Katie Manthey on Fat Feminist Fashion Blogging

Aug 10, 2016

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Guest: Katie Manthey 

Katie Manthey is an assistant professor of English and director of the Writing Center at Salem College, a small women’s college in Winston Salem, NC.

Her research and teaching are focused around cultural rhetorics, dress studies, and civic engagement.

She is a body positive activist and moderates the website Dress Profesh, which highlights the ways that dress codes are racist, cissexist, ageist, classist, etc.

Her work has appeared in Jezebel, The Body is Not an Apology, Peitho, and The Journal of Global Literacies, Technologies, and Emerging Pedagogies.

People and projects discussed

About Imagine Otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is hosted by Cathy Hannabach and produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.


Cathy Hannabach (00:03):

Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects, bridging art, activism and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty gritty work of Imagining Otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency, helping progressive interdisciplinary scholars create awesome work. This week’s episode is brought to you by our grad school rock star program and dissertation rockstar bootcamp. Enrollment just opened for fall 2016. Both of these programs help progressive interdisciplinary scholars like those featured in this podcast, create awesome work, build accountability in community and rock their interdisciplinary careers. If you or someone you know is a grad student who wants to create a regular writing routine, stop drowning in email, prioritize self care and finish their dissertation along with other social justice oriented scholars, you can go to gradschoolrockstars.com to find out more. So this is episode 16 and my guest today is Katie Manthey. Thanks so much for being with us, Katie.

Katie Manthey (01:16):


Cathy Hannabach (01:18):

So you’re the creator of Dress Profesh, Can you tell our listeners a little bit about that project?

Katie Manthey (01:24):

Sure. So Dress Profesh started as a way for me to procrastinate finishing my dissertation. I was a PhD student in rhetoric and writing, specifically focusing on cultural rhetorics. And I was writing about how self-identified fat fashion bloggers make meaning through their clothing, their dress practices in ways that are rhetorical material and embodied. And at the same time I was on the job market and I had a lot of really good mentoring where we would like workshop materials and talk about strategies for travel. And we would also talk about what to wear to job interviews like campus visits and I found this to be a really interesting rhetorical moment. So as someone who studies rhetoric as systems of power and culture and how the two are connected, this advice was really, it really stuck out to me. So I was on fellowship and I was at home doing most of my writing, wearing PJ’s and not taking a shower and not wearing a bra. And at the same time I was making my materials for the job market so I was being very professional.

Katie Manthey (02:36):

And that tension kind of, I’m like, well, I want to explore this more. So I started taking a picture every day like a what I wore today blog, which is something that I’ve been interested in for a long time since it was part of my dissertation research and just part of my everyday life. So I started posting pictures every day on Tumblr of what I wore when I working. Always dressed down to highlight how it doesn’t really matter what I wear when I do this sort of work. And my friends, on Facebook saw it and started sending me pictures and so then this way of keeping track of things became an interactive gallery and then it blew up. And so I am still, it’s always changing and I’m working to make it more clear, kind of what the purpose is. So it says on there the motto is, Oh, what does it even say? Challenging notions of what it means to look professional, body positive, no hate allowed. And it works from the premise that all dress codes are inherently racist, sexist, sizest, classist, ageist, et cetera.

Katie Manthey (03:51):

And so I kept posting pictures of myself while I was working and people who had different types of jobs would submit things with as much text as they wanted and I would post them. And I started posting it was on Tumblr and then cross posted to Facebook and Twitter and Instagram and then it blew up. And we got signal boosted by some big people and today there are about 13,000 followers for the Tumblr site.

Cathy Hannabach (04:25):

Wow, that’s impressive.

Katie Manthey (04:28):

It got big.

Cathy Hannabach (04:29):

One of the things that I really am intrigued by about this interactive gallery, this website is the broad range of what counts as professionalism, right? Both what we actually wear when we do our work, but then also the kind of political bent of challenging who gets to decide what counts as professionalism, particularly as those norms are filtered through the violence’s that you named. Right. And it’s a fascinating site in that sense and also see that there’s links to articles or notes about current events in addition to the daily professional photos. Right. Very cool. So just to expand on that a little bit, why fashion and why fashion particularly in relationship to professionalism, why is that a useful lens through which to examine various oppressions? Like fat phobia, capitalism, misogyny, the whole gamut.

