10 December 2012

Fat activism and making zines

The inaugural Queer Zine Fest London was held on Saturday and it was really fantastic. Loads of people came, there was a great diversity of zine-making present, and Erica Smith, the first person to publish any of my work, gave a cracking talk about GirlFrenzy. The space hosted two excellent exhibitions alongside the event, Melanie Maddison's Shape & Situate, and Music & Liberation. It felt like a super-abundance of wonderful stuff and was seriously overwhelming.

I represented at the Fest in various ways: giving out copies of new zines; having work in the Shape & Situate exhibition and being featured as one of the "inspirational European women" in its roster (!); seeing many zines to which I have contributed, and reconnecting with folks I've met along my zine way. I also gave a little Show and Tell type talk about my life in zines.

My zine production is different to my fat activism, but they often overlap, so I talked about that a bit, and I though I'd share some if it here too.

Boyfriends and comics

I met my partner Simon Murphy in 1990. He had been publishing a zine called, variously, Advenutures in Bereznik and Attack on Bereznik, since the mid-1980s. Mostly music-based, it incorporated odd articles and beautiful graphics. I had been reading similar music zines by guys for some years before meeting Simon, so we had a shared language of what constituted a zine.

In the early 1990s there was a thriving community of small press comics makers in the UK. Caption was instrumental in developing the scene, as was the Small Press Fair, and Peter Pavement's Slab-o-Concrete press in Brighton.

Panel from All Right: Voluptua and the Anemone Men
Bolstered by our shared interest in zines and small press comics, and the support of a community of makers, in 1992 Simon and I published a comic together called All Right. We made two issues, with me writing some of the scripts and Simon doing the lion's share of the work. All Right was a jumble of in-jokes, alter-egos, cuteness, and stuff that we found amusing.

This is a long-winded way of saying that this was the first time that I was able to contribute to representations of myself as a young fat woman. Simon drew me as he saw me: as loveable, gorgeous, badass. My fat activism was in its early stages and it was really fun and exciting to see myself as a cartoon character. I know that other fat activists have used cartoon forms in various ways, Cindy Baker's rendition of herself as a mascot also springs to mind. For me, it was a way of playing with my fat identity and possibility for my fat self.

Contributing to zines

GirlFrenzy number 4 cover - fat lib, The Shaggs
It took a long time until I had the confidence to make zines by myself. Instead, I contributed to other people's zines (I still do). This is how I started getting published. Two zines were really important in helping me build confidence in my fat activism, writing, and feeling that zines were the place for me.

GirlFrenzy was published by Erica Smith through six issues and a special one-off book-size Millennial. A small press comics magazine, GirlFrenzy was feminist but not like the other feminists I had known up until that point, it took more of a third wave, sex-positive and queer sensibility. Erica was an absolutely pivotal person in giving a huge hand-up to a community of British feminist small press comics makers, graphic artists and writers. So it was with me. GirlFrenzy was not purely focused on fat stuff, but Erica was open to discussion about it and broadly supportive. Hence number four was a special themed fat lib issue, to which I contributed.

The feminism that I encountered through GirlFrenzy orientated me to FaT GiRL, the legendary zine to which I also contributed pieces more or less throughout its lifespan. FaT GiRL was important to me in so many ways, not least that it gave me a way of understanding myself as a fat dyke, it melded fat with queer-feminist-punk ethics and aesthetics and early intersectional politics, and it introduced me to a community of people who are still very central to my life.

Living Large

This apa zine deserves a special mention because I don't know if such things exist any more. It really was of its time and place. I don't know if Living Large was typical of apa zines more generally but this is how it worked:

There was a membership group who contributed a small amount of money to get the thing printed and posted. Everyone was North American apart from me. Every month or so we'd write a little column and send it off. This usually took the form of an open letter to other members detailing our news, flyers and ephemera we'd come across, and direct comments to other people. Living Large was all about fat, so that was the focus of the things we'd write, sometimes it was about our opinions, but mostly it was about how fat impacted on our lives and the everyday activism we undertook around that. A central mailer would copy and collate the contributions and mail them out to everybody, stapled together as a zine.

Living Large was like the paper version of an email list or a messageboard. It meant that we had a little community of contributors in discussion with each other over months and years. Because it was a closed community, in as much as you had to contribute a little photocopying and postage money, the conversations were quite intimate and friendly.

I was a part of Living Large for a couple of years at least in the mid-1990s. I don't know what happened to my back issues, but it had been going for quite a while before me. I have number 44 on my desk. The internet meant that Living Large eventually became redundant, but in its prime it was a great way of keeping in touch with other fat activists across a wide geographical divide; many of us were otherwise pretty isolated.

One-offs

I've made many zines by myself and in collaboration, and some of my zines are part of a series whereas others, like these below, are one-offs that relate to fat in some way.

Distributing fat stuff zine
Fat Stuff
In 2006 the student services at the University of East London, where I was studying at the time, decided that it would be a good idea to host an Obesity Awareness Week, having swallowed fat panic rhetoric hook, line and sinker. Exasperated by all this, I made a tiny zine that offered a critique of Obesity Awareness Week, a list of fat activist resources available in the library, and a bunch of things people might want to do instead of participating in the uni's nonsense. I distributed them around the campus.

Things That Help Us Feel Good
In 2007 I devised and facilitated a fat activist workshop with a group of 13 and 14 year old girls for The Wellcome Institute. We made a zine together, drawing and writing a page each about what helps us feel good. I copied it and everyone got copies to keep and give away.

NOLOSE
The fat queer motherlode has supported a couple of zine projects in more recent years. In 2008 their small projects fund enabled a group of us to make a fat zine, called Big Bums, and distribute it for free.

In 2011 NOLOSE provided the impetus for my zine-based project, A Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline. Starting out as a fat-feminist-queer-trans community history workshop at the 2010 gathering, this morphed into an object that travelled and was discussed and archived, it became an artist's residency, from which a paper zine was produced, then an audio zine and a digital download. I also published an academic paper about the project and the way it shifted and changed.

Moving on

I've been reading and making zines for a long time, and have no plan to stop. Zines have brought me personal and professional delights. I still make my own, and write for other people's zines. I still try and work on the basis of making something for free, with low production values. What's changed over the years is that now I am more serious about distributing and archiving my work, and I'm considering longer-form digital publishing. Zines are the place where I am most myself, where I say what I really think, and where I'm least apologetic, including how I talk about fat.

20 November 2012

I got a PhD for fat activism

Charlotte's hard-bound thesis on her desk
Just over four years ago, I got picked to be the recipient of one of a handful of fully funded PhDs at the University of Limerick, courtesy of the Irish Social Sciences Platform. The money that paid for this came from a fantastic initiative in Irish education to make research available and applicable beyond the academy, and to raise the profile of Irish research in a global setting. I got chosen because of my publishing history and my involvement with activism. Getting a PhD was a long-held ambition of mine, but I never thought I would have the resources to embark on such a thing. I don't know if anyone else in my family has one, very few of us have had the privilege of going to university at all. I'd heard that some PhDs were funded, but again, never thought that fat could be the focus of such work. I punched the air when I heard I'd got the scholarship, I knew it would change my life, and it has.

Just over a week ago, I went to Ireland to sit the final oral exam for the PhD. I passed. Today I went to get my thesis bound and sent it off to meet the deadline for the Winter Exam Board at Limerick. There are a couple of formalities to go, and a graduation ceremony in January, but from about now onwards people can start to think about calling me Dr Charlotte. Dr Fat will do too.

Over four years I have worked really hard. As well as producing a 100,000 word thesis, an original argument based in original research, I have published peer-reviewed journal articles, chapters in edited books, and lots of other kinds of articles. I have given many conference papers, a handful of keynotes, and was proud to talk about my work at a fantastic gathering in Toronto earlier this year. I've produced and guested at workshops, made films that have shown at film festivals around the world, organised events, done a couple of artist residencies and a visiting scholarship. I've collaborated on projects with people, been involved with academic publishing in various ways, been the subject of quite a bit of media coverage, and maintained this blog. I can't count the number of conversations and emails that have happened because of this research, and I have been amazingly supported by people who want to see it out there in the world.

