16 December 2009

Archival images of fat people, pathology and medicalisation

The Wellcome Library is one of my favourite places in London. Interested in vintage accounts of sexual deviation framed as medical concern? Or illuminated medieval manuscripts of nuns being bled? Or recipes for Laudanum? Sure you are! The Wellcome, a repository for all things medical, including the social history and social construction of health, is the place to find this stuff. It's magical.

Part of the Wellcome Library's online presence includes wellcome images, an image library that features a load of creative commons material, which means that you can download digital versions for free. I like to mooch around the image library from time to time, it's a visual delight. Have a click and waste some time there.

Of course the search keywords that interest me the most are: 'obesity,' 'obese' and 'fat'. The contemporary results are a mish-mash of stock images, which are fascinating in the way that they code fatness. So we get photographs of tape measures, 'unhealthy' food, fat cells; measured bodies, energy balance, abstracted fatness. I often wonder what it's like to be a fat model posing for these kinds of images eating junk food, standing on scales, prodding at their bodies. I wonder what they get paid, how they feel about reiterating stereotypes.

But the historical images are where it's really at.

Pictures of remarkable-looking fat people make up the majority of these images. Can we get a round of applause for Tom Ton, Miss Rosie and Ruby Westwood, William Ball, Paul Butterbrodt and the amazing Mr Campbell? Or Edward Bright of Maldon, who now has a street named after him? Or Daniel Lambert, another famously fat man? Thank you for existing, fat ancestors.

It's interesting to see incredible/gruesome late medieval woodcuts of fat men apparently being treated for their obesity with leeches, though I wonder if this is a more contemporary interpretation of what is going on in the images. There are a number of etchings, too, of various 'obese gouty men'! So fat people turn up as patients quite early on, but they are also presented in the collection as as caricatures, and as health professionals too. I really like the image of the fat midwife heading off to work.

The images show some of the ways in which fatness has become medicalised. The photograph of a fat man with "infantilism and thyroid disorder" interests me, not least because this poor fellow is utterly dehumanised in the photograph, but because infantilism and thyroid disorders were some of the earlier ways that fatness was pathologised. 'Race' and fatness are also medicalised and pathologised in colonialist images of 'a female Hottentot with steatopygy.'

One set of images disturbs me in similar ways to the racist 'Hottentot' imagery. It's a series of photographs from the late 1880s by Eadweard Muybridge. He's the photographer-scientist who pioneered the use of photographs to capture motion. You might be familiar with his images of people jumping, or horses running. The Wellcome has a series of photographs of a fat woman walking and 'getting up off the ground.' She's described as 'gargantuan' in the catalogue, and one of the accompanying keywords is 'huge'. Again, I wonder who she is, what it was like for her to be photographed naked. I'm searching for the scraps of her humanity that have been obliterated by the way she has been classified by whoever catalogued these photographs of her. I'm appalled, though not surprised, by her Othering in the eyes of the anonymous picture librarian who labelled her, and that this way of seeing her is constructed here as neutral, scholarly, scientific fact.

14 December 2009

Fat activism and quantified selves

I've been reading about an emerging trend from, where else, the Bay Area which h+ magazine is calling, variously, life logging, life blogging, and Quantified Self. There's an article about it on pages 56-58 of the Winter 2009 issue (.pdf, 14.2mb). By the way, this is the first time I've come across this mag, it boasts that it "covers technological, scientific, and cultural trends that are changing – and will change – human beings in fundamental ways." Love that certainty!

The basic idea involves creating personalised data sets, charting one's body through time. You can pick any variable that appeals to you, do collaborative data gathering, and play with the resultant datasets to your heart's content.

Gathering personal data is not a new idea, it's sort of common. I'm currently logging my peak flow because I'm being tested for asthma, for example, and dieters log their weights at weekly weigh-ins. What makes this trend different is the sheer volume and variety of data being collected, the number of variables offered, the emergence of software to support this endeavour, the hobbyist nature of the activity, and the desire amongst life loggers to present the data in ways that pushes the boundaries about what is known about our bodies and habits.

So of course I'm wondering what Quantified Self could mean for fat people. Could this herald a new age of methodologically strong DIY data gathering? I'm imagining low cost research into aspects of fat experience that would never be funded on a larger scale in the current war on obesity. There could be quantitative research that ditches traditional weight loss paradigms, or which builds an evidence base for Health At Every Size, for example. Not only could this challenge duff obesity science, it could provide a basis for information about fatness that recognises the nuances of our lives, and the impact of social factors. Swoon. And that's only the beginning.

Unfortunately, I suspect this is somewhat rose-tinted thinking. The samples offered by groups such as Quantified Self are currently ridiculously skewed. Although they are generating masses of data, they are unable to manipulate it usefully. I mean, I love the colours of Mimi Chun's dinners, the way she presents her data is pretty, but what are its further applications?

The cohort of life bloggers presented in h+ magazine take an individualistic view of health, it can be generated through a series of rote activities, with an uncritical acceptance of energy balance. I think for guerrilla data gathering to be truly radical or socially useful, it is necessary to have some kind of understanding about the limits of positivism, 'scientific knowledge,' or 'objective scientific truth'. I don't really see that in this one, brief article, though of course it may exist.

And yeah, there's the obvious question too: aren't we more than a set of numbers?

08 December 2009

Fat people as background characters in film

I went to see Der Blaue Engel last night. It's a great film, eh? Marlene Dietrich, Joseph von Sternberg, Emil Jannings, obsession and madness, creepy clowns, show people, sex, gutter life; it has it all.

There's something else it has too: a cast of fat actors. Dietrich herself is pretty chunky in the earlier part of the film, much fatter than a leading lady would be allowed to be nowadays, though still normal-sized. What I'm talking about is the protagonist, Professor Immanuel Rath, who is a very stout fellow, not to mention Kurt Gerron, who plays Kiepert the conjuror, and the actor who plays the owner of The Blue Angel. These guys really fill up the screen.

It's not just the men either, Rosa Valetti, who plays Guste, corrals a group of fat women performers who share the stage with Dietrich. They are clearly background, they don't have names, but they are unforgettable. It's possible that their fatness is an allusion to their low rent status as performers and maybe sex workers, or to their general degeneracy. These women are not curvy, they're barrel-shaped fatties and they wear skimpy clothes and sit on the stage drinking beer after beer, some of them are old. They get in the way, they sulk, and one of them has an act that involves something saucy that is kept well out of the frame, all we ever see is her rolling her eyes suggestively. These are the kind of gals that I dream of hanging out with.

I'm developing a fascination with fat characters in film, not the stars, the ones who appear in the background, the secondary or tertiary characters. I want to know more about them. I wonder if being background means that film makers can get away with more, in a cultural climate that denigrates fatness, than if such fat characters were placed in the foreground. Their presence is so fleeting yet they stay with me.

I think this phenomenon has roots in the work that Vito Russo did with The Celluloid Closet. Russo identified queer characters in films, the sort of characters and actors whom you might pass over unless you knew the signals, codes and stereotypes that outed them. If you have The Eyes, that is, a certain queer sensibility, you can see these characters, Russo used this way of seeing to shine a spotlight on them.

Being in the margins of film, and culture, is a depressing reminder of fat people's secondary status in general. Looking out for fat people in the background is like begging for crumbs of recognition from an uncaring culture. But Russo showed us that these crumbs can add up and become something more substantial, and that in some circumstances the margins can eclipse the action centrestage.

Here are three publicity stills from the same scene. Don't look at Dietrich, check out the women behind her!

07 December 2009

Media: creating a politicised fat gaze

I've spotted this advert around town lately and here's how I think it's supposed to be read: the guy's wearing a horrible jumper that's too small for him, his belly is exposed and he looks fed up. The implication is that he'll have to wear this humiliatingly small jumper in order to please some relative who clearly barely knows him. The relative should have given him money instead, and should have sent it via this company for happy xmas smiles all round.

How I read it: hot, surly, belly-bustin' dude in trendy retro knitwear. Hubba hubba, do me, do me!

Thinking about this ad, I wonder if it exemplifies the mismatch between what advertisers aim for and how their advertisements are consumed, especially where fatness and fat bodies are concerned.

