23 June 2009

Research: excluding fat people from the conversation

It is quite usual, de rigueur actually, for conferences and gatherings about obesity to feature thin or normal-sized experts (yeah, 'normal' is problematic, but you know what I mean) and no or very few fat people. I'm not talking about no or very few fat people behind the lectern, I mean anywhere.

A conference about disability where disabled people are not central to the proceedings is not ok. Neither is a gathering about race or sexuality where minority ethnic or queer people are required to sit in the audience and listen politely whilst a bunch of white or straight experts tell them that their lives are worthless. This is insulting and patronising and also ludicrous. These events still happen, but they are more likely to be regarded as unsuccessful and profoundly flawed than panels that exclude fat people. Not so in the world of the obesity expert!

I attended two gatherings this week, ostensibly about obesity (yeah, another flawed concept), where fat people were in the minority, and where we were spoken about in profoundly gross ways. I want to distinguish these events from meetings such as those sponsored by groups with a vested (and commercially-sponsored) interest in eradicating obesity, such as those organised by the Association for the Study of Obesity, or the National Obesity Forum, for example. What I'm talking about are gatherings that are presumed to be neutral, inquiring and scholarly investigations onto the experiences of being fat.

Body Image: The Impact of Magazines was an event at The Women's Library was a panel event featuring Deanne Jade from the National Centre for Eating Disorders, Dr Vivienne Nathanson the head of Science and Ethics at The British Medical Association and Susie Orbach, who is promoting her new book. There is a tepid write-up of the event on The F Word, although Corinna's comment at the bottom is spot-on.

As another commenter remarked, nothing much was said, although all three speakers reiterated that the obesity epidemicTM is a serious problem, about which Something Must Be Done. To me the talk, which really amounted to a lot of hot air, reiterated the failures of feminism to address fatness. Not all feminism, of course, some of the early fat liberation activists were feminists and incorporated a dynamic feminist vision into their work. What I mean is feminism that approaches fat through eating disorders, an assumption that fatness is inherently pathological, that conflates fat with 'body image,' blames 'the media' for everything that is bad in the world, and promotes a kind of hand-wringing helplessness about the ills of modern society. Corinna and I were more or less the only two fatties in the crowded room, and we felt the rage. The Women's Library appears to be an island of privileged middle class white academic feminism within a largely poor and ethnically rich neighbourhood and, like many events at this venue, this was another wasted opportunity to enliven a tired and stale discourse.

Nathanson's smug appreciation for Change4Life – a fatphobic health campaign in the UK, and a project she helped produce – kind of foreshadowed the self-congratulatory atmosphere amongst the obesity experts at Size Matters? Please note I'm going to leave out the question mark because it's just confusing and the conference clearly believes that fat is a serious problem rather than a question. But I will say that Size Matters is a conference organised by the Centre For Appearance Research (CAR) at the University of the West of England in Bristol. Speakers included Nichola Rumsey, Andrew Hill, Michael Gard, Lucy Aphramor, Jeremy Gauntlett-Gilbert, Jane Ogden, Meredith Jones. That's four professors, two doctors, one double-barrelled posho and one civilian. All thin, 'normal' or athletic. Only Aphramor, who also happens to be one of my PhD supervisors, was explicit in her support for size acceptance and made reference to her own thin privilege. There is not the time or space to present a detailed discussion of all the presentations here but I have a few comments.

I used to think that Tim Lang was the most odious creep in the world of professional upholders of fat hatred, he helped produce the Foresight report on obesity that has fuelled the current wave of government-sponsored fatphobia in the UK, and epitomises academic arrogance and entitlement. Having been to Size Matters I think he might have been toppled from his throne by Professor Andrew Hill and Dr Jeremy Gauntlett-Gilbert, two men who are so disturbingly slimy and repellent that I had to look away from them as they were presenting.

Both tried to appropriate Aphramor's work on Health At Every Size, and there was certainly some sexist or heterosexist subtext to that, yet both were unable to address their own deep-seated assumptions about what it is to be fat. Hill was outright rude, supercilious and thoughtless. When Jones referred to a comment made by a research participant who referred to weight loss surgery as being like an internal policeman, Hill blurted out jokingly: "A chocolate policeman!" referring to the idea of fat people as insatiable eaters, even after surgery. Has he no idea what weight loss surgery is actually like? His extreme lack of empathy, which may easily be a hatred of fat people, was evident in the way he presented evidence about fatphobic marginalisation and discrimination, he seemed to enjoy it and not consider how it might feel for fat people in the audience to see their lives reflected so terribly in statistics, illustrated by photographs of headless and tragic fatties. He dismissed Gard's thoughtful presentation about how the Obesity Epidemic is overstated with a snarky comment about people who deny climate change. He was equally dismissive of fat activism, saying that nothing exists in the UK, that NAAFA was weak, had "pissed off most obesity researchers" and that he suspected he may have been blacklisted by them. No shit, Sherlock!

