07 June 2017

100 Fat Activists #32: Political Shifts in the 1990s

A classic spread from the second Pretty Big catalogue
198?/199? That's Audrey with the trombone
I've written here that 1989 was a big year for fat activism in the UK, with The London Fat Women's Group gaining a lot of visibility and their successful conference. I've heard it said that the values of one decade don't really kick in until much later. Although the 1980s is often associated, in the West at least, with the spread of neoliberalism through Thatcher and Reagan, fat feminism of that period was pretty radical and reflected lesbian feminist ethics, community and culture. It wasn't until the 1990s that that spirit of early fat feminism was pushed aside in fat activism and the movement took a turn towards conservatism.

This turn was, intentional or not, an attempt to appeal to an idea of what mainstream women wanted and needed. Feminism was seen as alienating, so some of the more prominent proponents and interventions at the time distanced themselves from it even as they benefitted directly from the earlier work of fat lesbians.

This went as far as erasure. For example Sue Dyson quoted the fat dykes statement directly in her book. This was a series of statements developed at the Fat Women's Conference, and which may have had roots in earlier fat feminist community activism (I saw a version of it in Judy Freespirit's archives). Yes Dyson never mentions this, the words 'fat dyke' have been removed.

There was also a shift in language at this time. Fat was seen as too abrasive, so euphemisms like 'size,' 'large,' 'big' and so on became commonplace. In my view this pandered to people's fears about fat and marginalised those of us who use the word freely to describe ourselves.

Shelly Bovey's work rightly attacked what sometimes came across as banality in cheerleading fat activism but my feeling is that she ended up universalising her own pain in being fat and foreclosed a possibility of finding power and strength in fatness. She produced a series of books that gradually eroded a message of fat feminist liberation: first shifting her language to a more euphemistic set of terms and then publishing a weight loss book with the feminist publisher who had published my own Fat & Proud. I have found the latter enlightening regarding the labour involved in maintaining weight loss, but I still regard it as a sad conclusion to a trilogy that was so promising when it began. Her books seem to exemplify the petering out of the earlier ideas and energy which, perhaps, could not be sustained by everybody.

Another shift occurred through the rise of consumerism and the emergence of charismatic leadership, which was less collective in its approach to community-building. Pretty Big magazine is a good example of this shift. It was produced independently by Audrey Winkler, a really dynamic community-minded ex-magistrate and entrepreneur from the Yorkshire Dales. She'd been involved with the knitwear industry for a while and was interested in selling large-sized clothes. Captivating and persuasive, with pink hair, she found that her shop was developing a community and so she started publishing the magazine. Oh yes, and it was through this magazine that I found myself in a hotel in Troon one day, having made it to the final of the Pretty Big modelling competition! Ack, what happened to those pictures?!

Pretty Big Aims & Intentions

Pretty Big
...acts as a club for all women who are size 16+
...promotes a positive self-image for all bigger women
...believes being big is not a sin and should not be a handicap
...speaks out on behalf of bigger women everywhere
...concentrates on healthy living
...shows "dieting" the door
...includes profiles of successful big women
...seeks out information on large sizes fashion and who is making them
...conducts shopping surveys and tells you who stocks larger sizes
...presents the PRETTY BIG SHOPS AWARD to shops nominated by readers for outstanding service to bigger women
...acts as a forum where you can air your views, share your thoughts, or ask for help and advice
...responds sympathetically to your problems

Pretty Big was pretty great and reflected the energy and tenacity of its owner, but it was a world away from the earlier fat feminisms and activisms that had laid the groundwork for such an endeavour. What continues to sit uneasily with me is the reinvention that took place in fat activism, one which rather arrogantly assumed that little of value had come before, that the movement's founders could never have been fat feminist lesbians, and that each new intervention was an improvement on the last. There was a troubling amnesia in place which obscured the radical work that had happened previously. This remains a problem today.

Bovey, S. (1989) Being Fat is Not a Sin, London: Pandora

Bovey, S. (1994) The Forbidden Body: why being fat is not a sin, London: Pandora.

Bovey, S. (2001) What Have You Got to Lose? The Great Weight Debate and How to Diet Successfully, London: The Women's Press.

Dyson, S. (1991) A weight off your mind: how to stop worrying about your body size, London: Sheldon Press.

100 Fat Activists #31: Let It All Hang Out

In recent weeks Virgie Tovar reminded me of Let It All Hang Out, a fat dyke gathering which took place in San Francisco in 1989, 1990 and 1991.

I'm wondering if these parties sprang from the Robust and Rowdy potluck dances that took place in Oakland around 1987 or so, perhaps commenters can clarify. Anyway, Robust and Rowdy, Let It All Hang Out, what excellent sentiments! I understand that LIAHO was part of the annual Pride parade at that time but it also reminds me of the spirit of the Fat-In.

I'm including here a fantastic flyer that I found in Judy Freespirit's archive, and an exuberant photo from Sinister Wisdom #49. LIAHO certainly looked like the place to be!

100 Fat Activists #30: Fat Poets

Two collections of poetry stand out for me as classic fat feminist texts of the 1980s. These are The Fat Black Woman's Poems by Grace Nichols and The Fat Woman Measures Up by CM Donald. The former appeared in 1884 and had a good number of reprints, the latter in 1986. I wonder if both books went on to influence a collective of US fat poets who produced an anthology in 2009, referenced below.

My preference of the two volumes has tended to be towards CM Donald's work. The pieces are angry, vulnerable, piss-taking, spiky, and I like that a lot. I identify with the speaker where they are written in the first person. I understand that this is likely because she is a white dyke like me.

