28 July 2016

New open access Fattylympics chapter queers public health

I'm delighted to announce that a chapter I co-authored with Bethan Evans is now available to download for free!

Reframing Fatness: Critiquing 'Obesity' is a piece in The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities edited by Anne Whitehead and Angela Woods, which has just been published. In our chapter we talk about fat activism and queering public health through projects such as QUILTBAGG and Homosexual Death Drive.

The book retails at an eye-watering £175. I doubt that many activists would ever have access to this collection at this price. Only the most elite and inaccessible libraries will be able to afford to buy copies. Amazingly, the ePub is also the same price. Nevertheless, the University of Liverpool have paid for the chapter to be open access, for which I am grateful. Their actions mean that you can get it for free.

For the uninitiated, this is how academic publishing works nowadays. You may wish to check out The Para-Academic Handbook for alternative academic strategies.

Evans, B. and Cooper, C. (2016) 'Reframing Fatness: Critiquing 'Obesity'' in Whitehead, A. and Woods, A., eds., The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Wardrop, A. and Withers, D. M., eds. (2014) The Para-Academic Handbook: A Toolkit for making-learning-creating-acting, Bristol: HammerOn Press.

100 Fat Activists #17: 1980s Fat Feminist photography

By the early 1980s fat feminism was spreading through a number of groups in the West, though fatphobia remained a big problem within the women's movement and society in general. Radical lesbian feminism of the period, including separatism, helped to establish an infrastructure of organisations, venues and businesses where fat feminism could be explored.

One of the ways in which lesbian feminists of that time did this was through photography. During my research travels to the archives for my book, I came across startling and powerful photographs of fat lesbians by Cookie Andrews-Hunt, Cathy Cade, Zoe Mosko, Lynn Levy and Judith Clarke. Vida Gallery in San Francisco hosted Fat Fridays for a period, and showcased images of fat lesbians. I have included blurry me-in-the-archive phonecam images here but would encourage readers to try and find the originals.

Andrews-Hunt, a leather dyke and photo editor, produced Images of Our Flesh in 1983, a calendar featuring pictures of The Fat Avengers, a fat lesbian feminist group from Seattle. Perhaps this influenced later activism such as the calendar produced as a fundraiser for Heather McAllister when she was undergoing cancer treatment, or the annual Adipsitivity calendar.

Cathy Cade's A Lesbian Photo Album from 1987 documented fat feminist community in the Bay Area, including Judy Freespirit. Her photograph of Pandoura, which I think may be from Images of Our Flesh is a rare glimpse of a fat lesbian of colour from that period.

My favourite photograph from Images of Our Flesh is Judith Clarke's portrait of Banshee. She is wearing a Fat Liberator t-shirt (Stop Fat Oppression: Support Fat Dykes) and looks so contemporary, meaning of her time as well as timeless. I can imagine bumping into her in queer community today.

Some of these photographers are now dead, some of this work is sadly obscure and exists only in the archive. But they resonate so strongly for me because they are visual depictions of community, of those who came before, they remind me that I am part of a movement, and they look absolutely fantastic.






Cade, C. (1987) A Lesbian Photo Album: The Lives of Seven Lesbian Feminists, Oakland, CA: Waterwoman Books.

Andrews-Hunt, C. (1983) Images of Our Flesh, Seattle: The Fat Avengers.

22 July 2016

100 Fat Activists #16: The Social Model

In her excellent book, Fat Rights, Anna Kirkland lays out a number of arguments that fat people and their representatives might use to fight discrimination in a US court of law. She draws on anti-discrimination theories that emerged from anti-racist and anti-sexist legal work, and disability law in particular. I first came across the Social Model of Disability in the early 1990s through the work of Mike Oliver, but I am including it here because it has been around for some time and has important overlaps with these earlier attempts to shift the focus around discrimination.

What do I mean by a Social Model? It is an alternative to the belief that the individual should be held responsible for the discrimination directed against them. This belief is directed at fat people in this way:

Fatty: I am discriminated against because I am fat.
Society: You should just lose weight and then you'll be fine.
Fatty: It is almost impossible to lose weight and keep it off forever and it will damage my health and wellbeing if I try and do that. Here's a load of stats and proof.
Society: Too bad! You'll just have to keep trying. Plus it makes quite a lot of money for us and gives us people to scapegoat. Hurrah!

With a Social Model the burden of responsibility for dealing with discrimination is shifted towards society in general:

Fatty: I am discriminated against because I am fat.
Society: We recognise that losing weight is not a solution to this problem and we should change our systems, values, institutions etc so that no one is discriminated against for being fat (plus points: no one is discriminated against for a host of other reasons too).
Fatty: Yippee! Let's get this shit going!

It is my belief that a Social Model is crucial to fat activists. Operating under the assumption that social attitudes are the problem, and not the individual, enables fat activists to identify those places where discrimination surfaces and do something about it. It is much harder to get organised if we are to believe that discrimination is our own fault. Perhaps this is one reason why anti-obesity people continue to promote the idea that weight loss is the only way forward, they want to keep us in our place, invested in a losing game, to stop us from becoming disruptive.

I wrote primarily about the Social Model of Disability and fat identity in my first book, Fat and Proud and I say a bit more about it in my recent book. But although others have built on that work, it's quite rare to find the Social Model spelled out in the archive and in fat activist communities. I think this is because it is most associated with disability activism and reflects the infuriating divisions between fat and disability activists, which are only now being eroded. But it remains an important way of thinking about fat activism, it is an activist-based theory that has foundations in anti-racism and anti-sexism. It is a key tool for the liberation of all people, in my humble opinion. I'm perplexed why it isn't invoked more often and would encourage readers to find out more about it.

Cooper, C. (1998) Fat & Proud: The Politics of Size, London: The Women's Press.

Cooper, C. (2016) Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, Bristol: HammerOn Press.

Kirkland, A. (2008) Fat Rights: Dilemmas of Difference and Personhood, New York: New York University Press.

Oliver, M. (1990) The Politics of Disablement, London: Macmillan.

15 July 2016

100 Fat Activists #15: The Fat Underground video

In 2010 I had a very startling moment. I was visiting the GLBT Historical Society archives in San Francisco, looking at Judy Freespirit's papers. I was researching my doctorate, a version of which has been published as a book. I can't remember if I had met Judy at this point, or was yet to meet her.

I found a lot of interesting stuff in her boxes. If I've said it once, I'll say it a thousand times more: fat activists, please make plans to archive your stuff, our stories are fragile and in danger of becoming lost.

The startling moment was the discovery of a VHS cassette with the words Fat Underground on its spine. No other information. No information in the content of the tape about who made it and when, either. A mystery tape.

The facilities for screening VHS tapes at the GLBT Historical Society at that time were basic to say the least. I sat in a windowless cupboard-cum-kitchen, piled with detritus and watched the tape on an old monitor.

Suddenly here I was, seeing the Fat Underground spell out their manifesto, producing skits, talking directly to camera. The video looked old, blurry and washed out. I was excited that the FU used technology in this way, perhaps in the mid to late 1970s. It was great to see them sitting together in some kind of underground room, looking like a group of revolutionaries. Lynn Mabel-Lois, now Lynn McAfee, made my hair stand on end with her address to the viewer: she grabs her fat arm and says "I feel like a freak and I'm getting PROUD!"

