26 February 2010

Invoking the crazy woman to expose MeMe Roth's fatphobia is oppressive

I live in a part of the world where Meme Roth has no currency as a media pundit. This could change at any moment, all it takes is one journalist to give her a platform, and she'd be away, they'd all be calling her up because she provides what they want: colour, sound-bites, antagonism, and outrageous opinions. It doesn't matter that her claims are spurious, her expertise a sham, her organisation a front. The war on obesity is fashioned by mainstream media as a duel of twirling show-offs. Though Roth is no friend of mine, and there is nothing about her message that I support, I think she is really good at what she does within this context. Wannabe media-jammer fatties could well take a few tips from her. Fat activists might think about developing a critical approach to media too, why not criticise these dumby 'debate' formats? Or the system that creates and supports unsatisfying mass platforms for discussing fat?

A few of us are noticing a trend in the way that people talk about Roth. Again and again she is dismissed as mentally ill, and as someone suffering an eating disorder. These diagnoses are handed out by such experts in mental health as law professor Paul Campos; Jezebel.com contributor Jenna Sauers; and approximately 5,000 (give or take a few) angry bloggers and commenters, such as those adding their words of wisdom to Ruth Davis Konigsberg's profile of Roth for Elle in 2008, or those that turn up if you Google "MeMe Roth" and "mentally ill".

Such pop diagnoses are worthless, but act as shorthand for: I don't agree with you, I don't understand you, I wish you did not exist. These sentiments are valid, but why wrap them up in accusations of mental illness? Demonising someone doesn't make them stop, it doesn't solve any problems.

Historically speaking, "You must be mentally ill" has been used as a slur against women and against dissidents, a way of shutting up those of us who are angry and unruly. Perhaps some commentators will only be happy when Roth has finally been lobotomised or had her brain zapped in some Frances Farmer scenario. Lock her up in a secure unit from which she can never escape. That would stop folks from listening to her say mean or stupid things about fat people! That would remove the onus on people like us to just switch her off whenever she comes on the TV, to stop adding to her mythology.

I'm angry about how accusing Roth of being anorexic and mentally ill adds to the stigma and shame that makes life extremely difficult for people with these conditions, as well as those who love them. Mental illness is a tough ride, I've been there myself, and people experiencing it deserve compassion and support.

I'm furious, too, that people who call Roth mentally ill are saying that so-called crazy people, or people with eating disorders, supposedly have nothing to contribute to anything and should just crawl away and die. Has no one ever heard of Mad Pride or the psychiatric survivor movement? And what if Roth responded to her accusers and said: "Actually, yes I do have an eating disorder, yes, I am mentally ill." What then?

22 February 2010

Revisiting feminist fatphobia and psychoanalysis

I came across a fierce account in a Québécois lesbian separatist anthology last week. Writing in the early 90s, Kate Moran explains how the ideology supporting Overeaters Anonymous basically decimated contemporary Fat Liberation in lesbian communities in the US (and presumably Canada). It's an understandably angry piece, I'm not sure how rigorous it is, and it's certainly of its time, but it still caught my eye.

You might not think that radical lesbians, and separatists in particular, are particularly relevant to fat stuff today. But they were the ones pushing for new ways of thinking about fat at the time, and I think their legacy in terms of fat activism has since become more mainstream. So it's interesting to me that there is this account accusing a movement, that was certainly influenced by feminist psychoanalytic explanations of eating disorders that conflate compulsive eating with fatness, for devastating fat politics. I would like to find other sources that discuss this theory.

The reference is timely because the publicity for a two day seminar celebrating and discussing Susie Orbach has just gone out from my university. The discourse that dismays Moran is still alive and well, and being perpetuated in the academy.

I must admit to a strange fascination with early 1980s feminist psychoanalytic accounts of fat women. Orbach, Kim Chernin and Susan Bordo are the Holy Trinity of academic discourse on fat in the social sciences. Bordo is less rooted in psychoanalysis, but I think her need to explain fat in terms of symbolism and pathology makes her fit right in with the others. Marion Woodman is also cited occasionally.

