21 December 2011

Allyson Mitchell's fat feminist art and me

I won't lie, xmas makes me feel mentally ill and if I smoked crack I would be huffing on a big fat pipe of it right now. In past years I've published a Hits and Shits list on this blog in an attempt to create some kind of temporal narrative about fat. This year I've given up.

Instead I'm going to mark the end of the year by sharing a drawing that one of my favourite artists, Allyson Mitchell, has produced. Allyson is one of the founders of the now defunct fat activist group Pretty, Porky and Pissed Off, who reclaimed the streets of Toronto a while back. She's also an assistant Professor in the School of Women's Studies at York University. Oh yeah, and she co-owns the Feminist Art Gallery (FAG) and is an accomplished artist in her own right. I've added that last but actually it should go first.

So, picture the scene, I'm sitting at my computer, contemplating xmas-related suicide, and up pops an email from Allyson. She's attached a drawing that features me. The email says that I am in the middle and the image comes from a photo shoot I did for FaT GiRL in 1996. It goes on to say that the other figures are also based on women in FaT GiRL and that I was the inspiration for the piece.

The drawing is part of a project started by Ulrike Müller, who I don't know and have never met, that Allyson has worked on. Allyson wrote in her email: "Ulrike took the titles of images that are archived in the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn. Artists were asked to draw an image that represents the title in some way without seeing the actual image. I randomly got the title 'A Group of Naked Women...Very Curvy' – what luck!!!!"

It's now a few days later and I'm still trying to work it out. I feel very happy and proud that something I did a long time ago can be part of something really excellent today, it makes me reflect on the importance not just of developing fat queer cultural production, but also the value of using our bodies within the things we make. I love Allyson's art and am absolutely delighted to feature in it. Thinking about this drawing makes me feel as though I'm swirling around in a whirlpool of beautiful things that mean a great deal to me: queer archives and especially the Lesbian Herstory Archives, fat dykes, activism, Allyson's art, FaT GiRL, wooooo! The picture reminds me of an incredible time in my life when I kind of bloomed into my queer-fat self after a long time of feeling frozen. Playing naked on a Californian beach exemplifies that period so well. It's also amazing to see my nudey fat body there, I'm feeling a lot of self-love about that, and that's a precious feeling for people like me. Not only that, but it's amongst the other bodies too; I know that I couldn't have inhabited that emotional-embodied-social-political space without the others. It feels really fantastic to see myself acknowledged as part of this amazing fat feminist movement, in ways that I relate to, by someone who knows and who is also implicated in it herself. I love the luck and randomness of how the image came about. It gives me chills of happiness to think about other people seeing this work as it becomes circulated in new spaces that Ulrike is developing, and it becoming part of other people's consciousness.

Woah, head explodes.

Image courtesy of Allyson Mitchell

08 December 2011

Fat activists and language - what do you call it?

My friend sizeoftheocean posted on Twitter the other day that she really dislikes the term 'fattist'. I also dislike this term and hoped that she, being very smart, would be able to shed light on my own ire. She said that it has a defensive tone to it and is used by people who are not otherwise into fat stuff. I agree. My own dislike also extends to its linguistic construction – yes, my snobbery knows no bounds – sexist, racist, classist, disablist, heterosexist, fattist, right? You'd think it would work because it's consistent an allies fat with other kinds of identities. But I still can't get on board with it when I have 'fat hatred,' 'fatphobia,' 'fat oppression' as means of naming the same sort of thing, concepts that are rooted in histories and cultures of fat activism, rather than something that seems tacked-on. I feel similarly about 'looksist,' which to me seems too shallow a way of describing the systemic marginalisation of people who represent difference; it's not just about the act of looking or one's 'looks'.

I've been thinking about other terms that people use to describe what I think of as 'fat stuff,' or simply 'the movement,' or even just 'fat.' 'Size acceptance' and 'fat acceptance' are popular, though they are not for me because I find them too limited; I think self-acceptance is fine, but social acceptance is not enough for me, I'm more invested in social change. I want to change things more than I want to be accepted, in fact I realise that acceptance is not something that motivates me very much at all. 'Size' or 'weight' are too euphemistic for me. I tend to use 'fat activism,' sometimes 'fat politics,' occasionally the more restrictive 'fat rights,' but often feel that I could do with more language here.

As I've been researching, I've noticed a few references to 'fat pride.' Like fattist, these tend to be made pejoratively by people who feel burned by the movement in some way, and/or by people who would be less likely to understand the association between fat pride and queer or LGBT pride movements. Here pride is a slur, fat people shouldn't be proud because it connotes arrogance, the valuing of one type over another, smugness. In this context the ultimate goal is for fat to be stripped of any value, good or bad, just let it be what it is. I agree with this to some extent, but I also think that even if there were no negative connotations to fatness, I would probably seek out some kind of pride in myself, a pride that is associated with self-respect, pleasure, confidence, feeling as though you have value. As it is, fat pride is a useful concept in the current climate, which looks unlikely to change very much any time soon, and where there are many daily attempts to stomp these feelings out of fat people.

Again, 'the fat and proud movement,' or 'the fat pride movement' are not terms that I would use these days, perhaps I have become sensitised because of these attacks. I'll never forget an interview in which Shelley Bovey talks about "the fat and proud brigade", and compares the movement to fascists. I've wondered if this is a reference to me because of the title of my first book, in which I expressed misgivings about some of her work. Brigade is an interesting addition, it implies some kind of officious, blundering Dad's Army set-up; a group of pompous buffoons. Whilst there are many pompous buffoons in fat activism, including me, not to mention other extremely annoying people, this description doesn't really fit the diversity of the movement, it is a barbed caricature.

We could probably talk about preferred terms for how people think about fat until we are blue in the face. I agree that language creates meaning and that there is a lot of language in the world that denigrates fat embodiment, there are many terms I dislike. But policing language is problematic because the contexts in which words are used vary so greatly, being forceful around good and bad words is unacceptable, it's too close to censorship. Some words work for some people and not for others, where I feel uncomfortable about language I try and look for the intention rather than blame the form of the words; often people are just a little ignorant about fat and language. What I want is more words rather than fewer, I think the more fat language there is, the easier it becomes to think and talk about fat.

Are there any linguists in the area? Can you illuminate any of this?


Brooks, L. (2002) 'Size Matters' [Online]. Available: http://www.shelleybovey.com/frameset.html?/sizematters.html [Accessed 9 March 2010].

Cooper, C. (1998) Fat & Proud: The Politics of Size, London: The Women's Press.

25 November 2011

Talking about fat and sexual harassment

Twice in the past few weeks I've been grabbed in the street by strangers. The first stranger grabbed my arm and whispered "Ohh, big girl" at me as though he was sharing a sexy secret. The second, last night crept up behind me and as he walked past brushed his dick against my hand, grabbed my waist and said "Hello gorgeous" quietly in my ear and walked away. Apart from these incidents it's been a while since I've noticed anyone harassing me when I'm out and about, I felt that I could walk down the street like anyone else.

In both cases I pulled myself away and told the strangers to fuck off. Nobody is allowed to touch me without my consent, it's a relief that I know this deeply. But I've also found myself following a disturbing line of thought: how have I attracted this attention? Is it my clothes? Something about how I walk? Why is it happening now? What have I done? It's depressing how easily I fall into the belief that I must be responsible for someone's unwanted intrusion.

I am a catch. There are good reasons why someone's head might turn to look at me. This knowledge has been hard fought for over decades, and continues to be a battleground of sorts, and maybe always will be. I am also an ordinary-looking dyke in my mid-40s. Neither my beauty nor my everydayness makes me safe. I find it grotesque when men grab me in the street when I am going about my business and not hooking them for attention, there's a disturbing mismatch between how I am and how they misread me. It feels as though they have picked me out and are trying to put me in my place by forcing me to see myself on their ugly terms. It reminds me of the ways in which my sexuality was treated as a joke in the past because I am fat and, although this is different, I find it humiliating. A fat dyke being sexually harassed, it almost feels like a joke in itself, who would anyone bother with me? How can it even be real? I must be secretly flattered and titilated that men still want me, that anyone is remotely interested.

Other people have written about the visibility and invisibility of fat people in public spaces, and it's no secret that street harassment is a daily reality. I think an understanding that harassment can be sexual tends to be missing. There are things to be said about the sexual harassment of fat people and, in my case and others, the interplay of gender, homophobia, racism, disableism and other types of oppressive behaviour on that harassment.

I would like more fat people to break the silence around this stuff, if they feel able to, and for people to develop stronger ways of addressing it. Whilst they don't ruin my day, these brief impositions upon me nevertheless raise many difficult feelings about fat, sexuality, being out on the streets, and claiming my space in the world.

24 November 2011

Stereotyping fat and capitalism

I went down to St Paul's last week to visit Occupy London. There are places where my politics and the general politics of Occupy diverge, but I'm glad it's there, hope it continues, and felt happy, inspired and moved by it.

