Words and Art by Anna Vos
Photos by Andrea Westerlund
“I just wish she’d stop with all that naked stuff.”
This is perhaps my favorite criticism of my work to date (mostly because it made me laugh pretty hard). I never went to art school, so most of my harshest critics are middle-aged white women on the internet.
They really don’t like my “naked stuff.” When I started out as a lettering artist in 2016, the bulk of my work was inspirational quotes and quippy puns. (Don’t get me wrong — I still love puns. There’s something about a punny joke that will always make me cackle.) Lately, most of my personal artwork centers around the magic of fat bodies, and that makes some people uncomfortable. It’s funny to me when folks are surprised by my vocal support of fat liberation. I’ve been vocal about so many justice issues over the years (haven’t we all — there are so many), but somehow talking celebrating fat bodies is too far. They’re “worried for my health,” after all. Interestingly enough, “health” is an industry not a state of being, and “fat” is a morally neutral adjective and noun. When fat bodies are hidden and shamed, we are pathologized and abused, which is why representation of all types of bodies is so crucial.
Most people I know have been socialized to strive for thinness at all times. Fat people are constantly being told we’re disgusting, unlovable, lazy. And I believed it! I grew up in The Nineties, y’all! That shit was TOXIC. I can remember my mom weighing out her Special K on a little white plastic scale in our kitchen, as if somehow this dear woman only deserved
a teeny bit of that crunchy cardboard with her skim milk. I was the biggest kid in my friend group, which meant I was never allowed to play as the Pink Ranger and I usually couldn’t fit in the other girls’ dress-up clothes. Fat kids know our way around accessorizing, am I right?
One time, in third grade — which would have been 1994, smack in the middle of the golden age of Snackwells and SlimFast and probably a lot of diarrhea — I was over at this kid Angie’s house, playing in her living room.
Out of nowhere she looked at me and said, “I might want to get fat so I can get boobs like yours but then I would just lose the weight after.” My tiny, 8-year-old friend just wanted me to know she was considering the curves but didn’t want to be fat enough to have them.
I was only in middle school the first time I went on a diet. My mom had started Weight Watchers (hence the weighing of the Special K), and she got me my own little notebook to keep track of my Special K. She was so genuinely concerned, and to be honest, that felt like a sucker punch. She was worried about me “carrying so much weight on [my] frame.” I’m not telling you this to slam my mom — thankfully she and I have had some very healing conversations about fatness —
but I spent so long believing that my body was too big and gross to love. There were no confident fat people in my world! If we saw fat people in the media, they were usually some kind of funny friend (like Sookie from Gilmore Girls) or an idiot lackey (think cartoon henchmen) or a total slob. I had no idea at the time, but I was so hungry to see my body type celebrated, not shamed. I felt every jab at Chrissy in Now and Then in my own soft body. I cringed when actors put on fat suits for laughs. That shit hurts.
Watching fat characters be constantly berated only enforced the shame I felt in my body.
SIDEBAR, YOUR HONORS: It is fucking wild to me that The Nineties are coming back around. I remember my mom remarking about how weird it was that The Seventies were making their way back around when I was a kid, but I fully see her point now. Also, it must be said that growing up in The Nineties was great in a lot of ways. My embarrassing middle school photos are in albums in my mom’s living room, not on Facebook. Also also, I got to go to the original Lilith Fair when I was 13. *flips hair* The Nineties were gorgeous and wild, obviously, but also they were a shit time to be fat. END SIDEBAR.
It wasn’t until 2017 that I remember finally seeing body that looked like mine onscreen. The first time I saw the Target ad with the fat ballerina, I cried. I couldn’t have imagined how deeply validating it was to see her leaping gracefully across the screen. (The fat ballerina’s name is Lizzy Howell, look her up!) It was the first time I remember seeing a fat lead doing something beautiful, and I will never forget it. What if I had seen a fat ballerina when I was in middle school? Would I have spent less time and energy trying to shrink myself?
Unfortunately, I’ll never know what it would have been like to grow up with fat role models, but that’s where celebrating big bodies and their softness in my work comes in. A little over a year ago, I stumbled upon Fat Life Drawing (@fatlifedrawing on Instagram). It’s a weekly figure drawing session run by the loveliest pair of sisters from the UK. I love this online space — it’s warm and encouraging and just so delightful — but best of all, it’s offered me a safe haven to explore the beautiful body types I felt ashamed of for so long. I love studying how a person’s skin folds and creases as they pose. I love taking in the lush size of the people on my screen. I feel honored to witness fat joy and document my own.
What I believe now is that it matters for us to see ourselves in other people. It matters to be able to find artwork that reflects and celebrates all parts of ourselves. It matters that we talk critically about the treatment of fat people, especially when so many fat folks regularly experience medical bias from their providers. The highest compliment I ever receive from folks is that they see themselves more kindly after viewing my work. The fat ballerina was the representation I needed to be able to acknowledge just how powerful it is to see ourselves in others. And it’s the honor of my life to encourage others to believe in their beauty and power too.
PS — Want to read more about the origins of anti-fat bias? Some of my favorite writings on the topic are Belly of the Beast by DaShaun L. Harrison, Fearing the Black Body by Dr. Sabrina Strings, and the work of Marquisele Mercedes (find her at @fatmarquisele on Instagram).