Fat activist Caleb Luna uses performance art to question health and beauty ideals

Caleb Luna, an apple-shapped fat femme, poses outside of their home in West Oakland.

Caleb Luna, an apple-shapped fat femme, poses outside of their home in West Oakland.

As it is on any given Friday night, the downtown Oakland YMCA’s cardio floor is mostly empty. The lights are dimmed at the far end of the room where someone sits on a bench panting heavily. Another YMCA member is leisurely gliding on an elliptical machine as they watch an episode of a home makeover show. It’s 9pm.

Caleb Luna, dressed in a black mesh shirt, shorts, and wrestling shoes, carries a black and teal stepping stool and two purple risers into an open racquetball room. Jules Pashall follows them with a red kettle ball in one hand and a yellow two-pound dumbbell in the other. They have a collection of workout equipment sprawled across the room. (Both Luna and Pashall use the gender-neutral pronoun they.)

“OK, we’re ready” says Chani Bockwinkel holding a Canon DSLR camera.

“Ummm, should we put music on?” asks Luna, already scrolling through their phone. “This is my workout playlist.”

Rihanna’s “Phresh Out the Runway” begins to play.

“Wait, can you see this hole?” Luna asks as they tug on the bottom of their shirt. “Should I change shirts?”

“Caleb, you’re wearing a see-through mesh shirt! We can’t see it!” responds Pashall.

Pashall unzips their black sweater, revealing a leather harness over their breasts. They place a white sports towel over their neck and ask Luna, “What do you think about fat personal trainers working out together?”

Luna, an apple-shaped fat femme, is mindlessly pulling at their curls as Pashall asks the question. Luna’s face immediately brightens up and they nod yes.

Every year, Bockwinkel creates a 12-month calendar featuring photographs of queer people. This year, a month will be centered on fatness with photographs of Luna and Pashall working out.

Oakland resident Luna is a Ph.D. student in the performance studies department at UC Berkeley, and a fat activist who advocates transforming the way we view bodies and understanding fatness in terms of privilege and power. “I think about fatness as a way of how bodies are understood and given meaning in a way that is similar to the way bodies are given meaning through racialization, gender and sexualization,” Luna says. “Fat liberation means you can be however your body is and have love, care, and support and all your needs met, judgement-free.”

The Fat Acceptance Movement can be traced to the late 1960’s with the inception of the civil rights organization the National Association to Aid Fat Americans, now known as the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA). The movement aims to end discrimination towards fat people and disrupt the notion fat bodies aren’t meant to be seen. In the initial stages of the fat movement, activists would hold public demonstrations such as the 1967 Central Park Fat-In where about 500 people gathered to celebrate fatness. They also organized “eat-ins” (similar to a sit-in) and burned diet books. Other activists lobbied to change policies that discriminated against fat people.

In the 2000’s, fat became more mainstream. Clothing brands began incorporating fat models into their advertisements. TV shows included plus size models in their programming, like Whitney Thompson who appeared on America’s Next Top Model. Magazines featured size 16 models, such as Ashley Graham on the cover of Sport’s Illustrated in 2016.

But, as Pashall says, representation in it of itself isn’t necessarily radical. “That type of representation can be radical, but it is not always radical. It’s not always working to undo the systems that unwelcomed that body in the first place,” they say. For example, placing a relatively fat model on the cover of a magazine might seem revolutionary when thinness is the beauty standard. But when fat models are required to meet the same standards as their thin counterparts—such as an hourglass-shaped body—it reinforces the idea that only certain fat bodies can be seen and loved.

Fatness is often equated with an unhealthy lifestyle and many critics of the Fat Movement often cite health risks as an excuse for trying to control someone’s body appearance. But, as Luna says, “the problem is not fatness, health, or fat phobia. The problem is we place bodies on a hierarchy.”

Luna and Pashall’s photoshoot is meant to critique society’s obsession with a certain type of healthy living, and to show that fatness does not define how healthy someone is.

Luna, who describes themselves as a “slutty and smart fat queer babe” is posing in a way to emphasize certain parts of their exposed body, especially their cleavage. Pashall, who describes themselves as “a fat queer somatic therapist” is making sure to accentuate their belly since that is their favorite part of their body. They chose a workout-themed photoshoot because they want to convey the idea that fat liberation is not about health and health status.

Luna poses next to Pashall who is bouncing on a gray yoga ball, and picks up a yellow two-pound dumbbell. “I’m flexing,” says Luna as they slowly curl the dumbbell and Bockwinkel takes pictures from different angles.

“I was thinking something kinky” says Pashall as they hand Luna a resistance band and motion for Luna to tie their hands with it.

“My safe word is red,” says Pashall followed by a series of cackles from all of them that reverberate off the white walls of the racquetball room.

Pashall, with their hands tied behind their back, seductively poses on their knees as Luna continues to flex.
Near the end of the photoshoot, Luna asks Bockwinkel to take a picture of them with their iPhone. Later, Luna posts the picture on their Instagram story with the hashtag #revengebody which Instagram users commonly use when posting pictures of their weight loss journeys. Luna, however, is using the hashtag to emphasize that their mere existence is revenge on the social systems that don’t want fat people to exist.

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A native of a Houston suburb, Luna initially became interested in fat performances in their early twenties when they were recruited by Plump, an artist collective in Austin, to be a part of FAT: The Play, a theater piece about being fat and femme. “FAT: The Play made me realize how much I had internalized bullshit about fat people and our bodies,” Luna says. “I had internalized this understanding that my body shouldn’t be seen or wanted and doesn’t want to be seen or wanted.”

