There are times when Melissa A. Fabello hears the word feminism, and it doesn't mean much of anything.
"It's not about women to me," the writer-researcher-activist said, sitting the other day in a cafe on East Passyunk. "Like, it is. But it's also about all the things. If we're not taking down every single system of oppression, we're leaving women behind. So what is the point of feminism without anti-racist work, or fat acceptance, or disability justice?"
Fabello, 33, best known for her writings and editing on the website Everyday Feminism (monthly visitors: 4.5 million-plus), was wearing a pink "feminist" pin on the lapel of her light-blue denim jacket — that's what started this line of conversation.
She began blogging about her own eating disorder recovery roughly a decade ago, and has developed a powerful, eloquent voice on body image and beauty culture. Her recently completed doctoral dissertation elevates that work unquestionably — she studied 20 anorexia survivors to see how their experience overlaps with feelings of touch deprivation, which can alter how one experiences sensuality. Fabello uses the phrase "skin hunger. "
These days she can be found managing freelance work and reading in the Point Breeze apartment she shares with a partner and two cats. She's working through a 100-book challenge; so far she's completed 91. A recent read: a science-fiction novel called An Absolutely Remarkable Thing, about a woman in her early 20s who quickly becomes internet famous then "struggles with being a person and a brand at the same time." Fabello can relate.
Her career, while shifting, places her in some delicate positions. Her all-inclusive approach, and its distance from mainstream feminism, suggests an appreciation of intersectional feminism — essentially, a black woman's framework that she doesn't feel comfortable claiming. She has often directed her writing toward women like herself — thin women, white women — to explain privileges that they experience.
After college at Boston University, the Massachusetts native taught high school in Atlanta, which she thought was her calling. But in her early 20s, she developed an eating disorder after dating a man who would berate her for being heavy. She was thin. She gained an inclination toward feminist readings and considered starting a blog on queerness. Writing came naturally, she said, a "typical, sort of cusp-millennial situation."
When teaching, she would often think how her students would rather discuss sex than Shakespeare. She wound up in Widener University's human sexuality program for her Ph.D.
Sandra Kim, the founder of Everyday Feminism, brought Fabello on as a writer in 2012 when the site was just months old, then promoted her to a full-time editing position the next year. Fabello was an amazing writer from the beginning, Kim said. The analytic mind, warm heart, and teacher's voice were all in concert, Kim said.
Everyday Feminism got going at a time when feminist sites saw substantial growths in audience. Rosemary Clark-Parsons, a Penn postdoctoral fellow and researcher of feminist media, dates the first wave of feminist blogs to the early 2000s. In the following decade, she says, marketing campaigns and high-profile celebs embraced feminism, and the cause "started having a media moment."
Intersectionality is, of course, not new. Legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the phrase in 1989 when writing about the overlapping identities of women of color. But for its rise in currency in the last decade, Clark-Parsons credits feminist bloggers and social media personalities.
Kim observed as Fabello went through a process of figuring out her place in anti-oppression work. How could Fabello "hold space" as a bisexual eating-disorder survivor, while acknowledging that the beauty culture she dissects still favors women like her. She is not disabled, or fat, or trans, or experiencing poverty, and her looks don't fall outside of the bounds of Eurocentric standards.
"I think her story of grappling with it is the story," said Kim. "Both holding herself up to her values and wanting to move in alignment with her own values."
In 2016, Fabello blogged about her own failings in the body-acceptance movement:
"Does that mean that we, as thin people, can never talk about the fat on our bodies and how we're brainwashed to hate it? No. But it does mean that we have to remember that this spoon-fed guilt and shame is a symptom of a larger fatphobic culture, wherein people who are actually fat (not people who "feel" fat) receive the brunt of the oppression."
That struck a chord with Gina Susanna, a body-acceptance advocate based in Chicago. She posted those paragraphs on her Instagram feed. The activists connected and struck up a friendship.
"That's one of the things that Melissa helped me learn, how to be critical of a system without centering myself," said Susanna.
Fabello balanced her workload at Everyday Feminism with her Widener work. She had noticed that medical research described survivors' avoidance or immaturity around sex.
"To me what that says is you need sex therapy," she said. "But how can you think about that and not ask if they like to be hugged? If they like to be cuddled?"
Her findings show that touch is different for women with anorexia. Many survey takers crave touch, but only in specific contests. Roughly a quarter of women said they respond to it negatively.
She left Everyday Feminism in 2017. The juggle had left her feeling out of her mind at times, but now that she's no longer an editor there and she's defended her dissertation, she's been sorting through what will come next.
She went on a social media break recently — partly because of the harassment she's experienced online, something that is common among women activist writers. About every three months, she takes efforts to make sure her personal information isn't trackable.
But it's not just the trolling or the threats. There are also reader expectations to contend with. Fabello's inbox attracts a following that wants more, whether its clarification or counsel. There was a time, Fabello recalled, when a woman messaged her for help after bingeing and purging "for the first time."
Urszula Pruchniewska, a doctoral researcher in media and communications at Temple, has observed that women working online often find themselves undertaking what she calls invisible labor. Social norms that demand women to be warm and caring cross over into digital spaces. To promote their work, women online might be straddling a line between assertiveness and the humility still expected of women.
The break, which Fabello interrupted recently to promote a freelancing workshop at Widener next week, is indefinite. Not worrying about reader concerns has been good for her.