16 May 2011

How the Left failed fat

About a week ago my friend sent me a link to an article by Jennie Bristow that was published in Living Marxism when my book came out in 1998, you can read it below. My publisher at the time sent me a press packet of all the coverage my book generated, but this article wasn't in it so I never saw it. I'm glad that I didn't read it back then, the work had been a monumental struggle for me at a time when I was living a somewhat marginal life, and I would have been devastated.

I'm in a better position to talk about this stuff 13 years on. Bristow's vicious piece is callous in its response to Christina Corrigan's death, and disablist and racist to boot. Without ever having met me, she paints me as a miserable, whining wannabe victim intent on playing oppression olympics, when actually my book sets out the many ways in which fat activists resist and transform hatred, and why we do it. Bristow presents fat activism as dogmatic and American, which it certainly can be, but there's more to the picture than that. She posits the classic argument that fat is trivial compared to 'real' oppression, not least because fat is a choice. Weirdly, she demolishes me but agrees that fat hatred is real and has negative effects on people's lives – er, isn't that what I was saying? She also sets up a creepy and false bad fatty/good fatty division between me and the lovely Janice Bhend, who published my work in her magazine in the 90s. What would Bristow have made of the passages that my publisher refused to publish? The sections about fat and trans people, sex-positive feminism, SM? I imagine she would have blown a gasket. And what about my publisher's feminist censorship of those ideas? We'll never know what she would have made of that, if only she'd done her journalistic homework and spoken to me first. The best bit is where Bristow refers to "The Charlotte Coopers of this world," heheheh, yes, there are legions of us! All like me!

Bristow's article was not the first time that Living Marxism dismissed fat activism, in 1994 Ann Bradley went to town on Mary Evans Young's project of getting an anti-diet Early Day Motion read and supported in Parliament. I won't dwell on those pieces, or my book, both came out years ago and are done and done. Contexts have changed and I feel confident that Fat & Proud was a good piece of work because of the positive response I've had to it over the years.

What I do want to say is that both Bradley and Bristow's articles capture the British Left's failure to get on board with embodied liberation, including fat. This is also mirrored in some kinds of feminism (and it hasn't escaped me that both of these Living Marxism articles were authored by women). The legacy of the belittling of fat activism, and the feminist pathologising of fat within eating disorder paradigms is that the Left has a particularly muddled and weak relationship to this kind of political activity today. I see this as a wasted opportunity, a terrible shame. If the unions had supported Jane Meacham when she was sacked for being too fat in the late 1980s, we might very well have employment protection today. And how come it's left to the bloody Daily Mail to highlight dodgy goings on in the weight industry – notably a number of deaths of women who happened to be on the Lighterlife diet – whilst The Guardian continues to bleat on about the obesity epidemic long after anyone is interested?

Maybe Bristow has the answers. I wrote to her last week to see if she would like to re-engage with some of the things she said about my work in the light of how the world has since changed. As yet she hasn't responded.

Bradley, A. (1994). Fat's not a feminist issue. Living Marxism, 68, p.11

Bristow, J. (1998). The 'fat rights' lobby is out to lunch. Living Marxism, 109, p.30

PS. And I'm still pissed off that when Michael Moore solicited his TV audience for ideas, he never took up my suggestion that diet industries would be a good target for Crackers the Corporate Crime Fighting Chicken! What, hold a grudge? Me?

And while I'm at it, have a look at Depicting fat and class too.


dee.calarco said...

I hate to say it, but a lot of leftists, particularly people who are comfortable calling themselves socialists and communists, are about as far from "the proletariat" (which these days mostly work at desks) as you can get. And, frankly, this anti-fat shit highlights their class biases.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Yeah, but I think it's not enough to blame everything on middle class people (though I'm happy to do this any time!) because fat clearly transcends trad class boundaries, and other identity politics boundaries too.

It's also very much part of class discourse. It astonishes me that parts of the Left are so reluctant to address this.


Sophie said...

Hi Charlotte, I think it's a real shame that that article was published, especially, as you say, when the journalist was did not even interview you.

Food and fat are inevitable and crucial issues for the Left and it is a pity that certain people within that tradition haven't realised it yet.

Of course, opinion is so diverse between different Left groups that I hope that the position put forward in that article wouldn't be generalised.

I'm on the Left and for me the relevance of fat activism and body politics are only too devastatingly clear but maybe that's because that's how I first began to think about social issues at all.

Charlotte Cooper said...

I agree. I'm no right-winger myself, just disappointed that the politics of the left have generally overlooked the kind of stuff I'm interested in.

Kerri said...

My understanding of class is informed by Marxian analysis of capitalism. That is, the analysis of capitalism provides the groups found within it. The graphic in your link seems to be a depiction of the stratification of society as defined by Weber, rather than class per se, in that it depicts his ideas of class, power and status etc. I think that any discussion of class issues needs to begin by deciding how class is defined within that discussion. Is it an arbitrary grouping (say according to a measure of income or other factors, as with Weber, or is class a grouping defined as it emerges through an analysis of an economic system, as with, for example, Marx?

My understanding is a Marxian one, but for me the strata of Weber act as final identity 'placers' within that system. I find such groupings more helpful because they are less arbitrary.

On that basis I see my life as having more in common with the authors of uninformed critiques than with the owners of the corporations that employ them. I may be inclined to throttle her but my energy is better spent elsewhere.

We can set our sights on bigots and body police within our own life circumstances, and expend all our energy in the process even as we achieve little, or we can attempt to change the systemic exploitation that seems so very pervasive that we despair at ever changing just a little.

The system is a human generated one and as such humans can change it. It would seem to be the case that the only ones who may want to change some of it are those who are screwed by it. As individuals we cannot. But in striving to see beyond our differences as individuals we may glimpse the factors that impact on all our lives in common. It is not possible to see unifying factors through an arbitrary definition of class. The system must produce the class.

As a working class woman it is true that, for example, I have less power or status than a working class man. That is where (in this instance as depicted in the graphic) other factors 'places' me within the class grouping itself.

I loved your beautiful posts on Bath and the BBC programme. Thank you for them.

Personally I would look askance at anything with the word 'Marxist' attached to it as poor old Marx did not build a political system upon his analysis of capitalism. Others have done so. Marx (according to Engels), was known to exclaim "I am not a Marxist" in response to those who would devise a political system from his analysis.

I suppose it all comes down to how class is defined but without knowing that are we all talking about the same thing at all?

Charlotte Cooper said...

Kerri, thank you for your response.