25 August 2009

Interview: Dr Samantha Murray

Dr Samantha Murray, of Macquarie University in Sydney, says some of the things that some people don't want to hear. In her book, The 'Fat' Female Body, Sam offers a critique of fatphobia within the health professions, a phenomenon that many of us know well, and she goes on to discuss the ambivalence that many of us experience around our own fat embodiment. But it is her criticisms of some kinds of fat activism that are the most timely, in my opinion, and Sam's discussion brings in ideas about ideology and social change in a manner that is both adult and brave.

Being the person who pipes up about difficult things can be a thankless task, especially when those criticisms are set within a context where people already feel beleaguered and powerless (though let's remember that many of us are not necessarily either of these). But it is my belief that the protagonists of any social movement, fat included, can benefit from a degree of critical self-reflection, and Sam's work is vital in this respect, it helps us to grow. Like Sam, I am interested in social change that is expansive and complicated, that dares to look at the hard stuff.

Could you talk about some of the critical work around fat that's coming out of Australia? I'm aware of Jan Wright, Michael Gard and Lily O'Hara but am pretty ignorant about the scene in general. Is there a history of fat activism in the country? Or in Sydney?

In Australia, there is a growing contingent of us working on fat studies, with lots of really exciting work coming out all the time. There is lots of innovative doctoral research in progress here at the moment – for example, people like Rachel Kendrick and Jackie Wykes. Michael Gard and Jan Wright’s work, which you mention, is fantastic and probably the best-known critical work out of Australia. Jan Wright is also the founder of ICONet (International Critical Obesity Scholars Network), which draws on a range of disciplinary approaches, and encompasses research by scholars all critical of the alleged ‘obesity epidemic’.

In terms of fat activism, there is a growing scene, but not on the same scale as somewhere like the US. We have a really exciting online activist presence with some great blogs, such as Bri King’s Fat Lot of Good, and the fabulous Fatadelic. There is a strong queer community commitment to fat activism and critique of the construction of fatness in the West. Some of this critical commentary and activism was recently profiled in Cherrie magazine.

My current thinking is that weight loss surgery (WLS) is problematic in many ways, for example I think it supports beliefs about the worthlessness of fat, it destroys people's health, and it profits from lies and misery. It is for these reasons that I doubt that I would ever choose surgery for myself, along with the facts that I don't value slenderness that much, I'm not interested in assimilating into normative-sized society, and generally I consider it a bad move.

But I also see that many fat people are choosing such surgeries. I suspect that 'choice' is moot since fat people are under phenomenal social, medical and commercial pressure to lose weight at any cost, and I know that these surgeries are being promoted without fully informed consent.

Yet I'm interested in fat people's agency and in the feminist principles of ownership and control of one's body. Could weight loss surgery ever be a part of that? Maybe it is already, and that the problematic aspects of it are part of its contingency and complexity?

I'm thinking of how some transgendered people approach surgery in progressive ways, I keep coming back to trans-theorist Kate Bornstein's badge slogan: Biology Is Not Destiny. Is weight loss surgery like gender reassignment surgery? The latter has also been critiqued as mutilation and misogyny.

Got any comments?

I’m very reluctant to situate my own experiences with WLS as an empowered choice about taking control of my body. The notion of a ‘journey’ that is so often deployed in weight loss narratives, particularly on reality TV shows I think (problematically) implies a defined end point where the ‘journey’ ends and one is ‘re-made’ as a kind of ‘successful’ body project. My own experiences of WLS don’t mesh with this idea at all. For me, the initial consultation, the illness, the agonizing decision, the surgery and the ongoing daily management of my post-WLS embodiment didn’t (and don’t) play out along the lines of feminist empowerment at all. The decision to have the surgery didn’t feel like a choice to me, for a variety of reasons: in amongst the rhetoric of the numerous stakeholders fat people are all too familiar with navigating all the time, I tried desperately to disavow the illnesses that precipitated the recommendation for the surgery as all too conveniently related to ‘obesity’. However, this was all set against my own personal experience of pain and illness, The decision to undergo the surgery was politically torturous: I did not want to reaffirm the medico-moral panic about obesity by submitting to what I had imagined as its most drastic and violent intervention. And co-extensively, I did not want to compromise my own fat politics and my activist community (despite my struggles with certain models of fat activism) by agreeing to this surgical procedure. This constant vascillation was miles more painful than the surgery and the recovery itself.

