14 July 2010

Intergenerational fat activism with Charlotte and Meryl

I met Meryl Trussler earlier this year when she invited me to speak about fat stuff at Ladyfest Goldsmiths. For someone who thought she did not know much about fat activism, she really took the baton and started running. Since then she's founded LDN XL GRRRLS, through which she is producing a zine. She has a lot of drive and I think she's someone we should keep an eye on.

For the zine, we decided together that it would be good to have a conversation about fat, sort of like a cross-generational thing between a younger activist who is new to the movement (that's Meryl with the moustache) and an older one who's been around the block a bit (that's me Living the Dream). Neither of us are claiming to speak for everyone, we just wanted to create some dialogue.

The conversation turned out to be a long one! We've got a lot of things to tell each other, it seems. A slightly edited version will feature in the LDN XL GRRRLS zine, along with Meryl's beautiful illustrations, some of which I've pinched for here, but here's the longer piece.

Charlotte: why do you think fat is political?

Meryl: Well, you know I'm a newcomer to fat politics, so I know my answer is gonna be all stunted by misinformation, but here's what I think so far: because like abortion and contraception, like homosexuality, it's one of those things that make the public bristle and think they're somehow allowed a say in what you do with your own body. And I do think it shares that ground with those issues of gender and sex for a reason. It has the power to both make bodily gender explicit (think of the Lane Bryant lingerie ad that was said to be too racy, alongside the apparently less problematic half-naked skinny chix we see every day on TV) and to disguise/queer it completely (the issue of "man boobs" etc.) And that scares the shit out of the media because they want sexuality but they want it their way, contained and categorised. Aside from gender issues, I think politicians are afraid of us because they've come to think of us as indicators of all their country's failings, e.g. the recession, couch potato culture, joblessness and so on. Because the idea that this stuff CAUSES fat still permeates, which we fat activists know is bull. They should be proud to have us!

Charlotte: wow, great answer! I'd add that it's political because of the effects of stigma and discrimination on fat people, and the idea that we need civil rights and recognition of our value in order to counter that stuff.

Meryl: Do you think "thin" as the beauty standard is here to stay?

Charlotte: If you think of historic and cross-cultural readings of The Body and of the way that beauty is recognised in bodies, you could say that thin as a beauty ideal is not here to stay. Although it feels so ubiquitous to you or me, there is evidence to the contrary: people feel differently about bodies – women's bodies mostly – across time and place, therefore things will change eventually.

However, these readings can be really problematic because they tend to try and force one model of understanding beauty or bodies onto another context where that external model is irrelevant. This can end up being racist and colonialist, or historically reductive and naïve, and it requires us to ask questions about who is producing this knowledge and why. So I'm really wary of parroting the popular line that "in some cultures/historical eras it's ok to be fat".

I think there are systemic forces that make thinness the idea in 21st century western culture. If you look at capitalism, for example, standardised bodies that are generally thin make sense because they are easier to sell standardised production line goods and services to – fat bodies are wildly diverse, we don't fit that world. So I think challenging the predominance of slenderness as a capitalist ideal means also taking on wider political and philosophical ideologies. These are so powerful, and only one part of why thin is an ideal, that I think yeah, it's pretty likely that thin as a dominant culture beauty standard is here to stay.

On the other hand, I think people interpret beauty in their own idiosyncratic ways. I don't think there is a beauty ideal, I think there are loads of different ideals and that they are chaotic and contradictory. I get called beautiful fairly often and I look like a fat dyke freak, which is what I am, and quite far away from a fashion model standard, yet I'm a hot proposition in some of the circles in which I move. Perhaps what people are becoming more conscious of is that beauty is not fixed, and that it can mean many different things. I think the current hippy/ Buddhist/ mindfulness trend I'm encountering in alternative cultures, which is often preoccupied with the concept of gratitude, is also about finding beauty in the everyday, for example, and in expanding notions of beauty.

I also think that beauty has many limitations, it's somewhat bourgeois! I'm not interested in supporting the kinds of power relationships that beauty underpins, where beauty is a hierarchy. I don't know, either, that beauty is the driving force for most people. I mean, I love to be surrounded by beauty, beauty motivates me, but it also seems irrelevant.

Ok, here's another question: as a young fat activist, starting out, what do you want and need from older people who have more experience of the movement?

Meryl: Mostly I just need reassurance that there is any point at all in it. I know one of the biggest purposes of FA, for me, is that it makes ME feel better, and that there's a sense of community that is really... nourishing to the soul. It emboldens me and makes me stop holding back from things because of my size. Now a part of me knows that if it did that for me, it can do that for other fat girls (which is what I'm trying to do with this zine to some extent), and that is of course a massive achievement. But on the other hand there's kind of a ceiling to it. As confident as we might be, there is still going to be external hatred pushing us back. And I don't know if there's anyone who can completely bulletproof themselves from being hurt by that. I feel like there's only so far we can get when, you know, The Man is so impenetrably cruel, so impossible to change.

So I guess my counter question is, do you feel like it's actually possible to change dominant societal views on fat? Because so far I feel like the only people opening up to body acceptance are the people who really, really, deep down, longed to be able to accept themselves as-is in the first place.

