28 April 2010

Media: representing deathfat through terrorism and suicide

I was looking through an old children's encyclopaedia at the weekend and was intrigued to read a section about whaling which supported the then whaling industry. Accompanying the piece were a series of illustrations of whales being slaughtered. What surprised me was that the whales were depicted as quite evil and mean, sneering at the whalers, as though killing them – gentle giants of the ocean! – was entirely justifiable, necessary even. How times change.

In a similar vein I've been startled by a bunch of recent depictions of fat people and fatness which, like that representation of the whale, show us as necessary targets for a carefully-aimed harpoon. It's tempting to get all outraged about these images but I don’t know what that would achieve. I don't want to ban anything, I oppose censorship. These pictures are so far away from anything I know about being fat that I cannot dignify them with any authority. I think a more useful strategy is to ridicule.

First up is Bye Bye Burger Boy, an idea for a sculpture mooted and then abandoned by NHS Barnsley. What was originally a terrible concept got picked up and torn down by the press, though for the spurious reason that humiliating fatties is not the best way to help us lose weight, our only goal in life, apparently.

Whilst I think the project sucks and am glad it never happened, a tiny part of me can't help wishing that it could have been realised too. Regardless of its misguided didacticism, I'd love to see a flaming statue of a fat boy stuffing his face. Actually, seeing anything on fire makes me feel happy, especially when it's a police car. I think of a flaming burger boy as a big, kitsch Fuck You to every narrow fuck that ever walked the land.

Next up is the British Heart Foundation's Active Fat campaign (thanks for the alert Karen). I love these folks! They look like little anarchists, sabotaging, making bombs and fucking shit up. My favourite image has the alt tag "Fat cells causing toxic damage". This does not make me want to become less fat in any way.

This campaign reminds me of other misguided anti-obesity public health crusades that backfire before they even get started because their depictions of deathfat are annoyingly cute. The manatee and the obesity monster come to mind, not to mention the big bellied hunk I spotted a while back.

The last images are more hardcore. They're old, but new to me, produced by Brandon Knowlden, an 'Art Director' from Salt Lake City, and they're mock-ups that form part of his portfolio. I wonder if he recognises how problematic his work is. Maybe he doesn't care.

Knowlden uses the copyline Obesity is Suicide. I would be very happy to wear a t-shirt bearing this slogan, it's really punk. The ads point punters towards weight loss surgery. Unfortunately I can't help thinking that 'Weight Loss Surgery is Suicide' might be a more appropriate use of the copyline.

The images blow my mind! Suicide girl is the least memorable, though has a certain Jacqueline Susann/Neely O'Hara glamour about it, in fact I'm inspired to call Smarties, Minstrels, Maltesers and M&Ms my Dolls from now on.

The guy hanging by a sausage noose is more full-on. Commentators elsewhere have compared this image to a lynching, and as a hate image. I'm not sure about that. I think it's more like a still from some kind of fatty-zombie hybrid exploitation flick. Imagine, too, death by sausage! It beggars belief. I am not suicidal in any way, but if I were I might consider topping myself by hanging from a string of vegetarian sausages. Classy, no? In the unlikely event that I am ever on some post-obesity-revolution execution squad of radical fatties, I might demand that the counter-revolutionaries I'm required to dispatch be hanged by sausage. It seems somehow appropriate.

I've saved the best until last. The fat suicide bomber, here to blow you limb from limb with an explosive vest of butter. I hope that the cultural studies/fat studies people are excited about this image because I literally cannot wait to read some heavy-duty analysis of it. (Rachel White, this looks like one for you!). Not only is obesity suicide, it turns you into a suicide bomber. There is nothing funny about suicide bombings in real life, but this image is plainly ludicrous, verging on Chris Morris territory, as my partner just said.

When I look at this image I think that people who think that weight loss surgery is a viable answer to the problem of obesity should be afraid of angry fat people. We are the kind of people who would actually like to see a weight loss clinic blown to pieces, though perhaps metaphorically, and we are developing the tools and means to do that. When I look at this image I think: too right, we are amongst you, we recruit, and we will fuck you up. The obesity timebomb is ticking. Watch out.

