This interview was originally published in Issue 32 and we’re delighted to make it publicly available here.
We are proud to share this interview with Jacqueline Cieslak, one of our favourite thinkers on knitting and activist body positivity. Her thoughts on how some bodies occupy the central space of our community and some occupy the margins are required reading for everybody wishing to make our shared culture more inclusive.
FB: How would you introduce yourself to readers who don’t already know your work?
JC: I am a cultural anthropologist turned knitting pattern designer, teacher, and maker based in Charlottesville, Virginia. My training as an anthropologist shapes my work as a fibre artist, which I approach with a critical, intersectional, body-positive agenda. I am white and fat, and my pronouns are she/her.
FB: You describe yourself as “body positive” but your take is different from the popular usage in mainstream media and advertising. Could you share how you define body positivity, where the term comes from, and how this usage is distinct?
JC: I understand body positivity as a political project that works for justice for historically marginalised bodies. This project is rooted in fat liberation, disability justice, and anti-racism, and it seeks to effect deep cultural change. While mainstream body positivity is about the individual – my relationship with my body, my journey of self-love, my acceptance of my stomach roll or skin blemish – the body positivity I am interested in is structural, which is an anthropology term that means beyond the individual. Structural issues have to do with political and social institutions and cultural values rather than personal experiences or opinions.
So for example, I may have all the self-love in the world for my own fat body, but that won’t help me when I need to attend a city council meeting and I cannot fit into any of the auditorium seats. Or when I go to the doctor and they refuse to provide a prescription for a medication that would improve my quality of life unless I lose weight. Self-love mantras and bath bombs will not make the power structures of our world more equitable and accessible; we need political will and intersectional community building for that.
Some fat activists believe the term ‘body positivity’ has lost all usefulness as a political project because it has been co-opted by mainstream commercialisation, but I continue to use it for two reasons: 1) I want to pull as many people as possible into this work, and if the trend of body positivity catches you and my work introduces you to the deeper work of dismantling fatphobia, ableism, racism, etc., then the term has done its job, and 2) I believe that self-care as survival for marginalised bodies is part of the political project. You cannot show up to advocate for yourself if you have internalised the narrative that it’s you that needs to change instead of society.
My brand of body positivity is this: know that you, whoever you are and whatever intersections you inhabit, deserve to be treated as a full human with dignity and respect in the body you have today, and then commit to demanding the same from institutions for people who inhabit different intersections, especially if their intersections mean they live with less privilege (body size, race, gender, disability, etc.) than you. If your pursuit of self-love ends with yourself, it is, frankly, meaningless to the rest of the world.
FB: It might surprise some readers to see you using the word ‘fat’. especially those who have experienced it as a taunt or insult.
Could you share why you say ‘fat’ so freely?
Content warning: in this answer Jacqueline briefly discusses her history of dieting.
JC: Like many (but not all!) fat people, I spent most of my life afraid of the word ‘fat’. I started my first commercial diet when I was 15, and over the years I would go on to try almost all of them. They all worked … until they didn’t. I would always eventually gain the weight back and then some – which is, by the way, how diets work for most people. In other words, DIETS DON’T WORK. This is important, because so much of fatphobia is rooted in the cultural assumption that fat people could change their bodies if only they had the discipline. There is no evidence that this assumption is true for the vast majority of people, but there is plenty of evidence that any attempt to achieve intentional weight loss through yo-yo dieting (or more drastic measures, like medication or surgery) can have negative and sometimes lethal health consequences.
In 2016, coming off the end of another successful until-it-was-horribly-unsuccessful commercial diet, I happened across an article about the science of dieting that confirmed what years of experience had taught me but I was afraid to admit: dieting did not and would not work. It was like an awakening that prompted me to ask myself some very important questions: what if my body never got any smaller? How would my life change if I stopped living as if I would someday be thinner? What could I do if I re-allocated the energy I was expending trying to make myself smaller?