I was too dumbfounded to ask the archivists about the tape, if I could make a copy, what the deal was in terms of taking stills, anything like that. I just sat and watched it, and made notes with my pencil in my notebook. I also took some terrible photos of the screen with my phone because I couldn't believe what I was watching and I wanted proof later on that I had seen what I had seen.

Up until this point I had never seen pictures of the Fat Underground, let alone moving images. In many ways this group is mythical to me, even though I know people who were involved. They existed to me through obscure documents and a kind of echo chamber of rumour, hearsay, half-remembered detail and so on. They were a foundational moment in fat feminist activism, but always somewhat removed. Because of the mythology surrounding the group, sometimes I wonder if I'm making things up. In the face of obesity discourse, fat people are usually positioned as unreliable narrators (the opposite is more likely to be true, of course, obesity discourse is a gaslighter par excellence). But here was evidence: they are real!

I suspect other copies of this tape exist in other archives. I would encourage fat activists with better access than me to investigate making this recording public, or developing it further. It is an amazingly rich resource.

29 June 2016

Fat Activism and Research Justice

I first came across the term 'Research Justice' at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit in 2010. This may have been the first time that the conference scheduled some sessions on the theme. Since then, the AMC has hosted Research Justice network gatherings and the concept has grown. You can find documentation on the AMC website.

As I understand it, Research Justice has grown out of indigenous Participatory Action Research projects and Linda Tuhiwai Smith's foundational text Decolonizing Methodologies. DataCenter, in Oakland, California is an organisational proponent of the term, and has published various toolkits and reports. Research by and about Domestic Workers in Southern California that I have found through DataCenter have made particularly powerful reading. The organisation has a useful YouTube presence too. Last year Andrew J. Jolivette published a Research Justice anthology in Chicago, which looks pretty good but also somewhat academic and focused primarily on work in North America. It is important that Research Justice not become another academic discipline, especially when academia excludes so many, but remains something that anyone can use.

When I was first learning about Research Justice I was also inspired by the Young Women's Empowerment Project in Chicago, who produced a really great piece of research about their Bad Encounter Line. I'm not sure if the project still exists, but you can read about this research on their Media & Free Stuff page. In the UK, Salvage, a recent project about gendered violence in activist communities is similarly brilliant, I am proud to have been a part of it and am looking forwards to seeing where it goes as more people learn about it.

I have produced my own small-scale research projects using this concept, in particular No More Stitch-Ups, from 2014. My book is built on the idea that how knowledge is generated and owned is political, and that obesity discourse does not have to be the only way in which we might understand fat people.

Research Justice enables me to think of research as activism. There is a tradition in fat activism of ripping apart obesity research, about fighting research injustice, but what would it be like to generate and own our own knowledge? It would be amazing if fat people were to undertake their own research, and not only with university support or under the patronage of thin academics. What might we find if we pursued our own research agendas? I am particularly interested in DIY research, using low or no-cost resources to find things out that might benefit communities of people who don't otherwise get a look-in. I am interested in developing research skill-shares around this stuff. It is a myth that research has to be expensive, obscure and highly academic.

I also want to encourage people working in research institutions to consider Research Justice as a form of methodology. There are certainly overlaps with Participatory Action Research, but I think that Research Justice is more than a method or a consideration of ethics inresearch, it is a theoretical orientation that can underpin all kinds of research and places a commitment to social justice at its heart.

In June I made a little graphic with some questions to consider when either looking at or designing research. I made the mind-map as a response to a series of performances and workshops in Bristol called Emergenc(i)es, which was about developing new responses to the crises of the times we are in. It was a prompt to think about how to survive and thrive in difficult times. Emergenc(i)es was affiliated to the AntiUniversity a really fantastic para-academic project in the UK. The graphic is not exhaustive, I expect to come back to it and fill in gaps as I go along, but I hope it gives some idea of the critical nature of Research Justice as I see it, and encourages people to think about how knowledge is created, perhaps to become knowledge producers themselves.

Click on the image to see a larger-sized version. Extra points if you can spot the accidental typo!

Refusing co-option by the weight loss industry

I've been wondering why I had a 1050% increase in traffic to this blog over the past month. My stats tracker is somewhat perfunctory at best, so I wasn't getting much joy until this morning, when I found that this blog had been co-opted by a popular 'health' website as one of its best obesity blogs.

It took me a while to find the listing because this website crashed my computer every time I tried to have a look. Thanks guys! But there I was, amidst all the usual thinspo, unavoidable ads for Atkins crap, and creepy 'health experts'.

Part of me thinks that the author of this list is trying to be subversive by including me. But the whole thing looked as though it was put together by a robot, trying to extract the maximum clickage and monetisation-per-pixel that that fantasy quickly evaporated (also by the author: "Is Cheese Bad for You?"). The kicker is that there is some small print at the top to say that all of the entries had been "medically reviewed" by someone who must surely be a quack. Medically review my middle finger!

Although my traffic is currently very high there is very little increase in engagement with what I am posting. The stats are probably robots too. It's amazing how the killer keyword "obesity" racks up the page-views, and presumably money for other people without any substance. 16 years of fat panic and this remains what it's all about.

Let me get this straight: the medicalised concept of obesity represents a system of hate that I have spent most of my life trying to destroy. This blog represents some of that work. I called it Obesity Timebomb because I believe that obesity as a system of oppression needs blowing up and that fat people are the ones to push the button. Most people who come to my work have at least some understanding of that. But people in the world of obesity, particularly those who see it as a cash cow, are not smart, they think I want their free content and their patronage. They don't understand irony or punk. They think that fat people are passive and grateful, not dangerous.

I have written to the website to ask them to remove my listing, that it was put there without my knowledge, and to say that I loathe everything they stand for. I expect it will disappear into a black hole. But for the record I want readers of this blog to know that I will never allow myself to be co-opted by weight loss, this is not a diet blog, I am not part of that world, in fact I want to see it end. Co-option is a dirty trick of the weight loss industry to try and de-fang fat activism, I want our fangs to remain ready to bite. If you see my work on such a platform, it was done without my consent.

24 June 2016

Fat 101 for Nurses and Health Professionals

I went to see the nurse to get my blood pressure checked and to book a cholesterol test and I ended up with one of the worst clinical encounters I've had for a very long time. A doctorate in queer fat activism, a publishing track record and nearly thirty years of experience in collectively critiquing fat hatred is a pretty good foundation for getting your blood pressure checked whilst fat, one of the most basic medical interventions around, but it does not protect you entirely from feeling as though the rug has been pulled out from under you when a nurse pulls some fatphobic moves. I ended up with old memories of self-loathing, feeling destabilised and confused, and this from a clinic that says it is passionate about supporting people's health and wellbeing in its mission statement. I worry about the people who don't have my experience and credentials.

I have no intention of ever booking an appointment with that nurse again, but I have some pointers from this experience that may be of use to other medical practitioners.

How nurses and other health practitioners can support people of all sizes to have optimum health

Don't

Keep a set of weighing scales in the middle of the room like a monument to BMI. It makes it look as though this is the most important tool of measurement for you and reveals how little you know about body weight and health.

Smirk when a fat person declines to be weighed. Declining is a brave act of self-advocacy in the face of monumental pressure to capitulate to a system that does not have fat people's best health interests at heart.

Judge. Fat people can tell you are doing it, we have had a lot of experience of this.

Be surprised when you ask a fat patient about their life and they reveal themselves not to be the saddest sack of the universe, especially if you find out that they have more going for themselves than you do.

Gloat about your own thin privilege.

