'Chokecherry eyes and frybread thighs': Fatphobia in Indian Country

the FAQ, Delainee Tootoosis, Arielle Twist, Chief Lady Bird

This First Person piece is by Tenille Campbell, a Dene/Métis artist from English River First Nation, Sask.

For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

WARNING: This piece contains language and imagery some people may find offensive

I don't remember when I first heard the term “chokecherry eyes and frybread thighs,” but I can still see the meme in my head: an image of an Indigenous woman with a low-cut top and high-cut miniskirt, complete with fringe, of course. 

She has a white feather in her hair — because obviously — and a bone choker with a hanging red medallion nestled between high, round breasts with a deep valley of cleavage you could die happily in. She is perched on a rock — lush curves and her head cocked just so — one hand gesturing toward a chokecherry bush, compelling the viewer to come closer. 

the FAQ, Delainee Tootoosis, Arielle Twist, Chief Lady Bird

It's always been a measure in my head of how these violent ideas of desire and fat and colonialism are packaged and sold to us; the use of humour to project a toxic idea of desire onto a fat body in the meme, all couched within a rhyming scheme, to invite a smile once you “get the joke.” 

She is hyper-sexualized, and with her breasts and thighs on rampant display the viewer's desire for her is justified. And those “frybread thighs” make her both a modern Indigenous delicacy and a food born of colonialism. With frybread thighs, you become a feast — something to be sacrificed, possessed then devoured. 

We end up with a trope: a nondescript-but-always-sexy Indigenous woman offering herself up like property or land, like something to be consumed, to be eaten, to be seen as not human and therefore not worthy of common respect. 

Of course, some people will say it's a joke. I'm getting too deep. It's not that serious. People will say that humour is often used in Indian Country, and that I'm being too sensitive, and I don't get Indian Humour. 

The funny thing is, I actually like this image. I smile when I think of it, rolling my eyes and sending it to my other fat Indigenous friends, knowing they'll get a chuckle out of it too. But me liking the meme doesn't mean I can't be critical of it.

Indian Country's fatphobia

I've been thinking lately about how fatphobic Indian Country is. It's not something I necessarily want to think about, but over the past few years it's been pushed in my face more than once. I've had to confront my own bias as well, reflecting on how I interact with ideas of fatness and deconstructing what I've come to accept as normalized behaviours when we chat about our bodies. 

Fatphobia, basically, is the fear or the hate of fat, fat bodies, and the idea and presentation of fat, whether on your body or someone else's. 

It has nothing to do with health. That's between a fat person and their medical doctor. But everyone has an opinion on fatness and when we acknowledge that, as Indigenous people, we live in a world where one of our most notorious foods — that frybread though — was developed out of food rations given to us by colonial governments, fatness is inherently tied to colonial structures and fatness is seen as undesirable by colonial people. 

But this is still a big concept — so how does Indian Country's fatphobia act out in real life? 

I look at the microaggressions we often let slide, because they are so normalized. We see Indigenous clothing companies styling no higher than an XL for women while also using suppliers that cut clothes smaller. We are lucky to see one plus-size model wearing unisex t-shirts, but those custom skirts and jackets, while having the ability to be cut in 5XL sizes, aren't showcased or highlighted. 

the FAQ, Delainee Tootoosis, Arielle Twist, Chief Lady Bird

When images of us go around, we see portraits of structured jawlines at dusk. We see chiselled cheekbones in ribbon skirts or regalia. We see skinny fingers drenched in turquoise rings. We see lithe and toned bodies on book covers advocating for decolonized diets — as if we never had fat people in our communities' pre-colonial times. 

We don't see double chins on a new lipstick ad for Indian Country. We don't see the thick arms of a fat woman wrapped in a star blanket. We don't see the round, fat bellies of an Indigenous woman in fashion articles. 

We never celebrate the fat Indians in our social media. The Indigenous influencers with hundreds and thousands of followers are thin, with major posts devoted to staying healthy and active.

These are the things that we see online — on social media, on TV, in movies. And in real life, this constant pressure to be not-fat presents itself as jokes about gaining weight in the pandemic, the 'teasing' about soft/large bellies. 

It's the moms staying out of a picture or hiding behind children in a photo. It's the extra-large T-shirts while they go swimming so no one can see their bodies. It's constant talk about how decolonial diets mean better health aka slimmer bodies.

