29 April 2011

Fat, Sex Work, Rescue Industries

I'm very interested when other areas of critical engagement and struggle have crossovers with fat activism. I know this is controversial in terms of fat, which is seen by many as a choice and a triviality, but it fits with the earliest fat activist analyses of oppression (not that I think challenging oppression is all there is to fat activism). For example, Judith Stein's pithy two-page mimeographed introduction to fat activism places fat within a matrix of oppression and calls on fat activists to challenge other forms of oppression too. Sometimes this is lost, fat activism has been criticised for its racism, for example, but I think the idea that no one is free until everyone is free is good to bear in mind.

This week I spent some time with Laura Agustìn, author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. Although Laura is part of a wider movement, for me her book enabled me to recognise more deeply the agency of people who migrate and sell sex, what selling sex looks like, and how this is thwarted by the rescue industry. Laura's work has helped me unpick hyperbolic rhetoric concerning trafficking discourse, and I am grateful for her rational approach to sex work, particularly in her methodology of sex work research. It also enabled me to reconsider my own personal relationship to sex work and to connect with fat sex workers.

I live in Stratford, close to where the 2012 Olympics will be held. There are discredited reports that major sporting events result in an increase in trafficking and that evening Laura had been invited to be an expert presenter at a meeting at Waltham Forest council which was concerned with this possibility. Waltham Forest is one of the five London boroughs that is connected to the Olympics, though I live in Newham. So on Wednesday I took her to have a look at the Olympic site, and also on a mini-tour of Stratford's more obvious brothels, its sex shop and red light area, active and present long before the Olympics were announced in 2005, and just another part of the area. Fun!

I won't go on too much about the council meeting, which took place in the very formal Chamber. I'm sure minutes will be available in due course if you want to find out more about what was said in detail. Briefly, two police officers working for the Met's anti-trafficking department stated their case, as did four people who work with sex workers and migrant people, including a nun, and two medics. Varying ideological positions on sex work were represented though all could be described as 'rescue industry'. Laura spoke, and people from the council recorded and questioned the speakers. The idea that the Olympics will result in an increase in trafficking was immediately dismissed as soon as evidence to the contrary was produced. So the meeting ended up being an arena for people to state their positions and argue for their own legitimacy. No conclusion was reached, the Chair resolved to have more meetings, though this may be in question because there are local government elections looming. As an observer, I think councillors were expecting one thing but ended up having their minds blown by having to consider alternative paradigms.


As an observer, I found the meeting really interesting in a dull, committee type way. What intrigued me were the crossovers in the way that fat is presented in policymaking. Obviously there were no out sex workers present to offer their expert testimony, just as there are never autonomous fat people present during similar meetings of obesity stakeholders, it's as though the concept Nothing about us without us never existed. These gatherings are about professional management of perceived problematic populations, where there is a moral and medicalised discourse concerning embodiment, and where 'helping' is a euphemism for 'control', and where people routinely rely on poor quality 'evidence.' In these contexts, sex workers/fat people are talked about, made pitiful, framed as service users, are absent and Othered. Professionals pump themselves up as essential to the discourse, medics especially so, yet it's clear that the rescuers need their fodder more than sex workers or fat people need them, for example, what do you do with massively resourced anti-trafficking units when there are no trafficked people?

Of course there are differences between the way that fat and sex work is framed in contexts such as this meeting I went to with Laura. I think fat people are far less organised than sex workers – not that fat people and sex workers are necessarily mutually exclusive groups – partly because shame is much more present. Issues concerning criminalisation and migration are also different.

Despite these differences, acknowledging common ground can be very illuminating. I would love to see broader analyses of how helping industries further marginalise their apparent constituents, for example.

What was exciting about the meeting in Waltham Forest was the way that Laura's testimony was illuminating for many people in the room. I have experienced this when I start talking about fat with people, or at least in those situations where people are more able to move beyond clichés. It's clear that many people are hungry for more complex and human ways of thinking about things that have been overstated through moral panics, and that trite accounts of trafficked women or obesity epidemics are not enough, and that ethical, grassroots ways of understanding may be possible.

Agustìn, L.M. (2007) Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. London: Zed Books.

