This is no. 92 in a series of craft essays exploring the finer points of writing. Check back each week for a new Craft Capsule.
When I was an undergraduate, I saw a call for writing about fatness for the anthology Shadow on a Tightrope: Writing by Women on Fat Oppression (Aunt Lute Books, 1983), which became a feminist classic, still in print decades later. I was a young writer who very much wanted to be published. I had been fat all my life. I knew that the shape of my body had been central in defining the shape of my life, but I had no language for how to write or even think about that. The cultural tropes for fat women were virulently dismissive. I knew that they did not represent who I was. The hate language that was regularly shouted at me on the street didn’t either, but I didn’t know how to start to say anything else.
Soon after I graduated, I moved from Colorado to Boston. I got a job at a drugstore and started figuring out how to be a writer. I gave myself the simple assignment to look in the mirror and try to describe myself accurately and, to the best of my ability, without judgment. I chose to do this naked, but the exercise can be equally powerful if the writer is wearing clothes.
It proved to be enormously difficult, both emotionally and because I found that I had extremely limited options for language with which to describe my body. I have said elsewhere that it took participation in grassroots feminism and reading great poets (for me, Gertrude Stein and Walt Whitman) before I could find my belly with my hands and write that it was soft to the touch. Eventually, though, I got there. This is from a lyric essay in my chapbook of poetry and essays, Belly Songs: In Celebration of Fat Women:
My belly pours, hangs, moves, grows hair, shines in marks that fall like fingers curing up around its sides. I am loose, I hang. There are not enough names for the places where my fat gathers on me; there is belly, thigh, hip, chin, but no simple way to say soft-mound-between-breast-and-arms, or low-full-folds-that-are-sides.
I didn’t just observe my body. I also touched it.
I take my belly in my hands. It’s warm. My fingers feel cool, but quickly warm, too. It has a good weight, is soft. I sit very still, and feel the pulse in my thumbs, then find the pulse in the place of my thickest fat. It’s delicate and regular, there, yes, there, yes, there. It comes from the underside where my palms are resting, from the left half and the right half, from veins that curve out the with rest of me. This is not dead lard. It’s my body. It’s my living fat.
Writing Belly Songs opened a vein of literary exploration that eventually resulted in three novels. It changed the way I move through the world too. Having language for fatness—for that aspect of my body I had once understood to be too shameful to speak of—allowed me to begin to know, say, and be more fully who I am. All of that anguished silence was distracting. Living with less of it makes me more present for every other aspect of life. I’ve written about other things, but I know that I’m not done with this topic.
This exercise is useful for any writer. The body is the vessel for all sensory knowledge. Describing one’s physical self with accurate, nuanced attention is like plugging into an electrical socket. There’s a charge. If a writer runs into obstacles to finding language for his, her, or their specific body, then the strategies that arise from grappling with that, or even just touching it lightly, can be revelatory. It has been for me.
Susan Stinson is a writer, editor, and teacher. She is the author of four novels, including Spider in a Tree (Small Beer Press, 2013) and Martha Moody (Spinsters Ink Books, 1995; Small Beer Press, 2020). Her writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Curve, Lambda Literary Review, Seneca Review, and Kenyon Review Online. She is also a recipient of the Outstanding Mid-Career Novelists’ Prize from Lambda Literary. Born in Texas and raised in Colorado, she lives in Northampton, Massachusetts.Thumbnail: Oscar Blair