31 March 2009

Report: Invasion of The Chubsters

On Sunday 29 March I was part of an event at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival (LLGFF) called Invasion of The Chubsters. The Chubsters is my gang, remember? I want to write a little bit about what we did and what it was like. I welcome comments from anybody who was there who might like to say something about what it was like for them.

Jason Barker, one of the LLGFF programmers, approached me a few months ago about putting on a programme about fat queers for the festival. We agreed that a Chubsters-based event could be really exciting. We talked about using archive clips from the British Film Institute (BFI), who host the LLGFF, and showing a series of short films from current fat queer activists. We wanted to showcase The Chubsters, show the richness of fat queer culture, and make an event that was really affirming and encouraging. It was great working with Jason, who is a talented film curator, and he had really good ideas for how the event could play out.

The event lasted approximately 90 minutes and was completely sold out. Here's how it was structured:

As people were arriving we had a slideshow on the screen of Chubster members and icons. Then we showed the short Chubster film. Jason introduced three of us Chubsters; me, Weasel (aka Simon Murphy) and Butch Husky (aka Kay Hyatt). We didn't answer to our real names, instead we took to the stage in a surly and aggressive way, bumping into Jason and trying to intimidate him. We wore Chubster colours that we made specially for the occasion, based on the waistcoats that the protagonists wear in The Warriors, except with a Screaming C on the back. I showed the crowd how to do donut hands and encouraged them all to do donut hands back at us.

Butch H and I jumped Jason in by belly-slamming him to the ground and making him pinch more than an inch. His Chubster name is Trans Fatty.

Then Jason introduced me as Charlotte Cooper and we talked about my work for a bit. We introduced a series of archive clips and talked about fat queer themes inbetween.

These were:
Theme: the first fatties I even encountered on screen (Mavis Cruet from Willo The Wisp and Roland from Grange Hill, plus fatties in Carry On films)
Clip: Hattie Jacques as a soft butch in Make Mine Mink
Theme: a short history of fat activism
Clip: Fat Women Here To Stay, an amazing BBC Open Space documentary from 1989, made by the London Fat Women's Group.
Theme: the complicated relationship between fat people and humour
Clip: Hairspray
Theme: the apparent spilt between bear culture and the fat liberation movement, what the two could gain from stronger alliances
Clip: Hard Fat, a film about a queer gainer
Theme: Increasing complexities of fat queer representation on screen
Clip: Fat Girls
Theme: I can't remember! I was too excited and nervous! Stuff about Beth, I guess
Clip: Feminist, Nick Knight's clip of Beth Ditto.

Jason introduced Kori Klima, someone whose name I missed and Allyson Mitchell, whose short films were in the second part of the programme. Kori and the mystery person talked about their guerrilla film-making techniques and about how the film is about being strong in who you are. Allyson talked about Pretty Porky and Pissed Off, the fat activism scene in Toronto, and she paid tribute to me (major blush) and other activists who came before us.

Then we watched the short films. These were:
Ohne Worte, dir: Kori Klima 2003
Rubb My Chubb, dir Alexis Mitchell 2007
Free! Bake! Sale! dir Allyson Mitchell 2004
The Fat Femme Mafia in Trinity Bellwoods Park, dir Chelsey Lichtman and Liz Brockest 2007
Fat Dinosty Episode 1: the thin person inside, dir Erin Remick 2008

Unfortunately we were not able to screen Naima Lowe's Nolose film because of technical problems. However, I have a few of the BFI's official programme notes from the screening. Let me know if you want a copy and I'll post one to you. Many of these short films and clips are available online.

Jason and I thanked various people, including "the motherfucking BFI" for supporting radical fat queers, and then Chopin Gard came onstage as Mama Cass and sang Make Your Own Kind of Music, with a prologue audio cut-up of diet talkclips from Gillian McKeith. As he sang, there was a spontaneous stage invasion by The Chubsters and members of the audience, everybody danced and sang along! It was incredible!

After the screening, Weasel, Butch H and I jumped in 30 new Chubsters. I'll update the site with their details soon.

It's hard to write about what the event meant to me because it was so overwhelming. It really felt as though our time in the spotlight had come! The BFI looked after us all, and were enthusiastic about the programme.

The feedback has been fantastic, many people were blown away by the event, including those who had never considered fat activism before. Some people said that it was the best event at the festival. I am still getting emails from those who loved it, some BFI staff got jumped-in as Chubsters, a BFI bigwig thanked us twice for doing the event, saying that this is exactly the kind of thing they want to deliver, even the projectionists were delighted at being thanked for their hard work. There is also footage of the event, which may become a news story. There are photographs, I will post them when I can.