Katie Manthey (05:32):

Right. So fashion I think is a useful way in to these things because it’s part of everyday life. And so it really depends, especially as someone who does cultural rhetorics work to define all of your terms. Right. So what exactly is fashion and how is that different than just everyday dress? I used the two synonymously and when I talk about dress, I talk about like Joanne Eichers, definition of dress practices in the visible self. Where she explains that it’s like any body modification that creates meaning in a society, that gives meaning to those practices. I make that sound tautological but it’s not. But working from the idea that any body modification that affects the five senses. So that could be things like clothing, but it’s also things like your hair and smell and body fat. So like gaining weight or losing weight or wearing clothes that manipulate your shape a certain way, especially shape wear.

Katie Manthey (06:38):

So when I talk about fashion, I mean two different things, I mean dress practices and I know that that gets a little bit conflated, but also then like the specific things that exist under a capitalist kind of umbrella where all of these practices are first sale. Right? So like in the dissertation work, the moment that this project comes out of like no one that I talked to made their own clothes, everyone buys clothes. And where you buy them from is deeply tied to class and access and then building parts of your identity through the things that you’re able to purchase or not purchase depending on how much money you have and what size you are and where you live in the world. So fashion as a way into this, dress practices as a way in, I think can be really useful because people for better or worse, get dressed every day. So it’s a way to bring this critical lens to an everyday practice.

Cathy Hannabach (07:48):

It resonates really interestingly with, actually the person we interviewed on the very first episode of the Imagine Otherwise podcast Minh-Ha T. Pham. Who also writes about fashion and specifically the racialized gendered politics of fashion both the wearing of clothes as you’re mentioning, but also the production of clothes. And what does it mean when we start to look at the bodies that produce the clothes versus where the clothes, especially when those bodies are often racialized similarly. In her example, she’s looking at Asian American fashion bloggers who are wearing very high end top brand brands and things like that. But then also putting those bodies alongside the largely low income Asian workers who are making those garments. Right. So it’s an interesting parallel here and both of you are articulating the profound complexity of identity work through dress

Katie Manthey (08:55):

I really admire her work too by the way.

Cathy Hannabach (08:57):

So you also have a book coming out about fat fashion bloggers and how they navigate both the personal style blogosphere, but also how they intervene in systems of violence. So I’d love to hear a little bit more about that book.

Katie Manthey (09:12):

Yeah, so the book is exactly what you were talking about. It takes the stuff that I worked on in the dissertation and turns it a little bit more out, so it’s not just focused on academia. My editor and I were talking about trying to engage what she called the educated public. And that’s one thing that Dress Profesh, that makes it so important is that it’s not just academic work for academics to read, that this is something like both within the Academy and beyond, so it’s intellectual activist work. And yeah, so the book expands on three different interviews with self-identified fat fashion bloggers in three different countries, the UK, America and Portugal. And talks with them about how they came to realize that they were fat and then how they found online communities as a way to express and find how to live in this body. And then those online communities always had clothes as part of this and so then this play became more than just something esoteric or something frivolous.

Katie Manthey (10:36):

Like what you put on your body that it’s actually a way to radically live in the world, to be okay with your body in a society that says that you have to be a different way can be radical. And then how the blogs, so they all started blogs after reading other blogs and then how they’ve become resources or mentors for other people who are coming to body positivity in different ways. Yeah. And always the punchline being capitalism and when they get corporate sponsorship in different ways, how activism becomes advertising and then how advertising can then again become something that calls for activism. Yeah.

Cathy Hannabach (11:28):

Interesting. It seems like certainly this is a project that comes out of fat studies or is very much in conversation with that field. But also takes it in a different direction, right? Put it through the focus on fashion.

Katie Manthey (11:45):

When I explain the work that I do, I usually say that I do cultural rhetorics, fat studies and dress studies. So it’s kind of a unique overlap on the Venn diagram of theory in academic study.

Cathy Hannabach (11:59):

For sure. How do you see your work combining activism, art and academia?

Katie Manthey (12:06):

Well, it goes back to what I was saying about how, like the importance of finding interventions in to critical thinking and dismantling systems of power through everyday life. So the art I think is there with how dress can be an artistic form of expression. And it really, Dress Profesh sits at that intersection exactly of all of those things, the academia, art and activism. Because it says when I as someone who was employed by an institution to teach other people, when I decide that I am going to shave half of my head as I did recently and dye the other half purple and then go onto campus and teach people that that decision to do those things with my body, but that it doesn’t just change the way that I teach, it changes the way that people read me. So yeah, the art, academia and activism all in service of social justice. Yeah, the everyday life the way that an online gallery circulates how the pictures and posts can move between platforms and are accessible to people, especially in a visual culture.

