This book snuck up on me in 2019 with that title. We have three concepts that most folks are unwilling to put together: that you can be fat and pretty, that you can be pretty and old, that you can be old and fat, etc. Most books about fatness that I’ve encountered are written by folks around ages 25-29. It was a treat to get the perspective of a person over 50. Fat, Pretty, and Soon to Be Old: A Makeover for Self and Society by Kimberly Dark is a short collection (about 125 pages) of essays with titles like “Language, Fat, and Causation” and “The Aging Yoga Body.” That’s right, Dark is a yoga instructor, one who often sees new, young clients walk in the door, look at her fat, middle-age body, and walk back out. What could the young possibly learn from a professional with decades of experience? In addition, Dark discuses her Queer family and what that looks like with children and multiple parents involved. Even in her sexual experiences with women, Dark notices other women are hesitant to say they’re with a fat woman, or, in honesty, they tell Dark they’ve never been with a woman as fat as she.
Some passages hit me directly. When Dark explores the language around fat bodies, I tensed in agreement as she explained how labels really, truly can hurt a person:
When I type or say that I am morbidly obese, something occurs in my body that was not happening just a moment before. My pulse quickens, and my head throbs. Sometimes I feel panic and want to cry. I feel like I need to take a deep breath, clear my lungs. I have been handling the themes and language of embodiment for decades, and this is still my experience with the language. It’s not like I’m dealing with a sudden diagnosis that brings a fear of the unknown. It’s not like when someone says, “You have cancer…”
It is the label that hurts because that label tries to encompass everything about the body. It denies the humanity, the goodness, the kindness and caring, the thoughts and pleasurable experiences of that body. Dark reiterates: “I’m affected by this classification and language, and I carry the classification in my body. I feel my stress level increase just so I can tell you this — there will be effort involved in bringing this anxiety back to neutral.” Her honesty about her reactions is one of the positive aspects of this book.
Through media, we consume negative messages about fat, Queer, black and brown, and disabled bodies, but we also do our part, quietly, to perpetuate negativity around bodies we deem unwanted. What diction do we choose? Which aspects of the person do we focus on? Are our thoughts accomplishing anything good? Dark carefully explains that when we think negatively about other bodies, we are complicit in the cultural and societal expectation that we police bodies. In a way, she checks the readers own, perhaps unrealized, harmful thoughts. Many of us know “better than to” say something unnecessary and harmful out loud, but the thought still alters our way of being and how we navigate other humans.
Lastly, I want to touch on Dark’s thoughts about what I term “playing the victim,” but which I recognize may not be the right language. Dark asks, “Do you tell your life stories as a series of things that happened to you, or as a series of things you did? Are you the subject of your stories, or are you the object of someone else’s actions?” The way I read this is, do you frame your experiences as events that are completely out of your control and you passively exist, or are you taking action and affecting the outcomes to the best of your abilities and resources? To be fair, this is a touchy subject for me. I view unabated complaining as choosing to assume life happens to you, and it was also the reason I quit teaching. It’s very hard to ask students to dig into their minds and see themselves as an entity in a changing society in which they can participate when they see themselves as casualties in society and nothing can be done, even locally. (Yes, I understand climate change and gun control are huge issues, but think, community-wide or one household or one business, what you can change).
And in this way, Dark circles around to reaffirm why she is a storyteller and has been for decades. The story of her body, her sexuality and family, her yoga practice — sharing the stories is a way to alter culture. After all, she asks, “Who on earth do we think is creating the ‘real world’?”