When I first read The Fat Black Woman's Poems I was put off by an earlier cover to that pictured here, and what to me then looked like a cutesy rendering of fat black embodiment. One stanza, often quoted when people referenced the collection, reinforced this view of black women's fatness:

Fat is a darling
A dumpling
A squeeze
Fat is cuddles
Up a baby's sleeve

Contrast this with CM Donald's work:
    To those women
Who find me cuddly
Who like fat women
And want to hug them all;

I am not your mother
Your baby or your shelter
And I am not your blasted teddy bear

The fat black woman of Grace Nichols' poems is powerful, irreverent and sassy and I couldn't see through the strong black woman stereotype to enjoy the poetry at that time. I felt that the figure of a fat black woman who is larger than life let everyone off the hook about fatphobia, racism and sexism. I wondered if this was about the poets' respective standpoints in relation to fat, were they fat? Did this affect what they wrote? I still don't know.

But revisiting them both now, my feelings have changed. I still adore CM Donald's work and often wonder what happened to her. I have grown to appreciate The Fat Black Woman's Poems for the richness of their imagery, their sexuality, their rendering of fat black women who are so often made invisible in fat activism. Perhaps back in the day they were reduced to a stereotype because many white readers like me could not understand the world that the poet was describing. When I return to them now, I see that they are subtle pieces and that politics, death, survival, rebirth, nature and resistance are also very present. They are the work of a wonderful poet.

Barron, K., Kaplan, A. S., Makris, C., Owen, L. J. and Zellman, F. (2009) Fat Poets Speak: Voices of The Fat Poets Society, Nashville TN: Pearlsong Press.

Donald, C. M. (1986) The fat woman measures up, Charlottetown, P.E.I: Ragweed.

Nichols, G. (1984) The Fat Black Woman's Poems, London: Virago.

100 Fat Activists #29: Susan Stinson's Scrapbooks

During the research period for my book I was lucky to spend time with the author Susan Stinson, who showed me some of her scrapbooks. As I write and reflect now, I keep coming back to the essential activist acts of keeping, remembering, generating and sharing personal archives. I demonstrate in my research that fat activism is often an activism of conversation, talking and sharing stories about activist ephemera is a very powerful act.

Here are two images from her scrapbooks, one referencing a Fat Dykes Extravaganza, which sounds really fab, where Susan read; the other a song by Helen Weber called 'Put That Diet Cola Down'.

susanstinson.net

06 June 2017

100 Fat Activists #28: Stein and Lawrence

There are posts elsewhere on this blog that feature Judith Stein and Meridith Lawrence, key figures in the development of fat feminist activism. I just want to reiterate and include them here because they deserve a lot more attention from those interested in fat activist cultures and histories.

Fat lesbian feminists share archive recordings

100 Fat Activists #19: Stein and Freespirit

100 Fat Activists #20: The Fatluck

100 Fat Activists #27: We Dance

We Dance poster from Deb Burgard's personal archive
Long-standing readers of this blog will know that I love to dance and that in recent years I have been finding my feet as a dancer. My work could not have been possible without the fat dancers who came before me. I am especially indebted to Deb Burgard, who started We Dance in the Bay Area in 1983.

Deb Burgard, nothing short of a powerhouse in fat activism, a founding presence in Health At Every Size, had been studying West African dance in Cambridge Massachusetts. In the early 1980s there were the beginnings of fat-friendly fitness proponents and classes, including Rozella Canty Letsome, who was also teaching around then, and the fat swim. The time was ripe for some moving and shaking.

Deb started We Dance, a fat feminist community dance class that ran for six years. She'd been inspired by the African-American women she'd been dancing with, where being fat was not a hindrance to dancing well or expressively. We Dance was not a weight loss space. Deb told me that the class became a meeting of different communities: lesbian, fat, local and middle class Oakland women.

Burgard went on to co-author Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women with Pat Lyons. This was the book of the class, with We Dance regulars appearing in the photos and illustrations. Warm, welcoming, full of thoughtful advice and encouragement, intersectional and accessible, the book remains the gold standard for fat fitness resources. My favourite image continues to be "Carol Squires dazzles her We Dance friends" on page 34, an extraordinary picture of a fat woman gleefully doing the splits. How I longed to know these people and dance along with them! (Ok, full disclosure, eventually I did).


Lyons, P. and Burgard, D. (1990) Great Shape: The First Fitness Guide for Large Women, Authors Guild Backinprint.com ed., Palo Alto, CA: Bull Publishing Company.

05 June 2017

100 Fat Activists #26: Elana Dykewomon

Elana Dykewomon's fat feminism is some of my favourite fat activism of the early movement. It is rooted in her life as a poet, writer and editor. She is a cultural worker, meaning that her creative life is a political act, a reflection of her community, perhaps a gift of service. Her writing explores intersections of class, race, disability and lesbian sensibility. Like other powerful early fat feminists she is Jewish, and that is a significant part of the frame.

There are a couple of pieces that I think are particularly important for those who are interested in fat feminist activism, queer fat feminism and the fat activism that emerged from radical lesbian feminism.

I came across Dykewomon's essay 'Traveling Fat' in Christian McEwen and Sue O'Sullivan's anthology Out The Other Side, published in 1988. It had already been published in Shadow on a Tightrope but it would be a few years until I got to read that book. I didn't expect to read about fat in a lesbian anthology, the fact that it was there was really exciting. Until then, the only accounts I'd read that tried to make sense of fat women's bodies were pathologising psychoanalytically-informed texts, not at all helpful. Traveling Fat charts Dykewomon's encounters with feminism and fat and they are frequently painful. Although the world she was writing about was nothing like my own at the time (the idea of a national lesbian infrastructure seemed utopian beyond belief to me) her struggles with legitimacy and visibility in feminist community were all too relatable. The t-shirts still don't fit me and bodies like mine or bigger. The essay remains a rich snapshot of an era.

Dykewomon published 'the real fat womon poems' in Sinister Wisdom #33 in 1987, around the time that she became editor of the journal. During her seven years of service she ensured that fat became part of the fabric of lesbian feminist politics and culture. It is really gratifying to see fat there in the journal, in bios, in small ads as well as in poems and articles. 'the real fat womon poems' cover eleven epic sections and takes in intersectionality, imperialism, consumerism as well as quiet moments of realisation, irreverence and longing. It's a monumental piece of work that offers something new on each reading.

