Virgie Tovar is a California-based author, activist, and scholar whose work focuses on the intersections of body size, race, and gender. We were lucky enough to correspond with Virgie about her work and her path to becoming one of the nation's leading experts and lecturers on weight-based discrimination and body image. Read on for a conversation about inclusivity and the future of fashion, Virgie's new tarot course, seeking inspiration, and "being soup."
1. You wear so many hats—as a scholar, a writer, an activist, a tarot connoisseur…and this incredible list goes on. In all of these things, you are a leading voice around body positivity and ending weight discrimination. Can you tell us a bit about how you got to where you are today?
Speaking of tarot, when I think of the answer to this question I have to namedrop the High Priestess card from the Major Arcana. She's the archetype of the woman who alchemizes her trauma into medicine for others. My work really is about taking trauma - from experiencing fatphobia, racism, sexism, and an emotionally unstable childhood - and turning it into something meaningful, something magical, and something in service to others. Each thing I put into the world is totally connected to a step in my own healing. So that's the witchy, spiritual answer! The grounded, logistical answer is that I grew up in a brown fat feminine body in a culture where there's no vision or path for someone like me to thrive. I ended up studying how the experience of weight discrimination impacts gender trajectories in women of color, and the completion of my graduate studies coincided with a growing interest in the topics of fatphobia and body positivity. My research had prepared me to step into the conversation with a lot of expertise. So I ended up writing and editing a few books and becoming a speaker on the college circuit. Then all the other projects followed. I became a social entrepreneur sort of by accident.
2. You hold a Master's degree in Sexuality Studies. What sparked your interest in getting this degree, and how has your academic background informed your activism?
Well, to be honest… being a horny Mexican nerd in high school probably inspired it. I was like Tina Belcher but with more melanin and a double chin. As a fat girl, I was basically not allowed to express my sexuality or my desire. I was outright told that if I didn't become thin, then no one would ever love me or have sex with me. This information was devastating. I tried to change my body, but I have always been destined to be fat! Since I couldn't change my body, I figured I maybe should change my pool of potential partners. I took to the internet and a toll-free phone personals service, and found I was actually pretty sexually desirable to at least a dozen people. The first time I had sex, I remember having a formative political awakening: "If they lied to me about this, what else did they lie to me about?" Sex became my gateway to questioning the culture and ultimately to feminism. I learned about the historical control of women's bodies and everyone's sexuality in the West. Weirdly enough, the very same people who were promoting sexual shame and leading anti-masturbation campaigns were also people who played a role in the construction of diet culture. They saw the genitals and the mouth as connected: gateways for immorality. So going from being a sexuality scholar to a fat studies scholar wasn't that big of a commute.
3. It's no secret that the fashion industry has long been one of our culture's biggest offenders—if not the biggest—when it comes to weight discrimination and toxic beauty standards. What are some of the most important steps brands can take to not only stop discrimination, but to also promote body positivity?
- Allott resources thoughtfully. For example, my mind was blown when a small athletic wear brand called Big Fit Hero decided to stop making sizes XS, small, medium - and I think even large - because they wanted to turn their limited resources toward expanding to 4X and beyond. They felt that the population in standard sizing had enough options, and could find them elsewhere. You could see this as just a political choice, sure, but I also see it as a smart business choice. Numbers from athletic brand, Athleta, indicate that their plus size customers spend 90% more than their straight-size customers.
- Don't charge more for plus size clothing. Would you charge a size 8 more than a size 4? No? Then don't do that with your plus sizes.
- Imagine bigger. A lot of companies name margins as a big reason not to extend sizing. Well, that mindset is based on a fashion industry model that only serves 30% of the population. Businesses, imagine a world where you're not scraping by because your customer base is potentially 100% of the population.
- Show your clothes on larger bodies. Show the 2X, 3X, 4X on a 2X, 3X, 4X body.
4. Is there a particular activist or academic who has been particularly inspirational to you and your work?
So many! I'm really inspired by Kyla Wazana Tompkins and Charlotte Cooper. They're both so fearlessly brilliant, they follow their instincts (when the world tells us all to only heed empirical data), and they are also people who know how to stay open and be playful.
