Nothing is Okay by Rachel Wiley

I don’t come across much in the way of poetry by/about fat women, so I was delighted to learn about Rachel Wiley, who has two collections of such work! Nothing is Okay was called the better choice by Goodreads reviewers, but after finishing Nothing is Okay, I definitely plan to pick up Fat Girl Finishing School.

Wiley reveals her identity in an early poem, which gives readers context about the author: she’s fat, female, queer, and bi-racial (a white mother and black father, she explains). The poems explore these identities, including one in which Wiley addresses the people who are “concerned” with fat people’s health:

They all seem so anxious for my heart
like it’s an unattended package at the airport

She continues the poem with memorable imagery of the ways people are certain her heart inside her fat body will fail:

they are certain it is going to attack, my heart,
like a hungry bear on a camp ground
ripping a zipper down my chest, cracking
my sternum like a cheap tent pole.

The violent imagery of the bear mutilating her body struck me, and the tent pole’s weak structure emphasizes how fragile her heart is inside her fat body. Don’t forget, though, that Wiley is writing to people who “care” about her health without being medical professionals, people only making assumptions based on what they see.

Cleverly taking other media and putting them into the form of a poem, Wiley writes “Cooking With Tears” like a brief women’s magazine article. The poem has the happy can-do attitude of those mini articles with which most readers will be familiar. Here is an example combining an advice column with the new trend of excluding certain foods from one’s diet:

When throwing dinner parties, it may be important to remember that some of your guests may have removed tears from their diets due to the effect on the planet or some such nonsense (and despite the fact that not everyone has access to organic fair trade happiness) so it may be necessary to prepare a non-tears option to please all of your guests.

Wiley’s snark is humorous, but she’s also making fun of two institutions that harm fat women: shallow advice and restricted eating. While I recognize that some people have necessary dietary restrictions, and others do so for personal or ethical reasons, it’s common for people to eliminate foods from their diets and claim “health reasons,” but unnecessary food restriction is dieting. As a fat activist, Wiley does not support dieting.

Wiley also uses the medium of rejection slips writers receive to write a poem rejecting creepy messages from men on OkCupid. For example, she responds to a man who sends her the message “wanna see my cock?!

Unfortunately, we are not accepting Flash Fiction at this time.

If you’re not a writer or working in publishing, you may miss the joke. Flash fiction is short and quick; Wiley’s suggesting that the sender either has a small penis or would be too quick in bed. She cleverly mixes form and content to take a literary look at dating.

And much of her work is about dating, exploring both the flaws of her exes and people on OkCupid and her own issues. She writes a warning letter to all of her exes, letting them know a small army of zombified Rachel clones may show up to their house and profess they are still in love. All exes should brace and defend themselves. My favorite poem is “Dry Cake Wishes And Tap Water Dreams,” which contains all of Wiley’s mediocre desires for one ex:

. . . a lifetime swaddled in beige, skinless chicken
boiled, Kraft singles, steamed rice, and unflavored oatmeal.
I wish him a wardrobe of Polo shirts — tucked in.

The poem had me in stitches because even though it isn’t mean, it does feel like a witchy curse for an unremarkable life full of “Great Clips haircuts,” “engagement photos in an apple orchard,” and “One-ply toilet paper.” Aside from the content of the poem, Wiley makes uses of consonance, assonance, and alliteration to her advantage: the t’s in “Great” and “cut,” the p’s in “ply” and “paper,” and the o’s in “photo,” “orchard,” and “toilet” all create sounds that work to create a poem that’s lovely to read, and not just for the content.

The back cover has quotes from exes and time frames of when they were dating Wiley instead of blurbs. This is another playful jab at the publishing industry that I enjoyed.

I really loved this collection of poems, which is both cheeky and says something deeper about the culture of fatphobia, dating, and identity. Nothing is Okay demands you to grab someone and read aloud to them. I can’t wait to get my hands on Fat Girl Finishing School.

16 comments

  1. Reading Rachel’s comments about how people “care” about her health despite not being medical professionals was interesting. I’m in the process of writing a bid for some research funds to find out what information people *actually want* from healthcare professionals about nutrition and exercise. Three of us who are working on it are all on the bigger side, and we’ve had some really fascinating/depressing conversations about our experiences of exactly this kind of thing (sadly from healthcare professionals as well as random strangers!).

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    • I think that people like to make decisions about the health of others based on appearance only. That’s the issue. There are loads of fat athletes who are in great health. There are fat people with low blood sugar and low blood pressure. However, it seems to be that only fat people are the object of VERBAL scrutiny, meaning people will judge the health of an individual and keep it to him/herself unless that person is fat (or smoking — they also get unsolicited health advice). I’m not sure if this information would help your project, but as a fat woman, I would appreciate being handed a questionnaire about what kind of health and nutrition information I want rather than the doctor asking, “So, are you exercising?” It feels like a judgment question if it’s not worded so carefully, and even sometimes when it is. You could even have check boxes such as wanting information about the health effects of the following: swimming, walking, cycling, etc. or foods to eat for better: energy, sleep, getting off certain medications, etc. I think giving me check boxes would make me invested in my own health instead of feeling like a guilty bad person.

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      • Thanks! I totally agree. The best advice I’ve ever got about weight management came from a doctor who was about my size, who started with “so what exercise are you currently doing? Do you enjoy it?” and similar questions about whether I like cooking, what I need out of my diet in terms of lifestyle etc. She really listened to what I was saying.

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        • That is so amazing that I would cry a little if I weren’t at work. My doctor is a petite Vietnamese woman who looks nothing like me, but our relationship is so long-lasting, and we’ve been through so much s**t together that she has altered the way she approaches me for the better.

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  2. I can see how poetry is a concise way of saying things, there is often a message in the form as well as in the text. And yes I’ve just reviewed a poetry collection, but that will do me for a while. Poetry requires too much concentration.

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    • I truly enjoy the way young people are taking poetry, a form that used to be Serious with a capital S, and making it fun, playful, yet meaningful. I really enjoyed Nick Demske (by Nick Demske), which plays with line breaks in a way that had my head reeling (in a good way). Two collections not by young people that I enjoy are Good Poems, a collection chosen by Garrison Keillor, and The Erotic Poems by Ovid (bow chicka bow bow).

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  3. OMG I love everything about this (even though I haven’t read it). The cover, the colouring, the blurbs on the back, the inclusion of publishing jokes, the positive inclusive messages! All of it!!! Also, apparently Miley Cyrus has a new video that features fat women in beautiful poses-excited to see this kind of thing going mainstream!

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    • Is it possible that I may have a support Miley Cyrus moment in my future?? It’s possible! I really hope you get Wiley’s collection. I think it’s important to support people like her who are doing fat positive work, and honestly, it’s a great collection that I know I’m going to read many times. Worth the investment!

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