Fat is present throughout Dykewomon's writing, often as a fact of life, a part of community. It's a very un-flashy approach to fat cultural activism but this tactic makes fat available, it can be talked about, explored. Dykewomon's writing gives me confidence to think about fat as I live and see it around me.

References

Interview: Elana Dykewomon

Dykewomon, E. (1983) 'Travelling Fat' in Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B., eds., Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression, Iowa City: Aunt Lute, 144-154.
Dykewomon, E. (1988) 'Traveling Fat' in McEwen, C. and O'Sullivan, S., eds., Out the Other Side: Contemporary Lesbian Writing, London: Virago, 21-29.
Dykewomon, E. (1987) 'the real fat womon poems', Sinister Wisdom, 33, 85-93.

You can download archived copies of Sinister Wisdom at: http://sinisterwisdom.org/archive

21 April 2017

100 Fat Activists #25: Judy's Stuff

Judy Freespirit's t-shirt
Regular readers of this blog will know that I hold Judy Freespirit's activism in high esteem. In 2010 I met her and visited her archives at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, pivotal experiences in my own thinking about fat activism. I then went on to explore this in my most recent book.

I just wanted to give these holdings some space in their own right and encourage anyone who has the means to go and check them out. So here is the GLBT Historical Society's Finding Aid of the Judy Freespirit Papers 1971–2010, basically a list of all the things they have. It runs to 25 pages and is compelling as an object in its own right.

I bang on about fat activism and archiving quite a bit. Freespirit's archive shows that saving and donating ephemeral material can create an amazingly rich resource for researchers, activists, or anyone really. If you are the kind of person who does stuff, think seriously about leaving a trail behind you, like Judy, for people of the future to use and enjoy.

Rethinking fitness and leisure centres

A foggy winter day at the lido
This week was the first since the cold war that I thought getting nuked was a possibility. "How does one cope with radiation sickness?" I thought to myself. Things are very bad. I believe that it is my adult duty to stare into the abyss and do what I can to stop anyone pushing the button, but I also need respite. I have been relishing mornings at a lido in south London where the water is heated and the surrounding trees in full blossom. There aren't many places in the city where you can immerse yourself in soothing water and stare at the clouds.

On Wednesday my peace was shattered by an outdoor spin class, surely one of the most miserable things you can do in the name of leisure, which led me to wonder why sports facilities and centres in the UK are a pile of cak, and needlessly so. I will share these thoughts with you.

Leisure centres in the UK are run by jocks with no sense of aesthetics. I plan holidays around pools I would like to visit on the continent. Müller'sches Volksbad in Munich, Therme Vals in Switzerland, Holthusenbad in Hamburg and pretty much all the pools in Budapest have found me padding around in my swimmers. They boast stunning architecture, they have a sense of place about them, they're unique and lovely to visit, usually the highlight of a trip. They often have a groovy café attached, where you can get well-made food, even a glass of wine or a brandy. At central European pools you can have a dip and a game of chess. But in the UK the architecture is usually so-so at best, older pools are rarely maintained and usually close in a state of disrepair, there seems to be no incentive to build or preserve something remarkable. Inside it might be a bit dirty and smelly, the changing area is uncomfortable, it's expensive and penalises the casual user because the place is run on a business model of hard-selling memberships, the atmosphere is banal. My local Morrisons can get it together to play Joy Division as I wander the aisles, yet a typical leisure centre soundtrack consists of bleak high BPM generic M People-sounding remixes.

At many pools your swimming choices are limited to lanes or family sessions. The lanes are about training to win, sport and its attendant nationalism and citizenship, or increasing one's athleticism. The family sessions are alienating to those of us who are not a family with kids. If you are an adult by yourself there is little space for social swimming, swimming expressively, mucking about, exploring, playing, bobbing or doing any kind of unorthodox movement that being in water enables you to do. You'll find that you're subject to the lifeguard's angry whistle if you try.

The focus is on athleticism not wellness, fun or sensuality. I don't care about swimming a fast length, I just want to feel good in my body. At Bartholomäus-Therme in Hamburg I went to a candlelight session with classical music and pool noodles. Underwater jets were switched on that swirled the group of mostly old people (they'd just had a water aerobics session) round and round, so peaceful, watching our reflections in the high mirrored ceiling for an hour or so. But in the UK shit like this is not allowed, to the extent that people can't handle it when it is allowed. I went to Thermae Bath Spa last week and was amazed by the awkward, stiff people horrified by their own public near-nakedness, unable to relax in the warm water, behaving as though they were at a suburban cocktail party with strangers.

Sports and leisure centres in the UK remain places where compulsive exercising and body dysmorphia thrive. It's back to the jock quotient again, these people can get your heart rate up on a treadmill but they are not equipped to deal with those who hate and punish their own bodies through exercise. Sports and leisure centres in the UK are like a haven for misery with a grinning-winning Go For It! face plastered on top. It's not uncommon to find services advertised on the back of body shaming whereas such places could be at the forefront of breaking it down.

Which brings me to access. Being able to winch someone into a pool is all very well, but you don't see it in use very often. If you don't have a certain kind of body, if you are vulnerable within a culture that values those certain kinds of bodies, you will likely stay away. Why would you go to a place where you might get stared at or treated as inferior? This is not just about body types but also about making places accessible to people who are "unfit," a term I hate. I would never take the spin class I saw this week because I know I would be subtly sanctioned if I couldn't keep up or needed to stop. Could I even fit on one of those bikes? Session leaders say that it's fine to take a breather but no one ever takes them up on it. This keeps away people like me and the kind of people I like or consider community.