One of my favourite things about Occupy London is the way that the street has been appropriated as a giant noticeboard. Pictures, letters, rants, conspiracy theories, stickers, were all taped up on the pillars at the side of the encampment. I enjoyed browsing, there was such a muddle of compelling stuff. Amongst everything were some posters advertising a new film, and a leaflet about the scummy business of carbon trading. Can you guess what drew me to them? Yes, that's right: their use of fat capitalist stereotyping.

I have written elsewhere about how the left has failed fat people, progressive, enlightened, anti-capitalist, pro-planet people and their fatphobia, and about political cartoonists' use of fatness to denote the greed and disgustingness of capitalism (alas top fatphobe cartoonist Martin Rowson never replied to my email about that). I'm becoming more and more interested in what I see as a contradiction: the left supports the underdog, yet fails to see fat people as oppressed, and instead reproduces us as visual stereotypes of the oppressors. Fat cat capitalist imagery is a travesty when you understand that the fattest social groups are also the poorest and most marginalised.

Similarly, I'm fascinated and annoyed at how fat activism is ignored, denied, belittled within apparently progressive leftist circles, even though it offers radical possibilities for understanding and challenging oppressive practices. This was brought home to me this week when my partner got an email from a vegan anarchist café in London declining her proposal for a regular fat crafternoon-type event on the grounds that they were concerned about promoting obesity within the context of a global obesity epidemic.

In both cases people on the radical left are failing to see fat, that is, they are failing to understand fat as something with which they should be politically engaged in a critical manner. Instead, they rely on lazy thinking and stereotyping, refusing to acknowledge the radical work by fat activists that is going on right in front of them.

11 November 2011

Media: how the Daily Mail reported Dawn French's weight loss

Putting aside the fact that it's a Tory hate-rag, The Daily Mail is such a contradiction when it comes to reporting fat, which they do a lot, although ironically I think it's still a better bet than the supposedly liberal Guardian, which is all fat hate all the time and even has its own diet club. On the one hand The Mail promoted the Big Bum Jumble by publishing almost word for word the press release I wrote to publicise the event without any problem at all. They've done some good reporting on LighterLife, whilst pruriently speculating about who has and who hasn't been on that diet. Same with weight loss surgery. They publish a lot of articles that appear to adopt a voice of concern about fatphobia but just end up reinforcing it. And of course they publish many reports that are just all-out full of fat hatred. There's no rhyme or reason to it and I suspect the tone is all down to whichever particular editor is on duty the day that the article is published. I suppose what it illustrates is the messy and inconsistent ways in which people think and talk about fat anyway; fat hatred is bad, but who on earth would want to be fat if they could help it?

Dawn French has been the focus of The Daily Mail's fat department this week. Her relationship with Lenny Henry ended and she's lost a lot of weight. Her publicity machine is saying that it's because she's found a new lease of life and is very happy, just eating "more healthily" whatever that means, and doing exercise. Anyone who buys this is living in fantasyland, French looks like she's undergone a sudden crash weight loss in the photographs of her gurning at an awards ceremony that appeared in the paper and, according to her memoir, this is something she's done before. Why or how will probably come out at some point but for now there she is, there's no way of knowing unless you are a close personal friend or have her phone tapped.

What makes French's weight loss interesting for someone like me is the way that The Daily Mail have reported it, they're both celebratory and disapproving. The pictures of French on the red carpet have run and run this week, alongside a catty 'letter from a frenemy' article by Anne Diamond, aka the lady Alan Partridge, that is almost beyond belief. Diamond, who has apparently made a very good career out of being an utter tool, berates French for pro-fat statements she's made, speculates that French's weight loss is a result of secret obesity surgery, and states that anyone who says they are fat and happy is deluded. I come across this expression all the time: 'fat and happy.' It's such a reductive means of explaining fat embodiment that is not based on self-hatred or wanting to change. "Are you fat and happy?" is a question that demands a negative answer because a positive one sounds unbelievable and trite. I doubt anyone is ever happy all the time in this flat kind of way that expresses nothing of the complexities of living fat. Anyway, it's always about fat and happy and French is a big fat hypocrite because she could not be fat and happy in the way that everyone needed her to be, and therefore nobody can ever be fat and happy.

The reporting of French's weight loss adds to the unreality of fat embodiment where, as a number of scholars have pointed out, Hannele Harjunen in particular, fat is a temporary blip in the present on the way towards a glorious thin future. The idea of someone being permanently fat is difficult for people to get their heads around, as is the idea of embodiment shifting from time to time for whatever reason. In a context where fat activism or fat politics are so far off most people's radar that they are positively laughable, I find this sense of unreality and its denial of fatness perturbing. I think it's difficult for fat people to feel secure in developing more positive identities as we are, especially for those of us who are isolated from one another. There's this deep sense that what fat activists are doing is ridiculous and will never work. People desperately want an alternative to fat hatred but they actively want fat activism or self-acceptance to fail too so that their own projects of self hatred can be justified. The rug is pulled out from under fat activism again and again.

I know people really love her but French's weight loss underscores for me the limitations in looking to celebrities for reassurance as role models. Fat celebrities who get thin is an old story. French's public persona is clearly far removed from what she does in private, her image is about the smoke and mirrors of publicity, it is not trustworthy. This too is unstable ground on which to pitch some kind of self-acceptance or fat politics. It's better to build on firmer terrain, wherever that may be.

09 November 2011

Revisiting Fat News

I've been looking at copies of Fat News. This is a newsletter that was produced by the second Fat Women's Group in London in the early 1990s. Both the newsletter and the second incarnation of the group were my idea, I think. The group caused me a lot of pain, I had no idea what I was doing and there were also tensions towards the end of my involvement that I still don’t understand. I ended up leaving, the group changed a bit and then, as far as I know, it stopped. Whilst it helps to think of burn-out and problems with group dynamics as common pitfalls of activism, these difficult memories have made it hard to reflect.

Fat News is the only tangible artefact I have of this period. 15 copies were published March 1993 – September 1996, though I don’t think I was involved with the last few. I remember seeing copies of Shocking Pink, which was this fantastic girl's zine produced in South London in the late 1980s, and loving how it was put together irreverently. I had no idea how I could have got involved in Shocking Pink, I think I probably thought that I wouldn’t be welcome there, I was so alienated from people at that time.

I stole some of Shocking Pink's production techniques for Fat News, which was that we would invite people to write content for it, and write some ourselves, and then everyone in the group would be responsible for cutting and pasting a page and decorating it with doodles and comments. Then someone would take it to the printer (we used the National Abortion Campaign's copier) and we'd get together to collate it and post it out to subscribers. Someone else in the group would be responsible for maintaining the subscriber's list and printing out address labels. I don’t think anyone else in the group had any involvement with small press, independent or zine publishing, and I remember it always took a lot of work encouraging people to draw or write on the pages they were pasting up.

I feel pretty sad when I look at Fat News but I'm sure other people don't feel the same way. We had some great feedback for it in the group, people loved it, and I remember how important it was to make something in which people who lived far away could participate. I remember recording audio versions of it too, it was exciting to be able to make accessible media.

The Women's Library in London have a partial set of Fat News, if you’re interested in British fat activism from twenty years ago – and why wouldn't you be?! Otherwise you can come over and have a look at my precious copies.

07 November 2011

Conference report: Eccentric bodies: beauty, normativity and representation 2011

I've just come back from a trip to Italy courtesy of Soggettiva, a queer festival held in Bologna. Part of the festival was a seminar called Corpi eccentrici: bellezza, normatività e rappresentazione (Eccentric bodies: beauty, normativity and representation), where I gave a presentation.

The seminar was held in the great hall of Santa Cristina, a place which was once a convent and now houses the city's Women's Library, amongst other things. There's a separate queer library at Il Cassero, where the organisation that convenes Soggettiva and its sister festival Gender Bender, are based. Both spaces are incredibly beautiful old buildings (that's Santa Cristina in the picture, swoon eh?). I was really happy to see my book, Fat and Proud, displayed at the entrance to Santa Cristina, and glad that the seminar was fully documented and will be archived.

I spoke about queer and trans feminist fat activism, gave a few examples of things people have done, and showed some pictures. I thought it might be a bit of a surprise to see this stuff if people had never considered fat as a political identity, or thought about fat people as people with agency, community or culture. My new friend Dani, who performed a synchronous translation of my presentation into Italian, told me that fat activism is difficult to translate. There are two words that people use to talk about fat: cicci, which is the type of term of endearment that you might use if you were calling someone chubby; and grasso, which implies a more disgusting fatness. I suggested she use grasso as a reclamation of language and a defiant celebration of the presumed monstrousness of fatness, and she ended up translating fat activism as attivisimo pro grasso. It felt pretty amazing to be creating language and concepts like this, to be doing so collaboratively and, I hope, sensitively.