I began my own reclaiming of the word ‘fat’ slowly and uncomfortably at first. But if I accepted my body, and if I wanted to live in a way that did not assume my body would or should someday be smaller, how could I use words like overweight or obese? Both these words assume thinness as the standard and fatness as a dangerous deviation. ‘Fat’ is neutral; it describes my body without reference to an arbitrary, more privileged standard. It is a descriptor like ‘short’ or ‘tall’, and it is a more accurate term than euphemisms like curvy or big (a thin person can be curvy and a relatively small person can be fat).
The only reason ‘fat’ has power as an insult is because we assume fatness is bad, but by reclaiming the term through everyday speech acts, we can demonstrate that fat is simply a fact of bodies like mine – there is nothing wrong or shameful about it.
These days, I also use the word ‘fat’ to signal allegiance to a political identity for people with shared experiences of oppression based on body size. Fat people are discriminated against in hiring and paid less than thin people for the same jobs. Fat people are routinely misdiagnosed by biased medical practitioners or denied lifesaving care altogether. Fat survivors of sexual assault are less likely to be believed. By naming fatness, we can identify these manifestations of fatphobia and work to create a more equitable world for fat people.
FB: How does the stigma against fatness intersect with other marginalised communities? And how is this relevant to knitting?
JC: Any systems that hierarchically rank and discipline bodies based on inherent physical characteristics should set off your white supremacy alarm bells. The idea that body size is correlated to fitness or health and that a ‘fit’ body is a moral achievement is a deeply white supremacist value that disproportionately harms Black people, Indigenous people, working class people, and disabled people most specifically. Historically, communities around the world have held many different ideas about bodies, but it is important to recognise that today’s most powerful global standard upholds white, Western European, able-bodied thinness as the pinnacle of both beauty and moral goodness (to understand what I mean by the moral goodness of bodies, consider the portrayal of Ariel/Ursula in the 1989 animated Disney film The Little Mermaid).
There are endless examples of the way fat phobia compounds with racism: in the devaluing of’unhealthy’ foods that are culturally significant to non-white communities; in the under-representation (or even complete lack of representation) of BIPOC in research programmes that define bogus biomedical standards we rely on today such as the BMI; in stereotypes about fat racialised bodies as either extremely sexualised or extremely desexualised (the Black ‘mammy’); and so many more than I could possibly name here.
When I say fatphobia compounds with other marginalizations, I do not just mean that fat people who live at other marginalizations are doubly oppressed — I mean that experiences of oppression based on body size are qualitatively different for people at different intersections. For example, there are fat activists who are adamant that any intentional weight loss is counter to the values of the body positive movement, but fat trans people are frequently denied gender-affirming surgery unless they achieve significant weight loss. An intersectional body positivity recognizes that the stakes are sometimes higher for different communities, and that our strategies for combating fatphobia need to prioritize the needs of the most marginalized groups and fight for practical survival strategies.
These conversations are important to knitting because so much of our industry is about bodies – through representation in magazine pages and Instagram posts, and through creative work in designing and grading garment patterns. Centring historically marginalised bodies in the knitting world can be incredibly powerful because the nature of a small, niche community is that the people in it are much more likely to notice and care about what happens to it. We can set an example that both makes our conununity safer for the people in it and reverberates into the wider world.
FB: You’ve talked about how making your own clothing is part of your activist practice, as well as how the distinction between handmade and ready-to-wear can be porous and problematic. How did you come to make your own clothes? And how do you gauge when ‘handmade’ is appropriate?
JC: I started sewing my own clothes at about the same time I decided to swear off dieting and work toward accepting my own fat body. While weight-based numbers were triggering for me, I found that I had far fewer hang-ups about body measurement numbers. Sewing was a way of getting to know my body and dealing with the body dysmorphia caused by years of yo-yo dieting. Photographing myself in the clothes I made was also part of this process – using a tripod and a remote, I was able to slowly, lovingly, learn to recognise myself in pictures, and gradually stop doing things like photographing from above to make myself look thinner.
Making my own clothes (knitting and sewing) has also been a way for me to access slow fashion in an industry where options are scarce and often more expensive for plus-size bodies. All clothing is handmade, at least in part, but not all clothing is made by people who are paid a living wage and have safe working conditions. Developing the skills to make clothes means that I have a greater appreciation for the work that goes into even the simplest garment, and it also means that I am able to mend and tailor older pieces so they last longer, honouring the labour that went into them in the first place. All of this puts me in a position to better afford the occasional purchase from a slow fashion plus-size clothing company with transparent labour practices (like Alice Alexander, whose dress I am wearing in the Water Bearer pattern photos).