There is no political impetus to make anything different. Policymakers can chug on about "tackling the obesity epidemic" but it's all hot air or sanctioning. I dream of public services and centres that are open to all, prioritise wellness and joyful embodiment, collective feelings, imaginative possibilities. You can see fragments of this in projects like Open Barbers, a not for profit hair salon that welcomes people of all genders and sexualities. Why couldn't this community sensibility be extended further? What if a leisure centre was an arts project? Or run like a really fab nightclub? An autonomous centre for intergenerational oddballs? A political meeting place? What an experiment that would be! And likely profitable/self-sustaining. You could cordon off an area for the jocks, the wannabe Olympians, the normals and all that family-friendly stuff, they could still come too.

22 March 2017

100 Fat Activists #24: Fat Lip Reader's Theater

Still from Throwing Our Weight Around
When I started writing this post I was annoyed with myself for not knowing more about Fat Lip than I do. I found out about Fat Lip through Radiance magazine, more about that later. I rationalised that this group was active largely pre-internet, that knowing more about them at the time would have meant sending off for a video from the US and having the equipment to view it in the UK. At the time these resources were beyond me.

Then I found some notes for my PhD, later my book, hidden in a folder on my computer. Apparently I know more than I think I do! This knowledge came from a series of visits to the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco in 2010, where I sifted through Judy Freespirit's collection, which is held there. During these visits I also sat and watched the Fat Lip video, Throwing Our Weight Around, a series of skits, monologues and poems.

A Reader's Theatre is a means of making theatre with few resources. Fat Lip Readers Theater was a theatre by and for fat women that used fat feminism to discuss everyday joys and hassles. Fat Lip is important because it shows how culture-building is essential to political activism, it is activism.

As I understand it, Fat Lip Reader's Theater had a relationship to a show or a dance group called Fat Chance, made or performed by Judy Freespirit, perhaps others too. Yes, my details are sketchy. They were active in Oakland around 1981 or 85, had a ten year anniversary show in 1991, and reformed in 2004 for a reunion show "after a seven year hiatus", according to Big Moves, with additional performances by some Big Moves dancers. Freespirit's papers state that Fat Lip was part of the Mothertongue Feminist Theater Collective based at The San Francisco Women's Building. As well as Throwing Our Weight Around, they also released Nothing To Lose through Wolfe Video in 1989.
"Our 30 minute video includes the words and experiences of 16 fat, feisty women, speaking, acting and singing about being fat in America in the 80s. Scenes, dialogues, snappy answers to street taunts, poetry, song and more will provoke you to laughter, tears, and anger. Our message is fat positive and challenges the diet-obsessed, fat-hating culture we live in. We present it as an entertaining antidote to everyday life in America."

An early-internet listserv from 1995 describes Fat Lip as a group that toured the US and performed at lesbian and feminist gatherings. By this time they had a mission statement:

Questions from Fat Lip Workshop 1987
"Our mission is to end fat oppression and promote size acceptance through education and theatrical performance. We are a collective of fat women who present exciting, dynamic, theatrical performances about what it's really like to be a fat woman in today's society. We also offer educational workshops and in-service trainings for organization and community groups."

Other flyers and papers stated:

Fat Lip is "a collective of fourteen fat feisty women from the San Francisco Bay Area. We come together from varied backgrounds and are not afraid or ashamed of the way that we look or what we need to say."

"Our task is to say: 'Here we are. Deal with us. We are not going to hate ourselves if we get bigger and we're not going to like ourselves more if we get smaller. We like ourselves now. We are not going to put our lives on hold one minute longer.'"

The most significant documentation of Fat Lip in Freespirit's collection relates to Still Fat After All These Years!, their tenth anniversary show, performed at the Women's Building on 18 May 1991. A flyer gives some idea of what the night was like: there was non-alcoholic bar to benefit Making Waves (the fat swim); a dance after show; you could buy Fat Lip t-shirts; child care was available and the event was sign language interpreted, wheelchair accessible, with no scents or perfumes. There was a sliding scale for entrance and no one was turned away for lack of funds. The programme notes attest to a marathon evening of 54 acts and skits with an intermission and an MC! Nancy Thomas wrote this for the event:

F is For... by Nancy Thomas

F is for the fine, fat friends it gave me
A is for the audience applause
T is for the theatres we've played in
L is for loving women, which we are
I is for the images we're changing
P is for the politics we hold
Put them all together they spell FAT LIP
A group that's worth its weight in gold
And this year we are ten years old

Sadly Freespirit could not attend, she sent love and support in a note and added that because the Women's Building had been recently repainted "Some of us with environmental sensitivities will be here tonight in spirit only."

Photo by Cathy Cade
I don't know what happened to Fat Lip. There were attempts to expand and recruit new members, they were looking for "women who are somewhat familiar with the fat liberation concept, have a bit of ham in you, or want to develop new skills and confidence". They worked with a collective structure and decision-making by consensus. But the last paper in the box is a call for donations: "To put it bluntly, it has been a hand to mouth proposition". I suspect that behind the applause was a lot of hard graft and that as lives carried on something had to give. But the shows and videos were only part of what the group achieved, the women met without fail every week for over a decade, which suggests that Fat Lip was critical in establishing a fat feminist community and developing feminist analyses of fat oppression.

15 March 2017

100 Fat Activists #23: Rotunda Press

I've written a little about Rotunda elsewhere, but want to reiterate it here because it fits nicely in this recent flurry of posts about fat feminism in the UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Of course I can't talk about Rotunda without also mentioning Shadow on a Tightrope.

Shadow on a Tightrope, the book that made me fat

Though it came and went, the idea of a fat feminist publishing house remains tantalising. Could it happen again?

08 March 2017

100 Fat Activists #22: London Fat Women's Group

The London Fat Women's Group went through two phases. The first took place around 1987-1989, the second from 1992-1994 or so. Both groups were either based or made use of the resources at The Women's Centre, at 4 Wild Court in Holborn. Sadly this no longer exists, though it should (have a peek at Wild Court now in the video A Walk Around Fat Activist London). Both phases of the group were explicitly feminist and intersectional, which is to say that participants had fat in common but their experiences of it varied according to other identities.

