A Revolutionary Act: Samantha Zighelboim by Zachary Pace

The poet on confronting societal limitations about the body, navigating the language of fatness, and celebrating friendships that embrace the joy of food.

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Photo by Alexis Baldwin.

Before reading The Fat Sonnets (Argos Books)—Samantha Zighelboim’s debut poetry collection—I was oblivious of my own body-image biases. These lines shocked me awake:
 
    ”Let’s pretend to tell this story. Once, body began.
     Then body fattened, deformed. Now body is expiring.

     No space for body on the barstool. No space for body
     in the plus-size store. No space for body in the poetry.”
 
Now—daily—I see the numerous (public and private) spaces where the thin body is accommodated while the fat body is excluded, where the thin body is glorified while the fat body is stigmatized. Zighelboim courageously confronts our cultural complacency with the punishing standards for bodyweight, as she challenges the mainstream discourse that tokenizes and scapegoats—or else marginalizes—those who do not fit the equally punishing ideal for body-shape. At the same time, these poems honor the pleasure of taste, the joy of flavor—also admitting the simultaneous pain of needing nourishment—because:

     ”if it’s possible the mouth
      might still be sexy after grease spurts out of a burrito
      on the last bite we may be in the business of
 
      a survivable universe or at least a tolerable one
      which before it kills us makes us visible.”

Zachary Pace You’d written a few chapbook-length series of poems before The Fat Sonnets. How did you ultimately find this subject for your first book?

Samantha Zighelboim The year I turned thirty was a really rough one for me. But I found people online, and out in the real world, who were part of the body positivity movement, openly talking about being fat. And it wasn’t self-deprecating, it was self-celebrating, which was exhilarating to me; also horrifying, because I was scared these activists would get hurt. I actually felt fear and anxiety for their safety. It was already a brave and radical act for a woman to be writing about her body in our political climate. But a fat body? I didn’t know I was allowed to do that! I got the permission I needed to talk about the thing I know best: this body, and what it’s been like to grow up in it, to be beaten down in it, to suffer with it, to be oppressed by it—and, less often but most importantly, to feel joy in it. Writing into that was the most honest thing I’ve ever done; at the same time, the scariest and the most liberating. 

Because subtlety is not my finest art, the first “fat sonnet” I wrote—“Exit Strategies”— juxtaposed being fat and being dead. I wrote this one giant sentence, alternating scenes of fatness and scenes of death. That’s where it started. Not the most uplifting place to begin, I know. But it opened a space for me to talk about how awful it can be to wake up and feel trapped in a body that society at large wants to eliminate. That was the reality I needed to address first and foremost, before I could even think about the possibility of writing hope into my life’s story. 

The poems I wrote in my twenties were obsessed with animals and nature—and magic, and mysticism, and monsters. Thinking about that earlier work, the transition in subject makes a lot of sense to me. I was focused on non-human, mythic, magnificently powerful figures. Those poems echo this other voice—sublimating the same ideas of alienation, and identification outside of the self—a sort of faithless hoping that selfhood might be possible beyond the human body. Two of those early poems ended up in the book: “Fat Dream with Giant Squid” and “Temple.”

Szfat Sonnets Front

ZP When did you started to identify as someone who inhabits a fat body?

SZ You mean when did I realize I was fat?

ZP When did you start thinking of yourself in those terms?

SZ I don’t think I realized before other people started pointing out to me that it was a grave problem. And that started very, very young. I was a chubby child. I grew up in a culture where fatness is not acceptable—it is the antithesis of beauty and happiness. People try to steer their children away from fatness in a way that feels very specific to Latin America, a way that I can’t explain. It’s almost obsessive. Everyone around me told me to watch how much I ate at meals. And when my parents divorced—I was eight years old, in the second grade—I gained so much weight, I started getting bullied at school. Not just from classmates, from teachers, too—gym teachers, guidance counselors who were “very concerned”—which is a thing we have a name for now: concern trolling, when people pretend to care about your health but they’re really just shaming you for being fat. 

