31 July 2009

Conference Report: NAAFA 2009 - day one

This post refers to the annual NAAFA and ASDAH conventions, which are taking place in Dulles, Virginia right now.

We're about halfway through the first day and I want to get some thoughts down before they fly out of my head.

Firstly, highlights: Kelly Bliss' early morning workout was worth crawling out of bed for. How much do I love this woman? Answer: a lot. She is glamorous, expert, encouraging and compassionate, has great taste in music, and she made space for everyone. The session was one of those lovely fat community moments, beautifully embodied, and fun with it. Yes!

I'm excited by the people who are here, it's great to see so many Power Fatties, it's like a Who's Who of fat culture and history. I've heard many newbie accounts of NAAFA gatherings over the years, clearly the organisation is important to people who are starting to figure themselves out in terms of fat, but I want to acknowledge the breadth of experience too, many of these delegates really know the score.

Co-chair Jason Docherty's presentation this morning at the Annual Meeting prompted some questions in me. Whilst I acknowledge that NAAFA is a national organisation, it also has an international following and I'm not sure how that works. Being in Washington DC is fine by me, albeit expensive, but part of the conference involves lobbying government representatives and, as a British person, that's not so relevant to my context. Likewise, I live in a country that already has, allegedly, universal healthcare. Jason said that they were open to creative international alliances but I'm left wondering how this could play out in practical terms?

Meanwhile, if there are any delegates reading this who want to know more about what's happening in the UK, I have hot off the press copies of the Fat Studies in the UK book for sale, and flyers for HAES UK. Come and ask me about them.

I'm also struck by the contrast between last night's slideshow of NAAFA's forty-year history, and today's presentation, which also included historical elements. Indisputable is the fact that NAAFA needs strong leadership and management in order to face the challenges of Obesity EpidemicTM scaremongering. It's not enough that NAAFA exists, it must become a powerful advocate for social change. It seems that the organisation is in transition at the moment, moving from a somewhat homey set-up into something with more teeth to it, and even though it's an older organisation it feels as though it's just starting out. It’s funny but I keep thinking about The Great Oz; NAAFA reminds me of the man behind the curtain, it's a powerful idea surrounded by mythology that in reality is held together with string and sellotape. I'm surprised, but I guess this is true of many activist organisations that need to make themselves heard with minimal resources. Anyway, I welcome the current transition, and the attempts to create transparency, and hope that there are no casualties during the metamorphosis.

I think it's essential that the old be a part of the new, and vice versa. Having been around for a while, I'm painfully aware that a lot of recent fat activists have little idea of the movement's history, and there's a sense that each of us must start from scratch when we become activists, there's a big feeling of isolation a lot of the time. The photographs of beaming, happy folk in Deborah Albright's beautiful presentation last night reinforced how NAAFA is its people, that we are the organisation's capital. As the photographs showed, these people and their stories can disappear so easily, and subsequent generations are none the wiser. I appreciate Deborah's concerns about protecting people as a basis for not making these images public, but it's painful to think that this wonderful resource might be hidden from activists and allies who could get a lot out of it. I'm wondering if there are any volunteer fat-friendly archivists in the house who might want to consider making themselves known! Any oral historians besides myself? The material and history is so rich, it's crying out for preservation.

ASDAH kicks off later on today. I had a small conversation with Linda Bacon about how British Health At Every Size proponents include fat perspectives, and we shared some thoughts about conservatism within HAES in terms of reluctance to engage with fat people. It will be interesting to see if or how that plays out.

Conference Report: NAAFA and ASDAH 2009

If everything works to plan, I hope to provide a handful of posts over the next few days about the annual get-togethers of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance (NAAFA) and the Association for Size Diversity and Health (ASDAH). The conferences are separate, but they're both taking place at the same venue and I'm registered for the pair of them here at the Dulles Marriott in Virginia, not far from Washington DC.

NAAFA, as many readers of this blog will know, is the oldest and most venerated fat rights organisation of all time. I've written a chapter that includes information and first-hand accounts of its formation in 1969 that will be published later this year. This conference marks the organisation's 40th anniversary, and I'm looking forwards to meeting some of the people who founded the movement, and hearing their stories.

There are overlaps between NAAFA and ASDAH, but the latter seems to me to be more of an organisation for professionals interested in Health at Every Size rather than a straight activist or social concern. I imagine that it will be a slightly more sober gathering. Mind you, there has been pre-conference controversy this year because of the Board's decision to invite Susie Orbach to keynote the event. After some heated discussion her title has been renamed Guest Speaker, and there will be a question and answer session with her during the conference that looks, er, interesting! There may be tantrums.

I've never been to a NAAFA or an ASDAH event before, although I've read many accounts of NAAFA gatherings over the years, so much so that the event has achieved an almost mythic status in my imagination. This has not been helped by the bunch of ethnographies based on the organisation! The newsletters I read when I was first getting into fat stuff in the early 90s made a big impression on me, they showed that there was fat community out there somewhere. I wonder how the reality in 2009 will compare, especially now that I'm not exactly a fat activism newbie any more. I'm hoping to spend time with people whose work I respect very much, I've already bumped into HAES hero Lily O'Hara, I'm excited about seeing some dear friends and comrades, and making some new connections. I'll be presenting at ASDAH on Saturday. I hope there will be some mischief over the next few days.

PS I like pictures where landmarks appear on the tops of peoples' heads.

17 July 2009

Interview: Hannele Harjunen

Hannele Harjunen has been attached to the Universities of Jyväskylä in Finland and, until recently, Umeå in Sweden. She and I have been in touch for quite a few years, but it was only this year that I got to see her in action as she presented her work on liminality (don't worry, an explanation is coming) at the Fat Studies strand of the Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association conference in New Orleans. I was impressed by her confidence and intelligence, her persistence and academic rigour, and the respectful understanding she showed towards her research participants. I think Hannele's work is at the forefront of developing theory within Fat Studies. Moreover, although Hannele and I are both supporters of Fat Studies, we are aware of our positions as Europeans within an Amerocentric field dominated by the US. We think it's time to establish a more international academic engagement. Want to know more? Read on…

What got you into writing and thinking about fat?