I'm not sure how the first group came into existence. From researching my book it would appear that somebody got hold of Shadow On A Tightrope and initiated some conversations amongst feminists in the UK. They published articles in Spare Rib and Trouble and Strife, created a BBC documentary (see my post Revisiting BBC Open Space: Fat Women Here To Stay) and organised a national conference at Wild Court in 1989. The latter involved generating national media exposure, which is how I got to hear from them. The conference created sparks, a publishing house, books, short-lived groups. The main group ended, I believe, because of burn-out and internal conflicts, but it has not been possible to corroborate this. I don't know much about who was in the group or what happened to those women.

In April 1992, Spare Rib published a small ad, placed by me:
I am a fat woman living in London and trying to organise a political and social group for other Fat women who may be feeling isolated. I am hoping that the group will be primarily celebratory and consciousness-raising (both for ourselves and the general public) but at this point the options are open! If you're interested, contact Charlotte at [address].

People did contact me and we started to meet. A group formed with some core members and others who came and went. We met monthly in the Rotunda at Wild Court and produced a newsletter called Fat News. I left in 1994 and the group folded but also created other sparks: an exhibition and a magazine.

Both groups experienced difficulties and are now really obscure. The generational divide is vast between these earlier fat feminisms and a discourse around fat activism that has moved towards consumerism and 'body positivity'. In scholarly literature, dominated by the US, the only historical fat activist organisations that matter enough to be documented usually reflect a North American cultural bias. It's as though these activists never existed. Not only that, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s there were other international, non-Anglophone, fat feminist groups that sprouted and then ended. Information about them is currently sketchy, but there must be people still alive who know and who have stories and material to share for the benefit of the movement.

See also: Fat Feminism, missing women and conversations unspoken

06 March 2017

100 Fat Activists #21: Spare Rib's Classifieds

There are few things I like more than a free online repository of independent radical feminist journals of yesteryear. I have been that woman crouched in a corner of a specialist library, going through the dusty box files. It's lovely to touch and hold these artefacts in real life, but it's also a delight to browse them from home with a cuppa at your elbow, no opening hours or obscure rules to observe, and no dodgy photocopier.

The first 50 issues of Sinister Wisdom are available online, as are copies of Dyke, A Quarterly. Rainbow History Project has downloads of The Furies and I recall seeing a page of .pdfs for The Lesbian Tide recently but now, typically, can't find the link.

The more obscure and lesbian the journals the better as far as I am concerned because this is where you will find roots of fat feminism and activism that are not really documented elsewhere. There is plenty that is problematic about some of these feminisms and navigating these spaces is a complex undertaking but still worthwhile, in my opinion.

There are many radical queer, feminist and lesbian journals that I have not seen digitised or made available online, and their absence is a giant cultural loss. Square Peg, Quim, Gossip to name a few. There are so many more (check out this amazing wiki of lesbian periodicals to get a taste of bygone media). So it's great when collections are made available, as long as their makers consent, and I am fond of resources that are accessible in thought and ideas and which don't demand institutional log-ins or a knowledge of academic language and conventions.

In the UK there are online repositories of Trouble and Strife and Shocking Pink that are particularly great. Of course the muthalode is Spare Rib, which is archived by the British Library. Does an equivalent free online archive of Ms Magazine exist? If not, it should do.

Spare Rib is especially important for people who want to know more about fat feminist activist histories in the UK. Volume 182 from 1987 has a cluster of articles about fat feminism that marks a break from previous discourse that was very much centred on eating disorders. Here fat women finally get to speak for themselves. As I write this, I have gone to download those pieces and am shocked to see that the content has been redacted. What a bummer! A note on the British Library website explains that that material is being investigated for copyright permissions. Hopefully this will be released soon. Meanwhile, The Feminist Library has a full set if you fancy a trip out.

But it is in the margins that things hot up. In issue 184 Susie Orbach refutes the criticisms made of her by fat feminists, which she also did in the Feminist Review two years previously and then 22 years later in Washington DC at the Association of Size Diversity and Health conference. I would love to see more work in Fat Studies and beyond about how particular feminist discourses around fat have persisted, and been seen as progressive, even though fat people consistently say that they are damaging and are ignored! How come those arguments remain obscure? Does this illustrate how talking about fat is usually controlled by thin people?

I also love the Classified adverts in Spare Rib. They give you a fantastic picture of everyday feminist organising and concerns in the period, whaich was, need I even say it, pre-internet. It is here that the National Fat Women's Conference was publicised in 1989, after which there were a spattering of fat feminist groups and resources proposed. I don't know what happened to them but it's encouraging to see how the work touched and encouraged people to have a go, even if they weren't ready to see things through. Later, in 1992, in issue 233, you will also see an ad that I placed, calling for a social and political group for fat women. I'll save that story for next time.

02 January 2017

Beat diet season by winning a copy of Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement

Welcome back to failed diet season, that deadly time of the year that keeps on returning like a rotten yo-yo. I see that W***** W******* are selling hard in the UK to busy mums and young black women, exactly the kind of people who could do without inevitably regaining the weight they lose on the programme 7x faster than if they did it alone.

Anyway, it's been a year since I published my newest book: Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, your best antidote to failed diet season. It's been quite a ride! The mauling I imagined never happened. Instead I've had the pleasure of supportive reviews, interesting readings and events, and excited readers. I hope that continues. Thanks to everyone who's helped it into the world. I would love to see the book taken up on course syllabi, to help create conversations about what activism is and could be, to be talked about in groups and online. I think it's a unique and important piece of work which is saying something a year on, it still feels fresh.

