16 December 2009

Archival images of fat people, pathology and medicalisation

The Wellcome Library is one of my favourite places in London. Interested in vintage accounts of sexual deviation framed as medical concern? Or illuminated medieval manuscripts of nuns being bled? Or recipes for Laudanum? Sure you are! The Wellcome, a repository for all things medical, including the social history and social construction of health, is the place to find this stuff. It's magical.

Part of the Wellcome Library's online presence includes wellcome images, an image library that features a load of creative commons material, which means that you can download digital versions for free. I like to mooch around the image library from time to time, it's a visual delight. Have a click and waste some time there.

Of course the search keywords that interest me the most are: 'obesity,' 'obese' and 'fat'. The contemporary results are a mish-mash of stock images, which are fascinating in the way that they code fatness. So we get photographs of tape measures, 'unhealthy' food, fat cells; measured bodies, energy balance, abstracted fatness. I often wonder what it's like to be a fat model posing for these kinds of images eating junk food, standing on scales, prodding at their bodies. I wonder what they get paid, how they feel about reiterating stereotypes.

But the historical images are where it's really at.

Pictures of remarkable-looking fat people make up the majority of these images. Can we get a round of applause for Tom Ton, Miss Rosie and Ruby Westwood, William Ball, Paul Butterbrodt and the amazing Mr Campbell? Or Edward Bright of Maldon, who now has a street named after him? Or Daniel Lambert, another famously fat man? Thank you for existing, fat ancestors.

It's interesting to see incredible/gruesome late medieval woodcuts of fat men apparently being treated for their obesity with leeches, though I wonder if this is a more contemporary interpretation of what is going on in the images. There are a number of etchings, too, of various 'obese gouty men'! So fat people turn up as patients quite early on, but they are also presented in the collection as as caricatures, and as health professionals too. I really like the image of the fat midwife heading off to work.

The images show some of the ways in which fatness has become medicalised. The photograph of a fat man with "infantilism and thyroid disorder" interests me, not least because this poor fellow is utterly dehumanised in the photograph, but because infantilism and thyroid disorders were some of the earlier ways that fatness was pathologised. 'Race' and fatness are also medicalised and pathologised in colonialist images of 'a female Hottentot with steatopygy.'

One set of images disturbs me in similar ways to the racist 'Hottentot' imagery. It's a series of photographs from the late 1880s by Eadweard Muybridge. He's the photographer-scientist who pioneered the use of photographs to capture motion. You might be familiar with his images of people jumping, or horses running. The Wellcome has a series of photographs of a fat woman walking and 'getting up off the ground.' She's described as 'gargantuan' in the catalogue, and one of the accompanying keywords is 'huge'. Again, I wonder who she is, what it was like for her to be photographed naked. I'm searching for the scraps of her humanity that have been obliterated by the way she has been classified by whoever catalogued these photographs of her. I'm appalled, though not surprised, by her Othering in the eyes of the anonymous picture librarian who labelled her, and that this way of seeing her is constructed here as neutral, scholarly, scientific fact.

14 December 2009

Fat activism and quantified selves

I've been reading about an emerging trend from, where else, the Bay Area which h+ magazine is calling, variously, life logging, life blogging, and Quantified Self. There's an article about it on pages 56-58 of the Winter 2009 issue (.pdf, 14.2mb). By the way, this is the first time I've come across this mag, it boasts that it "covers technological, scientific, and cultural trends that are changing – and will change – human beings in fundamental ways." Love that certainty!

The basic idea involves creating personalised data sets, charting one's body through time. You can pick any variable that appeals to you, do collaborative data gathering, and play with the resultant datasets to your heart's content.

Gathering personal data is not a new idea, it's sort of common. I'm currently logging my peak flow because I'm being tested for asthma, for example, and dieters log their weights at weekly weigh-ins. What makes this trend different is the sheer volume and variety of data being collected, the number of variables offered, the emergence of software to support this endeavour, the hobbyist nature of the activity, and the desire amongst life loggers to present the data in ways that pushes the boundaries about what is known about our bodies and habits.

So of course I'm wondering what Quantified Self could mean for fat people. Could this herald a new age of methodologically strong DIY data gathering? I'm imagining low cost research into aspects of fat experience that would never be funded on a larger scale in the current war on obesity. There could be quantitative research that ditches traditional weight loss paradigms, or which builds an evidence base for Health At Every Size, for example. Not only could this challenge duff obesity science, it could provide a basis for information about fatness that recognises the nuances of our lives, and the impact of social factors. Swoon. And that's only the beginning.

Unfortunately, I suspect this is somewhat rose-tinted thinking. The samples offered by groups such as Quantified Self are currently ridiculously skewed. Although they are generating masses of data, they are unable to manipulate it usefully. I mean, I love the colours of Mimi Chun's dinners, the way she presents her data is pretty, but what are its further applications?