Luna is sitting at a Berkeley coffee shop wearing a white tank with a screen-printed image of Beyoncé, the ultimate gay icon. Every so often, Luna runs their fingers over their gold chain necklace with the word femme engraved on it.

“And of course, Ursula from The Little Mermaid,” says Luna, as they name fat drag queens and burlesque performers they admire.

They sift through their notebook filled with folded up sheets of scholarly articles and plays written in Spanish and scribble a note to themselves. A sticker on the front of their notebook reads: fight poverty not the poor.

Luna was originally resistant to performing in the play. “When I was invited into the project, I was like, ‘I’m not a performer, I’m not an actor. I can write, I’m a writer. But I don’t feel comfortable being on stage.’”

But, after reading the script, Luna felt the play was too important for them not to participate in. They also gained a deeper understanding of why they didn’t want to perform in the first place. “Part of the reason why I had never taken up the stage was an internalized understanding that my body shouldn’t be seen or wanted—and doesn’t want to be seen or wanted and doesn’t have anything of value to say,” Luna says.

After FAT: The Play, Luna began incorporating fatness into their work. Performance studies defines performance as behavior, which means that as part of their work, Luna writes about the everyday realities of fat people, including how they resist mainstream beauty standards. Luna has written about their own experience of moving around in the world as a fat person for many online publications such as Everyday Feminism and The Body is Not An Apology, and of course, on their Instagram feed.

Luna is unlike any scholar because their work on fatness is through their own lived experience, not sociological observations. Instead, Luna writes about personal situations like their experience on the dating app, Grindr, and how smaller fat bodies dominate conversations on fat acceptance. Fat Studies, they say, “is observing the realities of fat people and writing up reports on them,” which often leaves them sad and frustrated.

Luna’s work offers a humanizing view of fat people, but it also means they constantly have to relive their traumas. Even in simple interactions such as checking out purchases at a store, people respond in disgust to Luna’s body by not making eye contact or maintaining eye contact with them during the entire interaction. This has taught Luna to constantly gauge people’s reaction to their body. “It’s really hard to constantly be sitting in trauma and then trying to produce scholarship. It’s not sustainable,” Luna says.

In 1989, Columbia law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” to describe a framework in which different oppressions—such as race, class, gender, (dis)ability—intersect. Intersectionality offered a multidimensional and inclusive approach to critical theories, sparking the third wave of thought in feminist and fat theory.

Using this framework, a person might identify in many different ways—for example, as fat, as femme, as brown, as queer—and realize that social systems oppress them in different ways over the many aspects of their identity.

The third wave of the Fat Movement, which started in the early 1990’s, has shifted from fat acceptance (which became co-opted as part of the larger trend of “body positivity”) to fat liberation, a term that means rejecting body ideals that have to do with capitalist forces like the fashion and beauty industries. As Luna says, “We all have issues with our bodies no matter what size we are. Capitalism is really insistent on making us hate ourselves.”

“Body positivity is important so that folks who maybe don’t experience fat phobia or size oppression can still unlearn the internalized hate that capitalism has instilled in us. But body positivity doesn’t always mean fat liberation,” Luna continues. “Sure, it is pushing the conversation forward but it’s not exactly liberating us. It’s still maintaining a particular norm that is really difficult to access.”

In addition to writing for online publications, Luna is currently working on a dissertation that is about the cultural meanings ascribed to fatness, and how that establishes and maintains a social hierarchy.

Fat performance is important because “part of fat liberation is fat people expressing themselves and doing art. Fat people have been shamed away from participating in all spaces, but more so in spaces geared towards thin people. So having fat people in art disrupts patterns of invisibility,” says Gloria Lucas, the creator of Nalgona Positivity Pride, a body positivity and eating disorder awareness platform.

Lucas believes Luna’s work is important because very few people are analyzing the many layers of fatness, gender, race, and social justice.

Pashall, a fat performer and fat scholar themselves, adds about Luna’s work: “I know I wouldn’t be doing the work that I do, living in my body the way that I live without knowing them. Now all my work is about the body.”

***

In her book, The Body is not an Apology, fat, black, and queer activist Sonya Renee Taylor writes, “Too often, self-acceptance is used as a synonym for acquiescence…We practice self-acceptance when we have grown tired of self-hatred but can’t conceive of anything beyond a paltry tolerance of ourselves.” She continues, “radical self-love demands that we see ourselves and others in the fullness of our complexities and intersections and that we work to create space for those intersections.

In Luna’s own life, radical self-love means dressing in a way that challenges society’s presumptions of fatness and creates new ways for other fat people to overcome their internalized biases. “My ideal outfit is wearing as little as possible and really showing off my body,” says Luna. They are sifting through their closet in their one-bedroom apartment in West Oakland, explaining what their daytime time outfit looks like. They’re wearing a bright pink tank with a University of Texas Longhorn logo. They rub the sleeve of a crushed velvet shirt that is hanging up on the rack, but quickly move on to a black t-shirt with the words MORE FATS MORE FEMS on it.

“I also love to wear a lot of statement shirts,” Luna says as they pull a shirt that reads FAT BITCH out of their closet. “I think partially because I was really afraid to drawing attention to myself for a really long time, so I shied away from clothes that drew attention to me. But now I’m embracing that.”

Luna gently teases at their freshly-washed black curls, as they finally chose the day’s outfit: a sweater with pink flowers, and a black t-shirt that reads: GORDA.

This story was updated on November 14, 2018, to correct the name of the performance group Plump.

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