I'm interested (and often appalled) in the relationship between fat activism and weight loss surgery. There is a fear that fat people are going to be annihilated through surgery and that people who have it are colluding with an enemy. I have seen fat people who have supported activist communities for years lose status and membership after having surgery, and I have been in activist spaces where the issue of surgery is so vexed that there is a kind of censorship going on an no one is allowed to say anything about it, especially anything positive. I experience this as shaming, shunning, shutting down and silencing, and it pisses me off! What are your thoughts about how the fat liberation movement should move forwards?

Regarding the tensions I’ve outlined here as productive rather than as problems to be definitively solved increasingly seems enabling to me, as all my work has been underpinned by what I regard as pretty fundamental to all of us: ambivalence, ambiguity and multiplicity. I do think that fat activism does need to make a space for critical voices that trouble our own experiences of fatness in the same way we trouble dominant popular, moral and medical responses to, and constructions of, fatness. In fact, I think this is a necessary task in order to continue to make visible and address fatphobia.

Unfortunately, even though I am, and will always remain, utterly committed to fat politics (and a lifelong fat grrl – after all, medicine still classifies me as ‘overweight’!), my WLS has been received with some hostility and judgment by some in the fat activist community. While I understood this hostility (I had internalized my own political hostility to WLS in the lead-up to the surgery), I was deeply saddened by the limits that are often so evident to me in the prescriptive ways of ‘doing’ some kinds of fat activism.

Your book charts your disillusionment and disappointment in some areas of activism, but I wonder are there trends and themes within the movement that give you hope or inspire you at all?

I should say, in one of your blog posts, you note that I suggest activism is part of a liberal humanist framework that ignores the inescapable nature of people's specific circumstances. This implies that I think activism is impossible and a futile project. I just want to say that I don't think this is the case at all, and was not what I was indeed trying to say. Rather, dominant models of organized fat activism, particularly in the States, often support a singular political identity. While this is often strategic, in terms of lived experience, it precludes and occludes a multitude of voices, experiences and differences. Activism that makes a space for a critical space animated by these competing, ambiguous, multiple and contingent narratives (and I certainly believe this activism does exist and is possible) is the activism I think is vital, crucial and most productive. I have always considered myself an activist: just an activist who wants to ask difficult questions about some quarters of activism, often questions just as maddening and difficult as the social situation that gives rise to our ire.

My approach to fat activism is informed by critical medical studies and feminist philosophy of the body. I critique dominant models of identity politics because there can be a danger of slippage into prescriptive requirements of bodies and selves that end up recuperating the very normative body aesthetics that we oppose. However, I also accept that identity politics can be (and often needs to be) strategic for political expediency. I guess all my work is undergirded by an absolute rejection of absolutes and binary modes of thinking, especially in terms of 'right'/'wrong' moralism.

Having said that, I am aware that while there are dominant models of fat activism that are guided by traditional identity politics, fundamentally, fat politics is an ever-shifting vanguard, lived out across a myriad of different approaches, embodiments and interventions. This is what inspires me: the possibility of different narratives and of having conversations that are as productive as they are difficult.

From my own perspective, the work that is most effective/affective is work that is visceral, that is embodied, and that makes people uncomfortable in productive and enabling ways. And I think that this is what the most exciting, provocative and innovative fat activism does. That kind of activism that queers ‘fatness’ by simultaneously asking us to think about the strangeness of what we understand as ‘fat’ and how that fatness is also empowering - particularly when we use ‘fatness’ as an activism that defamilarises and threatens dominant constructions of ‘obesity’. To me, I think that ‘doing’ fat, in all its complexities and ambivalences, is what is exciting, rather than ‘being’ a fat identity.

What are you working on now?