By the way, the work that I have produced is, as far as I know, the first publicly-funded, community based, major research project into fat activism. I am proud of that.

I'm sure I'll write more about the study as time passes. I'm looking for a publisher at the moment too, and would appreciate leads relating to that, if you have them to share. I have some plans for the future as well, but I'm not ready to explain them yet.

Meanwhile, here's the abstract for the thesis, to give you more of an idea of what I've been up to.

Abstract
Fat Activism: A Queer Autoethnography
Charlotte Cooper

Over my 20 year involvement with the movement, I have come to notice that scant attention is paid to fat activism. Despite intensified interest in fat in 21st century Western culture, the richness of fat activism is not reflected in a somewhat meagre literature, and fat activists themselves have offered few reflective or analytic accounts that deal with the depth and breadth of what they do.

Fat activism offers tools with which marginalised people can adapt and develop agency, community and capital, and contribute to social change. It has the potential to transform obesity policy from that which further entrenches fat people's abjection expensively, to that which builds on resources more compassionately and dynamically. This research project, therefore, represents one such attempt to hasten its development and overturn the trend in which fat activism is routinely assumed, taken for granted, and dismissed by activists, researchers, and institutions.

I begin by situating the research within the existing literature and go on to clarify what fat activism is, to relate it to discourse, and to build on existing theoretical work. I argue against creating universal definitions of fat activism, and invite appreciation for its more ambiguous forms. I produce an assemblage of fat feminist origins and travels, arguing that as well as being an unlimited phenomenon, it is plural, hybrid and evolving, yet suffers from stagnation. I propose that, instead of reproducing collateral damage through discourse, queering fat activism includes many communities of interest, questions binaries, and welcomes multiple interventions.

I use a scavenged autoethnography, bringing myself and the communities of fat activists to which I belong, into this work. This methodology draws attention to standpoint in the construction of fat narratives, expresses my frustration at reproductions of fat people as lifeless and passive empirical subjects, and synthesises activism and research.

07 November 2012

Constructing the fat kid in family photographs

I've been going through some of the family photographs that I inherited after my dad died a couple of months ago.

One of the things that has caught my eye has been how family photographs constructed me in the family as fat. What I mean by this is that I can remember when the pictures were taken, the kind of talk that went on about them in my family, and how these pictures in particular were supposedly evidence that I was fat, and therefore deficient.

There are fat people speckled across my family tree, but I don't think of it as being a fat family. I think I'm the fattest of the generations that I know. I've tended to think of myself as always having been fat. What's interesting to me in the family photographs is that I'm not fat in all of them. I'm quite thin in a bunch of them, and mostly pretty normatively-sized. I haven't always been fat.

I don't know what this means in terms of me constructing my own fat autobiography, I'm getting my head around that at the moment. I'm wary of thinking along the lines of trauma making me fat, or emotional problems, or that my fatness is evidence of pathology. I think it's more complicated than that. Mostly I don't care why I got fat because I'm pretty sure that I'm unlikely to get any thinner.

Between 1975-1977 I lived in Hong Kong, close to a beach. I spent a lot of time on the beach, and there was generally a camera about. Dad had bought a fancy camera, taking advantage of the availability of technological bargains on the island at that time for people who had access to money. So I was photographed quite a lot in my swimsuit, playing on the beach. The beach is the place where I also learned to swim. I realise now that I was under quite a bit of surveillance but at the time I was oblivious to it.

I want to share a handful of pictures from that period that represent the family lore about my presumed fatness. The way I'm talking about them is quite harsh, and may or may not represent what was actually said, but reflects the messages that I internalised about my body from the way it was represented in my family as I was growing up.

Charlotte as a child sitting on a boat

This is me sitting on a boat moored off a beach on one of the small islands surrounding Hong Kong. Dad knew someone who had access to a boat and we'd all pile on it on a summer weekend, a load of people, and go to a beach, swim ashore, then come home again. Idyllic!

My slightly slumpy posture on the seat, and the tiny bulge of my tummy was taken as evidence of my fatness. I remember this photo being talked about, my tummy being pointed out. I thought of it as an ugly picture, something shameful.

Charlotte eating a plate of spaghetti


This picture was taken on a walk around an island. Mum and dad were part of an ex-pat community, and communal walks were a popular way of passing the time at the weekends. Here we'd stopped to eat. I had a plate of spaghetti, I remember it now all these years later, spaghetti Milanaise. I had trouble wrangling it from the plate into my mouth. I got cross and tangled up with it. This picture was regarded as evidence of my greed and clumsiness in the family, maybe because of the guy next to me, Andy, who's looking bemused. Looks like I'm giving him the stink-eye and refusing to be made the joke. I was an embarrassment because I couldn't eat in a ladylike manner.

Playing on a beach
Playing on a beach

These two pictures are of me playing on the beach with my friends Kacey and Julia. I'm wearing a really fantastic halterneck swimsuit. We're all more or less the same age, but my friends are smaller and more wirey than me. I'm podgy in comparison, a bit of a lummox. I was aware of this difference at the time, but couldn't articulate it. I just had a feeling that I wasn't quite right.

Charlotte walking on a beach

This is me on another beach in another country in 1977. By this time I had been dieted by my mum, the food restriction had begun, and family anxiety about the size of my body was now explicit. My tummy was always explained away as puppy fat, but it never went away, I always had it. It was never regarded as just the way I was built, it was always a problem.

23 October 2012

Archiving fat lesbian feminism

I've been thinking about pictures and archives a lot lately.

After Dad died in August, I became the custodian of an archive of family photographs. I've been interested in feminist theory of family albums for a while, and I'm finding this collection of pictures to be really rich and powerful in terms of making sense of my own life.

I encountered a different kind of family archive when I was gathering material for my PhD about fat activism. I spent quite a bit of time in various archives, looking at evidence of fat feminist activism in objects and papers that had been donated by fat activists over the years. Because fat activism is relatively poorly documented, the archive is the place to be if you want to find out anything. I found handling, looking at, and reading the things I found in the archive to be very moving and exciting. Here was evidence that I'm not making this stuff up! It felt powerful to see myself within a continuum of activists.

Some archives let you take pictures of what you find, and so I have a little archive of fat feminist archival material on my computer. I thought I'd share some of it here. Because it's impossible to pick out the best stuff, I've just dipped in randomly.

Flyer or poster on yellow paper for a reading by Judith Stein and Judy Freespirit at Old Wives' Tales on 14 October 1984

This first item is a flyer for a reading by Judith Stein and Judy Freespirit. The year isn't mentioned but I did a bit of digging and I think it's 1984. I'm intrigued that these two women are billed as Two Fat Jewish Dykes. I know that Jewish dykes at this time, including Stein and Freespirit, were at the heart of fat feminism in the US. There had been a Jewish Feminist Conference in San Francisco in 1982 where Stein, and probably others, had circulated a sheet about fat oppression for discussion. Fatness and Jewishness were present amidst a broader lesbian feminism at that time, I think of this as an early attempt to articulate intersectionality in identity politics.

Other aspects of the framing of this reading seem odd to me in 2012. Dyke, although a term I use for myself because of its politicised, queer and unapologetic undertones, seems somewhat archaic. I don't hear many women, trans included, refer to themselves as dykes any more. The references to oldness, Old Wives' Tales, Bobbeh Meisehs, which is a Yiddish term also meaning old wives' tales, also strike me as odd. Queerness has become associated with youth, I think, and ageism makes it hard to imagine younger or middle-aged people playing with ideas around being old.

I like the way the flyer is copied on yellow paper, very eye-catching. I love the 'All the way from Boston and Berkeley' joke. I can imagine seeing it on a noticeboard somewhere, actually probably somewhere that doesn't exist any more, like a feminist bookshop, or a lesbian café. Maybe somewhere like Old Wives' Tales, the venue for the reading that also no longer exists. This was a bookshop on Valencia Street in San Francisco. It closed its doors for the last time in 1995, after about 20 years in business. Stein and Freespirit's reading presumably took place during its heyday.