At the end of third grade—I can’t imagine they’d still do this in school—we had to line up to get weighed. I weighed a hundred pounds, and everyone else weighed around seventy. And I’ll never forget the gym teacher—Coach Welby—said to me, “Now, if you just stay that weight when you grow up, you’ll grow up to be a beautiful woman.” The kids in line behind me heard that, and I’ll always remember how alienated I felt when they started to whisper and stare.

ZP The vocabulary around fatness is so alienating. The words that we have to talk about it carry such derogatory connotations.

SZ Like “overweight.” Over what weight? Whose weight? I guess “plus-size” is meant to sound inclusive and neutral but again, plus what? Plus who? The term obese is listed as an illness in the CDC index, so technically I’ve got this disease that’s dangerous and could kill me. 

One of the biggest challenges in working on this book was navigating the language around fatness. For instance, the two definition poems—both called “fat (adj.)”—the first stems from the OED definition of the word. Most of the entries for “fat”—I think there are nine or ten—refer to corpulence, excess, largeness, morbidity. The second poem tries to rewrite the definition without that nasty stigma. 

The word “fat” is a heavily loaded word, which is why I wanted it to be in the title of the book. Sometimes I refer to myself as a fat woman, and it’s empowering. Sometimes I use it to belittle myself. The term may never feel unencumbered by that dichotomy. Recently, a dear friend was taken aback that I kept referring to myself as a fat woman—he genuinely thought I was berating myself. I’m trying to revise that narrative—I want people to accept the multitude of non-normative identities, on a fundamental level.

ZP Is there an existing vocabulary that feels to you like it has the potential to create a more sensitive public discourse around fatness?

SZ Society has such deeply-rooted connotations with these words—it depends less on the language itself and more on the person who’s speaking it, or receiving it. I’ve been referred to as “a woman of size”—which felt somewhat accurate but not quite right. It’s definitely reaching in the right direction. Mainstream media certainly hasn’t yet found a way to hear or use the word “fat.” Woman of size? Or a big woman? I don’t know if we have found adequate language yet. And I don’t know if it would catch so quickly, after centuries of negative associations.

ZP The etymology of fat is Old English, meaning well-fed.

SZ Yes! Fatness used to denote wealth and stature, even good health. The word signaled that the person has the means to feed themselves well. Only in recent eras have people been held to these unrealistic standards.

ZP In “Punk Will Never Diet”—an essay in praise of Beth Ditto—Curran Nault reflects on fatness as a subversion of the normative body image; paraphrasing Le’A Kent, who “argued that within dominant representation, the fat body functions as the abject: that which must be expelled in order for the good (i.e. thin) body to be set free. In this way, the fat body is rarely allowed to be embodied and present, as it is continually represented as either false (the body in the process of becoming thin) or past (the body that has been left behind).”

SZ That’s so real. The fat body is constantly viewed in a transient state, toward thinness or death. 

It’s a revolutionary act, to experience and portray the fat body as something you can live in and sit inside without working toward another form. I’m not there yet, in my journey. I’m coming from a long history of dieting; I can’t take a single bite of food today without guilt. It’s possible I’ll always feel like I was meant to be a thin woman—and I hate that—but I’m actively striving to silence the “eating disorder voice” and to dismantle its damaging thought processes. 

What I have accepted is that the struggle will not go away—it’s a facet of who I am; part relentless disorder, part enduring cultural and societal conditioning—and I’m resolved to confront it, no matter what, every day for the rest of my life. 

In the book, thinness is not an ideological goal; it’s weighted, and fraught with pain. The poem “Two Photographs” looks at my “skinny photos”—I think every fat girl has them, if not every girl—from that point in their lives when they were thinnest. I taped mine to the treadmill to inspire me to lose weight, so that I could look at her and pretend I would be her again someday. But at my thinnest, I was the unhappiest I’ve ever been in my life—I was very sick, and so distant from my true self. Maintaining thinness is an excruciating profession, a full-time fucking job. Especially when genetically, you have a metabolism from hell—biological factors actually working against you. My metabolism is slower than a woolly mammoth trudging through a snow storm.