Get stressed or blame the patient when you struggle to find a pulse or do a basic check because you are not comfortable touching a fat person.

Treat patients as repositories of data for your poorly designed computerised records systems of questionable security.

Use any fat-sized medical equipment that has the name of a weight loss drug plastered all over it, especially if that drug has been implicated in the sudden deaths of fat people. Buy a large-sized blood pressure cuff, don't use one that is basically a giant advert for Reductil. How can your patients ever trust that you are not in the service of those brands?

"Take control," patronise patients with empty promises that "it will come together" to excuse your inability to listen to a person and support them with their needs that they have plainly stated.

Sneakily schedule blood tests for all the so-called fat diseases, which the patient has had before and for which there is no evidence that these diseases are a problem for them. Don't think your patient won't notice what you have done and know that you have been judging them the whole time. Don't be surprised when this patient does not go along with your great fatphobic plan. You may be tempted to stereotype fat patients like this as wilfully non-compliant and self-sabotaging. Don't do that.

Treat people as automatic fodder for the medical industrial complex. Maybe a medical solution is not appropriate.

Touch someone weirdly. Don't rest your hand on mine as you tell me about your ex-wife who was also a psychotherapist.

Do

Remember that bodies come in all shapes and sizes and that this is human.

Listen to the patient. If they say their problem is stress, or anything else, do not assume that their problem is that they are morbidly obese(sic).

Listen extra hard if you have only just met that patient. Get to know them as a person.

If time is tight or the computer system determines what happens in the clinic, acknowledge that you are working within limitations.

Understand that being weighed is not a neutral act. Don't proffer it. Try and have some compassion and understanding for what scales might mean for a fat patient, even if your own experiences of being weighed are nothing to write home about.

Collaborate. Treat fat patients as people who are invested in their own healthcare, especially if they make an appointment out of the blue to get their blood pressure checked. This is proof that they care about their bodies.

Get consent. Share data with your patients without them having to drag it out of you.

Try and laugh when your patient makes a joke about being a zombie when you are unable to find their pulse because you are uncomfortable with handling a fat body. They are being generous and are trying to help you.

How to recover from a bad interaction with a medic

Remember it's more likely to be them and their system that is the problem than your fat body.

Talk to someone you can trust with your feelings, don't be alone with it. Perhaps resist posting on social media even if you feel alienated and upset, you may find that people's responses there are far from soothing.

Write down what happened, get it out of your head.

Make another plan for looking after your health.

Send the clinic some feedback if you feel up to it.

Make some tea.

Breathe.

100 Fat Activists #14: Fat Feminist Activist Working Meeting

Image from the proceedings of the
First Feminist Fat Activists' Working Meeting
Edited, thanks to Karen Stimson's invaluable comments and clarifications.

During 18-20 April 1980 the First Fat Feminist Activist Working Meeting took place in New Haven, Connecticut. This was the first ever fat feminist conference.

It attracted 17 participants. A number of fat feminists lived fairly locally including Karen Stimson, Judith Stein and Aldebaran. Some had set themselves up as the New Haven Fat Liberation Front. There was fat community forming in the Boston area. Others came to visit, including Judy Freespirit. There were workshops, talks and fat women's cultural entertainment in the evening.

The event piggybacked on a women's health conference that was also taking place concurrently. The following day there was a keynote panel about fat feminism with the title F.A.T. (Fat Activists Together). It was another first, the first time a feminist gathering had placed fat politics at its centre. From this gathering F.A.T. (Fat Activists Together) became the first national US coalition of fat feminist activists. Their work helped to establish a constituency for fat feminism and was pivotal in getting Shadow on a Tightrope published.

Stimson made audio recordings of the conference and another woman, active in feminist radio, recorded the keynote panel. Stimson used the recordings to make a radio documentary called Nothing to Lose, which was broadcast locally. Material from the proceedings was collated and disseminated. In the comments below Stimson says that the recordings and the papers formed part of an evidence base to persuade the collective who produced the women's health book Our Bodies, Ourselves to include fat feminism. I have seen copies of this work in various archives. I have a digital copy of it but I can't remember where it came from!

The Largesse online archive is invaluable here, Stimson's archival gifts to fat feminist activism are visionary. She offers a full personal account of the gathering and uploaded Stein's recordings as digital audio files. There are also sound files of the evening's entertainment. I defy you to listen without feeling delighted and moved.

Largesse is no longer live, but you can still listen to and download the talks via the WayBack Machine. Remixers, here is where you come in: these talks need to be sampled, set to a deep bass and danced to by fat feminists everywhere.

WayBack Machine: From the Largesse Archives: Voices of Fat Liberation MP3 Audio Files

WayBack Machine: Fat Feminist Herstory, 1969-1993: A Personal Memoir by Karen W. Stimson

New Haven Fat Liberation Front 1978

Fat activism goes to the opera

On Wednesday I spent about five hours in a too small seat watching a pair of fat people command a very large stage. I've been to the opera before but not often, I'm not a buff. I like different kinds of music and performance, including, sometimes, that which is ostentatious, epic and expensive.

Tristan and Isolde is an opera by Richard Wagner. There are many things to be said about the problematic genre of grand opera, and the problematic composer Wagner in particular. There are probably many things to be said about the problematic opera Tristan and Isolde, I know the reviews for this production were not that gushing either. Other people can say those things, I don't have the knowledge or the articulacy to say them here. This is not a blog about opera.

But it is a blog about fat and this is what I do want to say: if you can pick your way through the things that are problematic, it is fantastic to see romantic, heroic, dramatic fat leads singing their faces off in front of several hundred mostly thin people who have paid a lot of money to witness this extraordinary sight.

It would be nice if the seats were accessible, and if opera singers weren't pressured to lose weight. I am aware that fat opera singers are also a comic stereotype. But whilst many fat activists lobby for non-stigmatising media representation of fat people, and rightly so, there is a genre of opera and singer that takes for granted fat people's compelling presence on a stage. I wouldn't exactly call it mainstream entertainment, but it is entrenched in the establishment. It's right there.

In this production of Tristan and Isolde, Heidi Melton and Stuart Skelton were dressed in giant armour and farthingale respectively, they were really big. Tall hair too. Melton flanked by Karen Cargill as Brangäne, also fat. It's possible none of these performers would want to see themselves as I saw them, you're probably not allowed to say the unsayable, and I notice that reviews are coy in their descriptions of the singers. But what I saw was fat people taking up space and deservedly so. I love fat people who are no shrinking violets. The opera, the music, the scenery, the orchestra, the whole extravaganza was one thing, but to me the fat was far out. There should be fat activist opera groups if they don't already exist.

About ten years ago I went to see one of the Grand Sumo Tournaments in Tokyo. I had similar feelings, only this was a different kind of fat physicality and athleticism, enshrined in national pride. Massively fat wrestlers throwing each other into the air. The most expensive seats are at the very front, where you might find a Rikishi crashing down upon you.

Fat is so weird, hated and also adored. How can it be so?

Meanwhile...


15 June 2016

100 Fat Activists #13: Fat Liberator Publications

One of the central arguments of my book is that activism does not have to be all about the large-scale actions or the grand gestures. Most fat activism takes place in small ways, a conversation perhaps, or a tiny act. Fat Liberator Publications is a fantastic example of a small-scale intervention that had widespread effects.

