This is my first keynote address, so please be gentle with me. Every time I do something new like this it's always anxious-making. I was supposed to do a class at the Learning Annex. The woman who signed me up to do it was kind of a flake in that she wouldn't tell me when it was.
So I picked up the free catalogs, hoping to get a clue. They had some very interesting classes. One that interested me in particular was, "Making a Living as a Writer." I thought, "Wow, there's one I could use. I've never been able to figure out how to do that."
Then I looked down at the list of presenters and found out I was supposed to be teaching the course!
This made me nervous. I know there are some strongly cherished myths about the writing business. The fantasy is that you write a book, a publisher brings it out. Checks start rolling in. Hollywood knocks at your door and gives you even larger amounts of money. You buy a mansion in Beverly Hills and, etc. and etc.
I don't know anyone to whom that has happened, and I'm not about to get up and lie that anything remotely approaching that has happened to me.
As a matter of fact if I were to divide the amount of money I've made over the years since I seriously devoted my life to by the number of hours I've spent, I'd have been better off financially to have spent the time working in an Indonesian sweat shop.
So why do I do it? I clearly must love it, but why? What I came up with to tell the Learning Annex people and I will share with you, is my
William Fabrey - founded the size acceptance movement. Elizabeth Fischer started a national protest around seatbelt availability for passengers of all sizes. Paul Delacroix is literally creating a vision of big as beautiful (which I might add is much more difficult to do using images that directly contradict the flood of thin-is-beautiful images we are bombarded with daily--I've got an easier job using words because people make up their own pictures in their heads!) Lee Martindale has been a hero of mine for a long time due to her activism, her sense of style, and her Texas attitude.
I thought for quite a long time about how perceptions change. The speakers I just mentioned have changed people's perceptions--and so has everyone here tonight.
While I was thinking about what to say here, I found a fascinating quote from the actor, John Cusack, who has made a controversial film, Max, about art dealer Max Rothman's relationship with Hitler and how the Nazis used art to control people's world view.
[Hitler] understood that, in the modern world, whoever controls images and symbols has the power. He understood that art reaches people's subconscious, and that battles will be fought on the spiritual plane of art for people's souls.That quote reminded me of a very good (very angry) book by Charisse Goodman called The Invisible Woman, that details, passage by passage, the ways in which modern propaganda about fat people is identical to the kind of propaganda the Nazis put out against Jews.Interview with John Cusak by Paul O'Donnell on http://www.beliefnet.com
We kind of know this--and yet it's very hard not to buy into the propaganda that we are somehow inferior, diseased.
Our culture has lost the ability to look at fat people and see beauty. A major challenge for us is seeing our own beauty, because we are so bombarded with the opposite messages.
I was a psychology major and in the nine years that it took for me to get a four-year degree the best and most useful class I took was Behavior Modification.
My Behaviorism professor used to say, "If you care, care enough to count." He meant to count behaviors. Because that's how you start to change a behavior--you get a baseline figure of how often it occurs.
I thought of him when I recently heard that the average person is exposed to 3,000 commercial messages per day. I was also astounded to hear that people who have low self-esteem will repeat negative self-talk messages upwards of 400 times a day. When you consider that so many of the commercial messages are also negative to fat people--I think we deserve a round of applause for even getting out of bed every day!
I went looking on the Internet for a reference for that "400 times a day" figure and, of course, I couldn't find it. I did discover a paper clip experiment though, that was quite interesting.
Take a handful of paper clips. It helps to have a pocket for this experiment. Whenever you think a negative thing about yourself, take out a paper clip. When you think of another, clip it to the first one, repeat as necessary.
My first thought on hearing that experiment was "How could I carry that many paper clips?" Then I thought, "Well, I could do it for an hour and then multiply by the number of hours I'm awake." (Actually I don't have as bad a time as I used to with negative self-talk and in just a minute, I'm going to explain the technique I used that was very effective in combating it.)
If you're into numbers (or logic) you may notice that I never did establish a baseline number. That will give you a pretty good idea why I never went into the hard sciences. But fortunately I didn't need a really accurate count, because I was changing my own behavior, not doing a formal experiment.