5. We are astrology lovers so we have to ask about your new course Body Positive Tarot! How did the project come about, and what are its goals?
Tarot has played a big role in restoring my intuition after years of being stuuuck in diet culture (which systematically destroys intuition). Tarot has also connected me to a community of tarot enthusiasts and practitioners. Intuition-restoration and community-building are integral components of recovery from diet culture. I wanted to create an online course that would help other people bridge tarot with body positivity, but I knew I didn't quite have the tarot knowledge to pull it off. One of my goals for 2021 has been more professional collaborations, and so I reached out to Helen Shelwolfe Tseng, a brilliant tarot revisionist and former co-host of The Astral Projection Hour on BFF.fm. We went out and had matcha desserts on Valencia Street, and I asked her if she wanted to make this thing together. She said yes! We spent over a year co-designing and beta testing the course. She basically reinterpreted the ENTIRE deck for the person who's interested in food and body work, and I applied anti-diet and fat positive lenses to the deck. An example of our synthesis is this: I wondered if we could change the suit of Cups to the suit of Bowls, and Helen ended up reinterpreting that suit as a journey around our emotional relationship to food. It's an incredible course! If anyone is interested, the link to register is www.bodypositivetarot.com
6. What do you do when you’re seeking inspiration?
Travel and see something unfamiliar. I've got this down to a science! Now I reflexively book something whenever I need to think of something in a new way or get stoked about a massive project that feels overwhelming. In the past year I've done two work retreats in California: one was in a nearby city that I hadn't spent a lot of time in and one was in Los Angeles (another city I don't know super well). I always remember to make time for visiting new places, trying new food, looking for new thrift stores and street art and an amazing cup of coffee. That is all part of the work of creativity and inspiration.
7. Do you have a favorite piece of clothing that makes you feel the most you?
Omg. This is so hard to answer. It might be a dress from Nooworks in San Francisco. It's lime green, body con, and covered in large images of a brown girl. It's stretchy and comfortable. It doesn't wrinkle. It's professional enough that I feel comfortable wearing it to work things, but it's such a loud, fun statement piece too. Very me.
8. What’s the most recent book you’ve read and felt moved or inspired by?
Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals by Alexis Pauline Gumbs
9. What is the best advice you’ve received so far and who did it come from?
Two pieces of advice are coming to mind:
The first piece of advice is from an old friend: “The path of least resistance is the path to our greatest joy.”
I love this because of its emphasis on the power of ease and of comfort. It's so antithetical to how we're socialized. Ease or comfort are supposed to signal that something isn't worthy or we're not trying hard enough. What if that wasn't true? What if comfort and ease were signals that we were on the right path?
The second is from my therapist: “Practice being soup.”
This one is a little more mysterious. So allow me to explain. I have a history of being a rigid thinker: everything is right or wrong, black or white. "Being soup" is about the practice of accepting the gray, accepting that all the ingredients of life are mixed together and impossible to pull apart from one another because it's all become soup. We can resist the soup or we can BE THE SOUP. Being soup is excruciating, but meaningful for me. Also, mmm soup.
10. What advice would you give to someone who wants to heal their relationship to their body and self-image but doesn’t know where to begin?
Begin by forgiving yourself - for every judgmental thought you have had about yourself or others, for being unwittingly in the path of centuries of body shame and trauma, for having an "imperfect" body. Forgive yourself again and again. Remember that you didn't ask to be taught body shame, fatphobia and judgment. And then, begin the accountability process; stop talking about food and bodies - yours or anyone else's - for a week, a month, a year. It will utterly transform your life. Let that transformation decide your next steps.
11. What are you seeking more of in 2022?
Collaboration, smooshy socks, being soup, being vulnerable, not avoiding things that scare me, more unexpected expressions of grief, more letting love in, more cleavage, more nail art, more crying, more coastal drives in my new red MINI cooper convertible.
Virgie on IG: @virgietovar