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.

1 comment:

Emerald said...

Amen! I'm a big fan of activism, or just making people think about stuff, through art - I loved the stuff the Welfare State Theatre Company used to get up to back in the 80s (they weren't activism as such, but 'making people think' definitely came under their remit). Fat events of that kind would be interesting to see.

I really hoped I'd seen the last of change4life, but I caught a late-night ad on one of the digital channels...ugh. As if the kids' ones weren't bad enough, the grown-up version uses a little jellybaby bloke with a literal 'spare tyre' and implies that it stops him both playing sports and having any kind of sex life. They can't get rid of that soon enough for me.