My training as a psychotherapist has led me to reject psychodynamic unconscious process explanations for how bodies look. I lean less on the supernatural and more on the practical, I think that fat bodies are part of the fabric of humanity, part of human body diversity, not evidence of disrupted inner processes. It is stupid to make universal claims about 'fat women' because this group is so diverse. We're normal, and what fat represents is dependent on time and place, it is highly contingent.

The Holy Trinity's works are repeatedly cited as evidence that feminism has a grip on fat, but I think they've got the wrong feminism, it was the separatists, and the groups influenced by The Fat Underground who provided the stronger analysis of fat, linking it more authoritatively to structural power, being explicit about fat, and writing from direct experience. Orbach, Chernin and Bordo don't really write about fat, they use slenderness, dieting, 'body image' and eating disorders as proxies. In the long term I think this has been very damaging, fat has been obscured by other topics, the discourse has been stunted, with real-world repercussions.

I temper my dismay about this sorry state of affairs by a) doing my work, b) hoping that Fat Studies will replace the Holy Trinity, and c) grim humour. Woodman's absurd claim had me giggling in the library last week. She pronounces: "Every woman haunted by obesity knows the agony of looking into a mirror and seeing an owl staring back at her" (p.9). And there's more, which I'm reproducing here, in full snark-o-vision, in the hope that laughing at such preposterous, condescending nonsense will help reduce its power over us.

Edited to add: Look what cleanskies drew

Personality Problems of Obese Women

1. Tends to live life in terms of other people's needs and reactions. May compensate by becoming fiercely possessive. Danger of becoming an automaton.

2. Convinced of her own unworthiness therefore hypersensitive to rejection. May be compensated by an inflated view of her own self-worth. The unconscious body mirrors this in size.

3. As an adult, still dependent on the mother or father, at the same time rebellious against them.

4. Life a desperate search for her own identity, physically and psychically. Wants to feel she is in control of her own body and own life. Without this, a gorwing sense of despair develops.

5. Fears social contact with her peer group, develops and overwhelming sense of aloneness and loneliness.

6. Weak ego leads to inability to cope with reality, and flights into fantasy with a princely father or his surrogate. Fantasies tend to be very inflated.

7. Unaware of own shadow. Feels herself manipulated and victimised by evil forces from outside (eg. parents, Devil, God), but blind to the personal reality of evil.

8. "Passivity" terrifies her. No understanding of positive feminine energy. "To surrender" for her means giving up, cowardice, loss of control, annihilation. Cannot understand "losing one's life to find one's life," either sexually or spiritually. Resultant fear of sexuality, spontaneous feeling, and orgasm.

9. Devoted to Appollonian order and discipline. Terrified of anything remotely smacking of the Dionysian, therefore prone to possession by it (eg. midnight binges).

(Woodman, 1982:40)


Chernin, K. (1983) Womansize: the tyranny of slenderness, London: The Women's Press.

Moran, K. (1992) 'One Step Forward, Two Steps Back: Fat Liberation and Overeaters Anonymous', in: Charest, D., Coulombe, J. & Turcotte, L. (eds.) Dossier: Oppression de la Grosseur. Montréal: Amazones d'Hier, Lesbiennes d'Aujourdhui, 103-112.

Orbach, S. (1978) Fat Is A Feminist Issue: How to lose weight permanently – without dieting, London: Arrow Books.

Woodman, Marion (1982) The Owl Was a Baker's Daughter: Obesity, Anorexia Nervosa and the Repressed Feminine, Toronto: Inner City Books.

13 February 2010

Becoming Dame Charlotte Cooper

Last night I got made a Dame because of my work as a fat activist.

