17 December 2008

Media: search filters and fat panic

I was just mooching around The Guardian's search pages and filters just now and I noticed some stuff that I'm going to share here. It would be really interesting to compare these search results with those of different media outlets, maybe in different countries, from different political perspectives (The Guardian is a centre-left newspaper in the UK).

I searched on "Obesity" to see where and when fat panic stories were published this year. Sure, the search may have picked up stories that aren't entirely hostile to fat people, but Obesity is a pretty loaded term, not really acceptable amongst fat activists, and is generally used to support the idea of fat being a problem that needs to be cured by weight loss.

So I searched on Obesity and then I started playing around with some of the search filters.

Publication year interested me. One of the reasons that there is just one meagre result for Obesity in 1998 could be because Guardian online was only just beginning at that point and there wasn't much content available. The growth in the number of Obesity results in ten years is really startling, however, almost doubling each year between 1999 and 2004, with a millennial plateau in the middle. Apparently we are in the grip of an Obesity EpidemicTM, although these results suggest that it is more of an epidemic of fat panic reporting.

2004 was a significant year because it coincides with the World Health Organization's report, Obesity: preventing and managing the global epidemic, which is likely to have kicked-off this current wave of fat panic. The number of Guardian results for Obesity in 2004, their highest ever, seems to bear that out.

Publication months for 2008 confirm my suspicions about fat reporting peaking in January, the month of new year diet resolutions; and July, the beginning of the journalistic Silly Season, where any old crap gets published because everyone's on holiday, and also the season of beach body anxiety.

The section results for 2008 show how Obesity has infiltrated areas where you might be somewhat sceptical about there being a connection. Journalists, got a dreary story? Jazz it up by adding a pinch of fat panic! Hence the multitude of Sport and Environment stories, and entries in Money, Art and Design. Needless to say, there are no results for "fat liberation" or "size acceptance."

Finally, the juxtaposition of hard news and Sponsored Links seems particularly telling. It made me think about how weight loss industries, and private eating disorder clinics, are cashing-in on the back of fat panic in the media. This screengrab seems to illustrate this idea really well.

14 December 2008

Anti-obesity campaigns: Healthy Towns, another missed opportunity

I'm late to the discussion about the Change4Life Healthy Towns initiative, but I have a few comments.

Dudley, Halifax, Sheffield, Tower Hamlets, Thetford, Middlesborough, Manchester, Tewkesbury, Peterborough and Portsmouth have been given £30 million to promote cycling, walking, healthy eating and green spaces in a bid to curb obesity levels.

In theory I have no beef with the idea of more cycle facilities; cycling any distance in London for me means negotiating cruddy drivers and dual carriageways. I know two cyclists who have been killed on the roads in the past two years. Better signage for walking would be great too, I love London Underground's JourneyPlanner, which has opened up new routes and walking in the city for me. Access to good quality and affordable fresh food, who could argue with that? Likewise green spaces. Sounds great, right?

There are a couple of fundamental problems with Healthy Towns, however, which change things for me.

Firstly, the framing of these initiatives as part of a response to a global obesity epidemic perpetuates fat panic, positions "obesity" as a problem to be eliminated, promotes the idea that fat is costing the NHS a packet, and negates me and my kind.

Secondly, "health" is not really defined, apart from through obesity statistics. Health is multi-dimensional and extremely subjective, and the reductive tactic of allying it to bodyweight is, well, quite stupid. I suspect that Healthy Towns is a euphemism for "Towns Where We've Got Rid of The Fatties So they Can't Clog Up The NHS With Their Revolting Bodies And Cost Us a Fortune". Doesn't sound so friendly now.

Thirdly, 30 million does not buy a huge amount of infrastructure redesign amongst ten municipalities. I think it's likely that local authorities will try and do things on the cheap in a really muddled and ill-conceived way. I expect to see more instances where, for example, a local council does a deal with a dieting company, as has happened in East London, and where my council tax is funding Newham's association with Slimming World. Pardon my cynicism but is the commercial weight loss industry really the best advocate of my health? Nope.

