Redefining Body Image: An Interview With Haley Cue
By Elise Nagy
Last weekend I had the chance to sit down for a cup of tea and a (Facebook) chat with the babeliest of babes, Detroit-based graphic designer and body positive activist Haley Cue.
She’s the brains, heart and soul behind Redefining Body Image. We talked about the goals of Redefining Body Image and how it’s grown, how online body positive spaces act as a sanctuary for people to share ideas and engage in self-discovery, how all of this translates to our in-person communities, and what some of the most pressing questions and problems facing body positivity as a movement are today.
Elise: How would you describe Redefining Body Image (RBI) to people who have never visited the site and aren’t familiar with it?
Haley: I actually often wonder how RBI appears to others. I imagine it resembles a clusterfuck of sorts. In reality, it is a space that started out with one intention and is constantly redefining itself. So I suppose: RBI is a safe space for anyone and everyone to speak, listen, and learn about all things relating to body positivity, fat politics, feminism and health. It is a judgment-free, shame-free zone where we can challenge the norm and explore our own thoughts and feelings about our bodies, mental health, physical health, etc.
But who knows, it might end up being something different tomorrow.
Elise: I can’t speak for anyone else, but that’s definitely the impression I have of it, too. It’s always changing, but in a good, growing way.
Haley: Yay! I never intended for this to happen; It just happened. I started the blog as a means to collect research and thoughts for a senior project at art school and it just started consuming my life. (In the best way possible, of course.)
Elise: One of my favorite things about RBI is that it feels very organic and personal—even though it is a communal space and very open to an exchange of ideas, I’ve always felt like your personality and interests and curiosities really drive that. So you mention body positivity and fat politics, which seem to be at the root of what RBI explores, though I know you also talk about everything from skin texture to vulva shapes to fashion &class & race & disability issues. Can you talk a little bit about how you personally discovered body positivity and fat politics? (I love these origins stories!)
Haley: Body positivity is a super personal thing that is different for everyone. Part of the reason that I really love RBI is that it has become this space where I anyone who needs to can truly just let out the words, let them reach others, and see what happens. Skin, vulvas, race, fashion, and disability all have ties to body image. It’s so much more robust than I think a lot of people realize. I know that when I first discovered body positivity, I had no idea the depths to which it could go. I still don’t know, but I don’t see an end in sight!
In terms of my personal discovery, I was actually just talking about this last night with my lover boy. Lesley Kinzel wrote an article about “glorifying obesity” and asked to use my artwork as a visual and I found myself reeling back to the time when I was about 17, 18 years old and came across Fatshionista. At the time, I was harboring some very serious self-hate. I was adapting very unhealthy habits and ways of thinking. Honestly, if I hadn’t been introduced to the notion that I could be fat and actually love and accept my body, I don’t think I ever would have left that dark place.
I started contributing to Fatshionista on livejournal, posting “outfits of the day” and seeking inspiration from all these other fat bodies that I’d never seen in that context before. The context being that these people actually loved, accepted, and embraced their bodies. It was such an alien concept to me that I promptly stopped contributing; I was so overwhelmed. I don’t think I knew what to make of it, or how to digest the thought that “fat” could be a word to describe oneself without all of the negative societal connotations that come with it.
I also was in a pretty horrid relationship. My self worth was zip to none. But a spark had lit in my brain and it stayed there. It wasn’t until I started to really pursue it and dedicate myself to learning about it that I started making any progress on my journey to accepting myself.
E: Although everybody’s exposure to body positivity and fat politics is different, I feel like that’s a pretty common pattern a lot of us go through. I know I personally was always really torn between strong self body-hate that was definitely reinforced by family, friends, and our culture at large, but also kind of ambivalent about that. There were seeds of “but why is this body so bad? It’s kind of soft and nice! Stretch marks are sort of pretty! etc.” so it was both affirming and mind blowing to find that I wasn’t alone in that.
That dynamic—of our feelings changing when it seems like someone else is allowing us to be positive and loving about our fat bodies—is a really interesting thing. Especially for independent-minded, occasionally rebellious girls, it sort of begs the question “why is this one thing—the fat body—just so difficult to think of as acceptable?”