The cohort of life bloggers presented in h+ magazine take an individualistic view of health, it can be generated through a series of rote activities, with an uncritical acceptance of energy balance. I think for guerrilla data gathering to be truly radical or socially useful, it is necessary to have some kind of understanding about the limits of positivism, 'scientific knowledge,' or 'objective scientific truth'. I don't really see that in this one, brief article, though of course it may exist.

And yeah, there's the obvious question too: aren't we more than a set of numbers?

08 December 2009

Fat people as background characters in film

I went to see Der Blaue Engel last night. It's a great film, eh? Marlene Dietrich, Joseph von Sternberg, Emil Jannings, obsession and madness, creepy clowns, show people, sex, gutter life; it has it all.

There's something else it has too: a cast of fat actors. Dietrich herself is pretty chunky in the earlier part of the film, much fatter than a leading lady would be allowed to be nowadays, though still normal-sized. What I'm talking about is the protagonist, Professor Immanuel Rath, who is a very stout fellow, not to mention Kurt Gerron, who plays Kiepert the conjuror, and the actor who plays the owner of The Blue Angel. These guys really fill up the screen.

It's not just the men either, Rosa Valetti, who plays Guste, corrals a group of fat women performers who share the stage with Dietrich. They are clearly background, they don't have names, but they are unforgettable. It's possible that their fatness is an allusion to their low rent status as performers and maybe sex workers, or to their general degeneracy. These women are not curvy, they're barrel-shaped fatties and they wear skimpy clothes and sit on the stage drinking beer after beer, some of them are old. They get in the way, they sulk, and one of them has an act that involves something saucy that is kept well out of the frame, all we ever see is her rolling her eyes suggestively. These are the kind of gals that I dream of hanging out with.

I'm developing a fascination with fat characters in film, not the stars, the ones who appear in the background, the secondary or tertiary characters. I want to know more about them. I wonder if being background means that film makers can get away with more, in a cultural climate that denigrates fatness, than if such fat characters were placed in the foreground. Their presence is so fleeting yet they stay with me.

I think this phenomenon has roots in the work that Vito Russo did with The Celluloid Closet. Russo identified queer characters in films, the sort of characters and actors whom you might pass over unless you knew the signals, codes and stereotypes that outed them. If you have The Eyes, that is, a certain queer sensibility, you can see these characters, Russo used this way of seeing to shine a spotlight on them.

Being in the margins of film, and culture, is a depressing reminder of fat people's secondary status in general. Looking out for fat people in the background is like begging for crumbs of recognition from an uncaring culture. But Russo showed us that these crumbs can add up and become something more substantial, and that in some circumstances the margins can eclipse the action centrestage.

Here are three publicity stills from the same scene. Don't look at Dietrich, check out the women behind her!

07 December 2009

Media: creating a politicised fat gaze

I've spotted this advert around town lately and here's how I think it's supposed to be read: the guy's wearing a horrible jumper that's too small for him, his belly is exposed and he looks fed up. The implication is that he'll have to wear this humiliatingly small jumper in order to please some relative who clearly barely knows him. The relative should have given him money instead, and should have sent it via this company for happy xmas smiles all round.

How I read it: hot, surly, belly-bustin' dude in trendy retro knitwear. Hubba hubba, do me, do me!

Thinking about this ad, I wonder if it exemplifies the mismatch between what advertisers aim for and how their advertisements are consumed, especially where fatness and fat bodies are concerned.

I've seen this before with the manatee postcard and the obesity monster, these images are supposed to scare us straight/thin but they underestimate the power of a politicised fat gaze. Not only is this gaze critical, for example in its ability to deconstruct headless fatty images, but it has the power to transform and remake fatphobic imagery into something else entirely; for example a cute wittle monster, or a fantasy of frolicking carelessly with benevolent fat animals, or of eroticising what is presented as abject.

This ad has inspired a second stream of thought, which is about exposed bellies. At Size Matters? there was a ripple of concern about a powerpoint slide that presented an illustration of a fat child playing with normative-sized kids. The concern was because the child's belly was poking out of his clothes a tiny bit, indeed, this is how his fatness was coded. People thought that this was unfair in some way, that there were connotations of slovenliness, and that the illustration should have shown him in clothes that fit.

My feeling was that the delegates at Size Matters? were uncomfortable at the sight of exposed belly, especially that of a child. The conference was problematic and, in my opinion, fostered a large amount of fatphobia. In this context, a fat belly was considered obscene and shocking. Bellies must be hidden by respectable clothing (never mind how difficult it is to get such clothing). This is also a tenet of much of the fat fashion industry in the UK.

Me, I like bellies of all kinds, and I especially love a big, unruly belly, sticking out without shame. I like people wearing clothes that they feel and look good in, regardless of how 'appropriate' those clothes are deemed, and maybe that includes clothes that are 'too small' or which fail to cover you in the way that you should be covered. To me that's a lot better than your auntie wiring you some cash.