Here's how I changed my negative self-talk episodes. As I said, I don't know exactly how many negative things I said to myself in a given day, but it was enough to make me feel bad. I was able to cut that down to maybe just a few negative statements a week. And that was the beginning of starting to feel better about myself.
I call it the "just say NO technique," I got it from various sources and what it amounts to is saying "no" instead of whatever negative message you were about to inflict on yourself.
When I started trying this method some years ago, I was working in the San Francisco Financial district. Typically, I would catch a glimpse of myself in a store window or something and start to make a negative mental comment on my appearance and instead I would say "no." Sometimes I would say it out loud. Fortunately, seeing someone walking along talking to themselves out loud is not a very rare occurrence in downtown San Francisco.
We can combat these negative messages. Some people recommend substituting a neutral or positive comment, e.g. instead of "I look awful," saying "My hair is brown." But I prefer "no" because it's simple, and it's very powerful. It's one of the first words we learn. And I can testify that it works--although there can still be some bad days I feel like I'm swatting flies in July. If you have a better technique--use it. But this one worked for me.
So getting back to my own particular job in fighting oppression against fat people. I'm a storyteller. My job as a writer is not to try to demonize or whitewash, but to humanize fat people. I have to fight to tell the stories about fat people that are not being told because of prejudice.
I've divided that into two basic tasks--
Let me say that again. Positive stories about fat people have become taboo, in the sense of forbidden.
Forbidden things can draw our attention because they make us nervous. The way that four-letter words used to, back when they weren't everywhere you turned. The word "Fat" has accumulated that kind of negative charge.
A good example is a double feature at a second run movie theater near me--My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Real Women Have Curves.
I thought it was a size acceptance double feature, and when I called to get the playing times the recording told me that it was the most successful double bill they'd had in months, and that it had been held over. When I bought a ticket, I explained that I was speaking in front of a size acceptance group and asked the ticket-taker if the films were really so popular. He instantly understood my question and explained that while some people came because of award nominations for My Big Fat Greek Wedding, many people had said they specifically came to see Real Women Have Curves.
I didn't understand till I saw the movies--My Big Fat Greek Wedding is not a size acceptance film, although it is size positive. They got Greek actors from all over the world--and those actors look a lot more like real humans than your usual Hollywood actors.
Language is a living thing. The word "FAT" is used as an attention-getter in marketing My Big Fat Greek Wedding. It's a taboo word, but it's not actually an obscene word. But it is considered so rude to use it that people do a double-take when they see it up on a marquee. The focus of the film is on the Greek subculture, and the word "fat" here is a code word for "Outrageous."
Real Women Have Curves actually is a size acceptance movie about a lovely young woman, coming of age and fighting to find ways to accept herself and express herself.
I think there's a paradox there--if you have Fat in the title you don't have it in the story. If you have it in the story, the title has to be gentler. I am certain that was a conscious marketing decision.
I was interested that the word "fat" is moving from being considered a passive synonym for "ugly" into being a synonym for "over the top and a little scary."
People are vaguely aware that there is such a thing as size acceptance. They may not agree with it or accept it but the very fact that the word "BBW" is entering the language. People are starting to realize that there are some strangely militant fat people out there who are standing up on their hind legs and demanding to be treated with respect. That is a plus.
Another thing I want to point out is that human perception is more flexible than you might guess.
Let me give you my experience of six days at a size acceptance convention a few years ago.
Left: Author Lynne Murray delivering her Keynote Address following Saturday night dinner. Photo by Jay Early.
This was when Larger Than Death had come out in hardcover from a small press and I brought a couple of cases of the book along to sell from my room and then behind a vendor table. So attended the whole week, the pre-convention, and then the convention. For six days I had been looking at colorfully dressed, cheerful fat people, with the occasional smaller fat admirer or ally, everyone making eye contact and smiling. When I came down to the ballroom area on the night of the last dance, I was startled to see all these very strange-looking people, formally dressed and going into the ballroom. These people were not at all friendly
I couldn't put my finger on what was wrong with them but they just looked weird. After a several seconds I realized--they were all thin!
