be taken, one that erupts from the midst, one that engages sympathetically with the unknowable at the heart of difference, one that heeds the uneasiness of an experience that cannot yet be categorized. Otherwise, we find ourselves right back where we started: outside looking in at what is already recognizable, at what is already knowable.2Erin Manning, The Minor Gesture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 39.

To take this stand and heed the uneasiness, as Manning suggests, we first wrote our individual experiences, then we read them to each other, followed by an exchange of ideas and relief that our marginalised and allied positionalities affectively resonated. We subsequently mobilised the affective resonance through poetry as a way of performing embodied knowledge and a feminist strategy of resistance to systemic inequalities.3Sandra L. Faulkner, “Crank Up the Feminism: Poetic Inquiry as Feminist Methodology,” Humanities 7, no. 3 (2018): 85.) (Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press, 1984). The affective charge was present both in the preparation of the meeting described above and in the actual event:

***

I hear a ping. The place we selected is closed. The place where I would fit is closed. Unexpectedly. I feel the panic start to swell, my heart races, my thoughts scatter. I grip the tram railing tighter as I fight to contain the story of my body from bursting forth with rage and shame. My mind races. How will I visit? How will I meet? How will I learn If I don’t fit? 

We found another place,
I think the chairs should work.”

I scour the pictures, trying to trust, trying to believe. I see that it is a new building. No mentions of “old,” “historic,” or “cozy.” I dare to hope. 

So many buildings, especially older ones, were built for a very different story. Everyone always says we must preserve that story. Sometimes I wonder why telling the story of the history of a place matters more than telling the stories of the people in it now. 

I walk into the new building, through the wide door, stand in the large elevator. I slide into the armless chair that is not made of plastic. I don’t hear any creaking. I can move without being squeezed. I am transforming, fitting.

On the day of our meeting, I arrive at the place early. I walk up to the terrace and notice how empty it is. Inside looks dark. I feel my stomach clench when I realize it’s closed until later in the day. I can’t believe how stupid I have been, not checking for opening times. What now? I start sweating as I think of what to do. 

I bike over to two cafés close by. One is closed and the other has an outside terrace on the water. The first thing I check is the seating. The chairs are made of some sort of metal and don’t have armrests. I decide that this is the best I can do for now but feel terrible for not being able to check. I might be missing something important. What did I miss?? I email again:

“I am now at the [name], outside part. [website link] Hope this is OK. If not, we can relocate. Ps: The chairs seem sturdy, don’t have armrests and are not plastic.”

***

Blackout poem created by Noortje van Amsterdam from an original piece by Gillian Sonnad. Image Courtesy of Gillian Sonnad and Noortje van Amsterdam.

Hi Gillian,

Here is the blackout poem I created from your narrative. I have to say I really struggled making it. The reason I suggested blackout poetry is that I thought it would be interesting to have a visual representation of the tension between the visibility of fat embodiment and the invisibility of fat experience. And as Faulkner argues, poetic inquiry more generally offers possibilities to attend to affective and embodied experience and makes a political point about marginalised experience.4Faulkner, “Crank Up the Feminism”, 85. What I had not anticipated was how violent it would feel to physically erase most of your words with a black marker. I felt like I was erasing your experience, similar to the ways it is often erased in public space and public discourse, and that felt awful. What is this poem doing exactly? How do you feel about hearing/seeing it?

Hi Noortje,

I appreciate you sharing this. I am struck by the difference in our experiences of making these poems which exactly makes the point about the necessity of using poetic inquiry to bring forth the nuance of affective and embodied experiences.

The visual representation of your piece is important to me as the line between visibility and invisibility in marginalised embodiment is invariably thin; your use of a black marker gives even more nuance to that tension since some of my original piece is still visible through it. That feels very representative of many of my experiences, the full story is right there just below the surface, but few, if any, people ever try to see it or engage with it. The preference instead is to engage with just parts of me or my experiences, akin to the parts that are still visible in the piece. And as we have discussed before, I am never the one holding the marker.

I read this piece and I find that while it is disconcerting to be dissociated from and/or disconnected from the entirety of my piece, I am also experiencing a feeling similar to what I described when I looked at the options you sent – the feeling of being in relationship with rather than being related to. Perhaps this is also a testament to the power of poetry as knowledge – in taking each other’s pieces and creating poems from them, I feel as if we are creating shared knowledge in a manner that leads to a relationship and the attendant responsibilities.

I’m thinking of a piece by Margaret McKeon where she talks about the responsibilities that flow from the web of relationships that develop when we recognise different ways of knowing.5Margaret McKeon, “Opening into Relational Responsibility with Poetry,” in Poetic Inquiry as Social Justice and Political Response, ed. Sandra L. Faulkner and Abigail Cloud (Delaware: Vernon Press, 2019). I think this really informed my approach to creating the poem from your piece. I was struck by the similarities in our original pieces with regard to our affective experiences, particularly after we found out the selected location was closed. I wanted to highlight those similarities and show the connectedness, the shared experience, and to ponder what felt like a shift in positionality; valuing my embodied knowledge and treating it as such allowed us to be in relationship to chairs and to the city together. And you quite aptly named the arising responsibility, “should I at least try…/so I thought I would ask.”