What I think I’m trying to say, more simply, is that it’s interesting to me how community-based body positive revelations often are, and how liberating other people’s examples of self-acceptance and self-love can be. RBI is definitely a place that fosters that sense of exploring and accepting and questioning ourselves together.
H: Even examining self-hate or trying to determine where it comes from can be liberating and informative.
E: Definitely. Even having other people break down phrases like “does this make me look fat?” or “that’s not flattering” or “she can’t pull that off” helps us feel less like we’re alone in experiencing those kinds of micro-aggressions.
One other aspect of RBI that I love is that you don’t force positivity on people, or ask them to avoid the hard things and the hurts that they’ve had to deal with and are still dealing with.
Discussions of self-love or self-acceptance that try to avoid all talk of negativity can unfortunately get kind of fluffy and bland, and at RBI discussions have a genuine effect because you allow and encourage people to talk about their wounds and their doubts, while gently reminding everyone to not shame themselves or others.
H: Yes! That is the most important thing in the world to me. Because, I mean, who the fuck is positive ALL the time? How is that an attainable goal? Why should we expect that of ourselves? Especially as someone struggling with anxiety/depression, it’s straight up unrealistic to sugarcoat the hurt. The thing is, the pain and the realness I deal with now is much different than it used to be, but it’s still there. So why pretend it isn’t?
E: Taking the shame and pain out of ourselves and letting some light fall on it is a big part of changing the way we experience those wounds is. An essential part of fat politics, to me, is realizing that that shame isn’t your fault or your secret, but a pretty universal thing that comes from outside. It’s kind of like, “living in my body isn’t the struggle, dealing with people’s reactions to my body is the struggle.”
H: Which is why it’s important that it be shared, or that people be unafraid to speak out. I have always been the heart-on-sleeve, open-book kind of person. Writing and interacting is one of my many forms of self-therapy and it always has been. I’ve been blogging since I was 11 and I’m constantly asking myself, “Why do I feel this need to put my thoughts out into the world for anyone/everyone to find?” and through RBI, I’ve finally figured out why. Brutal honesty and raw thoughts are vital to understanding how we feel about ourselves, and how the world factors into how we feel about ourselves.
E: You say you’ve been blogging since you were 11—could you talk a little bit about how interacting online changes the way we have conversations about our bodies? Like—is it easier? Do you think there are there limits to what we can accomplish with online conversations? Or is there more freedom to express ourselves?
H: The internet permeates everything about my existence. It has had an influence in everything, from my profession to the people I live with and the man I’m about to marry (whom I never would have met in a million years if it hadn’t been for the internet. And the white stripes. But that’s a different story).
Of course personal IRL interaction is like, necessary and beautiful and powerful—but the internet gives us access to almost EVERYONE. Like this, what’s happening right now. There ARE no limits.
In person, I feel that I am much less sure of my words and find it harder to articulate my thoughts about these things without writing them out first. The more I write, the more I’m able to articulate vocally. I’ve always turned to pen and paper—or keyboard—when I want to be thoroughly understood. I think a lot of that has to do with my anxieties more than anything else.
Tumblr especially is very unique in the way people are able to interact. There is room for expression and emotion, it’s very liberating. It’s also kind of a lot. I sometimes fear one day I’ll cross a line and share too much, but I cannot control my word vomit. When you’re trying to figure out who you are or how you feel about something—especially body image—online interaction is a precious thing.
That was a bit all over the place, sorry!
E: No, it’s great! I love everything you’re saying. I agree and can definitely empathize with the sense of liberation that comes from the nature of online conversation.
So you mentioned that writing about all of this helps you be more comfortable with verbalizing it—I know that feeling—and the discoveries and feelings we get in/from online spaces definitely have an effect on how we think and live our lives in person, too. All of that being said, do you ever wish for a stronger in-person body positive community? Do we need to take this community building beyond the interwebs? And if so, how?
H: I do very much wish for a stronger in-person community. I do have a couple of fatposi friends that I get together with on occasion. We’ve grabbed lunch/dinner and gone to yoga together. We get together when we can, but we’re both super busy. It’s a shame that I can’t make fat activism into a living, at least for the moment—I know my friend Amanda feels the same, as she’s had to put her Love Your Body Detroit organization on hold while she works and goes to school.
