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.