28 March 2011

Demonstrating as the Fat Bloc

A coalition of around half a million people took to London's streets on Saturday to protest various things. Sister-demonstrations took place in other British cities. The protest was one of the biggest that has ever taken place in the UK, half a million in a population of about 60,000 is a significant number.

This article from the Guardian covers many of the people involved in the demonstration: Anti-cuts march: the protesters. You might also want to have a look at Freedom Press' Action Map March 26th Demo for an idea of the more radical groups involved.

Why did I go? I maintain anarchism as a beautiful dream, but I'm also a pragmatist and I think the state should support vulnerable groups directly, I don't see this as the role of 'Big Society', charities or private businesses. Britain is a rich country and can afford to do this. I'm appalled by the current round of cuts in services, which will devastate marginalised people and undermine the welfare state.

I didn't think the demonstration's explicit goals will be realised. The government's cuts are based on capitalist and neoliberal ideologies which have a global sweep and are bigger than the Con-Dem government in the UK. But I do think that the demonstration achieved other important things:
  • It was a gigantic peaceful gathering for most people
  • It was life-affirming to see so many different people together on the streets
  • When you see a sight like this, you feel less isolated, you feel visible and in solidarity with other people
  • It gives a sense of hope and encouragement in otherwise extremely grim times
  • It is part of the current radicalisation of otherwise disenfranchised people, especially young 'uns
I also enjoyed the raw news footage of people kicking in bank windows, attacking the Olympic countdown clock, mooning the press, and chasing the police, and I hope that the people paid to clean up the damage got double time (the mess must surely be less than the trash that will litter the streets after the forthcoming and totally hateful royal wedding).

I decided to march a while ago but I couldn't decide who to march with. I knew I didn't want to get kettled or involved in any trouble, I didn't want to get arrested. This meant avoiding some groups with whom I have political sympathies. To cut a long story short, my partner and I decided to make our own banner late on Friday night. We played around with joke slogans, my favourites: 'Camelegg – No, Cameltoe – yes!' and the evergreen 'Die Tory Scum' but in the end we just wrote Fat Bloc, with an anarchist symbol in the word fat. It was my idea, I thought of it as a serious joke; if other groups could have their own bloc, then why not us? We made the banner with felt-tips and glitter, DIY forever!

For most of the demo the Fat Bloc consisted of me and two others. The most miniscule Bloc ever! It was very cute. Clearly the three of us can handle the possibility of ridicule. People responded to us in many ways ranging from embarrassment and confusion, which only encouraged us more, to many thumbs-up, smiles of recognition and appreciation, verbal support, people wanting their pictures taken with us, many other cameras on us, and no negative snark that I heard in four hours of marching. None!

The best things were when a guy from a migrant workers' group came to stand with us, yay for coalition-building; when someone who may have been popstar of yore Holly Johnson took our picture; and when we got high-fived. I loved sneaking up behind unsuspecting protestors so that they became unwitting members of the Fat Bloc, teehee.

Inevitably, there were a few people with banners condemning 'fat cats' and 'fat pigs' and demanding the government 'cuts the flab'. We yelled them down! We said "Working class people are fat too!" "Don't stereotype fat people!" "We love fat cats!" "Keep the flab!" Lord only knows if they understood but I like to think there were a few sheepish faces and that they'll think twice before using fat stereotypes again.

Friends came and went as we demonstrated, others said they were looking out for us, and later on we met up with a bigger group of pals. People admired our glittery sign. It was great to stand together, such fun, and a really happy memory for me was seeing my friends Bill and Tammy coming towards us from out of the crowd. It's amazing to have fat community.

I had a great time being part of the Fat Bloc and would do it again, and encourage others to form their own Fat Blocs. It is good to be visible on the streets as peaceful, friendly, and radical fat people, to show that we are part of social justice movements too and that no-one should give us shit. I loved the way that our placard was ambiguous enough for people to read into it what they wanted, and also that it meant something good and useful for people of all kinds.