Since publishing the book, my research has moved into what a much more critical medical studies/critical fat studies concentration and research into the panic around childhood obesity, and bariatric (weight loss) surgeries are the focus of my current work. I’ve just finished co-editing a book collection with Nikki Sullivan called Somatechnics: Queering the Technologisation of Bodies and Selves, which is due out with Ashgate later this year, and includes a chapter I wrote critically reflecting on my experience of fatness and post-WLS embodiment. As a WLS patient and an academic who writes on fat embodiment, I dwell at the intersection of some difficult and disturbing tensions: the role bariatric surgery plays in perpetuating certain cultural understandings of fatness as a kind of empirically monolithic clinical marker, the commodification of bariatric procedures, and the very real and oft hidden realities of living with the band post-operatively, alongside the political implications of WLS and considering the space that needs to be made for different body narratives/activism in fat politics.

What else would you like to say?

There’s so much more I would like to say! What I mostly want to say is that I’m all about starting a conversation that is not simply about extracting a justification from people or reducing debate to picking a side – and what I have found most frustrating is that when I have tried to do this in some fat activist fora, I’ve been shut down, dismissed or just regarded as a suspicious traitor. I really hope people will want to start a conversation with me - I would love to hear from anyone who wants to talk about these issues. Let’s start a dialogue!

Dr Samantha Murray
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Somatechnics Research Centre
Department of Media, Music & Cultural Studies
Faculty of Arts
Macquarie University
Sydney, Australia

24 August 2009

Report: posing for The Adipositivity Project 2009

At the beginning of August I was lucky enough to find myself in a ramshackle back yard in the further reaches of Red Hook, Brooklyn, with three of the most rad fatties on earth.

You may not know this, but Substantia Jones has an ongoing photo series called The Adipositivity Project. The project's website has over three hundred of Substantia's photographs, mostly of fat women, I think. The portraits of fat bodies are beyond sublime. Some are naked, some are not, some are body parts, some are ensemble pieces with several people.

I've seen a lot of fat people in my time but this work shows fat bodies in new ways, as real, embodied, and beautiful. I don't mean beautiful like a boring model in a magazine, but a kind of rich beauty, a beauty of the body. If ever you are having a bad fat day, you could do a lot worse than go and browse the archives. Hell, have a look even if you are feeling perfectly fine about yourself, why not?

A note: for various reasons Substantia shoots people anonymously. You all know what I think about headless fatties, but this is different: the people in Substantia's world are not stereotypes, the photographs are taken with great respect for fat bodies, it's not about cheap profiteering photojournalism, and there is this little thing involved called consent.

So, on this hot afternoon, the four of us got to work making some pictures together, I'm sure you'll see more of them in due course. I don't want to say too much about it because I think stories or background might get in the way of the photographs. Even though it's clearly me in this picture, I like the idea that it could be anyone, any Chubster. Let your imagination run riot, that's what it's there for.

I think about how fatness is so often culturally constructed as a tragedy, a terrible pity, a horror. This comes back to me all the time, it's always a shock to see that hatred and disgust manifest itself. As I write this I am being spammed by weight loss ads on my webmail, complete with before/after photographs of sad fat people. I remember a moment a long time ago when somebody put their hand over my body in a picture, so that just my head peeked out, and told me my face was so pretty that no-one would even notice my body. I know a lot of people of all sizes who can't bear to see photographs of themselves, and won't let them be taken.

Knowing all of this, it's funny seeing myself in the picture alongside all the other photographs in the project. Funny in a good way. I know that being fat is not a tragedy, quite the opposite for me, many great things have come my way because of how I regard my own fatness and that of other people. I feel proud to have been able to support Substantia's work, with my body no less! It feels so good to see the aesthetic value of my own body, made so explicit, and presented in a way that is meaningful to me and respectful too, it's such a rare treat for fat people. Lucky me, lucky lucky me.

12 August 2009

Llewellyn Louderback, fat activist pioneer

I'm fighting jetlag, deadlines and discombobulation at the moment so my final comments about NAAFA will have to wait for a bit. But for now, I bring you the excellent Llewellyn Louderback.