What also comes up for me is that being in relationship and taking on those connected responsibilities takes time, and it can be a very slow process. Though we hadn’t met in person when we had this conversation, we had been in contact for some time. I wonder if we would have been able to have this type of conversation if we hadn’t been in contact for a longer period beforehand? I wonder what that says about the burdens/work of marginalised embodiment in a system/society/city which prioritises efficiency, productivity, and accelerated growth? I think here of the ideas around Slow Ontology and wonder if that concept may offer us some pathways to go down as we think about ways of creating knowledge about marginalised embodiment?6Jasmine B. Ulmer, “Writing Slow Ontology,” Qualitative Inquiry 23, no. 3 (March 2017): 201–11, https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800416643994.

Image Courtesy of Gillian Sonnad and Noortje van Amsterdam.

Hi Gillian,

Thank you for pointing out the relationality in our way of working. After reading the blackout poem to you, and hearing your response, my own feelings transformed into something more generative. It goes to show how we are constantly learning together through our exchanges. Looking back, I think because I am the one who carries most of the privilege in this collaboration – I am slender, and I am your supervisor – it felt like I had to be careful. And that feeling lingers. I literally mean that I want to be full of care.

Which brings me to slowing down. Indeed, we need to slow down to allow for the process of collaborative writing/researching to unfold organically. But simply slowing down is not enough, I think. I visited an exhibition at Casco Art Institute in Utrecht yesterday, and they had a pot of soy fermenting. Fermentation strikes me as an apt metaphor for the methodology we are engaging in. Fermentation is a slow process/practice; it needs care and attention, and feeding the brew is an important part of the practice. The ferment is alive and growing – it is constantly emerging in a different form. But it needs more than slowness. It needs to be taken care of actively and continually, otherwise, it will turn toxic. For me, this characterises our methodological approach: we did not have a pre-set plan. We simply started with the moment and the feeling there was something important to hold onto, which we tried to attend to through writing our narratives. Then we read them to each other, discussed them and tried out blackout poetry. This is how we fed our “brew,” trying to stay with the trouble, as Donna Haraway would say, and attend to its needs, continually feeling around for and discussing what was needed next.7Donna Jeanne Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016). The process is ongoing in this conversation too.

Hi Noortje,

I love the idea of fermentation as a methodology and praxis. I think that it captures so many of the ways in which we are proceeding. The first thing that strikes me is the idea of keeping it alive which requires care and attention, two things we are often not inclined or incentivized to pay to marginalised bodies. And second, I am struck by what would happen if we did not keep the process alive – not only would the mixture stop growing, maybe in a way it would die, and that feels also like the death of the relationality needed to be in community around these issues. But more importantly, as you point out, it would become toxic. This certainly speaks to one of the major concerns I have in doing work around marginalised embodiment, that without the care and attention needed to recognise and value these experiences, eventually, the gap between our experiences will become polluted with this toxicity, and then building bridges and connections across will become more and more difficult.

This relates to the urban context, too – cities are always trying to find ways to grow, (we can think about the idea of Slow Cities also) there are usually concerns about pockets of toxicity, and building bridges is notoriously difficult and expensive.8Ulmer, “Writing Slow Ontology, 201–11. Successful and sustainable cities will require deep and rich (just like fermented foods) community and intersectional relationships.

***

We began this process with autoethnographic narratives and poetry opening up space around how the fat body becomes both hypervisible in urban space in terms of their appearance and hyperinvisible in terms of their affective experience of exclusion. What we found along the way was an approach to this inquiry and analysis that can offer a different path towards the generation, nurturing, and valuing of embodied knowledge. By staying with the trouble, as Haraway suggests, and sitting in the uneasiness, as Manning proposes, we found ourselves able to grow and create something new together.9Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 2016; Manning, The Minor Gesture, 39. From this original “brew,” we now have a pot of fermenting inquiry and experience, which we will need to collectively feed and care for as we continue to be in relationship and continue to be active in valuing marginalised embodied knowledge. As it ferments and continues to grow, we hope it will give us new and different ways to understand and connect to the affective experiences of marginalised embodiments.

***

The next time we visit, the next time we meet, the next time we want to learn, I know that we will have this conversation again. I hope it will get easier for us both to learn to tell the story of my body together. I hope it will get easier for fat people to visit, to meet, to learn, to fit, in this city.
Is it my lack of experience in organising this way, or is planning with size inclusivity in mind always this precarious and unpredictable?

Notes

Notes
1 Sara Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion (Edinburgh University Press, 2014).
2 Erin Manning, The Minor Gesture (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 39.
3 Sandra L. Faulkner, “Crank Up the Feminism: Poetic Inquiry as Feminist Methodology,” Humanities 7, no. 3 (2018): 85.) (Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches (Crossing Press, 1984).
4 Faulkner, “Crank Up the Feminism”, 85.
5 Margaret McKeon, “Opening into Relational Responsibility with Poetry,” in Poetic Inquiry as Social Justice and Political Response, ed. Sandra L. Faulkner and Abigail Cloud (Delaware: Vernon Press, 2019).
6 Jasmine B. Ulmer, “Writing Slow Ontology,” Qualitative Inquiry 23, no. 3 (March 2017): 201–11, https://doi.org/10.1177/1077800416643994.
7 Donna Jeanne Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016).
8 Ulmer, “Writing Slow Ontology, 201–11.
9 Haraway, Staying with the Trouble, 2016; Manning, The Minor Gesture, 39.
Sonnad, Gillian, and Noortje van Amsterdam. "Exploring Fat Embodiment In Urban Space Through ‘Fermented’ Poetic Inquiry". Mediapolis: A Journal of Cities and Culture 8, no. 4 (November 2023)
and
Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.