I think I have thought about fat just as long as I can remember, but my private thoughts finally got an outlet while studying at the university. By that time I had already been on a diet and gained a number of times and the question of fat was always somehow present in my life in some form or another. My thoughts began to become more organised and I began to search for information about fatness more actively and systematically when I was in my early to mid-twenties in the mid-90s.

The moment of revelation came when I was doing a seminar paper for women’s studies class on beauty ideals and body norm. It was then when I realised that there was almost no research available on fat bodies from a social science/cultural studies perspective in Finnish and little that I could get my hands on in English. I was amazed by this, since in the early and mid-90s there was a kind of a boom of feminist literature on bodies and body ideals and norms and gender, but analysis of fatness or the experience of being fat was always missing or just a sideline in these studies. It was approached through dieting, oppressive body ideals, or eating disorders, but it was never at the centre of study. This to me felt crazy and completely wrong since I knew from my own experience that dealing with the fatness can really be a central and life-forming/informing issue. I was also quite sure that I can’t be the only one who is thinking about it. I guess it could be said that this experience was the starting point for my research and fat activism.

Could you say a little bit about your PhD?

My PhD 'Approaches to the Social Study of Fatness' started out as a thesis on Finnish women’s experiences of fatness, but it has evolved over the years to other (more theoretical) directions as well. It is an article PhD, so I’ve written and published four articles that deal with medicalisation, normalisation, stigma and liminality of fatness respectively. I’ve just finished writing the manuscript for the so called summary article, in which I’ve tied together the themes of the articles.

In the articles I have used empirical material, which consists of women’s own autobiographical writings on fatness, in addition, I interviewed some dozen women as well. Based on the empirical material and literature I have surmised that medicalisation, normalisation, stigma and liminalisation/liminality are some of the central processes or powers by which women’s fatness is being constructed today and they in a sense set boundaries to the (possible) fat subjectivity. I have been inspired by Foucault’s thought on discursive power and how that power forms its subjects. The position of the fat subject interests me. I have most recently tried to analyse it through the concept and experience of liminality. One of the aspects of fatness that fascinates me is how fatness is at the same time constructed as changeable, transitional and non-permanent yet it is known that it is a fairly permanent characteristic. This makes it a very interesting and challenging basis for subjectivity in my mind.

What does liminal mean?

Liminality as a term comes from anthropology (Arnold van Gennep and Victor Turner). It originally means the middle part of the rite of passage. Rite of passage marks a change in status and when one is at the liminal stage one is not anymore the one she used to be, but has not yet passed into the new status. One is literally in-between.

Why is it a useful concept when thinking about fatness?

I do not use the term liminality strictly the same way as anthropologists do i.e., I have not tried to fit fatness into the structure of the rite of passage, instead I have developed the idea that fatness is socially constructed as a liminal space and being fat means occupying that space e.g. between normal and abnormal body, health and disease, acceptable and unacceptable femininity, etc. All of these liminalities tie together and mould the liminal fat subjectivity. I claim that positioning fatness and being fat as liminal and transient leaves individuals in many ways in a symbolic and concrete state of limbo, in an in-between position, which quite inevitably has a number of consequences for the individual’s experience and possible agency and subjectivity. I have thought fat female subjectivity via the concept of liminality in order to capture the precariousness of the fat subject position.

Please make some broad generalisations about how fat people are perceived in Finland - and other Nordic countries, if you feel qualified to make such claims.

In Finland fatness has been considered a problem in the public health sense for a long time. I remember already in from the 80s the news about Finland being the fattest country, or the fifth fattest or something in Europe/ the world. So, the recent obesity epidemic discourse has really been easily adopted by the Finnish public health professionals and it has dominated the public discourse. Finns believe in authorities and trust experts and people have really internalised the medicalised view on fatness. However, a bunch of researchers, including myself, have been active in the media and talked about our research results on a number of occasions.

Since Finland is a small country by population I have found it relatively easy to get my own 'expert' voice heard. A close colleague, Katariina Kyrölä, and I complied an anthology of non-medical research on fatness a couple of years ago and it is now used in teaching in at least five universities here. So more and more people are getting exposed to alternative kinds of thinking on fatness and fat people. Over the recent years I have noted some changes in how journalists write about fatness, most now try to include more sociological perspectives in to their stories, which I think is a good sign.

I have lived recently in Sweden for a few years and my personal experience is that it is kind of easier to be fat in Finland, because there seems to be more of us here. One does not stand out as much. In Sweden I was invariably the fattest person in any given situation. It’s been years since I’ve been harassed or abused because of my body size, but I know it happens a lot in any case. My informants wrote a lot about it.

What kind of fat community or fat alliances are going on in Finland and Sweden?

In Finland there is now net activity and I know of some smaller more informal groups that gather together and talk about fatness and issues around it, but there is no organised or nation-wide community. I think that there really would be need for one. In Sweden I know that there have been some organised groups, but I do not know much about their work.

What do you think about the dominance of US scholars and activists in Fat Studies? What effect do you think it has on the field?

Well, it shows obviously. The US discussion is in many ways shaped by the American society and it is not always completely relevant in other contexts. I understand that US scholars are mostly interested in their own case, but I think it would be useful to the development of fat studies as a truly international field of study, if they did not generalise their situation too much or take it for granted that it applies to all contexts. We share many of the same struggles, but there are some major differences that shape approaches in the US, European countries such as the UK and Finland, or Australia. I take as an example the access to health care issue, which is a major one for US scholars and activists due to among other things lack of universal health care. For us, who come from countries where we don’t have to deal with private insurers, the whole issue of being denied access to proper health care based on weight, income etc. is outrageous.

