Fat, Pretty, and Soon to Be Old by Kimberly Dark

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’?”

30 comments

  1. You put this so well: “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.” And I agree, it is a problem and has been since before 2016. I see this attitude in my own daughter, in grad school, and I know she wasn’t brought up that way. I also see this in Kingsolver’s social commentary in Demon Copperhead (reviewed today).

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    • Truth be told, if anyone is going to lay down and quit, I would think it would be my generation (Millennials) because we were adults in the last recession, we’re unable to buy houses until we’re much older, etc. Gen X, to be fair to them, were the kids who watched us struggle through this, though, and I wonder if they have higher levels of anxiety. Or, added to that, I never did an active shooter drill in public school. Columbine happened the year I entered high school, but because there was no widespread social media, we mainly heard rumors about Marilyn Mason, trench coats are bad, and the gunmen killed themselves.

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  2. Oh love this:

    After all, she asks, “Who on earth do we think is creating the ‘real world’?”

    Who indeed. We are, of course! This sounds like a good book. Did it fill the void for you regarding an older woman’s perspective?

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  3. 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.
    This is one of the things I find most difficult about teaching too, though I think we get it less in nursing for the obvious reason that my students have already decided to participate/contribute and thought about what they can do to address various societal ills. But very often students will come to me with a complaint and when I say “and what have you done about it so far? Let’s work from there” or “and how would you like to deal with that?” they just stare at me, or are in some way offended that I’ve asked them to participate in the solving of their problem (even though they have often contributed to the problem in the first place)! Most of my students are great – it’s a minority who behave like this – but it does make for very difficult weeks when it happens.

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    • Oh, Lou, your response is amazing. I wish I had some good lines like that back when I was teaching. Your responses actually remind me of what I experience in therapy. I’ll ask a question, and instead of the therapist giving me an answer, she asks what I think first. On the one hand, it gives me agency over my own session. On the other hand, it’s a great way to make sure we’re communicating on the same page. What if she misinterprets my question, or my intention, etc. My answer will clarify.

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      • (I just wrote out a whole reply and it seems to have vanished into the ether, so apologies if you get this twice!) It’s a strategy I sneakily stole from health promotion/behaviour coaching skills I learnt as a nurse, and then applied to students who are very offended by my expectation that they will manage their time like adults! Quite a lot of carry over between nursing and teaching, really.

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        • It’s interesting how in the U.S. all you need to teach in college is, typically, a master’s or PhD. I’m now thinking how beneficial it would be to get coaching skills on how to handle personalities. The expectations of behavior from professor to professor varies greatly.

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          • In most universities in the UK now, new hires have to do a teaching course of some sort and get accredited with the Higher Education Academy as part of their probation. Though the course I did was rubbish, and ironically taught by someone who was pretty useless at teaching!

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            • I want to say at least it’s a start, but I do know that sometimes a start doesn’t mean much at all. When I first started teaching as a graduate assistant, we were required to take teaching pedagogy at the SAME TIME as we were teaching. It was largely a commiseration class.

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              • Mine ran alongside teaching too – the idea was that people from lots of different fields came together to learn and share practice, but unfortunately this didn’t really work. A) because the people teaching the course refused to believe there were subjects where there are “right answers” (i.e. all STEM and vocational subjects) and said it was ableist of me to expect students to pass a drug calculations test every year, and b) because (at my university which is a highly STEM-intensive one) those of us who are teaching STEM/vocational courses found out that people in the humanities had about a fifth of our teaching load but were on the same salary grade and grumbling about how much they were expected to teach. So it just caused a lot of unfortunate hostility between fields. I’ve learnt a lot about teaching from my colleagues, though!

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                • Wait, they said it’s “ableist” to expect students to do a test that, I’m assuming, keeps patients alive?? (Or are we talking about weed?). It’s hard to admit, but I think there are some jobs that just aren’t right for people. For instance, in interpreting, you have listen, process, switch languages, and sign, pretty much all at the same time. Hence, you’re listening and processing one thing while you’re signing something else that was already said. If students have trouble with focusing or processing, they’re going to have to change their expectations. It’s common to interpret consecutively, and yet there are people who cannot do that. In my case, I don’t hear well in larger rooms, so I know that my limitation is interpreting one on one or with an assisted listening device. Going back to your comment, tell me how it’s ableist to be strict with people in jobs that save lives?