To celebrate this anniversary I am running a competition to WIN A COPY OF MY BOOK! The competition is now closed and the winner has been notified. Thanks for taking part.

28 November 2016

Report: Fat, Disability, SWAGGA, DaDaFest

Breast wigs, gold mini-mini fingerless gloves,
puce Air Force 1s, the essential parts
of my SWAGGA costume

I'm surfacing from an intense few weeks rehearsing for and being at DaDaFest in Liverpool. For those not in the know, DaDaFest is an organisation that promotes disabled and deaf arts. They host a biannual festival and are involved with lots of other things besides. Their website is a treasure trove. This year's DadaFest (theme: Skin Deep) is still underway, there are still things to see.

I was there for two reasons: 1. To participate in an event around fat activism and disability arts. 2. To perform SWAGGA.

It was really exciting to create public conversations about fat and disability. People who know me will know that I have been interested in this intersection since the early 1990s. I wrote an MA dissertation about it that later spawned a book and a journal article that has also prompted people to write and think about these connections and divergences. Elsewhere people have come to explore the subject independently of my work. It's a thing. But it's hard to create conversations because this is tender stuff and it involves negotiating fatphobia and disablism to varying degrees.

My friend the actor, comedian and activist Liz Carr and I have been talking about fat and crip culture for quite a while and we wanted to have a public conversation about it at DaDaFest. Because the festival is progressive and supportive about fostering conversations that expand ideas around disability, they encouraged us to go for it. Our conversation meandered around our friendship, the things we have in common as fat and disabled people, the things we don't have in common. It was satisfying, full of hope! We have a lot to learn from each other. We were joined during this event by Bethan Evans of the University of Liverpool and Stacy Bias, who have been working on a project about fat people and access.

The talks were set up to be livestreamed and archived online. There were technical hitches that meant we thought this wouldn't happen, but in the end they were recorded, although the image is blurry and the sound very quiet. Have a go at listening with headphones and the sound cranked up. If I ever get some free time I will transcribe it.



Followers of this blog will know that SWAGGA has been a life-changing experience for me. For those not in the know, SWAGGA is a dance project instigated by Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small who work together as Project O. They recruited Kay Hyatt and I in 2014 to develop and dance this piece. We have now danced it at a number of venues for many people. We've been working with Trash Kit, who play live on stage with us, and with music composed by Verity Susman. Jo Palmer has designed a beautiful lighting set-up too. There is also a film, check out the trailer.

We swept up this little pile of
dancer's dirt before we could
practise. Dust and long golden
hair. Not ours.

I don't know when we will dance SWAGGA again, or if we will dance it again. Every time I come back to it I feel changed. Dancing at the Unity Theatre in Liverpool, a wonderful venue with a radical history, was probably the best performance of it I've ever given. I had a sense that I'd really cracked it this time, which of course I feel every time! But what was different was that I was able to relax into the performance. We rehearsed quite intensively the previous week, resolved some of the things that I found difficult about it, like the part when I get up off the floor, I was confident and I felt that we belonged at DaDaFest.

Over two years, nearly three, with lots of space inbetween for me to pursue other interests in dance, performing SWAGGA at the Unity felt a bit like a graduation. I've never been to dance school, I doubt that any of them would have me anyway especially at this time in my life, it's unlikely that I would be cast in a dance production other than this, or do well at an audition, or even be invited to audition. For lots of reasons, the dance world excludes fat dancers. My movement and engagement with dance, a lifelong ambition, has been a process of making space in dance for people like me, with the amazing and generous support of radical practitioners. What a trip!

31 October 2016

How to Killjoy an Obesity display one #BodySpectacular at a time


My friend E puts on events and curates things, as is the modern way. Earlier this year she asked if I would like to talk about my book at something she was involved with at the Wellcome Collection in London. For those not in the know, the Wellcome Collection is one of the world's most august museums on medical history. They are very hot on art as a means of understanding medicine and bodies that have been medicalised. Like fat people.

I said yes, I was thrilled to have been asked, and also daunted. The exposure and support of this institution for my work is not to be sneezed at. I work outside of institutions mostly, partly because I value my independence, partly because I feel that I don't belong, and partly because I actually don't belong and would never normally be invited to take part. I said yes because I wanted to see what might happen and because I hoped it would be a good way of supporting the book.

Yet I was daunted. The way in which fat is framed throughout the institution and its sister organisations is very retrograde based on my experiences of rubbing up against it as a visitor and researcher. The public face of the institution's attitude to fat people is located in a display in their Medicine Now exhibit called Obesity. This consists of a sculpture, weight loss technology, diet books, audio recordings of anti-obesity proponents and a token fat woman, and objects implying that people have become less active and over-reliant on labour-saving devices. As a depiction of Obesity Epidemic rhetoric and medicalised obesity discourse, it is pitch perfect. I experience it as a hate zone.

I knew that I would be talking about my book in the lecture theatre on the night, but I also wanted to be in the Obesity gallery. I didn't feel that I could deliver a talk about my book without some comment about the display upstairs. I couldn’t ignore it. I have loathed that display since it was installed in 2007 and I want to see it change to reflect the realities of people like me, and to be approximately a hundred thousand times more critical of the discourse it currently represents.

So I proposed a dance that I would dance with Kay Hyatt in the Obesity gallery. We've been working on a piece that would be suitable, called 'But is it Healthy?' The people at the Wellcome Collection said yes. I said I would make a zine to contextualise the dance, and I did, it's called The Blob. I made some beats to dance to based on some recordings of fat feminists from 36 years ago. I wrote an article about the event for the paper.

I'm making it sound very easy, but the reality is not easy. Another friend, L, said that people would likely tell me how awesome I am, which is nice, but they might not be able to see the risk involved in dancing in such a space.