Louderback wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post magazine in 1967 titled More People Should Be FAT. The article caught the eye of Bill Fabrey and the pair went on as part of a small group of people who founded NAAFA. Louderback, with research assistance by Fabrey and their partners Joyce and Ann (and maybe others Bill?) produced a book called Fat Power which was published in 1970. The book was not a commercial success but it did influence a number of early fat rights activists whose work has since snowballed. I had known about this book for a while but it was only last year, thanks to the power of the internet, that I managed to snag a copy for myself. It's a great read, zingy, and although it's of its time, it is also amazingly current.

I wanted to know more about the man who wrote it and every now and again I would Google "Llewellyn Louderback" and come up with nothing. It was only when I made another connection that I was able to look him up and get in touch. This was about a year ago. We have been in sporadic contact since then. Lew left the movement early on and told me that he did not have much of an idea of how it developed. I've been filling him in slowly.

Last week, not long after meeting Fabrey, when I was in New York I got to meet him for the first time. It was bittersweet because he is pretty old now and has failing health, but it was great to talk, to find out about his career as a writer of pulp fiction, and he signed my copy of Operation Moon Rocket, a racy thriller featuring astronauts and Red China from 1968. He talked about how fat activist discourse has changed from one that pleaded for tolerance and acceptance to one that demands rights.

I don't know when I will get to see Lew again, we live so far apart, but I hope it isn't long. I consider him one of the founders of a movement that has had a profound impact on my life. I'm grateful for his work, his beautiful writing, and his modest, disbelieving, cynical vision for social change.

03 August 2009

Conference Report: NAAFA 2009 - day three

One of the things that struck me the most about my time at NAAFA 2009 was the work people people within and without fat acceptance were doing to form alliances.

There were mixed results. A guy came to do an interview about fat rights for the BBC World Service, he seemed to think he was onto a scoop and told us that no-one had covered this side of the story before! The interview was going okay, though with questions that I thought were unimaginative, until he signed off with a description of a workshop that would "help people look slimmer in photographs." There were reasons he might have thought that NAAFA might have held such a workshop, but his interpretation showed that he was pretty lost with the subject. I don’t need people like this to mediate between me, my movement, and the world. It reminded me of why I’m so committed to DIY culture.

Someone who had done his homework more thoroughly was Brandon Macsata, the President of the Association of Airline Passenger Rights (AAPR), a consumer pressure group that he founded. Brandon was explicit in the connection of prejudice and discrimination he faces as an out gay man in a mixed-race relationship, and as someone who is HIV+. As a normative-sized guy he could see that there are crossovers between his world and ours. His interest in air passengers rights is of potential benefit to fat people, who face obstacles in terms of travel, and there is mutual benefit in fat people enriching his campaign. I am skeptical in some ways because of the environmental issues related to air travel, and Brandon’s smooth patter made me wonder about his sincerity, but at the same time I thought this strategic alliance could be a very good one, if managed sensitively. His presence inspired me to think of strategic alliances that could strengthen fat activism elsewhere.

The strongest ally at NAAFA 2009 was Linda Bacon. It’s strange thinking of her as an ally because she is central to the movement, not just at NAAFA but also at ASDAH. If anyone is an honourary fatty it is her, she gives good belly bump. But she isn’t fat, she is pretty small, and she spoke with integrity and powerful self-reflection about what that difference means. Her speech was about thin privilege, what she and other thin people have gained from it, and what has been lost. She spoke about ASDAH’s decision to invite Susie Orbach to speak in terms of thin privilege, stating that the war on obesity is often led by well-meaning professionals with unexamined thin privilege, and she wondered if the value of the dialogue with her justified the cost of it. Want to know more? Read Reflections on Fat Acceptance: Lessons Learned from Privilege (.pdf, 128kb), an essay based on a keynote speech delivered at the conference of the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance August 1, 2009

It was interesting to see thinner people at NAAFA 2009. Some were Fat Admirers, of course, and there are certainly issues around their presence though I did not find them as intrusive as I had expected to find them. But there were others with seemingly no overt connection to fat. I wondered what would motivate them to come. Theoretically I support the belief that fatphobia hurts us all, but does this really translate into real life? Are thinner people that altruistic? I wondered how the presence of thinner people altered the balance of NAAFA as a safe space, a crucial part of its appeal to newbies and older members alike.