I was thinking today on the car ride home about plastering posters around Detroit—taking elements of RBI and appropriating them for real spaces, reaching new people, etc. But my brain automatically goes to the negative consequences that could come with it. It takes me a while to work up the courage and overcome that feeling of vulnerability to really take impactful steps like that, especially when it involves more direct social contact.
E: I just have to say that sounds awesome, and I would totally paper Chicago with them, too. That kind of guerrilla educating is such a great entry-point for people who have no knowledge of fat politics and it’s kind of like a wink from the universe for people who are body positive already. Speaking of posters, could you talk a bit about the design series you’ve done lately?
H: I often group my designs into series or have them fall under a theme. Sometimes they’re one-offs or random thoughts that I want to throw out at random, but this time I wanted to stop being polite about it and say the things that a lot of people are afraid to say. So I wrote down a list of phrases that included “fat is healthy,” “fat bodies have fat sex,” “weight loss is killing you,” etc. I haven’t done anything with those phrases yet and I have a lot more, but I really wanted to start with something that I knew would get a reaction. I chose phrases that center around turning the pervasive notion of what “obesity” means on its head by refuting that it even exists or suggesting we “glorify” it as a way of combating the notion that fat ≠ healthy. I’ve coined it the “radical fatty series” and it will be ongoing, although right now there is so much conversation surrounding the idea of “glorifying obesity” that I am not eager to change the subject quite yet.
E: Your piece on “glorifying” obesity has majorly been making the internet rounds, and was recently featured in an article by Lesley Kinzel at XOJane (that you mentioned earlier). That’s super exciting! I’m so glad it’s getting so much exposure. And it seems to be generating a lot of conversation. What have some of the most memorable/striking reactions been?
H: Most of the reactions have been ones I’ve anticipated: the usual fat-hating, shaming nonsense. The degree to which some people will avoid common sense is astounding. As with anything I do, especially “weight does not dictate your health or your worth”, many people spread it around just to tack on a comment like “this is stupid” or “I can’t believe fatties think they can be healthy LOLZ” but that design seriously blew up all over the internet, so I suppose I can include the haters in my thanks for making that happen.
“There is no obesity epidemic” and “fat ≠ death” have been rather quiet, actually. No outrageous reactions, which I assume is because they haven’t really left the fat acceptance realm. “Glorify obesity” has been rather fun though. There was one who insisted that by suggesting obesity be “glorified” I must be out to attack thin bodies. Lots of people take one look at it, see the words, and react on impulse to them—even when there are links, content, discussion, and reasoning tied to the image.
The whole XOJane thing was surreal. Without thinking, I shared the article on my personal Facebook page—I’ve been slowly “coming out” as a fat activist to my friends and family—and thankfully, only one acquaintance made a misinformed and shaming remark. In fact, this past weekend at a party with some friends, I found myself talking about it with a LOT of people, even people I didn’t know very well. Fat acceptance is catching on, for real.
E: No matter how explicitly you say “Look, I know what you’re going to say and health/body shaming are just not welcome at all” people still can’t seem to hold it in. it’s RIDICULOUS. It’s just indicative of this very paternalistic attitude in “health” culture that we can’t possible know our bodies well or have any legit perspective on them if we’re not what people expect “healthy” to look like (thin, non- or invisibly disabled, etc.) but somehow THEY can know someone’s health just by looking at them (which is, of course, a total myth).
While a lot of your work clearly and explicitly engages in that whole conversation of how health and fatness are related (or…not related) it’s also worth noting that the health shaming comes out of the woodwork even when conversations around fatness aren’t at all health related, originally.
H: Very true. People love to turn innocent, solitary fat body acceptance into an excuse to bring up the “but fat isn’t healthy” line. It’s always “I’m all for loving your body, BUT…”
Whenever I see that “but” I know it’s about to all go downhill.
E: Yep. And while it is important to have fat acceptance spaces that are a respite from talking about health, even health at every size or “defending” fatness because it doesn’t = unhealthiness (because there are unhealthy people of ALL sizes and they don’t deserve to be shamed for that either!), engaging in those discussions—as actual discussions, with questions and answers, or through longer writing or design or artwork—is so important, if only because health is so often the first place people go when presented with fat positive ideas they’re unfamiliar with. I feel like your “weight does not dictate your health or your worth” design so efficiently covers all of that.