22 April 2011

Fat accessibility on São Paulo's Metro

My friend Jenni has been visiting Brazil and told me about fat seats on the São Paulo Metro. I'd never heard of this until now. A quick search has revealed that the seats were installed in 2009 as a means of encouraging more fat people to use public transport. There are bigger bucket-style seats on the train platforms, and a wider armless seat in the first carriage of each train. Both are accompanied by a sign that says 'Priority seating for obese people' where 'obese' is defined as having a BMI of 40+.

Jenni has generously allowed me to use some of the commentary she gave on her LiveJournal. She says:
I was interested that the São Paulo Metro is so inclusive in ways that the London Underground mostly isn't – we've benefited from the enhanced accessibility ourselves, as the 'special needs' I meant include people with babies, people with luggage, older folks, pregnant women, and a range of others as well as wheelchair users. I'm not entirely sure whether the seats in question are intended as part of this accessibility (which might mean that the authorities are problematically treating fatness as a disability) or as part of some other initiative which might be being done in a more pro-different sizes way, but I was interested to see it precisely because of your fat activism writing, which makes me think about that sort of question. Brazil is in some ways a very body-fascist place – the breakfast in the hotel included calorie counts for all the foodstuffs, and the women are supposed to look chic and be skinny, to the extent that I once failed to buy some beach shorts because I couldn't get the supposedly large size any higher than my knees. At the same time though you see an amazing variety of body shapes on the street, on the telly, and on the beach, so I don't know how those pressures actually work out in everyday life, and I wonder about it.
Jenni goes on to say:
The seats are weird and interesting. The state law in question is specifically to combat obesity and is part of 'Lighter São Paulo' (São Paulo Mais Leve) but I don't see how the seats work out as any sort of countermeasure. They fit into the same category as seats for elderly or pregnant people or those carrying children, in that the seat is not supposed to be used by people who aren't in that situation unless there is no-one around whom has a better right to it. There are fewer specific seats for fat folks than for old folks but otherwise it's supposed to work in the same sort of way as for categories of people who no-one would deny a right to preferential treatment, so arguably preferential treatment is here being given where it is normally withheld. There is a seat on the platform and a matching seat in the carriage that stops at that bit of platform – that's a carriage that also has space for bicycles, wheelchair users, and pregnant/old/baby-carrying folk (though the latter have lots of specific seats and not just in this carriage).

On our various Metro trips in SP far, we have seen one fattish chap sat in one of the seats on the train – clearly he didn't mind sitting there whether or not he would officially 'count,' I mean he mustn't have been embarrassed by it or anything. On the seats on the platform we only saw a canoodling couple using it as a love seat (neither of them were skinny but they weren't fatties either – again they didn't seem embarrassed to be sat there so I suppose they weren't sensitive about their weight or anything) and a mother and young son, aged maybe 10 or so, just using it as an extra-wide seat.
Jenni posted some pictures on her Flickr and also pointed out this article São Paulo um cidade Chubby friendly*?. Here, too, is a news report in Portuguese 'Banco dos gordinhos' do metrô agrada também os magros.

I really love the contradiction that Jenni points out between anti-obesity initiatives, which tend to be about eradicating fat people, and these seats, which support the lives of fat people as we are. Installing seats across a large transport network is a public investment in fatness and suggests that fat people aren't going away any time soon. Where the seats are framed as some kind of response to 'obesogenic environments', ie getting fat people out and about and doing things, the rationale may be fatphobic but the outcome is about creating inclusive space.

Newspaper reports typically state that fat people are too stigmatised to use the seats, but the seats make me feel excited at the idea of confident fat people using them, which must surely happen. It would be amazing to see that.

I also like the way that the seats ally fatness, disability and accessibility. Firstly it shows that accessibility is more than disability, and secondly, although the relationship between fat and disability can be filled with tension (see my paper from 1997 Can A Fat Woman Call Herself Disabled?) I see them as very much intertwined.

These seats have blown my mind in all kinds of ways, which means I have questions that may not have answers: why have seating that delineates a body size at all? Why not go for bench-style seating in public space? Are thinner people required to relinquish a fat seat for someone fatter? What if there's more than one fat person, how is who uses the seat negotiated? What if fat seats are still too small for you? Have you used one of these seats?

Thanks Jenni!

