29 January 2010

Anti-obesity campaigns: belly rolls and tape measures

Remember the Xenical Fat Mountain from a few weeks ago? There's more where that came from. Karen Throsby has offered these delightful examples of anti-obesity marketing junk for the pile. Feast your eyes and enjoy.

Karen says: "The first item is an ad for obesity surgery services in the form of a fat torso - each fold of body fat opens upwards, revealing text inside - I've tried to capture this in the two pictures, but you really need to see it to appreciate its fully glory.

"The other is my BMI weight circumference tape measure, complete with traffic light markings to let you know just how perilous your condition is (plus a handy BMI calculator built into the casing)."

She adds: "What I think is most important is that these are aimed at other medical professions – 'BMI: the consultants' choice – which seems to give leeway (or even require?) some kind of entertainment/novelty aspect. They are fundamentally insider jokes. But aside from being offensive in their own right, these also leak out into the clinical setting (you could imagine the fat mountain on someone's desk, and at the obesity surgery clinic; I saw a lot of branded BMI calculators using a 'traffic light' system for degrees of fatness).

"I got these two objects at the National Obesity Forum conference this year; a two-day event where medical (and associated) professionals talk about what to do about/with fat people. For me as an observer, by the second day, the contempt in the room for the fat body had become so pervasive that I even picked up some sample meal replacement sachets, seriously thinking about a quick bout of crash dieting. It's taken years for me to stop thinking like this, and particularly in the last couple of years since I've been swimming, I would never have contemplated such a thing. And on top of that, I have a pretty well-developed critical perspective on how all this anti-fat stuff works. But still, there I was with my sachets in my bag. I left the conference early, and threw the sachets away, but it was an incredible, embodied reminder of the shaming potency of those messages."

Do you have examples of anti-obesity marketing junk lying around? Wanna talk about it? Take a pic of it and send it to me please!

28 January 2010

Media: fatphobia as viral marketing strategy

I posted something on the UK Fat Studies board a couple of weeks ago about an emerging trend, and I'm restating it here in the hopes of generating a discussion.

Twice in the past few weeks I've had emails from people who wouldn't normally get involved in fat stuff. They've sent me links to news stories in case I've missed them, because they've noticed something fatphobic in the press and are perhaps aghast at it.

The two stories that have generated the most consternation are the pieces about BeautifulPeople.com and Whole Foods. I'll recap briefly:

a) BeautifulPeople.com is a dating site and in January they issued a press release stating that they were kicking people off their site if it appeared that they had gained weight over the holiday period. I won't get into how they might know if people have gained weight. Perhaps they pay people to sift through their users' pictures and select the 5,000 fattest for the chop? As I said on FSUK: Do they even have any staffers? I bet it's a really small operation. Do they even have 5,000 members? Where's the evidence? The whole thing sounds completely made up and fishy. I think they're just trying to build a brand that they hope will appeal to 'phobes. This also interests me! Are fatphobes now a niche market?

b) Whole Foods is an upmarket grocery chain in the US that has an outlet in London and possibly does business elsewhere (sorry, I can't be bothered to look it up). This week the CEO said that employees who maintained a low BMI would get increased staff discounts.

Being obnoxious to grab attention is not a new marketing strategy, especially not where fatties are involved. But what I think is different is that it's not just people like me refuting the claims of BeautifulPeople or Whole Foods, but regular people who aren't obsessed by fat stuff in the way that I am. You know, nice, normal people. Both of these companies have managed to grab everyone's attention quite powerfully, everyone's talking about their brands, with minimal outlay. They're the ultimate winners in a sea of hand-wringing.

So I'm wondering if both companies are using both common-or-garden fatphobia as well as public opprobrium against fatphobia to attract publicity on the cheap.

Thoughts please!

Revisiting The Fat Dykes Statement

I spent a bit of time at 56a Infoshop a few weeks ago, checking out the queer zine collection and looking for fat stuff. 56a is one of a handful of autonomous spaces in London, and it deserves your support.

I was really delighted to come across Heather Smith's account of the 1989 Fat Women's conference in London. This is an event of mythical significance to me! I didn't go to it but I heard a lot about it over the years and it's one of the things that propelled me into fat stuff myself.

Heather's account is really powerful, check out this random quote: "My opening speech located fat within a framework of imperialism, capitalism and patriarchy" (p.38, full reference below). Wow! It's easy to write off a lot of second wave feminism, I do this myself because of the many problems within the women's movement of that time, but I also think that this statement is incendiary, prophetic and miles ahead of anyone else. I think people in Fat Studies are only beginning to catch up. Heather Smith, where are you now? Please get in touch.