Dani said that feminism is a bit of a sneaky presence in Italian academia, and that there isn't a tradition of institutional support for Women's Studies, for example, even at Bologna, which is the oldest university in the world. I got the feeling that this gathering was an unusual event. My co-speakers Giorgia Aiello, Elisa Arfini, Alessia Muroni and Roberta Sassatelli were more clued-in than me about the context of the seminar, which was to consider representation of queer bodies. Their presentations looked at corporate branding, photo agencies, soap operas, lesbian art, and advertising.

My presentation was different to the others, and I didn’t spell out the crucial connection to the seminar, which is that queer and trans fat feminist activists often make their own representations. I wanted to show the everyday embeddedness of activism, how accessible it can be, how almost everyone has some kind of resource they can draw on, and how fat activism disrupts the idea that activism is always about standing in the street with a placard, or speaking rationally to power. Whilst I appreciated my co-presenters' papers, and whilst some speakers also referred to the act of making one's own imagery, what the seminar raised for me was a deep tension between a body of feminist work that is concerned with interpreting popular images and finding it lacking, and my hunger for action beyond critique. Perhaps this is a feature of academic work that is cut off from the lifeblood of activism, I don't think it is an Italian feminist approach, I see it elsewhere too, but this event in Bologna reminded me of it. Put bluntly: it's important to understand why something is shit, but the work cannot stop there, there must be creative thinking and action and change; without these qualities the work descends into pointless hand-wringing and simply reproduces the helplessness of its subjects.

Despite these reservations I feel grateful to have taken part in this work, it was exciting to be talking about queer and trans fat feminist activism in a place where English is not the first language, where people might take on these ideas and mutate them in their own way, and to encounter the work that other people are doing.

27 October 2011

Anti-obesity campaigns: appropriating fat activism

I've been rolling my eyes at Bias Busters, which Stacy Bias brought to my attention this week. Bias Busters is a new initiative by the Obesity Action Coalition, an anti-fat lobbying organisation based in the US. The nonsense rationale for Bias Busters is that stigma and discrimination against "the obese" aren't nice, so don't do it, but that doesn't mean that being fat is ok, far from it!

Those behind Bias Busters unhelpfully introduce the project with the cringe-inducing claim that "Weight bias is the last acceptable form of discrimination in today’s society." This is a statement that has been well picked-apart by fat activists for its lack of understanding of the ongoing dynamics of marginalisation, but its use exposes Bias Busters' alienation from any radical critique of fat oppression, or any other kind of oppression, come to think of it.

Bias Busters goes on to rail against fat suits, and takes credit for actions against PETA's fatphobia. This would be all well and good if the Obesity Action Coalition had some connection to the 40 year+ social movement called fat activism, but a peep at their Helpful Links page reveals that this set-up is a front for the weight loss industry.

Glancing down the Board of Directors' list, who are named without any references to their entirely likely links to weight loss businesses, I see one Rebecca Puhl. Puhl is Director of Research and Weight Stigma Initiatives at the Rudd Centre for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. Earlier this year Puhl gave an interview to a Canadian newspaper in which she appeared to take credit for my headless fatty concept, although she renamed them 'the headless stomach' – no need to use that horrible F-word, 'stomach' is much nicer and more polite, and of course it's always always about the belly!

I think there are several problems here.

1. Discrimination, stigma and bias cannot be the only basis upon which critical perspectives on fat are based. Whilst these topics are fundamental in many ways, focusing on them to the exclusion of other aspects of fat embodiment, fat culture for example, or fat people's agency and resistance, does not do enough to trouble the idea that being fat is always awful and that the remedy should be weight loss.

2. In the early 1970s The Fat Underground identified fat oppression as a product of the medical-industrial-complex, and allied fat oppression with other systems of oppression in the world, they showed that ending oppression entails ending systems of oppression. Bias Busters makes it look as though fat hatred has nothing at all to do with the weight loss industries that pay for the Obesity Action Coalition, and many similar obesity lobbying groups. These people and organisations are the problem they are claiming to eradicate.

3. Bias Busters, 'the headless stomach', and The Rudd Centre put me in mind of the old Big Fat Blog post Weight Watchers Co-Opts Our Language. I'm also thinking about a number of (normatively-embodied, yeah, this is a generalisation, but still, interesting) scholars I'm coming across who won't use Fat Studies to describe their work, they believe the F-word is alienating, yet they benefit greatly from Fat Studies networks. Appropriation is starting to be a big problem. Some people might be flattered by this, at long last They are taking notice of Us. But this is not so because They are the equivalent of the Borg; We threaten them with annihilation, so They want to disarm us before We blow them up, to use a handful of militaristic metaphors, this is the War on Obesity after all. People and organisations who appropriate and diminish radical fat ideas are the ones who have a lot to lose if those ideas are allowed to bloom. The arrogant appropriation of ideas exposes their flimsy grip on the power they will do anything to retain. This propagandist appropriation of fat activist and fat studies concepts by people who have no intention of dismantling fat oppression, and who profit from it, makes me wonder if the war on obesity is becoming a cold war.

17 October 2011

Moving from duty to pleasure in fat activism

I'm slow to respond to the Department of Heath's latest report on obesity, Healthy Lives, Healthy People: A call to action on obesity in England. It's difficult to distinguish this report from any of the other obesity policy documents produced by the British government since it got caught in the grip of fat panic, since its prime objective continues to be the elimination of stupid, burdensome, poor fat people.

Newspaper reports have focussed on the report's pathetic proposal that people eat fewer calories, but what interests me more is how this work is to be funded. The ConDem government wants to spend as little as possible on obesity, which sounds good initially because it means that the tax I pay can go towards more pressing things, like rescuing banks and funding weapons and wars. If they had any sense they would ditch projects like Change4Life, the anti-obesity initiative that will not die, but they realise that the country needs scapegoats and it makes them look good if they can be seen to be doing something about The Problem of Us. What worries me about the resurrection of Change4Life is that placing it in corporate hands makes it much less accountable and instead of seeing less of this type of nonsense, its profitability will likely make it more ubiquitous. Curse them!

Obesity policy is not the thing that inspires me to do fat activism. I understand that engaging with it is important, it's the type of thing that makes some people come alive and motivates them to do extraordinary things (Lynn McAfee and Sondra Solovay are two fat activists whose work springs to mind) but I do it reluctantly, it is a chore.

Over the past couple of years, as I've been researching fat activism in more depth, I've become more able to articulate what it is in particular that does excite me. In general terms it's work that is anti-assimilationist, queer, experimental, creative, imaginative, 'irrational.' I live for fat activism that embraces risk, wildness, playfulness, prankishness, and which does not require people to be on their best behaviour, though egalitarian doing-no-harm ethics count. The fat activism that touches me is the work that emphasises hope, agency, sparkiness. Banner-waving, petition-signing, rational debate and collective action are valuable kinds of activism, but I also like things that push the limits of what activism can be.

Here's an example. I went to the fantastic Sex Worker Open University (SWOU) this week. This is a grassroots project by and for sex workers and allies that engages with the complexities of sex work and its many related issues. The SWOU offered workshops, presentations, discussions and hang-outs. On Saturday night the organisers produced an absolutely fantastic programme of films and performance. It's hard to put into words what made it so good, I'm still working it out but it had a lot to do with people presenting ideas and experiences that are generally unallowed or unvoiced; glimpses of people, their unashamed embodiment and sexuality; a lot of strength and defiance presented with amazing smartness and good humour, friendliness, warmth. Such a tonic. The night ended with a performance that involved a sequence of spectacular arse-shaking and lots of wobbling flesh. My eyes are still on stalks. The performer had such confidence and moves, the whole thing was beautiful, nuanced, intelligent and deeply bawdy. It made my heart pound, I couldn't believe what I was seeing, it was a one of those visual treats that makes you feel so glad to be alive. I went to bed thinking about bodies, flesh, pleasure, sexuality, freedom, abstractions that somehow fill me with hope, which is an important function of activism. I found out later that the performer had fat politics of her own, and it showed in what she did. When I think about the fat activism that moves me, this is along the lines of what I'm thinking about. Healthy Lives, Healthy People can suck it.

Anti-obesity campaigns: fatphobia in the radical left

My Facebook news feed is the place where I generally encounter fatphobic memes. A couple have cropped up recently that make me want to say more about how the Left uses fatphobia in its visual rhetoric, which is an extension of how the Left has continued to fail fat by stereotyping fat and class.

I'm posting the images here in order to take them apart and expose the hatred within the supposedly progressive message. People may find them upsetting, they are upsetting, I'm sorry.