H: Yes, this is something I struggle with sometimes, as I am a firm believer that “health” is so vague and so multifaceted that it is ultimately unimportant and should not factor into one’s worth as a human being. And thank you!
E: You’re welcome, I just love that piece. Can you talk a little bit about the difference for you personally in writing about body image vs. creating designs that grapple with body image? Or how they go hand-in-hand, if the experiences aren’t that different?
H: My writing and thought processes are what fuel my designs for the most part, along with whatever I happen to really be feeling in the moment. For instance “health is not always visible” is something I doodled on my lunch break on a day that I was struggling with the way I felt about my mental/physical health. The words crossed my mind and they made sense, so I formed them into something visual and sent them on their way. So often, I don’t even think—I just execute and let it fly. Half of the time I’m looking for responses, looking to see how it’s interpreted. I look at it as an experiment in memes and language, almost—I like going back and looking at which designs have the most notes or comments or have incited the most conversation. Then those conversations help inspire later designs. It’s a big rambling cycle that never ends.
Then there are times when I sit and plan it out, like with the rad fatty series. The personal poster series is unique in that it’s all the same font and colors, but different photos and words, all related to my own thoughts. I get around to those whenever I feel the urge to. I honestly just don’t put any restrictions on myself and sometimes my only restriction is the time factor. I’m so busy that I don’t have enough time to really devote to the design work I do for RBI so I often feel like it’s half-assed or not my best because there are imperfections or certain words weren’t fully considered. But for right now, as RBI is a learning experience and social experiment all in one…it works. Maybe one day when it changes into something more refined, I’ll have time to slow down the process—especially as I learn and grow.
E: That totally makes sense, though. And it is interesting to see what really strikes people—positively or negatively—to see how they engage with these things. And often some of those off the cuff thoughts that aren’t processed to death are really meaningful and they tap into things in a unique way. I remember your “nope, still fat (thanks.)” piece came out the same week a few people had “complimented” me on losing weight, and I was pretty frustrated about it and just kind of stewing, and it was so refreshing to see that anger and frustration simplified and reflected in this visual thing.
H: Yeah! That one was inspired directly from experience. That interaction actually happened. I finally stopped smiling and accepting “compliments” like that quietly and started rejecting them. It was the first time I felt really empowered and brave enough to speak out in that way. I think, or I hope, that a lot of people can connect to my designs in that way. It’s what I wished for.
A lot of people message me to tell me I’ve changed their perspective on life, or I’ve saved them from an eating disorder, or made them realize how fat phobic they’ve been their entire lives…so I suppose that’s something, although I still attest that I’m just giving people the tools. They’re the ones who take them and make shit happen.
E: It’s definitely a doubly-efficient thing: there are people who see your work and read your writing and have their minds changed, or start to question their assumptions. Then there are also people who are already on board and can find reassurance and support there.
Both are so important. You say you’re just giving them the tools, but that’s a hugely important thing!
H: It just happens! I am rendered useless by kind words about my work. All I know is that I feel very, very passionately—I read and write and discuss this shit on the daily—and I am witnessing a change, and it is super fucking gratifying.
E: It is gratifying. There’s always more to do, but (I have to remind myself of this all the time to fight off the depressive blues) every bit of movement in a better direction helps. On that note, could you talk a bit more about some issues within fat acceptance/fat politics/conversations about “body image”? I’m thinking specifically about how intersectionality comes in, how working class fat people and fat people of color are still underrepresented and sometimes shut out of those discussions? Or how body image gets really complicated with regards to trans* identities, or for people with disabilities?
H: Well, RBI wasn’t always as inclusive as it is right now. Part of that was due to my own ignorance regarding intersectional issues, which is something I still feel very ignorant about. But the more I read, more and more every day, the more I see what’s going on in white feminist discussions and the lack of inclusivity, the more I can see just how prevalent it is. Once you notice this shit, it’s impossible to not notice it and not want to learn more about it.
As a white cis woman I obviously cannot speak to the experiences of people of color or trans* identities, but I want to do all I can to keep RBI a safe space to provide support and discuss those experiences.