The Fat Dykes Statement was produced at the conference, and reproduced afterwards. I saw it in Trouble + Strife at the time, and maybe elsewhere. The statement was developed in a workshop facilitated by Sheree Bell and Kathy Hall, though there was an earlier lesbian workshop at the conference facilitated by Heather Smith and Tina Jenkins too, perhaps there was some crossover?

It's nearly the start of LGBT History Month here in the UK, so with this in mind I thought I'd reproduce the statement here for your delectation. Although parts of the statement are dated, (clothing choices were more limited in 1989 but I don't know if anyone cares about crimplene any more, and it's likely that drinking diet pop is less of a hot topic than it used to be), it is still a brilliant, complex and accessible analysis of fat hatred and homophobia. It shows so simply that the social positioning of fat people, including fat dykes, is more than a discourse of health, food or bodily control.

I also like the haughty tone, it would be easy to lampoon, perhaps as humourless. But I think there is humour there, as well as anger, and the tone articulates a pride in queer fatness that is quite rare today, and completely fierce. Thanks Fat Dykes, for producing this list, and for giving me chills two decades on.

The Fat Dykes Statement

Don't assume... I don't like my body
Don't assume… I think your body is better than mine
Don't assume… you're doing me a favour by having a relationship with me
Don't assume… I'm your earth mother/diesel dyke
Don't assume… I'm a failed heterosexual
Don't assume… I'm always happy/jolly
Don't assume… I'm not sexual
Don't assume… I'm single
Don't assume… I'm unfit/unhealthy
Don't assume… I'm crazy/stupid
Don't assume… I want to lose weight
Don't assume… I want to talk about slimming
Don't assume… I eat more than you do
Don't assume… I don't want to dance
Don't assume… you don't fancy me
Don't assume… you're not frightened of me
Don't assume… I'm out of control
Don't assume… you look better than me because you're thinner
Don't assume… your body won't change
Don't assume… there is a choice/that I would be thin if I could
Don't assume… I ought to wear black, navy, brown
Don't assume… I want to wear crimplene
Don't assume… you're not responsible for my fat oppression
Don't assume… I want a Diet Coke
Don't assume… I want chemicals instead of calories
Don't assume… I eat all day long
Don't assume… that where you go will be accessible to me
Don't assume… my fat has psychological roots
Don't assume….....

Smith, Heather (1989) 'Creating a Politics of Appearance' Trouble + Strife, 16, Summer, 36-41.

21 January 2010

Anti-obesity campaigns: surgery industry lobbying for WLS

The Royal College of Surgeons are lobbying to do more weight loss surgery. In a news release today they said that only 2% of eligible people are getting the surgery at the moment.

I'm intrigued by this figure. NHS data on obesity is very patchy, according to a speaker in the know at an All-Party Parliamentary Group on Obesity meeting I attended last year, so what does 2% mean? 2% of all people who have a certain BMI? And, as usual, BMI is what determines health rather than any other factors? And that having a certain BMI means that you should have surgery?

I'm inclined to think that the RCS is trying to create a need for itself by lobbying for making weight loss surgery more available. It adds to the idea that surgery is inevitable for fat people, it's a benefit that is currently being denied, and it sanctions the manufactured need for intrusive surgical intervention on 'failed' fat bodies.

Part of the RCS report proposes that fat people in 'need' of surgery have to wait for it and thus get fatter is also peculiar. This notion fuels stereotypes about fat bodies being unbounded, getting fatter and fatter until we pop or smother the world.

Meanwhile, the BBC reports figures released by the Medical Defence Union, which insures and defends medical professionals. According to the MDU there has been an increase in compensation claims made by people who have had the surgery privately, including claims regarding a death.

It's hard to get a picture of the health costs of weight loss surgery in the UK because the NHS does not currently collect data, and private companies are unlikely to broadcast their failure rates.

As usual, critical perspectives are absent, and fat people are framed purely in terms of their desperation, helplessness, and compliant patient identities.

19 January 2010

Anti-obesity campaigns: the Xenical Fat Mountain

Please excuse my shaky phonecam picture but this is a pretend blob of human fat attached to a plastic pedestal. It's a promotional item advertising Xenical.

Xenical is the trade name for Orlistat, which is available on prescription. A weaker version of this drug is called Alli and is available over the counter in the UK. Xenical makes you lose small amounts of weight by giving you diarrhoea. Its side effects include anal leakage and fecal incontinence. Nice!

Rachel Colls picked up the Xenical freebie at an obesity conference. I think it looks a bit like a trophy, or a model of Mont Blanc rendered in pretend fat, so from henceforth I will refer to it as the Xenical Fat Mountain.

Models like this, and Marilyn Wann's Little Pound o' Fat, are produced and used by companies that have an investment in weight loss. They use such products to dehumanise fatness, to make it seem disgusting and Other, and to justify the use of their products. Perhaps the marketing geniuses at Roche think that this beautiful item would look good sitting on someone's desk and make their weight loss brands look irresistible (though a model of a pool of fecal incontinence would be more appropriate).

