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.


KathyB said...

Charlotte and Zoe ~ This was a great interview. Very thought-provoking and one that I needed to read. Regrettably, I believe that I've fallen into the category of the binary activist -- as though there's a "correct" way to be a fat activist -- and other ways weaken the movement. The line about how that sort of either/or thinking is an act of exclusion and even violence really hit home. Lots to think about there. Thank you! By the way, is there going to be a Nolose 2009? I didn't see any information for that. Cheers!

Charlotte Cooper said...

@ KathyB

Thanks for your comment! I don't think there's a Nolose 2009 but I'm pretty sure there's one in Spring 2010, but I could be wrong. Either way, start saving now, eh?

KathyB said...

Yes ... I saw that they're starting to plan Spring 2010 -- and deciding between Toronto and San Francisco, I think. I'm not sure I'll be able to make that one as it will be the end of my daughter's Senior year in high school and I'll probably need to stick close to home -- but we'll see how things unfold.
Will you be attending NAAFA in D.C. this summer?

Charlotte Cooper said...

Kathy, I hope to be there, though probably for the ASDAH event, which runs concurrently. It depends on the funding.