Slam Poetry as a Platform for Body Positivity by Giorgia Cristiani
Slam Poetry is far from being a novelty: in fact, the movement originated more that three decades ago, in 1984, in Chicago. However, this particular form of performed poetry has recently become more popular than ever thanks to Button Poetry, a label created in 2011 in Minnesota, which not only publishes collections of poems, but it is very active in the promotion of its authors via social media.
Poetry slam is defined by The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics as “a contest in which poets compete against each other with judges chosen at random from the audience, assigning a score to each performance on a scale of one to ten to determine the winner”. It is thus, a kind of poetry which is made to be performed orally, in front of an audience, and with a competitive scope. Slam Poetry started off as a platform for African Americans to discuss mainly political topics, while triggering an emotional response from the audience.
Slam Poetry rapidly began to incorporate issues of race, discrimination, gender, identity, sexuality, and many other themes overlooked by mainstream poetry. In particular, the vision of Button Poetry, as stated on their website, is to showcase a diversity of voices, while hoping to “broaden poetry’s audience, to expand its reach and develop a greater level of cultural appreciation for the art form”.
Button Poetry has reached a vast audience of almost 2 million followers on Facebook, 353 thousand on Instagram, and 1.1 million subscribers to the YouTube channel, publishing the work of 32 authors and sharing the performances of many more. These poets cover a broad variety of topics in their work: some of the most popular deal with racism, mental illness, feminism, and different kinds of discrimination in society. Many devote their work specifically to the discrimination against fat people, eating disorders, fatphobia, and fat sexuality, often bringing their own personal experience on stage.
Rachel Wiley performing one of her poems
One of the most popular Button Poetry authors and fat activist, Rachel Wiley, presents a number of poems that deal with problems and discrimination that fat people face in our society. Her most viewed performance titled “The Fat Joke” reached almost 600,000 views on YouTube. In this powerful poem, Wiley talks about fat bias in the healthcare system, thus focusing the attention of her public to issues which the non-fat individual is likely unfamiliar with, not having experienced them firsthand. One of the main issues is doctors who ignore her symptoms and insist on presenting weigh loss as the solution to everything, from her earache, to her depression, and even a spider bite. Wiley is showing us how fat people’s health problems tend to often be interpreted as the result of their weight, even when there is no evident correlation between them. The other issue that she brings up is the consequent loss of trust in the medical personnel. She says: “Fat Girl gets tired of only ever being diagnosed fat / So Fat Girl stops walking into the doctor’s office”. Research shows how fat people are more likely to avoid or delay access to health care, which is mainly due to the negative attitude and stereotypes that health care providers hold about fat patients. This poem manages to entertain and educate at the same time, using a format and a language that is easy to follow, yet emotionally moving, and charged with the power of representing facts and statistics.
Blythe Baird in a photo she shared on her Facebook page.
Blythe Baird, another poet, actress, and youth educator who publishes with Button Poetry, introduces an important topic to her public, that of eating disorders. In her poem “When the Fat Girl Gets Skinny”, later turned into a shortfilm, Baird tells the story of her adolescence, dominated by her difficult relationship with her body image, which lead her to develop eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia. The thing to notice, is that Baird was fat when her issues started. In fact, she says: “If you develop and eating disorder when you are already thin to begin with / you go to the hospital. / If you develop and eating disorder when you are not thin to begin with / you are a success story”. When she started losing weight, people around her were congratulating her. Not only they were not concerned; on the contrary, her father was relieved that he could stop worrying about her developing diabetes, a preoccupation that he had developed on the account of tv news and documentaries he had been watching, which inexorably connected fat to poor health. “I say I’m sick / They say: no, you’re an inspiration”: even as she tries to voice her struggle, the others keep denying it and insist on seeing her as a role model. Such comments were probably made with the best intentions; however, they pushed her to fall in love with her illness, as she states in the poem. Once again, slam poetry offers a fertile ground to discuss issues that are usually left untouched by the mainstream media and literature. What Baird puts forth, in fact, is not the typical narrative of anorexia that the public is used to. On television and elsewhere, we are often presented with images of girls who are thin, or who believe they just have “a few pounds” to lose, and who drops size after size until their bones become the visible remark of their undernourishment. Baird tells us what happens when it is a fat girl to develop eating disorders, how the others react to it, and how this impacts the person’s life.
Another poet, performer, and educator who deserves a mention is Desirée Dallagiacomo. After recounting her experience with fad diets and weight loss, she describes her fluctuating relationship with her body, positive on some days and negative on others. This would seem a private, biographical kind of poetry, in which Dallagiacomo decides to share her own experience and thoughts with her audience. However, the title of this poem also points out an important topic of debate: “All the Plus-Size Models Are Actually Regular-Size”. In the beginning, she tackles the issue of representation: “I look in the mirror and wonder how many bodies look like mine in magazines / quite a few, all with the word before written underneath”.
She brings the attention to the lack of representation: she is not provided with models with whom she can identify, and the ones that are labeled as plus size by most magazines are, in fact, still smaller than her. The title is a provocation directed to the standards of the fashion industry. It makes sense when we think that 82% of the respondents to an online poll on Debate.org do not believe that plus size model are “really plus size”. Moreover, many believe that these models are still not inclusive, as they present a polished, above-average-beauty which is seen as unreachable by most fat women. “These plus size models are no more representative of plus size women than skinny models are of skinny women!” states Neely Reyes on the Huffington Post.