Established towards the end of the 1970s in the US by Aldebaran, it mostly consisted of a packet of fat feminist activist articles and papers copied and sent out for a small fee. The packet was advertised in lesbian and feminist journals of the time. Several participants in my research mentioned sending off for these papers by post. At a time when it was quite difficult to find fat feminist information, and when publishers had no interest in the subject, these packets were life-changing. So, for example, Liat recollects:
"I was living in [Michigan] in a group house, and there was a woman there [...] and we were living in this house together and she pulled out this bunch–, and it was I remember they, I think I still have it actually, it was all different colours, stapled, and she was like: 'I think you might be interested in this,' I read it and I was like, SNAP, I mean it was just like a massive connection, light-bulbs going off, you know, and there I was. And I was, like, no turning back."
This packet of papers took on a new life in 1983 when it formed the backbone of Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression, an anthology that remains foundational to fat feminism.

The book had a similar effect on readers but it was able to travel further than the packet of papers. One of the most amazing findings in my research was when one participant recalled finding a copy of Shadow on a Tightrope in a Bradford charity shop probably around 20 years after it was published. It's mind-blowing how a modest act – posting out copies of articles – can travel so far in time and space.

I don't have a good photograph of any of the Fat Liberator documents. I was so excited when I found them in the archive that my hands were shaking as I took a snap! What is especially thrilling to me are the t-shirt designs featuring a raised fat fist and a group of fat dykes: Stop Fat Oppression - Support Fat Dykes. Now there's a slogan to get behind.

You can find a set of Fat Liberator Publications at the Mayer Collection in the University of Connecticut's archives. The GLBT Historical Center in San Francisco also has documents relating to Fat Liberator amongst Judy Freespirit's papers. See my post Archiving Fat Activism for more.

Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B. (1983) Shadow On A Tightrope: Writings By Women on Fat Oppression, San Francisco: Aunt Lute, Glasgow: Rotunda.

10 June 2016

No fatphobia, no hate and commodifying anti-oppression

I was on the bus through Shoreditch* yesterday and this fly-poster caught my eye. It's for Afro Punk, which is hosting a festival in London. This is the first time I've heard of this organisation.

It gave me feelings!

Firstly the tag-line "soon come" made me long for a time of no hatefulness and reflect on how far away that seems.

Secondly, I was amazed to see "No fatphobia" included with other forms of hate. I always look for it but I'm used to seeing it left out. My dream from early on in my fat activist life has been for the hatred of fat people to be widely understood as a decimating force, as something that kills and ruins people. My fat politics are rooted in intersectional feminism and queer values. For most of my life as a fat activist, fat politics have been regarded as a joke, an attempt to bandwagon-jump; people I've reached out to in similar liberation struggles have turned away and invested instead in obesity discourse. So it is fantastic to see an organisation that has emerged from a US Black punk movement recognising fat in a matrix of hate targets. Thank you Afro Punk for that vision of inclusion. When I saw "No fatphobia" I felt a lot less alone, I felt hopeful and reminded of my solidarity with all people pushed to the margins and fighting for personhood. I felt the warmth of unity and the resolve to keep fighting for it.

Thirdly, I had feelings that are harder to unpick. No hate is reproduced on Afro Punk merch, including t-shirts and sweatshirts. The t-shirts come in 3xl but no bigger. Does that mean that "no fatphobia" is being reproduced on something that excludes fat people?

The contradictions of politics and commerce do not escape me. Afro Punk in London is a festival where you need a ticket to get in. It's being advertised in a part of town that is a gentrified area of social cleansing. No hate is being mobilised to market things. Is No hate a brand? Are these political sensibilities being commodified? Other anti-oppression politics have been commodified over the years, but this could be a first for fat activism. I don't understand the long-term implications of branding political feelings like these. Making anti-oppression politics hip is certainly a strategy, but what happens when it is no longer fashionable?

I would really like one of those t-shirts though...

*One of London's hipster zones.

08 June 2016

100 Fat Activists #12: whoever i am, i'm a fat womon

I find it thrilling to see film and video of fat activism from the early years. I've read plenty about this work, but seeing the people involved reinforces that this is real, it really happened, I'm not making it up. Why I have a persistent fear of having made any of this up is perhaps testament to the gaslighting of obesity epidemic discourse: fat people are worthless, the idea that we might have cultures, histories, even community or identity is beyond belief.

Sharon Lia Robinson is a poet who has long been a part of fat activism. In this video she reads her poem whoever i am, i'm a fat womon. This poem includes the line that became the title of the ground-breaking fat feminist anthology Shadow on a Tightrope. It comes from her chapbook, published in 1978, fat womon/renaissance, written under the pen-name of Sharon Bas Hannah. Here is the full text.




whoever i am, i'm a fat womon was written in 1976, and the main part of this film, framed by more recent edits, was recorded by Lynne Conroy in 1979 at a rehearsal for the Radcliffe College Women's Theatre Festival, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The poem itself is lovely, but what strikes me when I watch this video is knowing how young and radical fat politics were at the time, and that they were embedded within feminism. That's changed a lot since then. I'm also moved by the use of poetry to explore fat feminist embodiment and experience. Making culture is a means of surviving and thriving, as my research and my own practice has shown over the years.

But what I like most is that this video is not a fat woman on a news report or a TV talkshow, it's not somebody debating their right to exist. The video shows a fat feminist reading her poetry on her own terms.

You can find out more about Sharon through her website.

03 June 2016

Watching an anti-obesity NGO crash and burn

It's been a tough old couple of weeks here at Timebomb Towers but my gloom has been lifted by schadenfreude-tastic reports of bickering and in-fighting at one of the UK's leading anti-obesity NGOs. In general I don't take much pleasure from seeing people in conflict, but I make an exception for fat-hating eugenicists.

The row has arisen because the boss of an anti-obesity charity decided to endorse some dietary advice against the wishes of his colleagues. Now, one set of anti-obesity dietary solutions is as pointless as another, as far as I can see. If dietary advice made fat people go away we would have gone by now. But advice is what these people live for. They see themselves as the answer to the problem of people like me. But they don't consult people like me, they treat us as though we are stupid children. Fat people are so absent from these organisations that we are barely seen to exist at all apart from as an abstracted blob or numbers on a chart. It is inconsequential to them that anti-obesity NGOs speak for us, it's beyond imagining that people like me might want to have a stake in our own lives. As far as this lot is concerned, what they say goes.

Let me twist the knife some more. These are self-important, entitled, ludicrous people riding the gravy train. They are puffed up by weight loss industry patronage with all the trappings of corporate PowerPoints, jargon, high-powered meetings, lunches, keynote speeches and branded promotional knick-knacks. Somebody could make a mint satirising them, they are so ripe for it. Their work is worse than useless, they reproduce stigma at an alarming rate, they have to because this is what delivers funding to their door and rationalises their existence.

It is astonishing to me that anyone gives them the time of day, they truly have no idea of what it is like to be fat or what might support fat people to live good lives. But they are treated like experts of the universe by toadying journalists and policymakers who behave as if they are in the presence of the Great Oz himself.

Anyway, crash and burn, hate-mongering shits. Fight each other until the last one standing is in my crosshairs. Let this be the beginning of the end. I'll toast marshmallows on the blaze and dance on the ashes.

16 May 2016

The new obesogenic, now with added high heels

I saw this image a couple of weeks ago and spluttered.


It's in the Olympic Park, which is not really a park, more a collection of sites being prepared for corporations and social cleansing with some mega sports complexes and token greenery sprinkled inbetween. I live close to this place but it's really inaccessible unless you ride a bike. I know three people who have been killed whilst riding their bikes in my part of town so I no longer ride a bike. Plus, I have no reason to visit this zone of dead culture, and names like Cheering Lane (for real) give me the creeps.