The risk is I am dancing in a hate zone and that most people are unlikely to understand what that might feel like. Even at this stage in my life it is hard. My hope is that dancing, being there, making a spectacle of myself, might help transform that space. Sometimes I feel hopeful and other times I think I am a fantasist and that nothing can stop the greed and ambition of the weight loss industry. I don't want to bellyache about it too much, it is an amazing privilege to be there at all, I'm so grateful for the invitation and care that has been extended towards me, but it is still complicated and sometimes it sends me into a spin.

Today we did a site visit, I was able to hear the music we will be dancing to in the space and we did a little bit of dancing when no one was looking. I am so moved by the fat feminists who made a path for us all those years ago. When I think of the risks I am taking I am humbled by those women who dared to speak before. They give me a lot of strength. It was amazing to hear them speaking today, to dance to their words which remain so relevant. I felt that I was part of something much bigger than me, that there are many other voices of refusal, not just voices but bodies. I'm not the only one to put myself in a risky place. Those others have given me a lot of courage, they remind me that I am not alone and that this risk is worth taking.

Anyway, here are all the details, downloads and links. Come along if you can but, if you can't, you can still read, watch and listen. My talk on the night will be audio recorded and put on the Wellcome website too.

Paper copies of my zine will be available at the event but you can also download a digital copy.
The Blob (.pdf 4mb)

But Is It Healthy Beats by Charlotte Cooper, featuring Diane Denne, Judy Freespirit, Aldebaran and Judith Stein recorded by Karen Stimson in 1980.

Guardian article (I didn't write that rather boastful title!): The rhetoric around obesity is toxic. So I created a new language for fat people

Wellcome Collection Friday Late Spectacular: Body Language
Friday 4 November 2016
#BodySpectacular

Please note that you will have to book in advance through the Wellcome Collection website if you want to see me lecture, though this is free. The dance will take place around 9.30pm, no booking is required though these events tend to be extremely popular, so get there early.

17 October 2016

100 Fat Activists #20: The Fatluck

I haven't had much energy to write and post lately, apologies. But what I do have is this, a beautiful hand-drawn poster for a get-together in Boston in the early 1980s.

I found this poster in Judy Freespirit's archive at the Gay and Lesbian Historical Society archives in San Francisco. It supports the evidence I present in my book about cross-country friendships in the US being a way in which fat feminism travelled. Judy Freespirit on the West Coast and Judith Stein, one of the propagators of Boston Area Feminist Fat Liberation, were pals. See #19 for more about that.

The poster is printed on yellow A4 paper. It has an image of two fat women in a heart shape on the top left hand corner, an image that also appears in the collated notes (by Judith?) for The First Feminist Fat Activists' Working Meeting: Proceedings of The First Feminist Fat Activists' Working Meeting. That gathering took place in New Haven in 1980 and was circulated through Fat Liberator Publications. Everything is hand drawn, with 'fatluck' written in blobby lettering.

The poster is of its time, which is also what makes it compelling to me. The world seems so different now, what would it have been like to go to a Fatluck? Online maps show me that the laundromat and the bank might still be there but that the women's centre is now at a different location. The terminology has also shifted, womyn being a way of naming gender separate to men's involvement, but also a term that has historical associations with trans-exclusionary radical feminism. Whilst I have seen some trans women/womyn reclaim womyn, I do not see this word very often these days.

What I love about the flyer is its playful and homemade qualities. Potlucks are a staple, a cliché even, of this kind of feminism. There's a postmodern feminist publication that refers to the practice called No More Potlucks. It's a North American name for collectively producing a meal to share. Here the potluck is called a Fatluck, it acknowledges that it is a big deal, a political act, for fat women to eat together, to nourish each other, to talk about liberation and to treat each other with sweet things.

14 September 2016

I'm still fat, I'm still dancing, things are happening

It's nearly three years since I went to see Project O dance a piece called O. This sparked a chain of events that has included me becoming a dancer. I always did dance, at clubs and around my flat, but things are different now. I have worked with choreographers and I've been part of a show, I have been welcomed into dance community in London, I have been in a film, I have been commissioned to make pieces, I've been to classes, I've been reviewed in the blimmin' Guardian.

Dance is now a big part of my life. By this I mean that at nearly 48 I am really getting to know my body and understand more about how it is a means of expression and feeling. I'm making space for this through thought and action. I'm annoyed that it has taken so long! Hopefully I have plenty of time left to refine what I'm learning.

I go to the studio regularly and it's exciting every time. Fat people are so used to being surveilled that being in a space where you can experiment with movement without being overlooked or judged, in complete privacy, feels like absolute freedom.

I've been making little digital timelapse films of some of these sessions, they condense a three hour stretch into 20 seconds or so. I edited some of them together into a short film. Even though it verges on comedy and I'm trying to challenge the idea that fat people dancing must always be the joke of the century, I really love seeing us zip around so quickly. The short film gives you some idea of what might happen when I spend time in a dance studio. It is fun, funny, and there's a lot of other stuff going on too.



By the way, I always come away from a session thinking that I hardly moved, but then I see the timelapse and recognise that there is a great deal of movement. I suspect this is one of the ways in which I have internalised fatphobia: the erroneous belief that thin dancers move dynamically and constantly, fat dancers do not.

One of the pieces that my partner and I have been developing is a dance called But Is It Healthy? This is the question that people always ask whenever I talk about fat stuff in public. Sometimes I place bets with friends and colleagues about whether it will be the first question.

When people ask me if fat is healthy or not, they are looking for a yes or no answer, and they expect someone to have that answer, which they believe is based in expert scientific research. But it is an impossible question to answer, not least because fat people are a diverse group, health is constructed in myriad ways, and expert science is not incontrovertible.

I have become sick of this question. Whilst I cannot control who asks it, I can make choices in how I answer. So now I have a dance that I can do whenever it arises, and this feels a lot more satisfying.

I will be dancing a longer version of But Is It Healthy? at The Wellcome Collection's Obesity gallery, part of their permanent display. I have many things to say about this space, but more about that some other time. The dance will be supported by a lecture, original music and a zine. More details coming soon.