David Silverberg (not affiliated with Button Poetry) tackles other important questions in his poem “Fat Guy”: “When you are a fat guy in junior high / you have three choices: / be a bully / be silent / be funny”. Being a bully would let him to exert power over others, as a way of defending himself from attacks by attacking first. It is, however, an option he immediately runs out as he is not keen to violence. The other two options are in fact the main clichés related to fat bodies, male ones in particular: being the “quiet guy” who tries to make himself invisible by not drawing any attention, or being the “funny guy” who always makes everybody laugh. The possibility of simply being himself is not contemplated; it is a luxury that only slim people can afford. The two tropes he lists dominate not just society but also the media, where the (usually only) fat character in movies is often there to produce humor, and being funny is his only defining feature. Silverberg narrates of how he was able to make friends because he “smiled a lot”, and how he used this trait to his advantage, which prevented him from being bullied like the other fat kids did. Still, he regrets that he never stepped in when the bullying was happening before his eyes: “I gave myself the nonrefundable gift of cowardice / I shadowed away from my double-chinned brethren / Who could’ve been me”. In the end, he turns his poem into a call for action, exhorting the listeners to pay attention to “what goes on beyond teachers’ radar” and to take action.
Part of the cover of “The Body is Not an Apology”, by Sonya Renee Taylor.
Sonya Renee Taylor is an author, poet, speaker, humanitarian and social justice activist, and educator, who won multiple National and International poetry slams. She is also the founder of The Body is Not An Apology, amovement that “fosters global, radical, unapologetic self-love which translates to radical human love and action in service toward a more just, equitable and compassionate world”. Her homonymous poem reminds us that the body “ is not to be prayed for, is to be prayed to”. She dedicates an Hallelujah to imperfections and blesses disabilities and diseases, praising “for the mistake you never were”: her words are a powerful hymn to self-love and acceptance, and they craft a space of affirmation and love which ends with equating the body to God, reaching the peak of self celebration.
Lee Mokobe performing live
Slam Poetry also offers a stage to other non-traditional bodies, encompassing gender performance and queer and transgender relation to the body, as the poem by Lee Mokobe shows. Describing the first time he prayed in a cathedral, he compares his body to a question mark, while asking Jesus to be fixed. Later, he narrates how his gender identity played out during his childhood and early adolescence: while he was still a child, acting and dressing like a boy was considered a game, a phase, something meaningless that did not seem to concern anybody. But once he turned 12, the family began to worry and to pressure him: “[…] nostalgic aunts who missed seeing my knees in the shadow of skirts / who reminded me that my kind of attitude would never bring a husband home / that I exist for heterosexual marriage and child-bearing”. Mokobe explains how he had to deal with the insults he received, and how he was always given identities he did not recognize as his own (such as “lesbian”). He stresses how these comments, and the way people treated him, contributed to him feeling like his body was a house that was “falling apart” but that he strove to keep together. Mokobe also address the important issue of transgender suicide, the rate of which remains particularly high among adolescents; he points out how society makes transgender individuals feel alienated, non-human, perverse, and treat their body and their identity as something to consume and to use as an attraction without taking into account the person’s feelings and perspective, and most importantly without considering their humanity.
Finally, one last type of performative poetry it is worth to mention is the one that speaks about disability. Athlete, poet, and model Robyn Lambird talks about her daily commute, reminding her public that even something so simple can become a difficult experience when you are disabled, not because of the physical difficulties of getting around, but mainly due to the unwanted comments and looks that she receives. It starts when she gets on the bus and the driver comments her ability to do so. “As if I did it to impress”, she replies, perhaps without vocalizing her thought. Then, immediately after, the driver asks her what happened to her, “hoping for a tragic tale followed by a heroic overcoming of adversity”. This line resonates with many disabled individuals who have been increasingly criticizing the inspirational role that is often imposed upon them by others. In this regard, blogger Imogen Fox commented in an article: “When you turn my life into something that requires bravery, or imply that my condition is so unbearable you would need super powers in order to manage it, you suggest that my body is less worthy than yours”. Some have defined this approach as insulting and patronizing, as it infantilizes disabled adults, and it turns disability into the person’s defining characteristic. Lambird buries her frustration because she knows that the other people are “just trying to be nice / Nice like the day he wishes me as I wheel away”: with this conclusion to her poem, she is letting the audience know what is feels like to receive that unwanted attention, indirectly exhorting others to consider her perspective and the effect that such comments, even when done with the best of intentions, can have on disabled people.
Lambird’s poetry, like the one of the other authors mentioned here, is a performative act which sheds light on specific issues, to bring them to stage and openly talk about them. Thanks to the platform of Button Poetry/Slam Poetry and its visual representation and impact, numerous dimensions of human experience that remain often hidden and unheard can now surface and penetrate the widespread domain of social media, where the videos are shared, commented, and even translated and subtitled in other languages. In addition, the power of slam poetry resides in the fact that those individuals who experienced these issues firsthand find a safe space in a kind of poetry with which they can identify. Finally, poetry is a way to heal for the writer himself, as Baird said in an interview: “I write because I have to let these experiences live outside of myself. These stories were too heavy to carry around with me, so poetry became a home for them”.
More poets who deal with fat issues and body image: Miss K. Isha Camara, Beck Cooper.
More queer and transgender poetry: Nathalie Tyler, Alexander Jasper-Jay, Denice Frohman, Joy Young, Dia Davina, Chrysanthemum Tran, Melanie Murphy.