Heroes, Small Victories, and Taylor Mali

Taylor Mali is a slam poet and a number of years ago his poem “What Teachers Make” served as my  introduction to slam poetry. I fell in love with the style and with Taylor Mali’s voice. (I’ve embedded all of the poems that I’m about to discuss at the end of this blog).  “I’ll Fight You for the Library” currently has 249,052 hits and it’s entirely possible that 100,000 of them were me and that 50,000 of those were in a row – this poem makes me want to be a better activist and a stronger person. “Totally Like Whatever” influenced the way that I communicate.  “Tony Steinberg:  Brave Seventh Grade Viking Warrior” makes me cry every time I listen to it, and still I click to listen. Taylor Mali is, for me, a clarion voice articulating the case for valuing education and for everyday activism. He has made a career out of speaking his truth and inspiring others to action.  He is a hero of mine.

Yesterday I heard a poem of his called “An Apple a Day is Not Enough” about kids’ health.  As soon as I saw the topic I got that twinge of worry- because for some reason we don’t seem to be able to get it together enough to be for healthy kids without being against fat ones.  As the poem went on I began to get excited as he talked about healthy foods and exercise and treating health as a skill. It made it sound a little bit like health is entirely within our control which of course isn’t true but I was thrilled to hear someone talking about healthy behavior instead of body size. Then it happened.  “What does it matter if we try to increase our scores in math and reading if scores are dying before their time because they got fatter and fatter.”  And my heart broke just a little as it does when it feels like a hero of mine has let me down.

I went to his website to see if it had an e-mail address listed.  It did.  And then I hesitated.  I’m obviously nowhere near as well know as Taylor Mali but I get e-mail everyday from people who don’t like my work and it’s not that fun so I was hesitant to become just another person criticizing his work. As an artist I was also hesitant to ask him to change his work of art.  But babies are being starved by parents so that they don’t become obese and fat kids are being bullied and stigmatized by everyone and so if a hero of mine thought of me as a nuisance or an idiot then that’s a small price to pay for standing up for those kids. I sent the following:

Mr. Mali,

I have been a fan for quite some time.  Today for the first time I came across the poem “An Apple a Day”. As the poem developed I was really excited that someone was talking about health for all kids, and then you said “Fatter and Fatter”.  I wish you would reconsider this.  We can be for healthy kids of all sizes without being against fat ones.  Hospitalizations of kids under 12 for eating disorders are up 119%, a study from Canada found that twice as many kids had eating disorders as type 2 diabetes.  Fat kids are bullied and stigmatized not just by their peers but by teachers and parents as well.  Kids don’t take care of things they hate and that includes their bodies.  As a healthy, athletic fat kid all too often the people I looked up to gave me the message that no amount of healthy behavior was enough if it didn’t make me thin and I ended up hospitalized with an eating disorder.

Now, as a healthy fat athlete I am a strong advocate for the Health at Every Size method which focuses on healthy behaviors rather than a number on a scale.

NAAFA has created a toolkit to help people working on children’s health, you can find it here if you are interested:   http://www.naafaonline.com/dev2/education/haesschool.html

If there is anything that I can do to support you please let me know, but let’s do better by our kids than to try to shame them healthy or hope that they hate themselves healthy.

Thank you for taking the time to read this,


Ragen Chastain
Dancer, Choreographer, Speaker, Writer, Fat Person
blog:  www.danceswithfat.org

I did not send it expecting a reply, nor did I expect to change his mind.  I sent it because I believed it should be sent.  So imagine my surprise 30 minutes later:

I totally see your point, and I wish I’d known that as I was writing the poem for Health Teacher. It was a commissioned poem so I had to use certain facts that they gave me. That’s my only excuse. You know the way the poem ends with the word “amen”? Some of the folks wanted me to take it out, afraid that it would insult Christians. So I’m afraid the poem as it exists on YouTube is a done deal. But I promise you, if I ever do the poem live, I will take out that line. Deal?

Metaphorically yours,


P.S. Sent from the road so forgive odd spellings & apparent curtness.

I sent him an e-mail back thanking him and telling his that it was, indeed, a deal.  I have no idea if he ever plans to perform the piece live and I’m still not happy with it as it exists on YouTube but I am happy that I spoke up and I feel that this is another little victory.

So, let’s have a little victory sharing today in the comments. What have you done that you are proud of?  What victories have you had (big or small) post a video, post a link, write out your story whatever. Let’s inspire each other!

Here are those poems:

This blog is supported by its readers rather than corporate ads.  If you feel that you get value out of the blog, can afford it, and want to support my work and activism, please consider a paid subscription or a one-time contribution.  The regular e-mail subscription (available at the top right hand side of this page) is still completely free.   Thanks for reading! ~Ragen

19 thoughts on “Heroes, Small Victories, and Taylor Mali

  1. I love it when people listen thoughtfully and are willing to change their minds. So often it feels like we’re either preaching to the choir or shouting into the wind and nothing ever changes—and then sometimes it does, and it’s awesome. Thank you for having the guts to do this.

  2. It’s totally possible I am responsible for another 100,000 of the “I’ll Fight You for the Library” hits.

    And my small victory is coming up tomorrow. I’m signed up for a yoga workshop tomorrow described as a “master class.” It’s from a visiting teacher, and I’m scared that not only will I be the biggest person in the room (which is often true for me in yoga classes), but I’ll be the biggest person in the room with a different and new mix of people — who might not all think it’s the non-issue that my usual classmates do.