While I find it incredibly empowering to make clothes that fit my own body (and to teach others how to do it!), I will also say that making most of your own clothes is not a viable substitute for buying clothes for most people. Many plus-size people have no options except fast fashion, and we all need clothes that fit. What remains important to me, whether you are making your own clothes, doing what you can to support slow fashion, or finding ways to clothe yourself comfortably with the limited fast fashion options available to you, is that your work makes for greater accessibility and equitability for historically marginalised people, both for those who make clothes and for all of us who wear them.
FB: Your designs have neckline and hemline choices built in, as well as optional modifications for different body shapes. And you encourage people to share their modifications. What advice do you have for knitters who would like to modify a pattern with no modification suggestions, but don’t know where to start, or who find the external resources overwhelming?
JC: First, I think it is important to understand knitting (or any kind of creative work, really) as a practice and not just a means to an end (the end being a great-fitting sweater!). This means that unknitting and reknitting are essential parts of the practice of knitting, as is wearing a finished object and being mindful of how it makes you feel in your body and if there are changes that might make you feel better in the next piece. Some of my favourite pieces are ones that I reworked (parts or in whole) multiple times. So my first piece of advice is: take the pressure off yourself. You might not get it right the first time, and that’s okay! It will still be valuable practice.
Second, as a designer and a maker, I rely heavily on community for learning. I have worked
in local yarn shops since I first started knitting, and I think there is no substitute for the kinds of knowledge shared around the knitting circle. That said, your ‘knitting circle’ may not be in a shop, or it may not even be in person – some of the most important relationships in my knitting community are with fellow fat knitters I met through Instagram (and have never met in person). So my second piece of advice is: seek out and cultivate community with like-minded knitters wherever you can, and go to them for recommendations or help when you aren’t sure how to tackle an issue.
FB: You’ve described yourself as a work in progress, and been open about working on things in your life and relationships. While this is probably true of most people, your candour and lack of judgement (of yourself and of others at various stages in their journeys) has been inspiring to witness. Is this something you cultivated as part of your activism? And how is it reflected in your making practice?
JC: I think there is a perception that you cannot be body positive if you do not love your body. This perception undermines the political project of body positivity right from the start because it turns your own insecurity into just one more thing on the never-ending list of things that are wrong with your body.
The body positivity I subscribe to is not about proscribing how you should or shouldn’t feel about your body; it is about working for structural changes that make the world a more just place for people in marginalised bodies. I try to be open about my own personal journey and struggles in the hope that it will help others see that they are not alone and that they are welcome in this movement.
Also, it is important to remember that capitalism creates conditions in which people are afraid to share their own vulnerabilities, because they live with the assumption that they are competing with one another for everything – to be the next big designer, to have the next hit yarn, to release the next hot pattern. As a designer and a businessperson, I prefer to operate with an ethics of abundance. There is plenty of space for everyone, and plenty of room to grow in the ways that matter (not in the overconsumption of material resources, but in the sharing of ideas and creative endeavours). Sharing my learning may help others learn, which contributes to the kind of abundance I want for our community and the world. I am uninterested in growth or success that does not uplift others alongside myself.
FB: What resources or thinkers do you recommend to people who would like to learn more about body positivity and fat acceptance?
JC: SO MANY! Some of my favourite fat and fat-positive thinkers are: Your Fat Friend, the anonymous online essayist; Sonya Renee Taylor, author and founder of The Body is Not an Apology; Shooglet, photographer and artist; Sonalee, The Fat Sex Therapist; Lindy West, writer and author of Shrill and The Witches are Coming; and Jervae, Fat Black Femme Philosopher.
For folks looking for resources to get into the political project of body positivity, I recommend the She’s All Fat podcast, anything from The Body is Not an Apology, the documentary Fattitude, and Linda Bacon’s work on Health At Every Size.
Thank you to Francesca and Jacqueline for their time and words.