16 March 2011

Queer Hapas, fat activism and weight loss surgery

I've been reading Jackie Loneberry Wang's excellent zine Memoirs of a Queer Hapa #2, which takes a look at the author's queer-biracial identity. Hapa refers to people who are "mixed-race and of Asian descent". I especially like the author's Concluding Thoughts from an essay entitled The Emergence of Queer Hapa Identity in the United States, where she applies Queer Theory in a super-accessible way. Basically she talks about identities that transgress boundaries and expose the limitations of those boundaries. She says that Queer Hapa people confound others who ally themselves "to the notion of identity as fixed, immutable, and formed around a logic of separation and differentiation" (p14). Wang goes on to say that even though Queer Hapa is an uncontainable identity, naming and inhabiting it enables people to organise strategically and politically in ways that are anti-assimilationist and complex.

Wang's zine has helped me not only think about Queer Hapa identity, but also about another group of people, who may also include Queer Hapas. I think the ways in which Wang writes about identity is helpful in thinking about what tends to be the thorny relationship between fat activism and weight loss surgery.

Apparently, as someone smart told me recently, the situation is changing and people who have had weight loss surgery are no longer drummed out of fat activist community. But my experience is that weight loss surgery continues to represent considerable anxiety in terms of how to address it in fat activism, and that bullying, shaming and shunning are still everyday tactics. Even where people have moved on from using these strategies to police the boundaries of fat activism and critique weight loss surgery, their previous use continues to hurt and has not been resolved.

I am not an advocate for weight loss surgery, I would never choose it for myself, and I discourage people from choosing it where I can. I think it is more likely to deplete than enhance health, I mourn the deaths of people who have died as a consequence of surgery, and its marketing rhetoric is invariably fatphobic, full of lies, and profoundly problematic. But neither am I an advocate for boundary policing or bullying. I am looking for helpful and human ways of thinking about this stuff that goes beyond a condescending 'love the sinner hate the sin' tolerance within the movement for people who have had surgery or are contemplating it. I would prefer a world where weight loss industries did not exist, but I do not live in that world, and am unlikely to as long as capitalism exists. Instead I am part of communities of people where some have chosen this, including a number of excellent fat activists who I love and respect.

Anyway, so Wang's work has helped me think about this and my tentative thoughts are about fat activists who have had weight loss surgery also inhabiting a space that transgresses and exposes the limitations of certain boundaries and classifications. For example, that to be a fat activist always involves resisting weight loss, or that there are sides to be chosen where you are either for or against weight loss. Fat activists who have had weight loss surgery, especially unrepentant people for whom it was a positive long-term choice, inhabit a space that shows there are other ways of being, that fat activism doesn't have to be an either/or proposition, and that it can be really diverse. I'm mindful of the postcolonial concept of hybridity, you can be a mixture of things, even things that are supposed to be incompatible, and you don't have to make a choice between one state of being or another, you can be all of them.

Going back to Wang and thinking about the possibilities for organising around fluid and complex identities, I feel excited for the potential opportunities for fat activists and weight loss surgery in challenging dogmatism and pioneering new forms of fat activist embodiment. It gives me hope that people who are currently shamefully denigrated within the movement might no longer have to skulk around in the shadows like a dirty little secret, waiting in vain for an invitation to come and sit at the table, it could be that they've already got their own thing going on and that everybody else should take note.

Wang, Jackie Loneberry (2009) Memoirs of a Queer Hapa #2

08 March 2011

Conference Report: The Carnival of Feminist Cultural Activism 2011

The Carnival of Feminist Cultural Activism has just taken place at York University. It involved three days of presentations, panels, discussions, performance, workshops, films and a whole lot of talking and hanging out. The event was a lot of fun, as well as being challenging and thought-provoking. The organisers did a great job in creating a space where many different kinds of feminists could come together. I was there for four things: to participate in a bunch of presentations; to chair a couple of sessions; to see my friends and meet new folks; and to present the final plenary: Fightin' Dirty With The Chubsters.

I had an hour, so I showed my Chubsters short film, had a stab at introducing the concept, and got people to take part in some Chubsters skill-sharing. I thought that few would turn up to this final plenary, but I was wrong, it was busy, and I was worried that a feminist and largely academic crowd would be a little starchy, I was wrong about that too.