Here are some links about the venue that offer some context for the reading:

This flyer represents to me the friendship between Stein and Freespirit, one I find inspiring. This was a political friendship, a working friendship as well as a genial and sociable relationship, perhaps a romantic one at some point too. They lived on opposite sides of the United States, they wouldn't have had the internet to help them, and they managed to maintain their friendship regardless. They produced fat feminist activist interventions together, by themselves, and with other people.

For this event they are both reading from small press publications. I'm not sure if Daddy's Girl was ever published, I think Freespirit had trouble finding a publisher and circulated some copies of it herself, but I can't be sure. I recall there is a manuscript in the GLBT Historical Society archive. Stein published Telling Bobbeh Meisehs: Notes on Identity and the Creation of Jewish Lesbian Culture, herself in Cambridge Massacusetts in 1982. This would have been before the explosion of popularity in feminist desk top publishing and zine-making in the early 1990s. It was more a scene of chapbooks and small-circulation journals.

Stein's shirt is quite something on this flyer/poster, I wish it was in full colour. Funny, too, to see her and Freespirit with dark hair when I know them as older grey-haired women. Freespirit's expression is intriguing, she looks like someone who can tell a story, which is true, she really could. When I think of her reading her account of abuse to an audience, I think of that everyday, taken-for-granted bravery of speaking that I was lucky enough to grow up with, but which nevertheless is remarkable and courageous. It makes me want to thank her, and other people like her, who continue to speak out.

The last few details of the object are about the conditions in which the reading took place. The venue is wheelchair accessible, calloo callay! Signed too! From my vantage point of London 2012, I can say that access for disabled people has dropped off the radar of radical queer life, not that venues are entirely forthcoming, and that this is depressing and needs to change. The sliding scale also rocks, though I have quite a lot of ambivalence about it being Women Only.

Remembering Judy Freespirit

09 October 2012

Fat activism, bashing back and non-violence

I went to a talk last week by a guy who edited an anthology about Bash Back and was on tour to promote his work. Bash Back is or was a movement based in the US, instigated by anti-assimilationist anarchist queers. It's not a fat thing, but like many aspects of identity politics, there are overlaps. Bash Back used a variety of tactics, including violent direct action against people and property. I understand it as a public statement by brutalised people of defiance, aggression, and refusing to take any more shit.

I did not warm to the guy who spoke. He was just getting into the stride of a self-aggrandising monologue after an hour and a half. I found him arrogant and patronising, a big baby, and wondered if he had any idea about political cultures in the UK, or thought that people here needed educating and inspiring by US activists. He made no mention of historical violent counter-cultural struggle in Europe, such as The Red Army Faction, The Angry Brigade, or radical groups like The Weather Underground or even The Symbionese Liberation Army in the US, which look like blueprints for Bash Back, and ended very badly for the protagonists. Not even a mention of the IRA.

Added to this, I was angry at his racist dismissal of non-violent resistance, his sneering mention of Ghandi, whom he equated with the passive and politically useless caricature of the candlelight vigil (my partner remarked, later on, "Well, you know, that Gandhi stuff worked for India" ie, it had the power to destroy colonialism).

As if that wasn't enough, I was also appalled by his excitement about vigilante mob responses to violence, particularly an episode where Bash Back queers torched a lesbian business because they disagreed with their politics. He said a few times that violence by queer people against assimilationist gay people is as queer as it gets. He conceptualised queer as a hierarchy of radicalism, with him and his pals at the top. But distinctions between radical and assimilationist are not always straightforward; what about Angela Mason, who was associated with The Angry Brigade, and who went on to chair the UK's primo assimilationist lesbian and gay rights organisation for many years?

I could go on complaining about him, but I won't, suffice to say that it was tragic to see baby queers and people who should know better in the audience laughing and going along with him. I felt sorry for the person who was touring with him, who was waiting for their turn to show and tell, who must have to listen to this stuff night after night.

The guy's talk was a test of endurance, but it did prompt me to think more deeply about a few of my own attitudes to political violence in relation to fat activism and my queer anarchist background. These are not always as straightforward as being 'pro' or 'anti' violence. I admire The Black Panthers, for example, and have some understanding of the context in which they bore arms, but I am flatly, completely against gun ownership and believe there is no place for them in everyday life except at the shooting range.

Here are a few more thoughts:

Fantasising about violence is understandable, it's a rare person who hasn't daydreamed about mowing down their enemies, but it is not alright if it spills into non-consensual material reality.

Violence against people is never alright, attacking property where nobody is hurt is more complicated and depends on many factors. Defacing billboards does not strike me as particularly problematic, for example, especially if you can make something more thought provoking out of them, though it's probably annoying for the person that is responsible for putting them up. But burning down someone's house because they did something heinous, as the guy claimed Bash back did? Forget it!

Adding violence to an already violent situation does not end violence, it escalates it. The people who suffer most when violence is brought into the equation are those who are already at the bottom of the pile. Has violence ever made you anything but afraid, full of rage, helpless, devastated, vengeful? I think it's a fantasy too that people ever learn a good lesson through violence, that is, the lesson that the people behind the violence want you to learn. I once went to a school where children were punished by ritualised beatings dished out by the headmaster. If you're crass enough to think this is sexy, you don't deserve to be reading my blog. What this did was create and teach a totalitarian culture of terror and snitching, but it's also one of the things that made me an anarchist, and determined to use my power to abolish systems and cultures like those at that school.

Where people are brutalised and emotions run high, violence, and symbolic violence, appear to offer a simple way out. I see this in knee-jerk responses to fat hate, for example, which construct an enemy in order to dehumanise it. But freedom sought at someone else's expense is not freedom at all, and I am really sick of this kind of aggression in the movement. The problem is that peace-building is hard work. It is a long-term commitment to mind-bending struggle and slog, it requires vision and hope. Seeing your enemy as people like you is a tough call, as is building dialogue, understanding and compromise. This is the work that comes from valuing the equality and validity of all beings, of seeking an ethical use of power. It's a while since I've thought about peace in this way, and I'm surprised that I feel so strongly about it – maybe I haven't been brutalised enough! But in reflecting on power and identity politics, I feel redetermined to invest in more imaginative, complex, and altruistic responses to violence within fat activism.

02 October 2012

Fatphobia and the outdoors

This is where we were walking
A few weeks ago I went for a walk in the Cumbrian countryside with my girlfriend. We were aiming for a place where you can swim when it's warm, a series of waterfalls and natural pools. It was too cold to get in, but I still wanted to see the water. The walk was short, less than a mile, and took us across a campsite, along a river, and up and over a rocky patch. It's very rainy in that part of the world, and there were some areas where we had to hop on rocks to get over a stream.

One stream hop was somewhat precarious, and we hooted and laughed as we scrambled over. A man and a woman were walking towards us as we teetered forwards over the water. The man wanted to be in on our fun, and he said as he walked past us, without missing a beat, and smiling: "You need more exercise."

There are a handful of reasons why this comment was a no-no, and I will explain some of them here.

Our bodies as fat women are public bodies, commentated bodies, dehumanised bodies too. We're not assumed to have the power to articulate our bodies for ourselves, but we are presumed available for others to describe, define and constrict. Without knowing a thing about us this (yes, white, older, normatively-sized, able-bodied, middle-class, appropriately-dressed, straight-looking) guy felt entitled to comment on what it is we are and need based on nothing more than momentarily seeing us teetering and giggling over a stream. This happens to fat people all the time.

If fatphobia was not part of how fat women's bodies are commented upon, "you need more exercise" would not be a tricky statement, but the man's comment came saturated with a discourse of judgment, hatred and morality. This discourse is so everyday and accepted that the guy didn't even appear to think that it was a problem, he was likely just stating a fact in a friendly way and was probably baffled by my angry response.

Whether or not we need more exercise is not his judgment to make. Maybe we could do with more, but here we were, walking to some ponds, just like him. This makes me think that we are getting enough exercise, that we are able to judge for ourselves the appropriate amount of exercise we need and want. We weren't fast or agile, but we were doing things in our own way, and this is allowed.

