Unpacking the messages of fat bodies as depicted by Slow Tarot
First, I want to start off with the following:
A few months ago I greedily unwrapped the Slow Tarot by Lacey Bryant and was astounded by the lusciousness of the art, the sweetness and depth of the deck, the kind rendering and interesting interpretations of each card.
But one card stopped me short. In fact, it made my blood ran cold and turned what was otherwise a joy into sorrow. The artist had decided to rename the Devil card as ‘Temptation’ and in it you see a tableau of (thin) people making love but mostly in the middle of the frame you see a naked fat woman squaring you directly, but her face is also square with the viewer but she is looking away. She is an object to be viewed by the audience’s gaze. It is a vulnerable, sullen shot.
She holds an almost empty wine glass while around her lie plates of half eaten food and empty platters. The foods include cakes, cheese and grapes. Forbidden foods, indolent foods, foods of pleasure, “naughty” foods. The colors used to paint her are in a green cast.
So what? You might say. What’s the big deal?
But what if I told you that the deck contains no other image of a fat person? How would you feel knowing that the artist herself is not a fat woman (but I do not know what her journey has been. I only know she passes as a straight size now and that confers its own level of privilege).
Here is the image:
As a fat woman staring at this image, what am I to think? What am I to feel?
Is it true that I have just handed myself over to Temptation, the Devil, and the underlying message: the sin of gluttony? Is my body really the bad guy, here?
As a person who identifies as fat I have grown accustomed to living in a body that is often another woman’s greatest fear. The years of bullying and abuse from children and adults alike is nothing new. In fact, as a tarot reader I had long resigned myself to the fact that most tarot imagery will never look like me (though thankfully that has changed as artists are being mindful in creating tarot populations with diversity).
But what is the emotion that someone who looks like me-whether that be me as a reader or a client who comes to see me, what do they feel when they see that image?
I took it public and I asked others. I posted it on my facebook feed and it was clear:
Women, but especially women who negotiate a fat body (or just struggle with weight) felt shame when viewing the image. That increased when they were told that there were no other images of fat women in the deck.
And why would we feel shame? Because society has told us that we are moral failures. We fail as people, but especially, we fail as women when we cannot maintain a straight size and oh boy, shame sells, it really does
Again, so what? Maybe these people need to be shamed, am I right? Since obviously, they are fat because they have been led astray by the Devil. They are fat because they have no willpower. This is the long held view of fatness in the western world.
But these stereotypes have actual consequences for larger people in the real world.
When fatness is viewed through the lens of personal and moral failing, it has huge social, financial and lifestyle impacts on people of size. “ Some 62% of people surveyed by the World Obesity Federation said they had been discriminated against because of their weight.” (BBC)
The discrimination runs deep: fat people do not get access to medical care on par with straight sized patients. Many fat people are told that their problems are due to their weight and as a result their very serious medical conditions such as a crushed back or endometriosis or even breast cancer go undiagnosed and untreated. “The general public, in most Western cultures, is conditioned to condemn overweight individuals.” (Healthline)
Fatness is condemned because it is a physical reminder that gluttony, temptation, sin, and depravity are the user’s fault. We live in a meritocracy- we believe that people deserve what they get in life. So fat people understandably deserve contempt, derision, bullying, fear, and even loathing. Don’t believe me? People surveyed would rather lose a limb or a year of their life than be fat.
In our culture to be fat is feared more than almost anything else. Doesn’t that just sound crazy? I mean, think about it! People would rather lose an arm than carry weight on them. Now, what kind of cultural pressure is there that these people are responding to?
It makes total sense that a meritocratic society condemns fat people so vociferously. You can’t help it if you are disabled, a woman, or mentally ill but (according to research that’s being rapidly debunked) you can help it if you are fat. And since fat is the one thing you can control then it is open season on the fatties! Our culture exonerates or villifies based on content of character
But if 60% of all Americans are now overweight and obese can we therefore posit that all of the sudden a huge swath of the population just suddenly lost their will power and are guzzling down bags of cheetos at 3am? Are we really ready to condemn the majority of the population when we look at this situation with a critical eye?
Because the research is beginning to show something very different. That, in fact, will power has not much to do about losing weight and keeping it off.