We have to actively seek out positive plus-sized bodies in order to see positive plus-sized bodies.– Tenille Campbell

Last year, I met the friend of a friend at an event I was shooting. He looked me up and down, then cut his eyes to the side, ignoring me until our mutual came onto the scene. This look is known to fat women — men afraid even to make eye contact, lest we forget ourselves and throw our chubby, jingling bodies at them for deigning to give us some spark of attention. 

When I introduced the topic, our mutual friend was shocked by his behaviour and was sorry that I had experienced it. It was the fact that she was shocked that was the more upsetting part. 

Some people don't get it, don't see it, and they never will. That's on fatphobia, on how it's accepted, on how they — in their thin desirable bodies — will never experience this behaviour. They will never be the Fat Friend in a crowded photo, never dubbed the Ugly One who is considered the c–k-block, never see how invisible being fat can be, despite the space we literally take up. 

We often see fat women as a joke, or a safe space to smile at. The two women riding in their rez car backwards in the movie Smoke Signals is a strong visual I have seen perpetuated for years and years. How when Eden Robinson laughs, people comment on how loud her joy is and not how sexy she is when she shares her joy, how sensual and delicious her mind is, crafting amazing and complicated love stories in her Trickster series. How when I tell someone they're handsome, they laugh and tell me “You're so funny!” 

Desire in a fat body is not actually desire, but the punchline of a joke. 

'Fill your social media with thick, fat, glorious bodies'

On the other side of humour, we have hate. I often have men in the DMs tell me they love my curves, and my lips, and my breasts, but when I express disinterest I'm now a fat b—h, a c–t, an ugly whore. The expectation is that since I am fat, I am to be humbled and grateful for their interest. When I do not, I am then expected to cry and feel shame over their hurtful words. I am expected to break. 

I laugh to myself as I block them.  

the FAQ, Delainee Tootoosis, Arielle Twist, Chief Lady Bird

But you know me, I love Indian Country. Like the image discussed at the start of this article, I can love something, but still be critical of it and expect better of us. I don't want to leave us sitting at the table, disgruntled and not knowing how to move forward in a good way. 

We all know a fat Indigenous woman. We all love a fat Indigenous woman. We are the sisters, the mothers, the grandmothers, the aunts. We are the sweeties, the lovers, the ones that got away, the ones your family always talked about. We are artists and entrepreneurs. We are storytellers and scientists and community workers and activists. And we are tired of existing in spaces that expect us to conform, to be less (literally) so others are more comfortable with our bodies. 

We have to take the first steps, challenging what we see and hear every day. Start small. Start by actively seeking out shows that feature plus-size people. Read a book that features a thick romantic lead. And my favourite: fill your social media with thick, fat, glorious bodies. 

Follow people that exist with joy, creativity, passion — people like Delainee Tootoosis, a plus-size youth and influencer, Arielle Twist, a néhiyaw poet and visual artist, and Chief Lady Bird, an Anishinaabe artist known for her powerful artwork and powerful self-love messages. We have to actively seek out positive plus-sized bodies in order to see positive plus-sized bodies. 

I finally feel free to look back at my own journey in learning to not only accept but love this fat body. I never wanted to be a voice advocating for fat acceptance. I'd rather be known for my poetry and my art, but here we are. 

I have learned that my writing comes from Fat Love, Fat Desire and I cannot separate that any more than I can take my Indigeneity away from my identity. 

While I have been in the blessed position to have never hated my body, I was always neutral toward it. It was only through the lived experience of sex and desire that I learned to love my fatness. 

On one hand, I often mentally sit back and take my notes as I take lovers to bed with me. How they touch me, how they caress me. How they hold my large body in their hands, and how they f–k me. On the other, I watch myself and feel my way through a sexual experience, intent on discovering new sensations and remember old pleasures. 

I move through my favourite positions like water, fluid and graceful, noting with chokecherry eyes that my frybread thighs are a soft place to land, and to be handled with care.    

Interested in writing for us? We accept pitches for Opinion and First Person pieces from Saskatchewan residents who want to share their thoughts on the news of the day, issues affecting their community or who have a compelling personal story to share. No need to be a professional writer!

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