I've seen this before with the manatee postcard and the obesity monster, these images are supposed to scare us straight/thin but they underestimate the power of a politicised fat gaze. Not only is this gaze critical, for example in its ability to deconstruct headless fatty images, but it has the power to transform and remake fatphobic imagery into something else entirely; for example a cute wittle monster, or a fantasy of frolicking carelessly with benevolent fat animals, or of eroticising what is presented as abject.

This ad has inspired a second stream of thought, which is about exposed bellies. At Size Matters? there was a ripple of concern about a powerpoint slide that presented an illustration of a fat child playing with normative-sized kids. The concern was because the child's belly was poking out of his clothes a tiny bit, indeed, this is how his fatness was coded. People thought that this was unfair in some way, that there were connotations of slovenliness, and that the illustration should have shown him in clothes that fit.

My feeling was that the delegates at Size Matters? were uncomfortable at the sight of exposed belly, especially that of a child. The conference was problematic and, in my opinion, fostered a large amount of fatphobia. In this context, a fat belly was considered obscene and shocking. Bellies must be hidden by respectable clothing (never mind how difficult it is to get such clothing). This is also a tenet of much of the fat fashion industry in the UK.

Me, I like bellies of all kinds, and I especially love a big, unruly belly, sticking out without shame. I like people wearing clothes that they feel and look good in, regardless of how 'appropriate' those clothes are deemed, and maybe that includes clothes that are 'too small' or which fail to cover you in the way that you should be covered. To me that's a lot better than your auntie wiring you some cash.

16 November 2009

Maya Angelou is a fatphobe?!

No! No! Say it ain't so!

At other times she sounds like the kind of elderly relative who has outlived the need for social convention. Arguing for honesty at every level of human contact, she writes: "When people ask, 'How are you?' have the nerve sometimes to answer truthfully. You must know, however, that people will start avoiding you..." Sure enough, halfway through the interview she tells me I'm fat and suggests I pay more attention to the size of my portions. "You are going to have to lose that weight. You're too young and too handsome. Don't do it to yourself."

Gary Younge patches up the damage pretty admirably here, I think, even as she slurs him.

Maya Angelou: 'I'm fine as wine in the summertime'

03 November 2009

Interview: Max Airborne

As one of the founding collective members of FaT GiRL, the zine for fat dykes and the women who want them, which came out of the Bay Area's queer SM punk scene in the mid-90s, Max Airborne's influence on a generation of fat people, including me, is beyond my ability to articulate. She's also a musician, a mover, shaker, artist, thinker and pickler. None of these descriptors come close to explaining what it's like to spend time with her, but hopefully this little interview will give you a clue. There's a tribe of us for whom Max is a keystone, I can't imagine my life without her.

You seem so at home in your freakhood, you never seem to care what the straight world thinks, you really "make your own kind of music and sing your own special song," as Mama Cass would say. Is this true? If so, how do you do it?

Thank you for the fabulous theme song!

I often forget what the straight world thinks, because I've built up a life that's so far outside of it. I'm so deeply immersed in a community of queer, fat and freaky people. A lot of my art and activism has been about building a culture in which we are the norm, rather than bothering to try and make space for ourselves in the straight world. It's an alternative society in which we can start healing from the pain, fear and oppression of growing up not fitting into the mould. It’s a world where we can learn to value and love ourselves as we are, we can blossom and thrive. It’s partly made possible by living in a metropolis that's a hub for queers, fat activists, and a variety of other freaky people, but I feel like it isn’t bound by location – it has members all over the world.

Over time I have come to appreciate that this kind of separatist approach has different sides. It can give us the space to blossom in ways we never could otherwise. And in some ways it makes us more vulnerable when we do have to be in the straight world – we're not prepared, we've forgotten how to repress ourselves in order to stay safe. Also, we’ve ceased to benefit from the good parts of cross-cultural exchange, like staying open to folks who are different from us and seeing the ways in which we are all human, with hearts and pains that maybe aren’t so different after all. There's a balance that needs to happen – ultimately I feel like society really needs a diversity that includes us, so while I'd like us to nurture ourselves in our alternative society, I still hope that we will somehow share our freakiness with the larger culture. I don't want us to close our hearts to people who are different from us. I think real, lasting, liberating change is made by people with open hearts. Working consciously to love ourselves puts us in a position to model that love to others.

And following on from that question, who influences and supports you?

My heroes are explorers who keep asking questions, who are doing their own inner work and trying to integrate it with their activism. My heroes are the artists whose lives are their medium. I am supported every day by many people, both in my life and in the world, who don’t stop trying to walk their talk. I have a wonderful family who keeps loving me through the hard stuff.

What were FaT GiRL's greatest achievements?

A dozen years later, people still write to me to say that FaT GiRL saved their lives. I have literally received hundreds of these messages, and every time it makes me cry. Saving a life is a tall order! We really helped somebody! And these are people who are making amazing contributions to life, to art and activism. Is it possible to be both proud and humbled? That's kind of how it feels to me. FaT GiRL became so much bigger than us, and its reverberations were/are magnificent for such a small thing!

FaT GiRL spread the word among a certain generation of freaky fatties that we can have an alternative society where we are valued, we can have community, sexuality, joy, and full lives as fat queers – without dieting or assimilation or apology. I think we had some influence on fat awareness and acceptance in the larger queer culture, and possibly elsewhere too, but that's hard to measure. FaT GiRL was unique, but it was also part of a movement that included the lives and work of Nomy Lamm, Marilyn Wann, Charlotte Cooper (that's you!), Allyson Mitchell and so many others.

What does fat activism feel like?

That's a hard question!

Lately I've been doing the kind of fat activism where I am the only fat person among thin people who've never heard of fat activism. It can be really draining! It's in the context of a social justice organisation I'm really committed to, and the people want to be fat allies, and are more open to it than most, so I press on, but sometimes I really need a break!

There's also a kind of fat activism that takes place amongst fat people, in the process of connecting and becoming allies, and then maintaining the relationships. Sometimes fat people are really scared of other fat people – they look at you and see what they don't want to be: FAT. Sometimes a fat person who's been a proud fat activist for years will get scared about getting older and more disabled, and their fears get pinned on being fat, so the fat activism gets chucked out the window. People will trade fatness (via surgery and other extreme measures) for horrible, painful health problems. It's really challenging to know how to keep being good to ourselves and each other through that stuff. It's painful for the whole fat activist community, really.

I feel like the struggles we have as a community call upon us to do our own internal fat activism. We need to be deeply aware of all our beliefs and fears. We need to let it all come out and look at it, and decide what parts of ourselves we want to nurture and what parts we don't. It's got to be a conscious effort. If I'm harbouring fears and rejections of parts of myself, and not letting myself see or admit them, those are going to come out later in my behaviour. I must not hide from myself. This is part of fat activism for me – full acceptance of my body and my experience, and making very conscious decisions about how I want to treat myself. It's a constant process, and not easy. But without it I'd be dead, pure and simple. It's the constant questioning of both the external world and the internal world that has kept me from jumping ship on life. Society lies to us, and the internal critic – the bit of society that lives within us – lies to us too. We need to question all the external and internal messages we hear, open our hearts and decide for ourselves what is true.

Could you say a bit about your journey into meditation?

Several years ago I noticed myself getting increasingly bitter about life. I was miserable – hating just about everything and everyone. I was truly scared about who I was becoming. I felt like I had become dead – totally shut down to life. It was clear to me that I needed to do something to change the direction of my life. I ended up at a local meditation centre taking a class that involved cultivating qualities like generosity and gratitude. Definitely an antidote to bitterness! I went every week to that class and cried and cried as I started uncovering my heart. The class was only six weeks long, but it really helped me begin to redirect my approach to life. After that I started going to a weekly queer meditation group, and going on occasional day- or week-long silent meditation retreats.

I try to keep a schedule that gives me space to sit in silence for 45 minutes almost every day, just trying to be fully present in the moment with myself. It’s a vital component of being fully alive for me. It’s easier for me to go through my daily life and see what state of mind I’m in at a given moment, and make better choices about how I want to act or what I want to say. It’s easier for me to handle the bumps in the road of life. It increases my ability to have compassion for myself and others in the face of shame, bitterness, anger, and all the other hard stuff.

My main practice happens at East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland, the city where I live. I have a very special love for EBMC because their whole mission is rooted in aligning the forces of mindfulness practice and social justice. I'm very active there, not just meditating, but also organising and other work that helps keep the centre going. It's a great opportunity to bring my meditation practice into the other work I feel passionate about, and it's such incredible teaching for me to be doing active work with folks who have been doing meditation for decades. They really bring it with them into the work, and inspire me to pay attention and bring patience and compassion into all aspects of life.