Personally I am for mixing things up, which stems from my frustration of segregated space in queer communities. I think safe space can be created amongst people who are ostensibly different to one another, you only have to look at Linda’s contribution to the gathering to see that in practise. I think mixtures of diverse people create a dynamic and progressive atmosphere where the appreciation of difference and intersections can flourish.

But I am wary of creating alliances that are not, or do not have the potential to be, deep and sincere. Fat people face ostracism so often that any kind of attention can make us pathetically grateful. I think alliances are central to creating social change that recognizes the significance of body size, fat people have a lot to teach the world about shame and self-acceptance, negotiating embodied difference, the effects of body type social stratification, discrimination and, what Deb Burgard puts beautifully: life force. But this teaching cannot happen at our expense.

02 August 2009

Conference Report: Susie Orbach at ASDAH

There is some back story to this post, I'll explain as much as I know.

ASDAH, the Association of Size Diversity and Health, is the dominant organisation for professionals and allies invested in a Health At Every Size paradigm (I say "a" rather than "the" because my research has shown that people interpret it in many ways, sometimes conflicting). I have been a member for about a year and have been following online messageboard activity and getting to know some of the players. The organisation's annual conference runs parallel to the NAAFA shindig.

I understand that there have been controversies over past guests, and this year was no different. ASDAH leadership invited Susie Orbach to keynote the gathering and a shitstorm ensued between those who do not regard Orbach as an ally to the movement in any sense, and those who think that she is a possible recruit. Amongst the bluster there were threats of a boycott, a walkout, and a prominent fat activist left the organisation in protest. ASDAH management responded by reformulating the keynote and offering a Q&A session.

My thoughts about the effect of Orbach's work on fat people in general and myself as a fat person in particular are mostly articulated in my book, Fat & Proud, and I am supportive of Corinna Tomrley's analysis of her work, some of which was articulated recently in this blog, and of other critics who have spoken about her over the years. I regard the psychological pathologising of fatness in Fat Is a Feminist Issue as part of the most damaging and long-lasting stereotyping that fat people must struggle against. It makes fat people feel like failures. What makes the psychological pathologising of fat people particularly pernicious is that although it is based on nothing but speculation, it is very difficult to refute, indeed denial only strengthens its grip. The influence of this particular kind of pathologising cannot be underestimated, it permeates not only anti-obesity 'helping' professions, but also stunted early feminist analyses of fat which could have been a powerful means of demolishing such oppressive structures, and went on to corrupt the nascent non-diet movement. This work is a big fat headfuck, Orbach has publicly ignored her critics and is now upholding fat panic rhetoric in her most recent work.

I was disappointed in ASDAH's decision to invite Orbach, I thought that it was a naïve decision, and I still do. I also thought that it would be a good thing for Orbach to be in a position where she was required to listen and respond to some of the criticisms I've mentioned above. Despite all evidence to the contrary, I still had hope.

So, yesterday...

Orbach was not scheduled to speak until the late afternoon, and there was a peculiar sense of tension surrounding the day, not least in Linda Bacon's stunning NAAFA keynote, which was disturbed by unfounded rumours of another Orbach-related walkout. Throughout the day there were veiled references to the quarrels surrounding her invitation, and attempts to consider what it means to build bridges with allies across differences within ASDAH and Health At Every Size. Personally speaking, I felt stressed and anxious for most of the day. Orbach attended the first session, though left the room a few times and spent some time checking texts as people spoke. She did not attend or contribute to the bulk of the conference and I think this is a shame, a missed opportunity to connect with people as equals rather than only as star guest with books to sell.

The talk itself had a small audience. People seemed excited that she was there, there was a supportive fan-girl atmosphere, one person told me that Fat Is a Feminist Issue had been important to her. My fellow haters were either absent or in a minority.

I'm not going to record the whole content of the conversation, which was chaired with skill and dignity by Fall Ferguson, other than to say that there was a lot of the bewildering psychobabble for which Orbach is famous. I saw a woman asleep at the back. What I was interested in was how she might respond to criticism.

