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.


Meghan Griffin said...

Hi Charlotte!

I presented with you at PCA/ACA in New Orleans. I had to comment on your noticing the presence of thinner people and wondering what their motivation might be.

Just a few thoughts:
-- I'm not a "thinner" person, but I don't stand out in a crowd; I'm overweight just like most people living today (and I mean overweight only because it's how the BMI labels us). So some of the thinner people you saw may, in fact, be "fat" medically speaking. And that's one reason I advocate consistently for the fat studies positions. People don't realize that we're almost ALL fat according to our governments. (not that this has anything to do at all with the social experience of fat people)

--part of what I love about Fat Studies is the acknowledgement that any weight loss is likely to be temporary. Most people gain weight back. So who knows, some of the thinner people may be temporarily so.

--and a person's body doesn't always convey their experiences in terms of fat. Many people (as in the ones in a temporary state of thin) have BEEN fat and perhaps are not fat at the moment. Many seemingly thin people certainly have lived fat. (this is not to advocate that dieting is good or possible or worthy, but simply that bodies are not always stable)

--and many people, thin ones included, have fat lovers and fat children and fat siblings. People who they want to rally for and cheer on and fight with for social justice.

--or some may just be HAES advocates, sick of hearing people try to get skinny instead of celebrating health and body diversity. I imagine you could have seen "thinner" nutritionists or personal trainers from that group.

Each of these possibilities is problematic in its own way, could explain at least a few of the skinnies you saw! :)

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Meghan.

billfabrey said...


As you know, I was at the NAAFA and ASDAH conferences (it was great to meet you in person, finally), and I think your account of it is marvelously perceptive.

I have always worked to get allies for HAES and size acceptance, and often have found it easier if they were thin than fat. Oppressed people often participate in their own oppression.

As a fat admirer (FA) myself, I found others of my ilk to be less objectionable than usual. Really, we're not as bad as often portrayed, but some of us were never properly socialized. Besides which, lots of men of various proclivities don't know how to treat a woman decently.

Mostly, the ones who behave badly have not come out of the closet about their taste, anywhere outside the conferences.

One other thing: It suddenly occurs to me that by naming this blog what it is, you have forced Google to include it every time anyone does a search on obesity. In effect, you have anticipated Susie Orbach's advice that she made during her talk: If we find the word so offensive, we should "take back the word" which I think means use it to our advantage, and demedicalize it. I think you're the first to do that!

Bill Fabrey
Woodstock, NY, USA
(founder, NAAFA, 1969)

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Bill, it was great to meet you.

Yes, Obesity Timebomb gets a high Google result, hhahahah! I'm all for the reclaiming of words, obesity included, whether or not Susie Orbach decides its a good idea. I also have a soft spot for 'Obeast' - raaaagh.

macskat said...

Hi Charlotte!

The thin couple at NAAFA were Jay and Esther Solomon, who run the website "More of Me to Love". It is here if you want to check it out: http://www.moreofmetolove.com/.

They are very sincere and commited to the movement. You might be interested to read Jay's reflections on the convention posted on his blog. Jay's father is fat, I believe, which is what originally inspired their interest in fat lib.

Also, they were in the fat poets workshop -- and were wonderful contributors and supporters -- their size had no impact on the intimacy, sharing, or safety of the group that I could tell.