"You need more exercise" offended me for another reason. I live on streets, not by mountains. Walking out in the wild takes courage, when I am scrambling up some rocks or finding my way over unfamiliar ground I am vulnerable. A casual order such as "you need more exercise" is insensitive. A welcome to the hillside, and congratulations on having got that far would have been a much better bet.

As soon as the words were out of his mouth I replied: "No we don't" in the tone of a sullen teenager. It's not a great response, but I am glad this was my default, rather than something that communicated an apology for existing. Then I got angry and called him a judgmental prick. The woman scurried along behind him and I felt like shouting that I felt sorry for her, but I didn't.

I hate getting riled by strangers, I usually stay silent because shouting back rarely makes me feel good. So it was with this incident, it cast a pall over what had been a pleasant walk, and I worried afterwards when we stopped for a rest that we would see him and have a confrontation in the only pub for miles.

This is a bitty post, I think the main thing is about documenting fatphobia. It was a tiny (but big) thing said in an unlikely place, out in the wild, there really is no escaping people's hate.

The episode has made me think about what it is to put yourself out there in nature when you are fat. I can't speak for Kay but I know that I tend to feel like a fraud when I am walking in the countryside. I go slowly and carefully, I'm not one of those striders. I don't look the part. I wear boots I got from the Big Bum Jumble, but I don't have any special gear, mostly I just put on some jeans, a hoodie or a raincoat. Not that I could wear anything else, fancy walking gear doesn't come in my size. Outdoorsy marketing would suggest that the hills and lakes are the domain of wiry and muscly white people who run everywhere. Of the other people we saw whilst we were out and about in Cumbria, none really looked like us.

The fraudulent feeling is connected to a broader sense that I don't belong out in the world, that exploring wild terrain, or feeling a connection to nature is for other people, like the man we encountered, not me. (I know that some black and Asian people in the UK have written about not going to or feeling part of the countryside, with good reason, I too associate country politics and culture with intolerance). Anyway, this is a terrible feeling, not helped by that guy's thoughtless comment, or organisations like the Ramblers Association and their bullshit anti-obesity campaigning. I want to feel more able to enter wild places and feel that I belong there as a queer fat woman. Suggestions as to how to do this are welcome.

Edited to add: Sazz has ideas about this.

01 October 2012

I entered the 2012 World Gurning Championships

Charlotte at The 2012 World Gurning Championships
This post isn't really about fat, but it is about beauty and ugliness. I tend to avoid writing about overlapping subjects that I think are often taken as proxies for fat, particularly within feminist theory, because I don't want to lose the centrality of fat to the things I'm working on or thinking about. But here I am making an exception because this experience was so extraordinary.

I don't know when I first encountered gurning. I think I was really young. Perhaps I found out about it from watching The Generation Game, or some local news snippet. The idea of gurning on mainstream TV is ludicrous today, but times were different then. As with life's greatest pleasures, gurning appealed and appalled in equal measure. I think it would be hard to find someone of my generation and demographic who isn't faintly obsessed by it.

Gurning, for people who don't know, is the act of pulling a really grotesque face. The idea is to rearrange your features in the most bizarre and dramatic way possible, without using your hands or any other devices. Its sheer muscle power and imagination. Gurning is about transforming your face. People who are very pretty, very ugly, old, or with supernatural facial control have an advantage as gurners, as do people with no teeth. People on certain rave drugs often find themselves gurning like crazy at 4am, but this is a different kind of gurning to that which I am talking about here.

Egremont, a small town in Cumbria, is the place to be if you are a gurner. Every September the town hosts The Egremont Crab Fair, a gathering that first took place in 1267. The Crab Fair includes a parade, an agricultural fair, a funfair, street entertainment, and The World Gurning Championships.

There are three competitions in the Championship: Junior, Ladies' and Men's. For 27 years the Ladies' competition had been dominated by Anne Woods, but age and frailty had brought about her retirement. In 2011 a younger woman took the trophy. My girlfriend Kay saw her picture in the paper one morning and thought "I could do better than that." This is how the pair of us ended up 300 miles from home, gurning for our lives in front of a packed Market Hall.

We arrived at Egremont too late to see the street parade, but in time to enjoy some of the goings-on in the field. My favourite things were the giant onions in the produce competition, the fancy pigeon competition, the ferret display, and Egremont Town Band. I wish I'd had a better view of the Cumberland and Westmoreland wrestling competition. I stroked an owl and Kay patted a horse. It was a grey day, but people weren't put off by that, or the mud, and there was a good turn-out.

We went off to get some dinner, and then returned to the Market Hall, arriving to a set by Don MacKay, a crooner who sang some karaoke pop hits to get everyone going. A pair of beautiful oil paintings of legendary gurners decorated each side of the stage, we'd come to the right place! In the build-up to the gurning competitions, we enjoyed a Junior Talent Contest, and other competitions for horn-blowing and, er, hunting songs, as well as some comedy and singing. The crowd got busier as the night went on, there was a great atmosphere.

Then it was gurning time. The compere brought on the judges: the Lord Mayor and Lady Mayoress of Copeland, the boss of Egremont and Area Regeneration Partnership, and a bigwig from Sellafield, the local nuclear power plant that employs many people in and around Egremont. They sat at a table at the side of the stage.

Anyone can sign up to take part in the Championship. You just have to go and put your name down on the list for each competition. You then get called up to the stage, the compere asks where you're from, and you go over to another guy called Kevin who puts the braffin round your neck. The braffin is a horse collar used to frame each gurner's face. You gurn, he guides you to the judges where you gurn at each of them in turn. Kevin then shuffles you to the middle of the stage, where you gurn wildly at the audience to the left, the centre and the right. Everyone gets a good look at your gurn and cheers or cringes appropriately. I didn't realise this before, but your stance is also part of the gurn, lots of people pulled a kind of ape-like, lumbering stance, most people are sort of crouch when they put on the braffin, like they're ready to spring at you. It is an assertive stance. After you've gurned, the braffin comes off, you leave the stage and watch the rest, hoping that you've given it your best.

During the wonderful kids' competition I started to see a bit more of what gurning is about, or at least what I think it's about. The rules say that you are judged on your ability to transform your face. Before the competition, I wondered if gurning drew on people's fear and hatred of disabled faces, or underclass faces. When I was a kid it was common to do disablist renditions of 'flid' or 'spazz' in the playground, indicating stupidity. I wondered, too, if the gurn was connected to racist caricatures of the primitive savage, especially given people's animalistic stances. I'm not sure, but I don't think so. Gurning looked much more to me like an embodied discourse of disrespect using the pleasures of being really grotesque. This is very queer, I think. You gurn to a panel of the great and the good, in front of an audience of people over whom they have power. I couldn't help but think that this was a great subversion of their power, and a reclaiming of power for the people. "You think you're so great? Here's what I think of you, and you can't touch me," is the sentiment I felt in the competition. It reminded me of sticking your tongue out, or pulling a face behind one's back, forms of resistance that anyone can do. Although you're gurning at the judges, you're gurning for the audience, from which you come and to which you return. Generations of gurning families take part in the Championships every year. I love that passing-on of gurning know-how.

I hadn't planned on entering myself into the gurning, but I enjoyed seeing the kids pull faces at the Lord and Lady Mayor so much that I thought, "Why not?". Who wouldn't want the chance to pull a terrible face at a manager of a nuclear power plant in front of people he hires, fires and bosses around? Kay didn't mind and didn't think I'd be stealing her thunder. I practised a face quickly, downturned mouth, crinkly chin, cross-eyes, and surprised eyebrows. That would do.

Suddenly it was the Ladies' competition and I was called up first. My legs were shaking as I got on the stage. I went and gurned as hard as I could. I couldn't really see anything because my eyes were crossed, but I made out the kindly and interested judges' expressions as I pulled the most insolent face at them I could muster. As Kevin shuffled me to the middle of the stage, I felt that I had to do something with my arms, so I pretended to be an angry bearcat and clawed at the air with my fingers. Here's a tiny video clip (.mov, 3mb). Kevin took the braffin off me and I nipped down the stairs to watch Kay take her turn. She was brilliant.