A couple of years ago I wrote to the London Cycling Campaign (LCC) to tell them to stop using anti-obesity rhetoric as a rationale for their work. I live in London, like to cycle, and want to ride my bike safely. Being fat on a bike can make you a target for street hate. I wanted support for my cycling, but the LCC was not up to it and could only understand me as an offensive and abstract stereotype. I wrote How to Ride a Bike: A Guide for Fat Cyclists for their magazine, but it made no difference, anti-obesity continues to be a fundament of their mission statement.

So this image has been popping up on my news feed:

Not everyone is going to be able to ride a bike, there's a certain assumed embodied privilege about the idea that everyone should and can ride a bike. People's bodies are different. Frail people are not going to ride a bike, many disabled people are not going to ride a bike. Adaptations for disabled people who do want to ride are rare and expensive. Some people just don't like cycling. Cycling to town when you live in a city like London is not necessarily feasible. It's fine if you're rich enough to live in the middle of things, but riding to central London for me would mean a thirteen-mile round trip that takes in a dual carriageway and a handful of treacherous junctions, and I'm only in Zone Three. The cycle lanes that exist are not safe. I know two people who been run over whilst riding, and London's streets have far too many ghost bike memorials, I'm not interested in risking my own life. These differences cannot be accommodated in this image. In addition, the logic of the picture represents fat as a substance whose only use is to be burned, there is no humanity in fat.

This is a long way of saying that bike culture located within social and environmental discourse, and typically seen as representing a progressive, Left-ist politics, has a big problem with fat people. Those cyclists really hate us, even when we too are on two wheels.

Here's the second picture, eurgh, where to start?

Maybe with the racism? The people in these images are stripped of agency and humanity, they are abstract symbols that enable viewers to feel as though they can claim moral high ground through their pity and disgust for the people in the picture. Both images invite the enlightened progressive viewer to rescue the subhumans depicted, they need you!

The images have no context, they are offered as plain fact, it is beyond obvious that the starving African (a racist cliché in itself) and the greedy and out-of-control Asian* kids are both victims of a capitalism that favours some and not others, that a fair post-capitalist world would distribute resources evenly, where presumably everyone would have bodies that are neat, normatively-sized, the same. The meme presents itself as inarguable. Fat is greed, an obesity timebomb, a product of Western corruption, McDonalds, energy balance gone wrong, a racist terror of a voracious fat future dominating the world (ie the West, never mind that the West has its own history of colonial exploitation). Fat and thin are opposites. Forget that fat people might also be anti-capitalist. The slogan pulls it all together. You don't need to know anything else. Facebook tells me that this image has been liked by 10,000 people, shared by 7,000, and has enjoyed 4,000 comments (the 100 or so I looked at were uniformly praiseworthy). People on the internet really like cheap stereotypes, they help you feel good, as though you are doing something helpful for the betterment of humanity.

Here's what's not in the picture: Information about setserock and their motivation to create the meme, if indeed they created it, they may just have slapped their name on the corner at a later stage. Information about the people in the pictures, their accounts of being photographed, their thoughts about how their images have been used. Accounts by the photographers about how, when and why they took the photographs, how they were distributed, who got paid. A disclaimer about stereotyping. A comment on the implications of the presumed ethnicity of the people depicted? Thoughts about why the head of the person has been cropped out of the image (look familiar?). Engagement with the idea that fat is not pathology. And so on...

The picture comes undone when you stop seeing it as self-evident. Whilst setserock is enjoying hit after hit on their website as a result of this meme, I doubt the people in the images are enjoying any kind of material reward. How does that affect the statement? Who is benefiting from this image? Where is the power? How evenly is it spread? How exploitative is the image? How is this image a product of capitalism? How is setserock, and others who share it, implicated? Capitalism isn't working? No, it isn't, especially not here.

* Edited to add: I have read these kids as Asian though I am probably wrong. I don't know what their ethnicity is. I first came upon this image in a fat panic news story about kids in Asia, hence my reading, but it's likely that the people in the picture have nothing to do with Asia and were just picked from a photo agency's database to illustrate the story. 

11 October 2011

Disrupting fat narratives through Synchronised Swimming

A temporary change of pace...

I was into synchronised swimming when I was 11 or 12 or so. I really loved to swim anyway and used to spend hours at Hereford Baths with anyone who would go with me, and also by myself. I don't know how I met my friend Mary Anne but she was already part of the synchro group there and she encouraged me to come too.

The group was pretty small and we'd meet once a week or so in the diving pool at the Baths to practise figures and try and earn proficiency badges. The more skilled swimmers would practise their routines. Sometimes we'd all practise group routines, which we'd map out first on land in the Club Room, walking it through, using our arms to approximate leg movements. I remember a very dynamic sequence choreographed to the theme song from Hawaii-5-0, its exoticism was preposterous in the prosaic nature of our surroundings. We were encouraged to take part in competitions, I remember travelling to ancient swimming halls in cities near by, never really doing very well.

One year, possibly 1980 or 1981, the swimming pool decided to stage a water pantomime, Cinderella in fact. For those who don't know, a pantomime is a theatrical show produced in the Xmas holidays, typically featuring a set of conventions that can be traced back to Restoration theatre and Commedia dell'Arte. The Hereford Baths' water pantomime was just someone's weird idea. There was no scenery, the costumes were minimal, as was the plot, but there was a Dame, a Principle Boy and Girl, a bit of singing, some slapstick, and lots of swimming routines featuring the synchro club. I was in the chorus.

I'm right in the middle of the second row from the front

I'm remembering all this today because I've been thinking about how my identity as a fat person has developed over the years. By the time I was 11 or 12 years old my weight was already problematised in my family; I had been dieted sporadically from around seven or eight, called names, and had attention drawn to the size of my tummy. By the time I went through puberty my identity as a fat girl had solidified. My body was surveilled for fat during Physical Education sessions at school, I was being marked out as different by my schoolmates too, who also called me fat names. I was different, by this time I'd had many experiences that would make me different to my peers, but these invisible differences were less meaningful to others, instead my difference was coded through my chubby young body.

I could develop any number of these threads at this point, but I'll leave my puberty, family, school and classmates behind and come back to the swimming which is interesting to me not just because of its extreme kitsch, but also because it both supported and disrupted a gendered fat spoiled identity.

All the synchronised swimmers were girls, the oldest and best swimmers were about 16 years old. They were really powerful swimmers, very strong and athletic, and yet all I can remember about them are narratives about their perceived femininity. There was a lot of talk about make-up, tits, swimsuits, and their bodies were always there being watched and admired. They were the ones the younger swimmers aspired to, including me. I'm really struck by the whiteness of the people in the photograph above, and I'm reminded of how people in that world were generally lower class, and how synchro may have been an attempt to generate respectable feminine identities. Despite this, the leads in the water pantomime were played by two friends who interpreted Cinderella and the Prince through romanticised butch-femme synchro duets (jeez, no wonder I turned queer). I suppose what I'm getting at is that I can't dismiss this early experience of girl sport as entirely about feminine governmentality.

Synchro reinforced the problematic nature of my body. At the synchro club as well as elsewhere it was noted that I was too big, I didn't win medals, I was mediocre, I was not elegant. I compared myself to other swimmers and found myself lacking and I was frustrated by the many moves that I did not have the strength or flexibility to perform. At the same time I felt very free in the water. I loved swimming in the deep, chilly diving pool, all that deep blue liquid space around me, performing moves called Dolphin, Marlin, Swordfish, Tub, sculling this way and that. I still feel the lack and frustration of my body, but many of the physical skills I learned in the club have stayed with me, and to this day some of my greatest embodied pleasures involve swimming and water.

Perhaps most of all, these memories of doing synchro and becoming fat help me disrupt the narrative I've internalised of the fat and lazy kid. I was a very active kid, and I was still fat. The things They say I'm supposed to believe about myself just aren't true. This makes me want to disrupt and complicate those restrictive narratives even more, including the counter-narratives of perfect healthist fat poster children.

One last thing, it just occurred to me that these early experiences made it possible for things that came later, they helped me build a sense of my body's capabilities that developed into self-expression, survival, activism, sexuality, and which inform my politics and worldview somewhat profoundly. I can see a link between synchro and punk, synchro and feminism! It's so funny that the latter can feed off the former. It helps me understand how important those early embodied experiences are in terms of building confidence and agency. I'm pretty certain that Hereford's synchro team was not explicitly an incubator for the future fat activists of the UK, which is why I also doubt that those things can be taught. There's a danger of hammering it out of young people, it can't be taught by rote, that spark can't be institutionalised, they have to find embodied freedom and agency in their own way, and even then it won't be straightforward.

26 September 2011

Research: dream Fat Studies projects

When I was a teenager I had a pen pal called Phil who sent me cassettes of things he liked and which I ended up liking too. One of these things was a home-taped copy of Jello Biafra's prankish spoken word album No More Cocoons. I haven't heard it in years but could probably still recite most of it by heart. In one of the sequences Biafra talks about collecting names for bands so, say you've got a great band but you can't think of a name, you can get one from Jello because he's got more than he can use. Perhaps there are bands out there somewhere that he named: Republican Buttocks, The Imperial Turdsicles, was there Facelift In A Jar too? Maybe I just imagined it.