I was at this place called Bird Club, which is a wild club night in East London, run by a woman called Bird la Bird. This sentence doesn't come anywhere near describing the world that Bird Club represents; specifically, an amazing mixture of politics, performance, old and new school homosexual women-ish people, mixed with saucy comedy, which itself is part of a lively, offbeat, often queer, clubbing culture in East London. Okay, that comes closer, but Bird Club is really unique too, thanks to Bird's vision, organisational powers and artistic sensibility. What can I say? It's a hoot, and one of the few places where I get cruised by hot fatty-loving dykes when I'm out and about.

So onto the Dame thing. People who live in the UK will probably know what it means to be a Dame. People outside, or beyond the British Empire's grasping claws, might not be so clued-in, so I'll explain. Basically, a Dame is a woman who the Queen, or King, but essentially the British establishment, has decided is a brilliant person. It's a rare honour to be made a Dame, it means you've really made it.

Sounds great eh? The only problem is that the Queen is the head of the British class system, as well as the figurehead for a power structure that ensures and enshrines privilege for the few at the expense of the many. Often this privilege is hereditary, you don't earn it, you are born into it. You don't have to be upper class to be a Dame, but it helps. The other thing is that titles such as Dame or Knight or whatever, which sound like they've jumped out of a jolly fairy tale, are related to British colonialism. If you don't know anything about the British Empire, I advise you to find out about this vile system of global oppression that the UK (but mostly England) spawned, because the values and symbols of its heyday still influence the British character and landscape today. So Dames and royal honours in general: not such a great thing. The Queen and all she stands for, not such a great thing either. I would love to see the Royal family disappear down the dumper, though there are probably monarchists reading this who would disagree.

I will never appear on any honours list produced by a British monarch and I wouldn't want to. I don't want people who uphold a system I hate to champion my work, such support would be an insult, it would be appropriation. I respect people who refuse to accept the honours when they are offered. But being made a Dame at Bird Club is a different matter. I'm thrilled beyond belief.

Back to the story. Part of Bird's genius is that she's managed to create a universe of her own, where things make sense even though they're quite strange. You may have read her manifesto in the sublime Femmes of Power (and look, there she is on the cover with Maria Mojo), and Bird Club is a living manifestation of that, and more. One of the things that Bird Club does is honour people who are worth honouring. Bird and her co-organisers do this by making people Dames. This is not a Queen-establishment-colonial type deal, it's a parody of that. Parodies are critical. Bird declares a hatred for the Empire, and although being a Dame at Bird Club is an honour, it's also acknowledged as an excuse for a bit of arse-kissing.

Last night I got called up to the stage in front of a couple of hundred of East London's finest dykes (and queers, trans'es, heteros, and friends... sorry for the erasure and thanks for the reminder Finn), cheering, to receive my honour: a golden budgie statue with a plaque that declares Dame Charlotte Cooper. I jumped for joy! I pushed people out of the way to get to the stage! Sorry! I got my arse kissed! It was brilliant. My investiture was shared with Dame Lindsay River and Dame Lois Weaver, two incredible and inspiring femmes whom I was proud to be among.

Whereas becoming a 'real' Dame would be like sucking the devil's teat, my new title feels like a beautiful blessing from the extraordinary community I come from. I'm not going to pretend I'm some rock hard character, I worry sometimes that I'm being too obsessive about fat, or 'taking it too far,' or believing in things that make no sense to most people. It can be hard to say things that don't win you any friends or which make people uncomfortable. But as a Dame I feel so encouraged, it makes me feel validated, and I'm totally grateful, and I'll keep doing my fat work with renewed determination. Thanks Birdy!

Bird Club Photos via the fabulous skull_bone's Flickr stream.

10 February 2010

Diet Songs: Tab

The repetition of the word 'beautiful' in this diet song is remarkable. It's not just that Tab is a beautiful drink, drunk by the beautiful people you'd like to be, themselves made beautiful by a fizzy diet drink; it's more that Tab itself is a philosophy of beauty. Whilst I like Tab's groovy lettering, I think this application of 'beautiful' is massively overstated and, basically, a lie.

