23 November 2010

Conference Report: ESRC Fat Studies and HAES Seminar - 3

It's really hard to blog the third ESRC Fat Studies and Health At Every Size seminar because I was one of the main organisers and I have little critical distance. I still think it's worth saying a few things about it, despite being deeply embroiled in its production, or maybe especially because of my closeness to the event.

One of the things that I have enjoyed very much about this seminar series is that it has been a friendly and welcoming interdisciplinary space for discussion. I've felt that the meetings have been instrumental in developing a strong Fat Studies community in the UK. I hoped that this seminar would continue in this way, and I knew it would be special because it was a space that was intentionally open to activists as well as scholars, not that the two are mutually exclusive. As well as the seminar being free to attend, we offered bursaries for people on low incomes so that they could travel to the gathering. We moved outside university space and held the seminar at Stratford Library, a deliberate move to create access for people who would not normally go to an event like this, and dialogue between different groups.

I've included a list of all the speakers below. I don't want to go into detail about each presentation, all of them were really interesting, useful and powerful in their own ways. However I will talk briefly about some of the more outstanding moments of the event, offered here as my personal opinion rather than in any official capacity as co-organiser of the seminar.

I felt very proud to have been able to give a platform to such a variety of speakers, including people who had little previous experience of either presenting at an academic conference, or in Fat Studies. It was great to hear Caroline Walters talk about representations of fat BDSM without having to make any apology or give a defensive Fat 101 context for her work. I was also delighted to see Kay Hyatt present an account of the Big Bum Jumble and explain why it was a significant example of fat activism. This kind of work, also referenced at the seminar by Stacy Bias, is completely unexamined in the academy yet offers such rich material for analysis.

Two presentations stood out for me in terms of the way they incorporated emotion, namely anger. Anger is not central to my own work, but it is an element of it, it's a kind of energy that fuels a desire for disruption and change. I think any kind of emotion is somewhat taboo in academia, as scholars we are often expected to produce cool analytical work that somehow exists beyond the realm of earthly human emotion. In this context I think it was very brave that Dr Kim Singleton and Dr Samantha Murray made reference to their own anger about fat hatred. Sondra Solovay's keynote also referenced a more muted anger at the unjust systems within which she works. Perhaps one of the qualities of interdisciplinary space is that it enables people to take a risk and present challenging work. Either way, it feels very freeing to be able to bring 'unpleasant' emotion to our work, to be real about who we are and what we do, that seems quite rare and valuable within scholarship.

For me the highlight of the seminar was the triple whammy offered by Dr Samantha Murray, Dr Rachel White, and Mike Wyeld on Friday morning. I can't remember ever encountering such a beautifully subversive trio of work on fat. Sam critically addressed what can be a problematic construction of fat activist identity and constituency through subversive methodology. Whoa! The nerve! Rachel subverted widely-held rationales for fat activism by talking about The Chubsters. Be still my beating heart! In 30 minutes she articulated one of the ways in which I think of fat activism in a way that I have never been able to do for myself. I felt so happy and free and proud to see her discuss my work like that, profoundly encouraged. One of the more difficult elements of the seminar was the screening of the Swedish film Thank You From Heaven, about anti-fat bullying, and I felt that Rachel gave us the tools to deconstruct this work and invest in more liberating kinds of activism. Mike helped create much-needed dialogue between Bear culture and Fat Studies and fat activism. He subverted the invisible and pernicious rules that keep these cultures separate. It's no understatement to say that I hunger for sophisticated work like this that takes fat activism seriously.

Another highlight for me was showing everyone the Fat Queer and Trans Timeline that was collectively produced at NOLOSE last summer. The discussion surrounding it, which involved thinking about what the Timeline represented and how it could be developed, was a total thrill. As my friend has just emailed me: "Where else can you see four metres of queer trans fat activism laid out before your eyes? Literally nowhere!"

Finally, I programmed some extras into the seminar that ended up working well. Bill Savage/Dr R White displayed a series of handmade posters from Unskinny Bop; Sarah Tilley, an award-winning bookseller, set up a Fat Studies bookstall; I brought the Chubuzzer for people to play with; there were zines and badges; Kay brought some leftover Big Bum Jumble for people to rummage through. It's a rare conference where you end up with a new outfit.

There's one more ESRC Fat Studies seminar in the pipeline, which will take place next spring in Bath. Given the desperate funding climate in universities at the moment I wonder if gorgeous seminars such as these will get a look-in in the future, or if this is all we'll be able to muster. I'll try and remain hopeful that more rad fat space might still be carved out in time.

Economic Social Research Council seminar series, Fat Studies and HAES: Bigness Beyond Obesity
Seminar 3: Experiencing and Celebrating Fatness
18-19 November 2010

  • Dr Hannele Harjunen, University of Jyväskylä: Travelling concepts: when fat studies came to Finland
  • Caroline Walters, University of Exeter: 'Padded kink': a critique of visual representations of fat BDSM
  • Dr Kim Singleton, University of Liverpool: Gluttons for punishment: the perverse practices of social inclusion
  • Kay Hyatt, Big Bum Jumble, London: DIY Fat Activism and The Big Bum Jumble
  • Keynote: Sondra Solovay, San Francisco Law School, attorney and fat activist: Fat Panic and the Real Epidemic
  • Dr Samantha Murray, Macquarie University: This Fat Girl's Getting Back in the Water: (Re)Thinking dialogue between fat scholarship and activism
  • Dr Rachel White, University of Westminster: No Fat Future? The uses of anti-social queer theory for fat activism
  • Mike Wyeld, Bears Against Bigotry: Bears Against Bigotry Pecha Kucha
  • Film: Thank You From Heaven, introduced by Christina Fleetwood, National Association of Overweight Persons in Sweden
  • Stacy Bias, Fat & Body Image Activist & Campus Speaker, Portland: Event based activism: creating community through art and adventure
  • Discussion and presentation of A Fat Queer and Trans Timeline, facilitated by Charlotte Cooper, University of Limerick.

1 comment:

SharonC said...

Thanks for the report, Charlotte. Much appreciated!