Kay's secret weapon in the competition was her fat neck, a feature that she had already put to good use in various fancy dress scenarios, and in group or formal photographs where she wishes to convey disrespect. I have a photo of her doing 'fat neck' on the jumbotron at the Aquatic Centre in the Olympic Park, for example, as well as another of her standing with a pair of armed police. I would like to get a picture of her doing fat neck with a royal, or one of the Camerons. I didn't think fat neck was enough to get her through the competition, so she pulled a variety of faces and in the weeks before the competition I coached her through a gurn that drew on the best elements. This included fat neck, protuberant wet lips, one big bulging glaring eye, one small, and some forehead wrinkles. Killer!

I feel compelled to talk about gender and gurning. The women's – or rather, ladies' – competition is secondary to the men's. I don't know how long there has been a women's competition, they aren't included on the Crab Fair's Gurning Hall of Fame, although there are notes that women entered the main competition for the first time in 1966, and 1974 was the only time a woman in that competition reached the top three. The women's prizes are smaller, there are fewer entrants, and far less fanfair, although 2012 marked the first time the Anne Woods prize, a special prize, was awarded to the women's winner.

I think it's terrible that women are secondary, though it reflects a common and wider marginalisation of women in sport in general. It might also echo the social positioning of women in northern working class communities such as Egremont, most of the entrants were from much further away whereas the men's competition is more local. But gurning is far risker for a woman than for a man. Women are supposed to be pretty and nice, and compliant. Gurning is a fantastic refusal of those social constrictions, it is a really brave thing for a woman, a lady no less, to make herself publicly and gloriously ugly, or to flaunt her age or toothlessness, and to seek reward for it. I think the guts of women who dare to gurn should be acknowledged.

There was a short break and then it was the men's competition. About twenty men took part, give or take a few. Up they popped, one after the other. Most were forgettable, but some were really amazing. How do they get their faces to do that? It was no surprise that Tommy Mattinson scooped the title for the fourteenth(?) time. In everyday life he looks like a distant cousin of George Michael, but that braffin transforms him into something eye-popping and inexplicable. I can't even describe it, let alone think about how he manages to do it. His gurn is terrifying and awesome. The runners up also did things with their faces too weird to understand.

Neither Kay nor I won the women's title, alas. But Kay came second! She won a rosette, a plaque and £20. We were elated! I think Kay's gurn must have been really good for the judges to award a southerner a prize. Helen Irving was truly deserving of the winning spot, delivering a gurn in which she, um, inflated her face. As we left the Market Hall, we saw her sitting with Anne Woods, hopefully swapping tips and notes. Gurn on, sisters.

13 September 2012

Fat, diversity, inclusion and underwear

I just read Cora Harrington's post, Diversity Is More Than a Bra Size: What It’s Like to Be a Woman of Color in the Lingerie Industry and I thought it was really great.

This is where I start in relation to the post: I don't know how representative of my life the lingerie industry is, or that I care about it very much. Some people care a lot, and that's fine by me. Ditto representation debates, which don't excite me very much in general and come back to these questions again and again: Do I need to see more mainstream representations of people like me in order to feel like a valid person? No. Do I want my image to be used to sell things? No. Do I think capitalism and mass media are a scourge? Yep. Do I want to see more fat people out in the world, living their lives? Yes. Do I love images of rad fat people? Yeah! It's mixed for me, but again, many people are really invested in mainstream representation and I'm happy for them to get on with it.

What I like a lot about this post is the questions Harrington raises about how she thinks fat is coming to represent diversity in her milieu. Her argument, as I see it, is that this means that other underrepresented groups, especially women of colour, older and disabled women, are not part of this rhetoric.

I think Harrington handles this issue with great sensitivity, generosity and no shaming or competitiveness. She just wants a greater conceptualisation of diversity to include, well, diverse people. I want that too.

My two thoughts:

1. It's amazing that fat has come to occupy a prominent position in Harrington's industry. (I know 'size' in a discussion about lingerie also refers to cup size, which doesn't necessarily correlate with fat, but I'm going to conveniently ignore that because it's the fat stuff that interests me). I suspect this is an effect of the pressure that fatshion activists and bloggers have been putting on manufacturers for some time now. I have mixed feelings about this again, fatshion as free market research for corporations strikes me as sadly conservative, I can't get excited about consumer citizenship. At the same time, fat is being positioned as something powerful, something that people want to get on board with, something valuable. Talk about resisting stigma and abjection.

2. It's clearly no good that fat should represent diversity when diverse people are excluded from the conversation. On reading Harrington's post I kept thinking about recent fights about racism in fat activism. I can't help feeling that she has been let down by a fat activism that has not always actively lobbied for the inclusion of every kind of person. The fat people that have achieved some recognition, in the lingerie industry for example, are white and not so diverse, and this is not ok. This is especially relevant given that fat activism is a social movement that has benefitted greatly from wider anti-oppressive struggles - without always examining its own shit in relation to race, disability, gender and so on. Although a large part of the fat activism around today has origins in civil rights protests and radical politics, the movement often suffers from a lack of political engagement with wider anti-oppressive practice.

Harrington has been extremely gracious in her approach to building inclusivity within the world of her blog. I now have some Words of Wisdom for everyone else. You may know this already but I'm going to reiterate it because I am a pompous windbag and it needs restating often: fat white bloggers, and people in general, please take note of Harrington's post. You don't have to care about lingerie but this is how it is done, this is how you engage with diverse people. As you work for power, access and representation you need to make sure that nobody else is left behind.

16 August 2012

Carrying my father's weight

My father died suddenly last week. He had been ill for some time, but it was still a surprise ending to his life, though not a painful or terrible death, as far as I know. I have been in the shock part of grief for a few days, and now this is shifting to a different set of feelings. To say we had a complicated relationship is the understatement of the century, so my grief, too, is complicated.

As a child I was told over and over again that I looked like my mum, but these days I see a lot more dad in me, and some of that is down to my fatness, my ginger colouring, and my sense of physical strength. I related to my dad as a fat man, but he was not always fat. This has implications for how I see my own body as a fat person; was I always fat too? What if I wasn't? Looking through old photographs, I can see that his body changed quite a bit, getting fatter and thinner at various times. In his thirties, he was sort of chunky, then the drinking took hold and he grew a belly and a double chin. Physical memories of my dad are about being a kid snuggled up to his big chest, invariably clothed in a rough, chunky jumper. I remember seeing him in hospital just over ten years ago and being shocked at how thin he had become with the cancer. But he had a strong body, he survived that cancer, he carried on, and although he was very ill when he died, he also drove a moped and gardened, and was relatively active up until the end.

When my mum died in 1987 I got scared that I would die if I didn't lose weight. I was 18 years old. I went on the last diet I would ever do, and because I was doing the cooking and cleaning and was basically keeping everything together, I also put dad on the same diet. On Monday, when I went to his place to pick up some photos and things, I saw that he'd got that same diet book on his bookshelf, he'd decided to do it again. He also had that creep Paul McKenna's I Can Make You Thin. My own book, Fat & Proud, wasn't there, he told me he'd ordered it when it came out in 1998, but that could have been a lie. In any case, we never really talked about it, or about fat, apart from in a video project I did for my Master's degree in 1994. To me it looks like my life's work passed him by.

Dad was cremated early on Tuesday morning. When the funeral director invited people to carry his coffin, I was one of those who stepped forward. I wasn't even sure that I was allowed, despite my feminism, and having attended many funerals, I've never seen a coffin carried by women. But no one stopped me, so I took my place and I helped carry my dad's body. It felt like a metaphor for the emotional carrying I've done in relation to him over the years. But it was also a very physical experience. He was heavy! I had to use all my strength to carry him, from my feet planted firmly on the ground, through my legs, arms and belly. As I carried him I thought: "I am a strong fat woman carrying my dad's body, I can feel the weight of him, this is a fat man's body, a body to which I am connected. I can do this, and I can see what I am doing." And then it was time to say goodbye.