Imagine a £3 million investment in Health At Every Size instead. Strategies to improve people's health that take a holistic view and which don't base health on an outmoded chart don't have to be expensive. If I was in charge of that money I'd spend it on:
  • Assertiveness skills classes so that fat people can learn to self-advocate for their health within a system that seems intent on denying us access to acceptable standards of care.
  • Systems for training health professionals to deal with fat people sensitively and helpfully.
  • Fat-friendly swims, fat-friendly social groups, fat-friendly yoga or trampolining lessons.
  • I'd set up collections of fat liberation materials within local libraries and make them accessible online, and in ways that reach people who are not library or internet users.
  • Oral history projects encouraging fat people to know about their community, their history, projects that enable people to feel empowered, less alone.
  • Accessible equipment, big kayaks, scuba gear, stuff that would make activities fun for people, with subsidies for shops selling large-sized gear.
  • Grants available for people exploring HAES through community projects, grants, research.
  • Good quality, non-judgmental counselling services and supportive resources for people dealing with fatphobia, self-hatred, dieting fallout, etc
  • A regular dance party.
Oh, the list goes on.

Finally, the whole shebang reminds me of Ruth Levitas' work on social exclusion. In 2004 she wrote about the ways that social exclusion is influenced by political ideology, she describes the ways that it was positioned under New Labour in the UK during the mid-1990s by charting a chronology and identifying themes within social exclusion. She argues that in the UK in the 1980s and early 1990s social exclusion was understood as multi-dimensional, connected to poverty and social inequality, and that its proponents sought to reduce inequalities through greater rights and a redistribution of resources, which she called RED. By the 90s this model was supplanted by two new approaches: Social Integrationist Discourse (SID) sought to integrate people into work as a means of addressing social exclusion, whilst Moral Underclass Discourse (MUD) characterised socially excluded people as morally distinct from the rest of society". Levitas is rightly critical of SID and MUD because they neglect how work is structured under capitalism (eg poor working conditions, McJobs), they stigmatise and shame people, and they support the idea that the state is essentially meritocratic. and that social inclusion can be achieved by hard work and opportunity.

I think this process is happening with Healthy Towns, and that Change4Life is on the same trajectory as welfare reforms of the recent past, a stick and carrot approach to social health, with the emphasis on the stick. Referring back to Levitas , these strategies are typically modelled on SID and MUD in that they propose a neoliberal agenda in which frighteningly deviant bodies are rehabilitated into the mainstream through the hard work of diet and exercise – never mind the evidence that diet and exercise are themselves problematic in relation to slimming down fat people.

Meanwhile, Tower Hamlets, one of the Healthy Towns, is a neighbouring borough to my own, and I'll be keeping an eye on developments there.

13 December 2008

LighterLife: are people dying?

Let’s take a moment to mourn Jacqueline Henson, whose inquest this week revealed that she had died after drinking a huge amount of water as she tried to follow the LighterLife diet. Heartbreaking evidence concerning the circumstances of her death were provided by her husband Brian, who said that the diet had been going brilliantly, "she loved it because she was losing weight. She was over the moon." On the night she died, Jacqueline’s 18 year-old daughter Chantelle found her unconscious.

This is not the first time that LighterLife have been implicated in a death. Matilda Callaghan died of a heart attack after living on LighterLife’s very low calorie diet for six months. One death might be described as a tragic accident, but two is plain careless.

In both cases LighterLife denied any liability. Regarding Ms Henson a spokeswoman claimed that the company states clearly how and when water should be drunk. As for Ms Callaghan, LighterLife boss Bar Hewlett told the inquest that "Miss Callaghan had been obese since the age of 12 and could have died at any time." She made a longer refutation in an open letter after the case was heard. Apologies for the vile blog I have linked to.

Despite their claims of innocence, there is a growing body of evidence against LighterLife, as reported by the BBC and the devil’s Daily Mail; Jacqueline Henson’s sister has also hit out at the company. And then there’s TOAST, secretly funded by LighterLife as a supposedly independent anti-obesity charity, and promoting their programmes, whilst also in receipt of government cash.

In any other sector, except perhaps the arms trade, it would be astounding that a company with this kind of record would have any credibility left. Weight Loss businesses are a law unto themselves, however, and LighterLife continues to enjoy good business. As well as sponsoring 2007’s Guild of Health Writers Awards, they also benefit from the UK’s lack of regulation in the counselling and psychotherapy industry. LighterLife recruits counsellors through the British Association of Counselling and Psychotherapy’s magazine, Therapy, which is available to the organisation’s members. LighterLife’s counsellors are trained and accredited with the BACP, who are playing an instrumental role in the development of an official UK register of therapists which is likely to be introduced within the next few years. Accreditation and BACP membership means inclusion on that register. Nobody seems to think that this is a problem, even though it is questionable, given the evidence cited above, whether LighterLife adheres to the BACP’s ethical framework.