In a similar vein, I seem to harbour more ideas for fat studies research than I could ever handle myself. I thought I'd offer a list of fantasy research projects that I'd love to see come to fruition. I'm thinking of stuff like...
  • A case study of Aardman Animations' involvement with Change4Life.
  • A critical review of weight loss corporations' appropriation of fat politics and Health At Every Size concepts and praxis.
  • A critical review of body image research methodology.
  • A qualitative study of normatively-sized researchers allied to Fat Studies who avoid using the word 'fat' in their work.
  • A quantitative study about why corporations fund weight loss industry research, with beautiful pie charts and scatterplots and other exciting infographics.
  • Discourse analysis that reveals what Reubens really thought of fat women.
  • An analysis of alarmist obesity news story infographics.
  • An ethnography of normatively-sized ethnographers who do ethnographies of fat people who go to slimming clubs.
  • An oral history of people who wear fat suits.
  • A case study of LighterLife's ethics.
  • An ethnography of normatively-sized ethnographers who do ethnographies of fat people who go to NAAFA conventions.
  • A quantitative study of all the places that have been described as 'The Fattest Country,' 'The Fattest City,' or 'The Fattest Place' on Earth.
  • A critical gender and race analysis of Two Tons of Fun and The Fat Boys.
  • Any kind of research whatsoever by non-Western fat studies scholars about anywhere that isn't the US, Canada, the UK, or Australia.
  • Any kind of research whatsoever by fat disabled people about fat and disability.
  • Discourse analysis of anonymous fat blob sculptures and other forms of obesity art.
  • Longitudinal studies on the effects of dieting on various groups of people across a number of variables and not just BMI, that take their social contexts into account, and which are not funded or researched by anyone with any connection whatsoever to commercial weight loss organisations.
  • A qualitative study of fat people and their tattoos.
  • Psychological profiles of Tam Fry, Susie Orbach, David Haslam, Jamie Oliver.
  • Qualitative research about fat activist community capitalism.
  • Research essays about the use of fatphobia in political cartoons, or an illustrated essay about heroic fat cartoon characters from the golden age of comics.
Wanna take one on? Be my guest and send me the results to cite. Got fantasy research projects of your own? Stick 'em in the comments please.

Thanks to Simon Murphy and Kay Hyatt for helping with this list.

19 September 2011

Is FatBooth always fatphobic?

Double chin created without the jiggery-pokery of FatBooth!
100% non-digital! Hilarious! Exciting!
FatBooth is an iPhone app that adds a digital double chin to a picture of your face and makes thin people look sort of fat.

I've avoided this phenomenon largely because I don't own an iPhone, and I already look fat because I am fat. Some of my thin online friends have been playing with it recently and posting their pictures on Facebook, so now it's suddenly become a lot more present to me.

I was offended when I first saw the pictures and the comments after them, all consisting of onomatopaeic laughing and what looked like people choking with mirth. The digital double chins remind me of fat suits, more specifically Marisa Meltzer's article comparing fat suits to blackface. It's also a weird reversal of the headless fatty, where fat people are just as absent from the discourse surrounding the image as with pictures where our heads are cropped away. I felt that FatBooth is an appropriation of ersatz fatness, of people like me, and that a digital double chin tells you nothing at all about what it's like to be fat, it just turns it into a joke.

I went on to wonder if my authenticity as a 'real' fat person mattered. I was once told in the past that I was not fat enough to have a stake in fat politics (by an author who lost weight, wrote about it and still maintains their own stake in the matter, ahem). Anyone can talk about fat, I don't have the last word on it, it's important that people of all sizes engage. What makes this tricky is that fat people are very often made silent by obesity discourse and that fat hatred has widespread negative material effects on the quality of people's lives. A group of thin friends making a joke of a pretend double chin will never replace my lived embodiment, you could argue that it's not supposed to, a joke is just a joke, but I think a joke says more than that.

Seeing people's FatBooth pictures was like witnessing thin people's prurient obsession with fat embodiment. I thought: "This is how they see us when they can't conceive that we would see them doing this, or feel implicated in their actions, they are so profoundly immune to our daily grind." Imagining flesh on your bones is a real thrill when you don't have much of your own. It's a dangerous thing to imagine.

Following this, I tried to think of FatBooth as a tool that people use in different ways. I never thought of my Facebook friends who used FatBooth as fatphobic, so I tried to think about how non-fatphobes might use it, or if it was possible to use FatBooth without being fatphobic. I wondered if FatBooth could be something that enables people to think about fat in radical or progressive ways. Could it inspire empathy? Could it enable thin people to imagine themselves fat with no moral connotations? Could it enlighten?

If people using FatBooth lived in social contexts where there was no war on obesity, or endemic hatred of fat, then these things might be possible. But FatBooth appears to me as entirely a product of fatphobia, the way it frames the act of imagining oneself fat is intimately tied to dominant obesity discourse. FatBooth presents fat as funny, pitiful, fearful and Other; fat is something pathologically added-on to authentic slenderness; fat people are not recognisable as humans with agency, thoughts and feelings of their own, let alone politics, community, creativity or rage. If there are radical applications for FatBooth, I want to hear about them – but I won't be holding my breath.

Meltzer, Marisa (2006) 'Are Fat Suits the New Blackface? Hollywood’s Big New Minstrel Show', in: Jervis, L. & Zeisler, A. (eds.) Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 267-269.

PS. This post got some diet company spam which made me laugh because it missed the point of the post heroically. Here's the text: "Nowadays people who have normal weight seem unnatural and not normal! Obesity is considered almost as a normal condition! And this thing with the iphone is just not cool!" Keep going spam-drone...

05 September 2011

The Bad Art Collective and irrational fat activism

I just spent the weekend making Bad Art at the Researching Feminist Futures conference in Edinburgh. For two days I sat at a table and made stuff with three other members of The Bad Art Collective, a group we formed earlier this year, and various delegates who dropped by during the event to make some Bad Art with us. We had paper, pens, glitter, felt-tips, macaroni, lentils, pastels, scraperboards, glue and other media too, plus a lot of Blu-Tak to stick everything we made to the wall.

People have different ideas about what constitutes Bad Art. At the conference people variously related to our Bad Art table as a project of irony, or a relaxing retreat from workshops or presentations where the 'real' work takes place. That's not how I see it at all. Drawing, making things, talking, cackling, working collectively, that's the space where things happen. I loved the moments at the weekend when people started to get over their insistence that they can't draw or 'aren't artistic' and contributed to the larger project. Better still was when what they produced made them laugh and want to do more. A felt-tip becomes a weapon.

The Bad Art Collective
Researching Feminist Futures, Edinburgh, 2-3 September 2011
Photograph by Evangeline Tsao
Our project was called Bombarded By Images and the idea was to critique the often-heard truism that women develop terrible body image because they are constantly bombarded by images in the media. We wanted to show that we are more than capable of making an abundance of our own images, and to think about and do activism that is creative, productive, full of agency and bad attitude.

Because of our theme, and because the four of us are grounded in fat activism and Fat Studies to a greater or lesser extent, a lot of what we produced was about fat, resistance, anger, fat culture, bad feminist art about bodies, being anti-social, inexpertise, enjoying stupidity. Drawing stupid/not so stupid pictures was a true delight, it opened up a space that was beyond rational-critical dialogue, where we didn't have to play by the rules of politeness or propriety.

It's a couple of days later now and I've been thinking about that feeling. I love fat activism that is weird, grotesque, anti-social, and I feel sad that this kind of activism is sidelined or barely acknowledged or known compared to the 'real work' of changing laws, addressing inequality, righting wrongs. Those kinds of activisms are fine, I'm glad people do them, but they don't make my heart sing, and don't speak to my politics and cultural touchstones, which are of the punk, queer, anarchist variety. I think activists should consider ethics and do what they can not to support oppressive hegemonies, and I don't think you have to be po-faced about it; I like activism that makes me laugh a lot, that is prankish and evil.

Just now my friend sent me a link to Slavoj Žižek's rambling account of the London riots in August, stupidly titled Shoplifters of the World Unite. He's as windy as you'd expect an overly-lauded ageing white man academic to be, but I like his remarks about the irrationality of the riots as a form of protest. It made me think that, amongst its many qualities, Bad Art can also be thought of as a form of 'irrational' activism, fat or otherwise. The pictures and objects we made aren't waiting for anyone's approval, or official sanction by committee. Sometimes they make no sense to anyone else, or they grate, they don't behave or speak nicely, or engage politely with the other side. But they make sense to us and they make us happy, they're full of life and humour and intelligence, not to mention imaginative possibility and power. They resist and create simultaneously.