26 July 2012

Being called disgusting, ugly, and unhealthy did not destroy me

A person made a mean and thoughtless comment about one of Substantia's Adipositivity portraits of me recently, I saw it just now. This is not front page news, I get trolled fairly often and I don't expect everybody to like what I do. Neither do I need reassurance that I'm nice, good, pretty enough as I am; whether or not I embody those things is irrelevant to me, I'm as complex as anybody else and I trust my sense of ethics.

I'm intrigued by the comment, if anything. I think this is because I am writing this morning about my affective response to obesity discourse. I often write about obesity discourse and the fat hatred it engenders in abstract ways, but here it is, like dirty smoke manifesting from the ether, finding a vessel in this person. The comment represents the entitlement of the discourse, its arrogance towards and alienation from the subjects – fat people – with whom it is apparently concerned.

Other people might feel devastated by such a comment, but I don't. This is not because I'm not a thinking, feeling person myself, I often feel hurt by things. It's because its separation from anything that is meaningful to me about being a fat dyke, or a person in one of Substantia's pictures, means that it will make no difference to how I live my life. The comment feels as mystifying and alien as if an ant had tried to explain something to me in ant-language.

I decided to look at the comment more closely and pick it apart a little, there's so much going on in that short statement measuring the value of my presence in the world. It goes like this: "I'm sorry, but this will never be beautiful. It's disgusting, it's ugly, it's unhealthy."

It starts as an apology but is not an apology. Why say sorry? What apology are they making? Are they trying to gently divest people from their fantasy that the photograph of me is something that might help them feel as though they can live in the world?

They use the dehumanising words "this" and "it" when talking about me. Or is this about me? Perhaps it's about the picture, the outfit, the street or, more likely, the fat on my body as an entity that is separate to me.

They use the term "never". How can they know? Many people have expressed deep affection for this picture. As it was being taken, a guy on the street asked for my number (that's him in the foreground blur). On what authority can they make that claim of "never"? It's nonsense.

It's kind of amazing to be called disgusting! I wonder if the person feels like vomiting when they see me, if that feeling of disgustingness is about trying to eject me from their own being because I upset how they want things to be so intensely. I secretly hope so because, apart from someone shitting or dying at the sight of you, this is the ultimate punken reaction. I am glad to be so disruptive and uncomfortable a presence.

But being called disgusting and ugly doesn't make sense in the context of their Tumblr. There are lots of pictures of punks, how come they don't recognise how punk I am? There are images of fat people too, cartoons mostly, how come they're ok but I am not? Scrolling through, I can see images of someone gleefully pointing a gun at the viewer; a wave of blood; a chainsaw killer; a hanged yuppie with a plastic bag over his head; Charles Manson; a woman with a pretty punched mouth and another woman with a pretty black eye; a stitched wound; a potato shitting chips! I am uglier and more disgusting than those things in this person's universe, I think I'm supposed to mind, women are supposed to care about being called ugly, but I don't.

The commenter does not know me and does not appear to have any qualifications that would enable them to assess the state of my health, yet they feel entitled to judge me. Typically, this form of judgment brings with it none of the compassion that one might extend to someone who was unwell, not that I want to be concern-trolled.

I don't know how to end this. I think I'm astonished by some people's capacity for thoughtless meanness, perhaps I don't come across much of that in my everyday life. The experience has made me reflect on how profoundly the internet affects how I live, the things I can do and witness, a life without it is unimaginable. It's made me think about accountability online, how off-the-cuff comments are not necessarily throwaway. Mostly I feel strong, politically and intellectually engaged with what it is to be fat; I feel alright. It's a miracle, really - actually it's not a miracle, you're looking at what happens after 20+ years of work.

PS. I sent this: Hi there, I wrote a blog post inspired by your comment about my picture. Perhaps you'd like to respond? It would be good to generate some dialogue. Tumblr won't let me send a link but you can get to the piece by Googling 'Obesity Timebomb'. Charlotte

23 July 2012

Bari-Suits dehumanise fat people

When I first started encountering fat activism in the US in the early 90s, accessible medical equipment was a big issue. People couldn't get hospital gowns or blood pressure cuffs that fitted. When you're unwell or disabled and needing assistance, being treated with dignity is an important part of how people should care for you. When you're fat, you can't count on this kind of care because medical fatphobia is so endemic.

The emergence and popularity of surgical weight loss technologies, and casualties from other forms of weight loss, also added to a population of fat people who needed accessible medical care around the time that activists were demanding accessible equipment. Medical supply companies soon realised that they were looking at a profitable niche market. Benmor Medical is one such company, it was established in 1996 and now sells a line of products such as larger-sized wheelchairs, wide walking-frames, big bedpans, and gadgets that help move you around safely and gently if you are fat and otherwise immobile, and which guard the safety of the people moving you too.

What makes me queasy about Benmor Medical is that its products are not the result of critical community consultation with fat people encountering medical systems. Instead it sells products that reflect the interests of medical discourse, and within this model fat people can only exist as 'patients', that is, bottom-dwellers in the hegemony of health professionals. So as well as marketing mobility aids, it also sells a range of scales because weighing fat people is extremely important in this particular framework. This kind of marketing reproduces fat people as little more than medicalised meat. Added to this, I noticed on their news page that they were proud to have had their products placed in an exploitative TV obeso-shockumentary. Benmor Medical's language is of care and concern, but fat people have an ambiguous and unsettling place in the company's values, our voices and images are strangely absent, far less important than the tantalising equipment.

I found out about Benmor Medical because a few weeks ago my friend Liz alerted me to one of their products, the Bari-Suit. This is a "Training & Education" product that was awarded Most Interesting New Product at the Moving and Handling Conference 2012. Interesting it is.

It's a fat suit.

Marisa Meltzer's piece from 2006 framing fat suits as blackface still rings strongly, but I have written before that on some rare occasions fat suits can be eye-opening. Unfortunately the Bari-Suit has none of the nuance of a performance at Burger Queen, it is simply dehumanising and offensive, and presumably extremely expensive and profitable. There's no price on the website, you have to endure the Benmor Medical sales patter if you want to see how much it costs to rent or buy and when something is missing a price tag it usually means that it costs a fortune. It comes 'naked,' or dressed in Benmor Medical-branded sweats. It is so plainly ludicrous and vile that I wish I were making it up.

Medical teams could be employing actual fat people as part of their training into care for fat people in medical situations. This would entail having to talk to fat people with respect and care, finding out about fat people's lives, having to listen and create care paths that reflect direct accounts of what fat people need and want. This could be a great way of sharing knowledge between service providers and service users. The fat person gets paid for their expertise too!

Instead, they spend a lot of money on Benmor Medical's stupid, ugly fat suit. They get a normatively-sized person to try it on, they heave them about, they learn nothing at all about fat embodiment or identity in healthcare. In addition, using a fat suit in place of an actual person reinforces normatively-sized people's fantasies and stereotypes about what it is to be fat. This is particularly powerful because they do this as a group and the beliefs remain unquestioned because either there are no fat people in the room to counter them, or the fat people in the room are silenced by this ridiculous charade. This is what Benmor Medical regard as a good result, it's from the promotional download for their Bari-Suit from the company's website:

"Maryke Gosliga, Manual Handling Co-ordinator at Kettering General Hospital [...] commented: 'Having rented the suit for a bariatric study day this January, I have to say that it was a decision I am glad to have made. Seeing one of their colleagues wearing the suit made others really think about the issues, especially as it made the person wearing it less independent, because of the mechanics involved. Getting the trousers on was difficult, as was moving about. Those who did wear the suit learnt a lot that day! Altogether it was a good experience for all of us on our study day.'"

I can barely bring myself to comment on this patronising rubbish and I am struggling not to be sarcastic about how this team really thought about the issues, the mechanics, and the difficulty of getting those horrible trousers on and off. Good work, Kettering General!