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                  • Yep! They said it was ableist to do a basic numeracy test every year, and to expect students to get 100% in the final year. They basically refused to believe me when I said it was a matter of lives at stake, because they think students should have control over what content they are assessed on and also neurodiversity means some people have trouble with functional numeracy. Basically their response was word salad because they couldn’t understand the idea that some subjects have right (and therefore wrong) answers. I agree though – there are jobs that I would be highly unsuited to because of my autism – that doesn’t make those workplaces ableist! The whole teaching programme was a mess, to be honest. A shame as it would have been really useful if they’d actually run it properly.

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  4. When I complain about being fat, about fatness happening to me, which is all the time, Milly points out that fatness is something I’m doing to myself (I understand not everyone has a choice, but I do). Even writing this, I’m not sure what I’m going to do – it’s an exercise problem rather than an over (or bad) eating one – gonna have to start walking, I guess, which I hate. It’s so pointless.

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    • Like I said, I love riding a bicycle and can imagine you getting one to store in your truck somewhere that you ride when you’re waiting for a load. Just pull it out and zoom away. Also, you need to move around just to avoid blood clots. I wonder if there are places near where you load and unload that have community pools, or something like that. I know you love swimming.

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  5. I think (hope?) in 30-50 years science will find that some people are just going to be fat like some people have blue eyes or brown hair – like it’s a simply a natural tendency perhaps amped up by societal and environmental factors (chemicals? plastic? who knows?) That there won’t be this shame and blame and stigma making people feel horrible about themselves. I hope by then we will have turned the tide on body liberation for fat people, trans people, disabled people – that we won’t let the medical/pharmaceutical industries and capitalism continue to shape how we view others. That we can view liberation for some to mean liberation for US ALL. I think I need to read this.

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    • I do encourage you to read Dark’s book, Laila! I know you’ve been on your own journey exploring what society has to say about bodies, and how that changes the way we see each other, often a push to dehumanize and ostracize by othering and even fear of becoming.

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  6. This sounds great. You’re right that so many of these kinds of books are written by women in their 20s and the older I get the more I appreciate the perspective of women older than me. And that question of how we frame our lives – is it something happening to us or something we are doing? I’ll have to ponder that one and my own attitudes.

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      • That is a really interesting idea. I feel now more like it was something that happened…if that makes sense? Like a sort of inevitable development that we needed to react to in a certain way. I don’t know if that seems overly passive but looking at the past year I don’t feel unhappy about the choices we made, just that it got to the point where we had to make those choices.

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        • I think just the act of making choices means you see what is happening as something to which you can react, whereas Dark makes the point that some people feel like things happen TO them. Yes, your church situation changed, but you saw it as a situation to address through thought, analysis, prayer, etc. It didn’t happen TO you, it happened.

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          • Yeah, I think that’s pretty accurate to how I view it all. I imagine I will have a better perspective in another year or ten but it’s not something that plagues me now even when I might feel sad about it.

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  7. Very interesting. I am shocked people would walk out of her class – if I saw a fat teacher I’d think that’s good, I bet she understands how people’s bodies can be different (I once had to have a word with a teacher who said in a position where we had our bodies horizontal over lunged legs and said “Hold your core tight and don’t let your stomach touch your leg!” and there wasn’t room in my body for my stomach NOT to touch my leg, and I’m not even particularly large, and I felt judged and that others in the room would too; she did take my point and thanked me).

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    • From your pictures I would say you’re a rather small woman, so this is an odd command for the teacher to give! No matter a person’s size, I can see how they would feel judged if they don’t pull off a move exactly as someone says they “have” to.

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  8. Sounds like a really good book, very thought-provoking in the best kind of way. I didn’t know that was a reason for you quitting teaching, but I’d love to hear more about it in your future reviews! that is, if it’s not too painful a thread to pull on for you. It just sounds fascinating.

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    • I taught during a weird period of time. For example, when I started teaching, the only social media we really had was Facebook, and that was back when you had to have a college email address to use it. I taught through the 2008 recession, which made students more demanding in a consumer sort of way (e.g. I pay you, hence you do what I say) and also a lot of students in college because they didn’t know what else to do because there were no jobs. And then move through the huge social media boom, and students are arguing about how grading is unfair because professors have authority/privilege/abuse of power, etc. (basically, a bunch of catch phrases on social media not applied correctly) and in the end, I was worn out. I think I would like some day to teach one class, but right now I’m focusing on my interpreting career.

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        • Sometimes I look back and think something was wasted, or it wasn’t worth the time invested in it, but then our life journeys typically link up like a daisy chain, and we can see how one thing got us to a new place. I think the only exception for me is my freshman year when I was a music major. I totally quit that and pivoted, no linking.

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