18 April 2011

Some benefits of being fat

I'm always especially bummed out when left-wing, feminist or otherwise progressive media fail to address fat in a way that is sufficiently critical. Jezebel used to be better but now reiterates tired weight loss rhetoric, The Guardian is openly fatphobic, and Sociological Images can never seem to quite go the full distance and critically engage with the fat, possibly because of its legions of fatphobic commenters. Some Benefits of Being Fat, a recent post, is a good example.

Here a fat woman is deemed to be non-sexual, and fat is a protective layer against unwanted abuse by men. These claims are nonsense. Just one peek at, say, The Adipositivity Project, disproves the former, and any fat woman could tell you stories of harassment, sexual or otherwise. It's like a Looking Glass version of the 'she was asking for it' discourse in relation to sexual violence and upholds the myth that only pretty girls get raped. This argument supports the idea that the authentic person, one's inner truth, is always thin, that fat is always extraneous and therefore disposable. It also buys into the notion that bodies are entities of choice, and that such choice is not part of discourses of fat hatred.

This pithy little post demonstrates the pernicious influence of a certain kind of feminist psychoanalytical thinking about fat, championed by Susie Orbach and her Women's Therapy Centre in the 1970s. It also demonstrates the lack of critical engagement with that discourse within sociology, feminism, and social science in general. By failing to locate this discourse the post retreats into unsubstantiated truth claims, a kind of 'but everybody knows it to be true' mentality, which is ironic given that sociology is supposedly about unpicking such allegations. I think the post also supports the idea of sociologist as unbiased observer, a mere vessel that articulates the facts - bunkum! It makes me wonder about the author's relationship to fat, whether or not they believe that fat actually protects women from harassment, whether they are fat, etc.

By suggesting a couple of shitty imagined benefits, the Sociological Images post is basically saying that there are no benefits to being fat. Thanks folks! But this is not a universal truth either. There are benefits to being fat, and these might be different for everyone. For me these benefits are not just about fat but also things like skill, luck, work, etc. Anyway, shall I name some of them?

Benefit! I like the way my body looks and feels, and other people like it too. The struggle of self-acceptance and self-esteem I underwent when I was younger has paid off in golden years of embodied peace, with only occasional excursions into ambivalence.

Benefit! I did an MA about fat politics and got a distinction. The research for that project went on to become a book, which I published when I was 29. The book was and is taught in universities. People often tell me that it changed their life and, 13 years on, I still get fan-mail for it, and enjoy seeing battered and underlined copies of it in libraries.

Benefit! I've been invited round the world to speak about fat. As I write this, I'm sitting in the sunshine in a beautiful house in Hamburg where I have been Artist In Residence for a couple of weeks, in which I'm being supported to make a zine of the Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline that a bunch of people co-constructed in California last year.

Benefit! Not only am I doing a PhD about fat activism for free, I'm being paid to do it.

Benefit! I'm a part of communities of fat people who are organised, politicised, and using every means necessary to create liveable lives for themselves, and for everyone.

Benefit! Fat gives me a way of understanding things, it's a kind of lens that I draw upon in conjunction with other theoretical frameworks. It has revolutionary potential.

Benefit! I get to see and participate in marvellous, eye-popping, life-affirming things that I would never have access to if I were thinner and had not lived a fat life.

What are other benefits of being fat? Silly, serious, share them here if you feel like it.

09 April 2011

Report: Burger Queen 2011

Scottee is a wunderkind of London's queer performance art scene, and also someone who makes his fat body central to his work. His new project is called Burger Queen.

What are fat activists to make of this beauty contest which revels in fast food, excess and carefree attitude? It seems a far cry from what Katie LeBesco identifies as the will to innocence in fat activism, ie the assertion that fat people are not responsible for getting fat, don't choose to be fat, and can't change. It also seems far away from healthism in fat activism, exemplified by images of beaming salad-loving, yoga-doing fat folk. It doesn't really fit more common-or-garden forms of fat activism, such as refuting health claims made against obesity, fashion consumerism, or placard-waving protests.

Burger Queen takes on the appearance of fat lib – 'fat is a politic' – but also revels in themes that would upset orthodox fat activists. I'm talking about greed, love of grease, grotesqueness, nihilism. It breaks the rules, not least because of its resident judge, Amy Lamé, who is both a great supporter of fat activism in the UK, and also appeared on Celebrity Fit Club. Intentional weight loss is a big no-no in many fat activist quarters, and weight loss reality shows have often come under fire for whatever it is they're seen to be promoting.