You seem to be someone who's often at the centre of things, others have noted how great you are at creating community, yet you are so laid back, sometimes even quite shy it seems. I often think all the activity is because you're really good at asking questions, but what do you think is going on?

I think there actually might be a genetic component, which sounds a little ridiculous, but my sister and parents also tend to be at the hub of things, too.

One thing that comes to mind is that I’m very enthusiastic when it comes to starting projects that feel important to me, and when I’m in that state, I tend to get very focused and driven, so I initially work really hard to get a project together, and in a way it becomes part of my identity. It’s a mixed blessing, because after a while I just can’t sustain that amount of energy output, and it gets harder to keep following through. It’s true that I’m a bit shy – a lot of being so public and social produces a certain amount of anxiety for me and at some point I need to withdraw and recover a bit, which is also more difficult when a project becomes part of your identity. It's challenging, and something I'm working on.

Please tell me about your household's pickling projects.

A few years ago I started developing an interest in making my own sauerkraut. I’m interested in learning something about the culture of my ancestors. As a European-American whose grandparents and great grandparents came to America and assimilated into the generic privileged construct of Whiteness, I was raised with absolutely no clue about my ethnic heritage, even though, for example, my dad was the first generation on his dad’s side (from Friesland) to be born in America. One of the aspects of culture that’s easiest to access is food. I love pickled foods, and they’re common among several of my ancestral cultures, hence the interest in sauerkraut.

My housemates were sceptical when I first broached the subject, and they begged me not to do it in the house because they imagined rotting cabbage would stink up the place. I thought maybe I’d set it up in the garage, but that seemed like a pain, so my drive was thwarted.

Then I got my hands on a book about pickling called Wild Fermentation, which happened to be written by a freaky queer guy named Sandor Katz, and even included a discussion of gender pronoun choices. My interest was renewed, and so I started pushing the issue again with my housemates. Around that time my housemates and I went to a party where someone happened to have brought their very own homemade sauerkraut. It tasted incredibly good, and we spent quite a long time grilling the maker with questions about it. Satisfied that it would not make our kitchen smell like a port-a-potty, my housemates gave me the go-ahead. That was over a year ago now, and pickling has become a constant activity in our kitchen. We’ve pickled cabbage, garlic, carrots, celery, ginger, squash, cucumbers, peaches, green beans, beets, radishes, onions, lemons, limes, turnips, cauliflower, peppers, and probably a dozen other things I’m forgetting. And of course pickling is common to many cultures around the world, so while it is a delicious and fun way to eat what my ancestors ate, it’s also become a geekiness unto itself to discover what different cultures do with pickling. And my girlfriend, who is a total dynamo in the kitchen, is at least as into pickling as I am, perhaps even more so. I call her 'Kraut Papa.'

What else would you like to say?

Well, I’d really like to take this opportunity to say how much I appreciate you, Charlotte. I am hugely grateful for you, how alive you are, how you strive to be awake and honest, asking hard questions, generating lots of fun and laughter and freedom along the way. You help me remember who I want to be in this life. (Charlotte: blub! I love you Maxie!)

Max's Comics
FaT GiRL back issues for sale
East Bay Meditation Center

30 October 2009

Media: stereotyping fat activists like Kathryn Srodecki

Kathryn Szrodecki's piece for the BBC about discrimination against fat people has sparked a flurry of UK media interest that is making me want to bang my head against the wall.

In theory you'd think that more recognition for fatphobia would be a good thing. Some fat activists are glad that these stories are appearing, and whilst I agree that it's probably better they're out in the world, I'm not pathetically grateful for this representation. Accounts such as the attack on Marsha Coupe are being presented through the prism of a fatphobic media whose only language for fat is steeped in prurience and tragedy, they bring to mind the disability activist slogan: Piss on Pity.

This BBC news web's magazine article is one such related piece. It makes me want to scream, and not just because of the preposterous headless fatty measuring his tummy that they've chosen to illustrate it. Why this picture, picture editors? Why? Why?

Firstly, the promo link (the little link with the picture that leads to the main article) features the text: "Why do some of us hate fat people so much?" What does this text say about the assumed reader of the piece? Who is this "us"? The subtle language in this tiny little link normalises hatred as just one of those things that some of us project.

Secondly, the fat people in the article have their weights listed, but nobody else does, especially not the professionals quoted. I don't understand this. Is it to assure the reader that these people are really, properly fat? Their weights are helpfully given in imperial and metric measures too, what's with that?

Thirdly, there's the reliance on The Expert to explain things for us. Unfortunately Obesity Experts have little expertise in my life, especially not the 'specialist' at a 'university hospital' and 'honorary medical director' Dr Ian Campbell of Weight Concern, who is trotted out once again to give his moronic and ill-informed comments. Whilst hand-wringing about stigma (which has nothing to do with his work in 'Obesity' apparently) he is quoted here as suggesting that hatred is innate. "The result is the people who need the most help don't seek it. They are left feeling guilty and undeserving." This seems compassionate at first sight but the kind of help he's talking about is very limited because his only frame of reference for fat people is as medical management projects. Nowhere is the suggestion that help could involve getting some rad fatty politics, for example, or finding fat community that isn't tied to weight loss in some way. And I don't feel guilty or undeserving of Weight Concern's attention, they can sod off, they're part of the problem but are unable to see it. (The BBC links to Weight Concern too, imagine the traffic they must get, lovely free publicity).

Lastly, this article is loaded with clichés. 'Some people are fat and happy,' 'people who hate fat people do so because they hate themselves'. Fatness, bodies, embodiment, hatred, stigma, these are all ferociously complicated parts of human experience. This kind of journalistic simplification reduces the complexity into meaninglessness.

Snarking on the media has become the main focus of much fat activism, usually without any knowledge of how media is produced. I find this tiresome, a dead end that rarely translates into action, and an activity that makes me feel shitty and powerless. Anyone can bitch about the abundance of crappy representations of fat people, it's so easy to do, but how can the situation be made better? What would it take to improve fat representation? Is such a thing even possible given the vast spread of media today?

Creating media toolkits and training for journalists might be an option, but these too are problematic in terms of whose interests they represent, or their relationship to censorship. Having our own Experts might also help, but the activism that is meaningful to me supports the democratisation of expertise, The Expert is a paradigm that doesn't work for me, which means that having a handful of representatives is also going to be a sensitive issue. Taking control of media and making our own media makes sense to me, though this will likely always be a small-scale endeavour.

Is it possible for mainstream media to get it right? Just so you know, Jezebel.com has been producing some righteous fat-related content lately, thanks possibly to an alliance with Kate Harding, they even have a fatpanic tag, though as usual don't bother reading the comments.

Interview: Erin Remick

Her best friends are a dinosaur and a cat, and when she looks in the mirror she sees a demented panda. Welcome to Erin Remick's all-singing all-dancing world o' fat activism. Fat Dinosty, her beautiful video series, has enjoyed screenings to appreciative audiences in the US, UK and Germany, and her longer work, Embodied Revolution, explores the intersections between bodies, difference, identity and more. I wanted to know more about this gal and her projects, so I sent her an email and asked her some questions. Luckily she replied, and this is what she said.

How did you get into fat stuff?

My lovely friend Nora Bee got me into fat activism. I’m not sure if she realises this but she totally nudged me into my first moments of body consciousness. I like using the word conscious because I feel like it implies deep personal reflection and work versus limiting our thoughts about bodies to what the surrounding culture and media has to say. I’ve always been sceptical of beauty ideals, and have probably been a feminist since I understood what the word equality meant, but I never realised how much all the negative crap* had infiltrated my body until I met Nora.

Growing up, I kept myself above self-hate by using the phrase, "it’s what is on the inside that counts" as my personal mantra. It only took me 20 years to figure out that ignoring my body so I could focus on my spirituality and brains was detrimental to my personal growth (I was a really religious and nerdy kid). Nora really helped me with that by being my friend and one of the first people who ever talked candidly to me about their body without hesitation, question, or insecurity.

My second nudge, which was more like a punch in the gut, came from Gloria Anzaldúa. In high school I had read This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color, edited by Anzaldúa and Cherríe Moraga. It was probably the first feminist book I ever read and it completely shaped my activism and feminist identity. A few years later it was reading Interviews/Entrevistas, a compilation of interviews with Anzaldúa, which drastically shifted the way I thought about my body and all bodies.