One would think that companies that push very low calorie diets would be unsustainable because the products and practises they promote are doomed to failure and are really risky. Yet I’m stunned to see that Optifast is still a viable brand, as is Slimfast, and LighterLife also keeps popping right back up, despite the various PR disasters. How long can they go on? How many more deaths will there be?

18 November 2008

Anti-obesity campaigns: fat hatred and charity

I can't believe I missed this story from January. Actually, I can. It's exactly the kind of story that obesity stakeholders would rather hush up because it exposes so brilliantly how those same people are in the thrall of the weight loss industry, and how the war on obesity is lining some people's pockets very nicely. According to the report, the conflict of interest regarding TOAST and LighterLife surfaced in 2003, but by then TOAST had already scarfed down over three years of funding. How greedy!

Obesity stakeholders and charity, what a winning combination. Please excuse my sarcastic tone, perhaps if I hadn't been introduced to The Social Model of Disability at an impressionable age I might think of charities as always being a force for good in the world. I'm sure there are plenty of very good charities, but disability theory is useful in exposing how they promote pitiful attitudes towards disabled people; they are politically unaccountable and seek to speak for disabled people, yet deny them rights or access to power within the charity. Oh, there are many more things I could say about this but you'd be better off reading Mike Oliver's fantastic book, The Politics of Disablement, or this quick rundown of why charities can be a bad idea for disabled people, or spending a bit of time mooching in the Disability Studies Archive at Leeds University.

Now that obesity stakeholders are getting in on the charity act you can see the same processes going on. Fat people are pitiful, allegedly grateful for charitable intervention, helpless, stupid, and need fixing. Honestly, charities like TOAST and the equally dumbarse Weight Concern ("Fighting Obesity With Knowledge" oh dear...) should be grateful to the fatties for providing them with a living.

Meanwhile, I'm delighted to see that, even after they were exposed as frauds, Ian Warburton, the TOAST boss, was unable to resist more bullshitting about the sterling work they'd done for fat panic, though there was no mention of how they had been shut down because they were effectively using charitable status to plug LighterLife.

He said "TOAST has effectively achieved its objectives of raising awareness of Obesity as one of the most significant health concerns of the 21st Century. However, The Trustees have unanimously agreed that the task of finding the solutions to the problem is too large for a charity of this size. TOAST has successfully advanced the debate and we are now handing over the complex task of finding the solutions to other agencies better positioned to carry this out." Yeah, yeah, sure, sure.

By the way, you too can check out TOAST's magnificent(ly awful) website via the Wayback Machine, and remember: TOAST - be part of the solution.

Actually, I don't know why I'm laughing because I'm fairly sure that TOAST is connected to some work I was involved with in Harlow in the early 1990s. At that time Harlow council had a very progressive attitude towards fat, the council sponsored two community conferences about body image that were really inclusive and radical. For a while I did some work for the council, investigating possibilities for further work in the area, and then I left to do something else. Weirdly, Size.net reported that TOAST was sponsoring some kind of Obesity Awareness shindig in 2001 with a day that included: "a 'fat' fashion show, 'fat' art exhibition, makeovers and massages, the latest science, The David Kennedy Memorial Research Prize and much more." I am just confused about that. So lord knows what happened inbetween, how the work we did could have been twisted so revoltingly into an illegal anti-obesity fake charity funded by a dodgy diet company, but there you go.

09 November 2008

Anti-obesity campaigns: £275m from UK government

According to this feature in The Times, the British government have sunk £275million into an advertising campaign to help people become more grossed out by the idea of fat.

You'd hardly think that this would be something that needed funding, many people already seem pretty revolted by fat bodies judging by the amount of hostile stares, tutting and general opprobrium directed at fat people every day, not to mention our own, learned, self-destructive internalised hatred developed through these experiences. But now the government have managed to spell out exactly how disgusting they think we are, and the results are going to be plastered on billboards, in leaflets and on the TV in your living room. Joy.

Change4Life is modelled on anti-smoking and safe driving campaigns, which regularly use shock based on repellant imagery for effect. I think that shame, disgust and stigma are questionable bases for public health programmes and I suspect that this campaign is likely to do little more than add to the daily burden of fatphobia that so many of us negotiate.

I also wonder if Change4Life (ugh, was there ever an uglier name?) is a government response to the threat of self-acceptance promoted by fat activists and health promotion professionals who are sick of working under a model of obesity treatment and prevention that is ineffective and health-depleting. Perhaps they see self-acceptance as a threat. It's a shame that they're not committed to investing in that as an evidence-based obesity intervention. Meanwhile, it seems to me that the government is committed to chucking good money after bad, by funding one useless and massively expensive obesity initiative after another. Lucky for Saatchi!

13 October 2008

How to document fat activist histories


Please remember to document the things you do. Without documentation our history is lost, we are none the wiser, and we start to believe things that aren't true.

Some ways in which you can preserve the things you've done:

  • Publish a zine or a pamphlet and lodge it with a library or archive. Lodge your old publications in the same way. Look for local, national, or specialist places, or send your work to all of them. If you have a collection of personal letters, diaries, or other fat activist-related papers, look for archives that accept that kind of material too.
  • Try and get things published. This could be anything from a letter to a newspaper to a three-volume encyclopedia of fat. try and put things in the public domain in such a way that they can be viewed and referenced.
  • If you give a talk or a workshop, make sure there is some kind of documentation that can be published somewhere.
  • If you publish things online, try and make sure that your pages are archived somewhere, on The Wayback Machine, for example http://www.archive.org/web/web.php
  • Be imaginative, create a paper trail for your activism, create evidence that it happened.
  • Don't keep things to yourselves, consider the people of the future, across the world, in outer space, who will need to know that you existed and that you did the stuff you did.

Jamie Oliver's fatsuit is an insult to us all

It was bad enough when he lumbered around in a fatsuit for cheap publicity. Others have pointed out that the fatsuit shares a lot in common with blackface (check out Marisa Meltzer's essay in Bitchfest, for example), so I won't go on too much about that, I'll just say that it's clear the man hates fat people from his nauseating and stereotyped performance.

Maybe I should temper that to hatred plus disgust plus pity for fat people, as illustrated in his latest obesity intervention TV programme. I know there's a lot of fatphobia on the airwaves but I haven't seen such a condescending depiction of "the obese" since Jonathan Ross described fat people as (I'm paraphrasing because I don't have the source in front of me, but I'm not far off): "stupid, dopey, loveable friends" back in the 90s.

Oliver comes across as some kind of wannabe Dickensian philanthopist, I'm surprised he doesn't have a nosegay to protect his delicate nostrils from the stench of poverty as he does his rounds amongst the tragic and ignorant fat poor.

Here are some alternative ways to improve poor people's health:
  • Free education at all levels
  • Access to the same housing, education, jobs and healthcare that middle class people have, without anyone actually having to become middle-class
  • Strategies that target stigma and discrimination and encourage assertiveness, self-expression and pride
  • Coalitions between oppressed groups
  • Well-funded community-generated Health At Every Size projects
  • Or, nothing. Leave poor fat people alone, stop making them a moral crusade and give them space to get on with their lives.

Fuck off back to your organic garden, Oliver! Fuck off to Tuscany! Stay the fuck away from the estates, nobody needs you, you are part of the problem!

08 October 2008

Introducing NOLOSE

I was going to write a long and considered post about NOLOSE, but for various reasons that's unlikely to happen soon. I'll say a few things, however.

It's hard to describe what NOLOSE is, it started out as a US organisation by and for fat lesbians, and was a product of NAAFA's Fat Feminist Caucus, so I believe. But identity politics are a shifting surface on which to build an organisation over time, and now NOLOSE welcomes dykes of any stripe, including bisexual women, female-ish queers, and trans people. Cisgendered men (bio men? men-born-men? sorry for the clumsy and problematic definitions) are unwelcome at the moment, but NOLOSE is a flexible entity striving for inclusivity, so who knows what might happen as time passes.

I want to point out that NOLOSE is very US American, but there is usually a strong Canadian contingent, and there have been delegates from the UK and South Africa, maybe other places too. By American I mean that the organisation's culture is, to me as an outsider anyway, quite specific and certainly unlike fat activist events that I've encountered in the UK.

NOLOSE supports a number of smaller projects, for example last year they helped fund Big Bums, but the main event is the more-or-less annual conference. This generally consists of workshops, a keynote speech, events, dances, meals together, and other stuff. Look at the NOLOSE site if you want an idea of what goes on there. Anyway, mere words cannot do justice to this complex, thrilling, eye-opening, maddening, amazing, weird, inspiring event, it is so much more than the sum of its parts. I had the privilege (and I don't use that word lightly) of keynoting the 2005 NOLOSE and it's no understatement to say that it marked a turning point in my life.

The 2008 NOLOSE has just been and gone in Northampton, Massachusetts. This year the theme was intersectionality, that is, the ways that fat is a part of a number of complex personal identities, and that these identities intersect with each other within us, and in the way that we live amongst others. Radical concept! Which reminds me that NOLOSE is probably one of the most progressive and challenging fat activist experiences I've had in my life. At NOLOSE I get to meet the fatties that made and make a real difference to me, we talk about hard stuff, somehow we manage to create visions of how things could be. There is a lot of fun too. It is life-enhancing at a profound level. I'm generally sceptical of intentional spaces based on shared identities, but there's something about being with a bunch of lawless fat queers that makes me feel as at home in myself as I ever do.

Here are some links:

Geleni Fontaine gave an incredible keynote (.pdf, 196kb), which you can read but which won't be as great as seeing her deliver it in person.


Want more? Check out Heather MacAllister's powerful 2006 keynote, and don't forget to register and visit the new boards.

22 September 2008

Is weight loss like the closet?

I've had a couple of conversations recently in which I've been thinking about weight loss being a bit like the closet.

Marilyn Wann makes a useful point about fat people being in a pre-Stonewall state, and I agree with her. Adding to her argument, I'd say that before Stonewall, more queer people chose to stay closeted because circumstances made it nearly impossible to be out. These days, I think that the closet is a pertinent analogy for weight loss.

It is my feeling that weight loss is not revolutionary and that it supports fatphobic systems, though I'd be interested in hearing opinions and thoughts to the contrary. I think positive social change around fat is more likely to happen if people choose not to buy into weight loss as a viable choice.

But I recognise that not buying into weight loss is a hard path to follow given that, as citizens of 21st century Western society, we live in an extremely fatphobic culture, one which affects super-sized people in particular. It's as though fat people must choose between two things, weight loss/living fat in a fatphobic society, that the choices are crappy, and are not really choices because they really just highlight what limited options there are for you if you are fat. Thinking about why people remained closeted pre-Stonewall, and in various contexts today, it's easy to see why people make that choice, and also why people might choose weight loss, despite the associated risks. I think people have agency, and their own sense of internal logic, and make decisions based on this.

I've heard of the closet and weight loss being contextualised as personal choices, yet I'm sceptical that these choices can ever be purely personal because I think bodies are public and political entities too, whether or not we want them to be. I'm bothered by the individualism inherent in weight loss and I try and make choices that don't only benefit myself but also try to support wider social change.

I don't want to demonise or shame people if they try to lose weight, even though I don't choose this route for myself. I think that using the closet as an analogy for weight loss, and thinking about fat people being in a pre-Stonewall state, as a population with agency but little choice, is a helpful way of thinking about fat activists who choose weight loss. It recognises the social context for weight loss, acknowledges the pressures on individuals, suggests that social change could still happen despite these constraints, and is a more compassionate approach than finger-wagging and rule-setting.

02 September 2008

Revisiting Lizzie Whitlock, the fat circus lady

Lizzie Whitlock (1853-1899) was apparently the original fat circus lady. I can't find any pictures of her online, but her grave is now an offbeat tourist attraction in rural Michigan, Batavia Cemetery to be exact.

Findagrave says: "She joined the circus at age 14, travelled with many outfits including Barnum and Bailey's. When she died she weighed 650. The windows were removed from the home to remove her body. She was married 3 times and had four children." I'll bet her truth was a lot more complicated than that.

Anyway, a group of us fatties paid a visit in January 2007, and left her some cupcakes.

Anti-obesity campaigns: abducted by manatees

Boomerang Media is the company that produces, among other things, those postcard racks that you find in bars and cinemas. I went to see Get Smart the other day and this postcard caught my eye:



Rob Adderley is the designer.

I did a little digging and, despite the fact that Boomerang are not returning my calls, I found out that the company had a competition inviting advertisers to design an awareness campaign to tackle obesity. There were 12 winning designs, I'd love to see the others, of which the manatee is one. The back says: "…but seriously, think of the future."

"Tackling obesity" is an expression that usually raises a smirk, but I have to say that this card really puzzles me. I'm assuming that the brief was all about obesity prevention, but this lovely, playful image reads like an ad for obesity. The little fatty in the picture looks perfectly happy to frolic amidst the manatees. Hell, I'd be happy if manatees kidnapped me too, I can't think of anything nicer than bobbing around in warm shallows eating stray bits of vegetation with these lovely gentle creatures.

This isn't the first time that allegedly anti-obesity advertising has backfired. The Obesity Monster is supposed to scare us skinny but, as my friend E says: "look at his lovely little hands and his growly wittle face!"

12 August 2008

Fat and disability activism, when small changes make a difference

I was walking in the park on Sunday and I noticed a new addition. At first I thought the park bench had been vandalised, but then I noticed that the gap was intentional. Then the penny dropped: it's an accessible bench, designed for a wheelchair user to sit with non-disabled people.

It's not the first time I've seen accessible park furniture in Newham, where I live. At another local park there is a roundabout designed so that a wheelchair can be strapped onto it. But I felt moved by this peaceful bench and it reminded me of the idea that small changes can make a significant difference in people's quality of life, and that considerable attitudinal change can be exemplified by very mundane things. It's not so long ago that the idea of disabled and non-disabled kids – and adults – mixing together was unimaginable.

So this led to a train of thought, one to which I often return, about what a world that was trying to challenge fatphobia might look like, and what the small, everyday differences between now and then might be. I concluded that accessible park furniture is definitely up there on my own personal wish-list.

There's another thread to this discussion, which I'll come back to another time, which is about so-called obesogenic environments. Places that encourage people to be fat. There's a lot of bunkum tied up in this discourse, but I'm interested in taking it in a different direction and thinking more closely about what a fat-friendly environment could look like.

Anti-obesity campaigns: minimising and prettifying weight loss surgery

I'm not a huge believer in guilty pleasures, like Patti Smith I seek pleasure and I have no guilt, but reading Oprah magazine is certainly one of my dark little secrets because there's always something fantastically body-hating in it. This month is no different.

The surgical interventions described in Sara Reistad-Long's perky article Beyond Stomach Stapling: What's New and Better on p116 can only be described as chilling and hideous. Her article is a revolting, clueless and uncomfortable read, even though she signs off with a jolly "Whichever approach takes off, one thing is certain: Patients struggling with obesity have plenty to be hopeful about." No no no! Also, don't ask for clarification on that "teeny sewing machine," believe me, you don't want to know about it.

But what really grabbed me about this piece was the illustration chosen to go with it. Art Director Ted Keller must have been having a funny turn when he commissioned this image by Eddie Guy. Maybe he doesn't know what gastric bypass really looks like, or maybe he does and he knows it ain't bright and shiny magazine fodder.

So what does this image say to you about what weight loss surgery is about? It'll make you smile! It'll make you look just like a skinny white blonde woman! Pretty pink balloons in your tummy! I mean, really, what the…?!

10 August 2008

Venus of Willendorf discovered 100 years ago

Belated birthday wishes to the Venus of Willendorf, unearthed in Austria 100 years ago.

At 25,000 years old, the Venus is proof that humanity knew what a fat woman looked like at pretty much the dawn of time. To my mind she says pfffft! to the idea that obesity is a modern scourge.

I had the good fortune to visit the Naturhistorische Museum in Vienna a few years ago, and to see the Venus for myself. I am possibly one of the least woo-woo people on the planet, but the experience was very moving and validating, I'd even say it was spiritual if I believed in that kind of thing. The museum shop is also pretty hot, with a ton of Venus-related gewgaws at very reasonable prices, hehe.

Anyway, 2008 is Venus year, the museum has a load of stuff planned for it, check it out, if you can.