Charlotte: I think fat is relevant to many people, not just those who are fat or want to feel happily embodied. Part of what makes fat such an interesting subject is that it is implicated in so many areas of modern life, including health and medicalisation, economics, corporatism, equality, rights, body stuff, legitimacy, gender, power, race, beauty, class, all of it. This means that there are loads of stakeholders.

I thinks social views do change but I'm not sure of the process by which that happens. Obvious interventions like legal rights or being visible make a difference, but the nitty gritty of social change is more elusive and is contingent on so many factors. You might do some kind of fat activism with the idea that it will make some kind of positive difference and it has a completely unpredictable, and maybe unwanted, outcome.

Also, fat people are a diverse group, often brought together only by our body size, and there are disagreements on the best way to create social change. I think this highlights a mythology, the belief that only unity can create change. I think in reality social change is much more fragmented and wild, it happens in ways that can't be controlled, it has a life of its own. I suppose my approach to activism is to do stuff that makes sense to me, is fun and interesting, life-affirming, and hope that the ripples touch other people. Sometimes this happens and it's very satisfying. There are lots of people and organisations out there creating their own ripples too.

Now you! What sort of social change would you like to see around fat?

Meryl: I guess because I'm always trying to climb inside the media/pop culture beast I focus the most on that. Like you say, social change happens in so many ways - bringing in size discrimination laws like they have in San Francisco would actually get pretty immediate notice, but the kind of change I think is easiest to effect is the slow-release kind that works through the kind of images to which people are exposed. I think "normalising" is a powerful force. Even as a fat chick, I used to stare at other fat people; through following the blogs that I follow now, I see so many images of beautiful fat women that it no longer comes off as novelty. I think the same thing could work on a greater scale. All I want to see is fat characters in TV shows whose weight doesn't define them, and fat models in photoshoots that aren't part of Glamour or Dove's self-congratulatory bloody "real women" campaigns, and fat people in art who aren't there to represent corporate gluttony etc... I just want to see a more accurate portrayal of reality in the media. But then I see fashion magazines who would rather blackface their models than hire a woman of colour for some godawful "tribal trend" shoot, and I know that realistic representation is a long way off for all of us.

How do you think we can best respond to discrimination and hatred when it's happening to us on the spot, on the streets?

Charlotte: I think the bottom line is about doing what you can to prioritise your physical and mental safety when this kind of thing happens. Some people are more fragile than others, and harassment can really ruin a good day. I find it helpful to remember that people harassing me don't know me at all, and therefore have no claim on my value as a human.

In terms of harassment, I use several strategies:

1. Ignore it. People say things because they want a reaction from me, I don't give it to them or escalate that kind of violence, I walk away from it. This is my most common response.

2. Turn it into a teachable moment. Sometimes there are opportunities for having creative discussions about crappy behaviour. This is rare and relies on my not being a pompous windbag (my natural state).

3. Attack. This works if you are with a group of people. Charge with your bellies and flab flying, scream, look as terrifying as you can, laugh and ridicule. Harassers do not expect this response from fat people and it freaks them out in a satisfying way.

In all cases, talk about it with people you love and trust and/or write about it or process it in some way. Don't keep it to yourself or bottle it up. I don't get verbal harassment so much these days, though I get hate mail, which I always share and often publish.

When the heat of the incident and the upset has died down, you're in a better position to think about what might be done in the longer-term, perhaps to organise around the issue. Again, this is good to talk through with people.

Now you: what do you like about fat people?

Meryl: I'm a firm believer that we are no different than anyone else apart from the various struggles we go through, and I wouldn't want to make generalisations. I can speak better for fat activists, or body acceptance advocates in general. I just love their bravery, their determination, and their camaraderie. I love having great food on the table without it requiring a 20 minute discussion about how we shouldn't be eating it for whatever reason. I love not having to fight with people to get them to accept a compliment. And I love being able to talk about how much I hate certain advertisements or movies without being thought of as a complete buzzkill!

The fat body itself, I think, also lends itself so well to analogy, which pleases me as the flowery writer that I am. I think it's as pleasing a body type as any other, and it comes in so MANY shapes! I noticed that stretch-marks can look like a fading out firework trail, and that made me smile.

How do you think the parallel universe Thin Charlotte's life would be like? What advantages have being fat had for you?

Charlotte: The only benefit I can think of in that parallel universe is that plane travel would be more comfortable. I'd be a fussier dresser because I'd have access to more clothes. But I think I'd be more likely to be straight, I'd be more ignorant about a lot of things, I'd be less developed and mature as a person. I'd have fewer ways of understanding things about fat because I wouldn't have direct experience of it, so ironically I might have more internalised fatphobia. I'd still be formed and/or fucked up by other life experiences.

I think the fantasy of a parallel thin me is really seductive, but it's empty when you take it apart, it would bring me very few benefits. People think that being fat is a tragedy but I owe so much to it. Not that my fat body has necessarily created all of these opportunities, it's me, my drive and intelligence, and ability to capitalise on it too, I think. But fat is at the centre of my creative, community, political, emotional, social, intellectual, financial lives. It's brought me everything that I care about.

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