25 April 2010

Diet Songs: Nutrasweet

I'm quite a stick-in-the-mud about artificial sweeteners, I think they're revolting, they're marketed on fatphobia, and I subscribe to the belief that they fuck with your health. A foul aspartame aftertaste is one of life's downers. On the other hand, I know that artificial sweeteners are appreciated by many diabetic people; I'm not into policing what people eat; and there's a lot of fatphobia and pomposity floating around 'real food' discourse, which is also a turn-off.

Nutrasweet is a brand name for aspartame, and it's used in a bewildering array of products. I'm particularly fascinated by it because of the way it's marketed: as a wholesome choice for all the family.

This Diet Song features a jingle by the otherwise splendid Randy Newman, who must have had an almighty brain fart when he accepted this brief. Oh well, we all have days like that. Two loveable moppets brag about their moms, and there's an authoritative male voiceover convincing us all of the benefits of this fine product. It's a hoot.

Simon and my Nutrasweet production offers a nod towards Broadcast Booth, a track by Drag Racing Underground, formerly known as Big Stick, a band that makes beautifully fucked-up noise. In Broadcast Booth John Gill assumes the identities of a group of drag racing commentators with crazily speeded-up voices. It is a masterpiece.

Diet Songs: Nutrasweet by Charlotte Cooper + Simon Murphy (.mp3, 640kb)

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

19 April 2010

Anti-obesity campaigns: developing radical fat training

I've had this file on my desktop for some time, I've been wanting to write about it for ages, but didn't know how to start. I can't wait for inspiration to call any longer, so I'm just going to jump in.

The document is Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives: Directory of Obesity Training Providers (.pdf, 1.4mb). It's produced by the British government's Department of Health to support their anti-obesity activities.

Incidentally, the rest of the supporting publications for Healthy Weight, Healthy Lives should also be required reading for fat activists. It's really interesting to see the rationales behind the government's anti-obesity marketing, and to see where the your and my money is going. The stuff that's getting funded really is a monumental pile of cack, anything would be better than this. I think it would be possible to get money for other kinds of projects, especially HAES work, if there are any savvy people in the house who want to have a go at subverting the dominant paradigm for quids.

I'm fascinated by official, scientific, knowledge and truth claims about obesity. By this I mean the kind of things that we all know to be true of fatness. I'm resisting putting 'know' and 'true' in scare quotes, but they're there anyway! This is the truth that's held sacrosanct, that is beyond criticism because it just is, and which has the support of pretty much everyone. When I look at this list of training, including accredited postgraduate academic qualifications, I realise that I'm looking at the systems which replicate these forms of unquestionable truth.

I'm particularly interested in the listing for the MSc in Weight Management at the University of Chester, which seeks to instill in its students "a critically and theoretically informed, reflective and multi-disciplinary approach to the academic study of, and professional practice relevant to, weight management." Yet no critical perspectives on obesity are present here, or in any of these syllabi. What might it be like to be a student or a teacher on a course like this? I feel stifled and angry just reading the course description. Perhaps there would be opportunities for disruption, or for sneaking things in under the radar, but it still seems extremely inadequate. You'd never know about Fat Studies, or Health At Every Size, or fat activism, if you went and did one of these courses, whole universes of information would be absent. Yet you would still be recognised as an expert in Obesity, or Weight Management, despite the critical limitations of your education, and perhaps you would go on to pass on your expertise to others.

My knowledge of pedagogy, the way that things are taught, is also limited. Jacqui Gingras, Julie Guthman and Susan Koppelman have written about the process of bringing critical discussions of obesity to university classrooms. I would love to see more accounts, particularly those which expand fat pedagogy beyond the university, or North America. I understand that there is a body of work which criticises schools-based anti-obesity policy in the UK, but I'm also looking for material which provides practical clues for possible interventions.

All this has led me to reflect on how one might go about teaching people to be critical about fat, or to be good advocates for critical approaches to fat. I can trace how I learned what I know back to a handful of books, some encounters with people and organisations, and a lot of experience that apparently had nothing to do with fatness at the time and only revealed its relevance much later, none of which occurred during any classroom session. I'm learning a lot more in classrooms now, at university, but the basics of how I understand fatness were in place long before I got to this point. So where might such radical fat pedagogies take place? It's hard to imagine a university classroom in 2010, with all of its shortcomings, being the place where people become radicalised. Is rad fatness teachable? I sometimes do fat workshops at LadyFests and other DIY-style gatherings, and this seems to be a good place to start thinking about fat, but are there others too? How could this be developed?


