21 December 2011

Allyson Mitchell's fat feminist art and me

I won't lie, xmas makes me feel mentally ill and if I smoked crack I would be huffing on a big fat pipe of it right now. In past years I've published a Hits and Shits list on this blog in an attempt to create some kind of temporal narrative about fat. This year I've given up.

Instead I'm going to mark the end of the year by sharing a drawing that one of my favourite artists, Allyson Mitchell, has produced. Allyson is one of the founders of the now defunct fat activist group Pretty, Porky and Pissed Off, who reclaimed the streets of Toronto a while back. She's also an assistant Professor in the School of Women's Studies at York University. Oh yeah, and she co-owns the Feminist Art Gallery (FAG) and is an accomplished artist in her own right. I've added that last but actually it should go first.

So, picture the scene, I'm sitting at my computer, contemplating xmas-related suicide, and up pops an email from Allyson. She's attached a drawing that features me. The email says that I am in the middle and the image comes from a photo shoot I did for FaT GiRL in 1996. It goes on to say that the other figures are also based on women in FaT GiRL and that I was the inspiration for the piece.

The drawing is part of a project started by Ulrike Müller, who I don't know and have never met, that Allyson has worked on. Allyson wrote in her email: "Ulrike took the titles of images that are archived in the Lesbian Herstory Archives in Brooklyn. Artists were asked to draw an image that represents the title in some way without seeing the actual image. I randomly got the title 'A Group of Naked Women...Very Curvy' – what luck!!!!"

It's now a few days later and I'm still trying to work it out. I feel very happy and proud that something I did a long time ago can be part of something really excellent today, it makes me reflect on the importance not just of developing fat queer cultural production, but also the value of using our bodies within the things we make. I love Allyson's art and am absolutely delighted to feature in it. Thinking about this drawing makes me feel as though I'm swirling around in a whirlpool of beautiful things that mean a great deal to me: queer archives and especially the Lesbian Herstory Archives, fat dykes, activism, Allyson's art, FaT GiRL, wooooo! The picture reminds me of an incredible time in my life when I kind of bloomed into my queer-fat self after a long time of feeling frozen. Playing naked on a Californian beach exemplifies that period so well. It's also amazing to see my nudey fat body there, I'm feeling a lot of self-love about that, and that's a precious feeling for people like me. Not only that, but it's amongst the other bodies too; I know that I couldn't have inhabited that emotional-embodied-social-political space without the others. It feels really fantastic to see myself acknowledged as part of this amazing fat feminist movement, in ways that I relate to, by someone who knows and who is also implicated in it herself. I love the luck and randomness of how the image came about. It gives me chills of happiness to think about other people seeing this work as it becomes circulated in new spaces that Ulrike is developing, and it becoming part of other people's consciousness.

Woah, head explodes.

Image courtesy of Allyson Mitchell

08 December 2011

Fat activists and language - what do you call it?

My friend sizeoftheocean posted on Twitter the other day that she really dislikes the term 'fattist'. I also dislike this term and hoped that she, being very smart, would be able to shed light on my own ire. She said that it has a defensive tone to it and is used by people who are not otherwise into fat stuff. I agree. My own dislike also extends to its linguistic construction – yes, my snobbery knows no bounds – sexist, racist, classist, disablist, heterosexist, fattist, right? You'd think it would work because it's consistent an allies fat with other kinds of identities. But I still can't get on board with it when I have 'fat hatred,' 'fatphobia,' 'fat oppression' as means of naming the same sort of thing, concepts that are rooted in histories and cultures of fat activism, rather than something that seems tacked-on. I feel similarly about 'looksist,' which to me seems too shallow a way of describing the systemic marginalisation of people who represent difference; it's not just about the act of looking or one's 'looks'.

I've been thinking about other terms that people use to describe what I think of as 'fat stuff,' or simply 'the movement,' or even just 'fat.' 'Size acceptance' and 'fat acceptance' are popular, though they are not for me because I find them too limited; I think self-acceptance is fine, but social acceptance is not enough for me, I'm more invested in social change. I want to change things more than I want to be accepted, in fact I realise that acceptance is not something that motivates me very much at all. 'Size' or 'weight' are too euphemistic for me. I tend to use 'fat activism,' sometimes 'fat politics,' occasionally the more restrictive 'fat rights,' but often feel that I could do with more language here.

As I've been researching, I've noticed a few references to 'fat pride.' Like fattist, these tend to be made pejoratively by people who feel burned by the movement in some way, and/or by people who would be less likely to understand the association between fat pride and queer or LGBT pride movements. Here pride is a slur, fat people shouldn't be proud because it connotes arrogance, the valuing of one type over another, smugness. In this context the ultimate goal is for fat to be stripped of any value, good or bad, just let it be what it is. I agree with this to some extent, but I also think that even if there were no negative connotations to fatness, I would probably seek out some kind of pride in myself, a pride that is associated with self-respect, pleasure, confidence, feeling as though you have value. As it is, fat pride is a useful concept in the current climate, which looks unlikely to change very much any time soon, and where there are many daily attempts to stomp these feelings out of fat people.

Again, 'the fat and proud movement,' or 'the fat pride movement' are not terms that I would use these days, perhaps I have become sensitised because of these attacks. I'll never forget an interview in which Shelley Bovey talks about "the fat and proud brigade", and compares the movement to fascists. I've wondered if this is a reference to me because of the title of my first book, in which I expressed misgivings about some of her work. Brigade is an interesting addition, it implies some kind of officious, blundering Dad's Army set-up; a group of pompous buffoons. Whilst there are many pompous buffoons in fat activism, including me, not to mention other extremely annoying people, this description doesn't really fit the diversity of the movement, it is a barbed caricature.

We could probably talk about preferred terms for how people think about fat until we are blue in the face. I agree that language creates meaning and that there is a lot of language in the world that denigrates fat embodiment, there are many terms I dislike. But policing language is problematic because the contexts in which words are used vary so greatly, being forceful around good and bad words is unacceptable, it's too close to censorship. Some words work for some people and not for others, where I feel uncomfortable about language I try and look for the intention rather than blame the form of the words; often people are just a little ignorant about fat and language. What I want is more words rather than fewer, I think the more fat language there is, the easier it becomes to think and talk about fat.

Are there any linguists in the area? Can you illuminate any of this?


Brooks, L. (2002) 'Size Matters' [Online]. Available: http://www.shelleybovey.com/frameset.html?/sizematters.html [Accessed 9 March 2010].

Cooper, C. (1998) Fat & Proud: The Politics of Size, London: The Women's Press.