So what is this politic? For me there is a flimsiness about Burger Queen as a political statement. Revelling in burgers and chips as a refutation of healthism is too neat a mirror-image flip, it maintains a relationship with dominant ideas about "the obese" when it could be going off on a much weirder and wilder tangent that has nothing to do with obesity rhetoric and everything to do with creating autonomous fat culture. So for me it doesn't quite go far enough.

I'm interested in new forms of fat activism that have or don't have a relationship to feminist fat activism of the past. It's fascinating how ideas mutate and fall back on themselves. I think it's great that Scottee is not bound by what has become fat activist orthodoxy, and neither can he be neatly compartmentalised as a Bear – the only other option available to fat queer men at the moment, apparently. But I also wonder if he knows about this great movement, and if he is incorporating it into his work. For example, when Scottee raised a few eyebrows at The Fat of The Land: A Queer Chub Harvest Festival, with his apparently sincere poem about a tragic fat girl did he know that he was rubbing people (who were looking for 'positive images' of fatness) up the wrong way? Was he being ironic and confrontational? Was it something else? On the other hand, Burger Queen is absolutely coming from fat activist tradition, in which people use the forms of activism most available to them, in Scottee's case it's queer performance art. The beauty contest, too, although well-worn, has been a site for fat activism in the past.

What Burger Queen reinforces for me is my disillusionment with what I thought were the certainties of fat activism. When I started my research into the movement I was pretty sure I had a handle on what was and what was not fat activism. A couple of years on those ideas have been erased only to be replaced with a growing discontent with the side-effects of certainty: boundary-policing, intolerance, a prudishness about the down and dirty ways in which some people talk about fat or embody fat, the divisions between good fat activists and bad fat activists. So I'm keeping an open mind about Burger Queen, I'm looking forwards to seeing how it turns out, and I'm hopeful that it will be part of a queer turn in fat activism, work that messes up fat, makes it unruly and complicated, not nice, safe, or easily knowable.

08 April 2011

Review: Becoming Chaz

I had the good fortune to see the documentary Becoming Chaz at this year's 25th London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival.

Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato's film was a hit at Sundance and is going to have its TV premiere on the Oprah Winfrey Network. Becoming Chaz follows Chaz Bono as he negotiates his transition from female to male, including undergoing medical procedures and encounters with family, friends, activism and fame. A good chunk of the film is devoted to his relationship with Jennifer Elia, who is depicted as a fully-formed and multifaceted person in her own right. Cher also features, predictably, and the film-makers offer a compelling glimpse behind the Hollywood myth factory that she represents. Anyway, the film was a highlight of the festival for me, its warmth and complexity was unexpected and welcome. Chaz and Jenny rule.

Readers of this blog will know that I think Chaz Bono is a powerful fat and trans role model and all-round great guy. I've tried to make contact in the past and have been fully rebuffed! I still think this is a shame but, having seen this film, I understand why fame makes it impossible for Chaz to make any public comment about this stuff.

Anyway, given this, I was interested to see how Chaz' fatness was addressed in the film. It will come as no surprise that there was little in the way of any trad fat lib analysis, but Chaz appears very at home in his body. Post top surgery there were many shots of him splashing around in various swimming pools, apparently unfazed with public semi-nudity, hurray! Jennifer referred to his top surgery as conferring a minor weight loss, ie his body no longer has the weight of his breasts, but he seemed unconcerned. He talked about his role model being a stocky man, and he appeared not to buy into fatphobia at all, onscreen at least. Go Chaz!

As for me, it was a total pleasure to sit in a packed screening of 400 people and see a feature-length documentary about a fat trans guy, and to see his embodiment right there, bigger than life, on a huge screen, and to know that people were witnessing it sympathetically. People will, no doubt, critique its representation of trans identity, but for now it reminded me that a) I want to see more tales of transmasculine fat, b) Becoming Chaz adds a lot to the currently fairly minimal body of work on men and fat, and c) it's great to see unapologetically fat people on screen. Also, I wish RuPaul would come round for a playdate with me.

Here's the cheesy Oprah Winfrey Network trailer for Becoming Chaz: