22 April 2009

Interview: Kelli Dunham

She may seem like your typical Quiet One At The Back, but Kelli Dunham should not be underestimated. Describing herself as "A dorky chubby boi dyke stand-up comic, writer, general storyteller and stealth rabble rouser," she is also a nurse, author, and ex-nun who wowed her adopted New York City earlier this year with the debut performance of Pudding Day, the powerful account of life and death with Heather MacAllister, the celebrated fat activist.

Read and learn, my friends.

Fat people and humour seem to go together, but it's often an uneasy alliance, there's a fine line between self-deprecation, stereotyping, and being offensive. What do you think? What does fat liberation humour look like?

One of the most difficult things in my early years of stand-up comedy was hearing other women comics talking incessantly, ceaselessly about how much they hated their bodies. As if this was a huge funny, revolutionary thought: a woman who is dissatisfied with her thighs, whoever heard of such a thing?

I think, because it's not a very original premise, that happens more at the open mic level and less as you climb the comedy ladder. It' s true that Phyllis Diller could make a career out of it, but she was also one of the first woman stand ups and it may well have been what she needed to do to break in.

So for me, talking about how much you hate your body is NOT revolutionary. There is nothing funny about it, because it's so expected. Instead, some comics who had done really astounding work have talked about how much they love their bodies: Mo'nique (who even uses the word “fat” as a self identifier) and Wanda Sykes are two examples that come immediately to mind.

Then there is the whole fat person as foil, the physical comedy of the stumbling, breaking things down fat person as disaster character. Chris Farley's (American sketch comic that died in '97 of drug overdose) Chippendale character from Saturday Night Live is the best example I can think of. The whole premise is that Chris Farley and Patrick Swayze are having a dance off as a competition for a Chippendale's dancer. And Farley doesn't get the job. There's no twist, nothing unexpected. In Farley's biography, Chris Rock (one of his co-stars at SNL at the time) wrote "[The sketch] was just fucking mean […] a more mentally together Chris Farley wouldn't have done it, but Chris wanted so much to be liked […] that was a weird moment in Chris' life. As funny as that sketch was, and as many accolades as he got for it, it's one of the things that killed him. It is really is. Something happened right then."

I loved your medical self-advocacy workshop at NOLOSE. Could you say a little bit about what medical self-advocacy is, and share some tips that fatties might find useful?

Nearly everything about our current medical system is set up to disempower the patient. Hospitals, clinics, have a completely different culture. These cultural differences can keep even the most self-confident patient off balance, which contributes to health care providers having a huge amount of unearned power.
Medical self-advocacy is about going into that culture and understanding it, being able to function in that culture and get what you need from it. And calling the culture on its bullshit when needed, but in a way that actually gets results.

I think the number one tip for fatties trying to get good medical care is: don't go it alone. Never go to the emergency room alone. Never go to the hospital alone. If you are going on a first visit with a new provider, don't go alone. This is important for lots of folks not just fat folk. If you are seen as gender variant, or have a heavily modified body, or have scars you'd rather not discuss, anyone who encounters difficulty in the way there body is seen (and usually pathologised) by providers should take someone with them when they get medical care. Develop a “queer body” buddy system. You will get better care if you take someone with you. You'll have a witness, someone to help you speak up, and even hold your hand if need be.

I know that Heather was your queen, I would love it if you could share a story about you and her, but not if this is too upsetting to contemplate. I guess I want to keep her memory and awesomeness alive, also celebrate your relationship, and honour your grief process. That's a tall order!

I love to talk about Heather!

One of my favourite stories happened right after Heather started on hospice.

The hospice nurses made everything easier, but I think we confused them a little bit. On the afternoon they were coming to do intake, there had been a rare Portland snow and it was very wet. It was the kind of sticky white stuff that makes perfect snowballs.

Heather was outside smoking, I was attempting to shovel the sidewalk in front of our house with a broom. When I walked past our car, I scooped up a handful of snow.
Heather said “ I know you aren't about to start a snowball fight, boi.”
I countered with a question. “Um, am I?”

I was thinking furiously because I couldn't figure out if it was an awesome idea or a horrible one.

I lobbed a test snowball in her general direction.
She responded by grabbing two huge handfuls of snow and putting them down the neck of my thermal, and when I tried to run away she pelted me with more snow, hastily grabbed from the roof of our car.
I ran across the street and threw snowballs at her from behind the safety of a neighbour's SUV.
Just then, the hospice nurse drove up. We both adopted a very innocent demeanour. I might have even whistled. The hospice nurse said "Are you all...were you...I mean...was this? Are you guys having a snowball fight?" Heather sniffed. "A person's got a little stage four ovarian cancer and all of sudden she's not supposed to be having snowball fights? What's it gonna do, kill me?" The hospice nurse, nodded and said "That is a very, very good point." We all went inside and I took a moment to go downstairs and collect myself, but Heather and I couldn't look at each other for the rest of the visit, because we would break into giggles.

What are you working on at the moment?

I am currently working on the touring version of Pudding Day which is my one-boi show about living with Heather; her life and death. I am pitching it as "part stand up comedy, part sit down comedy, with love and body fluids in the cracks in between." I was worried about how it would play, dealing with pretty serious topics such as illness, death and assisted suicide in a sometimes humorous manner, but I had an amazing staged reading of it last month and I have gained a lot of confidence in the power of the story. People are, apparently, ready to have these conversations.

I am also working on three different non-fiction book proposals, including Grief Sucks which I am putting together as an irreverent guide to bereavement. So much schmaltzy stuff is written about death and dying. I wanted to do a helping book that wasn't condescending and smug.

And on the more fun side, I am course performing stand-up comedy all over and also working on a series of animation shorts called Queerhouse Rock, which are queer parodies of the Schoolhouse Rock series. The first short, called “Transitions!” (set to the tune of “Interjections!”) should be online within the next six weeks.

Oh yes, and I'm working on the Butch Voices conferences. I'm helping to put together a couple of fundraisers including a performance/dance party/fashion show and another that is going to be an all queer burlesque show. For that, I'm hoping to put together a group of dorky butch and gender queer folks to do synchronized library book dropping.

Who's your favourite fat butch?

Hmmm, I don't know if I have a favourite fat butch. I think, collectively, all of Heather's lovers and ex-lovers (pretty much if there was a freaky fat butch around she had hooked up with them) that I meet as I tour; they hug me and say "thanks for taking care of our girl." It's rather humbling. And beautiful.

And who's your favourite nun, fat or otherwise?

Well, Kathy Najimy's character in Sister Act comes to mind, and the Sister Maria, Julie Andrew's character in the Sound of Music. Sigh. I want her to be a real nun, and for us to live in the convent together. And her to sing to me sometimes. But I think perhaps you meant real nuns. Oh by far my favourite was Sister Sylvia, who was the superior at the Bronx house when I left the convent. She took my face in her hands and said "we just aren't ready for you yet, Sister Mercy."

What else would you like to say?

Thanks Charlotte, only that I saw the Invasion of the Chubsters dance video on YouTube and it made me cry in happiness.

Website: www.kellidunham.com
Blog: http://kellidunham.livejournal.com
YouTube: www.youtube.com/user/kellidunham
Pudding Day: http://puddingday.wordpress.com

Photo credit Kina Williams

15 April 2009

Conference Report: Fat Studies at the PCA - 6

Fat Studies VI: Making a Big, Fat Difference: Fat Activism
Chair: Charlotte Cooper, University of Limerick

Sheana Director, of Bowing Green State University, was unable to attend to present her paper: (E)Rac(e)ing the Movement: Intersections of Race and Fat in Contemporary Fat Rights Activism.