The image is on a billboard in a new area of the not-park where a load of office towers are being built. I spluttered because, like so many things connected to the Olympics and its sticky residue, bad shit is being presented as progressive, bright, shiny, desirable and good for you. To me, this image looks like the latest iteration of obesogenic environments.

In 2013, geographers Rachel Colls and Bethan Evans published a critical take on the concept of obesogenic, which had spread like wildfire towards the end of the first decade of fat panic aka the global obesity epidemicTM. Within this rhetoric, obesogenic environments are those which make people fat and where there is little opportunity for physical activity. They believe that fat people are fat because we don't move our bodies. One of the ways in which planners and policy-makers hope to reduce the number of fat people in the world is by creating spaces that demand physical activity of its inhabitants. This is regarded by anti-obesity proponents as a soft way of engendering public health because people don't even notice it is happening.

Except they do. Especially if they are pushing pushchairs, are on wheels, have mobility impairments, and so on. The bridge leading into the Olympic Park from Stratford has a giant set of steps and two escalators that are frequently broken. There are two lifts that are hidden round the back of a grim passageway. The planners may well have wanted people to take the steps but the reality is that if you can't take them, or don't want to (refusal is not on the cards) the options are very limited. Now, I may be wrong here, but in my version of a Brave New World, dystopian though it may be, at least there is access for all, but this version can't even come up with a level surface. It is retrograde, controlling and non-consensual. It's not that I don't want to live in a place where I can walk in nature and feel connected to my body. What I don't want is the assumption that enforced exercise is the answer to my problems.

Back to the image, how to deconstruct it? Here's some stream of consciousness: I feel sorry for this poor woman who is being made to climb steps all day in high heels. Are her feet bleeding, do you think? Is she sweating? Will she be able to catch up with the men in her department, especially the inevitably white male dominated upper management structure? The steps run out, which makes it look as though she's about to hit the glass ceiling there. I wonder where workers who use wheelchairs will get into the building, round the back? Maybe workers will find a loophole of some kind, perhaps they still have unions and will campaign for proper access, even though I know that's wishful thinking. What's so great about being agile and mobile anyway? But at least she is lovely and slim, I imagine she has to be, fat people aren't welcome in the kinds of places where she works. "The more active we are, the healthier we are," unless you have chronic fatigue, problems with compulsive exercising or are simply human and need a rest sometimes. Who is this "We" they're talking about? How much did this ad campaign cost?

The kicker is a masterpiece of copy writing: "Just imagine leaving work healthier than when you arrived". Just imagine! Work does not make you healthy, it is what sucks the life out of you, especially the kind of work that is going to take place in this location. Work is a system of exploitation and the sale of labour. This is not healthy. In fact, if this is what passes for healthy, we are all truly fucked.

Splutter! Splutter! Splutter!

Colls, R. and Evans, B. (2013) 'Making space for fat bodies? A critical account of 'the obesogenic environment'', Progress in Human Geography, 1(21).

100 Fat Activists #11: Fat Power

Llewellyn Louderback has already made a couple of appearances in this series, first as the author of More People Should be FAT, which then led to the formation of NAAFA.

In 1970 he published Fat Power through Hawthorne Books. Ann Louderback provided research support and it is to her that the book is dedicated. Putting the book out into the world was a difficult experience, Louderback pulled out of the publicity circus for it because media makers wanted to make fun of him (sound familiar?) and later he withdrew from fat politics altogether. The book was not the hit that he hoped for, a big contrast to the effusive praise that More People Should be FAT attracted.

Fat Power book is of its time. The name resonates through Black Power and Gay Power and, even though Louderback described himself to me as a hack writer, he understood that fat had important overlaps with other political movements and struggles. The book treats fat people as a minority that is subjected to oppression, though is at times anti-feminist and politically naive. Yet much of what he writes remains current because fat activism still needs to develop richer theories and approaches, and because fat hatred is still a thing.

A year after Fat Power appeared, Marvin Grosswirth published Fat Pride, again riffing off the spirit of the times, through Black Pride and Gay Pride. By 1974, Abraham I. Friedman MD had jumped on the bandwagon with Fat Can Be Beautiful, a title that hedges its bets if ever there was one and a book that is, frankly, weak. The cycle of grassroots innovation and appropriation by professionals that I write about in my book was taking place even back then.

Fat activism is a social movement formed by feminism and greatly concerned with women's experience. It's vexing that whilst the early fat feminists were mimeographing pamphlets, it was these three guys who had access to book publishing. It would take over ten years before Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression made an appearance, even Marcia Millman's Such A Pretty Face: Being Fat in America didn't roll out until 1980.

Nevertheless, as with Stigma, the early fat feminists are generous with their appraisal of Fat Power; though obscure it remained influential and is an important contribution to the development of the movement. Try and get your hands on a copy if you can, it's still worth a look.

Friedman, A. I. (1974) Fat Can Be Beautiful: Stop Dieting, Start Living, Berkeley, CA: Berekeley Publishing Corporation.

Grosswirth, M. (1971) Fat Pride: A Survival Handbook, New York: Jarrow Press Inc.

Louderback, L. (1967) 'More People Should Be FAT', Saturday Evening Post, 4 November, 10-12.

Louderback, L. (1970) Fat Power, New York: Hawthorn Books.

Millman, M. (1980) Such A Pretty Face: Being Fat in America, Toronto: Norton.

Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B. (1983) Shadow On A Tightrope: Writings By Women on Fat Oppression, San Francisco: Aunt Lute.

09 May 2016

Fat Activism, Class and The Left

When I talk about class I mean the stratification of human beings based on money, background, work, access to power and certain types of cultural knowledge. This stratification favours some at the cost of others. Fat and class go together because many fat people are also of low socio-economic status. But this information is usually used to rationalise a cure for fatness, not as a call for political action, or to understand the interrelationships between fat and class, perhaps as a source of identity, pride, or even as a resource for self-knowledge.

On 4 May 2016 I delivered a talk at Housmans book shop in London. Housmans is one of London's few remaining radical booksellers and I took the opportunity to talk about fat, class and how I feel the Left has failed to get on-board with fat activism. When I refer to the Left, I mean a large number of political groups and ideas that are based on ending class inequality. I hoped that by saying this at Housmans, I might encourage more Left-leaning people to think about fat activism as a viable form of politics

I have written up my notes so that they are more readable. This is my first attempt to write something coherent about fat activism and class, but it is still tentative. Class seems to get left behind in intersectional analyses of fat and fat activism, even though it is so central. I speculate as to why this is later, but for now I would like to say that I would love to see class given the weight it deserves.

In my family fat, class and shame were intertwined. My parents dis-identified with being working class, even though their backgrounds are undeniably so, and this manifested through a disdain for fatness, which was seen as a signifier of poverty, a throwback. Class awakening came late for me, but I grew up with my mum and dad's values and experiences and gradually I pieced things together to understood who I am and where I come from. I began to be interested in fat and class after looking at how the left was stereotyping fat people in 2011. I wrote about this in these posts:

Representing fat and class

Demonstrating as the Fat Bloc
How the Left failed fat
Riots in the UK and convenient scapegoats
Fatphobia in the visual language of the Left
Anti-obesity campaigns: fatphobia in the radical left
Fat, austerity, class and benefit sanctions

Fatphobia in the Left is driven by stereotyping

As I came to explore fat and class, I was struck by the amount of stereotyping that went on in the Left in the UK.

