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.


laura agustin said...

I've been thinking more about the issue of what 'activism' means. Obviously it can mean anything anyone likes, I refer to the perceived significance, in the sex worker movement, of taking these actions you - well, that you disdain a bit.

It occurs to me that the sex industry is super-rich in partying, performing, carousing and other social activities. That making costumes and songs and dances have always been a big thing. That many workplaces are highly social. And more.

Then it occurs to me that because of the work or professional element, the attempt to compare movements is difficult. I know that you find lots in common but perhaps those things are more discursive than pertaining to action and activisting.


Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Laura.

I disdain them a bit because I think they get privileged over other sorts of activism that may be more quiet, ambiguous, or less confrontational.

One of the things that my friend B says is that they're interested in reading about street protest and campaigning, but what they're really interested in is what happened at the disco afterwards, the stuff that doesn't get documented because it's not considered important or as significant as the street action. As you point out, those moments pf partying and carousing and whatnot are very rich.

Yes, comparing the movements is difficult, there are great differences, but the points of connection, where they occur, are illuminating to me in thinking about what activism is and looks like.

laura agustin said...

okay... but maybe i didn't make my point well. making community is for many sorts of sex workers something that happens in the midst of working. you can call carousing activism if you want but it is heavy socialising and community-making. you could say showing off is activism, too, i guess.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Work and activism are mutually exclusive? Showing off cannot be thought of as activism? I'm interested in why you are looking for very clear and definite definitions of activism. I know you've told me that you like precision, perhaps that's what is going on? Maybe cultural and generational differences between us too? You've probably worked out that I am less concerned with nailing down a tight definition, and maybe this is because I'm looking at an area of human activity that is often ambiguous and has hardly been examined before. For me, boxing it in at this stage doesn't feel very helpful, plus I like the sprawl and messiness of it.

laura agustin said...

i am failing to communicate. i didn't say work and activism were exclusive, we've had that conversation before i think. i don't have fixed opinions here, activism isn't even a word i accepted until very recently. i mean it felt like an alien word, something belonging to others.

carousing isn't work, at least i was trying to focus on the socialising and cultural production that goes on around and because of jobs. another thing would be that since jobs are at stake that are not allowed addressing the state feels more significant.

generation? jeez. you make me feel elderly like that gal at mr standing's do. x

Charlotte Cooper said...


"since jobs are at stake that are not allowed addressing the state feels more significant."
Yes, that's true. The illegality makes it different.

"generation? jeez. you make me feel elderly like that gal at mr standing's do."
Well, we are different ages, and I treasure that about our friendship along with other differences between us too. I feel very lucky to know you, hot, smart, badly behaved woman of crank and incredible experience. G Standing has no fucking idea, you do not exist to me on his terms at all.