It turned out that there were two ballrooms in use. The convention dance was across the lobby from a high school reunion. Visually, I would guess it was a high school with a large Asian population--so they probably started from a genetically thinner-than-average population. Also people who have gained weight since high school frequently don't go to reunions, and those who do go, often will diet so as not to be ridiculed there--which probably literally narrowed down the population to the smaller sizes as well.
What startled me was that in less than a week my eyes had adjusted to seeing large and supersized people as the norm, and all these thin people just looked strange and wrong. I don't mean to suggest that there is such a thing as a right or wrong body size here. My point is that our expectations of what size is natural can be conditioned in either direction in a fairly short period of time.
So how do we change perceptions about fat?
The short answer: ANY AND EVERY WAY WE CAN
I'm a storyteller, so I use stories.
I recently read an interesting book about healing by Rachel Naomi Remen, called Kitchen Table Wisdom. I'd better give you a handkerchief alert on this book. It was difficult for me to read without crying, so I read it in small doses. But it was worth it to me because of the insights into how stories can heal.
Dr. Remen is a medical doctor who also suffers from a chronic, incurable intestinal illness, Crohn's disease. She says as a young doctor--
I listened to human beings who were suffering, and responding to their suffering in ways as unique as their fingerprints. Their stories were inspiring, moving, important. In time the truth in them began to heal me.As a novelist, I specialize in the stories that are not real. But they are probably realer to me than to many other people. That may be because fictional characters were my closest friends when I was growing up. My father's work for the military meant that I seldom had friends in school because up until I was 12, we never stayed anywhere very long. But everywhere we moved, I would go directly to the library and my friends would always be there--Mark Twain, Louisa May Alcott, Jack London, Edgar Rice Burroughs, even Aldous Huxley. Those people traveled with me, even though some of them had been dead for decades.
Everybody is a story. When I was a child, people sat around kitchen tables and told their stories. We don't do that so much anymore. Sitting around the table telling stories is not just a way of passing time. It is the way the wisdom gets passed along. The stuff that helps us to live a life worth remembering . . .
Most of the stories we are told now are written by novelists and screenwriters, acted out by actors and actresses, stories that have beginning and endings, stories that are not real.Kitchen Table Wisdom by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D.
As humans we learn most easily from stories.
I decided to write about a sleuth of size who doesn't apologize the day I threw a book at the wall. A favorite mystery author of mine had thought it would be funny to have her private investigator hesitate to get into an elevator with a seedy old building manager because "the woman must have weighed over 200 pounds" and our heroine was afraid the elevator cable would split and send them both crashing to their death. This was the point at which I threw the book at the wall and determined to write about a sleuth of size who doesn't apologize.
In order to create a self-accepting woman of size I had to learn what that looks like. It's been very rewarding.
When the character spoke to me she said, "My name is Josephine Fuller and I've never weighed less than 200 pounds in my adult life, not counting the chip on my shoulder."
When Larger Than Death was completed, I spent a few years trying to find an agent for it. I kept re-writing it and polishing it while I collected rejection slips.
But I began to realize that I needed to place it with a small press.
Part of that was my experience in 1988 when my first mystery, Termination Interview, was published by St. Martin's Press. They kept it in print for a year. It didn't sell well and they didn't want to see a sequel. Then, because my agent, my former agent, didn't realize it was hopeless, we sent the second book in that series to every publisher in America and every one rejected it.
It took me a couple of years to realize that I had a track record--and it was a bad one. So I spent 8 years studying up on promotion, getting ready for the moment when I would have another chance. Fortunately I hadn't heard the statistic that 80% of those who publish a first novel, never publish a second.
With Larger Than Death, I began to think that a small press publisher would be useful because they could keep the book in print long enough to let people know it was out there. Large publishers will have better distribution, and the books they put out routinely go to big chain stores. But it didn't matter if the books went out to every store in the universe if the publisher didn't keep the book in the stores long enough for people to find out it was there.
Small presses will keep a book in print for years, which gives it a chance to find an audience.
So I stopped looking for an agent. Agents aren't interested in selling a book to a small press because there's not enough money there to make it worth the agent's time. 15% of no advance is zero, no matter how you divide it.