The research has been very clear: in most cases dieting simply does not work long term for most people. How is it that the diet industry (which makes billions every year) can even stay in business if fat people are such gluttonous and lazy slobs if dieting actually worked? Or, if they just didn’t diet at all?
With a 95% failure rate you can guess it is not the people who are already thin keeping these guys afloat. You guessed it, it is fat people who fail over and over again, who keep trying even when the research clearly shows that restrictive eating often harms their metabolisms and over time will make them regain the weight and add more on.
There are hormonal reasons why people regain the weight they lost over time, this is a fairly new area of research, but it thoroughly uncouples the notion that being fat just means that we lack will power-that we have given ourselves over to temptation/devil. “Our study has provided clues as to why obese people who have lost weight often relapse. The relapse has a strong physiological basis and is not simply the result of the voluntary resumption of old habits,” he said. (Nutrition Review
“But, but, but… what about their health?!” is a common response to articles such as mine. But usually, health concern is just more thinly veiled fat disgust and stigma. Because if we really are concerned about someone’s health we would also be concerned about the greater constellation of their lives. The social, political, economic and access to care that affects the size of bodies.
We would be curious about the complex, interwoven pieces that health represents, and we would understand that weight is complicated and sometimes even beneficial to our health. It is called the Obesity Paradox and persists despite rabid attempts of debunking by medical establishments.
It is no accident that weight is tied to economic class. The poor in America-that is another ‘free for all bias’ because in a meritocracy it is your fault if you are poor, too
So if dieting has such miserable success rates, why do fat people keep trying?
Because they know that to live in a fat body means the world can judge you at a glance and find you wanting. That glance means not getting a second interview, a date, the good loan. Being just 15 pounds overweight means a loss of $9,000 a year in wages. Fatness is not a protected class yet people are regularly discriminated against because of it.
And, the saddest thing is that most fat people blame themselves, have internalized the world’s message and absolutely hate themselves despite trying over and over again to become thin, who want it more than anything.
Of course many thin people scoff at the idea of fat stigma just like white people often will scoff when black people share their experiences or men discount the harassment that many women face all of the time. It is easy to discount a lived experience you have never had. If you have been thin your whole life you might have never seen any kind of fat bias, fat bigotry, and fat hate. This is called thin privilege and yes it is a thing.
I would have hoped that the artist had taken just one small minute and imagined herself as a fat woman and asked herself, “How might this choice of fat devil make me feel as a fat body? Is it my role to paint this in this way? What is the message I am trying to convey? (and also) Might I be hurting people?”
This kind of stuff honestly doesn’t take long. Just a minute of putting yourself in someone else’s (wide-sized) shoes.
I hope that I have made a clear case that imagery such as the Slow Tarot’s “Temptation” (i.e. Devil) card is not innocent. It reinforces harmful tropes about fat people and these tropes affect the very quality of life that fat people.
But mostly, it just hurt me.
It is more of the same. Here I am going about my business of living my life and all the sudden it is like getting slapped. Because, honestly? I am pretty happy in this fat body of mine. I like it. I like who I am. But it is society who constantly reminds me that I am not ok. That I am given over to the Devil, that I represent a cardinal sin and for that I get no quarter and certainly no pity. In a meritocratic world I get exactly what I deserve.
As a fat women I feel that there is a constant quiet stream of hatred that only takes a little bit to come out. The woman who screamed, “You just a big fat woman, aren’t you?” when I yelled at her cause she almost hit me at a crosswalk. To the (ex) friend who posted publicly posted on Facebook, “So glad to cut the fat out of my life.” and left that status public so I would see it. To the man who gave me a look of disgust when I sat in his row on a flight. To the well-meaning condescending people who say they are “so proud of me” because I can swim laps in a pool, or out-walk them or out-dance them, shocked that I actually am capable of something that maybe even they are not.
To the woman at the market stall who told me that “The bracelet looks so good on larger women like you.” and another who recently told me that “you look so well put together as a larger woman” as if to look good and also be fat was an equation she could not compute. These veiled compliments are mini quakes of hate.
To the doctor recently who told me she was concerned about my BMI and told me to “just work out more” even though I came in because I thought I had broken my foot
As a professional tarot reader I am conscious about the decks I use when working with others. I am careful to choose decks that mirror the great and wonderful diversity of clients that I serve. I want my clients to see themselves in the cards because tarot is literally talking about the story of their lives.