Anzaldúa is often noted for her writings about the borderlands but much of her work focusing on bodies and spiritual activism has been overlooked. At a very young age Anzaldúa began to separate herself from her body due to a rare hormonal dysfunction that left her in immense pain starting in early childhood, much of her writing about bodies entails the personal journey of remembering her own.

Her pain and separation felt very real to me and pushed me to go back into my life and essentially remember my own body’s history. A lot of the writing I’ve done for myself and in my zine tends to focus on that concept of remembering. I guess you can say that Anzaldúa reminded me that I exist on this planet in a body. It’s a bit strange when I put it that way, but I think that’s the truth. Everything I do for body activism is because of and for Gloria Anzaldúa and her life’s work. I get kind of choked up thinking about it sometimes because I truly do not know where I would be without her words in my life.

*that’s my eloquent term for fatphobia, queerphobia, sexism, etc etc

How do you explain Fat Dinosty to people who have never seen it?

It’s about a fat girl, me, and a dinosaur, Sebastian, who have lots of fun while deconstructing fatphobia and other bad stuff. Oh, and there is an androgynous kitty too!

Hmmm.. maybe it’s just one of those things you have to see to understand.

What are your plans for Fat Dinosty?

Well, I’m currently writing the next episode and planning to shoot at the end of November if all goes well. I’m actually going to school right now for a video production certificate, so I’m hoping to take advantage of the fancy equipment while I can and maybe even work on Fat Dinosty for a class project, now wouldn’t that be awesome?

I definitely want to keep the series going. My sweetheart is helping me a lot with the writing and that’s a lot of fun. I think we’re a good team.

It’s been so amazing to see the response to the project. That definitely keeps me motivated and upbeat about it all as well. I’m all about bringing more fat positivity into the video realm, and it’s pretty clear that Sebastian is needed in the world!

I'm interested in how you use cuteness in Fat Dinosty, these films are amazingly cute, so cute, insanely cute! Is cuteness a conscious decision, or an activist strategy for you? Tell me about the cuteness!

This question is really funny to me because a few years ago I wrote an alarming amount about cuteness and its relation to fat.

I’ve been called 'cute' all my life but rarely anything else like 'sexy,' 'attractive,' 'hot,' 'beautiful,' etc. In my contemplating, I linked this phenomenon to the idea that my fatness somehow made people think I looked childish and therefore 'cute.' Part of my deconstructing involved a lot of consideration about my chubby hands and how they remind me of little kid hands. I still feel a lot of truth in this theory and often believe I’m not taken seriously because I’m fat, or like someone would like to pat me on the head when I do something good. It’s weird but I totally feel it. For a lot of us fat folks, growing up we are told we will 'grow out of' our 'baby fat.' So, in some weird way, it’s like the world thinks I haven’t grown up when they have because I still have baby fat and therefore haven’t acted enough like an adult to grow out of it.

Maybe Fat Dinosty is my subconscious attempt to debunk this by being ridiculous and grotesquely cute. I like to think of it that way. Plus I really like to draw people in with cute shiny things and then make them learn something or think differently about an issue without realizing it until they’ve been brainwashed. Yes!

Embodied Revolution brings together gender and body activism. What is it that makes these such crucial intersections? How can activist alliances be built around gender and body stuff? I think it can be hard to create bridges between communities where there may already be fat- and/or transphobia.

My own activism greatly focuses on the intersection of oppressions and understanding the importance of this when creating movements for social change. When I originally set out to film Embodied Revolution I intended to focus on interviewing people involved in gender activism but that shifted into something much more inclusive as the project progressed. I learned so much just by talking with people and found within these stories a very simple connection, the body. Over and over it became clear that most of this work focused on healing communities that had experienced discrimination based on physical appearance.

One of the most enlightening comments for me came from Amanda Piasecki, a fat activist who considers herself a body autonomist. She said that fat bodies are generally considered public property and can be commented upon without question or consequence. This concept of bodies being public property can also be applied to folks who fall somewhere outside of the 'appropriate' gender roles set by our culture. The more and more I started to consider this idea, the more I realised how much it applied to a great deal of 'isms.' Our bodies are constantly being judged for one reason or another; skin tone, shape, ability, fat content, sex, symmetry, gender presentation, etc. It seems simple to me that the fight for equality often begins with the body. We all fight, every day, for the right to live in this body we’re given without being questioned, judged, discriminated against, or attacked. That message should ring true to nearly every social justice movement. Although it’s a simple concept it can be a powerful way to connect all these issues on an incredibly tangible and for some, even a spiritual level.

I definitely feel you when you say it’s hard to create bridges within communities when there may be fatphobia/transphobia. I think a lot of this goes back to the idea that bodies are considered public property. We’ve kind of learned from the media, our families, and peers, what bodily things are okay to judge people for. Fat and gender both generally exist in the 'it’s okay to comment and place judgment' category, which can make it incredibly difficult to go into a situation where you know this to be true. Sometimes all I have to do to deal with something like that is to remember how far I’ve come within my own self-acceptance and to remember that no matter what a person might appear to look like, pretty much everyone has experienced body hatred at some point. I think it’s valuable to focus on how our issues are similar and create a common bond with that, then open up about what our needs are as a fat community, or genderqueer community, or what have you.

What needs to happen for people to be able to see this film?

Sadly, I haven’t done a showing in over a year but I’m definitely open to it. I’ve also considered having copies made to sell for a good while but financially I have just not been able to do it. Originally I thought that I would be travelling and showing the film more, but life happens I guess. Part of me thinks that I stopped focusing so much on that simply because I still consider the film a work in progress. It was for my senior thesis and initially I was planning on creating a 20 minute piece but, as things like this often do, it sort of took a life of its own and decided to be much more than that. Because it was for my thesis I ended up having to edit a 90 minute documentary in 6 months, hello stressful and challenging! There are a lot of voices that got left out in the rush and lots of ideas I’d like to revisit in the future. Aside from that, I do believe it’s important that people have access to the film to be able to hear about the social justice work that the amazing interviewees are involved in. I try to keep in touch with anyone who wants copies and figure out a way to get one to them. So yeah, if you want one just email me and I’ll try to work something out!

What kind of films would you like to make in the future?

I really want to make a young adult fantasy movie with queer leading roles. I’m still embarrassingly obsessed with fantasy movies like Return to Oz and The Neverending Story from my childhood. I think working on something like that would be the most magical and thrilling thing.

Other than that, I would love to film more documentaries. Working on Embodied Revolution was so empowering for me and just felt good. Making documentaries completely validates people and what they do/who they are. I read this book once called The Feminine Face of God where this woman interviewed women from a wide range of religions and spiritual practices who were considered spiritual leaders in their communities. In the intro, the author talked about how some of the women cried when she asked them to participate in the book because no one had ever asked them to talk about that part of their lives before. I thought about that a lot when shooting and editing Embodied Revolution. So much passion and work goes unrecognised. I can’t believe the stories and inspiration that exists around me, sometimes it’s too much to even think about!

People fascinate me and making documentaries lets me ask questions that I normally would not or could not ask in a regular setting. I’m a really introverted person but if I have an excuse, like making a documentary, to get to know someone and hear their story then it’s the perfect way to get over my shyness.

I think I am a sociologist at heart so it makes sense that I have such an interest in documentaries. I’d like to go to grad school for sociology at some point and find a way to link my video skills with this study. My main interest is social justice movements, it’s super fascinating to me how they are created and sustained. I can see myself interviewing hundreds of people about their activism and some day making a series about it all. It is very important to me that the stories and personalities involved in creating social change are not lost or forgotten. I definitely feel like documenting the people involved in these movements is going to be a huge part of my life’s work.

What's next for you?

Right now I’m pretty focused on getting through this certificate programme and getting my foot into a door, any door, in the industry. Up until now I’ve mostly been a self-taught filmmaker. It’s been really great learning all of the little details that make video go from being good to amazing. I’m really starting to feel more like an artist in the editing room and that’s a great place to be.

Other than that, my sweetheart and I are working quite diligently on a week-long body image workshop for a conference this summer. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a long time and it’s wonderful to be working on. We would both like to bring it to even more communities in the future. One of our other collective future hopes in life is that we can buy some land and start a fat positive camp for youth. I’m all about people accepting and loving their bodies from an early age!