Old stereotypes are still invoked. Fat capitalists, fat cats, fat as a signifier of the greedy, lazy, selfish, corrupt bourgeoisie and ruling classes. It's a stereotype that links fat people with overconsumption and oafishness and which contradicts evidence that fat people tend to be of lower socioeconomic status. Martin Rowson's Observer cartoons draw heavily on this stereotype, with added disgustingness, and are seen as perfectly acceptable.

But most of the stereotyping of fat people in the Left is considered more progressive, as caring even! It is popular to think of fat people as pathological, as disordered, as diseased, addicted. Fat means eating disordered. This reflects an obsession with energy balance (fat is a product of too many calories and too little activity, a contested model) as the only means of understanding fat people. This stereotype depicts fat people as pitiful, which is not a progressive stance but an oppressive one, as many disability activists have shown.

In the Left, fat is produced by the overconsumption of the wrong food, the wrong activity. This stereotype plays out through discussions of food deserts, the worry that people are unable to feed themselves, through food justice proponents using fatphobia to leverage themselves. Here, fat is a product of bad food choices, it is fast food, McDonalds. Cue Jamie Oliver and a legion of food snobs to sort us all out! Environmental activists also uses fatphobia and healthism to legitimise themselves in a similar way, for example through cycling campaigns, and other forms of active living.

Fat people are tragic and helpless, but also their own worst enemies. We are wilfully non-compliant (especially parents, especially children) when interventions are made into our alleged overconsumption and inactivity. It is always we who fail, not the intervention. The stereotyping of working class fat people like this in class-based television shockumentaries, for example,  is also a denial of our resourcefulness, intelligence and personhood. It is pitying, dehumanising and often racist and sexist. Depicting people as fat and stupid is part of the demonisation of the working class.

This stereotype is further refined by positioning fat people as a symbol of Western overconsumption. It is not colonialism but fat people who are responsible for exploiting the developing world. This stereotype is used in conjunction with racist 'starving African' imagery, depicting fat and thin as opposites, as enemies. Whilst it is important to critique globalisation, it is wrong to leverage this by abjecting and reinscribing stereotypes onto people's bodies.

Newer stereotypes that have emerged through Austerity, for example the truism that fat people are killing the NHS. Elaine Graham-Leigh's work on his subject is invaluable.

Here's a condensed example of some of this stereotyping rhetoric from an article in The Guardian last year. It's by George Monbiot, darling of the Left, environmental activist, educated at Stowe and Oxford, whose dress size is likely a perfect 10. Amazingly, he has managed to synthesise all of the stereotyping, hand-wringing and pity that I have mentioned above. He even criticises fat-shaming whilst reproducing it in this tour de force of kindly oppression.

Reformulating the problem as a class issue

Long term, safe weight loss is unattainable for most people. Some of us think that even if it were, we would not choose it because we see value in fatness. Nevertheless, current enlightened thinking in the Left, as elsewhere, is that fat people are a social problem that needs to be cured, or "tackled" by making us all normatively-sized, and therefore healthy. This is a middle class appropriation of scientific rationalism. But other considerations emerge when the problem of fat people is reformulated as a class issue.

It reveals that working class fat people are very vulnerable to fatphobia. We are a group of people who are less likely to have access to information, time, resources that will enable us to navigate, for example, adequate healthcare. We are vulnerable to employment discrimination. We tend not to have the sense of entitlement or confidence required to create a smooth path through life for ourselves. When we fall, we are less likely to have safety nets.

Working class people are especially vulnerable to being eaten up by the predatory weight loss industry. This is made up of highly capitalist companies that create dependent customers who blame themselves when the product inevitably fails. It is working class women who are fodder for this industry, and it is this group who are dying or suffering as a result of popular Very Low Calorie Diets advertised on TV in the New Year and during swimsuit season. We are pulled in by ideas of respectability, personal responsibility, good citizenship, class mobility.

Fat people are excluded from policymaking and decision-making about "tackling" fat, working class fat people especially so. This work happens through mystified and exclusive knowledge and spaces. Our lived experience of our own bodies, our own expertise as scholars and activists, is not regarded as a vital resource. This exclusion is built on class. Policy-makers are more likely to be upper and middle class beneficiaries of funding, influence and status. They are the same strata of people pushing neoliberalism. They may be people with financial interests in weight loss, eg advisors/shareholders in Big Pharma or diet multinationals. They represent an industry that is currently benefitting from lucrative public-private partnerships with public services. They also represent a class of people who see themselves as philanthropists whereas fat working class people are a group in need of paternalistic intervention.

Working class fat people are also scapegoats within this curebie/tackling rhetoric. Food taxes generate revenue for the exchequer, but disproportionately affect working class people. Dame Carol Black is proposing benefits sanctions if fat people refuse treatment and this is likely to create new underclass populations of non-compliant fat people to blame, and who probably blame themselves too.

Fat activism in the Left

It is my experience that fat activism is not considered real politics by the Left, and that this reflects how fat is seen elsewhere: a personal choice, something people should change about themselves, not a political issue. Many fat activists themselves who carry a perfect (false and usually unattainable) standard of what constitutes activism. In a similar vein, queer politics and the feminism of fat activism not regarded as real political action either.

This avoidance of fat has led to a muddled and weak relationship to it. There are no widespread critiques as far as I know of class and fat, or the predatory weight loss industry. There is little support for fat people facing discrimination in the workplace, to my mind it is a scandal that this is not a focus of trade union activism. The Guardian, the UK's national newspaper of the Left, remains a major proponent of anti-obesity policy, and this is reflected in their vile fatphobic commenters.

Class in fat activism

But fat activism has not managed to generate much in the way of a class analysis of fat either.

Some of the most prominent fat activists are also people of means, people with private incomes, people who identify as upper middle and upper class, and whose worldviews are normalised even if they don't reflect the experience of being fat for the majority of people. This might be one reason why fat and class is not discussed much. I am not proposing that there should be a politics of purity around class, where some people are positioned as more legitimate than others because of their spotless class backgrounds. But I do suspect that community leaders who have trust funds have not acquired their status purely on merit, and it would be good for this to be more open so that others feel less like failures if they lack class-based access to power.

Meanwhile, the US is the dominant voice in fat activism and the movement reflects national concerns which may be less engaged with class than, say, the UK, where people have suffered through several thousand years of being told to know our places. My understanding of intersectional analyses of fat activism in the US is that it seems to refer to people of colour and to queer people, class is generally left out despite early fat feminist activists coming from socialist backgrounds.

In my book I argue that fat activism is becoming gentrified and that some of the ways in which this takes place are through professionalisation and assimilation. Professionalisation is the process by which community-generated knowledge becomes the domain of professionals, educational institutions and other gate-keepers. This is one way in which working class fat people are excluded from participating. The focus on assimilation – becoming like the dominant culture – also means that there is an emphasis on good citizenship, normativity, respectability, which also keeps out those of us who will never be good, normal, respectable folk.

Dreaming of something better

Before I die I would love to see richer work around fat, activism and class, and for the silence to be broken about privilege, trust funds and what this means for the movement. It would be wonderful to see different kinds of class-conscious activism develop, incorporating anti-colonial analyses when thinking about fat and global power. It is my belief that class must be included in intersectional analyses of fat and fat activism.