On the level of single issues, I understand the US-centric approach much more. However, when we talk about the goals of fat acceptance movement or activists I am more concerned. The US dominance in the field shows also on the ontological and ideological level. The US fat acceptance follows the tradition of the American civil rights movements for example and the US fat acceptance movement seems to have adopted similar kind of mode and goals that might not be applicable in all societies and contexts. However, US scholars seem to be quite rarely conscious or reflexive about this.

Another thing that bothers me is that many scholars seem to base their thought on the fat acceptance on the notion of some kind of 'fixed' fat subjectivity, or political subject which I find problematic. I don’t think this kind of formula works completely. We have to be able to address the possible volatility of the fat body and subjectivity as well.

Who are the rad fatties you most admire?

All the wonderful and inspiring fat studies scholars and activists I met this spring in New Orleans at the PCA conference, among them the session coordinators Lesleigh Owen and Julia McCrossin and you. So many people are doing such amazing work! On the celebrity front Dawn French is a long time favourite, Beth Ditto obviously, Camryn Mannheim and Queen Latifah.

What's next for you?

I will defend my thesis this autumn. I am at the moment writing research proposal on a future study I plan doing on men and fatness. There is very little research in Finnish on men and fatness. It is so needed. I am determined to make studying fat my career so I am in this in the long haul! I am also working on a couple of articles at the moment.

What else would you like to say?

We need to get ourselves organised and have a European gathering of fat studies people soon! We need to make ourselves seen and heard!

16 July 2009

Fat Flesh Mob Appears on Rocky Steps, Philadelphia

The Fattest Day of The Summer took place in Philadelphia on 11 July and consisted of a Rad Fatty Flesh Mob at the Philadelphia Art Museum, on the Rocky Steps no less!

The organisers explained: "The idea is that we'll gather at the Philadelphia Art Museum, and scantily/flashily/fabulously clad self-identified fat folks will run, walk, skip, waddle, ride, saunter, sashay, etc. their way to the top of the famous stairs, Rocky style. Fat folks who don’t do stairs can be waiting at the top for the mob. All of this while allies are cheering, holding signs, and handing out fat liberation literature. This action is going to be filmed for our fat queer documentary. The key word here is FLASH, this is going to be very quick so don’t be late or you’ll miss all of the fun."

The Fattest Day continued with a barbeque and a dance party fundraiser for the documentary. Hopefully we'll hear more about that in due course.

Shoog McDaniel took a great set of photographs of the flesh mob, including the one above. Have a look at the Facebook Album if you can, though this might be friends-locked. You could also have a look at Steve Boyle's footage on YouTube.

15 July 2009

Media: how AdSense mocks the fatties

Here's the primer: this blog uses Blogger. Blogger is owned by Google. Google makes money by generating advertisements automatically from whatever people type into their products, including Blogger. Blogger offers its users the opportunity to 'monetise' their blogs, which means that you can make cash by clicking a button that enables Google to automatically generate adverts based on the blog's content.

I am unlikely ever to click this button. For one, my blog gets modest traffic and I would probably make about £2.50/year, which isn't enough of an incentive to have adverts plastered all over the place.

But the main reason is that Google's AdSense algorithms are wack if, like me, you want to talk about critical fat discourse. This is because there are, and I'm guessing, approximately a kazillion online peddlers of fatphobia and weight loss, and hardly any businesses that might be supportive of critical fat discourse. This means that I could write an entry entitled 'A Pox on Weight Loss and Everything it Represents' and AdSense would insert a handful of ads for weight loss into the thing because there is currently barely a market for non-porny alternative products and services that could flourish under AdSense, or that Google could recognise and assimilate.

I know that I could make much better money out of selling weight loss than I can as a fat activist and scholar, but I value the integrity of my work, I don't want to undermine it, and I like to sleep at night. Even though I don't click the 'monetise' button, and even though I am the kind of person who would love to see every weight loss company in the world go under, Blogger can't resist trying to sell weight loss to me. I don't ask for these ads, but look at the picture accompanying this post to see what I got when I uploaded the previous post. Mofos! Leave me alone! I don't want your rubbish! I want to avoid scummy weight loss enterprises with every cell of my being, but my software won't let me and worse: it keeps forcing this junk on me, just like fat oppression in real life!

I have no idea how to get rid of this crap, the help pages are, as usual, little help at all, and Blogger might as well be generated by a robot given how impossible it is to talk to a real person who might be able to do something about this problem. There's no paid or free opt-out or opportunity, as with the devil's Facebook, to give a thumbs-down to things you don't want.

There's more. Both of the Fat Studies messageboards were plagued with weight loss adverts when they were first set up. Jezebel.com, which is a popular site that takes a largely critical view of diet culture, is also worth a mention here because its third-party advertising servers ensure that the site's banner advertisements often point me towards Weight Watchers and the like. I have told Jezebel about this and they are not happy, but they see different adverts in the US where they are based to the ones I see here in the UK and are probably unaware of the extent of the problem. Even my ancient hotmail account is offering me ways to lose 10lbs in a week, complete with dodgy graphics. This is the true face of targeted advertising, it means unwanted advertising, advertising as harassment.

14 July 2009

Anti-obesity campaigns: generating stigma with the Obesity Cost Calculator

This is the most depressing fat panic intervention I've come across in a long time, it's so stupid and ill-conceived that I had to check the date and make sure that it wasn't April Fool's Day.

So this is it: The Centers for Disease Control in the US, the health promotion agency of the US government's United States Department of Health and Human Services, have released an online Obesity Cost Calculator to help employers calculate the cost of obesity on the company funds, and suggests the savings that would be gained by making employees lose weight.

This is so many shades of wrong I can barely begin to untangle it, I'm almost speechless. Luckily the Association of Size Diversity and Health have issued their own statement, which condemns the Calculator on the grounds that it is a licence to discriminate against fat people.