Such models, alongside a plethora of promotional items, are part of the marketing strategies that medical industries use to sell their stuff. Perhaps you've seen branded stationery or other drug company tchotchkes in your doctor's office. They pick this stuff up from conferences and conventions, they use it in the everyday, and maybe they buy it and prescribe it too. This trivial stuff tells a bigger story about how health is bought and delivered.

Anyway, back to the Xenical Fat Mountain. Rachel had the great idea of inviting people to collect and show off obesity-related marketing crap that they have gathered along life's journey. What's the most ridiculous piece of anti-obesity marketing junk that you've come across? Do you have products foisted on you by weight loss marketers? Perhaps some delightful weight loss surgery stationery, or some quasi-medical diet-promo knick-knacks? If so, we'd love to see them. Please take a picture of it, add a little description, send it to me and I'll post it here.

Conference Report: ESRC Fat Studies and HAES Seminar - 1

The first ESRC Fat Studies and Health At Every Size Seminar, which took place last week at Durham University, was pretty fabulous.

The theme for this first seminar was 'Abject embodiment: uneven targets of fat discrimination,' and in her introduction to the event, Rachel Colls explained that part of the work of the seminar related to identifying the conditions in which fatness is described as loathsome, and finding ways to intervene and challenge the processes that make fat abject.

For me, what made the seminar very special and unusual in terms of work on fat/'obesity' was that it had a warm and supportive atmosphere, and that although there were some very experienced academics in the group, it was a mixed gathering and people from different backgrounds felt able to speak up.

I think it is vital that events such as this have bursaries available to people on lower incomes, and it thrills me that the seminar was free to attend, unlike other academic conferences, which can be very expensive, and thus make knowledge elitist.

Some great discussions emerged, too many for me to document here, but I enjoyed talking and hearing about people's research projects, people's work, how people came to fat stuff. There were discussions about the uses of rhetoric by fat activists, of fragmentation within Fat Studies, and about when and were to speak up about fat stuff. We used Anna Kirkland's great piece about fat rights, and one of my pieces about activism, as a basis for small group discussions (see the refs below if you want to check them out for yourselves).

Peter Hopkins, the book review editor for Gender, Place and Culture, announced that reviews of Fat studies books would be welcome. He has copies of The Fat Studies Reader and Lee Monaghan's Men and The War On Obesity, if anyone wants to review them for the journal. For more information contact Peter or see the Gender, Place and Culture journal website.

I made a digital recording of my keynote (.mp3, 27.6mb), which you can listen to if you are so inclined. It lasts about 45 minutes, and there are questions at the end.

There are three more seminars, the details for which I will post here as they appear. Please come, if you can. Durham was a wonderful, transformative, supportive space for people interested in Fat Studies, a really good place to learn and discuss this stuff. Although there have been other Fat Studies gatherings in the UK, I had a real feeling that a good and quiely radical FS community was emerging in Durham, which was very exciting feeling to have. Thanks to everyone who helped put this event together, especially Bethan Evans and Rachel Colls.

Kirkland, A. (2008) 'Think of the Hippopotamus: Rights Consciousness in the Fat Acceptance Movement', Law & Society Review, 42:2, 397-431.

Cooper, C. (2009) 'Fat Activism in Ten Astonishing, Beguiling, Inspiring and Beautiful Episodes' in Tomrley, C. and Kaloski Naylor, A. eds, Fat Studies In The UK, York: Raw Nerve Books.

Further information about the seminars

Government Support for Fat Studies and HAES in the UK

Reporting back on the second ESRC Fat Studies and HAES Seminar

Reporting back on the third ESRC Fat Studies and HAES Seminar

Reporting back on the fourth and final ESRC Fat Studies and HAES Seminar

ESRC Fat Studies and Health At Every Size

18 January 2010

Diet Songs: Slim-Fast

Slim-Fast products include drink powders, canned meal-replacement drinks, and things they call 'meal bars'. Like all diet products, these things can't really be thought of as food, they're ersatz, simulations of food, consumed as though they were actual food. You lose weight because you're not really eating, but you're compromising your health and you're statistically likely to regain the weight you lose. People who drink or eat Slim-Fast don't really care about this, they just want to be slim, fast.

Slim-Fast was bought by Unilever in 200 for "about $2.6billion" according to Google Finance. Unilever owns pretty much everything that hasn't already been carved up by Kraft, Nestlé and Proctor & Gamble. Unilever also owns Dove, which sort of makes you wonder about the sincerity of their Campaign for Real Beauty.