Aphramor and many others dispute the scientific evidence connecting fat and ill-health but Dr Jeremy appealed to the audience with an entitled: "It's got to be right, hasn't it, really?" enunciated so persuasively in the Queen's English. Dr J's conviction that his (classed, gendered, racialised, etc) perspective is sensible, correct, and just plain right regardless of any pesky evidence, as well as his uncritical faith in a model that is plainly wrong, is not enough for me to be on-side, though the delegation of women seemed to lap it up, maybe they have a thing for guys like him. I was out of the room when he said something flippant and insulting about weight loss surgery, thank god, which is horrifying when you consider that he assesses people for weight loss surgery for a living.

Ogden was the most disappointing speaker of the day. Although she sold-out fat people in her book critiquing dieting in the early 1990s, that work was nevertheless useful at the time. I hoped she might have reconsidered her position during the intervening years, but she has not, she is worse, and not only that but she is ill-informed. Her slide of a gastric band depicted a banded gastroplasty instead. Someone in the audience who has had a gastric band pointed this out but you'd think Ogden would know the difference between weight loss surgeries, being a professor, an expert in the field.

I don't think that you have to be fat to be able to say intelligent things about fat people or fat experience, there are people within the Fat Studies community for example who are not at all fat. What they have is empathy and respect for fat people, a capacity for self-reflection, a commitment to social change. They support other fat scholars, they use their power and privilege to include us (and let us remember that if you are fat you are also likely to be of a lower socio-economic position, so we should recognise that power and privilege permeates fat people's entry and status within academia, and elsewhere), and they are not interested in building careers that denigrate fat people. This should be the baseline from which fat research takes place, but it is not, indeed most obesity researchers, including those I saw speak this week, are so alien to this kind of ethical position that they don't even recognise that they themselves are part of the problem, they truly believe that they represent the solution, that they are the good guys.

When fat people are absent from events such as Body Image: The Impact of Magazines and Size Matters, we are abstracted and made Other. No wonder Ogden referred to fat people as "those people" throughout her presentation. At The Women's Library talk there were veiled references made to a fat Other who was working class and therefore ignorant. At Size Matters it was clear that fat people exist as passive, pitiful, and grateful sites for intervention by the experts and professors mouthing off. As a fat person the effect was of having a disgustingly and disastrously distorted version of your life thrown back at you over and over again.

Furthermore, it would be naïve to think that such for a could be places where fat people could speak up and be heard, or be able to challenge the proceedings. Who on those panels would be able to listen to somebody who they have already stereotyped and dehumanised? Why would any fat person speak up when they cannot guarantee that their words will be understood or supported? Why would a fat person speak truth to power when they have already internalised the fat hatred in the room, or have felt traumatised by it? Why should the people being bashed by the discussions be the ones presumed to be responsible for fixing the problem? Hence there is silence.

This week I have come away from both Body Image: The Impact of Magazines and Size Matters feeling grateful to my bones for my own communities. As Dr Jeremy Gauntlett-Gilbert guffed about on stage I blocked him out of my mind and remembered Apple Hard turning a cartwheel at the first Chubsters workshop at NOLOSE 2004. I thought about the Fat Studies events I've been to recently, how exciting they are. I remembered my excellent friend Max Airborne, a freak of the best kind. I thought about Devra Polack high-kicking in a catsuit, Kelli Dunham talking about medical self-advocacy, my partner's belly poking out from under her t-shirt. I thought about the books and the work that has sustained me and continues to inspire me, and which provides the answers to the basic questions on which people at Size Matters and The Women's Library seem to stumble. Thank you, fatties! It made me both long for visibility and recognition, the hope that some day this radical envisioning of fat will be mainstream, as well as a desire to protect it from people like Andrew Hill, who would inevitably cock it up.