What else would you like to say?

Bodies are amazing things, don’t forget to treat yours well and appreciate it every day!

Dirty Love
Erin's YouTube Channel

Embodied Revolution

29 October 2009

Report: Chubsters Gang Meeting in Hamburg

Back in March the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival at the British Film Institute hosted an event called Invasion of the Chubsters. Ines Voigt and Gesine Claus from Hamburg's Lesbisch Schwule Filmtage were there. Ines had the idea of doing something similar in Germany, she emailed me and eventually we worked something out and it all pulled together.

So last week we all held a Chubster Gang Meeting in Hamburg, at a beautiful cinema called B-Movie, as part of the film festival. The event was supported and documented by Bildwechsel, an incredible feminist-queer-trans-etc archive and arts organisation. The screening sold out, some people sat in the aisles, and the atmosphere was warm and friendly and good.

We showed our miniature Chubster video, and some footage from the Fat of the Land. I talked about some film clips of Divine and Marianne Sägebrecht, and showed off a lot. There were some short films by and about fat queer themes, and time for questions and answers afterwards.

There were some subsidiary events too: Butch Husky, Weasel and I were interviewed on the red sofa at the Nachtbar, an amazing semi-squatted after-hours club and hangout that exists for the duration of the festival. It was a hoot. I got interviewed for the super-duper Hugs and Kisses magazine, here's the English version (.pdf, 56kb).

It was a big thrill to attend the festival. I dream of queer-fat culture that isn't in English. I wonder if at last I can start to look east into Europe and beyond, rather than west to the US, for rad fat community and activism. I hope so. The festival hosted some impressive work, and I feel excited by the possibilities for building links in Germany and beyond.

I want to give gigantic and grateful thanks to Ines and Gesine for welcoming me and my fellow Chubsters to Hamburg. Thanks also to the excellent Bildwechsel, Hugs and Kisses, and the Filmtage organisers for making our stay a complete delight.

19 October 2009

Revisiting What's Eating Gilbert Grape

I watched What's Eating Gilbert Grape again last night for the first time since it came out in 1993. There are spoilers here, don't read any more if that kind of thing bothers you, or go and read a synopsis if you're unfamiliar with it. Anyway, it's a film that gets name-checked because of its cast, made up of people who have gone on to conquer Hollywood, but it's extraordinary to me because of its depiction of a superfat woman in a dramatic role. This is something that never happens, and today I can imagine that same role might easily be cast to a thin actor wearing a fatsuit, for whatever stupid fatphobe war on obesity reason.

I'll get the bits I'm not so keen on out of the way first. Yes, Bonnie Grape is a downbeat character, she's dependent, a sad couch potato, tragic, and has to die, though I'm glad to see that actor Darlene Cates is still going strong at 61. The film is a right old schmaltz-fest, and the incidental music is really annoying. I won't go into the representational stuff about Leonardo DiCaprio's portrayal of a learning disabled person, but that's there too.

But here's what I like: Bonnie is complicated, she can be fierce, she is loving and loved, and just as flawed as any of the other characters. I like the depiction of people's reactions to Bonnie and how they affect her, not just the cruel stares, but also her family's love. I love the authenticity that Cates brings to the role. I think it's amazing that she's neither depicted as virtuous or villainous, and I love the way that her heft and bulk is shown, that seems very real and quite daring to me. The director, Lasse Hallström, picks up on her screen children's shame (and guilt about their shame) about their mother really sensitively. He's not suggesting that all families where there is a fat person experience this, it's localised to the family in the film, and well-observed, I think.

Most of all, I like to think about the Hollywood pretty people in the film, that they act together with Cates. It's appalling to think that they all went on to have amazing acting careers, and hers was more modest in comparison. Yet in this film, here they are, all together, in each others' worlds as equals. A really fat woman is shown as having space and presence in the world, she's not absent or abstract, and she's played by a real fatty. It's a great mix-up, though also a reminder of how little similar representation there is of characters like Bonnie Grape.

The war on obesity as a conflict map

I've been working on a paper about the war on obesity, using conflict analysis models to explore the war a bit, and thinking about the material reality of this metaphorical war. A little while back I wrote a piece about Foresight and their Obesity Maps, which I think are baloney (yeah, that's the official term). But clearly I am just as obsessed as they are in trying to create graphic interpretations of systems and processes.

Anyway, I wanted to share a conflict map I made and would welcome feedback and suggestions. The difference between my work and theirs is that I am able to recognise that there are critical voices in this system, and I don't base my analysis on the idea that fat people are fat because of problems with energy balance. Oh, and I haven't been funded millions of pounds of public money to produce this, which shows, of course, I did it in Word. I'm DIY all the way, baby!

The map shows people, organisations and entities that I think are central to the war on obesity. I've tried to draw the blobs in sizes relative to how I see their power. The stuff that I find myself critical of, as a fat activist, probably don't think of themselves as a unified entity, hence they are grouped within a dotted line. Other lines and arrows indicate relationships, which may or may not be mutual. Lightning bolts indicate a conflict, and these too are directional. The stuff in the bottom left-hand corner are 'shadow organisations', ie things that influence the war but are not chief antagonists. I've put media there because I think that the war on obesity is not their reason for existing, even though they enflame that war in profound ways. Also, hehehe, my word processor does not recognise Bariatric.

What have I missed? How could it be better laid-out? I tried to keep it to A4 but it's a bit of a crush and some of the edges got lost when I pdf-ed it. Any fat-friendly graphic designers in the house want to have a go at it? Tell me what you think. Also, is this an indication that I'm losing my marbles and should get out more often? Hey, don't cross the road, I'm talking to you!

The war on obesity, a conflict map by Charlotte Cooper, Oct 09 (.pdf, 40kb)

05 October 2009

Chubster stonemasonry

Yes, it is real. It was made by Thomas Appleton, and he is available for commissions. Get in touch if you'd like his details.

Creating intersectional fat activism with The Fat of the Land

The Fat of the Land: A Queer Chub Harvest Festival is an event I co-organised, which happened in London at the weekend.

The Fat of the Land is a secular queerifying of a traditional harvest festival, with food and gratitude, but we used this format to promote fat politics amongst London's queer and trans communities, and created intersections between various entities, such as DIY culture, riot grrrl, fat studies, Health At Every Size, radical gardeners, slow food proponents, punk, craftivism, and more. We had minimal resources to pull it together, but plenty of enthusiasm and help from people. Around 200 people came to the event. It was a massive success.

You can find out more about The Fat of the Land, and the build-up to it, over on the dedicated blog, http://queerchub.blogspot.com (and you'll understand why it has been somewhat quiet over here recently).

My co-organisers and I come from different disciplines and communities, although there is a lot of overlap between us. We all had different ideas concerning what the Fat of the Land was about. This is usually the kind of thing that causes a lot of friction, and I have seen identity politics destroy organisations, time and time again. But instead of trying to force it into one kind of shape, that suited only a limited number of people, we had the luxury of being able to go with what we wanted (for me, it was about building community, sparking ideas, expressing queer-fat culture, and having some fun). This meant that the event was multi-dimensional and expansive, and it showed.

I think that it is good to mix things up, it makes things strong. There were people at the Fat of the Land who I doubt would ever show their faces at more orthodox gatherings of rad fatties. This is partly because they would not be welcomed, they might have the 'wrong' gender, or body size, or history, for example; but also because they might feel that such spaces are irrelevant to them. But the Fat of the Land had many intersecting points and ended up being a dynamic place where there could be a positive meeting of cultures and viewpoints. It ended up being bigger than any one group could have created by themselves. I was delighted to see, for example, a venerable activist from one sphere engaged in a long conversation with an up and coming fat activist; such a meeting would be unlikely elsewhere, and is sure to have sparked new ideas and relationships. It was like the Studio 54 of fat liberation!

These are some of the reasons why I do not support closed spaces, or segregated space. I think that mixing things up can be risky, but that with mutual respect it can be amazingly powerful. I believe that many people must have an investment in fat stuff for extensive positive social change to occur, and that making things welcoming and fun is part of the work of generating people's interest in the issues.

I accept that there are fears of 'the message' being watered down or lost by people who 'don't get it', but I think these fears are overstated. Being fat itself tells you nothing about how a person is, attitude is what counts. Nobody can own or control what people think about fat or any of its intersections, we should accept that people are going to come to this stuff with their own histories and ideas, which we might think about working with, rather than fighting against. I think that there is room in the movement for everyone, we can come to it with our quirks and idiosyncrasies, and that we don't all have to be reading from the same page.

25 September 2009

Research: obesity scholars who ignore fat people

I was mooching around the library at Coventry University recently, I came across Fat Economics: nutrition, health, and economic policy by Mario Mazzocchi, W. Bruce Traill, and Jason F. Shogren (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), and gave it a flick. It made my hair stand on end.

Call me weird but I'm strangely fascinated by high level theory books and reports about obesity policy. I think what fascinates me is how far an idea can go, how rarefied the discourse can become, how unselfconscious people are when they write or opine pretentiously and pompously about fat. Adding to my fascination with accounts such as Mazzocchi et al's is this kind of Emperor's New Clothes effect, that all this stuff sounds reasonable, although overblown, but then you realise it is based on a really wobbly foundation, that is: fat = energy balance, fat = dangerous dysfunction, and fatness = problem to be managed and eradicated. The minute you question these fundaments is the minute that works like Mazzocchi's, or Foresight, lose credibility because they don't critique their basic premise.

Unfortunately the authors of these works do not question those beliefs. Even more unfortunately, they get to be published by extremely well-regarded academic publishing houses, or by official government channels. This is one of the processes that keeps problematic ideas about what it is to be fat in circulation, almost beyond criticism.

The main thing that I want to talk about here though is about how works like Fat Economics make fat people abstract. These are works that do not include accounts by fat people, they are not written by fat people, and fat people have absolutely no voice in these works. It's like the literary equivalent of the headless fatty. Such works refer to fat people as 'the obese', a term which treats fat people, like me, as a nebulous blob of Otherness, with no power or thoughts of our own. Research like this contributes to the notion of fat people as passive and stupid, people whose lives need mediating and explaining by thin 'experts' who arrogantly eye us as interesting scum in a petri dish.

Standpoint Theory takes the position that the best people to talk about a subject are the people directly affected by it. As a general rule of thumb I think this is pretty good, although it's worth bearing in mind that many fat people have internalised cultural messages about the awfulness of obesity, and that fat people are a diverse group rather than one with a generic perspective. It also needs stating that body size is not a good measure of where someone is coming from, attitude counts for a lot and, certainly, there are some very articulate and sound thin people who are currently producing excellent work around fatness. So it's complicated, as ever, just adding some 'voices of the obese' to the mix might not be what is really needed here, a fundamental paradigm shift is what is actually required.

Fat Economics makes universalist claims but only tells part of the story because it does not recognise fat people as having agency or a legitimate voice, and it doesn't seem to take a critically reflexive view of its own claims (I only skimmed the book, so maybe there's a sentence somewhere, but I didn't see it). Imagine how differently it would read if it did take critical perspectives of obesity into account, or was able to own and name its own limited perspective rather than assuming it to be universally true.

What if the authors of Fat Economics had actually talked to some fat activists, or were Fat Studies scholars themselves? What kind of questions would they have been able to ask? What economic questions would you like to ask? Here are some of mine: How much does body hatred cost? What is the financial impact of fatphobia and discrimination against fat people? What is the cost of a Health At Every Size programme compared to a weight loss programme? How much is spent on promoting fatphobia? And on it goes, useful questions that may never be answered because of the limitations of the academy, the wilful ignorance of its researchers, and the lack of political impetus for funding such work.

How to cope with a fatphobic Facebook friend

Here's something you can use when one of your Facebook (or other online social network) Friends posts something fatphobic that gets on your tits. Responding to such posts can often feel risky. Perhaps having something like this can help us feel more brave in speaking out about things that offend us, especially when it's said by someone who's supposed to be a friend. Feel free to cut and paste it to your own Notes, edit it if you want to, and pass it on as a resource for other people to use when writing Comments.

Dear Facebook Friend,

I noticed that you posted something about fat people and I need to tell you that what you posted is not okay with me, in fact I feel insulted by it.

It may be that you are not aware that what you posted might be construed as offensive. Perhaps to you it is interesting, funny, strange, sad, silly, disgusting, or something else. You might be surprised that we could see the same thing so differently.

It would be great if you could take a moment to try and imagine what it might be like for me when I read your post. Maybe bear this in mind when you're thinking of posting things in the future. Even better would be if we could talk about our differences of opinion, and try and work out a way of getting on together without offending each other.

Thanks for reading,

Your Friend

23 September 2009

Research: how to read obesity reports - the evidence

Today is a day of smugness and glee for me because no sooner do I publish my beginner's guide to reading obesity research than the BBC publish a story which perfectly illustrates my case.

Turning a blind eye to obesity, by Clare Murphy, BBC News health reporter.

Shall we count the ways in which this report is a load of crap and further stigmatises fat people? Anyone else care to have a crack at it?

1. It starts with a dehumanised headless fatty.

2. It's based on an online survey, which is methodologically problematic, even more so given that there's no indication of sample size, sampling strategy or the demographic make-up of the sample.

3. It's not quite silly season, but it's not long until pre-Xmas and New Year, both busy times for diet organisations.

4. It's a survey that was commissioned for a weight loss company and reflects their interests, yet the interpretation is presented as hard scientific fact.

5. It makes a lot of unsubstantiated claims:

"Apparently we do not know what's normal any more."

"Meanwhile pictures of children too fat to toddle or the adults so large they need to be hoisted from his house have transformed obesity into a freak show rather than a shared problem."
"Many have found solace in the suggestion that Marilyn Monroe was apparently a size 16: sadly dress sizes have changed dramatically down the decades as our bodies have grown, and those who can squeeze into a size 8 today would not have been able to do so in 1940."

"Everybody knows..."

"Worrying," "potential harm": using unsubstantiated fear and threats which support the taken-for-granted belief that fat is a major problem that is going to get worse.

6. It quotes allegedly impartial medicalised obesity experts from organisations directly funded by weight loss companies and who therefore reflect the values of such companies. All the people here are members or former members of ASO or National Obesity Forum, and Dr Susan Jebb is also a 'health expert' for Rosemary Conley, the hip and thigh diet lady.

7. No fat people consulted, fatties are absent and abstracted here, we are a nebulous and dangerous problem - raaargh.

8. No alternative 'balancing' viewpoints, yeah, like that's ever going to happen.

9. No critical view of BMI, though such critiques exist and are easily accessible. This story even provides a tool to help you calculate your BMI.

10. There are other ways of interpreting the data:

No wonder no one wants to think of themselves as obese in a climate where companies like Slimming World and government policy is doing everything to turn fat people into social pariahs. This is part of the process of dehumanising and Othering fat people.

Goes to show the stupidity in basing health claims on body size. Clearly people feel perfectly okay despite being classified as too fat.

Trying to develop body anxiety and thus new Slimming World consumers in the pre-Xmas period.

Trying to consolidate Slimming World as a reliable provider of obesity data.

The solution to the problem of discrimination against fat people is not weight loss but a change in social attitudes.

Your turn!

22 September 2009

Research: how to read obesity reports

I've been reading quite a bit of obesity research recently and I want to share some of my thoughts about how fat people might read such research with a critical eye.

I know the idea of reading material that is intensely fatphobic is not everyone's idea of fun, but I think it is important that we dip in to this stuff from time to time so that we can: keep up with what they are saying about us; develop better research models for fat; develop a critical eye in order to distinguish between research that provides useful information, and research that makes things a lot worse for fat people.

You don't have to read heavy research reports to get a flavour of current obesity research. This is the stuff that also crops up in news report after news report. You know the type of thing, it starts with a sensationalist headline making some kind of preposterous claim about fatness, there's invariably a picture of a headless fatty, some quote from an obesity expert, and the reiteration that being fat is a very bad thing. What I'm going to say below applies to this kind of report as much as it does to the more formal scholarly publication.

Think of what follows as a mental check-list to help you read material that claims to be obesity science, it's like reading a food label to check for dodgy ingredients. Maybe approach this kind of material in the same way that you might do if you were lifting a rock to have a look at the worms and insects wriggling away underneath, all that stuff is interesting to look at but you're really glad that you don't have to live down there.

1. Check the date, is it silly season? This is the time of year when people are likely to be away on holiday and the media is increasingly desperate to find material to fill its dead air. More stories, especially salacious fat panic reports, get through that would otherwise flounder under quality control guidance.

