The quest for a decent tarot deck
It took me some time to come to ‘people’ decks. I used to think I’d never relate to them. I figured if I couldn’t see myself, the people I love, my community and marginalized people in a deck, I’d never connect with it enough to read them.
Tarot works with connections and associations. A deck with only white, thin, cis-het characters personifies what I reject as hegemonic and excluding representation. Then I met Thea’s tarot. This changed it all. This lesbian deck – which is as old as I am – depicts a lot of non-normative bodies, at least in terms of body types. Oliver Pickle wrote a companion book some thirty years later. It actualizes the deck with queer interpretations respecting the lesbian radical context of its creation, whilst enriching and infusing it with an intersectional and trans-focused perspective.
Thea’s Tarot made me search for more representative decks – decks that don’t celebrate normative lifestyles and normative bodies. Because in an indirect way, those tarot decks invalidate everything that doesn’t fall into the norm. The ‘outsiders’ don’t seem to exist. Although no-body can be pushed out, the margins become invisible. Just like words, mental worlds and ideologies, tarot shapes reality as much as it reflects it.
As I found out about Asali Earthwork’s invaluable list: tarot of the QTPOC, my expectation grew for figurative decks in which humans would come in all sizes and shapes, and in more genders, more ethnicities, various dis/abilities, etc. There were some good things coming. I was relieved and excited. However, although my deck collection grew with some wonderful alternative decks, my quest is still partly unsuccessful.
I was incredibly happy to receive The Slutist Tarot with its promises for broad representation for queer and trans people – but when I looked through the cards, my excitement vanished.
There were only three fat people in the whole deck, all white. One of them is on the World, with several characters. There is a fat butch on a bike in a halo of authority on the card Power (the Emperor). And there’s the Queen of Coins (Pentacles). The satisfaction to recognize sex-positive advocate Kitty Stryker quickly turned into skepticism.
The Queen of Pentacles is often one of the very few fat (or at least not skinny) characters in decks that attempt to be inclusive. Same goes for Slow Holler. I adore both decks of course. But, why the Queen of Pentacles?
They are grounded. They’re practical, nourishing, caring, down-to-earth and generous. They also like to indulge in pleasure-oriented activities, like sex or food. Often, when they’re not larger than other characters, they’re pregnant or with child.
The link between fatness and generosity has become a trope in literature, spirituality and pop culture – to name a few – which in turn leads to frequent big and feminine Queens of Pentacles. The constant limitation of fat fem(me)s to providers (of emotional care) impacts many fem(me)s’ lives. I don’t mind those associations if they are punctual. Besides: I love to eat, I love to give, and I’m Virgo-ascending with my moon in Taurus – this Queen of Pentacles could basically be me.
But it’s not just the Queen of Pentacles, and it’s more than a coincidence that fat people are represented mostly or only in pentacles and cups cards. In a traditional binary mindset, fatness is coded as feminine and so are the elements of earth and water. Typically, cards of abundance, fertility, prosperity – even to the point of excess and overindulgence – would be the (only) ones to feature fat characters. Take the Nines of Pentacles or Cups for instance!
Much like the Queen of Pentacles, the Empress is either pregnant or not thin compared to other characters. Fatness – and the water element – also represents receptivity (as opposed to thin or muscular active and forward-moving characters). That’s a common stereotype about fat people embodied in some Empresses or Queens of Pentacles: we eat and eat, we’re all about oral-fixation (to the point of sometimes being hypersexualized or even fetishized, because we’re supposed to embody greed).
Gender binary and anti-fat stereotypes are entangled. In a quick online survey where I asked people to screen their decks for fat (or less thin) characters, the swords suit was hardly mentioned. It’s like intellect chases away fatness. Stereotypes present fat people as not intelligent and exempt from wittiness.
We must hold our decks accountable for perpetuating them.
Terminology and fatphobia: Can fat be just fat?
At this point, you might still wonder and not dare to ask, “She keeps talking about fat, but what the hell does she mean?”
I don’t use medical terms. I don’t want to use terms that imply there’s a ‘normal’ weight and some sizes are pathological. No overweight and no obesity here. Those words belong to the arsenal of our oppression. I don’t use curvy, chubby or such euphemisms, because I don’t think our reality needs to be sugar-coated – certainly not in a political article.
It might sound weird to you: fat, fat, fat. Isn’t it a slur? This descriptive adjective is mostly used as an insult indeed. Once again, it mainly happens with what is stigmatized. Thin, heterosexual, white never became insults in a systemic way. Like fat activists have advocated for decades now, I choose to put some power back into the word fat. It is mine. It’s ours actually.
When I told a friend about this series, stating I was tired of seeing non-normative bodies always used as symbols for something else and seemingly unrelated in decks, she argued, “But tarot is all about symbols!” Indeed, there’s a problematic link between tarot and bodies in general, and I’ll get to that later in the fat tarot series. For now, I want to take some time to talk about how we commonly treat non-normative – in this case, fat – bodies as symbols. In doing so we eventually push them towards an abnormal status. And in a given society with a very rigid set of (bodily) norms, abnormality often leads to systematic stigmatization. Therefore, the way we talk about non-normative bodies, the way we represent them, reinforces their oppression. It comforts the norm in its allegedly ‘natural’ legitimacy.
