10 July 2009

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…


Gillian said...

Her PhD topic is something that has interested me for a long time. I'd love to read it.

wonderful woman said...

plug plug - you can read a bit of it in the new book Fat Studies in the UK! Out now! : )

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you for the critique of Fat is a Feminist Issue! I did my senior thesis for my Women's Studies minor on the portrayal of fat and body image in chick lit, and I was so sure that I needed to have FIFI included in my Works Cited. I mean, "fat" and "feminist" are right there in the title! Obviously, I had never actually read the book before, and when I did, I was totally taken aback by Orbach's approach. A more accurate title would be something like, "Compulsive Eating is Maybe, Possibly, In Some Cases a Feminist Issue, at Least This is How I Perceive My Own Experience." But telling the world that fat women are afraid to be thin doesn't strike me as terribly feminist in any case.

kmd said...

I have a crush on you, too! Thank you for this, every word of it. :-)

I would love to hear your voice in the discussions on a couple of mailing lists that are heating up with issues surrounding Susie Orbach, rad fatness, oppression and appropriation ...

One is for the Association of Size Diversity and Health, which has a website:

And the other is Fat Studies, for which the mailing list is:

We need to hear about your book there, we need to hear your amazing voice there, we need you there!

Thanks for your work. You make the life and spirit of this fat woman freer and more joyful.


wonderful woman said...

and thank *you* ms blenkins!!!!! There needs to be more of us out there questioning this work and its continually argued relevance. Maybe you can stop by Jezebel where I've been blasted (mainly by those stating that they haven't actually read FIFI)about this. I've just left my own, very, very long response to all this...

And thank you Beefer for giving me the public space to talk about this. I feel like I'm dodging bullets now, but it needed to be said.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Corinna, I fully support your comments about FIFI and Orbach. Thanks for speaking up about them. You rule.

PS. Hi Jezebel-ians, nice to have you here.

wonderful woman said...

Kristen - thank you so much! How heartwarming that is to hear.

I have contributed to those arguments about Orbach on the Fat Studies list - I said quite a bit when they first surfaced. I said my piece and moved on... It's too exhausting to repeat them on another list, I'm sorry! But I think mine and others' thoughts on the ASDAH keynoting were heard... I criticised Orbach's work years ago on that list when I first joined actually, and there wasn't nearly the same support as there is now... so people are aware and talking about it.

I've also posted that the book is out on Fat Studies. Feel free to post it on any other list that would be interested!

And thanks again Charlotte for giving me the space to talk about this. It is obviously a hot potato but if we were scared of these things we'd never speak at all would we? This kind of fat phobic-disguised as concerned work is really harmful and insulting to fat folk and needs to be challenged. It's a dialogue that is not new but maybe this public outing was long overdue.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous news about FSUK!!! I can't wait to get my copy and hope one day soon to have it autographed by all possible contributors!

Also, brava for the critique of Orbach!!! I share your opinion and loathe the fact that she's speaking (in any format at all) at the upcoming ASDAH conference.

If it's at all possible, I hope your passage analyzing Orbach reaches the ASDAH leadership council.

Marilyn Wann

gabfly1 said...

I agree with everything that has been written here, and I too cringe when I read FIFI, perhaps more so because all writers feel obliged to bow to her (facile) formulation -- a la Gilman "Fat is a Man's Issue."

I do, however, tend to want to examine her formulations in terms of her cultural and historical milieu. That is, she comes out of the radical therapy movement, and as such, she is influenced by and bogged down by its essentialist views of womanhood. Her formulation is deeply problematic for us, especially now that it has been used to support the diet industry. Nonetheless, the same ideology did lead to some radical fat activists and radical fat womyn's culture from Fat Underground to various fat theater troups. More to say on this subject, but I'd just end with a shout out to the work being done on these various interlinked movements by Greta Rensenbrink, a scholar of lesbian history at West Virginia University.

Charlotte Cooper said...

gabfly1, I'm glad you raised this. I think it's not just the 70s feminist therapy movement that is significant but also that she is working to a psychodynamic orientation, which I find highly speculative and questionable in other ways. I wonder if the contestability of FIFI is related to the shaky problematic ontological foundation on which it is built.

wonderful woman said...

oh my I need to know more about all of that! These psychoanalytic paradigms are something I want to find out about. I have noted - in my thesis chapter on all of this - that there is a paradox that both Orbach and the Fat Underground came out of radical feminist therapy groups. Also that there is so much feminist work that totally ignores fat women whilst there was all this other stuff going on at the same time. Was it ignored? Was the feminist world not as small as I imagine and so easy for it to go unnoticed if you weren't part of it? But that said, Orbach does allude to fat activists in the second FIFI book, and NOW was certainly being challenged by fat activists if I'm not mistaken so... where did it all go?

My feeling is that it was too inconvenient. And also connected to why some feminists can't support us now or get their heads around fat discrimination. Internalised fat phobia anyone?

Helen Louise said...

I feel the need to defend Fat is a Feminist Issue a little bit, in that I read it as a teenager and it was the first time I had read about fat not just being about diet and exercise, or lack thereof. Yeah, the logic is all messed up, but it still started me on the road to the joys of Fat Acceptance :)

meijusa said...

same as Helen, FIFI was my first step toward FA and HAES, just by making me think about the title and introducing me to intuitive eating. I still had the "fantasy of being thin" then and it reached me where I was. I don't think I'd have been open to FA right away, FIFI was an intermediate step I could take, but I'm glad I didn't stop there and I do agree with your criticism now.