Fat Therapist, Fat Activist
Kari Petersen, counselor, activist

Kari discussed the ways in which her activism influences her practice, how she's less interested in "in your face" activism and more motivated by micro aspects of activism, "the internal struggle." Kari talked about her first experience of therapy as a client, she said that she knew about the diet industry and knew it was wrong, but that she was unable to talk about fatphobia in therapy with her fat therapist, that this related to the therapists' own reluctance to talk, and in retrospect sees this as a break in the therapeutic alliance that was never repaired. As an activist Kari wanted to stop repeating those same mistakes. She went on to talk about the dual identities of activist and therapist, for example how she must remain as a containing presence for her client whereas she might walk away from a fatphobic situation in the outside world. She talked about how she shares information about fat positive initiatives with her clients, and that empathy and active listening can be as therapeutic for people as activism, and that both roles offer healing.

Identity and Inclusion: Expanding Fat Activism
Meghan Griffin, University of Central Florida

Meghan framed her presentation by asking "who counts as fat and who is a part of the movement?" She talked about BMI charts, its critical history and application, as well as its possibilities for subversion by activists. Meghan referred to Kate Harding's illustrated BMI categories, which humanises and undermines the chart. However, Meghan suggested that the use of the BMI as an activist resource can be problematic, that it can promote shame, that it may support the BMI, and that there are risks associated in using it.

The Story of the Chubsters
Charlotte Cooper, University of Limerick

I talked about my semi-fictitious girl gang, explaining its history and evaluating its position. I used The Chubsters to talk about wider issues about what constitutes fat activism, or a fat activist movement; how activists can use the media to tell our own stories and create our own culture and paradigms; how to use of inclusion as a political strategy; the value of fat freakhood; and the strategical uses of a fat activist imagination. I suggested that fat activism, and Fat Studies, is multi-faceted, that it is unlikely to be reduced to singular fat narratives, and that The Chubsters is a new kind of postmodern activism. Afterwards Weasel and I jumped in a handful of new Chubsters!

Reflecting on the panels

Phew, we made it to the last panel! What a marathon of fatty goodness! I've neglected to report on the discussions that happened towards the end of each panel discussion because of ethical concerns about consent, but I wanted to add that these were really powerful and insightful. Nobody said anything that wasn't considered and intelligent, which is pretty remarkable when you think of how much rubbish is talked about fat in the wider culture.

Activism and scholarship intertwined throughout all the panels, in my opinion, with people expressing a real hunger for a fat liberation movement that was inclusive, diverse, intellectual, critically aware and nuanced. What I loved especially about this conference was that the co-chairs Julia McCrossin and Lesleigh Owen were committed to creating panels that were open to non-American voices. I believe that this is crucial in opening out debates and making them relevant in a wider sense. Even though Fat Studies is a young and emergent discipline, it was great to see a wide range of scholarship on display and added to my conviction that fat offers a series of lenses through which to examine 21st century culture.

Edited to add: oh look, Julia uploaded some pics.

Conference Report: Fat Studies at the PCA - 5

Fat Studies V: Examining Visual Representations of Fatness
Chair: Lesleigh Owen, Chaffey College

Unfortunately Katariina Kyrölä, University of Turku, was unable to attend to present her paper: Expanding Laughter? Shame(lessness) and Body Image Incongruity in Fat Actress.

George Dinhaupt
George Dinhaupt, California State University

Georgie presented a series of his autobiographical photographic self-portraits, images that seek to challenge concepts of beauty and the gaze with humour. He talked about how he codes himself in the images in order to be read by others, about how he uses and subverts gay iconography. In one series of images, Discarded, named for Los Angeles where many things are discarded, he remarked that his body is unable to fit against the narrow backdrop. Georgie talked about light and his use of colour, using whatever is to hand and saying "if it comes out blurry, I don't mind."

The Voluptuous Art of Beryl Cook
Zeynep Atayurt, scholar, activist

Beryl Cook's larger than life figures advanced fat acceptance in art, but Cook herself was maligned by the art establishment in the UK, according to Zeynep. Cook's figures have been described as caricature, as undermining fat people, or parodying them, but Zeynep argues that they present "a liberating view of embodiment" where subjects are carefree, pleasure-seeking, delighted and normalised.