This reminds me that it would be interesting to compile a series of travel spots, significant places for fat people. A pilgrimage to see the Venus is one possibility, but what about Western Samoa and Nauru, where, according to this rubbish article the slender have been driven almost to extinction, or a holiday in Newham, my home borough, which happens to be the fattest place in London. A visit to Maldon could also be included, the town has several sights commemorating Edmund Bright, there's even a road named after him. Kitsch fans might want to check out Elvis' kitchen at Graceland (seen it!), or maybe Cass Elliott's floral kaftans, which must surely be on display somewhere.

Any other suggestions?

01 August 2008

Media: stereotyping fat activists

There's been quite a debate over on Fat Studies about Glen Gers' new film, Disfigured. It's the story of a friendship between a fat woman and a thin anorexic woman, and explores themes around – obviously – bodies and self-acceptance. Here's the IMDB entry for it, and the official site.

So there's been some discussion about the way the film depicts fat activists. As Rachel Richardson puts it in her review on The F Word, it is not "a valentine to fat people or to the [fat acceptance] movement," but nevertheless she finds it an interesting and thought-provoking piece. I don't know if this film has a planned release in the UK. I haven't seen it yet, but I am interested in doing so, despite other criticisms levied against it.

Meanwhile, I went to see Batman the other night. The film was pretty forgettable, but I was struck by an advert that played before the main feature. It was one of those VW Independent Cinema ads, part of the See Films Differently series, where apparently ordinary members of the public (who are actors working from a script) offer their own idiosyncratic readings of well-known films.

In this one, a fat woman offers her analysis of the last scenes of Titanic. I'm paraphrasing, but she says something about Leo slipping away from Kate meaning that if you're fat you can't count on blokes sticking around for you. The lines are delivered in a world-weary way, almost sarcastically, and it's supposed to be wry and funny. It's not on YouTube yet, I can't find a free version of it online, but you can pay to download it.

It's hard not to be obsessed by the way that fat people and fatness are represented in the media, and it's no wonder that these concerns underpin a huge amount of fat liberation energy. Now it seems that both Disfigured and the VW ad might be the beginnings of a new strand of representation and enquiry, that is: how fat activists are portrayed.

So far it's not looking good! Fat activists are crabby, out of touch, defensive, read too much into things, and are judgmental and laughable. I certainly know some people in the movement who are like this, though it's disconcerting to see them reflected on a screen as the whole of the scene, and I feel as though I'm witnessing the birth of a new kind of fat stereotype. Perhaps in time there will be more generous depictions of fat liberationists, but given the way that fat in general is portrayed in the media I don't hold out any hope for this, though I'm sure that fat lib media analysts will get on the case pretty sharply soon enough.

I'm not going to be depressed about it, it just seems like same-old-same-old to me, though I may roll my eyes from time to time. I'm glad to be in a privileged position where I am able to make my own thoughts about this stuff public without having to do it through someone else's distorting lens. Where the media casts such an unkind gaze over fat people of all kinds, here I am, here we fat activists are, looking straight back at them defiantly.

30 July 2008

Media: fat people and silly season

Here's a handful of crap from the Mail and the BBC from the past few days.

Having fat friends makes you fat too, which is kind of odd since the Mail also reported in April 2007 that every women needed a fat friend, especially Kate Moss, who is pals with Rachel Mordecai and Beth Ditto. Meg Ryan's in a fat suit, oh dear, and kids are going to get fat reports which will hopefully shame them into becoming world class athletes and winning the country some gold in 2012. Bad science strikes again in this generic report about the obesity gene but who believes that genetics guff when maintaining weight loss is easy as long as you exercise rigorously for five hours every week. Meanwhile, the Greeks are getting fatter. It's a global epidemic!

It would be nice to blame this week's rash of fat panic headlines on the silly season, which has just begun. But I don't hold out much hope for stories like these getting any more stupid as the summer unfolds because they are already a full-time staple of the British media. Part of me wants to see exactly how ridiculous reporting on fat can possibly get - I'm sure we're not at saturation point yet - yet I despair that this kind of stuff gets reported at all. I want to believe that people aren't so stupid that they believe what they read, but it's hard to hold on to that fantasy sometimes. It's easy to feel overwhelmed and dissociative when you think about the scale of self-perpetuating fat-hating propaganda. I do my best to turn off, or not think of it as being real, or else I get sucked into a vortex of puny sarcasm (see above). Yet I wonder how far it can go. There's such a huge, relentless volume of this stuff that it's only a matter of time until someone runs a newspaper or a TV channel, or a media empire, on the back of it.