Gingras, Jacqueline Rochelle (2009) Longing for Recognition: The Joys, Complexities, and Contradictions of Practicing Dietetics, York: Raw Nerve.

Guthman, Julie (2009) 'Teaching the Politics of Obesity: Insights into Neoliberal Embodiment and Contemporary Biopolitics', Antipode: A Radical Journal of Geography, 41: 5, 1110-1133.

Koppelman, Susan (2009) 'Fat Stories in the Classroom: What and How Are They Teaching About Us?', in: Rothblum, E. & Solovay, S. (eds.) The Fat Studies Reader. New York: New York University Press, 213-220.

13 April 2010

Anti-obesity campaigns: NICE partnering with Weight Watchers

I'm delighted to see that Corporate Responsibility Magazine, which must surely be one of the newsstand's hottest reads, has named Weight Watchers on its inaugural list of worst companies. The mag defines "worst" as being secretive in activities and practises such as employee benefits, climate-change policies or philanthropic efforts.

Companies were scored on financial, governance and human rights variables. Dirk Olin, editor in chief of the magazine, told the New York Times: "We decided to ask ourselves what the bottom of that list would look like, never dreaming for a minute that we would uncover a full 30 corporations where no relevant data at all could be turned up. The notion of transparency as the first, best, primary value allows other players, players with a variety of values – be they journalistic, NGOs, competitors, collaborators – to weigh in according to their competing interests."

Weight Watchers declined to comment.

This data might be worth quoting at the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, who are currently soliciting material in 'Preventing obesity: a whole-system approach: call for evidence.' They want to hear about 'partnership working' between the NHS and local businesses. This is how Weight Watchers and Slimming World are developing markets within statutory service provision and legitimising their business interests as neutral, caring, for the common good. It stinks. Why not write to NICE and tell them so? The deadline for responses is 29 April 2010.

09 April 2010

Fat people all look the same

I'm excited about the imminent arrival of Catherine Redfern and Kristin Aune's book Reclaiming the F-Word, I hope it helps give British feminism a shot of third wave energy.

Whilst it's great that the authors have noticed the emergence of a new wave of fat activism in the UK, one that is informed by third wave feminism and DIY culture, I have mixed feelings about being mentioned in this book.

The problem is that the authors have got a bunch of us mixed up. In a tiny sentence halfway through the book they write that Unskinny Bop, Big Bums and Obesity Timebomb are more or less the same thing, produced by the same people.

To clarify:

a) Unskinny Bop: a club run by Tamsin Bookey and Ruth Russell, with artwork by Bill Savage and Alex Long
b) Big Bums: a zine made by me, Kay Hyatt, Simon Murphy and Bill Savage, funded by Nolose, a US-based organisation for fat dykes
c) Obesity Timebomb: my blog by me and only me
d) We all know each other.

There are other fat activist things going on in the UK too, like The Chubsters, Fat Studies in the UK, The Fat of The Land, things being published, to name a few, but these have not been mentioned. It wouldn't have taken much to check the basic facts, we're pretty accessible, and it makes me wonder about the reliability of other information in the book. Maybe none of this matters, perhaps a general idea that fat feminist stuff is going on is enough.

I think the reason that this miniature oversight bugs me so much is that Tamsin, Ruth, Bill, Kay and I are always being mistaken for each other. Bill and Kay even made a Spot the Difference quiz in our zine, Big Bums. Bill's girlfriend Donna, who is not fat like the rest of us, gets it from time to time too. Bill and Kay are similarly mistaken for Ingo, who runs Wotever World, who also has short hair, a masculine demeanour, specs and fatty queerness in spades. It's lucky that I love my friends and dig what they do because if I didn't it would be even more maddening that everybody else seems to think that we are a single entity, like The Blob. For future reference, please try and get to know us, learn our names and find out about what we do. Don't make us have to get identity badges.

A website I like very much is AllLookSame which raises great questions about racism, the assumptions people make about appearances, and the way they handle difference. I think about this website quite often, and the phrase All Look Same has stuck with me ever since I first encountered it about ten years ago.

I think an All Look Same phenomenon is going on in relation to me and my fat and queer friends. We share many values and ways of seeing things, we like a lot of the same stuff and turn each other on to new things, so in some ways it's not surprising that people see similarities between us. But it's also quite ridiculous and insulting when a stranger insists that you are someone else, especially when you are clearly diverse people with distinct attributes, or standing together in the same room.