2. Google any experts that are quoted. Find out their interests, especially how they make a living. It is common for such experts to be paid employees or directors of weight loss companies, or organisations directly sponsored by the weight loss industry, such as the International Obesity Task Force, the Association for the Study of Obesity, the National Obesity Forum, and others. Decide for yourself how neutral or trustworthy an expert you think they are. Also, anyone who refers to themselves as an obesity expert is likely to be a bit of a dick, especially if they are not at all fat.

3. Think about how the news story came to be made. Journalists and editors may twist research findings for the sake of an exciting story (I have done this!). Think of the media as a distorting mirror for research, bear in mind that it has its own vernacular and pressures, that it is likely to simplify, reduce and mis-quote complex research findings, or that stories are often cobbled together quickly from a press release without much quality control.

4. Think about why the research is being done. What kind of starting out assumptions does it make about fat people? Does it begin with a paragraph or two about the perils of the obesity epidemic? Does it appear to question such an epidemic? What is it supporting? Do the researchers use Body Mass Index as a measure of health without any critical understanding of it? Do you think BMI is an accurate representation of heath? What does this tell you about the values implicit in the research? Do the research findings support these values?

5. Where are they coming from? Try and imagine how the researchers might answer if you asked them: do you think being fat is a problem? This can help you work out what kind of perspective they are bringing to their research, which is important but not always stated clearly. You could also ask: do you think fatphobia is a problem?

6. Think about what claims are being made by the research in terms of its scientific purity. Is it claiming to present truth or facts? If so, go back and reconsider the perspectives being put forward by the authors. Remember that 'truth' and 'facts' depend on what people think and believe; 'facts' made by the weight loss industry about fatness vary a great deal from 'facts' that I know about my own fat body, for example. Looking at the research findings, what other versions of the truth could be made?

7. Try and find out who is funding the research. Don Kulick writes in Fat Studies in the UK that all research about pet obesity is produced by pet food companies, for example. I know pets are different to humans, but it illustrates how funding can affect the scope of the research and its findings, which then get reported as facts. Sometimes you may have to dig a little for this information.

8. Think about the process by which the researchers got their hands on the funding. Try to imagine what they might have had to say in order to get the money. Might they have had to downplay any interest in fat politics, for example, or play up their support for the treatment and prevention of obesity? You can't know the answer to this for sure, but who gets the funding and why they get it, and what gets left out, is part of the context for obesity research. Also, what happens to researchers who have no funding?

9. How big is the research sample? By sample I mean the people who are being studied. One of the National Health Service Care Pathways for dieticians in the UK is based on research on a group of nine people. Do you think a study of nine people can make conclusive claims about all fat people? No! So size makes a difference in the outcome of the study.

10. What does the sample look like? If it's a sample of fat people, are they suffering from any prior ailments? This affects research claims made about fat people and health. Is there any acknowledgement or accommodation in the research of social influences on health, for example discrimination? How might discrimination or stigma impact on the sample or affect the findings? How representative is the sample of all the rad fatties you know?

11. How are variables defined and interpreted? Variables are the things that the research is studying, for example weight loss, ethnicity, activity. The way the research is set up means that although variables appear to be neutral, the way they are defined and interpreted is not neutral at all. Here's an example: Jane Ogden, a well-respected obesity expert, presented a paper about weight loss surgery at the Size Matters? conference earlier this year. She defined 'success' as someone who had lost weight after surgery. This means that cases could be defined as 'successful' where the person who had had surgery was suffering terrible surgery-induced health problems, as long as they had lost weight. That doesn't sound like a 'successful' surgery to me, quite the opposite.

12. Have a look at the source material cited in meta-studies about obesity. Such big studies are basically studies of studies, and they sometimes make pompous claims about being very reliable. But if they are based on source material that is not particularly reliable, for any of the reasons I've mentioned here, then their reliability too is questionable. It's also a good idea to see what meta-studies include and exclude, for example do they include material that is critical of taken-for-granted claims about fat? If they don't then they're missing out a lot of important stuff.

13. Ask to see the original data and report, if you can.

14. Think about where the research has been published. Peer-reviewed publications are seen as the gold standard for reliable research, but there have been reports recently about fake journals, people being paid to put their names to dodgy research, and in-house publishers owned by the businesses benefiting from the research. Do some homework and decide on the reliability for yourself.

15. Become a fan of Bad Science and make sure you read this post.

16. Make time for self care after immersing yourself in the strange world of obesity research. Blog or share your findings, do something fun to get any residual fatphobia out of your system. Keep breathing.

Edited to add: I forgot to mention a few more things...

Health. Most obesity research is about fat and health because this is the agenda that most interests upholders of fat panic. Much of my comments here refer to health research. The fact that, aside from researching weight loss, other kinds of obesity research are sidelined also says a lot about what gets funded and what does not, and what is deemed important. If I was the boss of all research funds I would fund a far broader range of stuff, it would be interesting and useful, for example, to know more about the effects of fatphobia on people of all sizes.

Sampling strategies. How researchers find samples also affects the research outcomes. There are books about this, go and have a look at one if you can tolerate this level of geekiness. What I will also say, however, is that the sample is really important, so check for possible bias in it. For example, a study about people's attitudes to fatness based on a sample of fat women who go to Weight Watchers is going to have a different outcome to a study of fat women who go to NOLOSE.

Stats. There's some stuff I could say about statistical maths too, which I won't because I barely understand it myself. Suffice to say that there are different ways of manipulating statistical/quantitative data to provide different research outcomes.

One final thing, a really important thing. Studies may find a correlation, or a relationship, between a number of variables. So a study could find that there's a relationship between fatness and unhappiness, for example. But this doesn't mean that being fat necessarily makes you unhappy. A statistical relationship is just that, not a cause or an explanation.

18 September 2009

Interview: Scottee

What do you do if you're fat and gay as a goose? You can take the Christopher Biggins route and embrace everything that is camp and larger than life, or you can be a bear. Scottee chose a different option: self-expression via the queer avant garde. This performer /designer /social scene must surely be the sweet nephew of our dearly beloved Leigh Bowery, Divine David and Vaginal Creme Davis, and he's still oh so tenderly young and precocious.

What can I say? Scottee is a delight, he brightens every stage and page that dares to host him, and his performance is provocative, imaginative and also sincere. He's obviously got a heap of talent and an extensive address book. From early forays into the club scene with Yr Mum Yr Dad, via his backstreet abortion and tapestry performance at Gay Shame, to new projects in fashion, and other collaborations, he's one to watch. Here's some more...

I've been reading interviews with you online and it looks as though you're someone who leads a fabulous life of performance, dressing-up and parties. How true is this? How do you pay the bills? Also, what are you?

I am what you see I'm afraid: a full time performer. It's lovely that I can just focus on this and pay the bills at the same time, I'm really fortunate.

Can you say a bit more about what being a full time performer means?

Well, let's take this week for instance. I constantly tidy my flat and trawl though loads of emails (I love doing emails, I'm quite shy when it comes down to it, so emails are the best with me). Then I had a business meeting with Patrick Wolf, I'm directing his new video. I filmed a short for The Pixies for their next tour with my friend Judy Jacob, and on Thursday I'm hosting Mika's album dinner. This weekend I've only got one gig at XXL with the Tenor Ladies, then Sunday I think I have rehearsals but I'm not sure. So it's quite a good job when I write it all out like this.

What's The Tenor Ladies?

Tenor Ladies is my concept fatty band I started with fellow chub Sami Knight. We are both performers and have a real love for music from the age, which drag queens bastardized with bad lipsynchs at the Molly Moggs pub throughout the 80s. We are really bored of where music is now, Kate Nash cutouts with mockney accents singing about their boyfriend's lack of penis and the like, so we started Tenor Ladies. We are all about big hair, big voices and big bellies singing big numbers. Its not avant garde in the slightest, but I suppose by default that makes it avant garde. We've got our big winter showcase at the end of this month which I'm really looking forwards to.

Who are the fat queers you most admire?

Hmm. I'm not sure there are many fat queers although I love Amy Lamé, she speaks a lot of sense, and is someone who I feel deserves a lot more gratitude. I think I'm more of a fan of the fatty per se. Dawn French is the best, of course, but that goes without saying. My ideal line-up would be Dawny, Hattie Jacques, Diana Dors and Mama Cass, all in 70s geometric print kaftans, eating my favourite Dors recipe 'Apricot Chiffon'.