I would like people in the Left to understand that the current moral panic around fat is an attack on marginalised people and that it requires a political solution. But mainly I would like to see all of the fat stereotypes I have listed above die out, and for a proper engagement with fat people. Many of us too are of the Left.

04 May 2016

100 Fat Activists #10: Mama Cass Elliot

Cass Elliot was a singer, a scenester and an icon of 1960s sunshine pop. She was a Jewish woman, born Ellen Naomi Cohen. She was also fat in a time and place, not to mention industry, where this was a no-no. For all the rhetoric of the Summer of Love, Elliot suffered from fatphobic discrimination throughout her career, and in her personal life.

She responded to this in a variety of ways: by performing songs that celebrated individuality and difference, through crash dieting and substance abuse. She died in London in 1974 at 32, but had collapsed three months before then, and endured a string of humiliations in the meantime.



A post-mortem examination found that she had died of a heart attack. One can speculate that her substance abuse and crash dieting played a part in this. Predictably her death was reported as a result of her being fat, a way that diet industry mortality is obscured which still continues.

During the post-mortem, no food was found in her windpipe. Yet Elliot became the subject of a vicious fatphobic urban myth – that she had choked to death on a ham sandwich. This myth persists and is usually delivered with a smirk. Mike Myers, wanker extraordinaire, jokes about it in his Austin Powers film inbetween fat-suiting up.

The lie that she died in this way emerged during initial speculation after her body was found. Police told reporters that a half-eaten sandwich was in her room and may have been the cause of her death. This speculation is built on the stereotyping of fat people as voracious and reckless eaters. Elliot was subjected to fatphobic abuse even in death, decades after her passing. We are the butt of jokes when we die tragically young.

Elliot's life and death are significant to fat activists. Living in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, it is possible that she knew of the activities of early fat feminists in that city.



In August 1974, a month after Elliot's death, a group of fat feminists memorialised Elliot at a Women's Equality Day celebration, which took place in a local park and where the Fat Underground had a booth. Sara Fishman recalls:

The Women's Equality Day celebration included an open microphone and stage. When our turn came, members of the Fat Underground, members of the Fat Women's Problem-Solving Group, and some of our friends moved onto the stage. We carried candles and wore black arm bands, in a symbolic funeral procession. Lynn spoke. She began by describing the inspiration Cass Elliot had represented to us, as a fat woman who had refused to hide her beauty. She ended by accusing the medical establishment of murdering Cass, and (because they promote weight loss despite its known dangers) of committing genocide against fat women.

For the next few weeks, we were local heroines. The Los Angeles feminist news paper Sister devoted a full page in its next issue to Fat Liberation, with a photo of our Women's Equality Day demonstration on the cover. Publicly, at least, local radical feminists began to acknowledge fat women's oppression as a problem they would have to take seriously.

Sharon Bas Hannah, writing in Sister in September 1974, said:

Certainly fat people don't benefit from being insulted. Once someone tried to make fun of me on the street by calling out, "Hey, Mama Cass!" The social order functions by keeping certain elements in their place, the people divided and factionalized, so that those who are in power remain there. New scapegoats are always being harnessed. […] One of the earliest reports about her death said that she choked on a ham sandwich. That's not how she died though: Naomi Cohen choked on the culture, on the stale empty air and worthless standards of our conditioning.

Mabel-Lois' eulogy remains a pivotal moment for fat activists. In 2006 Amy Lamé produced a show about her own relationship to Elliot's music and memory. Allyson Mitchell mentioned to me a while back that there would be a performance of the event in Toronto in 2010, a historical re-enactment of it, but I have not been able to find documentation of that.

However, during the research for my book Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, I discovered a tantalising piece of information, which is that the protest was filmed and that the Getty Research Institute may have some video of this event. This may be false information, there is a Fat Underground video, which I have seen, but it does not include events from the protest. Perhaps fat activists in Los Angeles could chase this up.



Bas Hannah, S. (1974) 'Naomi Cohen Choked on the Culture', Sister, September, 1.

Fishman, S. G. B. (1998) 'Life In The Fat Underground', [online], available: http://www.radiancemagazine.com/issues/1998/winter_98/fat_underground.html

27 April 2016

100 Fat Activists #9: The Fat Underground's Position Papers

The Fat Underground was a fat feminist group that came out of the lesbian feminist and radical therapy scenes of Los Angeles in the late 1960s. They are foundational to fat activism, and I write about them extensively in my book.

Largesse was a project that ran for over a decade and which hosted an online archive of early fat feminist writings. It is no longer live, but you can navigate fragments of it through the Wayback Machine by searching for http://www.eskimo.com/~largesse/.

One of the collections that Largesse curated was a set of Position Papers published by the Fat Underground in 1974. These are titled: Job Discrimination, Eating, Health of Fat Women: The Real Problem, Psychiatry and Sexism.

A Position Paper is an essay, short ones in this case, that clarify and communicate a basic premise. Position Papers are not so common these days, though NAAFA has a set of them that you can download from their website, including an interesting one on Activism. I wonder if NAAFA were directly inspired to create these documents through earlier encounters with the Fat Underground.

I think the idea of a Position Paper implies that things are set in stone. One of the problems with them is that things change, or there may be a great many grey areas, or people may disagree, and a paper might need to be revised or discarded.

Nevertheless, the Fat Underground's Position Papers make great reading if you can get your hands on them. Anti-sexism is at the heart of their analysis, and remains the bedrock of feminist work on bodies, looks and fat to this day. The entire content of that position paper reads as follows:
The Fat Underground sees sexism as a tool of oppression which is particularly injurious to fat people. The essence of sexism is that people may not be individuals. Sexism prescribes that people be assigned roles according to their sex rather than by their interests, talents, abilities or preferences. It further dictates what our bodies must look like, with varying standards for each sex, disenfranchising those who do not fit into the mold. Fat people are prime targets in this sexist society because society's current concept of the ideal body is very thin. Our "defiance" of the national mania for thinness is seen as willful rebellion, and as such is a punishable "crime." Our bodies are arbitrarily designated "not sexy" and we are denied our very sexuality. And since this is a sexist society, those denied their sex have no place - we are discriminated against socially, we experience discrimination in jobs, medical care, clothing, etc., and at the root of this is sexism – the body counts for all.

The Fat Underground repudiates all forms of sexism and announces to all that we are taking back our human rights.

What is more unusual is the strength of the Fat Underground's analysis of health as a political issue and the intersectional connections they draw with other marginalised groups.
Being fat and being healthy are not antithetical. Fat people are subject to the same diseases which victimize other biological minorities. Blacks, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans and Chicanos also suffer in far higher percentages than the majority population from diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, atherosclerosis and mental "disorders" like depression and extreme passivity. We are all subject in varying degrees to the same social, moral and political oppressions. We are also subject to educational, vocational, economic and legal persecutions. Fat people die of the social disease of oppression, not the medical "disease" called obesity.

The Position Paper on Job Discrimination describes how employers use a presumed lack of insurance to deny work to fat people. This insurance excuse continues to this day, in other fields too. Only this week was I not allowed to participate in a leisure activity by an organisation because it claimed it did not have the insurance to cater for people who weigh over 18 stone, which is probably me though it's hard to tell because I don't weigh myself. Rather than get better insurance, or train their staff to work with fat people, I don't get to go white water rafting with my pals. Oh, and this is an organisation that boasts about its accessible sessions!

The Fat Underground's Position Paper on Food also remains timely and should be required reading for all food justice advocates. Check out this electrifying statement:
The Fat Underground opposes this phony asceticism. We call for an attitude toward food and eating that is honest, indulgent and compassionate.