I feel excited by these ideas, and I expect I will come back to them. Full documentation of Bombarded By Images is coming as soon as I can make time to stick it on the Bad Art Collective blog – you'll just have to wait. Meanwhile, here's one of the things I made at the weekend, inspired by The Warriors, The Chubsters, The Ramones, and the Manson Family diorama that used to reside in the Chamber of Horrors at Madame Tussauds! Coloured pencils forever.

12 August 2011

Fatphobia in the visual language of the Left

I've written before about how sections of the Left have failed fat activism in the UK, and about how fat and class are depicted within this political visual rhetoric. It's truly depressing how opportunities to develop broad analyses of embodied oppression, as well as activist strategies and productive coalitions, are thwarted because fat is continually seen as laughable, trivial, and nothing to do with the real struggle.

Sometimes it is possible to take part in productive, if difficult, dialogue. Today, for example, I had an exchange with the usually fantastic Anarchist Media Project (AMP) over an image on their blog of a fat capitalist guzzling an innocent thin person in Children of Britain, Know Your Place: BORN POOR, DIE POOR. I left a comment and asked the project to stop using images of fatness to represent greed, capitalists and corruption and pointed out that fat people tended to be of low socioeconomic status. I said that stereotypes were hurtful and alienating, and I suggested some things that they could read to educate themselves about fat politics.

The good news is that the AMP said they would think about this stuff. They said that the image by saying it was from a famous vintage cartoon by a socialist artist called Robert Minor. I replied that I understood that there are historical precedents in the visual language of anarchism, and in the Left in general, of using fatness as a symbol of ruling class greed and corruption. However, the discourse around fatness has changed and is now part of a moral panic that also includes elements of classism, racism, fear and hatred of disability and difference. I said that it is not enough to use these vintage images without interrogating them or acknowledging that contexts have changed.

The annoying part of the exchange, reiterated by a later comment, was that "In fact we saw the suit, and nothing but the suit." There's something really weasely about this, it has a whiff of denial about it. They're offering a kind of fat-blindness that could be interpreted as "we don't care if someone's fat or thin, we don't even notice it," but is more like: "we don't see people like you, you don't exist in any meaningful way to us." Another commenter made a mean little joke at my expense, which hardly helped.

On other occasions I just want to throw my hands up in the air. This brings me to Martin Rowson, the man who has done more than any other political cartoonist, even Steve Bell, to associate fatness with everything that is disgusting. Here are a few charmers from his oeuvre, returned just by Googling his name. Will somebody please have a word with him?

My tolerance for the fatphobia in these kinds of images has evaporated because I read them as an ongoing betrayal by people who might otherwise be comrades. I am not proposing that images be censored, and I don't want a visual language of fatness that is reduced to a happy-clappy set of 'positive images'. I want to be able to look at whatever I want as much as anybody else does, and I want to be challenged by what I see. With Rowson it's not even about being squeamish over grotesque pictures. What I would like is for progressive, freedom-loving people on the radical Left to think more about the complexities of representing fat and to stop selling out on people's bodies. Liberation cannot be built on stereotypes.

09 August 2011

Riots in the UK and convenient scapegoats

This morning my mind has drifted towards the popular third wave feminist slogan 'Riots Not Diets'. Whenever I think of this slogan I imagine a cheerful group of determined people going something like "Rah! Rah!" in the street, a kind of carnival atmosphere of resistance. It's always peaceful when I imagine it, destruction is cartoonish and unreal, like "Poof! There goes Weight Watchers", or the bomb and the "ka-boom!" at the top of this page. I think the use of riot metaphors and the archetypal anarchist bomb image are valid, though they bear little relation to riots and bombs in real life.

Over the past couple of days there have been riots in parts of London, where I live, and in other cities in the UK. I'm going to write about this here, even though it's not typical fat blog fare, because it's a big thing that's affecting me and the people I know right now. As with all these blog posts, this is about my opinion rather than an assertion of fact.

I think these riots came about initially because the police shot a man and spread lies about him to cover themselves, and because this was not an isolated incident. They refused to give the man's family an explanation at a peaceful protest, pushed people to breaking point by making them wait for hours, and responded heavily at the first provocation, which escalated things.

This event was set against a backdrop of everyday police racism and arrogance, a long history of police abuse, systemic racism, and a lack of justice. It has also happened within a political context where working class people of colour are suffering the removal of social safety nets and the possibility of escape through education by a probably corrupt government, where young working class black men are widely demonised, and where the rich are doing very nicely. I should add that the riots are not just about race, however, it would be wrong to paint it as white versus black.

After the initial explosion of rage in Tottenham, violence spread to other parts of the city: generally to areas where the police had been responsible for previous injustice, places where there have been recent influxes of affluent white people and where gentrification is underway, places where there is a high street and shops where working class people go. The wealthy areas of the city, and middle class residential areas, have been untouched so far. As I see it, the rioters are small-ish groups of young men.

At this stage there is little that is romantic about the riots. Bystanders have been mugged, people have been burned out of their homes, many people feel frightened, vulnerable people are made more so. No one is burning down Harrods or Buckingham Palace, or other symbols of capitalism and hegemony, the violence is opportunistic and, to me, astonishing in its lack of ambition. The media is typically contradictory though narratives of 'mindless thugs' are emerging, obscuring the context for the riots, and further demonising the rioters. People within communities where there have been attacks are divided, some see them as inevitable and others are fed-up, sympathy is wearing thin, and I've heard a lot of dismay about how the riots don't address systemic inequality. There's a backlash in progress and it's depressing to see who is capitalising, like the far-right racist and Islamophobic British National Party. It's likely that the riots will result in greater surveillance and repression of people of colour, working class people, young black men.

Apart from statistical correlations between fat and race and class, the relationship between fat and marginalised experience, fat pops up in a minor, tangential and unexpected way in this story. I was reading about Cynthia Jarrett, who died when police raided her home in Tottenham in 1985 in search of her son Floyd. The police used unreasonable force against her but lied about this and circulated a story that she had a heart attack because she was fat. Fat – always the convenient scapegoat! None of the officers involved were ever brought to justice, although three men were wrongfully imprisoned for the murder of a policeman in the ensuing riot, events which form part of the context for the current Tottenham riots and their spread elsewhere.

Edited to add:

I was thinking again about Cynthia Jarrett and about how incredible it was that people in Tottenham demanded an explanation for her death in 1985. I wonder if that would happen now in the context of Obesity EpidemicTM and fat panic rhetoric. I'm inclined to think that the scapegoating of her fatness would be more acceptable these days and that people would buy into the idea of her sudden death caused by being fat.

22 July 2011

Llewellyn Louderback, More People Should Be FAT, November 1967

In 1967 Llewellyn Louderback published an article in The Saturday Evening Post called 'More people should be FAT'. This was one of the first, if not the first, pieces of critical writing about fat in the popular media in the US. The article was read by Bill Fabrey, who contacted Louderback, and it helped spawn NAAFA and everything that followed.

The article is pretty compelling several decades later, I think. He makes a good case for abandoning fatphobia within a context where such claims would have been seen as pure oddball territory. It's pre-feminist, Ann Louderback gets mentioned but does not have a voice of her own in the piece. Given the influence of feminism on fat activism, it's strange to see its earlier focus on men. I like Lew's lively prose and would direct readers not only to his book Fat Power but also to his genre novels, which he wrote for a living, especially the lurid Operation Moon Rocket.

Louderback is still around, though sadly Ann died some years ago. I had the pleasure of meeting him in 2009, and we correspond from time to time.

The article is predictably obscure but, by magic, I have a copy of it. Here it is, hot off the scanner.

Louderback, L. (1967). More People Should Be FAT. Saturday Evening Post. Philadelphia, PA: The Curtis Publishing Company. November 4, issue 22. 10-12.

Louderback, L. [pseudonym Nick Carter]. (1968) Operation Moon Rocket, London: Tandem.

Louderback, L. (1970) Fat Power, New York: Hawthorn Books.

14 July 2011

Reflecting on East Asian fat cuteness

When I was a kid I lived in Hong Kong for a couple of years as part of what I have come to understand as a weird experiment in class and colonialism. I'll explain that in more depth in Chapter Three of my memoirs, whenever I come to write them, but for now I just want to say that Hong Kong in 1976 was when I first encountered Hello Kitty and, to a seven year old girl, that stuff was like crack. I've never been able to shake the habit and as a middle-aged woman I still go gaga for hyper-cute Asian graphics. I've been lucky enough to spend time in Japan in recent years, where I have pawed and prodded my way through the country's top stationery departments.

In London, where I live, Artbox is where I go for a fix. I was there yesterday, hyperventilating greedily over pencil-cases and plastic key covers. I bought this notebook. The cover has the picture of a rabbit or a bear with fat cheeks. The text says: "Fatty Animals: I do not mind fatty!!" and on the back there are more pictures of the fat rabbit eating a biscuit, a fat bear sitting and puffing, and more text: "We like to eat and hate to move. We are fatty animals". The paper inside the notebook is unadorned.

I did a little bit of peeping and checking this afternoon. Mind Wave sells character-based stationery and cute stuff in Japan and look like the originators of Fatty Animals. If they have Fatty Animals on their site, my Japanese is not good enough to find it, but there are other websites featuring Fatty Animals products, like pencils and pencil-cases, and other notebook styles.

I was so interested to see this stuff because I think it demonstrates a popular resistance to dominant obesity discourse in Japan, a place where Western fat activists might assume there is none, and where people in the West commonly assume there are no fat people. The reiteration of fat as being caused by eating biscuits ane being lazy is problematic, but the line: "I do not mind fatty!!" is pretty amazing, I think, as both tolerance and celebration of fatness. It ties in neatly with Fat Studies work about obesity rhetoric and pets (Cooper, 1997, Kulick, 2009). I like the way that this form of engagement with obesity discourse has travelled and messes with neat assumptions about who is making fat culture, where and how. What can I say? It's excellent to see this playing out through the medium of anthropomorphic animals and cute stationery.

Cooper, C. (1997) 'Would You Put Your Best Friend on a Diet?'. Yes! London. 4:23 June/July. 14-15.

Kulick, D. (2009) 'Fat Pets', in: Tomrley, C. & Kaloski Naylor, A. (eds.) Fat Studies in the UK. York: Raw Nerve Books, 35-50.

11 July 2011

NOLOSE and trans inclusion

NOLOSE has just announced a change in policy that feels very daring, radical and exciting in the context of how identity politics have shaped fat activism.

The policy change statement sets out who will now be welcome at NOLOSE, sets down a challenge to identity as an organising principle, and questions the notion of safe space. This last aspect is reminiscent of Queerfestival Copenhagen's No safer spaces this year, which itself may also be part of a new trend in queer organising.

How the change in policy will work in concrete terms is anybody's guess. I think there are people who will struggle and I hope that they find a way of coming to terms with these new developments. I feel very positive about the policy change, I think it's realistically considered in terms of gender and 'safety', and I like how it advocates for more multiple and intersectional fat activisms. It demonstrates shifts in genealogies of fat activism that has roots in radical lesbian feminism and shows that the work based in these histories, locations, and politics are thriving and evolving, they are really alive. Congratulations to NOLOSE for making the leap.

Here's the text of the policy change in full:

NOLOSE Policy Change: Inclusion and Moving from Identity to Intention
July 8, 2011

Gender and Who 'We' Are

NOLOSE is a volunteer-run organisation dedicated to ending the oppression of fat people and creating vibrant fat queer culture. That's been our mission since the early '90s. Since that time, our community has been defined by who 'we' are (by nature, an evolving definition).

NOLOSE started out as the National Organisation for Lesbians of SizE, firmly fixed in identity politics, as a community of fat dykes and bisexual women. As the years passed and the organisation grew, we changed our policy to include not only a broader community of queer women—dykes, lesbians and bisexual women, including trans women—but also transgender people overall. This was partially in response to the evolving gender identities of people already in our community who were marginalised under the old policy.

Since then, NOLOSE and the annual NOLOSE Conference have been explicitly trans-inclusive, inviting all fat queer women (regardless of assigned sex or gender at birth), and all fat trans and gender-variant folks and our allies of all sexual orientations, with the specific exclusion of cisgender men (men who were assigned male at birth and identify that way now).

In the years since making this change, we've become aware that the altered policy continues to marginalise transgender people by requiring that they negate parts of their identities in order to be welcomed into the conference. For example, at this time trans men who attend can do so on the basis of having been formerly identified or socialised as female, but not on the basis of being men. At best, they can attend on the basis of being trans-men, which assumes a natural divide between cisgender men and trans men. This division can be dehumanising.

While trans men are welcomed regardless of the degree to which they have undergone hormone treatment or gender confirmation surgeries, we understand that the current gender policy may not feel as welcoming to trans women who have either not yet undergone hormone treatment and surgical transition, cannot afford to, or choose not to. While our previous policies seemed to make sense for the organisation at the time, NOLOSE does not wish to police the bodies, gender identities and gender expressions of our community. Instead, we'd like create a place that welcomes people on the basis of their desire to help build fat-positive and anti-oppressive community.

Challenging Identity as a Focus

Identity politics have their use and appeal, but they've also been constricting for us and many social justice movements. Because we defined our conference as being for and by a particular group, we opened thorny questions about legitimacy, and who had the right to be present and heard. Had we not begun to challenge that definition, we would likely have had to deal with border disputes between people arguing about 'how much' of some identity one must have in order to belong. This is a common challenge in groups and movements organising for change around identity.

There are also complexities regarding representation—if we're all in the same identity category, questions will invariably arise regarding what we say we want and how we should represent ourselves—often centred on the experience of assimilation/anti-assimilation. This can easily become a politics of shame, wherein those least able or least wanting to assimilate to some normative category get left behind. This perpetuates oppression and exclusion, drawing lines through the bodies of people.

We think there's a better way for us. Rather than trying to agree about 'who we are,' we want to come together around what is desired – what kind of ethics/politics we hold, and what kind of world we want to create. In the process, we remain cognisant of the fact that because we are differently impacted by relations of oppression and privilege, we also have different imperatives and investments in making change. Rather than try to bang out an ironclad code of conduct for what that means, we ask that everyone come willing to do the necessarily messy work of trying to figure out how to do anti-oppression politics and bring about social change and justice.

Because previous definitions of who belongs and who doesn't haven't worked for us, and because we believe that our NOLOSE community is shaped by the consciousness, ideological intent, and action of our participants rather than by identity, we've decided to change the criteria for conference attendance from an identity-based one to one that's ideologically-based. This means that anyone aiming to help create a queer, fat positive, anti-racist, anti-ableist, anti-ageist, anti-classist, anti-colonialist, feminist space will be welcome at NOLOSE. In effect, this means that all people interested in building fat-positive, queer, anti-oppressive community, including cisgender men, will be welcome at NOLOSE. Nobody will be excluded on the basis of identity. This change will be implemented by the time of our next conference.

It's been a long process that brought us to this decision. We began by having several in-person discussions more than a year ago, then created a forum (held at the 2010 conference) that helped us, as a community, identify people's hopes and fears regarding opening the conference up to cisgender men. That input was the basis of several discussions to follow, including a consultation with LGBT social worker Katy Bishop (a counsellor with expertise in helping communities navigate issues of inclusion and exclusion). It was in a meeting facilitated by Katy that we outlined this new policy.

Challenging the Concept of Safety

One concern in regards to this policy that we want to specifically address is the fear of losing of what's long been called 'safe space.' This conference has often been more comfortable for white people, those with temporary physical ability, and mid-size folks, while others of us have had to field assumptions and been forced to educate those with more privilege in order to keep from becoming invisible. This isn't our idea of safety.

While we respect people's yearning for spaces that feel secure, we want to recognise that there is a distinction between being 'safe' and being 'comfortable.' In our policy considerations, we define 'safe space' as space free from physical, verbal, and emotional violence; 'comfort,' by contrast, often has more to do with lack of challenge around our preconceived beliefs, and may also be informed by individual privilege. In that sense, discomfort can be what allows us to challenge oppression and build more inclusive community. We challenge the idea that truly comfortable space is possible or even desirable.

We want a conference that lives up to social justice principles in regards to anti-violence, body size and ability, race and ethnicity, sex, gender, sexual orientation, age, and class background. We want it to be a space that's less 'comfortable' and more radical and conscious about the kind of world we all want to live in and work toward. This means sharing space that may be challenging for all of us, and in which we're accountable to each other in order to meet those challenges with compassion and strength. This means taking risks, asking questions, being willing to learn and listen, and being responsible for our own learning as well.

Moving Forward Together

We want your input on how to actualise this policy. We, the board of NOLOSE, welcome suggestions and input from you all on how to make this policy and focus change work. Since all board members are working throughout the whole conference, our availability is limited, but you may be able to check in if you want to speak one-on-one with one of us. We will also be available from 12:00-1:00 on Saturday at lunch (at a specified table, TBD), and during the Saturday 3pm workshop slot in the 'Pig' room for community members to gather and discuss the policy change with members of the NOLOSE Board of Directors. We encourage you to add your ideas, concerns, and questions to our suggestion box located at the registration table. We'll also be asking for your input on our evaluation form at the end of the conference, so be on the lookout for that.

Here's what we would especially like to hear about:
  • Suggestions for things to include in the conference mission.
  • What do you, as a community member, need to help you through this policy and focus transition?
  • Are there structural ways that the conference can respond to your needs in regards to the new policy?
We welcome you to join in this space with us. It's an ongoing adventure that'll bring its own perils, wisdom, and love with it. Thanks for sharing it with us.