I will add that not only does the Calculator dehumanise fat people, it dehumanises all employees as BMI numbers, and it is likely to divide people from each other, which is a crappy way to run a business. It tries to quantify fatness in the most banal way, and it reeks of state-sanctioned pseudoscientific social engineering in a way that makes me wonder if anyone actually remembers what the Nazis did.

I propose a number of responses to this tool:

A nicely or nastily worded letter to the CDC saying exactly what you think of their Obesity Cost Calculator. Let them know what workplace harassment and discrimination is like for fat people and how their software is likely to encourage it.

If people have it in their power, they might think about saying no to company weighing and measuring programmes. Unless you are a wrestler or a jockey there is no reason why your employer should know how much you weigh. Don't allow them to harvest employee's weights, or to dignify Body Mass Index with use.

Research that exposes the costs, including the tax dollars, that have been spent on developing the CDC's LEAN Works! programme, the Calculator in particular.

Research that names the commercial weight loss companies allied with the CDC in developing and sponsoring their weight loss programmes, and a Calculator that estimates their potential profit increase should employers start to implement the Obesity Cost Calculator.

A Calculator that works out the cost of discrimination, stigma, scapegoating and junk science on fat people, and which further exposes the social cost in financial terms of weight obsession, weight loss interventions, weight cycling and the diminished physical and mental health they bring about in people of all sizes.

Research that estimates the financial and social contributions made by fat people.

In addition, I call for people to boycott any company found to be using this tool, and to let them and the CDC know why.

Document and share what you did and how you got on.

Ugh, ok, now back to Tuesday...

PS. Are there any hackers in the house?

10 July 2009

Research: fat East End kids fool anti-obesity scholars

This delightful news story suggests that some kids are showing prurient obesity researchers exactly where they can shove their stupid surveys. Go kids, go!

Interview: Corinna Tomrley

I am lucky to be part of a community of academics who are questioning traditional academic positions on fatness, are open to making alliances with fat activists, and are developing new ways in which we think about fat that are non-pathologising and respectful. Corinna Tomrley is a central figure in this community, not to mention a Red Sox megafan. In 2008 she convened the first Fat Studies gathering in the UK, from which has sprung a book that documents and develops the themes that were discussed there. Her own work considers how fat is presented in popular culture. She is someone you should know about, so here's more, it's long but it's good.

The book! The book! Tell me about that please!

The book is Fat Studies in the UK (aka ‘my first born’) and it is edited by myself and Ann Kaloski-Naylor.

It all started because of organising the first fat studies conference in the UK. I also happen to be very fortunate in that one of my supervisors (Ann) is a founder of Raw Nerve Books. She asked very early on, when FSUK: The Conference was just an idea, "Will you do a book?" I nodded and thought it would be a conference papers kind of thing. But it soon morphed into so much more. The book does reflect that day in lots of ways actually. Both were so important and needed because things are happening here, people are doing fat work but at that time nothing was really being explicitly called Fat Studies so it was a lot of guesswork and recognising names and faces over time. There was also a need to pull the interests of research and action together. On the day, as well as the papers we talked a lot about the intersections of activism and academia, which is strong in the book. We encouraged people to write their thoughts onto Post-its and they are reproduced in FSUK. We did a roundtable, recorded it and extracts of that are in there too. We had this fabulous display table which some amazing fatty put together on the spot – oh I think she’s called The Beefer (Charlotte: blush!). It was a load of photocopied images of rad fatty culture, loads of zines and magazines, all kinds of stuff. Other people had also sent things, mainly from the States – flyers for books, inspirational stuff, art. A few people said that display was the best thing about the event. Bill Savage, who’d given a paper, offered extracts of the Unskinny Bop zine for the book. Even though I was already thinking of it as a looser thing – I’d been asking people for personal reflective pieces about the day – right then and there with The Bop zine archived I knew it was going to be different, unique, exciting. And it is.

So it started from there, a call for contributions and in came some academic pieces but also art, cartoons, personal pieces, activism. It’s my first book so was always going to be special to me, but really I feel very affectionate about it and really think it’s going to stand out as something important. A common criticism about fat studies is that it’s very US-centric. This book is interesting because the majority of the contributors do live in the UK but we also invited US folk to comment on it. Being called Fat Studies in the UK shouldn’t make it a capsule, floating in our side of the pond, but it’s about saying – yes there’s stuff going on here too and here is just the tip of that iceberg. It’s also about acknowledging that it’s not the US versus the rest of the world. The Internet means we’re all connected and sharing lots of exciting stuff both online and sometimes IRL too. Yes a lot of that happens in the US and sometimes the limits of that aren’t acknowledged. But I don’t see it as two sides, exclusively working on our own. There’s a lot to share and a lot that is unique to location. We invited Katie LeBesco to write the preface and she talks about how important it was for her to realise this work was going on outside the US – and this goes back to the 90s.

You can get the book through the website, but you can also get it through any good book seller! The usual online ones but also any bookshop will be able to order it. Just take them the details from the web. Oh and tell all your friends about it! There’s something for everyone. Heck buy an extra copy as a present for someone you love, why dontcha?

How do you define Fat Studies, and why do you think it's a good thing?

In the intro to the book I talk about calling this book Fat Studies in the UK when it could connote an academic book. There’s loads of personal stuff in there. But for me it is all connected. This is seen in the Yahoo lists (Fat Studies UK, and Fat Studies) where there are academics and researchers, artists, activists and tons of interested fatties who want to know what’s going on all through those perspectives to stay informed but also to join in. At its basis fat studies is about looking critically at how fat people are generally portrayed and written/spoken about. It’s about critiquing the idea of an ‘obesity epidemic’ and all the detritus that comes along with that. But equally vital and interconnected is the fat activism, politics, personal stories – the fat culture of our lives, our pasts and our futures. All this can be expressed, explored and documented through fat studies. I also feel that this book in particular is about Studies of Fat – so instead of it being an academic discipline it’s also about what fatness means to these contributors and how they’ve chosen to express it. It’s about challenging so-called ‘experts’ through their places of potential power but there’s also a lot of ideas and actions out there which are getting the word out through lots of creative means – art workshops, performance, anonymous action, The Chubsters… I find all of this so exciting.

