I wanted to talk to a plus size woman in leadership – an #XLBossLady – and explore the possibility that navigating fatphobia has, in fact, given fat women unique perspective and skills when it comes to leadership in the workplace. So I talked to Savala Trepczynski, Executive Director of UC Berkeley’s Henderson Center for Social Justice.
1. Savala, tell me all the things you do.
I’m a lawyer, educator, writer, and the Executive Director of the Thelton E. Henderson Center for Social Justice at UC Berkeley School of Law. My job is analogous to running an educational non-profit, with a dash of writing and public speaking on the side.
2. How has being fat affected your career trajectory?
I often can’t separate my fatness, womanness, and blackness. I’ve tried to shrink all three aspects of myself at once by, for example, wearing flats instead of high heels if I’m over a certain weight or size. I hate flats! But I’ve also been desperate to avoid embodying the wretched Mammy stereotypes we’re primed to associate with “big black women.”
That said, sometimes my fatness alone is what I want to “fix”: I’ve crash dieted before starting jobs or, in the educational setting, before September, fearing that new students or colleagues will meet me and tag me as “the fat lady.” And I still sometimes fantasize about future events and imagine myself skinny or smaller. But I’ve never imagined a future me as male or white!
On the positive side, being fat gives me a double consciousness I’d otherwise lack. I understand things about the world–its systems, its punishments, its rewards–that I wouldn’t if I were thin, just like people who use wheelchairs discern things about the world that people who don’t use wheelchairs can’t see. In order to survive, subordinated people always have to understand the world in ways that dominant people can be oblivious to.
Being fat also makes me rebellious, and this is good! When I think about employment discrimination against fat people (or fat, black women), I feel rage and a deep drive to get the job, to get the salary. So I always apply. And I always negotiate money. It may be intimidating and can even backfire; I had a former (thin, male) boss guffaw nastily when I counter-offered on salary, saying, “Do you think you’re worth that much?” But it’s my rule–otherwise I’m playing into the hands of a system that wants to crush me.
In the end, I feel good that I’ve won or good that I’ve tried. It’s about dignity.
I’m kinder. I’ve been laughed at, bullied, afraid, and pushed into rejecting myself. I have a big heart because of it. At the same time, I’m tougher–less likely to take no for an answer, more likely to push for my vision–because I know some people’s unconscious bias and outright loathing makes them treat fat people like a joke. I react by being hard to shove aside.
4. Who’s your boss crush why?
Well…Oprah represents dark, sad cultural truths with her embrace and embodiment of capitalist diet culture. Yet, she uttered something that pierced my brain like a laser: If you can’t handle being talked about then you aren’t ready for success. This is my work mantra. I’m a fat, black woman who writes and talks frankly about race, gender, patriarchy and misogyny in personal and legal terms. There are always people who want me to know I’ve displeased them. I’m not talking about being trolled, sent hate mail, or harassed. Just honest disagreement or discomfort like, for example, white readers’ discomfort with my Op about #BlackLivesMatter. I’ve been taught that displeasing powerful people (men, white people, etc.) is a serious breach and failure.
But you can’t be a boss if you can’t deal with displeasing people.
5. What can the work space learn from XL Boss Ladies?
My “bossing” got better when I really started to trust myself as a leader. When I trust myself, I’m happier and more relaxed. A boss who doesn’t trust themselves might take their insecurity out on their employees, or be unable to make decisions, or wilt when they have to take heat. They can’t be authentic. And the team feels that and suffers. The more secure I get in my ability to call the play, let people run their routes, read the field, and adjust as necessary, the more natural and fun it feels to lead with strength, kindness, enthusiasm.
6. What advice do you have for aspiring #PlusSizeBosses?
Stop dieting! Or otherwise divest from fat-oppressing aspects of our culture. The culture wants to destabilize you, rip away your dignity, and have you constantly hustling. But you can’t be in your professional power if you are constantly hustling for basic dignity! If you’re not ready to stop dieting, then start small. Follow fat people on social media, be photographed, take courses on fat liberation, forego media that symbolically annihilates fat people, don’t shop where they don’t make your size even if some random thing fits, etc. The goal is to heal the cracks that our culture makes in fat people so that your power stops seeping out.
At my job, fatphobia often shows up during lunch hour or parties as seemingly-innocuous comments about diets, calories, carbs, good food, bad food, and little jokes about “bad” body parts. It’s acceptable self-flagellation; of course, that’s what happens when oppression gets normalized–it seems normal. But the reality is that it’s learned behavior, and it’s rooted in the belief that thin is superior to fat, we should all be or strive to be thin, and if we are fat we are failing. It’s also contagious. It spreads to listeners and they feel compelled to agree.
I don’t want to hear conversations about avoiding fatness and achieving thinness for the same reason I don’t want to hear conversations about ways to look more White and less Black; they presume the superiority of one group and the inferiority of another.