25 June 2009

Fat activist is not a slur

An anonymous person has just described one of my posts as "self-promoting activist drivel." I was surprised to read the word activist as a slur because I think of it as an honourable way of being.

Well, mostly. Some fat activism is crap, some is racist, or poorly conceived and executed, or self-aggrandising. Some is frantic and exaggerated, I'm resisting the term hysterical because of its sexist connotations, but there it is, it can be overzealous too. Some is naïve and laughable, some is offensive. Sam Murray talks about activism being part of liberal humanist individualism, that it fails to acknowledge that people are constructed by their circumstances and can never escape them. I agree that this is a problem within some kinds of activism.

So the anonymous commenter is partly right, some activism is drivel. Anonymous thinks that my work is drivel, but I don't accept that because their comments are in the minority, no other critic has ever said that, and I hear from many people who tell me independently that my work is useful to them. I won't argue about being called obnoxious though, sometimes I am obnoxious.

Meanwhile, I want to restate why activism is not a slur.

We are part of the cultures that make us. We cannot step outside them. The idea that each one of us can make a difference is part of a political ideology popular in the US where a lot of fat activism originates. I don't know what kind of difference fat activism makes, if any, but doing something feels better than doing nothing. Mostly I think that existence is fairly meaningless, about trying to make the best of our short lives here as humans, so I see fat activism as a framework that adds meaning to some parts of my life, it's an embodied and intellectual challenge that's also a lot of fun, sometimes beautiful. Activism emboldens people to ask questions and not take things for granted, it encourages us to make human connections and to create communities of kinship and resistance. Activism is part of the bedrock of fat culture. These are some of the reasons why I'm proud to be an activist and why I don't consider it an insult.

The dead, gay, kinky and academically-popular French philosopher Michel Foucault helps me think about this. He talks about power not being a monolithic entity but almost like a dance that plays out between people, organisations and things. He says that resistance occurs where power is enacted, that those upon whom power is enacted are in a good position to resist because they have intimate knowledge of the nature of that power, and that opportunities for resistance are always present. So although we are created and constructed, and the way we see and do things depends on the contexts in which we live, it is also possible that we have individual and collective agency, the ability to act. I really like this, it reminds me that activism is about hope in otherwise hopeless situations. If that's not a reason for living then I don't know what is. Here's the reference if you'd like to read this yourself: Foucault, M. (1980) 'Power and Strategies' in Foucault, M., ed. Power/Knowledge, Brighton: The Harvester Press, 134-145.

I should address the self-promoting part of Anonymous' comment. I am self-promoting because I want my work to be heard, especially with regards to situations where I am silenced and misrepresented as a fat person. I want to talk about fat-related things in an open way, hence this blog. I love to talk and think about fat, it is a fascinating subject. Unlike Anonymous I also write in my own name because I think it is important to be accountable and to be a visible person doing this work. This is the same reason why I refused a pseudonym for my first novel. Facing the possibility of criticism is not always easy, but I believe it is a big part of working with integrity.

But I also see myself as part of a really big and popular movement, one that does not begin and end with me. Fat activism is not a one-woman show. I honour the people and organisations who came before me, and want to support other people working in the field, I am interested in the social change that mass movements can engender. I am as much a speck on the face of the earth as anybody else working for this kind of change and I am comfortable with that.

PS Anonymous, it is ok if you or anyone else would like to start a dialogue with me, to talk about our differences, to listen to each other respectfully. We can do that, either here or by email. I could then rectify my position so that it is at least less drivelsome. But insulting me anonymously and then running away does not cut it.


wonderful woman said...

oh so well put as always... you articulate all that went racing through my head when I read the first sentences of this post. I do not understand such a 'criticism' as the one anonymous makes - because yes we are all accountable and as you say, when we are dehumanised and silenced and spoken for continuously as fatties, we need to stand up and shout. But also, you continually give space to others on this blog - the Rad Fatties series is a fabulous case in point. I would like to point out also, that years ago when I found your work and asked for you to give a talk about it, you asked why I wasn't doing it myself. That kind of encouragement to do our own thing and speak in our own voice is something I continually get from you and it is massively encouraging and inspiring. As activists we inspire each other and so it perpetuates and that way change lies.

I do wonder where this kind of reaction comes from. What is the threat of someone writing a thoughtful, articulate, insightful, well loved blog?

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks WW

I think this reaction might come from a sense of threat. It is really dismissive, yet doesn't articulate why. I'd be really interested in hearing why and having a discussion about that. I've dismissed things out of fear in the past and it's good to get at the heart of why something is so appalling.

I wonder if the threat is about fearing the disorder that will happen if a bunch of uppity fatties start making trouble. Perhaps it comes from conservatism, wanting things to stay the same, wanting us to shut up and put up. Like that's going to happen.

wonderful woman said...

i don't doubt that there are those who find the concept of fat activism quite ludicrious and those that are less confused by it and just plain threatened. But then there will always be those who find the concept of any marginalised group acting out and fighting back threatening and try and usurp and undermine it.

fatties are also held as victims and so claiming power and a voice for ourselves is probably extremely threatening also. Those obesity 'experts' at Size Matters type events would be threatened by it for instance - it undermines their positions of power.

Fear of fat and fear of fatties... very interlinked me thinks.

Charlotte Cooper said...


We bite.

Rachel said...

If you were using fat activism to somehow promote personal commercial and/or financial gain, I could see how you could then be labeled as "self-promoting." But I don't see any gains to be had here except the advancement of civil rights for fat folks. I think your blog is one of the more astute ones in analyzing and critiquing fatphobia, so I say drivel away!

Charlotte Cooper said...

Financial gain?! If only!

Devra said...

God, if there's one thing you do, it's support of the work others are doing! I know many self-promoters out there, who are fairly unwilling to share the limelight and are somewhat competitive about it, and that is pretty much the opposite of where you come from-- heavily singing the praises of and drawing attention to (if not personally helping with) the work of artists and activists who move you.

What a load of crap! Keep on with your shit-stirring ways, C.

Daiane said...

I totally agree with Devra... you're doing an amazing and supportive job, Charlotte. I've been tuned to your blog since we met at the PCA/ACA conference and I've learned so much from you! Please keep "activating" :)
PS: I loved your description (and translation) of Foucault.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks for your generous support, Devra and Daiane.