Meanwhile, conference organisers, please start inviting fat people to speak at your events, please get smart about the alternative discourses that are available through Fat Studies, learn about fat activism (and no, this doesn't mean that Dove campaign) and make a commitment to stop supporting, funding, and creating platforms for fatphobia in the academy and in the world. People want to hear new and radical stuff, it is popular, people love to engage with it, it is life-affirming. Your conferences will be memorable and inspiring if you take this leap, exciting work will come of it. You will be happier.


wonderful woman said...

thank you Charlotte for writing this and sharing these rancid experiences with the WWW. Thank you also for going to such a putrid event, enduring it and for documenting it. It is not surprising but still extraordinary that this kind of privileged shite is paraded as 'concern' and 'solution'. It stinks of eradication disguised as doing good. I suppose when gathered together like this the slips are more likely to erupt - after all, they probably think, "we all 'know' what these people are 'really' like. Heck most of us deal with them and so know them. So it's ok to insinuate that they are out of control and take the piss out of their pain. It's ok to speak on their behalfs because they don't actually know how to help themselves. If they did we wouldn't need to be here."

Then there's the "people come to *me* for help... it's what *they* want and so I help them" argument. Never dissecting what that means and where it comes from. How fine it is to help an anorexic woman who is understood to be acting from a fear of fat. But the fattie herself? "She can't have a fear of fat because she is fat. She must have a fear of thin and be out of control. Or if she puports to be ok with her size she must be hiding because that 'pride' and really be miserable. She isn't? Let's make her miserable then. It's for her own good."

Um. I'm pissed off.

However your final words in this piece are so right on. People *do* want to hear what we have to say - even debate what we have to say. Give us the bloody chance to say it!

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thank you wonderful woman, thanks for writing your own response to The Women's Library thing.

Concern and solution! We need them! It reminds me so much of homophobic psychology. Eurgh.

Anger is an appropriate response, but I like that it is being channelled into resolve to keep doing the stuff we do. It is so necessary. Let's keep making our own spaces to say this stuff, and let's keep doing the work.

boobsihazthem said...

Great thoughts. I'm not sure I could have coped with attending such events.

Bri said...

I think you deserve a medal for sitting through those events. It made my stomach turn and my head spin just reading about it. Not to mention the rage...

I can't wait to do my doctorate in the area of Fat Studies (next year)...

Rachel said...

I'm not saying that such events don't exist, unfortunately they probably do, but they are likely to be regarded as unsuccessful and profoundly flawed.

Welcome to the world of eating disorder research and conferences. Even at NEDA's annual conference there's the token author who's written a memoir on eating disorder recovery, but they still discriminate in that all their presenters must be doctors or health professionals, most of whom have never had an eating disorder or even a loved one with an eating disorder.

And speaking of eating disorders... I'm noticing a disturbing trend in eating disorder research to include obesity itself as an eating disorder, which may explain why it was discussed as such at the Body Image discussion you attended.

Charlotte Cooper said...

boobz, I hear this a lot from people and it's not easy to attend such an event, though quite fun if you go with a pal. I also think that it's important for fat people to be visible and present at them, it makes it harder for us to be abstracted.

Charlotte Cooper said...


I'm noticing a disturbing trend in eating disorder research to include obesity itself as an eating disorder

I think this is possibly a re-emergence of a trend. Some feminist work from the 80s/90s characterises fat as an eating disorder, and it fits with Orbach's Fat Is a Feminist Issue thesis too. I notice that fat is often positioned as the opposite to anorexic, as though one could not be anorexic and fat.

Shut Up and Choke said...

Hello, it is been a while since I have visited blogs like these. Anyway, you have a point. How can obese/fat/chubby people be motivated if those who want to help are normally thin? I really do not know what to say right now, I have a new blog that supports everything about fat. If that is okay with you, can I feature you on my blog? Thanks. If you have the time, I would like to get a feedback from my post about the bad effects of McDonald's. I will be putting a linkback to your blog, too.

Charlotte Cooper said...

shut up and choke

You miss the point entirely. I can't stop you from linking to me, but I'd rather you didn't. I don't like your post at all.

Rachel said...

I notice that fat is often positioned as the opposite to anorexic, as though one could not be anorexic and fat.

Technically, you can't be fat and be diagnosed with anorexia, which is precisely why I wasn't diagnosed with it despite losing much more weight in a shorter amount of time than those who are diagnosed with anorexia but have much lower starting points than I did at onset. For those of us who meet all the criteria for anorexia but the weight part, we're given the catch-all diagnosis of ED-NOS, which doesn't command nearly the same amount of respect from health insurance companies as does anorexia but can be just as serious and dangerous. Yes, I am very bitter.