Why I think fat studies is so bloody great and why it’s actually essential that this label is used and embraced, is that it’s as in your face and multifaceted as the people who are doing this work. I said we did the conference and the book because there was a lot of isolated work going on that people just didn’t know about. Using the term Fat Studies makes it quite explicit what you are about – but at the same time will never be a monolithic thing. So it’s fluid, it’s alive and it’s new – as a label. But it’s also an extension of fat work that’s been going on for decades.

What's your PhD about?

I’m looking at how weight is depicted in celebrity gossip, particularly through the weight stories in gossip magazines. I went into this inspired by two things – the increasing amount of these mags on the supermarket shelves and how they seem to focus on the skinny and the fat, and Paul Campos’ The Obesity Myth. This was the beginning of my own full-frontal fat political awakening and I was also angered by the news reports which were getting more frequent about Obesity (cue crack of thunder and scary music). I felt personally threatened by this and also curious as a researcher. Was it a coincidence that these magazines were spawning more titles, more stories on weight and that there was a cultural obsession with fatties? I don’t have an answer to that by the way.

I was also curious as to how they made their women readers feel. Do you feel better seeing a celebrity’s privileged body exposed for its flaws? Or does it make you feel crapper about yourself? The answer is of course both! I realised that what was going on in these mags was far more complex than I’d ever imagined. Readers are really critical and cynical – but still read them. The stories are really skinny bashing but sometimes tend to almost celebrate fatness – to a degree. There’s so much ambivalence. I do think that this is reflected in how we are really ambivalent towards our own bodies and it’s not fixed but fluid how we feel about ourselves. It’s not these bad mags vs poor innocent duped women.

At the same time I’m critical at how these ideas of skinniness/fatness are perpetuating ideas of a ‘correct’ feminine body and a lot of body image stuff that resists a thin ideal is guilty of doing that too. How often do you hear someone saying that having ‘curves’ means being a ‘real woman’? Where does that leave any woman who is not curvaceous? It’s just as oppressive as telling fat women to lose weight.

There’s a lot of work to be done but it’s not about saying ‘I’ve got my stuff together about liking my body, you should too’. It’s more complicated. For instance, these magazines, whilst judgmental of women’s bodies are also the only place you get to see diverse body shapes and sizes and lumpy bumpy bodies. They’re a space for size diversity and whilst it’s embedded in a dodgy, scrutiny and ‘flaw’ discourse, they rarely demonise fatties the way we are elsewhere in the media.

What's the appeal of fat? And who are your favourite fatties?

It really comes from the position of being a marginalised person and having to fight back. There’s a strength that comes from that which I find so exciting, I wouldn’t swap it. Also not being approved of but being out there anyway can be so much fun! Seeing other fatties doing that is just great. It’s really touching and inspiring. I like to shake shit up and being a fatty when it’s almost illegal tends to do that! I can’t separate my researcher’s curiosity from my own personal story and fatness. It’s all part of the same magnificent beast. It probably sounds contradictory for me to criticise skinny bashing and the ‘celebration of curves’ and then talk about how rad fatties are. But for me it’s the same as letting our queerness out there – it’s not about putting straight people down, it’s just getting our voices heard and not being afraid to put a bit of freaky deaky into the mix.

I could give you a celebrity filled list of favourite fatties – and of course I am celebrity-fixated so it wouldn’t be difficult… I’m going to miss someone out but off the top of my head right this minute I’d say - Cass Elliot, Beth Ditto, Divine, John Goodman, Hattie Jacques, Marilyn Monroe, Margaret Dumont, Babe Ruth, Bessie Smith, Diana Dors, Les Dawson, Rosanne, Dina Washington, Camryn Manheim, Fat Judy Garland, Fat Elvis, Fat Liza with a Z. You know, the usual suspects, the fattie roll call of flabulousness. But away from Celebville, my favourite fatties are those who fight the fight and step out there in all their glory. The fatosphere is full of them and I’m falling in love with 'em all the time. I see rad fatties on the street every single day. I can usually pin point a favourite of the moment from that batch. It helps if they are wearing something they are ‘not supposed to’, have a swagger about them, a don’tfuckwithmeness or a don’tgiveashitwhatyouthinkness. That will usually get me.

I've really enjoyed hearing your critiques of Susie Orbach's work on fat, eg Fat Is A Feminist Issue and, latterly, Bodies, and had a great time with you at a talk she gave recently. Could you share some of your criticisms here?

Well there are two main aspects to this and one is Orbach’s work itself and the other is what it has come to mean as a cultural thing.

Her work is so flawed and so convoluted that I could take all day telling you what’s wrong with it. But the main points are – she’s speaking for fat women and within this assumes all fat women are compulsive eaters, all fat women are hiding in their fat, assumes all fat women can be thin and if they don’t want to be it’s a psychological issue. Fatness is the other side of the coin to anorexia. However at the same time she appropriates fat activist work and speech. So she can seem on the side of fatties in one sentence but damning obesity as an eating disorder and a problem in the very next. Fatties who fight back are ‘brave souls’ but if we’re fat and it’s political, we’re really hiding behind the fat just as any fat, fat-hating woman is. And those fat women who say they want to be thin but aren’t? Why, that’s where the paradox lies. They really want to be fat and just don’t know it yet. I’m surprised the woman doesn’t get whip lash with the about turns she makes. She pathologises us even as she seems to be trying to help us.

There’s no room for bodily diversity in her work if all fat women should really be thin, but she laments that women are expected to be one size and shape and are continually pressurized to be so. She criticizes the diet industry but believes she has the answer to weight loss. She says diets fail but expects her solution to work. She advocates for body-esteem work with girls and young women but if they were to pick up FIFI they’d read that being fat is a psychological crutch and they should get over that and be their true, thin selves.

What is so problematic about this is that she and her work – particularly Fat is a Feminist Issue are often portrayed as really, really important. Her work is undoubtedly influential. But I really think it’s the idea of FIFI that has the influence a lot of the time, rather than what she actually wrote. Although the idea that women ‘eat their feelings’ and are hiding in fat is a pervasive one and came right out of that book. FIFI is considered an essential text for women to read and this is so scary. It’s basically a diet book that pretends not to be a diet book so it has the potential to be really appealing to women for whom the words ‘she mentioned a woman who had lost lots of weight without dieting’ and ‘I lost lots of weight’ are magical and seductive. It’s so, so flawed but gets reissued again and again. And each time Orbach writes a new intro appropriating fat activist speech yet says we’re a problem all over again. She has not changed her tune, or retracted anything. In her new book Bodies it is the same. Outside of a few criticisms – usually within academic writing – these contradictions are not picked up on. This is because the coupling of hand-wringing over women’s body oppression coupled with a fear/concern for being fat is common – and stems from this kind of feminist body work. Orbach is constantly called upon to speak on behalf of all women – not just fat women but any woman who has a body! And she’s articulate, convincing, charismatic – and has got this really dodgy, skewed view of fatness.

Her recent criticism about the report that fat celebrities were bad role models was interesting because it’s only the second time I’ve read anything by her where she hasn’t felt the need to include a disclaimer that ‘of course’ there’s an obesity problem and that fatties need help to not be fat. I was shocked. It was like the Orbach who takes on the ideas of fat activism had shed the fat phobic Orbach. That Orbach would be a really powerful spokeswoman for the fat lib movement. Alas the actual Orbach just confuses the issue and this confusion allows for a rhetoric of fat phobia to continue to be perpetuated. Whilst that Guardian/fat celebs piece was a relief, I am sure that she’s not about to pen a book called ‘Fat is Fine – where I got it a bit wrong and what I’d like to put right’. I wish she would, really I do. But it is so very unlikely.

What else would you like to say?

Buy the book. Read the book. Share the book. Write your own book, zine, life story. Get out there and be a proud, rad fattie. Do your own thing your own way.

I’d like to thank and salute with my chubby hand all the rad fatties out there who shake things up on a regular basis. I have a collective crush on you all.

There is undoubtedly loads of work to be done and sometimes doing that work is horrible, draining and demoralising. Sometimes it’s incredible, exciting, touching, thrilling, hilarious and just bloody lovely. I’d like to do a lot more of that work, please.

One of the things about fat culture that I love the most and what really, really excites me until I squeal is that there’s this fun, silly, angry, in your face side to it. It comes from burlesque performers, street performers, films, conversations, get-togethers, all kinds of life moments. It’s also very often soaked in queerness and I find that fascinating, exhilarating and wonderful. I’d like to do more of this, see more of it and look into how it happens. What compels queer fatties to show off and shove it in the face of the fat phobic narrow-fucks of this world? Is it our innate gloriousness or it is something more? I’m think I’m going to use that phrasing in my next research proposal and see what happens…

Conference Report: Leisure Studies Association Conference 2009

There is no regular Fat Studies gathering in the UK at present, and the first ESRC seminar is not until next year, but Fat Studies scholars are meeting as guests of other academic organisations and events nevertheless.

On Tuesday the Leisure Studies Association hosted a short seminar at their conference at Canterbury Christchurch University in Kent, which was convened by Dr Louise Mansfield. The meeting was titled: Critical Perspectives On Fat And Leisure.

Corinna Tomrley (The University of York, UK)
Body judgement or body diversity? Negotiating fatness in celebrity gossip magazines
Corinna talked about how fat, 'curvy' and thin celebrity bodies are presented in gossip magazines. Her presentation focussed on Beth Ditto and included material from her fieldwork concerning how women look at and consume such magazines.

Charlotte Cooper (University of Limerick, Ireland)
Fat Girl on a Bike - Introducing Health At Every Size
I used my experiences as a fat cyclist to talk about how a number of leisure organisations include anti-fat rhetoric in their mission statements and literature. I criticised this and introduced Health At Every Size as an alternative means of thinking about fat and health.

Lucy Aphramor (University of Coventry, UK)
What should we tell the students? Ethical challenges in teaching fat, fitness and health
Lucy showed how obesity science and obesity medicine is failing fat people in ethical terms. The medical ethical principles of beneficence and non-maleficence , for example, are not supported in medical practice that values health-depleting weight loss interventions, dodgy scientific rationales, and an inability to consider wider social health determinants.

Dr. Louise Mansfield presented work based on research undertaken by herself, Dr. Jennifer Smith Maguire (University of Leicester, UK), and Helen Curtis (Canterbury Christ Church University, UK).
Fat Bodies in Sport and Leisure: Discourse of Resistance and Change?
Louise talked about how fatness relates to the kinds of bodies that are valued most highly in fitness cultures. She talked about possibilities for resistance within such cultures and presented some examples, with discussion.

I am really glad that such events are taking place. It shows that ideas and academic community can develop and grow in modest circumstances. It is important that we support each other because, as many of us know from experience, we often face hostile and intimidating audiences when we take our work to venues that lack a basic understanding of alternative or critical fat discourses.

Thanks for setting it up Louise!

09 July 2009

Beth Ditto, Evans and the reality of celebrity shopping

This morning I decided to make like a roving reporter and went down to the big Evans at Marble Arch to check out the first day of the Beth Ditto launch. It's a queer fat cultural moment.

As I approached the shop a woman handed me with a bottle of Beth Ditto branded water and invited me to come and have a look at the clothes. That was weird, I've been living in a bubble where I assume that a lot of fat people are going to know about this range and don't need telling about it.