As a reader, I want a deck that makes me feel grander, see bigger, reach further. Shame doesn’t do that. Shame makes one small.
It would break my heart to use Slow Tarot and have this card come up for a fat person, to feel them still in silent hurt (most fat people have learned to just shut up and put up) to feel them close down. Or, to feel the heat in my face when this card came up between myself and a straight sized client-however am I supposed to be able to navigate that?
You know who I want depicted as a fat woman? Strength. Because to be a fat women in a thin world that barely hides its disgust means to don the heart of a lion, the strength of the desert, and the mental fortitude of taming the internalized shame and self-hate into something usable, even joyful.
To be a fat person is a crucible, a melting point where we negotiate our bodies and the spaces our bodies inhabit, it is a balancing act that actually requires great subtlety, sensitivity and a compassion for suffering-certainly not qualities that the Devil illustrates. The fat women I have known and hope to know are beautiful, strong, disciplined, capable, and credible. Let them be Strength, let them be Star, let them paint the firmament with the qualities I know them (and myself) to actually possess.
Which one of these statements do you agree with?
Women are bad drivers.
Teenagers are lazy.
Tarot card readers are con artists.
Wide sweeping statements feel so definitive that it is easy to believe them. Black and white thinking feels so much more comfortable than grey. It feels good to pronounce a belief about a whole group of people believing that our judgement is right. Stereotyping is based out of a need to categorize, condemn, and ultimately feel better than the people we may be talking about.
Have I personally watched every single woman drive, and do I have the certifications necessary to make that kind of judgement call? While some teens might be slow in the motivation department, there are many examples of the opposite. However, I hear the third statement regularly and without question that it is indeed, true: “Tarot readers are all con artists.”
Rational, objective, science-minded folks eat up the social consensus regarding tarot. Logical and fair-minded people regularly denounce a whole field without ever having visited a reader. What is the first premise in scientific inquiry? Observation. Have these people suddenly forgotten the very foundation of their beliefs in the rush to denounce what they might not know anything about?
How can this be? How is it that while we are quick to denounce stereotypes we are able to make the exception with tarot readers? It is, I suspect, due to tarot’s public image coupled with an incorrect assumption promulgated by popular culture and the co-opting of tarot by people with questionable ethics. Tarot is not the problem. Shitty people using tarot are the problem.
Google up any image of a tarot reader in the movies or TV shows and more often than not we are treated to a mysterious, dark-haired woman. This woman is of indeterminate background (an inelegent nod to the idea that ‘they are foreign’) is sitting in a darkly lit room, ready to receive a questioner. She pronounces the fate of said character for good or ill. This fate is unalterable and our tarot reader has the ability to see into that future that is already written out for us.
A search for the words ‘tarot reader’ also reveals con artists who use tarot to prey upon the innocent. One need not look far to read stories about a certain actress in a fake Jamaican accent imploring you to call now. Not far behind her are so-called tarot readers who were jailed after husting tens of thousands of dollars from the wealthy or the desperate.
Finally, the bias towards tarot are often from people who question the very nature of tarot and what it does. They believe that tarot does not work, and anyone who believes in it is either gullible or a con artist (see that “all, never, or always” thinking here)?
But the thing is is that the underlying assumptions about how tarot works are inaccurate. That assumption was unquestionably formed by some real bad actors (pun intended). So how can we form a truly informed opinion if we are working off of assumptions that are patently false or misunderstood?
We can’t. It is easy to assume that our underlying beliefs that form the basis of our opinions are accurate. But that it is not scientific inquiry. Rather, that is bias. Bias is often the byproduct of a closed mind who frankly stopped thinking the moment their irrational criticism began to rear it’s head. It is this bias that hounds professional, honest, and earnest readers. In short, we are a field green-lighted for condemnation. This condemnation is largely based on a complete fantasy regarding what we do and how we do it.
Have people completely given up on the banking system because of the Great Recession? Are lawyers ran out of town with crowds of people holding pitchforks? Of course not. Because we know that while there are some unscrupulous bankers and lawyers, we also know that not all of them are. And while someone might not understand how tarot works, that lack of understanding does not mean that tarot readers are selling snake oil.
Tarot is having a moment. Tarot is being normalised by a generation of people who are willing to dive into the mystery of personal truths. More than ever, there are professionals in this field who take the work of reading very seriously and treat their craft with the professionalism it deserves.
