Raw, vulnerable, confronting, self-reflective and questioning, Kris Kneen’s memoir Fat Girl Dancing (Text Publishing 2023) is an examination of the body in all its manifestations, and specifically Kneen’s feelings about their own body, its capabilities, its strengths and weaknesses, and the space it occupies.
This book began its journey as Kneen ruminated on their childhood and adolescence, when they were fat (too fat) and then thin (too thin) and then fat again. They link the up and down yo-yo of their body’s size with their self-esteem (or lack of it), their feelings of difference and isolation, the unhelpful enabling of their family’s attitude towards food and love. The amazing thing about this book is that as we as readers travel through it, we journey alongside Kneen as they unpack the idea of being fat – the health issues, the myths, the misunderstandings, the judgements, the everyday indignities of too-small plane seats and clothes that won’t zip up and mirrors, mirrors everywhere that reflect an often-uncomfortable reality. But as the chapters proceed, and Kneen’s curiosity and vulnerable self-questioning go deeper, and deeper still, we see a metamorphosis from caterpillar to butterfly as Kneen realises that not only are they writing about body size, but also about gender identity. By the end of the book, Kneen has stopped writing as ‘she’ and ‘her’, as a female, and begins to write as ‘they’ and ‘them’. This epiphany is somewhat of a surprise – haven’t they always just accepted they are female? But when the idea is interrogated, Kneen discovers it is not really so much of a surprise, it’s more like an inevitable truth that they have always felt about their body, something they have acted out in terms of clothing choice, hairstyles and sexual interests, but have finally had the courage or the determination to make a conscious statement about.
Kneen has always been queer and this book also explores aspects of their sexuality, but the idea of a new or different gender identity is something that creeps upon them during the researching and writing of this book, so that by the end, the caterpillar has emerged into a stunning winged butterfly, epitomised by the scenes of Kneen decked out in corsets, stockings, halters and pasties, with enormous feathered fans, dancing burlesque in front of audiences as Kneen talks about their complicated relationship with their own body.
The book is divided into sections roughly related to walking, swimming and dancing, and each is explored in relation to body size, capability, energy, ease (or not) and joy.
The memoir is punctuated by enigmatic photographs taken by Kneen’s partner of close-ups of Kneen’s body parts, so abstract that the reader must sit quietly to understand exactly what we are seeing. Is that the curve of a breast or the bend of a knee? Is that the plumpness of a belly or the swelling of a buttock? Also included are Kneen’s own self-portraits, completed while they were writing this book: huge, life-size canvasses of a naked Kneen, often from a weird point of focus, so that they look heavy but also as if they are as light as a helium balloon, about to take off into the sky.
Kneen’s writing is poetic and evocative, authentic and uncomfortable, full of small, telling details and larger general conclusions. Full of angst and fear, guilt and remorse, ambition and jealousy, humiliation and jubilation. From shy and coy to outrageously and demonstrably ostentatious. Disgust and flirtation. Cooking, eating, consuming. Bullying. Self-loathing. Self-loving. Passion and acceptance. Sensuality and beauty. They write until their cup is full and flows over with devastating and triumphant emotions. Deliciously devastating, brilliantly blunt, provocative and personal.