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.