Mind/Body Duality and the Ubiquitous Fat Butt Shot
Bernadette Bosky, Olympiad Academia

Bernadette talked about the symbolism of belly and butt shots of anonymous fat people in the popular media. She discussed the dehumanising nature of these photographs, and showed an example of an image in which the subject's face was clearly seen and yet the image remained one of anonymous fat hatred. Bernadette compared these images to those produced by fat activists, first in Women en Large, and more recently in The Adipositivity Project. She argued that personality and history can be shown in an image of a fat person even when their face is left out of the shot, as in one portrait, and said of other activist-produced images that they were "too real to be anybody's stereotype."

Conference Report: Fat Studies at the PCA - 4

Fat Studies IV: Tight Fit: The Mental and Physical Experiences of Being Fat
Chair: Lesleigh Owen, Chaffey College

“The Women’s Sizes are in the Back”: Exclusion and Invisibility of Fat Female Bodies in Retail Space
Barb’ra-Anne Carter, University of Oklahoma

Barb’ra-Anne began her presentation by talking about the way that fat bodies are constructed in geography, as deviant and boundary-defying, and yet as boundaried. She referred to the "political economy of food, goods and services" and how this intersects with how fat people engage with the built environment. Her current research, and the subject of this paper, was about how retail space contributes to the social exclusion of fat women. Barb’ra-Anne argued that this occurred in several ways: the geographical location of fat shops and the lack of fat shops in certain socio-economically boundaried areas (she contrasted Beverley Hills with Crenshaw in Los Angeles); the movement of fat retail space online from bricks and mortar shops; and the recreation of fat identity in magazine advertisements. She talked about David Sibley's notion of placelessness, that fat women experience this and that it is important to create "spaces of acceptance open to people of all sizes."

A Difficult Fit: Space, Fatness and the University
Amy Gullage, University of Toronto

Foucault's panopticon and concept of biopower was applied by Amy to a sample of fat undergraduates at a number of Canadian universities. She wondered how fat women experienced the disciplining space in three areas of the university: on campus, in university residences and at sports facilities. Amy's discussion considered the smallness of furniture, which reinforces senses of who does and who does not belong in university lecture halls. She remarked upon a blurring of public and private space in the residences, where members of her sample reported that they ate alone or were forced to negotiate heterosexist and fatphobic activities, as well as the unwelcoming atmosphere of the sports facilities where, she noted, fat is most visible in the cultural spaces where it is problematised.

Fatness as a Liminal Experience
Hannele Harjunen, Umeå University Centre for Gender Studies

Hannele's work on liminality was contextualised amongst her previous papers that seek to explore fat experience: normalisation, medicalisation and stigmatisation; processes that shape how we think about, produce and maintain fat identities. Liminality is a term used by the anthropologist van Gennep to discuss rites of passage, but Hannele uses it as a "category of experience," a process that happens over long periods of time, that relates to a transitional state. In her fieldwork Hannele found that fat participants talked about their bodies as being transitional, even when they had been fat for many years. The implicit assumption is that thinness is their "real" bodily state, and that they harboured a constant expectation of change. This was likened, metaphorically, to "being in a waiting room" and Hannele expressed shock that fat people were postponing their lives indefinitely. She described this liminal state as being problematic because it denies the possibility for constructing more positive fat identities and conceptualises fatness as unreal, a kind of purgatory.

11 April 2009

Conference Report: Fat Studies at the PCA - 3

Fat Studies III: Encountering and Coping with Anti-Fat Bias
Chair: Julia McCrossin

Unfortunately, Elena Levy-Navarro was not able to attend this panel and present her paper: Toward a More Liberal Society: The Dangers of Conversion Therapies and Dieting Programs.

From Individual Coping to Collective Action: Stigma Management in an Online Community
Daiane Scaraboto, York University

Daiane's background is in consumer research and marketing, she is interested in consumption as a social phenomenon. She talked about a qualitative research project that uses "netnography," ie, a study of online communities. Daiane presented some definitions of stigma and talked about a social model (my expression, not hers) which shifts stigma management away from individualised responses towards a more collective engagement that seeks social change through new social movements. Fat activism online is an example of this kind of shift, and it features "institutional entrepreneurs" who are developing new institutional practices. Typical themes explored by these entrepreneurs, primarily fat bloggers, include a critical engagement with media representations of fatness, organisations which maintain stigma (eg the diet industry), and the relationship between fat and health. Daiane suggested that clothing could be an area for development within her marketing paradigm.