I found Orloff Press and explained that I was going to do as much promotion as I could--and they took the book. Incidentally they also asked for 3 more re-writes. John Miller, the guiding light at Orloff, had never heard of size acceptance, but nothing that he wanted changed had anything to do with that. His suggestions were all about tightening up the pace of the book and making sure that everything in it contributed to the flow of the story. Then Orloff got down in the trenches with me--calling mystery book stores all over the country. Basically the publisher became a salesman--because he wanted to get his money back.
It took two years, but Larger Than Death sold out its first printing. Orloff Press has not been publishing many new books lately, so they were not able to take on the second Josephine Fuller book. But the success of the hardcover with them helped me find an agent and St. Martin's Press was interested enough to buy the paperback rights and ended up publishing 3 more Josephine Fuller books.
I was afraid when I got ready to go promote the books. I expected Jenny Craig to jump up and start debating me at every book signing! That didn't happen. Some people have told me that they disagree with me. One woman told me she liked the story but she couldn't agree that "it was okay to be fat." Another (thin) woman surprised me by saying she thought Josephine was arrogant because she was only imagining that men liked her because it couldn't be true!
The vast majority of women (of various dress sizes) have found the books helpful. I have received many touching emails from women who have gone through a great deal of pain around body image issues, I'll share just three of them with you.
One woman who suffered from an eating disorder from age 13, and now, in her 40s, is overcoming it, wrote, "I believe self-acceptance is the key to finally putting to rest the last remnants of my eating disorder . . . . I NEED role models who don't apologize for who they are, who take themselves seriously, who suffer no fools. I need to be reminded to wipe the self-deprecating smile off my face, to stand up taller in the face of ignorance instead of slinking off in shame as if I deserved poor treatment because somehow I'm bad for being the size I am."
I really work on the first line of each book, because sometimes people won't read further than that if it doesn't hook them straight off. The first line of Large Target reads: A woman of my size is supposed to be invisible.]
A law student emailed me, "[That first line] had me rolling on the floor laughing. I am the 'large' member of my group of friends and we have a running joke that I am invisible. It has happened. It even happened in their presence. So . . . when I read that line you gave me a great laugh, something to talk with my friends about and . . . most importantly . . . written documentation that the 'invisible phenomenon' actually exists."
One woman who is dealing with advanced arthritis wrote, "[I] just wanted to let you know that the couple of hours reading your books is better then any morphine patch or ice pack!"
I haven't felt that kind of pain myself, but I was really touched at the idea that I've helped relieve some of it for her, even for a few hours.
So some of us need to tell these stories. Now how can we get them out there to be heard?
If there was an easy answer, I'd be explaining about how to write a bestseller, or maybe we'd be having this event at a premiere of a riotously successful size acceptance film. At such time as that happens--you are all invited. But for the moment--It's a harder row to hoe.
The paradox is that large publishers and Hollywood are looking for something new and different that will be guaranteed to succeed. Those two things just don't go together. It's literally impossible to know what new and different thing will catch the public attention.
Why am I talking about Hollywood when I write novels? Because all the major publishers have been eaten by giant multi-media conglomerates. Where there used to be 30 or more publishers there are now four or ten multi-media conglomerates depending on how you count.
The money in publishing books is miniscule compared with the money to be made in motion pictures, television, videogames, etc. so the book publishing industry has become one department in a big corporation. It's a department that never shows the same kind of profits as the others.
So the poor stepsister publishing industry is looking for a lottery ticket success to please their multi-media monster owners. They all are want the next Harry Potter phenomenon--what they call a breakout book. The problem is no one can predict such a thing.
But original ideas have to come from somewhere--and frequently they come from books.
My impression is that the publishing industry hasn't quite decided where size acceptance fits on their radar, so they're cautiously interested.
Why? Because real experiences have power.
Example--both the films I mentioned came from the actual experiences of women screenwriters.
My Big Fat Greek Wedding began as a one-woman show, Real Women Have Curves began as a play that for 10 years was performed in colleges and community centers in the Latino Community, and we've probably all heard of Camryn Manheim breaking out of obscurity with her one-woman show, Wake Up, I'm Fat!