Given its roots in Radical Therapy, it makes sense that there would be a Position Paper on Psychiatry, which develops ideas laid out in the sister paper about fat women and health.
Psychiatrists, with their theories about "over-eating" have ignored the findings of nutritionists that most fat people don't eat any more than most thin people. Their persecution turns some of us into secret compulsive eaters who "need their help".

The Fat Underground add:
Psychiatrists paste the dignity of science onto every-day prejudice. Unless they commit themselves to be advocates of the oppressed and alienated, psychiatrists are very dangerous indeed.


Fat Activism Book Update

I don't know if you've noticed, I've been very quiet about it (joke! joke!) but in January I published a book about fat activism and I have some reflections to share about its first few months out in the world.

Basically, the response has been very positive. I've had a handful of reviews that have all been good enough even when they've been a bit odd, and media encounters that haven't left me wanting to crawl into a hole, as was my experience with my last book about fat.

I have not had a single scrap of hate mail. There may well have been comments on things, but I don't read 'em so I wouldn't know. I'm amazed by the lack of hate and I don't know why I've avoided it, I've even been on Radio 4! Perhaps it's waiting to be unleashed. The Guardian, which frequently trades on anti-obesity sentiment and whose commenters are deeply fatphobic as a result, has not touched the book, perhaps that's why I've been spared.

What I have noticed is that people are open to talking about the book. When I published Fat & Proud in 1998 I was treated like a crank. But this time around it has been different, it is possible now for conversations to take place, despite a war on obesity that has been raging for over 15 years and looks set to continue. Even my dentist wants to talk to me about it. This makes me think that the quiet work of speaking, holding conversations, disagreeing with the dominant viewpoint is having a profound effect. Public health policy around fat remains completely out of touch with this feeling, but perhaps it is inevitable that that too must change. I imagine hell will have to freeze over before weight loss stakeholders relinquish their power, so I suspect there will be a slew of crappy fat activist co-options before too long, or other weird and unhelpful hybrids. The picture isn't completely rosy but I am moved by how much has changed.

The most unsettling thing has been the amount of laughter directed at me. Some of this is because I am funny, but some is not about me being funny. In radical and scholarly spaces I sense a deep need for people to be able to laugh at the fat person, ie me. At one gathering, a pair of thin radical queers laughed loudly through my talk, even though I had stopped making jokes. They hadn't noticed that other people were no longer laughing. At another, a speaker referred to an event that I produced as very jolly, even though I had also spoken about how painful that work had been, they couldn't acknowledge that struggle. I think that fat activism is ludicrous in many ways, that's part of what makes it queer and valuable to me, but meanwhile the funny fat lady stereotype seems to be maintaining its grip on people. In a similar way, I'm still pretty shocked at how many people still find difficulty even saying the word fat. You know this already but fatphobia is deep.

By far the best responses have been from readers. I've been getting to know dance communities in London for a year or so and am really happy that they are supporting my work. It is a lie that fat and normatively sized people have nothing to say to each other or are natural enemies, London's radical dance community are engaging with fat politics and I couldn't be happier.

Other readers have shared photographs of them treasuring the book, being excited about it, being delighted to see it in a shop amongst other political books, not shoved away in the health section. One reader propped the book up in a place that has notoriously fatphobic exhibits and shared a photo of that on social media, as though the ideas in the book has invaded a space where it shouldn't belong. I really love moments like that. Other people, those I wouldn’t expect to be interested, have written to me and told their online networks about the work, saying how important it has been for them. To me this is wonderful and helps put the years of work and worry I have poured into this project into perspective.

I will continue to present talks and discussions about the book over the rest of the year. I post updates on the events page, so please feel free to bookmark it and come to things if you can. Meanwhile, Backdoor Broadcasting recorded a panel discussion that took place this week at Birkbeck University, Fat Activism is Dangerous. You can listen to it for free or download it for later.


08 April 2016

100 Fat Activists #8: Radical Therapy

This eighth post of the series marks the end of the period when the earliest foundations for fat activism as I understand it in my book were put in place.

Radical Therapy was an offshoot of the anti-psychiatry movement as it manifested in the 1960s. This movement had many concerns and approaches, and histories that stretched back to the earlier part of the 20th century. By 1967 theorists and activists were arguing that psychiatry was a suspect science and that mental health services were oppressive. Radical Therapy was a practical critique of the mental health system, which was seen as perpetuating oppression and inequality and acting in the interests of a corrupt dominant culture. Radical Therapy sought to reformulate mental distress as an understandable response to living in oppressive societies. Social justice and social change were understood a means of addressing and healing mental pain. This analysis proposed that people's mental health problems were political and not organic, inevitable, or produced by the individual.

Anti-psychiatry has been heavily criticised but it remains a useful means of understanding the uses of mental health services to profit from, discipline and punish marginalised people. There's still a reluctance in the therapy world to think of therapy as a political act saturated with power. See the excellent documentary And This time its Personal Psychocompulsion & Workfare, for example, a response to the introduction of therapy in British Job Centres to harass people unable to work. Its insistence on acknowledging the diversity of cognitive experience resonates too with the more recent Mad Pride movement which again overlaps with disability politics.

Despite the strength of its critique, in an article published in State and Mind in 1977, Aldebaran disclosed that Radical Therapy, like mainstream therapy, remained hostile to fat people, and that fat liberation was regarded as a dangerous luxury. Writing to the fictional composite Dr Hurvitz, she says, presciently:
"You said, 'Fat liberation may be fine for you, but I have a client in therapy who has to lose 50 pounds or she'll die of diabetes.' You also said the real issue in fat liberation ought to be the 'right to be fat,' and that I should put more emphasis on 'Fat is Beautiful.' I've tried to figure out why those comments make me feel so queasy. Certainly we must come to love ourselves and assert our right, as fat people, to be. But what I come up with is that you want a nice liberal discussion about freedom and beauty, while you and I both know that the most urgent issue is death – the pain and death of fat people. You see fat as suicide, I see weight loss as murder – genocide, to be precise – the systematic murder of a biological minority by organised medicine, acting on behalf of the law- and custom-makers of this society. We differ only in our opinion of what causes fat people's early deaths."
Nevertheless, Los Angeles Radical Feminist Therapy Collective was where Aldebaran presented her preliminary findings about why people might be fat. It was through this work that an early social model of fat was developed: the idea that the real problem is not the fat person, but the society that hates us. In 1973, she published a piece in Sister explaining the theoretical connections between Radical Therapy and fat liberation and announcing the formation of a group to explore this. Feminist Radical Therapy is what helped incubate Aldebaran's ideas and provide the spark that later became fat feminism through community knowledge-sharing, consciousness-raising and understanding social contexts in which problems are located.

Daily aggressions, self-blame and self-hatred continue to contribute to fat people's mental distress. We know as activists that challenging oppression improves fat people's lives. But there is little impetus at the moment to generate the empirical evidence demanded by mental health services to include activism as part of a no-risk, cost-effective repertoire of treatment and support. Fat people's mental health needs remain underserved in a context where normalisation through (profitable) weight loss remains the ultimate therapeutic goal. And of course this is rarely seen as a political issue.

Aldebaran (1973) 'we are not our enemies', Sister, December, 6.

Aldebaran (1977) 'Fat Liberation - A Luxury? An Open Letter to Radical (and Other) Therapists', State and Mind, 6, 34-38.