by Peggy Elam, PhD
There’s this idea that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. And what I’ve always thought isn’t that monsters don’t have reflections in a mirror. It’s that if you want to make a human being into a monster, deny them, at the cultural level, any reflection of themselves. ~Junot Diaz
Almost two decades ago when exercise physiologist Glenn A. Gaesser, PhD was seeking a publisher for Big Fat Lies: The Truth About Your Weight and Your Health—a book packed with scientific evidence of the hazards of dieting and the shaky foundation of weight-focused approaches to health—his agent informed him that he needed to include a photo with his book proposal in order to show prospective publishers he wasn’t fat. A thin person writing on the subject of weight and health had more credibility to publishers than a fat person with the same credentials.
Gaesser, who is thin, provided the photo. He met with several interested publishers before accepting a contract from Fawcett Columbine, who published Big Fat Lies in 1996.
It was several years after the book’s publication that I learned how its publication had hinged on the author’s having an “acceptable” body size. The knowledge infuriated me. It was bad enough that people with bodies larger than societal and medical ideals were seeing few positive representations of themselves in literature (or popular culture in general), but to have the route to traditional print publication of health-related nonfiction barred to fat people? Not acceptable.
At that time, I was already contemplating starting a publishing company that would pull together my expertise in journalism, English and psychology to publish fat-positive books and resources that support the Health At Every Size® approach. Learning of Gaesser’s experience was my tipping point. I founded Pearlsong Press, the only publishing company (to my knowledge) whose mission and vision include promoting fat-positive fiction and nonfiction and health, happiness and social justice at every size.
I established and still run a fat-positive publishing company because I want fat people’s voices and research and perspectives and opinions to be heard, especially when they challenge the status quo. I also want fat people to be able to see bodies similar to theirs portrayed positively in tales in which fat people live and love and have adventures and overcome challenges and thrive, providing not only a good read, but perhaps for some people, the first inkling that anyone can live happily ever after while fat.
Pearlsong Press was incorporated in October 2003. Our first book, Pat Ballard’s short story collection Dangerous Curves Ahead, was published in May 2004. Since then we have published more than 44 books, both fiction and nonfiction. In our books, Pearlsong author Frannie Zellman notes, “proud fat heroines spring to life and tell the world ‘I’m strong, hot and fat. Got a problem with that?'”
Zellman is author of The FatLand Trilogy novels, which are set in a near-future in which “pro-health” laws have become so oppressive that those wishing body liberation have established a territory in which dieting is forbidden and large bodies are celebrated. She also edits the Fat Poets Speak series.
The Fat Poets’ Society was formed in 2006 when Zellman taught a workshop in writing fat positive poetry at that year’s NAAFA convention. “Mary Ray Worley provided a sheet for attendees to sign their names and then dubbed us the Fat Poets’ Society,” Zellman says. “We wrote and wrote online as a Yahoo group, and all of the poems in Fat Poets Speak: Voices of the Fat Poets’ Society [published by Pearlsong Press in 2009 and featuring the work of Zellman, Kathy Barron, Anne S. Kaplan, Corinna Makris, and Leslie J. Owen] were drawn from this group.
“My heart almost broke with pride and appreciation when I read the poems our poets wrested from their bodies, minds and hearts,” Zellman adds. “You see, many and maybe even most of us were taught that people contained in poems — and especially women — were supposed to embody the culturally acceptable ideal of slimness. Fatness was taboo. Mentioning it as an issue was taboo. What these poems do is defy this taboo and speak of living life, loving, laughing, aching, revolting, reimagining the world and days spent in it as fat people, sometimes calling attention to our fatness, sometimes simply being in the world as fat people.
“For me, the message we bring so tellingly to other fat people, especially but not only women, is ‘We are not alone. We are all unique and yet we experience so much that is the same. We cannot be bypassed or not counted any longer. We write ourselves as who and what we are. We write fat poems. We write as fat people. And we are proud to do so.”
Fat Poets Speak 2: Living and Loving Fatly, published April 2014, contains poems by some of the original Fat Poets’ Society members (Zellman, Barron, Kaplan, Owen, and Worley), another poet who took the Fat Poets’ Workshop at the NAAFA convention the following year (Eileen Rosensteel), and four New Voices (Durette Hauser, Deb Lemire, Dr. Deah Schwartz, and M.M. Stein). The Fat Poets’ Society is donating the royalties from Fat Poets Speak 2 to fat activist Ragen Chastain. Royalties from the first volume are being donated to NAAFA.
Through Pearlsong Press, the voices of fat scholars are also heard. Our nonfiction includes Lonie McMichael, Ph.D.’s Talking Fat: Health vs. Persuasion in the War on Our Bodies, an examination of the rhetoric of the “war on obesity,” and Acceptable Prejudice? Fat, Rhetoric and Social Justice, which has been called “Fat Acceptance 101,” as wellas Pattie Thomas, Ph.D.’s Taking Up Space: How Eating Well & Exercising Regularly Changed My Life, written with her husband Carl Wilkerson, M.B.A, and containing a foreword by Paul Campos.