What is Apricot Chiffon? I want some.

Its only Diana Dors TVAM favourite-on-a-diet classic. It's like a milky jelly, a blancmange with tinned apricots on the top. Who would have thought?

I'm aware of a trend in fat activism that's concerned with being poster children for healthy living and upstanding citizenship. I think this is to do with refuting ideas that fat people are greedy, lazy, ugly and the rest of it. What I love about the way you present yourself to the world is that you fully embrace a kind of fat grotesque, there's a lot of goo and wobbly chub and yuckiness in your performances, and genderfuck thrown in for good measure. What do you think? Are you consciously rejecting being a well-behaved fatty?

I used to be very uncomfortable with my body and getting it out, when I first landed on the playground/gay scene I got a lot of hassle form gay guys shouting abuse at me in Balans and the like, they made me fear my body but I don't really want to give them any more air time than needed. Us fatsos love to dwell when really we should be thinking about the finer things in life and living positively. If we give them attention they will flourish!

So it wasn't until I realised that if I use my body to my advantage it makes people listen to what I have to say. Usually people are more scared of my body than I am, when I learnt that there was no stopping me! Fat people don't have to be the shy geeks in the corner, we can be the liberated, loudmouthed, nuisance I've become! I want to reject all preconceptions that fat people are unhappy and unconfident, its time for fat rebellion.

What does fat rebellion look like to you?

Lady Gaga covered in custard and La Roux in batter. Eat them all and rid pop of slop!

Do you know Glenn Marla? I can't help thinking that you are doppelgangers and I'd love to see you collaborate or even just be in the same room together.

No I don't, but I've instantly befriended.

Who are your dream collaborators?

Dream collaborators would be Fenella Fielding, the age of the eccentric actress needs to return and she's genius in Carry On. Also, Lisa Stansfield, I do think she is the most beautiful woman to walk this planet and she sings like a dream. David Hoyle too, I could listen to the man talk forever!

I saw Fenella Fielding at Covent Garden Tescos about ten years ago. She looked exactly the same as she did in Carry On Screaming, except older. I like people who pick a look early on in their lives and then stick to it.

I saw her in M&S Covent Garden last year, I loved her three wigs and flash lashes – at lunchtime! She was buying vine leaves, I now buy them too.

Why is your t-shirt £40?

Well to produce XXXXL tees in the UK costs a packet, plus its an old French & Saunders joke: "Forty pounds for a bloody tee shirt, you must be mad!"

What are you working on now?

I'm working towards my solo show 19-21 November called Mess, at Stoke Newington International Airport. The show is about being afraid of our bodily functions and Jonny Woo, Dickie Beau and I will be spending December in Selfridges for a instore panto on stilts. Good huh?

What else would you like to say?

I've just read this back and I'm really old-fashioned! What 23 year-old likes Diana Dors!?

Find out even more:



16 September 2009

Research: Foresight, Tackling Obesities: Future Choices is still a load of rubbish

I've been revisiting Foresight this week, reading the second edition of the project report, published in 2007.

Foresight, Tackling Obesities: Future Choices is the name of a project commissioned by Sir David King KB ScD FRS, Chief Scientific Advisor to HM Government, who was then Head of the Government Office for Science. King commissioned the report because he was concerned about what he thought was the rise of obesity and its cost implications for the UK. The report has become the government's go-to resource in terms of developing anti-obesity policy and has sprouted an Independent Expert Advisory Group.

I wanted to have a look at Foresight again because I'm working on a paper about the war on obesity as a metaphorical conflict, and I'm struck by the repetition of the expression "tackling obesities" in the report. It makes me think of wrestling with an invisible foe, like something Captain Kirk might wrassle with on an old episode of Star Trek. This must be how the report's authors and advisors see fat people, a nebulous enemy that needs taking down by them, and not so far off from the supposed enemies of the war on terror. Obesities is pretentious too, but not as pretentious as 'obesogenic,' which this project may have coined.

I also wanted to revisit it because I noticed recently that two Health At Every Size proponents were using the Obesity System Map fairly uncritically. I think this map is baloney, and that Foresight is no friend to HAES, so I wanted to have a look at the report again and try and see it from their points of view. Could it be a useful tool?

There are more problems with this report than I have time to write about today, but I want to mention a couple of things.

The report is wrong, and wrong in the most amazing ways, because it starts from a popular position that is simplistic, and also wrong. Remember the parable about building a house on firm foundations? This house is built on sand.

King commissioned the report with the explicit belief that obesity is a problem and the implicit assumption that fat people could not also be healthy. I don't think obesity is the problem, I think social attitudes towards fat people go a long way in affecting people's health. I think my health as a fat person is threatened by a health service that tries to withhold treatment from me until I lose weight, or tries to coerce me into profitable but unhealthy weight loss regimens; or the stress and social repercussions of being stigmatised or discriminated against, and the internalised self-hatred this can engender. I think my health is more threatened by these things than by the wobble of my belly, and that the cost to the nation of obesity-related health problems is really about what hatred costs the nation. I also know that the size of one's body does not necessarily correlate with the health of one's habits.

Foresight is fixated on energy balance (calories in + calories expended = body size), a polite, 'scientific' way of blaming fatness on gluttony and sloth, even though they also make confusingly inconsistent genetic claims for fatness. They build fantastically complicated Obesity Systems Maps around this assumption. If this was a project about how to make people eat less and exercise more then it would be more successful, I have no problem with proposals to increase the availability of good quality food, or opportunities to ride my bike. Unfortunately the project is built on the assumption that fatness is synonymous with an energy balance that's out of whack and that therefore fat people must be prevented from existing and eradicated because they cost too much. Rather than working with fat people in a compassionate and respectful way, this is a project that seeks to further disempower, punish, scapegoat and marginalise fat people for daring to exist, instead of using state resources to manage the social systems and structures that contribute to poor health in the first place.

Foresight, Tackling Obesities: Future Choices fascinates me because it says more about state power and its manifestations, values and beliefs than it does about me and my life as a fat person.

The report claims scientific purity a number of times and seems oblivious to the idea that science is also a product of ideology, or might be influenced by such worldly entities as, perhaps, corporate sponsorship by the diet industry. It astounds me that the report can claim to be objective when the list of reviewers and advisors includes professors, Knights, a Lord and a Dame, so firmly is this work entrenched in the values of the establishment and the upper class. This class background is particularly problematic given that a large chunk of the report is concerned with the question of What To Do About Poor Fat People? As is so often the case in obesity research, the notion of nothing about us without us is irrelevant, fat people are absent and abstracted. The battle cry of the war on obesity is that it is a war against obesity, not "the obese" (a term which also abstracts and dehumanises us!), but how does one make the distinction?

In Foresight, Tackling Obesities: Future Choices, the modern world is characterised as a no-good place fast heading for chaos where fatness is linked with climate change. The past is a better place where there were allegedly fewer fat people. Progess is suspicious, the authors decry investment in a potential magic bullet treatment for getting rid of obesity, the way to get rid of fatness lies in solid, puritanical and moralistic endeavours such as taking personal responsibility for the problem, enacting self-surveillance and doing hard work over a lifetime. Whose values are these?

There's a sense of omnipotence hubris about the text, a belief that what is decreed at this high level must surely be a universal law. It would be funny if it weren't so tragic. Yet the authors overestimate their power because they are unwilling and unable to address their critics, and they are far removed from the grassroots movement of people who are busily dismantling their fortress. They know we exist yet they misread us. In the project report there is a tiny mention on page 30 which states: "Obesity has become stigmatised, triggering the appearance of 'fat and proud' movements in the USA." They suggest that this is a debate about appearance rather than health, which is not true, neither is it true that such a movement only exists in the US. I'm intrigued that they call us 'fat and proud' because of course that is the name of my book, though not the name of fat acceptance/size acceptance/fat rights/fat lib, whatever it is this movement is called. And also, of all the possible fat politics resources they could reference, they choose to cite this rather sorry site. My feeling is that, for now, their ignorance is our gain, let's just carry on with our work.

By the way, if you want to have a look at any of these reports, they are massively funded so you can order a range of high production value booklets, CDs, posters and other assorted crap from the project's website and they will be sped to you by courier immediately! For free! I'm not making this up. I could paper my walls with this lovely, thick, heavy, glossy stuff if I had a mind to.