Small presses are now doing what major publishers used to do--taking the risk of publishing writers on new and different subjects.
The obstacle is the prejudice that "No one wants to hear about fat people" Or as Lee Martindale recounts, a woman at a Science Fiction and Fantasy Convention told her "Fat people simply cannot be heroic." Like Ms. Martindale, we may beg to differ, but we have to get past some barriers first.
The story and the characters have to be so compelling as to convince the people who are considering investing money in publishing a book that it will be popular enough to get past the prejudice.
Fundamentally that part is about fun. A book has to be so entertaining that other people will fight to get it published and distributed. This is a necessity. Before you can reach a large audience each book has to win over
I call it the Cobra to Daisy Ratio. I try to sneak my message into the story like a Cobra in a bouquet of Daisies.
I'm using the word "Cobra" in the most positive sense possible.
I don't know if you're aware that cobra venom kills by paralyzing its victim. Well, the kind of cobra I'm talking about is one whose bite will paralyze people's prejudice for long enough so they can see the humanity in the fat characters.
When there is too much message, and not enough entertainment, it's like handing someone a bouquet of cobras with a couple of daisies thrown in.
They may well refuse to take it. Then you'll miss your opportunity to bite them, and infect them with the happy message of Death to Prejudice.
Unfortunately at the moment prejudice is alive and well. Is it flourishing or retreating?
I can't prove this, but I think there is a growing current toward size acceptance, and it's being countered by a rip tide of body hatred. To me it looks as if the forces of good and evil being engaged. The idea of self-acceptance and making peace with our bodies is battling it out with self-hatred and eternal anxiety.
I think this does make sense. New ideas meet resistance. This is always the way it works with human consciousness. That's certainly how I came to size acceptance. I would pick up an issue of BBW Magazine and think, "Maybe I could accept myself as I am--mm. Naw. Couldn't be." This went on for quite awhile, before I actively began to try to become a self-accepting fat woman.
I think all of us here at an event like this have fought this battle on a personal level. We still fight it internally on a bad day.
We may seem hopelessly overmatched. We are self-funded individuals, taking on an industry with a multi-billion dollar budget.
But, if I may paraphrase Nancy Reagan, "Just saying No" to prejudice is very powerful.
Our strength is our knowledge and we can never go back into the internal slavery of self-hatred. Self-acceptance is not easy, but once you have won it, it is an incredibly valuable treasure.
People around you will notice, and it will have a ripple effect in your environment. (E.g., all my friends of all sizes have become sensitive to size acceptance. They are, after all, a captive audience.)
Realistically, we all know we are not anywhere near the tidal wave stage in size acceptance, but during the past year I ran into the concept of viral marketing. That sounds dangerous, but it's just a fancy way of saying "word of mouth" or what the ad agencies call "buzz." It is, however, very powerful.
I found an interesting article on it. The author says (Dr. Ralph Wilson) says,
. . . you have to admire the virus. He has a way of living in secrecy until he is so numerous that he wins by sheer weight of numbers. He piggybacks on other hosts and uses their resources to increase his tribe. And in the right environment, he grows exponentially. A virus don't even have to mate -- he just replicates, again and again with geometrically increasing power, doubling [each time].Dr. Wilson explains the human version of viral marketing--
Each person has . . . 8 to 12 people in their close network of friends, family, and associates. A person's broader network may consist of scores, hundreds or thousands of people.A recent example I heard of was a friend who passed along a political email just to one person, because the rest of her friends didn't share her viewpoint. The person she passed it to sent it to over a hundred people.Ralph F. Wilson, Web Marketing Today, Issue 70, February 1, 2000 (http://www.wilsonweb.com)
I think it's important to remember that once people do start to change their minds or size acceptance, or any other issue, there is a cumulative effect, as shown in this graph:
Now let's review. Lynne recommends murder, handing out venomous snakes, and spreading infectious viruses.
Hmm. You can see why I write mysteries.
Let me stress before you freak out--I'm talking about self-esteem through (fictional) murder, changing attitudes by paralyzing people's prejudice with the cobra venom of an entertaining story, and infecting people with the virus of size acceptance.
Maybe I should quit while I'm ahead. Thank you very much!