What was weirder was the velvet rope by the entrance and a bunch of nightclub bouncers hanging around it. There weren't the crowds to justify the rope, 10am on a Thursday morning is not peak shopping time, but as a branding strategy it was fascinating to see how Evans is promoting itself as the type of place where crowds would need to be held back, or where club kids might go. I can remember when Evans was called Evans Outsizes and sold, what one friend used to call "sludge-coloured clothes." I remember polyester tent dresses with tiny bits of lace at the neck and peter pan collars, clothes which are now ripe for rad fatty retro-irony fashion appropriation. Despite attempts to rebrand as a less stigmatising (= more profitable) place to shop, Evans remains a dowdy presence on the high street. As an aside, I've come to like Outsize, I think it expresses the outsider nature of a lot of fat experience and I think it has exciting anti-assimilationist potential.

Inside there were a few browsers, but it wasn’t busy. The other shoppers looked as though they wouldn't know who Beth Ditto was; they were older, very conventional, dressed in an unexciting way. I was hoping to see groups of hip young fat gals with arms full of clothing, they weren't there today. A couple of skinny Beth fans came in to have a peek, and there were a few fashion people who work for the company zipping around the shop looking busy.

I had a look at the clothes. I think this is going to be a successful line and I wanted to see the full range in all the sizes before they start to sell. As with all fashion, the clothes look a lot better in photographs than they do in real life. High street fashion is mass manufactured in developing industrial countries at great profit and Evans is no different. The clothes look cheap and have a kind of flimsiness to them, especially the shoes. I don't like this, but it seems ridiculous to complain about it because this is the way of the world, cheaply-made high street sweatshop fashion is what a lot of people wear.

If I had been with friends I would have tried on the blue all-in-one jumpsuit for fun and larks, but I was alone and couldn't be bothered. I tried the denim skirt and I bought it. It's comfortable, doesn't hide my apparently shameful body, and looks good, though is more expensive than an equivalent skirt in a normal-sized shop. It also fits well, unlike so many Evans garments I've tried on over the years, one of the problems of mass-producing clothes for a consumer-base that has diverse body shapes. I'll be interested to see if Beth Ditto for Evans is able to produce trousers in the future that don't have horrible empty bagging at the front or create a peculiar belly cameltoe.

Buying the skirt enabled me to see the breaks between the old Evans and the bright, shiny, new Evans; the upper management and the women who work in the shops and know the customers. You get a special bag if you buy Beth Ditto clothes, and they wrap your stuff in some special Beth Ditto domino tissue paper and stickers. You get free badges. The sales women fumbled this extra service, they were not used to this level of retail activity, though I expect they will get plenty of practise, especially on Saturday.

I hope that this collection does well, even though I am critical of the politics of high street fashion. I don't know if Beth Ditto has the power or the inclination to address the Arcadia group's problematic opposition to unionised labour in the production of the clothes that bear her name, but it would be good if she could. As someone quite removed from the manufacturing process, I have other concerns too. I hope that this line shows other clothes retailers that fat fashion is where it's at. Like other companies that used to sell larger sizes, Hennes, for example, has pretty much decimated its fat-sized range in the UK, maybe they'll cast a greedy eye over Evans and reconsider their position. Maybe more hip and radical fashion fatties will emerge and start getting their work out there; maybe these clothes will mark new opportunities for fat people to experience the embodied pleasure that amazing clothes can bestow.

I'm not sure that liberation and social change can be brought about through shopping, although in capitalism I can see that shopping has a complicated role in such human processes. Beth Ditto is a brilliant person and an important icon, may she go far and influence many of us. Fat fashion events such as The Fat Girl Flea and the wonderful Re/Dress in Brooklyn, and many other small businesses, have clear roots within rad fat communities, and are actively supportive of those spaces. But Evans? I'm not sure what that's about.

So, I bought a skirt at Beth Ditto for Evans, but it was hard to know what I was really buying.

06 July 2009

Research: desperate diet industry turns to seal milk for magic bullet

I went to see Werner Herzog's documentary about Antarctica the other week. The film is called Encounters at the End of the World and was originally released in 2007. I loved the film but there was a sequence in it that made me emit a startled Eek!

Herzog filmed a pair of research scientists out in the field, one of whom is Olav Oftedal. The research involves taking milk samples from female seals nursing their pups. The scientists do this by creeping up behind a seal and her cub, putting a big hood type thing over the seal's head and extracting some milk from her. They insist that it has no adverse psychological effect on the seals, but it's hard to believe that because of the sudden and apparently traumatic nature of the hooding and milk collection.

Seals lose about 40% of their body weight when they are lactating, and their milk is extremely rich. Herzog's voiceover explained that Oftedal's research related to the search for weight loss in humans.

Now then, the voiceover could have been wrong and I could be mis-remembering it. It could be that 'weight loss' is a cover proposed by Oftedal and his team so that they can nab some funding and go to do their thing in Antarctica. I've done a quick search and still have no idea if or how this research relates to weight loss.

I suppose my Eek! was that, despite these hesitations, it is entirely possible that lactating seals could be being studied to provide yet another possible magic solution to the problem of obesity. I continued to go Eek! with the awful realisation of just how obsessive the scientific search for weight loss might be. Lactating seals. If Oftedal's research is really about human weight loss then I might as well give up my work in Fat Studies because there's no way I can compete with that depth of obsession. Just so you know.

03 July 2009

Interview: Bevin Branlandingham

On those days when you're feeling a little wishy-washy about life in general, you could do a lot worse than to stop, wonder what Bevin Branlandingham might do if she were in your situation, and take note.

This queer fat femme icon is the convener of the excellent and free podcast FemmeCast, she's got confidence, courage and smarts coming out of her ears, is the perfect blend of frothy and fierce, and I bet she can tell a good cupcake from bad too. Bevin is usually to be found at the centre of things in New York and New Jersey, surrounded by her femme family, and it's hard to talk about her without using the word Fabulous. Check her out…

What does femme mean to you? I realise this could be a massive question, highlights are acceptable.

First, I want to acknowledge that Femme is something different to absolutely everyone who identifies as Femme. And I leave it as a self-identification. For me, being Femme is a lot of things:

Femme is a way of defining for me how I fit into my sexuality.