    But the class sounds awesome. So I’m scared, but I’m going.

    1. Tori, I am very proud of you for meeting your fear head on. That’s fantastic. I hope it all works well and that either everyone thinks it’s a non-issue, or that they LEARN that it’s a non-issue. 🙂

  3. HUGE victory–realizing you’ve helped me change the way I think about my body, to the point that I haven’t quit working out this time around because “what’s the point if I’m not losing weight.” And I’m starting to feel like “this time around” isn’t “this time around at all.” I might just keep moving my ass for the rest of my life because it’s good for me and it makes me feel good. In other words, I’ve finally realized that exercise is “working” even if I’m not losing weight. Thank you for that!

  4. Thank you so much for writing to a fellow artist. Wow what a victory! For all of us who were starved by are parents because we were bigger than we were supposed to be. I am empowered and thrilled.
    My victory today is that I danced last night in an ordinary class with much joy and am contemplated trying to connect with other fat dancers in my area!

  5. Ragen, some of it is because he is a “deal” and obviously an open human being without a deflector shield of defensiveness. BUT the other part is the way you use language so beautifully to educate and illuminate while resisting the temptation to castigate. Yes a wonderful victory indeed!

  6. I love that you wrote him that letter. It was informed and to the point.

    Every day I try to make as many people smile as possible. This morning on my way to get a breakfast sandwich at a local cafe I saw a homeless man with a cart. He looked cold so I asked if I could treat him to a cup of coffee. He said yes and he came in with me and we had a lovely conversation until my sandwich was ready and I had to go to work. Sometimes doing the little things seems like it means the world to someone else.

  7. Do you like the Naked Gardener? This is crazy, because he just came to my school the other day. And I’ve been compulsively reading your blog for the past few days. So.

  8. This is such an appropriate question for today! I went across the street to do a little “me” shopping in the trendy plus size store at the mall (love that there is a trendy plus size store literally two minutes walking distance from where I park, btw!). Normally, this fills me with shame. I have cursed myself in the past for not being able to fit into the XLs at Charlotte Russe or whatever other stores are around. But today, I went and got THE most adorable dress, and oh, it just fills me with so much happiness! Have to post it because I am so happy.


    What I am proud of, however, is that I tried on some jeans in what I thought was my normal size, but they didn’t fit. I calmly asked the saleslady for the next size up, and she smiled nicely, got the jeans, and I paid for them. Wait…what? What happened to the step where I used to burn with shame and horror at a number on a pair of jeans, never mind actually speaking that number out loud to a salesperson, and around other people- gods forbid that anyone know what size I am! I paused to reflect on what a new sensation it was, but I felt no shame. I got jeans that look fabulous on my ass, in a size that fits perfectly, and I am happy! I love HAES. I love size acceptance. I love this blog and everyone who posts in the comments and especially Ragen for writing her beautiful, inspiring thoughts every day!

  9. It wasn’t my victory, but I recently saw one that nearly made me get up and cheer.

    I was watching Chopped on the Food Network. There was a twist on this particular episode, in that all the contestants were school lunchladies and they were supposed to use their mystery baskets to illustrate the current guidelines for healthy eating. The guest judge was the current White House chef.

    In the entree round, one of the contestants got dinged by the WH chef for putting so much food on her plate in light of the ‘epidemic of childhood obesity’ the country is facing. She didn’t get mad, she didn’t get defensive, but she did stand her ground and stand by her plate. She informed the judges that in her school a lot of the students are so poor that when they go home on friday, she knows half of them won’t get another full meal until lunchtime on monday. So she does ‘Pasta Monday’ where she gives them the biggest portion she can manage of the heartiest food she can afford to serve them. She also puts together food packs on fridays for the poorest kids so they can be sure of having something – anything at all – to eat over the weekend.

    Not only was there no further mention of ‘the obesity epidemic’, she won the show. She rocked it ON NATIONAL TELEVISION!!!

    It’s about bloody time someone refocused the national dialogue on the fact that roughly a quarter of our children do not have adequate, regular access to food at all.

    My little activist work of late has been wearing the hell out of my bright yellow ‘things you can tell by looking at a fat person’ chart shirt everywhere I go. Thanks for making it!

  10. Wow, I’m so glad you had the courage to email this author and politely tell him your thoughts with supporting evidence and web sites. Imagine if you had just sent him a hate filled rant like so many people do nowadays. It is very encouraging that you were able to get him to think based on the persuasive and factual nature of your email! This is so encouraging. It shows that what you say, Ragen, really does influence people and get them to reconsider the knee-jerk reactions that most people have when they see a fat person. This made my day!

  11. I’m so glad you wrote this. I’ve been thinking about writing to Jon Stewart about those funny, funny fat suits he sometimes busts out with. Stewart and Colbert are some of MY heroes, and it saddens me to think they’re towing the party line on fat. Your experience here is most heartening!

  12. I love the story of that “Chopped” contestant. The White House chef was especially out of line considering the studies that show many of the poor children in the “obese” BMI range consume too few calories, not too many. Another similar study was done the following year in Nova Scotia, and I think a 2010 study was done in two US states.

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