But yes, what does it mean?

- Lots of people are so ready for talking about fat stuff and doing fat activism. They know there is something "out there" and there are opportunities for showing them exactly what lies beyond obesity epidemic rhetoric and fatphobia.
- A national British institution has supported us and might support us again in the future.
- It is really important that some fat activism is fun, inclusive and accessible.
- I feel profoundly encouraged and deeply inspired by fat culture, its histories and possibilities.
- There are already new activist developments in the pipeline thanks to this event, some of us are starting to think bigger. This is miraculous, in my opinion, knowing that we work with legacies of self-hatred, silencing and marginalisation.

18 March 2009

Interview: The Fat Femme Mafia

The Fat Femme Mafia are a pair of rad fatties from Toronto whose approach to activism involves the sophisticated application of choreographed madness and jaw-dropping pandemonium. Once seen, never forgotten. Here's more about their methods.

Could you introduce yourselves please?

Hi, I'm Chelsey Lichtman (on the right in the pic), otherwise known as Chelsey Licht-a-Womyn, co-founder of the Fat Femme Mafia and host of the weekly queer performance night in Toronto called Granny Boots.

Liz Brockest is the other half of the FFM. She is a working womyn right now so I'm taking over duties of conducting this interview because I am unemployed.

What is the Fat Femme Mafia?

The Fat Femme Mafia is a sorta-on-hiatus fat activist and performance duo based in Toronto that has been around for about three and a half years. We have performed and facilitated workshops on a variety of issues pertaining to FAT and body politics across the universe. Basically, we aim to change the world by wearing shiny outfits and talking to people about their bodies, and about how fucked-up popular culture is. We are all about making our own culture to counteract the shit that is out there in the mainstream that tells us to change our bodies, to hate our bodies, to obtain an undefined perfect body.

How did the video of you frolicking about in the park come about? It looks so spontaneous, was it? And is this how you usually spend your time?

We wanted to make a video to follow up the short documentary that was made about us close to the time of our birth called Rubb my Chubb: Fat Activism and The Fat Femme Mafia by Toronto filmmaker Alexis Mitchell. We wanted to capture us and some other fat sexpots in public doing something, anything that would make our skin jiggle and ripple as much as possible. We wanted the video to be part public space takeover, part exhibition, all fat fun! We had help from the well known local filmmaker Adam Garnet Jones who shot it, and Lukas Blakk who edited it for us. We were just the pretty faces.

The disruption of public space is something we are often invested in. We pride ourselves on shaking up people's ideas about fat bodies as well as making our bodies (and our friends' bodies) as visible as possible. It was sorta planned in that we invited people to the park and brought some toys. Everything else was done flying by the seat of our pants, or bikini bottoms.

You seem to have a knack for creating mayhem, could you talk a little about this? How can mayhem be a tool for fat activism?

Maybe the urge to shock the public stems from our anger about how fat bodies are represented in popular culture and within the medical-industrial-complex. Maybe sometimes we get so angry about how OUR bodies are spoken about and appropriated that the only way for us to reclaim ourselves is to cause major disruption and mayhem! It's like the way kids 'act out' when they don't get what they want.

We want to disrupt the system that works to keep fat bodies under a constant microscope, that isn't very forgiving to us, and the way we do that is by causing ruckus. It feels great for us to take control and dictate the meaning of a space for a few minutes. This kind of fat activism works for us because we aren't shy about drawing attention to our bodies which are often a source for discomfort when we bare them in public. As we said above, we like to make our bodies as visible as possible.

Maybe if our bodies were skinny and partaking in some of the same activities, it wouldn't be considered mayhem! But because our bodies are pathologised so much by mass culture, when we get naked or semi-naked in public to make a statement, for some fatphobes it feels like their world is crashing down on them, which for us equals SUCCESS.

What do you think of skinny people?

Uhhh some of them are nice? No just kidding...we love our allies right? But sometimes we feel like our lives would be much easier if we were skinny too and then other times we realise that we wouldn't be who we are if we were skinny. Oftentimes we just sorta feel like they don't get it. Especially the ones who seek to fraternize with us by complaining about how fat they are. And when we ask them, "What size pants do you wear?" and they say, "I don't know. Like I think I'm a size 4?" we want to force feed them ice cream and big macs. Skinny people are alright but we really love fat people.