A lot of white feminists tend to deflect from intersectionality or refuse to acknowledge their own racism when it’s pointed out to them and I honestly do not understand it. When I received a message on RBI over a year ago telling me I wasn’t really “redefining body image” for all people because I didn’t include people of color on my blog, it took me a while to swallow and acknowledge that I was being called out. It was a huge wake-up call and I will forever be indebted to that person for smacking me in the face like that when they didn’t have to. I fought the instinct to defend myself, apologized, and moved on to correct my behavior and learn from it. And it has made all the difference. In terms of how complicated it can be, especially for people with disabilities—I just want RBI to be a safe space for people to be able to truly speak to their unique experiences. Even if something is complicated or raw and hard to understand, it deserves to be heard.
E: You’ve taken great steps to make RBI a safe space. Intent isn’t the be all and end all when it comes to intersectionality; I just know that you do really try to be aware of it, and you are totally open to being called out. As shitty as it feels in the moment, it’s really a gift to have someone point out the ways we’re failing at being intersectional, or how we need to do better.
The fact that you’re always accepting submissions really helps include such a wide range of voices and experiences. I love that sometimes people even get into conversations with each other through RBI. There’s just a genuine sense of community, and I feel like you do an awesome job for the most part at knowing when to step in and guide things and when to step back and let people just take these ideas wherever they want or need to go.
H: Thank you! Sometimes I worry that the influx of messages that come through like that become tiresome to some readers, but I don’t publish all of them. A great deal of the communicating I do with my readers doesn’t get published.
Whether it’s getting advice or giving advice, I think having a space to do all of that where there is no judgment or shame is important. It’s for me just as much as it is for everyone else.
E: I think there’s a good balance between questions/submissions and other content. And having a shame-free, judgment-free space is so important!
What are some next steps for the project? I know Redefining Body Image has a Facebook page now, and you’ve mentioned bringing it from the interwebs to the rest of the world. I’d love to see that happen, and to help however I could!
H: I’d love for you to help. I’ve had a couple of people approach me who are interested in helping as well. It’s just a matter of getting organized and decided exactly what my next step is going to be. Because the nature of RBI has been so off-the-cuff and natural in its past progression, trying to plan a next big step is quite intimidating because I’ve honestly never really planned anything that has happened before this. So I’ve been trying to decide whether or not I should continue to really focus on the online spaces, the tumblr and Facebook page, and then launch a blog where I can publish polished articles and works of art by myself and others. Or maybe go right into doing something more physical by bringing RBI messaging into the real world, like a guerilla marketing campaign, wheat pasting posters all over my city and encouraging others to do the same.
I think it will depend on my personal schedule and abilities as well as my own mental wellness. I gravitate more towards online activism for those reasons, but I really don’t want to limit myself!
E: Well, whatever happens I’m sure it’ll be fantastic! (But I totally know that feeling of “I want to do more but I’m not quite sure how to get there” or, “if my mental health is up to it…”)
People. The world. Scary.
H: I know, and thank you so much.
E: You’re welcome! I really mean it, though– there’s just such a lovely ferocious spirit behind it, there’s no way it could be anything other than great.
I thought of one last thing I wanted to pick your brain about: favorite body positive/fat accepting/etc. writers, artists, websites, books, etc.? Where would you suggest people go, who should they check out if they want to get more into all of this?
H: This is a hastily compiled list of websites! I wish I had more time, I know I’m missing a ton but these are pretty much my main fave blogs or people:
Spilt Milk, Love Live Grow, Big Liberty, The Fat Nutritionist, Shapely Prose, Junkfood Science, Dances With Fat, Curvy Yoga, Lesley Kinzel, Marianne Kirby, s.e. smith , Body Love Wellness , Fat Heffalump, Axis of Fat, Body Respect, Fat Body Politics, Tiger Beatdown, Bitch Magazine, White Feminist Collection Agency, The Bloggess.
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Elise Nagy is the Founding Editor of the Ellipses Project. She recently graduated with a B.A. in Women’s and Gender Studies, with a concentration in Gender, Arts & Culture, double minoring in Art History and English Lit. She’s fascinated by women’s mental illness narratives & intrigued by the possibilities of radical narcissism through self-representation in feminist art. Embodiment confounds and grounds her. Elise splits her time between Chicago and Northern Michigan.