As for fiction — we’ve republished Lynne Murray’s award-winning Josephine Fuller mystery series, which went out of print in the early 2000s, and have made those novels (Larger Than Death, Large Target, At Large, and A Ton of Trouble) available as ebooks for the first time. We’ve also published two new novels by Murray, the romantic comedy Bride of the Living Dead and the paranormal adventure The Falstaff Vampire Files.
We’ve published seven novels and a novella by Pat Ballard in addition to her short story collection , a free nonfiction ebook (Something to Think About: Reflections on Life, Family, Body Image & Other Weighty Matters by the Queen of Rubenesque Romances), and her self-help guide 10 Steps to Loving Your Body (No Matter What Size You Are), which the author of Eating Disorders for Dummies calls “your body’s best friend in pocket form.” Other fat-positive romantic fiction includes The Giving Season by Rebecca Brock, Kiss Me, Nate! by Judy Bagshaw, and the rollicking soap opera in print Measure By Measure by Rebecca Fox and William Sherman.
In addition to The Falstaff Vampire Files, in which Sir John Falstaff — yes, that Falstaff — is undead and misbehaving in San Francisco, fans of fantasy and paranormal adventure can enjoy large as life heroes and heroines in Fallen Embers and Blowing Embers by Lauri J Owen, Fatropolis by Tracey L. Thompson, and Zellman’s FatLand and FatLand: The Early Days. There’s a supernatural tinge to the thriller The Program by Charlie Lovett, whose book proposal had me at “evil weight loss clinic.” (Lovett is also the author of the only young adult novel we’ve published thus far, The Fat Lady Sings.)
Not every book Pearlsong Press publishes deals specifically with size, weight or physical health issues — some of our books are age-positive, or spiritually oriented memoirs, or self-help, or literary fiction — but none are fat-negative or promote a weight-centered approach to health or wellbeing.
As Pearlsong Press has grown, the publishing and bookselling world has been rapidly evolving, accelerated by the growth of the internet and advances in technology that make it easier for books to be traditionally and self-published. The past decade has seen several fat-positive nonfiction books published by academic presses and other companies. Kudos, among others, to BenBella Books for publishing Linda Bacon’s Health At Every Size: The Surprising Truth About Your Weight, Seal Press for Virgie Tovar’s Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love & Fashion, and Beaufort Books for publishing Rebecca Weinstein’s Fat Kids: Truth and Consequences, due October 2014 and featuring a chapter on “Collateral Damage in the ‘War on Obesity': Fat Kids, Dieting & Eating Disorders” written by yours truly in her role as clinical psychologist.
Yet, as the number of books of all kinds published each year has risen, it’s been harder for potential readers to find them. Many bookstores have closed, challenged by the rise in internet sales and the poor economy, with those remaining open often stocking their shelves with products other than books in an effort to increase revenue. As I write this, the publishing world is monitoring the faceoff between publishing giant Hachette and retailing giant Amazon over pricing of ebooks and the timely shipping and ordering of print books, issues which cut into publishers’ and, ultimately, authors’ income.
The buzz word these days in publishing is “discoverability” — the ability of something to be found. It doesn’t matter how good a book is if no one knows it exists, and it’s hard for a book to be sighted or a new voice heard among the plethora of books and ebooks competing for attention.
In a sea of books promoting slenderness as the route to health and happiness or fatness as the cause of personal and even global disaster, how can the few (but growing) number of fat-positive and HAES® friendly books published by Pearlsong Press and others be sighted and plucked out of the watery unknown? Without, I might add, needing deep pockets to pay for advertising and publicists and strategic placement in bookstores? One option is the Fat Friendly Fiction blog started by Pearlsong Press and author Lynne Murray. (I have plans for a Fat Friendly Nonfiction blog, but not yet the time to establish it.)
Another option is for publishers and authors to connect with potential readers and encourage word of mouth through teleconferences, video chat, webinars, and other forms of social media. With that in mind, a few years ago I started a series of teleconference call conversations with Pearlsong authors and readers as a way of promoting our books and authors and HAES-friendly fiction and nonfiction. You can download recordings of many of these Pearlsong Conversations at http://www.pearlsong.com/fatstudies.htm.
Personal challenges including the demands of caregiving elderly parents have temporarily halted my ability to facilitate more Conversations, but I hope to start them again soon — possibly with a video chat component. If you’re interested in participating or listening/viewing the recording, stay tuned to or subscribe to the Pearlsong blog , Facebook page or Twitter feed.
In the meantime, I encourage you to buy (or check out of your library) and read and recommend fat-positive and HAES-friendly fiction and nonfiction published by Pearlsong Press and others. Let’s help fat-positive and size-diverse books and authors — and publishers — become beacons spreading health and happiness at every size.
Peggy Elam , Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and former journalist in Nashville, TN. She was iVillage’s Emotional Health expert from 1998-2000 and hosted the Health at Every Size show on Radio Free Nashville from 2005-2011. She was interviewed by filmmaker Julian Dahl for his documentary FAT in 2009 and is one of the experts featured in that film. She founded Pearlsong Press in 2003.