I offered four skill-sharing options:

Participants were invited to use eyes, mouth, expression, hair and brains to attack with their faces. I nipped back into the room at one point, after being outside taking part in one of the other activities, to witness the glaring group standing in a neat circle practising their glaring at each other in silent aggressive rage.

I drew some cans of Slim-Fast on a piece of card and invited people to do some target practise with the Chubsters' weapon of choice - spud guns. This was by far the most popular group. Social justice activists take note: people really like a spud gun.

This was what I was most excited about, and daunted. I've wanted to be good at spitting ever since I saw Patti Smith accurately shoot a jet of saliva out of her mouth onstage and hit a spot to her side. I imagined that it would be great to see or be a Chubster spitting insolently at something. But spitting really is disgusting, and offensive to many, especially when done by women and I wondered if I was pushing people too far, though I also saw my role in the plenary as goading a group of over-tired, conferenced-out people into antisocial pleasure and risk-taking. Anyway, I drew a picture of a BMI (Body Mass Index) Chart because I thought that it would make a good target. I was delighted that people went for it. None of us had Patti Smith's technique, but we made up for it with gusto. My favourites involved the running spit, the up-close and phlegmy spit, and the crab spit, where a woman bent backwards into a crab and spat in a graceful arc onto the BMI Chart.

This was an anything goes option for people who didn't fancy any of the others. From what I gather it involved a lot of arm-wrestling and actual, down on the floor wrestling. It made my heart sing to see a pair of very serious feminist intellectual heavyweights rolling around on the floor of the lecture theatre in a leg grip.

Some people combined different skills, advanced Chubsterdom! Later we welcomed some new Chubsters into the gang, check out their names: Awesome Jonnie, Backwoods Bettie, Biscuits, Cat-Face, Chaos Flower, Count Fatula, Crab, Faye Bentos, Gorrilay, Grrrran, Grummel Pott, Hell's Granny, Junk, Myxt, Pinkie, Piseog Dubh, Rabid Fox, Raptor, Robin Hood, Rough, Round Robin, Rump-Shaker, Skiff, Southern Fried Chubbin', Stink-Eye, The Fixer, Thunder Domes, Toxic Pink Stuff, T-Rex, Twisted Stitch, and Von Vixen.

By the time I got the train home from York I was pretty exhausted and had that brain-buzzing feeling that I often get after some Chubsters action, or a really good Fat Studies event. I'm really grateful that the Carnival organisers enabled me to create this weird space for people to play in, and that people got it and were engaged.

There are more pics of the whole event in Evangeline Tsao's Facebook Album.

I kept coming back to the BMI Chart covered in spit, dripping with it. This chart is so oppressive, it's today's equivalent of phrenology and about as much use. Kate Harding's fantastic Illustrated BMI Project was one way of transforming it and reducing its power, I've seen others address it as activists too, and I saw the spit-fest as a extension of this approach. I felt so happy to see it defiled with the collective spit of a group of feminists! It perfectly captured my (our?) contempt for it. I thought about how great it was to have been able to facilitate the creation of this real life mental image, and I wondered if other people might remember it dripping with spit the next time they come across it in a doctor's office, or are being lectured about it, or whatver. It felt like I was spitting it out of myself and removing its power over my body. Maybe the next time people see a load of Slim-Fast for sale in a shop they might imagine having a pop at it with a spud gun.

It's made me think more about how, in my experience, The Chubsters is often a vehicle for creating unlikely yet enriching moments of real-life wildness, peculiar tableaux that stick with you later. These become like mental touchstones that stay with me and comfort, amuse, captivate, inspire me when I draw upon them. I'm sure a spit-covered drawing of a BMI Chart is not what many people would consider a treasured memory, but it is for me.

Full disclosure: some of my friends chose to withdraw from the Carnival last December, stating their position on Red Chidgey's blog Feminist Memory: Open letter of withdrawal from the Carnival of Feminist Cultural Activism (2011). Then as now my feelings about Raw Nerve are different to my friends', as is my understanding of what happened. I am mentioning this here because I don't want to pretend that this issue was not also a part of my Carnival experience.