In fact, if I rewrote the jingle to better reflect reality I might sing that Tab cola is a product of early diet-era marketing savvy, drunk in the name of fat hatred by people who don't care about its carcinogenic artificial sweeteners. Where's the beauty in that?

Maybe it's the multiple re-formulations in the wake of the cancer scares, and auxiliary brand failures (Tab Clear, anyone?), that signalled Tab's demise. The Coca-Cola Company poured its energy into Diet Coke's world domination, though I hear that there are still some die-hard fans who insist they like Tab for the taste. I imagine the Tab office in some dusty corner of the Coca-Cola Company's empire, the beautiful Tab people still working there despite it all, they've become all dusty and a bit dotty.

The original diet song is very frantic but nowhere near as frenzied as the Diet Pepsi song, or the one for Diet Coke. These jingles embody mid-80s hysteria. Our version is more mellow, starting off quite folky and then given some Pierre Henry/Les Yper-Sound treatment. I drew some beautiful people to go with it.

Diet Songs: Tab by Charlotte Cooper + Simon Murphy (.mp3, 600kb)

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

03 February 2010

Concern trolling aka civilised oppression

I was a witness to a conversation this week in which a friend of mine made reference to the term 'concern trolling'. I thought this was a great expression, and she used it to describe the mean little oppressive actions - given with a smile - that fat people are often subject to.

As fat folks, we all have stories of public attacks and discrimination, but I think concern trolling is a more commonplace experience, especially that now the idea of being a fatphobe is less socially acceptable in some circles. What used to be overt hatred has been transformed into much more subtle signals of disapproval and disgust.

Perhaps this has something to do in paradigm shifts in public policy that now blame our terrible affliction on 'obesogenic environments' and the like; 'it's not your fault you're like that,' they appear to say, 'but you're still a problem and you still need us to fix you, to make you nice and normal and thin, just like us.'

Concern trolling sounds very much like 'Civilised Oppression' (or Civilized, the term was generated in the US where they spell things differently). This is a concept examined by Jean Harvey and developed in terms of fat by Mary Madeline Rogge and Marti Greenwald in a paper that was published in 2004.

All three authors explain that incidents involving civilised oppression have the following characteristics, they:
(1) are non-peer power-laden relationships, (2) involve interactions that diminish and control the recipient who has little recourse, (3) pose cumulative acts of omission and commission that distort the relationship(s), (4) cause harm or disadvantage to the subject, (5) may be without malicious intent, and (6) are insidious and obscured in routine or daily encounters. (Harvey referenced by Rogge and Greenwald, p.306)

Powerful stuff, eh? Even in this list, without a full explanation, it's easy to see these processes reflected in real life. I bet a handful of incidents just like this happened to you this week already.

Unfortunately Rogge and Greenwald replicate quite a bit of civilised oppression in their paper on civilised oppression! Fat people are very much passive research subjects, patients even, whose experience is mediated by medical professionals in this work. The language used to describe and frame fat experience is really limited by medicalisation, which is no surprising since the paper was intended for a nursing publication. Yet I feel pitied, pathologised, and made limited as a fat person when I read this work because of its framework, even though it is offering me tools with which to analyse my oppression.

Nevertheless, concern trolling and civilised oppression remind me why it's often hard to talk about my work, or my fat experience with people whom I'm unsure will get it. It reminds me how vulnerable I feel when I open myself up in this way, because the faux-kindly comments I might get in return are really not so helpful. It's complicated and draining to call people on their actions when they oppress me in a friendly way, it's easy for both parties to deny that it's happening, it's so covert and minute a lot of the time. Yet it's felt as oppressive all the same, and it's cumulatively damaging.


Harvey, Jean (1999) Civilized Oppression, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

Rogge, Mary Madeline and Greenwald, Marti (2004) 'Obesity, Stigma, and Civilized Oppression' in Advances in Nursing Science, 27:4, 301-315.