But it makes me wonder what people really see when they end up in a scene that features a bunch of people who are different to them, and where they are required to address that difference. How come they can't see that we are individual people? What do people see when they see a bunch of rad fatties? We have different hair, body shapes and everything. Maybe the idea that a culture or community of cool fat friends exists is too much to process, maybe people think that there can't be more than a couple of us! Or more than one Beth Ditto? Maybe we're just "the obese". I've no idea.

Redfern, C. and Aune, K (2010) Reclaiming the F-Word: The New Feminist Movement. London: Zed Books

06 April 2010

Early fat lib and bad sex advice from the archive

I'm pretty obsessed with early fat liberation writing and activism, especially stuff that was published in the early 1970s. It's amazing how prescient this work is, and how it is both relevant to debates going on about fat today, and also brilliantly weird and dated.

I recently got my paws on a copy of Abraham Friedman's book Fat Can Be Beautiful: Stop Dieting, Start Living, from 1974. The tentativeness of the 'can be' in the title cracks me up.

According to the dust jacket, the author is a doctor who specialises in "the treatment of obesity and metabolic disorders". It's not surprising then that this is a book that offers self-acceptance as a means to losing weight. It's actually not a million miles from Susie Orbach. So the emphasis is on an idea of 'natural weight', which is thin, of course, although the author has a category of people he calls 'True-obese'. Don't get me started on the unquestioned assumptions about fat people that underscore these ideas, I'm just not going to go there today.

Friedman is also the author of "the bestselling How Sex Can Keep You Slim," haha! Perhaps consequently, Fat Can Be Beautiful has some quite racy passages in it. I was drawn to 'Chapter XVI For Men Only,' but this is about Type II Diabetes, rather than a discussion of secret facts available only to fat men.

Chapter XVII is better, it's called 'Sex For The Obese' and I have to say that the linguistic certainty in that medicalised language of expertise is already getting me a bit hot under the collar. Let's dig in!

The chapter starts by commiserating that fat women often struggle to get any sex and turn to food even though there are men 'out there' who prefer a 'buxom figure.' Facts such as these are obviously why feminism happened. Friedman suggests that sex is a good way of burning calories, which is tragic, and opines with carefree expert ignorance that fat women are into more sex than thinner women because of: "their desire to prove to themselves and their mates that they are just as sensuous as the thinner women. Or else they have a deep-seated hunger for food and sex simultaneously". This sounds a lot like the expert statements in The Owl Was A Baker's Daughter that I posted a while back.

The main part of this chapter consists of an annotated list of positions for cock-cunt fucking, divided into three categories:

A. If the woman is obese and the man is not
B. If the man is obese and the woman is not
C. If both partners are obese

If you get off on strangely impassive and authoritarian descriptions of joyless, mechanical, heteronormative sex, then this is truly the one-handed read you've been looking for. Friedman calls one move the "Gynaecological position" – eurgh! Another position, "Sims," is "named after a famous surgeon" and "makes the vagina readily accessible from slightly above and behind". Is this supposed to get you in the mood? I'm grossed out by the brisk, no-nonsense descriptions of sex, in a puerile daze, and yet completely enthralled. The advice is pretty crap, but also without fat-shame, which is not bad, it's just the language and approach that is all wrong. How about: "If there is much abdominal fat, he can lift it up with both hands, as the woman straddles over him with her knees bent, facing him. She can thus easily slide his erect penis into her vagina and start her pelvic thrusts either alone or in conjunction with his." Or " The woman then stands astride him close to the edge of the bed, and thus is able to make contact with his erect penis." Make contact! Finally, there's a position in which "the partner's abdomens are not in juxtaposition, but sufficiently removed from each other to permit proper sexual thrusting and satisfactory consummation of the sex act." What can I say? It's dizzyingly dirty.

PS. If you're looking for information about sex and fat, you'd be much better off with Hanne Blank's Big Big Love.

Blank, H. (2000) Big Big Love: A Sourcebook on Sex for People of Size, Emeryville, CA: The Greenery Press.

Friedman, A. I. (1974) Fat Can Be Beautiful: Stop Dieting, Start Living, Berekeley, CA: Berekeley Publishing Corporation.