Tarot is not going anywhere, and just like massage and acupuncture and herbalism, it is moving towards a stable norm. While tarot has a PR problem now, I see the shift on the horizon. I look forward to the day where I can say I am a professional reader without cringing or avoiding the question because I don’t want to deal with some people’s bias. I cannot wait to be open and comfortable with this passion of mine and my work in the way it deserves.
Imagine that you live in a little town in Maine, and in that town there is a town common setup for the delight of the community every summer. This town common includes vendors, musicians, artists and other vibrant, colorful folk from around town. Perhaps you are a tarot reader and you think to yourself, “What a wonderful way to spend the summer, festival reading for those who want explore tarot!” Like the ethical, professional reader you are, you apply for a business license through the town to grant you sanctioned access just like all the other business owners who also live and enjoy the community.
What happens next is that the city ordinance review committee decides to attempt to reword the city ordinance to ban you from the opportunity to read tarot professionally at an open air situation that is open to so many others. Most likely, that review committee did not ask you about your work, did not ask to see your statement on ethics, and certainly did not get a reading with you. Treated as if you are almost a nonperson, or at the very least a person with no social backing, you are shut out because of one very misunderstood word: tarot.
This very situation is happening in Wiscasset, Maine, as their ordinance committee is seeking to ban out a local reader there from reading in the town common.
Ordinances like these are not uncommon, but they are on the wane. It is unfortunate that mainstream society has determined that con artists, who have co-opted the use of tarot for their heists; have become the defining voice of what tarot is in America. All this, despite thousands of ethical, knowledgeable, moral readers who have a true desire to serve others.
In fact, situations like Wiscasset happens all the time to professional readers who are denied every opportunity to actually professionalize their businesses: denied business licenses, bank accounts, merchant accounts, and insurance. Tarot readers face an extraordinary amount of discrimination that would be unheard of in almost any other service profession.
The sad irony is that in these bureaucratic attempts to control and silence tarot professionals only hastens to reinforce the very thing these communities are attempting to stave off. Con men who use tarot prefer to work in the shadows and below tables, they do not want governing agencies to notice them because that usually reveals their shell game. These unethical agencies usually go as minimally legal as possible to work without notice and once the heat turns up, they leave town. These type of “readers” would not be asking for a business license to busk at a local outdoor summer event, these readers look for and desire controlled environments to better influence their prey.
A reader who is true in her practice though, would apply for a business license, would want to use a town common to meet and greet her community, would be willing to read for others in an open and transparent way, and this committee, these communities, these businesses shut her out. And in the shutting out inadvertently contribute to the false notion that tarot readers are all snake oil salesmen. Because those are the only ones still operating and praying on your communities, they work in the shadows.
Personally, as a reader, I have had doors slam shut in my face the moment they heard the word “tarot”. That heavy noun in the world, that word that creates deep reactions and response. Some of the doors were so incredibly ridiculous; “Oh, well, we had a reader here 10 years ago and it did not go well so we will not have a reader again.” So, if we replace “reader” with “jewelry maker”, or “food vendor” we can easily see what a silly sentiment this is. What silly things professional readers have to deal with as we endeavour to the full time job of public education in addition to actually performing our jobs.
Dear Wiscasset, Maine: your community is not in danger; a professional tarot reader will not be “detrimental to the public health, safety or general welfare of the residents in the community.” Con Artists are detrimental to your residents, tarot is not. Please take 5 minutes to apprise yourself of the difference and rest easy that with your wise counsel that you are not perpetuating yet more discrimination. Discrimination that creates more problems than it seeks to alleviate.
If a thief uses a crowbar to enter homes and steal, will you then prohibit the use of crowbars in your town? That sounds silly, doesn’t it? But this is exactly what you are doing regarding tarot and tarot’s responsible professional readers.
Dear professional tarot readers: push back, ask questions, refute, fight, advocate for yourselves. No one else will suddenly accept us until we demand the same treatment as any other service professional and business owner. The time of meekly hiding when someone shouts, “no!”, those days are numbered. The louder (yet kind) and firm we are to assert that we be treated like everyone else, the quicker we can hasten the cultural shift around what tarot is and who gets to read it, who gets to enjoy it and to be able to do so without stigma.
Let us all move tarot out of the box.
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