15 October 2010

Why I don't support Fat Talk Free® Week

Next week is Fat Talk Free® Week, an American sorority campaign (financially?) supported by some eating disorder groups, and businesses that include at first glance a financial planning service; a cosmetics company that sells anticellulite, anti-ageing and anti-wrinkle products; a handbag company; and a pilates studio with a website that features a bunch of skinny and muscular white body beautiful types prancing around in leotards. The idea is to stop the verbal denigration of fatness so that people can feel better about themselves. Fat Talk Free is a registered trademark.

This campaign is managing to synthesise many things that I dislike about some kinds of fat-related activism. I'm going to spell them out:

Censoring is ok
This campaign implicitly supports the idea that it's helpful and appropriate to shut down some kinds of talk, and therefore thought. It encourages people to police each other's language and thoughts. The suggestion is that if we don't think or verbalise these awful self-hating things, they will go away.

Censoring things does not make them go away, it usually drives that thing underground, or makes it shameful. We know that secrecy and shame are not a good basis for personal development, or embodied liberation. This is particularly true for groups of people who suffer eating disorders, who this campaign partially targets, who themselves are already steeped in secrecy and shame.

Fat talk is painful to hear in other people, and particularly maddening to witness in places where you cannot escape it, especially at work. But shutting people down because you hate the way they talk does not make the problem disappear. Do you want to be told not to talk about certain things? I don't, I wouldn't want to inflict that on other people and I wouldn't presume to be the person who decides what kind of talk is or isn't acceptable for anyone. Censorship is always a bad idea, whilst respectful dialogue and learning to be with people who are different to you are more compassionate and fruitful ways to manage these situations, to name but two peace-building strategies.

Capitalism is your friend
Where to start? The trademarking that transforms young women's activism into another branded marketing opportunity, or the weird collection of sponsors? Why is this thing trademarked? How transparent is an apparently neutral community campaign aimed at young women that relies on a trademark? Why is this campaign sponsored by companies that sell goods and services that apparently contradict its assumed body-positive messages? Is it inconsistent to participate in Fat Talk Free® Week and then buy a load of anticellulite(sic) product? I think so, but these people don't, it's all one big happy marketplace to them.

Our betters know best
I can't be the only chippy class warrior that resents Fat Talk Free® Week as a project of middle class privilege represented by the sorority system. I also resent the universalist assumptions presented within this very American institution, not just in terms of class (and maybe race too), but also nationality. We're not all the same, though this neoliberal censorship campaign masquerading as grassroots activism has assumed the 'proper voice' because of its access to power and has given itself the entitlement here to speak for everyone.

It's about, er, what?
Eating disorders, body image, and fat lib concepts are all jumbled together as though they are the same thing that is experienced homogenously.

Don't hate us
Not to support this apparently benign campaign is to risk being branded a hater who just doesn't understand. This is a form of social control and, I suspect, a feature of censorship. I'm expecting some testy comments on this post.

What would I like instead?

  • A campaign that gives practical ideas for creating dialogue about fat and bodies and food amongst people of all backgrounds.
  • A campaign that is not dictated to the rest of us by people with privilege.
  • A campaign about fat and bodies and food that is able to handle complexity and does not dumb down its subject matter.
  • A campaign that supports dialogue in spaces where you are free rather than a consumer who is being marketed to.
  • A campaign that actively welcomes feedback and constructive criticism.
  • A campaign about fat and bodies and food that works across different social justice areas, including, perhaps, censorship.


MadamQ said...

Also, it's a whole week. A WHOLE WEEK! OMG! So, what, you can go back to openly associating fat with bad things after a week?

Charlotte Cooper said...


laurenrocket said...

SRSLY. Isn't it sad when you know an idea is getting somewhere when you see some smartarse attempting to make a profit out of it?

Charlotte Cooper said...

It bums me out, but I also think commercial appropriation is inevitable because it's a good idea that makes companies look good if they can be seen to support it. Also, America = capitalist culture, which means that it's not surprising that some/a lot of fat stuff in the US, and the rest of the West to a certain extent, is going to involve money-making at some level.

Devra said...

Love. And thank you. This has creeped me out, but I hadn't taken the time to find out who was behind it.

abigail.s.vines@gmail.com said...

Your perspective so often seems so fresh to me- the first time I think I've ever used the word 'fresh.' I find myself envying the way you think. Me, I'm just happy for all the dieters who'll come to some sort of realization because of the lack of diet talk. But that's as far as I get- your critical ability is what I envy.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Abi.

Kerri said...

I like what you have written here.

I don't have expertise in marketing but one would have to suspect it to be some kind of very sophisticated integrated marketing strategy. For example, researchers at Yale (Binder 1971) came up with a model for political and product 'campaigns' of various sorts, whereby the five stages of a successful (in this case marketing) campaign are:

* Identification: in this case we as fat people immediately identify with the product, er, cause simply by the words used in the naming of the week etc.

*Legitimacy: perhaps the Fat Talk Free week is aided in its legitimacy by its association with places of higher learning? Certainly being supported by eating disorder groups gives it that warm, fuzzy medical-authority feeling.

*Participation: speaks for itself

Penetration: This is where we get fucked. Those, whether fat, thin or alien, who participate in the venture help it to become big enough to be taken seriously, which in turn help it to be taken more seriously and so forth, and

*Distribution: in this case if the above stages occur then the event and its premises become normalised and institutionalised.

The above is taken from a book called 'Persuasion: Reception and Responsibility' by C. U. Larson 2001.

Apologies if I'm raving on a bit too long here, but this fat talk free thing interests me.

Where the power is used by this campaign is concerned, its scope is so great that one is compelled, as a fat activist, to choose whether to participate or not. Once it is known about one is forced into a decision even if it is one of non-compliance. A very insidious and 'supreme' (Lukes 1974) use of power.

'Free to choose they may be, but what they can choose from is already chosen' (Clegg 1989:29).

It was easier to just use quotes.