What are three things that would make the world a better place for fat people?

1. The abolition of the diet industry
2. A more creative advertising industry that doesn't rely on women's bodies to sell ALL their products, from men's deoderant, to hand cream, to cookies.
3. So basically the end of patriarchy

What else would you like to say?

We want our own talk-show. We want to revolutionise the way the world thinks about and sees fat people. We sometimes eat Mcdonalds and sometimes eat organic. We live for fresh croissants and our fat community across the world. We live for gold lamé and songs about fucking sexy fat bitches. We mostly love being fat and always love that we have each other to talk about the times that we don't.

15 March 2009

Interview: Naima Lowe

I am lucky in that I am part of an incredible community of politicised and smart fat people. This is no accident, I am interested in building and being a part of radical fat communities because, what can I say, these are the people who sustain and support me in many different ways, and I love them.

So I want to pay tribute to some of the radical fatties in my life for whom fatness is a significant part of who they are, what they put out into the world, how they see things. Here begins an occasional interview series.

Naima Lowe currently lives in Philadelphia and she makes stuff, art mostly. I'm not going to say too much else as an introduction because I think her own words shine out clearly, suffice to say: she is RAD. I love her, and I hope you do too.

I read some of your films, and maybe performance too, as being about examining hidden African-American history, and I'd like to know why that could be a focus for you.

It's interesting that you'd see my work as being focused on hidden African-American history. The stories that underpin my film, Birthmarks, about my dad and the 1967 Newark Riots, feel so un-hidden to me, so much a part of the fabric of how I've grown up. African-American art and music and history were pretty essential in my home growing up, and it doesn't surprise me that I've ended up interested in these stories as an adult. I suppose the story of Mary Fields, or Stagecoach Mary (a Black Cowgirl that I'm doing a long performance/film/installation about) is something more hidden... But the connection I see between all the projects is with mythologies and collective memory. I'm fascinated by the fact that I (along with many other people) have an appreciation for moments in history like the Civil Rights Movement because they are so important to our lives and identities, but we don't have any direct personal contact with those time periods. What does it do to our consciousness to be attached yet detached to something so important?

I love the way you do collaborative work, and the ways in which you involve your family in your work. Could you say a bit about that please?

Yes, it is true. I collaborate on almost all of my work. In fact, it has gotten so that anything that I don't collaborate on feels somehow hollow. Part of the reason that I collaborate is pragmatic. Having other people to be accountable to means that I'm more likely to get shit done. I also really believe in the aesthetic and political complexity that can come out of collaboration. I've found that by listening the other people as they go through a process of trying to understand something challenging (racial injustice, fatphobia, identity crisis, whatever else) I am able to see the nuances of my own struggles more clearly, and I allow myself to go places I might not otherwise go.

Could you tell me a story about what it's like being a fat, black, woman, femme, queer, activist, filmmaker (please rearrange and re-edit those identifiers, I'm merely taking a guess) in the academy?

Hmmm, I'll tell you when I get there! To the academy, I mean. I'm only sort of joking. As in, I studied and got an MFA in Film and Media, and now I'm trying to get a full time teaching job so that I can be fully instutionalised by academia. This is something that I really want for myself, and it is something that sort of freaks me out.

My father is an academic, and he's struggled in many ways with reconciling all the complicated parts of his being in this sort of weird parallel universe. So this is a world that I grew up around. I really really respect and love this particular cultural industry, because on a fundamental level academia values exploration and invests resources in nerdiness. It is also all about gate-keeping, hierarchies, and setting standards and canons and value systems that so many of us are beholden to. Sooooo, in terms of those aspects of my identity, I don't know.

Sometimes I feel really validated as a complex thinker in academia, which I'm excited for. Being black and a woman and a queer and a fat person feels ok in academia, because we do have some tools for talking about those identities... as long as you don't expect to see yourself represented in very many upper management type of positions, but that's no different than anywhere else.

Being an artist is weird in academia because we're valued, but in some ways as these strangely incoherent cousins who add flavour to the family, but are ultimately asked to sit at the side table. It's weird to bitch about money, because being an academic is such a privileged position, BUT, artists tend to get paid the least in academia, and get the least access to research equipment and funding. As I'm really coming into myself as an artist, I'm learning to see how fucked-up that is.

If I had a university and if I said, "Hey Naima, please come and teach these people about who you are and what you do," what would the first semester curriculum look like?