The difference now is that it isn't just feminist works labeling obesity as an eating disorder. Doctors and eating disorder researchers -- all of whom should know better -- are now publishing journals, books and other literature and establishing departments and organizations that conflate the two.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Oh Rachel, I'm sorry, this is outrageous, you are right to be angry.

Chanko said...

Hey Charlotte, what complete fuckwits. And the worst thing is that these ill-thought through initiatives are brainwashing yet another generation of children who think that thin = health. 11 year old children who are weighed and whose parents are lambasted if they opt out. Like a fat kid needs to be told she's fat. Officially.

I showed my Year 5 girls videos of very ordinary people being digitally altered to create the images they are bombarded with every day, and one of them stood up outraged and said "but Miss, they're lying!" Yes sweetheart they are. And best you know now and continue to know.

Meowser said...

Can you imagine a conference about disability where disabled people were not central to the proceedings?

I can if the disability in question is autism. Enties are CONSTANTLY having hand-wringing conferences and whatnot about What Is To Be Done About This Horrible Scourge Eating Our Children's Brains And More Every Day, and either not including us at all, pretending to include us and ignoring our contributions, or including only those "on the spectrum" who accept the idea of themselves (or worse, people "more autistic" than themselves) as completely hopeless and needing to be "cured," as though it would ever be possible to "cure" someone of autism without a total brain transplant. As a fatass, it sounds all too familiar.

But that does seem to be an exception. Overall your point is well taken.

Devra said...

God, it's insane. I don't know how you sit through all this maddening claptrap, but I'm really grateful that you do, and document it, and eloquently demand what needs to happen to move toward a better future.

High kicks for you anytime! Your deranged and inspired ideas keep it moving, you deserve them coming back to you. As long as we don't fit, it's good to be a misfit.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Chanko, the weighing programmes are hideous. I'm glad you're talking about bodies in the classroom in a non-shaming way. Your pupils are lucky to have you.

Meowser, I hear you and I'm going to revise my assumption.

Dev, I sit through this stuff because of you and people like you. High kicks please!

Gillian said...

Hello! I just found this blog after looking up your article on fat cycling to pass on to someone. I'm five ten and size 16, so don't normally consider myself fat - until I started working in an industry where thin, blonde and posh reign, and until I was reading a Cosmo message board (I know, I know - I was looking up something for work) and saw the thread 'What size is fat?'. There was such terrifying hate for flesh in there, that once the number on your clothing label gets so high then you are disgusting and wrong. It's terrifying - the fear of fat.

wellroundedtype2 said...

I read this post yesterday and wanted to comment, but didn't have a free moment until now.
1 -- Thank you so much for attending these conferences, and being an essential presence. I'm sorry that it didn't appear to alter the "otherizing" (but maybe it would have been even worse without any fat presence).
2 -- Thank you for all that you do. You are such a hero.
3 -- In my graduate program, the idea was drilled into us that public health must always "involve those affected by the problem." It's embarassing to see people practicing public health who do not adhere to this major tenet. (Although my sub-area within public health, community health education, is not the mainstream.)
You inspire me to be stronger and fight harder.

Anonymous said...

This is one of the most obnoxious articles I have ever written. Self-promoting, activist drivel.

Charlotte Cooper said...


Professor Hill, is that you?! And is that a typo in your comment or do you really believe that you wrote the post?

How is this post self-promoting?

Anonymous said...

My apologies, I meant read, not written.
And no, I am not Prof Hill.
I now regret giving you the attention that fuels your sense of self-importance.
All the best

Charlotte Cooper said...

Do you really mean me all the best? It doesn't sound like it.

How is my post self-promoting? And what makes it drivel? Perhaps you could help me write things that are less self-promoting and more meaningful. What kind of thing would you prefer?

Do you have a name? It's a bit strange replying to someone who comments anonymously.

the fat nutritionist said...

Holy crap, it must've been hard to sit through all of that. I've actually met Lucy, and found her lovely and intelligent. But it is extremely frustrating not to have fat people represented in meetings or organizations that are effectively making decisions or promoting concepts that will affect us directly.

As for the slim, white, and most often tall, male doctor mystique -- I've seen this at work in many contexts, most often at the hospitals where I've worked. There is something about that position of extreme privilege that at once blinds a person to their own ignorance, and at the same, seems to stupefy (most of) their listeners into unquestioning compliance.