I kept notes and this is how it went:

When Fall raised the problematic and contradictory depictions of fatness in Orbach's latest book, Orbach started to say that it is reasonable to make contradictory statements, and then she gibbered for a few moments. By gibber I mean that she started to form words but they didn't come out. She righted herself and said: "But I'm a pragmatist and an opportunist," adding that she was working with the British and German governments. She said that she doesn't see obesity as a category and is purely interested in people being able to eat happily. She mentioned the "vicious" food industry and called the health industry stupid for reacting to it. She mentioned her daughter who was the only girl in her school to have a healthy relationship to food. Her response to the question was, in typically Orbachian style, all over the place, but she restated at the end: "I use obesity to slip it under in an opportunist way," and concluded: "I stand accused."

On her long-held and damaging classification of fat as a result of compulsive eating, Orbach said that out of control eating exists for some fat people and not others, and, confusingly: "I'm making a quick story there rather than making it an issue." She was – rightly! – flustered and nervous.

There was a question about the pathologising of fatness in Fat Is a Feminist Issue and Orbach replied: "I haven't read FIFI for 31 years" and added that the question was "fair criticism." She added: "I don't think that's what I was saying, but I think that's in there," and, "I've done the hurt that I've done." She also said that she rewrote sections in the second edition and that "Fatness is imagined protection for some people," referring to her contested argument that fat is an embodied pathological protection used by women against sexuality or power. She also said: "You write a book and other people read other things into it."

Deb Burgard, whose own presentation earlier in the day was full of vitality and the highlight of ASDAH for me, stated that Orbach was making arguments on the backs of fat people. Orbach responded: "I think these are difficult arguments to take in." She said that she does not think it is acceptable to scapegoat fat people and remarked: "If I've contributed to that, I don't want to do that." She seemed dismissive in that moment and I felt extremely angry, though unable to channel it usefully. Orbach's earlier assertions of her own opportunism made it clear that fat people are an expendable resource in her campaign and that this comes on top of the enduring legacy of her past mistakes that fat as well as normative-sized people continue to struggle with. The "If" made her response a non-apology, I wanted to yell "It's not If! You have done this!"

Kelly Bliss made a point about Orbach's collusion with the Obesity Mafia in her latest book. Orbach responded that she would like to look at the material and "might correct it," she said that she would "reflect on it". She said also, defensively: "I don't make the argument that you think I make," yet did not clarify the argument that she was actually making.

What is there to make of all this?

Later last night the consensus amongst a bunch of ASDAH delegates and organisers in the hotel pool was that the talk had gone well and that Orbach was "real" and "sincere". This was not my experience of the talk at all. One person said that Orbach shouldn't have to apologise for what she has written, but I think she does. There were partial apologies in the talk, but I didn't think that they were strong, or that Orbach fully understands how dreadfully her work has impacted on fat people, and how it has contributed to fat oppression. I think these problems need to be addressed in order to move on and become strong allies, I think that forgiveness is possible but it requires some attention on her part. Perhaps a deep understanding of how her work affects fat people could not be possible at this event, hopefully she will reflect and make some kind of reparation, she has said that she would do so but we will have to wait and see about that. I think it is good that she turned up to an event where she knew there would be criticism, she's bold, and although I am hopeful that she might still become an ally, I'm not holding my breath.

I remain unsure about ASDAH's decision to invite Orbach. I support the need for an organisation with an agenda that includes promoting a particular paradigm to seek allies who might not be completely on-message. This is professionally and politically necessary. But this invitation was a gamble and came at a cost; I think old divisions have become deepened rather than ameliorated, for example between conservative and radical, fat and non-diet, and so on. I was surprised by how tense, alienated, sad and angry I felt today.

Meanwhile, Orbach now knows what the rad fatties think of her, she knows, she knows.

01 August 2009

Conference Report: NAAFA 2009 - day one (again)

Peggy Howell's smooth narration of the fashion show, a highlight of the NAAFA calendar, was priceless, and the models and clothes were lovely. But my favourite moment of the show was the demo of the Travel-Scoot, a foldable scooter for people with mobility impairments, ridden by a fatty whizzing around the dance-floor in circles to Born to Be Wild. There was a collective gasp when she nearly tipped over, but she righted herself with ease and scooted on. Go sister!