Women on Top: Melissa Fabello

Melissa A. Fabello holds many titles, including feminist writer, sexuality scholar, public speaker, “patriarchy smasher,” and, maybe most importantly, cat mom. Currently the Managing Editor of Everyday Feminism, Melissa’s not afraid to dig into the difficult subjects like white privilege and fatphobia. She’s the fierce feminist we all want as a friend, and not just because she has magical mermaid hair. Sugar-coating the truth isn’t Melissa’s thing, especially when it comes to challenging oppression. Melissa is here to remind us that feminism is not just a passing trend that will die when a new fad comes along. “It's not enough for us to think that feminism is just a nice, fluffy, #squadgoals concept,” says Melissa. “We need to be pushing boundaries. We need to be making a riot.”

Could you tell me a little bit about how you got to where you are today as a body acceptance activist, sexuality scholar, and a feminist writer?

“I love this question because I don't actually have an answer for it, no matter how many times people ask me. You'd think I'd come up with a cool story or something. The truth of the matter is: When I was 25, I decided to stop always having a five-year plan – to stop relying on tunnel vision to bring me to whatever I thought would give me happiness. And when I stopped doing that, when I started going with the flow more, I suddenly had all of these options on the peripheral open to me. I've ended up where I am simply by not necessarily trying to get here – just doing what feels right at any given time and seeing where that takes me.

“The more interesting story, I guess, is that when I was done with undergrad, I moved to Atlanta to be a high school teacher. It was a joy, honestly, but there was something itching at me that I couldn't ignore. I realized that as much as I wanted to talk about semi-colons and Shakespeare, my students wanted to talk more about sex and relationships. And having always been interested in gender and sexuality, it suddenly dawned on me that I could be a sex educator instead. So I decided to go back to school for a Masters in Human Sexuality Education.

“It just so happens that during this same time in my life, I both developed [an] eating disorder and, as a consequence of recovery, discovered feminism – and both of those experiences have shaped my life ever since.

“I always joke that Atlanta and I had a falling out – like it was a romantic relationship gone bad. But just like terrible relationships, my experience in Atlanta taught me a lot about myself. It pushed me. And this is where I ended up.”

What exactly does it mean to be a sexuality scholar?

“The easiest way to answer this is to say that it means that I'm a scholar who studies sexuality! In other words, I do academic work (in my case, as a doctoral candidate) in that field. I'm currently enrolled in a PhD program at Widener University, which houses the only fully accredited doctoral program in Human Sexuality Studies in the world. All that really means is that I'm in the process of writing a dissertation so that I can be Dr. Fabello someday. My dissertation research looks at how women with anorexia nervosa make meaning of their experiences with skin hunger (that is, the extent to which we crave sensual interactions like hugging and holding hands). It's less fun than it sounds at first, huh?”

Do you think eating disorders are a political issue (especially for women)?

“I'm a feminist, so I think that everything is a political issue – especially for women. I use a biopsychosocial lens in my work, which means that when I consider various issues (like eating disorders!), I look at how biology, psychology, and sociology all play a role in their development and conceptualization. Eating disorders are complex as all hell – and there are a lot of factors in how they show up and are understood. But when it comes to the sociology of eating disorders, there is absolutely a political element. This can be seen in something as simple as health insurance companies (which are part of a political institution) not offering coverage for appropriate care for people with eating disorders. But it goes much deeper than that.

“Identity politics – like gender, race, class, size, ability, and more – affect eating disorders. The politics of food – especially access, but even something as simple as how we understand nutrition – affect eating disorders. Mainstream media – insofar as how women and other marginalized people are represented narrowly – affects eating disorders. Diet culture – and the ways in which self-starvation is normalized, especially for women – affects eating disorders. And these are all political issues – and are driven by capitalism. Eating disorders make people money. What could be more political than that?”

In an article on Everyday Feminism, you wrote, "feminism has been like a born-again religion for me." That got me thinking that a lot of people who consider themselves feminists don't really incorporate it into their everyday lives. Does feminism need to be (or should it be) all or nothing?

“I think that we're in a unique sociocultural moment where a lot of people are waking up to the idea of feminism for the first time – and I think there are a lot of pros and cons to that. The pro is that people are loudly and proudly calling themselves feminist and are adopting more of a take-no-shit attitude that I think is, overall, a good thing. The con is that a lot of folks stay in that space – in the idea of feminism as nothing more than personal liberation and loving your female friends more. And at the end of the day, that's not enough. […] We need to be changing the world. A feminism that makes people comfortable – rather than challenging people to take a stand against all forms of oppression, regardless of how hard that is – isn't a feminism that I think is worthwhile. It doesn't do anything. Feminism needs to do something. Otherwise, what's the point? I work at a publication called Everyday Feminism because I believe that that's what feminism needs to be – an everyday thing, every day.”

There are still a lot of people who believe that we don't need feminism; most of the time these are privileged people who don't even realize they are privileged. How do we start a conversation about feminism with someone who doesn't want to learn?

“I get this question a lot, and people usually don't like my answer, so brace yourself: I don't think it's a good use of our time to push people to embrace feminism. I don't really care if any given person identifies as a feminist or not. What I do care about is people who call themselves feminist kicking ass at feminism and doing the hard work to grow as feminists. The truth of the matter is that we're never going to convince everyone to call themselves feminists or to believe in social justice. And putting our energies toward getting people to believe that feminism is necessary is often a waste of time; we just exhaust ourselves talking to brick walls who are never going to change. Instead, I think we should be putting effort into getting folks on the fence to see how powerful social justice is. There are people who are kind of there, but not quite. Let's focus on them. Let's use our time wisely! And let's allow ourselves to plant seeds. We don't need to get into full-on debates with people who don't believe in feminism; we can leave it at planting a seed and hoping that over time, that seed will receive the water and sunlight it needs to grow. Sometimes that's all we can do – and we have to learn to be okay with that.”