Activist and self-proclaimed “fat dancer”, Ragen Chastain talks to REglam about how she uses dancing to fight against sizeism, promote body positivity and how dance helped her love her body. She shares personal experiences and tips on how others can begin their journey to self-love!
Emma: You’ve been blogging since 2005, what inspired you to start documenting your life online?
Chastain: My friends were doing personal blogging and that’s how I got involved. Then I started ballroom dancing and I was naively shocked at how much focus judges put on my body – saying things like “What a waste of talent at your size” and “I couldn’t stand to look at you.” I realized that I wanted to be a fat dancer but I was going to have to be a fat activist to get it done. I started danceswithfat.org to chronicle my journey as a fat dancer, and as I got more involved in fat activism it grew into a more general blog about Size Acceptance and Health at Every Size.
Emma: Being a cheerleading captain and varsity athlete in the past, did you find that you had to overcome any obstacles in regards to your self-esteem and how you felt about your body in those roles?
Chastain: I was always a bit bigger than my classmates but I was also a successful athlete and so while there was a little teasing about my body size in general I felt confident about my body and my abilities. My struggles with body image, body positivity, and self esteem didn’t start until late in high school and even then I still had a lot of confidence in myself because I was an athlete. My ability to love my body for what it is, and not just what it does, wouldn’t come until later.
Emma: You post your “hate mail” and your “love mail” on your blog, what made you choose to post the hate mail?
Chastain: I get tons of hate mail and I have for years. At this point there are multiple forums and websites online devoted to hating me specifically, and accusing me of, well, anything and everything. A friend recently pointed out that hating me officially qualifies as pastime! Many people suggest that those of us who face this kind abuse should not say anything about it, but I think that allows the bullies to do their work in silence with no pushback so while I don’t talk about it all the time, posting the hate that I get is a way that I show, and respond to, some of the the ridiculous backlash that I receive.
Emma: How do those negative comments affect you personally?
Chastain: It doesn’t affect me personally anymore – the sheer amount of it, coupled with the fact that everything I do or say on my blog and social media is criticized has basically completely desensitized me – but in the past couple of years they’ve escalated to contacting places that book me to speak, business that partner with me, venues that publish my writing etc. to try to get them to cut ties with me – with no success thus far – and last year they actually showed up and confronted me at my half IRONMAN which was a little scary. I think that the amount of hate I receive is a testament to both the reason that the work I do is necessary, and my effectiveness at doing it.
Emma: How did dancing contribute to you learning to love yourself?
Chastain: Personally, dancing helped to reinforce the relationship that I have with my body – I view my body as a friend and partner. I love the feeling of dancing and performing and I love the challenges that dancing provides, and the reminder that even if I’m struggling with something physically it’s always me and my body against a problem, and never me against my body.
When a judge cornered me after a competition to tell me repeatedly that she couldn’t stand to look at me, it was a turning point for me. I had been involved in social justice activism in the past – mostly LGBT and anti-racism work. What I realized in that moment was that the shame, stigma, bullying, harassment that I faced as a fat person was a form of oppression and that I could fight that oppression just as I fought other types. It also reinforced for me that my body is not the problem, sizeism is the problem, and that I could choose to fight sizeism rather than fighting my body in an attempt to change my picture to fit my bullies’ frame.
Emma: You list a variety of topics that you discuss during your public speaking sessions, which topic is your personal favourite? Why?
Chastain: I give a talk called “The World Is Messed Up – You Are Fine” in which we look at the messages that we get from society about things like beauty, health, body image, aging, and body size. We compare these messages to what the actual research and evidence show. I’ve given this talk to many groups, from third graders to healthcare professionals, and it’s always great to see the looks of realization on people’s faces as we talk about the ways that billion dollar industries lie and manipulate us for profit, and then hear them talk about the how these realizations have already helped them with their relationships with their bodies, food, and movement. Often I get e-mails months, even years, later telling me how the strategies that I taught them in the class are continuing to help them on their journeys. It makes me so grateful to be able to do this work.
Emma: Although you’ve accomplished the task of finally learning to love yourself, do you ever find yourself struggling nowadays? How?
Chastain: We live in a world that constantly gives us messages that we are not good enough, that we are not worthy, and that we never will be. Living in a world where we are bombarded with those messages every day requires constant vigilance and a strong set of skills and even with those I can certainly still get tripped up now and then. I’m currently training for an IRONMAN Triathlon as part of a project to push outside of my comfort zone as an athlete and spending a lot of time doing sports I’m not good at has definitely been a challenge to my relationship with my body. In the end, I think that facing these challenges helps me test and strengthen my skills, which in turn improves my relationship with my body, and my body image.
Emma: You regularly interact with members and commenters on your blog, if you had to describe your ultimate goal of the blog in one sentence, how would you do that?
Chastain: I hear from people every single day who hate their bodies because they literally don’t think they have another choice, who are dieting even though they know it doesn’t work because they don’t think there’s any other option, and so the ultimate goal of my work is to make sure that people know they have other options – that they don’t have to hate their bodies, that they have options to support their health without manipulating their body size, and that they are worthy no matter what.
Interviewee: Ragen Chastain
Interviewed by: Emma Fischer, journalist at REglam
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