The Bari-Suit truly exemplifies the profound inability of medical professionals to see fat people as human or real in a context where this must surely be the baseline from which care is given. Instead, a nasty little outfit is seen as an adequate substitution for years of experience, complex relationships to embodiment, engagement with social exclusion, or the possibilities that fat people have community and culture and agency of far more depth than medical discourse can currently encompass. Benmor Medical are not the originators of this state of affairs, the rot is much more pervasive, it's a part of the culture from which they profit.

I want to add a brief coda. At the end of June I had the great good fortune to attend the Allied Media Conference in Detroit. This is a really fantastic event combining grassroots activism with DIY media technology, defined in the broadest of ways. Many different types of people attend. Look at the session lists and comments and archived videoed sessions to get a feel for the conference, save up and attend next year if you can, I can't recommend it highly enough and would love to return.

The conference has been going for some years and each year there are particular session threads devoted to certain areas of interest. This year Research Justice was one such theme. This refers to the practice of developing accountable, participatory and liberatory research methodologies, especially when directed towards marginalised people. These values should be at the heart of all research, of course, but this is not always the case, especially in terms of obesity research, where fat people are routinely made abject and absent.

At one of the Research Justice sessions, speakers talked about establishing and using community ethics boards as a means of making sure that research on those communities is accountable and inclusive. I thought this was an excellent and powerful idea. Imagine if every piece of obesity research had to pass a fat community ethics board in order to get funded or published, or to have any credibility in research communities. Imagine how that could help transform the current dismal situation for critical research into fat, and how that could alter the landscape for our encounters with medical science. It would mean no more Bari-Suits for sure.

Incidentally, I am intrigued by the popularisation of the term 'bariatric' and its diminutives. Are there any etymologists in the house who can illuminate its source and growth? It's one of those professional-expert-medic words that sounds so neutral but masks a world of problematic assumptions.

Meltzer, M. (2006) 'Are Fat Suits the New Blackface? Hollywood’s Big New Minstrel Show' in Jervis, L. and Zeisler, A., eds., Bitchfest: Ten Years of Cultural Criticism from the Pages of Bitch Magazine, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 267-269.

11 July 2012

I got fat-papped* for the tabloids

Mike Lawn's picture of us
I co-produced an event at the weekend called The Fattylympics. I've given an account of what this work entailed elsewhere.

Unfortunately, despite our best efforts to keep them out, the event took place in an open space and was gate-crashed by some journalists who refused to respect our clearly-stated request that they stay away. This is ordinary behaviour in the UK, where unethical practise is endemic within the profession. One of the journalists was a photographer called Mike Lawn (possibly a pseudonym, the URL has the name Graham and files attributed to that name), who provides work for the Daily Mail, a right-wing tabloid. Lawn sneaked around all day, failing to disclose that he was a professional photographer, he took pictures of people without their consent and sold them for publication to a newspaper that probably everyone featured in it hates. I was one of the people, someone else was featured and mis-named as me (maybe because inter-departmental communication at the Mail is terrible, maybe because all fatties look the same to the normals, or could it even have been a strategy for covering their arses legally if they didn't actually name us correctly in the photographs?!).

I'm interested in the idea of fat people as objects of fascination. We are objects of fascination in medicine, and in research. I hadn't been able to articulate it until now but we are also photographic objects of fascination. Headless fatties make this clear. And being an object of fascination brings with it forms of symbolic violence; we are dehumanised and belittled in that gaze. Perhaps the quality of the fascination in each field varies, but it's a fascination nevertheless, people really want to look at us, especially when they are sure that we won't stare back or look at them. No one looked back at Mike Lawn, he's as forgettable as they come, but he was looking at all of us keenly on Saturday.

It is ludicrous to think of myself as a pappable object, an object of fascination. At the moment I spend most days at home, working on my thesis. I lead a fairly quiet life, with moments of exuberance like the Fattylympics dotted around it. I live on a small amount of money, I don't pursue fame or draw attention to myself through my appearance, although I am opinionated and like to share my thoughts where I can. I am mostly very obscure and unknown. It's unbelievable that my picture would help to sell newspapers, especially all red-faced at the end of a sweaty day, with my hair all dishevelled, and topped with a preposterous Fattylympics towelling headband. I was wearing Birkenstocks too.

I remember the moment it happened. Kay and I went to fetch the Fattylympics medals from the back of the car. This was the first time we had been alone together since the event started, and it was the last push before it was time to end. We were chatting intimately as we walked with the pole full of medals towards the venue. A guy hopped out from nowhere and took pictures of us without asking. I remember his weird, hunched over stance which I now understand was the stance of a photographer. He didn't have a showy camera. I foolishly assumed that because we were having a private moment we were immune to any intrusion. I thought it was weird he'd want to take our picture in that moment and asked him to send us his pictures. "I will," he said. Reader, he didn't. The reason he didn't is that the pictures he took are worth money to him and won't be thrown away on Facebook, or given to anyone. Maybe he'll sell them, and others he took, elsewhere.

Going through the photographs that other people shared, I see Mike Lawn more clearly. It's chilling to see him appear in other people's pictures, seeing him getting in there, taking pictures of trusting, unsuspecting people. This may be legal but it is abusive. Mike, you are probably reading this, what do you say? How much money did you earn from taking our pictures? How are you going to make this better?

I have regrets about how this played out on Saturday. We could not stop the media from gate-crashing, we confronted some people and did the best we could to keep an eye open for intrusive and unwanted behaviour, but these people are sneaky liars and they did their job under those terms. On the other hand, we could have been clearer about warning people that photographers and journalists may have been present. Because of these experiences I will probably never again produce a fat activist event in an open space. Thanks Mike.

Until fat people stop being dehumanised objects of fascination, we will continue to be money-makers for exploitative journalists and photographers. This means that fat activists, especially those in the UK, or any place where the media is feral, might think about building media strategies that protect participants, especially during public actions. This is a big job. It entails building media literacy, building enough self-esteem in people to be able to say no to all forms of exploitative journalism, to develop practical strategies for keeping people safe from media intrusion.

There are small consolations from the experience. A picture of two fat dykes carrying a pole of home-made medals appeared in a high-circulation newspaper. Hello, we exist. And Kay was wearing a t-shirt that I got her at the Allied Media Conference, for a fantastic project called All of Us or None, which fights discrimination against prisoners and supports prisoner rights. I am glad the image of a golden fist and the slogan All of Us or None got reproduced far and wide. It would have been better had we given our consent, however.

*papped = to have your picture taken by a paparazzo. Fat-papped = to have your picture taken and sold without your consent because you are fat.

09 July 2012

Report: Fattylympics

Pic by Matthew Cunningham
I have uploaded a long post on the Fattylympics blog that explains what we did. It's rich and complicated! Essential reading for fat activists, but then I would say that. There will be pictures and video shortly.

Fattylympics: This is what we did

29 June 2012

Report: The Queerness of Fat Activism 2012

Jen took this picture of me trying to
look suitably authoritative
in my light-up epidemic tiara
I am on the road and struggling to find mental space to gather my thoughts at the moment, but I don't want this to pass without comment from me.

I just wanted to say that The Queerness of Fat Activism presentation and panel in Toronto this week was a really fantastic experience, I'm so proud to have been a part of it and feel very hopeful about it too. Here are five reasons why:

1. I don't know how many people came, I tried to count and estimate, maybe around 200? Anyway, we packed the ballroom at The Gladstone Hotel in Toronto. I'm sorry that people had to stand, but you know you're onto a good thing when people decide to stay and listen to what is basically a lecture despite not having a place to sit.

2. I have heard many people in Toronto say that there isn't much fat activism there. Yet this is a city that can pack out a ballroom to hear someone from out of town talk about fat. This proves that there is a constituency and an appetite for fat activism in the city. It means that if people want to do stuff around fat, other people will support it. This is very exciting.

3. I thought it was really great to speak and have a panel of diverse local fat activists talk about my work and make the space their own. They were: Onyii Udegbe, Gigi Basanta, Chelsey Lichtman, Michelle Allison, Nik Red, Jennifer DePoe, Alina Cubas and Tracy Tidgwell. I have become so irritable about activists who talk at communities that are not their own and start making demands without really understanding the local picture. Anyway, it felt like a really great dialogue and it gave me a lot of things to think about, especially Onyii's questions about what fat activism might look like for people who have experienced genocide. It made me hunger for more deep and thoughtful engagement with intersectionality.