Let me give you an example:
We are used to looking at fatness with different lenses. One of them is a psychoanalytical frame. Using this, people are prompted to have a quick interpretation for everything fat people go through. As a kid, I was confronted by medical care providers who assumed I didn’t eat ‘healthy’. They would ask, “What about sodas, do you exercise, any veggies?” My fat only ever existed as a symptom of bad food habits.
Later, therapists would declare that my fat meant I was pushing men away (yes, I do, I’m a dyke, that doesn’t have anything to do with body type). They’d imply that it reflected traumas needing to be addressed. They argued I was denying my womanhood (damn right!) – what an outrage.
On the contrary, a psychiatrist once said that it was an issue too complicated to address, because I “needed” it to keep people at a distance. I should, however, rest assured: My fat would magically go away as soon as I would stop being depressed and overprotective.
In magazines, we read similar discourses all the time: Fatness means something about you, just listen to what it is and the thin person who’s supposedly waiting inside of you will break free from layers and layers of fat. I rarely see this psychoanalytical frame discussed in Anglo-American fat studies literature. In French-speaking Europe, this frame is prominent when it comes to ‘explaining’ fatness, including in fat activist spheres.
A couple of years ago, at a workshop on “fat positivity” designed for a broad audience during a feminist event, we wanted to dismiss any health approach and just discuss fatness in all its other aspects. But it didn’t work.
Most women in the group ended up speaking about their fat as a signifier. They explained how surgery changed their life now that they don’t have to hide anymore (it’s one thing to gain social acceptance ‘thanks to’ weight-loss – but we must read it as a societal, not an individual, issue), how their daughter became fat (of sorrow presumably) after a loved one’s death, etc. It’s very difficult to discredit those frameworks when it’s the only thing people have at their disposal to make sense of their life and own their narrative.
We shouldn’t discredit them. Almost everywhere, fat people are expected to shrink. To ultimately disappear. We’re supposed to be in transition, waiting to be thin, thriving to be thin, living only to become thin. Fat people can only try and write a narrative that doesn’t make the stigma too heavy to carry in a fatphobic environment.
As I demonstrated in Part I, tarot is all about creating narratives, as well. We can challenge tarot to make room for narratives that take into account fat lives and make them count, without having to rely on dominant norms and rhetoric.
Words and images are only a part of the struggle. Fatphobia is everywhere. Mental and material worlds can’t be dissociated, much like mind and body.
The fear of fat and hate against fat people leads to inadequate material in schools, hospitals, or trains. It involves bullying at every level. Stereotypes about fat people (we’re lazy, without will-power, sick) combined with misogyny leads to serious discrimination at job interviews and in the workplace, hence poverty. Our body-weight seems to be a free-pass for anybody – family, (potential) partners, strangers in the streets – to be at liberty to comment on everything we do.
Stereotypes are everywhere, so nobody will forget them: television, films, books, weight-loss ads, dating apps. Fat people are requested to thrive for weight-loss or die (quite literally: In the UK, you can be put on a waiting list for some non-life-threatening-yet-very-important surgical operations if you’re fat. It is more likely that yo-yo dieting causes health issues than being fat. But still… Medical assumptions on fatness mainstreamed as universal truths render a lot of fat people’s lives increasingly difficult, at least in the Global North, since I can’t pretend to speak of contexts I don’t know.
In this context, there’s a conception that fat cannot be left unexplained, that it is bound to mean something, much like disability. Tarot decks often treat it that way as well. Let’s be honest, people rarely speak of thinness in the same way. Sometimes they do. When we want to make a body speak, we always use its contours as a metaphor. We oversimplify. We explore the surface, not the depths, not the wholeness. Further parts of this series will explore how tarot and our bodies can embrace each other, deeply and without clichés.
To some extent, I believe we fatties also need symbolic representation to make sense of our existence or to create our own mythologies.
Imagine how joyful I am when I encounter a Queen of Wands card which is all about queerness, taking up space and glowing, in a celebratory, dynamic, charismatic way. One mustn’t be a flamboyant fat person to deserve representation. But I’ve always pictured the Queen of Wands as a fat drag queen so: yaaay!
It’s only when there are enough fat characters in a deck that I can stop considering fatness as a signifier. For instance, I’m not bothered that the Creator (the Empress) is fat in Thea’s Tarot, because a lot of characters are. I love fat representation in the Crone Tarot as well. I can’t help but wonder however: Does it imply that old women don’t try to be sexy and don’t care for male gaze? It’s amazing to break free from the male gaze, obviously.
What about fat women’s perceived sexuality? Between hyper- and de-sexualisation, fat feminine people’s desirability is somehow always questioned. In the fabulous Next World Tarot, I don’t think I’ll ever be confronted with a cliché or a card in which something about a body becomes a personality trait or even worse, all a character is. Alternatives do exist. Cristy C. Road demonstrates it in the most brilliant way.
The next Fat Tarot article will consider the ambiguity of representation.
Featured decks: Next World Tarot, Mystical Cats Tarot, Slow Holler Tarot, Thea’s Tarot, Ostara Tarot, Dreaming Way Tarot, Slutist Tarot, Sasuraibito Tarot, Sakki-Sakki Tarot, Niki de Saint Phalle Tarot.
Cathou is a queer and feminist activist and artivist who lives in Brussels, Belgium. She develops a queer tarot perspective in French on cathoutarot.blog and holds a blog on fat liberation and fighting fatphobia at grossefem.tumblr.com. Her Fat Tarot series combines those two topics, as an invitation to understand and resist bodily norms in tarot. You can also find Cathou on Instagram @cathoutarot.