Femme means my feminism and my femininity walk hand in hand.

Femme means I look how I want to look and not how someone tells me I should look to be perceived as queer. You'll know I'm queer within about 20 seconds of talking to me.

Femme means I look how I want to look and not how someone tells me I should look because I am a woman. I am often far overdressed for everything I do, but when I look in the mirror and smile because I'm wearing a glittery necklace, feathers in my hair, lots of cleavage, that's what matters.

Femme means I stand in solidarity with every other self-identified Femme, Butch, and gender warrior out there.

I also identify fiercely as a Femme Shark, read the manifesto!

It is about finding a way to be a girl that doesn't hurt (This is from my friend Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha's keynote speech at the Femme Conference last year).

And another great quote from the Femme Conference (this one from my hero Dorothy Allison): "A femme can teach you how to run through broken glass in heels."

I'm intrigued as to how femme might be read or experienced differently across different cultures. I think the book Femmes of Power illustrates some of those differences, but I'm wondering if you have any thoughts about femmes in the US, ie what distinguishes American femmes from femmes elsewhere?

Well, that's really hard for me to say because most of the Femmes I know from other countries are artists and performers, and I think we are a different breed of people entirely. But of those artists and performers, I know them to be a lot more comfortable with gender bending and using elements of masculinity in performance, both of Femme in art. I see Femme in general moving towards the blending of gender and being much more than just the utilisation of tropes of standard femininity and playing with a lot of different presentations. I think that Femmes in other countries were ahead of the game with this.

Who are your favourite queer fat femmes, and why do you love them?

Beth Ditto is a longtime hero of mine. She has long challenged the notions of cute and fashionable. She was the first famous example of a queer fat femme I knew of (playing to a crowd of 50 in Philadelphia, not nearly as famous as she is now). I was in awe of her owning her sexuality and hotness, and never apologising for it. Seeing someone else do it who was younger than me only inspired me to hurry up and get through my fat shame and start making something of myself. Also have you seen the sweater dress with the face on it in her new line for Evans? That's enough to get my love right there.

Dorothy Allison is so amazing. She's got a gift with language and insight that is phenomenal. Her writing is incredible and if you ever get the chance to see her speak it will feel like she has fisted your soul. I got to interview her for FemmeCast about being Femme in the 70s and 80s and she used to code Femme in all sorts of interesting ways, like wearing a flannel shirt with a lacy bra showing, or studding a leather jacket with earrings she got at thrift stores.

Heather MacAllister is another one of my heroes. She was a fat activist, burlesque performer, founded the Fat Bottom Revue in San Francisco and was so fiercely in her body, unapologetic and had a deep respect for herself and other humans. She died a couple of years ago and I am working on an oral history project about her life and work because I think it's important to preserve our history as fat activists, queers and femmes and also because I find so much of myself in who she was and what she did.

Christine De La Rosa is one of the chairpeople of the Femme Conference, founded Butch-Femme.com, is a community leader and activist and probably one of the nicest and most dedicated people I have ever met. She moved to Oakland last year, decided that they needed an LGBT community centre and is now managing Velvet, a once-floundering lesbian bar, turning that into a community space while she works on the centre. I have so much awe for her drive, integrity and inspiration.

The rest of my favourite queer fat femmes are all of the incredible creatures that identify as queer fat femmes. To paraphrase my friend Sarah J on the first episode of my podcast: in a racist, sexist, mysoginist, fatphobic world, being a queer fat femme is an act of bravery. I feel blessed every day that I get to count many of the queer fat femme community leaders and artists in this world my personal friends and part of my femme family.

Why did you make FemmeCast a podcast?

A couple of years ago I was languishing in a law career that I wasn't loving and a friend of mine posted to her LiveJournal a quote about finding your golden skill – something that you love doing and should build a career around. My partner at the time joked that mine was talking. I took him seriously and decided that I wanted to do a podcast.

I had been a performer and producer for years, but the work I was doing (drag, burlesque and comedy) was a lot harder to stage in New York in a way that was financially accessible to audiences. I thought that doing something that was free and easily accessible to people who didn't live in big metropolitan areas and could affect the ways communities connected would be something fun for me and hopefully entertaining for my listeners.

I love the way that FemmeCast mobilises a mixed bunch of friends, and that not all contributors identify as femme. What tips do you have for other people wanting to do activism with their pals?

First of all, thank you for noticing that not everyone identifies as Femme! It was important for me to put a mix of folks on there (not all of us are fat, or female identified either) because I think Femme is enriched by our whole community, including our allies, friends, fans and lovers.

Well, what I do is I make it REALLY easy for my friends to participate. Producing one episode of FemmeCast takes me about 40 hours. But for my friends who are contributors, it takes them about 10 minutes per segment (and they're not in every episode). Unless we do a roundtable then it's maybe 20 minutes. The hardest part is usually scheduling.

I also think I try to work with people's strengths, so with some contributors we set it up as a conversation and with others it's a monologue where I give them prompts. And sometimes I just solicit specific pieces from writer and performer pals, like: "Hey will you record that thing you already worked on for the podcast?"

I use some of this philosophy in other community groups I am part of. I'm the Head Madam of the NYC Femme Family. I specifically set up the organisation with a leadership philosophy to utilise the energy and strengths of people who are coming to the table. So, for example, I didn't say, "we need someone to fill this specific role," I asked the people interested in organising: "What role do you think you'll be good at and what are you interested in doing for the organisation?" People are willing and able to give a lot more time and energy doing things they like to do, and are good at, rather than something they struggle with or find boring. And when you're doing something for free, which community organising often is (especially as you get into more and more marginalised identities not flush with cash), it's important that it be fun!

What else would you like to say?

My life's mission is to make the world a safe place for all people to love themselves, regardless of their marginalisations. My career ambition is to have a talk show.

Find out more about Bevin through her website, queerfatfemme.com, and make a date for Fat and Queer, a community conference in New York City this autumn. Right!