“And Of Course She was Fat”: The Presentation and Consumption of Mary Seacole’s Body
Alison McMonagle, The George Washington University

Mary Seacole has been a focus for scholarship over recent years, but this generally relates to her ethnicity rather than her fatness. Alison presented her fatness as part of Seacole's complex intersections of several mobile identities, including doctor and innkeeper, and presented ideas around the status positions of these occupations in terms of their classed and fat nature. The discussion included references to the Mammy arche/stereotype and Alison suggested that Seacole, as a loud, fat, biracial woman, provided a useful analytical counterpoint to her contemporary, the very slender and white Florence Nightingale.

Conference Report: Fat Studies at the PCA - 2

Fat Studies II: Fatness as It Informs Other Identities
Chair: Lesleigh Owen, Chaffey College

Elizabeth Young, Ball State University

Elizabeth presented a memoir of travel, turbulence, seatbelts not fitting and family ambivalence regarding her fatness. She talked about creative writing as a means of expressing fat experience and coined "Big Momma Owl" (complete with cooing) to describe what it is to scrunch up one's fat body to fit in a plane seat. Elizabeth remarked that her grandmother's description of her as zaftig was not a euphemism for fat, that it's meaning was understood, she said that her fatness reflected her juiciness, her passion for people and her lust for life.

Are We What We Eat?: The Representation of Fatness in Czech Media Contents from a Gender Perspective
Iva Baslarova, Masaryk University

This presentation, about the production of meanings in media discourse, was introduced with some comments about carrots in the Czech media, the way that they are used as symbols to denote healthy slenderness, or the desire for healthy slenderness, but that they do not simply represent a liking for carrots. Iva's discussion about fat representation considered gender; the way that the capitalist media needs fatness because, like sex, it can be used to sell products; and fat as sensationalist television spectacle. Media representations of fatness in the Czech Republic are problematic, and Iva concluded by asking if it is media production that needs to change or wider social structures.

In a later discussion, I remarked that Iva's analysis suggested that fat representation is generic across Europe, and possibly in the US too, that there are certain tropes that programmes continue to promote, with little regional differentiation.

Fat, Young Femininity and Other Slippery Identities
Lesleigh Owen, Chaffey College

Lesleigh's presentation stemmed from research that examines "the ways that fat people talk about fatness." She defined identity as relating to power relationships, including inequalities, belonging, and process and she presented a critical view of "Master Status," ie, the dominant parts of identity which often relate to experiences of stigma, by suggesting that it can be approached as fluid and contextual. Lesleigh offered some of the autoethnography she produced during her research process as an attendee at NAAFA conferences, specifically around her experiences of beauty and its related privilege. She talked about how privilege and oppression fit together, but that although she contested oppressive hierarchies at the conference, she also wanted to maintain her own beauty privilege. Lesleigh remarked on her background of internal validation as a fat woman, and how this contrasted with the new experiences of external validation she experienced within NAAFA.

09 April 2009

Conference Report: Fat Studies at the PCA - 1

I'm blogging from the 2009 Joint Conference of the National Popular Culture and American Culture Associations, which I'll abbreviate to PCA for Pop Culture Association throughout. It's being held in New Orleans, and I'm a long way from home. The reason I've travelled so far is that amidst the vast programme of events (400 pages long and counting) are six Fat Studies panels. I could be wrong but I suspect that this is the heaviest concentration of fat scholarship on the planet, pun intended. 2009 is not the first time that the PCA has hosted Fat Studies panels, but the range of subjects on offer within the panels this year made the event irresistible to me, and some generous funding from the University of Limerick and the PCA's own Madonna Marsden endowment for foreign travel made it possible.

It's hard to give a sense of the scale of the conference. It runs for four days, with panels from 8am – 10pm. There are over 130 panel series, including Automobile Culture; Collective Behaviour: Panics, Fads and Hostile Outbursts; New England Studies; Stephen King; Vietnam; plus a handful of special events recognising and responding to the incredible host city of NOLA. Some panels are wacky, some reflect more traditional areas of academic enquiry, but it seems as though a huge chunk of American and academic life is here. The conference is open to a broad range of scholars, students rub shoulders with professors, it is geek central, and fully amazing.

So, it's my intention to try and blog about the Fat Studies panels. I'm anticipating burnout by about 3pm tomorrow afternoon, so can't promise much, but let's give it a whirl, eh?

Fat Studies I: Reading the Fat Text: Fatness in Popular Media
Chair: Julia McCrossin, The George Washington University

Socialising Young Readers: A Content Analysis of Body Size Images in Caldecott Winners
Linda Wedwick, Illinois State University

Linda contextualised her paper within discourses of how children are socialised through media representations. Her co-authored study looked at the 71 winners of the Caldicott prize and analysed representations of fat characters in children's books. Fat was defined in relation to thin characters in the picturebooks. She found that there were relatively few fat characters, and that the jolly fat policeman was the only theme found in these depictions. The study prompted questions about whether increased exposure to fat characters would help children be more accepting of body sie diversity.

Blues Legacies and Punk Politics: How Beth Ditto Envoices the Fat Body
Alexandra Apolloni, University of California, Los Angeles

This paper explored the amazingness of Beth Ditto. Alexandra talked about how Beth is written about in the music press, and also in some areas of the fat acceptance movement, basically about how people can't handle her fat and queerness. What I liked about this piece was that it placed Beth within a tradition of Blues singers who also embody queer fat sexuality and whose voices are "instruments of salvation," and did so critically. The presentation considered the voice as a means of expressing identity, and offered possibilities for musicology and fat studies crossovers.

Tracing the Roots of Kit Reed’s Pro-Fat Body Ideals: An Examination of “The Food Farm” and “The Last Big Sin”
Brenda Risch, University of Texas at El Paso

I'd never heard of Kit Reed, but now I want to read all of her works. Brenda's paper offered a critical evaluation of some of Reed's short stories, which have really complex fat characters and representations of fatness. She suggested that Reed goes further than merely "flipping the script" and making fat good and thin bad, that the narratives themselves move beyond simplistic readings of fatness. Bring on the complexity!

The Future is Fat: WALL*E and the Fear of a Fat Planet?
Julia McCrossin, The George Washington University

Julia wrangled a discussion about how fat is represented in WALL*E, based on a disconnect between what the film makers said they were representing (people in the future will be as helpless as babies) and what filmgoers themselves understood ("those fatties should stop eating and then the planet will be okay"). The discussion exposed some of the contradictory representations of fatness, eg there is no diet industry in the future, and also about consumerism, which is acceptable when contained within a nostalgic past. I wondered if the contradictions in the film echoed the contradictions within fat panic rhetoric, which seems to me to be the base on which WALL*E is pitched.

02 April 2009

Interview: Zoe Meleo-Erwin

The academy has a bad reputation for churning out an endless stream of studies that support fatphobia, or have implicit anti-fat bias, which becomes "knowledge" that goes on to cause misery when applied in the wider world. But things might be changing. Zoe Meleo-Erwin is part of a new movement of scholar-slash-activists who are challenging how fat is dealt with in academia and helping develop new ideas and ways of conceptualising fatness. Zoe is a Rad Fatty to the max, she's got a lot to say about this, I wanted to know more, so here she is.

Could you introduce yourself please?

I'm Italian/Sicilian-American queer fat femme living in New York City. I'm in my 4th year in a PhD program in Sociology and am doing a concurrent Masters in Disability Studies. Beyond this, I've been on the board of NOLOSE for five years and I'm the Social Justice Correspondent on Femme-Cast (a queer fat femme podcast). These days it seems like so much of my world revolves around fat: it's an area of academic/theoretical interest, it's currently my main activist focus and my social circles are mostly comprised of fattie queers. In all these different areas of my life I feel pretty lucky to be surrounded by an amazing group of people doing a lot of amazing work in a diversity of ways.

How do you talk about fat in your research?

I've gotten increasingly braver about using the "f word" in academic settings. In the past I was more timid about it for two reasons: first, I thought no one would take fatness as a serious area of academic inquiry. And second, I assumed that people would listen to me talk about my work and reduce my interest in this area to my own personal fatness. It's been easier to talk about my work over the past couple years because I’ve noticed that people really find it to be a fascinating subject, mostly because it hasn't occurred to them to consider fat as anything other than a straight-forward issue of morbidity and mortality. I've also stopped caring so much about my own personal relationship to this area of study because I take a pretty anti-positivist stand toward research. I’m much more inclined toward feminist models that make an explicit point of making one’s own relationship to the work a part of the work itself in a number of ways.

As far as my own work, here's the nutshell version I usually give people: My eventual dissertation will be one in which I examine the discourse around the obesity epidemic in terms of its productive capacities, in a Foucaultian sense, specifically in terms of looking at the production of the weight loss surgery (WLS) patient and the fat activist. I'll be exploring the ways in which one can understand the production of both of these groups of people through Foucault's notion of governmentality and Paul Rabinow's concept of biosociality. Further, I'll be exploring the ways in which fat activists who have WLS unsettle the boundaries of fat activism and the fat activist self. Though this will be the main focus, I also hope to integrate a discussion of the aforementioned discourse in terms of its recourse to neoliberal rhetoric of risk, pre-emption and individual responsibility (especially in regard to the nation). Finally, I plan to examine the narratives of weight loss surgery patients on WLS sites through the lens of disability studies and theory. I will incorporate discussion of the medicalisation of obesity, however this has already been well documented by other scholars.

What theories do you find useful in thinking about fat activism?

Well, as might be clear from the above, I'm highly influenced by Foucault and others who have used his work. So concepts such as (and I'll hyperlink here to some of these terms in case folks want some further reading) biopower, governmentality, the productive (as in, having the ability to bring things into being) effects of discourse as well as its regulatory effects, I guess those are some of the main ideas I take from Foucault that I find useful in thinking about fatness and fat activism. But I'm interested in the ontological as well as the discursive and so in this way I'm also really influenced by people working in the fields of medical sociology, sociology of the body, medical anthropology and gender studies, amongst other disciplines, who are using phenomenology to talk about the body as more than just a product of discourse. Some days I feel more Marxian in my thoughts about power and find the utility in thinking about clear divisions of power between groups and I am often attracted to models of organising which stem from that sort of analysis. But ultimately I'd say my thoughts about power are far more post-structuralist feminist and Foucaultian. Ultimately I tend to think of relations of power as being both structural and capillary and as ongoing issues to contend with. I'm definitely interested in ideas like intersectionality that Kimberly Crenshaw and others helped bring to the fore.

I'm interested in non-binary ways of thinking about fat, and fat activism. There have been discussions lately about drawing lines between what does and what doesn't constitute fat liberation, whereas I'm more inclined to tolerate grey areas and inclusiveness. I'm thinking of a both/and paradigm instead of an either/or one when thinking about fatness, which of course relates to queer theory. Am I off my rocker? What are your thoughts?

Ha! Not at all, in my opinion. I'm much more likely to view the world and various phenomena through a lens of "both/and," (rather than “either/or”) and this is probably why I tattooed those words on my wrists some years back! One of the things I appreciate most about queer theory is the focus on fluidity and contingency and further, the attention to disrupting concepts such as "natural" and "normal." In this way I think queer theory is fundamental not only to troubling contemporary notions of fatness but also contemporary notions of what fat activism is or isn't. I think queer theory compels us to question and trouble normative ideas and argue for a more complex, multidimensional and nuanced framings not only in terms of that which we critique and stand opposed to, but our own scared cows as well.