Wellcome Collection Friday Late Spectacular: Body Language
Friday 4 November 2016

07 September 2016

100 Fat Activists #19: Stein and Freespirit

During the research process for my book I would occasionally find something in the archive that looked unassuming but said so much more. This poster for a reading by Judith Stein and Judy Freespirit, that I found in Freespirit's holdings at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, is one such example.

The typography and the images are very straightforward and the yellow paper is eye-catching. I'm not sure of the year, I'm assuming it's the early 1980s, given the Bobbeh Meisehs reference.

What this poster confirms to me is that Jewish lesbian feminists were important in the development of fat feminism. Radical Jewish feminist community was strong and active at that time in the US, I remember anthologies and conferences taking place. Many prominent early fat feminists were Jewish women. What this means in terms of politics and identity is hard for me to say as someone who is not of that identity, time and place. But I am assuming that better placed people might have insights as to how this affected the politics and range of fat feminism in the early days, for example through radical Jewish traditions of social justice. I imagine that it was important and that there are still many resonances that have not yet been fully acknowledged.

There were events by and about fat lesbian feminists which also encompassed other subjects. So here fat lesbian, Jewish, Yiddish and survivor identity was brought to the event as a kind of intersectional lens, in today's social justice parlance. I think this is important because it's a reminder that as activists we don't have to be positioned solely as fat, we can bring many things to the conversation.

Fat feminists were creating cross-country alliances at that time and maintaining earlier networks even as they migrated and fractured. I know Freespirit had spent time on the East Coast and was part of fat activist organising there for a while. It's amazing to me that geography and minimal resources did not stop people doing things.

Stein's work through Bobbeh Meisehs Press is now super rare and I have seen dealers online trying to sell it for hundreds of dollars. I understand that she created the Press to publish Jewish lesbian feminist material, and that her New Haggadah: A Jewish Lesbian Seder went through a couple of pressings and is held in high esteem by cultural historians. I don't know what happened to Freespirit's Daddy's Girl. I would love to see these documents.

It's really good to see access being advocated, not just wheelchair access but signing, and a sliding scale donation suggested. Accessible events often remain an afterthought here in the 21st century. On the other hand, it's women-only, a more contested proposal in terms of who is and who is not granted access, but consistent with the politics of the times. Today one would hope that there would be more sensitivity around gender and access in radical fat feminist community.

I get pangs when I see this poster, though I know that this is my nostalgia and that this does not necessarily illuminate much for those who were there. Nevertheless, Stein and Freespirit look full of life and power, as though they have so much to say. I can't help wishing that I could travel back in time and sit in on that reading. I would love to hear these old wives spin a few tales.

Edited: 15 December 2016

Since I first wrote this post Judith Stein has generously scanned and given permission for me to put her Bobbeh Meisehs online for people to download, read and share. All material is her copyright. Please enjoy them!

Stein, Judith (1980, revised 1982). A Jewish Lesbian Chanukah. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press. (.pdf, 2mb)

Stein, Judith (1981, revised 1987). A New Haggedah: A Jewish Lesbian Seder. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press. (.pdf, 18mb)

Stein, Judith (1980, revised 1986). The Purim Megillah: A Feminist Retelling. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press. (.pdf, 18mb)

Stein, Judith (1982). Telling Bobbeh Meisehs: Some Notes on Identity and the Creation of Jewish Lesbian Culture. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press. (.pdf, 4mb)

Stein, Judith (1980, revised 1986). On Lesbian Invisibility: A Midrash for Shavuos. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press. (.pdf, 2mb)

Stein, Judith (n.d.). Why the Moon is Small and Dark When the Sun is Big and Shiny: a Midrash for Rosh Chodesh. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press. (.pdf, 1mb)

Stein, Judith (1993). How to have a Satisfying Jewish Lesbian Seder (in three easy steps) in Zahava, Irene ed., How To...Short Stories by Women. Ithaca NY: Violet Ink, 39-41. (.pdf, 3mb)

11 August 2016

Watch the 1979 Fat Underground video

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about what it was like seeing the Fat Underground video.

A generous reader of this blog, who may or may not wish to be named, shared a digitised copy of the video with me. With her consent I have uploaded it to YouTube for others to see. Watch the Fat Underground video from 1979.

Edited to add: I watched the video at the weekend and realised that it is different to the video that I referred to in the other post. I suspect the other video that I saw at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco in 2010 is Shirl Buss' original 1975 footage, edited and embellished here by Marge Dean. This begs the question: could there be other Fat Underground videos out there?! Meanwhile, it would be great to see the 1975 video digitised and made available too.

By the way, I am thrilled to notice in the credits that Kathy Fire is one of the chorus. Her album, Songs of Fire, is a classic of protest music, a favourite of Homosexual Death Drive, and still available through the Smithsonian Institution. It makes sense that she was also a part of early fat feminism.

There are some things to bear in mind:

  • The video might not stay there for very long. I have done a brief search for Marge Dean, the copyright holder, and will continue to look for her. I haven't been able to find her yet, but she may get in touch and she may want the video taken down, which I will do.
  • YouTube identified some copyrighted material in the film in the form of a song. I don't know if the film-makers cleared the right to use that song. The song owners have allowed its use on YouTube but it does mean that there may be ads, and also that other people can't embed the video on their websites. This is beyond my control. If the ads turn out to be weight-loss related or in any way fatphobic or offensive, I will remove the song and therefore the restrictions, and add some notes about that to the video's page.
  • I have turned off comments on the video because they are usually crap.
  • I have set it to unlisted to try and avoid random fatphobes.
  • It's a little glitchy because it was made from an old VHS tape.

I can't believe other fat activists are going to get to see this video now, after all these years. What will it spark?

Dean, M. and Buss, S. (1979). Fat Underground [video]. Available https://youtu.be/UPYRZCXjoRo