Another thing: on 3 December 2009 Slim-Fast recalled all of its cans of ready to drink product in the US because they had been contaminated by Bacillus cereus, which causes severe nausea, vomiting, gastro-intestinal pain and diarrhoea. I imagine there were some people who thought that these symptoms were an additional benefit, that they would speed up weight loss.

The original ad makes buying and eating Slim-Fast appear like some fun, Sex And The City-style expression of girl power. Simon and I wanted to channel Suicide and The Flying Lizards in our rendition of it. I tried to sound cold, expressionless and robotic as I sang; I wanted to undermine the cheeky-chirpy, girly feel of the advert by sounding like a femme bitch top. We tried adding samples of me making dry heave sounds, but chose not to keep them this time. I like how it came out.

Diet Songs: Slim-Fast by Charlotte Cooper + Simon Murphy (.mp3, 535kb)

Diet Songs
New Project: Diet Songs
Diet Pepsi
Diet Coke
Special K

10 January 2010

Diet Songs: Nimble

This Diet Song is from a TV advertisement for Nimble, a kind of diet bread. It's from the 70s, but I don't know the campaign's dates. The song is a real pop song by a band called Honeybus, it's called 'I Can't Let Maggie Go' and it was a top ten hit in the UK in 1968.

The original song has no obvious connection to weight loss, but it has a euphoric, dreamlike quality that captures the feeling of cognitive dysfunction which accompanies long-term calorie restriction. I presume Maggie is/was fabulously thin and/or has the supernatural ability to actually fly. The TV advert featured a woman in a hot air balloon, obviously so light that the balloon has no trouble in lifting her off the ground. The advert emphasises this as a fundamental feminine aspiration.

I loved singing this song, especially the trite "Oh me oh my/I see her fly" line. The original was sung by a bloke and I liked making it dykey. To me the song is about being left behind, trying to grasp for an unreachable ideal, which is floating away, far beyond – it perfectly describes the inherent frustrations of continually failing to lose weight! "I can't let Maggie go" could be about reconfirming one's commitment to weight loss, but I read it as the statement of an addict.

Nimble still exists.

Diet Songs: Nimble by Charlotte Cooper + Simon Murphy (.mp3, 700kb)

Diet Songs
New Project: Diet Songs
Diet Pepsi
Diet Coke
Special K

Diet Songs

I like corporate music. When I say 'like' I mean that this sort of music fascinates me rather than makes me feel good, or human, like other kinds of music that touches my heart. By corporate music I mean specially-commissioned songs that glorify a company. Sometimes these are performed or produced for conventions, or as morale-boosting exercises for staff. They are always utterly ridiculous because of their pomposity. One of my favourite examples of this genre is a preposterous song called Up Came Oil (.mp3, 2.8mb), recorded for an in-house Exxon musical once upon a time. If you like this, you might want to listen to WFMU's list of sound files that they've made available from the excellent Product Music album.

It's not a huge leap to go from liking corporate music to liking a similar kind of ephemeral music: advertising jingles used to sell diet products. These 30-second jingles seem to express so many aspects of corporate weight loss culture, and that's their job: they make creepy claims based on their own twisted logic and versions of reality; they are so bizarre as to be exasperatingly amusing; they are as catchy as 'flu; they make you feel brainwashed and they do that on purpose; they are the epitome of banality. I particularly enjoy some of the genre conventions, such as the authoritative male voice-over, and the shrieked choral copyline so popular with diet pop adverts.

Over the past couple of months my partner Simon Murphy and I have been collecting examples of weight loss jingles. We've recorded our own versions of our favourites in a miniature musical project we've called Diet Songs. I will be posting them here. We did this in our front room on Simon's laptop, which has a music application called Garageband on it. I sang the songs and played a bit of autoharp, and Simon did everything else.

Diet jingles are usually consumed without thinking, some of them are so familiar and it's disturbing to think about how this rubbish lives in dusty corners of our brains. In recording Diet Songs, Simon and I hope to bring more of a conscious and critical awareness to this stuff, to make fun of them, and to have a good time singing and making things together. Diet corporations take themselves and their shoddy brands so seriously, so we want to do our bit to help deflate them a little, and to help rob them of their oppressive power.

The jingles for diet fizzy drinks in the 1980s mark the zenith of the genre, as far as I can tell. Marketing fashions mean that jingles are not a common now as they used to be. I wanted to sing some jingles for Weight Watchers and – ugh – the devil's LighterLife but although these companies plague us with television adverts, they don't use catchy songs to sell their crap.

I'd like so sing more of these jingles. Please send links to sound files or video clips with weight loss jingles that you think would make good Diet Songs. We'll record them if we haven't already come across them ourselves. Also, I'm looking for words and music to Marvel dried milk powder, "It's Marvel-ous, less fat too." Remember it?

Diet Songs
Diet Pepsi
Diet Coke
Special K