This is a fun question, and something I've been thinking about a lot because I'm applying to all of these academic jobs. I'd probably do a class on collaboration and artistic process in which we looked at various models of creative collaboration and formed some of our own in order to make projects. I've also been developing this whole concept of personal mythologies and personal pantheons as a way of generating exciting creative projects that are both autobiographical and broadly relevant. I'd also really love to a course on the history of image-making technologies and how they've impacted and been impacted by evolving models of cultural production.

What's up with the Nolose film?

Good question... I'm actually having a really hard time with it. I realised today while talking with a friend of mine that this is the first time that I've started a creative project with a direct political impetus behind it, and it sort of freaks me out. That is to say, most of my work has some sort of political implication, but they come more out of my personal connection to a subject, rather than a desire to explore or depict a political movement as this one has. I know that I'll never be someone who creates especially polemical work, and it sort of freaks me out that people might expect that out of me with this film.

I'm also realising that in order to for me to make the film about fat activism that I'd want to make, it's going to have to become bigger, more collaborative, and more complex, even though I'm not sure that I'm ready to take on another big film project, especially since my current creative sensibilities are leading me more towards performance and interactivity, and working with my body in really direct ways. Another project that I'm working on, called "Richard Simmons Til You Die" is an example of this. The basic premise of the project is that I have this Richard Simmons VHS tape from 1994, and I intend on playing the tape and doing the routines over and over until I literally kill the tape. And I'm getting other people to do this with me. My vision is of having massive numbers of fatties angrily doing those super gay aerobics moves in fabulous outfits.

Tell me about your favourite onscreen depictions of fat people.

Um, I'm not sure. I mean, I guess I'll always love Divine because she was so trashy and subversive and weird. And I like to watch anything that Mo'Nique does, because I think that she's a really positive fat person in a mainstream sort of way. She has also openly talked about being sex-positive and polyamorous, which is really amazing to see/hear out of a black, American, fat woman. I really loved Jack Black in Be Kind Rewind because his character was so funny and physical and sweet and ridiculous.


06 March 2009

Research: why isn't fat activism in the academy?

Susan Stinson's recent post about the fat literature and documented activism that means so much to her has struck a chord in me.

I've been reading a lot of recent publications critiquing the obesity epidemicTM, and calling for recognition of Fat Studies. What strikes me is the absence, in many of these works, of books like Shadow on A Tightrope, Shelley Bovey's earlier pre-diet work, often my book, Fat & Proud, too. This really bothers me because these books changed my life.

I'm wondering if there might be a process of erasure going on now that academics are taking fat experience more seriously. I suspect that scholars, myself included, are trying to make a name for themselves in the early stages of this field, which may involve minimising the substantial body of work that has gone before.

I'm hoping that this apparent erasure of fat women's voices is not because of poor research, or arrogance. I know that my own book is catalogued in libraries under the term "overweight" rather than the more depressingly zeitgeisty "obese," perhaps this is part of the reason it's not getting picked up so much in these new collections, despite being well ahead of the pack when it was published ten years ago.

It's upsetting that these works, and more, are not getting the recognition they deserve. These are important and pioneering books.

Anti-obesity campaigns: how leisure organisations invoke fat panic

I'm going to be giving a presentation at the Leisure Studies Association conference in Canterbury in July and part of my talk is going to be about leisure organisations that have anti-obesity policies as part of their mission. There's a lot of money floating around for obesity prevention programmes in the UK at the moment, and I'm wondering of these clauses are about attempts t cash-in on that. To clarify, I don't mean diet groups or health groups, or places where you would expect to find fat hatred, I'm talking about organisations that don't have an obvious connection to "obesity". Here are three examples:

I've had dealings with The London Cycle Campaign in the past, they used to have an anti-obesity clause in their mission statement. I can't find it now, and they published my guide for fat cyclists in their magazine a while back, but they still can't resist a pop at the fatties, it seems, as demonstrated by the anti-fat bias in their reporting.

The London Pools Campaign is more explicit in their fatphobia, they link to a bunch of fat panic organisations right on their front page. I love swimming and am really sympathetic to their campaign, but I can't bring myself to support them whilst they promote hatred of me and my kind.

I was at a meeting this week, convened by an fatphobic organisation, and a spokesperson from The Ramblers, a member of this organisation, spoke up about their anti-obesity position. The Ramblers! What's the world coming to?!

Anyway, I'd like to hear from you if you know of other organisations like this that have stealth fatphobia in their aims and objectives.