Katie Manthey (13:25):

But again, this also assumes a certain level of access to technology and certain literacy.

Cathy Hannabach (13:33):

Sure. So one of the things that I like to talk with people about is collaboration. And obviously Dress Profesh is a deeply collaborative project. I mean you run it, but the photos that people upload and the ways that the arguments and the images circulate are through these extensive networks that you’ve built over time, that 13,000 communities members strong that you mentioned. So what are some of your favorite people or communities to collaborate with and why? Either through Dress Profesh or in your other various endeavors.

Katie Manthey (14:10):

Really anyone who wants to participate, part of this being, maintaining the integrity of the project means that it’s open to everyone to express in a way that works for them. The only thing that I monitor is hate. So if a post has negative body talk or things like shaming about what other people are wearing or something like if it’s oriented in a way to do harm, then I’ll talk to the person. I’ll usually send them a message and be like, hey, I really want to post this, I was a little concerned about some of the language this way, I’m wondering if you could talk more about it. For all of the posts that I’ve had in like, I think it’s a little over a year that the site has been up. There’ve been maybe only two or three where I’ve felt that I wasn’t comfortable just immediately posting. And I think that some of that is just like the way that the site is. So the people who find the site are mostly, I think probably people who are looking for ways to think critically about what they wear.

Katie Manthey (15:23):

Usually people who have been hurt in some way by some norming of their body and appearance. and most people are, are very respectful. But yeah, I’m interested in basically publishing and working with anyone who’s interested in sharing their story in whatever way that that looks like. And the other thing that I don’t know if it’s quite clear on there too, is that if at anytime someone wants their posts taken down, I will absolutely do that in every way possible. Because I think that agency with images and pictures is really important and people are being vulnerable when they post pictures of themselves. Especially in ways that might challenge the status quo at places that they work if they are identified.

Cathy Hannabach (16:15):

Do you have any future plans for the blog?

Katie Manthey (16:20):

Well, I was thinking about revamping it, like adding, making it more clear that it isn’t necessarily about what people wear, it’s about how they wear it or the context that they’re wearing it in and how every type of thing that you can do with your body can be a radical subversive act. As far as other projects with it, I’m doing an installation at an academic conference at the end of May, excuse me, computers and writing in Rochester, New York. And I might be doing a couple more during the year where I’m going to ask academics who attend the conference to take pictures on the spot and then post them to Dress Profesh. Because to get teachers, especially writing teachers, thinking about what they wear in the classroom can be a really interesting moment. Oftentimes academics get feedback on student evals about appearance, especially women will get comments. And so opening the door to talking explicitly about this can be really useful. Yeah.

Cathy Hannabach (17:35):

So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to ask people. And so this podcast is obviously called Imagine Otherwise. And what I am really excited to talk with people about is their version of a better world. That world that they’re working towards when they create whatever amazing thing it is that they create. So I’ll ask you, what’s the world that you’re working towards? What world do you want?

Katie Manthey (17:56):

Yes. So like pie in the sky, ideal world.

Cathy Hannabach (18:00):

Yeah, go big.

Katie Manthey (18:01):

It would be one where it doesn’t matter what you wear. And so it’s not this one where appearance doesn’t matter, because I think that appearance and dress practices can be very pleasurable. There can be a lot of power and a lot of fun and a lot of play for certain people at certain times in certain contexts, like with what they wear. But that people would actually be judged by who they are and the work that they do instead of how they look. I mean, and it sounds cliche, but the things that many of us are told growing up, like it’s what’s on the inside that counts, that would actually be true. I joke that I would like to be able to wear Harry Potter robes to campus every day. I mean they were onto something back then, it’s warm.

Cathy Hannabach (18:51):

It’s true and comfy.

Katie Manthey (18:53):

Exactly. And that it wouldn’t matter if I did that, that it truly, honestly wouldn’t matter because then I think we’re untangling these knots of systemic oppression in a way that would free us up to do other things. Yeah.

Cathy Hannabach (19:06):

Well, I think that is a great way to end with that image. So thank you so much for being on this podcast and I’ll be sure to put links in the show notes to Dress Profesh, your personal website and all those projects and authors that you mentioned here, but thank you so much.

Katie Manthey (19:22):

Great. Yes, thank you.

Cathy Hannabach (19:27):

Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise, be sure to check out our website at imagineotherwise.com. To listen to full episodes, read show notes and see links to the people, books and projects discussed on the show. You can also subscribe to us on iTunes.

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