ZP What drew you to the sonnet?

SZ My beloved professor Lucie Brock-Broido gave every new student of hers an expansive handmade course-book, and in it, she wrote: “As a form, the sonnet is the most conscious of numbers. The sonnet is the most neurotic of forms.” 

I’ve been counting as long as I can remember—calories, pounds, sizes, and years lost doing so. I’ve set goals and reached thresholds within my acute “consciousness of numbers”—and then I’ve exploded out of them, tired of their restrictions. Writing these poems, I wanted to interrogate the connection between form and constraint, not just thematically—as in the form of the body—but in the constraints of style as well. Bernadette Mayer’s sonnets gave me permission to expand, to spill out of prosody, out of shape. 

The number fourteen permeates the book: some poems are fourteen lines long, some fourteen words, or fourteen stanzas, even. Aside from that, the form is a bit, shall we say, undisciplined. I was delighted to enact in my work what my body—less willfully and with an abundance of, as Lucie said, neuroses—has done its whole life.

ZP What are your touchstones in literature on fatness?

SZ Honestly, I grew up lacking literature—characters in literature—that bore any resemblance to my body and circumstances. I wrote my first poems in the sixth grade, inspired by the now classic confessional poets. Early on, I was drawn to their freedom to be fully forthcoming about unpalatable feelings which they made into their art. Plath and Sexton primarily helped me understand that suffering could be made into greater forms than pain. 

More recently—in the last few years—the books being published about fatness have helped and guided me immensely. Obviously Roxane Gay’s work is a steadfast light in the darkness, piercingly honest in way that is so gutting but absolutely crucial. I loved Lindy West’s memoir, Shrill, which opens with a sequence of portraits of the fat characters in Disney movies; her real heroines—Ursula, the Queen of Hearts, the hippos in Fantasia—those were my favorites, too! To some extent I’d been unintentionally “reading” these images all along. 

A lot of Simone de Beauvoir’s work talks about the body as an instrument of both pleasure and destruction in a way that I related to; though in terms of womanhood, not explicitly in relation to fatness. That’s part of why I chose to focus my gaze on this: a common story that’s rarely allowed to be frankly told. I wasn’t going to sugarcoat the details of being in a body that’s constantly marginalized by everybody else. I needed that to feel as real as possible.

ZP Let’s talk about eating as enjoyment—eating as a positive thing—eating as sensual, and artful.

SZ One of my greatest contradictions is that food also brings me indescribable joy. It’s the way that I share love with people who I love. We eat together. I’m a foodie and I love how distinctive flavors can evoke specific cultures—their traditions, their history. 

The people I most enjoy eating with are people who also find great joy in food. It’s not the same for me to eat with someone I know is watching their weight; that’s a different kind of meal. But when I can openly appreciate the food, it’s the most wonderful thing in life. That being said, food is also—usually after an exquisite feast—a source of tension. Often with an eating disorder, you weaponize food against yourself. But I try to retain the memories of food joy as much as possible. When I think about people I love, I picture them during the best meals we’ve shared together.

ZP What’s the first favorite meal to come to mind that we’ve shared together?

SZ The first love-memory I have of us with food is definitely pierogis. Almost a decade ago? How did that start? At Veselka?

ZP I started bringing over boxes of Mrs. T’s frozen pierogis—

SZ With a vat of sour cream! Which we ate right on the couch. To this day I can’t have pierogis without thinking of you. So that’s one. Then Junior’s cheesecake—our neon haven—those Reubens, pickles, waffle fries. And then of course Mission Chinese, the delirious tingling Szechuan glory that we’ve reveled in numerous times. Remember the first time we had the steak tartar lettuce cups, with salmon roe and shiso leaves? And the thrice-cooked bacon with clouds of rice cakes?! We were so happy! I could keep going, but those three are pivotal moments. And the memories are beautiful, pristine, without shame.

Zachary Pace is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Literary Hub, Bookforum, the Los Angeles Review of Books, Frieze, The Fanzine, the PEN Poetry Series, and elsewhere.

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