Introducing FemmeCast

FemmeCast is one of the hottest bits of fat activism I've come across in a long time. At the moment it's a podcast but it looks as though it could grow into something much more. Don't know what a podcast it? It's an audio recording, like a radio show, that you can download from the internet onto your iPod or MP3 player and listen to at your leisure. The FemmeCast is currently up to episode three, and a new one gets released every few months or so - though I wouldn't gripe if it was more regular than that.

You'd think that a podcast directed at queer fat femmes, made by a bunch of pals on the East Coast of the US, would have limited appeal, so it's a testament to the folks behind this project that they have made it accessible to and inclusive for/of people outside that milieu. Presenters and correspondents stretch Femme to the limits and demonstrate the diversity behind the label. I like that. What I also like is that listening to the podcasts make me feel as though I belong to something bigger, and that the people on the recording, some of whom are my friends, aren't so far away from me after all. It's activism that transcends geographical distance as well as identity better than many other initiatives I've seen.

In my opinion, Femmecast owes a lot to DIY, punk and zine cultures. It's rough around the edges, and that's a boon, not a criticism. It feels real, there's a lot of humour in it, and you get the feeling that anyone with a computer and a recording device could make something similar. That's only partly true, it helps if, like the FemmeCast crew, you have a firm handle on pop culture as well as piping hot politics.

I think this is the thing that makes FemmeCast rock so much, the ease with which the podcast integrates the personal and the political. A light fashion segment, for example, about wearing a bikini has rich undertones to do with how one presents a fat body to the world; another piece talks about oppression and intersectionality; presenters share stories about bitter break-ups; there's comedy and culture too, and sex, and friends, and music, and...everything.

Give your ears a treat and tune in. Instructions for doing so, and information about the production, are here: www.femme-cast.com

24 July 2008

Anti-obesity campaigns: kindly hatred

I reverted straight to Chubster mode when I saw the headline Hug A Fatty, which had the subhead "and help them lose weight."

Invariably I find myself re-writing such headlines to myself and this one turned into something like: "Stab a fatphobe in the face and help them to shut up." Clearly I have some aggression to work out of my system.

I'm not going to get into the bickering about "the obesity problem" which is starting to divide along party lines and be played up in the press. The Tories are going for mean, and Labour is trying to be kind, but both are equally idiotic/fatphobic in their own way.

It's this touchy-feely approach to fat hatred that interests me. I've noticed it coming from the Bizarro World of the Obesity Stakeholder, of which Alan Johnson is a citizen, and it's also being presented in various papers about "obesogenic environments," the latest thing to be worried about.

Fatphobes of yesteryear were a lot easier to spot. They were ghoulish, like Rosemary Conley, or creepy, like Richard Simmons or just outrageously freaky, like Gillian McKeith. They usually had a clear financial incentive in getting fatties to hate themselves and seek salvation from them.

But this new breed is different. They wear suits and have government backing. They are supported by authenticating systems of academics, health professionals, quangos and reports. They appear to care about "the obese" yet, as far as I can see, appear to know nothing about Health At Every Size concepts, or the existence of alternative and more compassionate approaches to fat health and culture. They don't even seem to know any fat people, or have any interest in talking to those of us who have fat self-esteem and stuff to say about it.

These caring people see nothing valuable in being fat, they want to get rid of us, and they keep pushing an agenda of discredited bullshit health-depleting "scientific" interventions in order to do so. Of course it's doomed to failure, as they will find out when the wave of repercussions hits, that is: an inevitable epidemic of eating disorders and body dysmorphia; people getting even fatter because of their struggles with yo-yo dieting; and even more fatties experiencing long-term health problems because of weight loss surgery and drugs.

Kindly fatphobia is strangely hypnotic, its representatives appear to be saying nice…soooothing…helpful things, but don't be fooled. Listen out for the magic words, "treatment and prevention of obesity," and you'll know where you stand.

PS. Hi, and welcome to this blog. It's a place for me to talk and opine about fat stuff, ok?