This is why, at NOLOSE, I have always argued that we should always be opening up spaces to talk about the hard stuff – that which we find challenging to admit. So for me, while I want fat activist spaces to be a refuge from the regular onslaught of fat-hating rhetoric and feel like diet talk is largely inappropriate in these spaces, I also feel strongly about making room to talk about the ways in which being fat can still be really hard. I don’t think it serves us to pretend otherwise. And I want spaces to have structured and open and engaged conversations about weight loss surgery and the fact that a number of fat activists have had and will have this surgery. I feel like if we don't address these issues in complex ways, as a movement we will suffer. And I believe that to the extent that we cordon off areas for discussion, we reinforce the borders and boundaries about what is and isn't fat activism and who is and isn't a fat activist and that's not something I'm interested in doing because I think it’s an act of exclusion and ultimately one of violence.

What do you think of Fat Studies?

I’m excited about it and to be a part of it! But I also want fat as an area of academic inquiry that is relevant to all sorts of other disciplines as well. I want the body, I want fatness, and the relationships of power that run through them to be something that scholars across a variety of fields take seriously and consider rather than seeing them as just some fringe, not really serious topic done off on the side somewhere. So I’m excited for people to be doing work in Fat Studies but I also am interested that folks in anthropology, sociology, history, rhetoric, English, amongst others, are doing work on fatness within their own disciplines as well.

Who and what are your favourite fat activists and examples of fat activism?

Well I am constantly inspired by the NOLOSE community, my fellow board members, and my friends. These are the people who keep me going. But honestly, some of my favourite examples of fat activists are the folks I don’t even know: The fat woman on the street who is her dressed to the nines walking hand-in-hand with her lover; the chubby high school girls rocking the short skirts and tight, belly revealing shirts just as hard as their thinner counterparts – those are the folks who make me feel like things are changing and have the potential for further change.

What are your favourite fat-related resources?

I check out several blogs such as Big Fat Blog, Fatshionista, The Rotund, Junk Food Science and Shapley Prose on regular occasions. I’m on the Fat Studies list but I can’t keep up with that most of the time. Honestly I’d say that my favourite resources are my friends and community members. Although I’m definitely interested in established academic and activist voices on fat and fat activism, I’m also really curious to hear how folks are discussing these topics in their own lives and in their own circles. I draw a lot of inspiration and ideas from that. I guess for me it’s often more about grounded theory than official text.

What else would you like to say?

One of the things I’ve been thinking about for awhile is how movements of what one might call “differently bodied individuals” can inspire each other and work together. Namely I’m thinking of trans, disability and fat activist movements. Surely there are other groups we could include here but those are the ones that I’ve been thinking most about. And I want to be clear I’m talking about movements and not individuals, because obviously there are a number of individuals living at the intersection of any and all of these identities amongst others. And certainly there have been conversations amongst groups and folks in these movements doing this work already. I just am excited at the potential for further collaboration and further engaged discussion because I feel like as three sectors of the population who have been defined right outside the borders and boundaries of “normal” – something considered a requisite of full-fledged humanity in Western society – there is a lot of potential to really disrupt the idea of normal and blow it out of the water.

So much activism ends up reifying concepts of normal and pathological by working to include marginalised groups under the banner of normal. And I don’t entirely want to knock that because being defined outside of normalcy comes with some seriously harsh material consequences and sometimes those need to be addressed first and foremost. But I want us to push things a bit farther and, a la queer theory, move toward what activist and scholar Eli Clare calls “the ordinary and familiar.” As I argue in an piece that will appear in the forthcoming work Spilling Over: A Fat and Queer Anthology (Ed. Jessica Guisti), Clare’s notion of the “ordinary and familiar” opens up room for celebration and pleasure but it also opens space for pain, for struggle and, for shame. So by making space for those topics which can be as challenging to admit within our own communities as to outsiders, the silence that under girds a politics of shame is broken. Following Clare, I feel that a politics of the ordinary and familiar has the ability to move us outside of false, binary choice of reclamation and celebration or shame and normalisation. And by moving outside of this liminal space between pride and shame, we make room for contradictory, contingent and multiple stories, which, in turn, allows for both a more complex ethos of embodiment and politics of resistance.

01 April 2009

Report: Invasion of the Chubsters pics and video

Take a look at the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival's Flickr photostream of Invasion of The Chubsters. Sublime!

Here's Ingo Wotever's shaky phonecam footage of Chopin's song too.