The NOLOSE Board of Directors

Tara Shuai, Co-President
Galadriel Mozee, Co-President
Kim Paulus, Vice President
Rachel, Treasurer
Geleni Fontaine, Secretary
Abby Weintraub
Jen Herrington

01 July 2011

Fat lesbian feminist activism flyer from the archive

I was given a copy of a flyer for an exhibition by Zoe Mosko that took place in 1982. I love the text on the flyer, which shows how rich the fat dyke scene was in the Bay Area in the 1980s, and the centrality of cultural production to fat activism. But the best thing is obviously the image, what a winner! Don't those women look fantastic? The outfits and the eye contact! Wowie! I'm going to cover a hat with some badges now.

Fat lib consciousness raising in the archive

Dianne Rubinstein wrote a Fat Consciousness Raising Outline in 1981 and, I believe, circulated it via NAAFA. In the guide, Rubinstein offers a rationale for consciousness raising, which was one of the key organising and politicising methods of Western feminism from the 1960s to the early 1980s, broadly speaking. She offers a format for going about fat consciousness raising, which includes lists of questions and instructions on how to listen and respond. I've never been a part of a consciousness raising group, I'm a bit too young for that, so it is fascinating to see its process spelled out in such detail.

I was interested in the last set of questions Rubinstein asks, titled The Liberated Fat Person. Firstly, the language jumped out at me, especially the use of the definite article, and the past tense for 'Liberated' which imply that liberation is a fixed state that can be attained, maybe an ideal state. This contrasts current alternative thinking about fat activism or fat acceptance which is that they are ongoing, open.

Secondly, the list of questions offers an idea of what fat liberation looked like at that point in time, within a US context of feminism and rights-based organising. Some of these ideas endure, suggesting the slow moving ideology of fat politics. Again, the concepts are fairly fixed, there's not much room for ambiguity, the use of 'our' and the undefined categorisation of people as fat and thin are problematic. The language of 'Fat Liberation', presumably rooted in Women's Liberation, looks very dated now, and has been largely taken over by the term 'fat acceptance' or 'size acceptance' which I think are politically much weaker, or 'fat activism', which often implies something else.

Thirdly, it strikes me how rare it still is to come across work which is written from the standpoint of a fat libber, or fat activist. I'm talking about work which directly references these concepts and which illustrates the values and worldviews of people engaged with these pursuits.

Lastly, I like that the questions might elicit different responses over time and place. It might be fun to have a consciousness raising session in 2011, to have a go at answering them together.

The Liberated Fat Person

1. What strengths do fat people have?
2. What is a liberated fat person?
3. What are some of the problems/pressures of the liberated fat person?
4. What is the best way to deal with a fat person who is antagonistic to the fat liberation movement?
5. How do you deal with a thin person who is antagonistic to the fat liberation movement?
6. Can a fat person with 'a raised consciousness' still relate to thin people?
7. What is equality? Is that our goal?
8. What are the goals of the fat liberation movement?
9. What are the goals of your group?
10. Is c/r a political action? Is it enough?
11. What is 'closet fat'? To what extent are you?
12. What is 'closet f.a.'?
13. What have you gotten from this group? Is it what you expected?

Rubinstein, D. (1981). Fat Consciousness Raising Outline. Bellerose, NY: NAAFA.

A vile encounter with comedy fatphobia

I was at Rotterdam The Hague Airport yesterday. Part of the checking-in area was being used to film a comedy show that's going to be broadcast on RTL Nederland in August. I didn't have my wits about me to catch the name of the show, but I watched the filming for a few minutes before I went through to the departure lounge.

The main character was a guy with unruly ginger hair dressed in a sort of a shell-suit, like a chav stereotype. At first I couldn't work out why his face looked so puffy and weird, and then I saw the plastic belly poking out from under his clothes and I realised he was wearing a fat suit. As I watched him act, his comedy character seemed to be modelled on someone with a learning disability.

I have no idea about the context for this character, whether or not this is a popular programme, what it's about. Maybe someone else reading this knows and can fill me in. What struck me was the casual way in which stereotypes are manufactured, and about who is invested in their creation. There were about 15 people making the programme, including producers, actors, technicians, and no doubt the airport was getting a location fee, all very workaday. And yet here is a character in a fat suit, complete with various other underclass signifiers, being presented as stupid and pathetic, the butt of the joke. Why do this?

I tried to take some pictures of the guy in the fat suit but, strangely enough, he wasn't keen. This is the best I could do, he's the one in the middle, you can just about see his plastic strap-on belly poking out of his clothes.

23 June 2011

Ten Reasons to Love Burger Queen

I was cautiously optimistic when I first wrote about Burger Queen and now, having attended three out of the four events, I admit I was wrong to be so circumspect and can whole-heartedly say that it was absolutely brilliant in every way. Here are ten reasons why:

1. I've never seen anything like it in my life (and I've seen a lot)
Burger Queen went beyond any preconceptions I had about that stale irony-format, the beauty contest. Instead, it was like being immersed in a total environment where the focus was always shifting between performance, activism, weirdness, joy, anger, precious moments, and where real and fake were redundant terms. The Duckie performance influence is undeniable, I think, but it has its own distinct flavour (and smell, chips!), and I've never before seen performance of this kind applied to fat in such a skilful way.

2. Woah, activism
Looking at Burger Queen as a piece of fat activism, which it is but is also much more, makes me feel really excited about fat culture, especially that which is now happening right on my doorstep. There are so many ways in which it could develop, it doesn't have to follow the work I've seen, especially in the US, which is trad-burlesque heavy, or speaks to a lowest common denominator. Burger Queen is didactic but doesn't treat the audience like morons, offers a non-preachy pomposity-free polemic, is experimental and accessible, and it turns high concepts into a beautiful shared experience where rough and smooth all mix in together. This is what happens when people who get it use their talent and imagination to create something unique and wild.

3. The details that mattered
It's the little things that count, like the fact that you could buy a burger meal with your ticket, the Burger Queen staff uniforms, the fat-centric soundtrack, the being-on-TV jokes, the morbidly obese woman singing at the end of the night, the weekly diet, and the graphic design, to name but a few of them. It was a complete experience created by a team of enablers. It made me feel that I was in one of Scottee's demented fantasies, which is not a bad place to be.

4. Timberlina
I enjoyed all the Burger Queen performances but Timberlina's ukulele-assault on the cult of LighterLife was unforgettable.

5. It was messy
There were no tidy, nice, clean, respectable fat people at Burger Queen. No wannabe good productive citizens in sight. It was all about sweat, tears, being out of puff, having physical limitations, being in a strop, showers of chips and glitter, wobbling flesh, dirty cakeholes, genderfuckery, hairy bellies, sexuality, foul mouths, and low life (which of course is high life). Hallelujah for queered-up non-assimilationist fat people, there are few things more beautiful.

6. Fat is a politic
The idea that fat is a politic rather than a dress size was put forward in Burger Queen. I'll add the caveat that I think that fat is also about particular kinds of embodiment but luckily queer theory means that I don't have to reject one in favour of another, it can be both and more. Anyway, fat is a politic is a radical suggestion because it engages people of all sizes, it shows that everyone is implicated in fat and it incites people to do something about it. And this being uttered not at some exclusive academic conference, but at a pub in Vauxhall. I love that it supports multiple ways of being fat, and doesn’t offer these false binary divisions of fat/thin, or fat activist/fat ally. I have a similar thing with The Chubsters, which is a fat queer girl gang that you don’t have to be fat, queer, a girl, or remotely aggressive to be a part of. Hurray!

7. The people
The contestants, the judges, Jude Bean, the crowd. I wanted to be best friends with everyone and it gave me a bunch of new crushes to obsess over. Favourite contestant moment: being forced to wave my hands in the air by that out-of-control queen and dodging the sweets that she pulled from her face and hurled at people angrily.

8. Being a punter
If I want to be involved with fat activism usually what happens is that I have to either travel thousands of miles, or do it myself, or by myself. Burger Queen was the first time that I could just get on the tube and enjoy being in the audience. I could see that everyone was working like crazy, the stress of putting on something like this is major, but there was none of that on my part, just eye-popping fun and an event that felt as though it was made just for me. Bliss.

9. Queer-Disability-Fat
I did an MA in the early 90s and published a book in 1998 that applied disability theory to fat activism. I also wrote about queerness in that book but the feminist publishers believed that queer was the devil's work and wouldn't print that stuff. What delights me 13-20 years later is that Burger Queen comes along, crowns the gorgeous Nina Neon, and it's clear in the loveliest way that queer and disability and fat have a lot to say to each other and can interact with each other in fantastic ways. Burger Queen is theory that I helped develop reflected in reality, and done in a way that anyone can understand, with humour and style and humanity.

10. There's going to be another one next year
Yes, yes oh yes.