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Q&A: Hanne Blank’s Quest for Body Acceptance

Hanne Blank’s books include the forthcoming “Straight: The Surprisingly Short History of Heterosexuality” (Beacon Press, 2012) and “Virgin: The Untouched History” (Bloomsbury, 2007).

She has been an advisor and editor at Scarleteen, a sexuality education and support organization and website, where she offered advice on kosher sex.

Blank’s classic sex and body-acceptance book, ”Big Big Love: A Sex and Relationships Guide for People of Size (and Those Who Love Them)” (Celestial Arts, 2011), originally began as a now-defunct ‘zine called “Zaftig,” a collaboration between Blank and illustrator Liz Tammy.

Chanel Dubofsky: How did you reach a point of body acceptance in order to write this book?

Hanne Blank: Self-acceptance is a verb, not a noun, and a process, not a product. Sometimes people get stuck in this weird idea that self-love, body acceptance, and empowerment are things that they have to have, in some concrete, unassailable way, before they can stick up for themselves or take themselves seriously or whatever it is.

This is a lot like believing that you have to lose 50 pounds before you can leave the house. The truth is, no one is going to come over to your house with a big box full of empowerment and hand it to you. Fortunately, this will in no way keep you from just jumping in and working to change things for yourself and others so that you are more empowered, supported, and accepted.

I did not somehow arrive at a magical place of optimal self-empowerment and acceptance and then write this book. I got to a place where I was sufficiently frustrated by the lack of representation of lives and bodies like my own that I decided to create some representation. The process of creating that in turn, created community and solidarity and all kinds of good stuff that was very supportive and empowering for me and for other people simultaneously.

We all have bodies and sexualities, and we all have fears about those things and how they fit together (or don’t). Part of the real magic of doing this work for me has been the chance to talk about them with people, to hear other people’s stories and to see up close and personal just how normal and typical and human it all is. Bodies are normal. Fat is normal. Sex is normal. Fat bodies having sex is normal. In learning about and understanding and discussing other people’s bodies and issues and foibles I’ve gotten a lot better at accepting my own.

I hope that my readers – of whatever size – feel seen, that they’re not alone with the issues they have about bodies and sex but that what they are going through is actually pretty normal and okay and survivable. It’s normal to have a body, it’s normal for bodies to come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s normal for bodies to be sexual. Sexuality isn’t a prize bestowed only on the few who “measure up” to some arbitrary standard. It’s just part of the everyday miracle that is living in a body.

How has being Jewish shaped your perspective on body image and sex?

For me, a big thing has been the idea that sex is a mitzvah and pleasure is not the enemy. That bottom line is really important. Nowhere in Judaism is it taught that bodies are only holy and miraculous if within a certain weight or size range. Bodies are miraculous and wonderful things and we are blessed with the ability to use and enjoy them. This has always really rung my bell as a big important truth.

My friend Rabbi Danya Ruttenberg mentioned a bit in the Talmud, in Ketubot 16b-17a, where the rabbis are debating how a man should respond to a bride who is perhaps not so beautiful, or maybe disabled, or in some other way “imperfect.” Rav Dimi says, “You know, she doesn’t have to wear makeup or have a fancy hairdo to be a pretty gazelle.” Just because a woman doesn’t cater to some arbitrary beauty standard doesn’t mean she isn’t beautiful. This “pretty gazelle” doesn’t need to change the way she looks – e.g. with makeup or fancy hair – her husband needs to change the way he sees so that he can appreciate the beauty that is there.

What do you think folks who work in particular with young Jewish women can do to interrupt fat/diet talk as a tool for bonding?

If you work with young people – and young men need to hear this stuff too – get rid of the fat-bashing, the weight gain paranoia talk, and the public evaluation of diets as being virtuous or unvirtuous. Just get rid of it.

Modeling the absence of that talk is important because there are so many places where fat-hatred and diet talk are just part of the scenery. Be an oasis for them, where they can find out what it’s like not to have that constant undercurrent of body policing and food policing all the time. It would be worthwhile to have some rules about “no diet talk” and “no fat-bashing talk” in general.

Find ways to praise young people, and especially young women, for things that are not their appearance. Put those things first. Create ways for young people to be taken seriously, and to do meaningful work. If young people feel that all they have to offer is their appearance, or that they’re only taken seriously when their appearance matches a certain standard, that’s unrealistic, unfair, and unkind.

It’s not enough to say “All girls are worthwhile, hooray, now go have good self esteem.” They also need a chance to do worthwhile things.

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