4. It wasn't just the panel that made this a community event, there were many people supporting it, including an organising committee, volunteers, performers and party-makers, inter-departmental academics at Ryerson University, artists, and so on. It's really great when people in different worlds come together to make something. I love a good mixture of things. Many people at the event were very new to fat stuff, and others had much more experience, seeing them benefit from each other's presence was a total thrill.

5. I really love getting a giant cheer when I speak. I'm facing a big and scary personal transition at the moment, and need all the encouragement I can get. It will be a long time until I forget the sound of the fat activists of Toronto cheering me on. Thanks everyone.

By the way:

Headless fatty: why do the same ones keep popping up?

Very briefly, I've noticed how the same headless fatties turn up again and again in fat panic news stories.

I see these two pictures all the time: golddigga and big-arse-small-chair. Today golddigga accompanied a story about The Food and Drug Administration's approval of a new diet drug, Belviq, in the US. I've seen that picture illustrate other obesity epidemicTM stories too.

I'm interested in what makes them so alluring to picture editors. My gut reaction is that big-arse-small-chair freaks the normals out because, faced with a big bum, all they can do is identify with the chair. Golddigga isn't particularly fat, in my opinion, but it’s the intersection of implied unrepentant chavviness and single motherdom that makes the use of the image so full of hate. I appreciate it's also about how pictures get sold and used in news media, for example there is probably a pool of images available to editors, and this is based on the deals that news providers have with picture agencies.

Thoughts? Share 'em!


07 June 2012

Reflecting on the Fattylympics Anthem

I've been co-organising an event called the Fattylympics. This is a non-commercial, community-based afternoon of messing around in the park. It's fat activism and, because I'm always interested in mixing it up, it's about other stuff too, namely the 2012 Olympics, which is happening in, and destroying significant chunks of, my neighbourhood in East London.

One of the forms of fat activism that I enjoy very much is about creating a platform from which many different things can emerge in unexpected ways. The Chubsters is an example of this, it's supported workshops, filmshows and even stonemasonry. I like fat activism with which people can engage in their own ways, where people make their own meanings out of things. I think it's great to draw on people's talents and the things that they like to do, and are really good at. It helps build community and encourages people to think about fat stuff creatively in whatever way it intersects with their own lives, and pass it on to others.

The Fattylympics is also in this vein. It's a satirical Olympics, it will take place on a particular day in London, but I also see it as space from which people can make stuff in their own way, to make something bigger and more complex than I could ever have imagined or produced by myself.

Some of this has come about by inviting people to contribute, for example. I knew that Bad Artists Becky and Corinna would make a great job of the Fattylympics mascots, and they did by coming up with the sublime Egg'n'Spoon. Other people have volunteered things, including performances and events. One person was the musician Verity Susman, of Electrelane, who also has solo projects in her own name. Verity volunteered to write the Fattylympics Anthem and this she did, using words that I wrote. I really love her music in general, so it was a great experience to make something with her.

When I imagined the Anthem I thought about something that people could sing regardless of whether or not they were actually able to come to the Fattylympics. I wanted something hopeful and warm that people could hum when they needed a bit of strength. Although the Fattylympics is a big joke in many respects, I also wanted something heartfelt on the day. The Anthem is also released under a Creative Commons licence so people are actively encouraged to share and remix it. I'm hoping that people might video themselves singing it, perhaps with a group, or that they'll remix it, and that this can add to the project's archive.

We'll be singing the Anthem on the day at the Opening Ceremony. There will be a group of us singing it as a choir, though everyone is invited to join in. 

Why not have a sing?

The Fattylympics Anthem

04 June 2012

Introducing the Yorkshire Rad Fat Collective

One of the Yorkshire Rad Fat Collective's events
pic courtesy of Lolly Likes
A few weeks ago I came up for air from thesis-writing and got excited to see that a new fat activist collective has formed up north. I had to know more, so I asked some questions.

Please introduce yourselves

Hi! I'm Kirsty and I'm answering these questions on behalf of the Yorkshire Rad Fat Collective, which is a newly founded group that meets and runs events in Leeds, West Yorkshire. I am otherwise found at http://fattyunbound.blogspot.com.

How did you get started?

We're really new as a collective (we only had our first proper meeting the other day). Emily and I began by organising a couple of fat clothes swaps in Leeds, which have gone really well and gave us a sense of the importance of creating a body positive space where everyone is welcomed. We decided to run a clothes swap because we'd seen similar things going on in London and wanted to bring the fun up North. We'd both gone to local swaps and been frustrated at the lack of plus size items, so we decided to run our own. After the second swap, there were calls for us to start a Facebook group so we could all keep in touch outside of the swap, to talk about politics, resources, clothes and our own local experiences. Now we're meeting up reasonably regularly and planning other things that we can do as a group.

What are your plans?

Lots of things! We'd like there to be more clothes swaps, of course, but we're also focused on forming a community where we can share skills, strategies and resources for other awesome fat people. Things we are planning immediately include an open blog (this has *just* been created at http://radfatcollective.tumblr.com and is open to submissions from everyone!). We'd like to keep up reasonably regular socials, and are planning a day of fat swimming frolics soon which might even involve water slides (!). I'd also like to run a regular crafternoon where we can do more skills sharing.

What kind of rad fatness might be associated with Yorkshire?

I guess the main reason we're called the Yorkshire rad fat collective is because we wanted there to be a specifically fat positive space in Yorkshire. One of the things I love about Yorkshire is that it has a massive DIY focused community – people are much more able to do their own thing up here as it's cheap to hire spaces and possible to live on less money. I see this as informing the activism and community I'd like to build with the group.

What does 'collective' mean to you?


I guess to me, I see it as a space where everyone can make decisions and which is free of a hierarchical structure. All of us come from different backgrounds and have different skills and intersections between us and our bodies, so I see a collective as a space to bring together that difference in a way which (hopefully) still gives everyone a voice and provides a valuable support network to those who need it.

Anything else you'd like to say?

Come and hang out with us! Join the group on facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/255778594515036/ and tell us what you'd like to see happen locally.

25 May 2012

Fat activists I admire

I'm working hard trying to wind up my PhD. I spend most days grimacing at my computer for hours on end. There aren't many laughs round here at the moment.

A little bit of sweetness came my way last night, however. I was doing the washing-up from dinner and my girlfriend came in, she had been online and had seen a link to a new interview in which superstar of the universe Beth Ditto name-checked me as one of the fat activists she looks up to.

I get love mail from readers from time to time, it started when I published my first book in 1998 and it's never really stopped, so I know that there are people in the world who appreciate my work. I see my book in libraries, dog-eared, underlined, well-read. Because my life is not very glamorous or well-paid, and because I know and have known abuse, these little messages are a great boost. Coming from Beth, though, well, that's really excellent. I have met some of my heroes and they are generally disappointing, but Beth is in another league; she has heart, humanity and politics, she makes you want to dance, and she lights the way. To think that I do things that she respects is really exciting. Despite my current gloom and angst, I have allowed myself to crack a tiny, sneaky, proud smile.

This morning I was thinking about the people I look up to in fat activism. Fandom has little interest for me because it is dehumanising, it's kind of flat. What I seek is deep and rich mutual engagement with people's work and ideas. In this way, I think of myself as standing on the shoulders of giants, and I hope that people will use my shoulders too (though credit me if you use my work please!), and that in time there will be towers of us, interlinked. In 21st century Western culture there's a faith in this figure of the lone leader but in fat activism I think this is a myth and I would advise scepticism of anyone who claims to have invented this stuff, or is looking to be the spokesperson for the movement, because there are so many fantastic activists who came before the current generation and I want to see them name-checked too! More than scepticism, I would advise people to visit an archive, ask around, and bone up on fat activist histories. My Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline project can help with this.

So I thought I'd name some names. There are many people in fat activism that I respect, but these people are the bomb:

Llewellyn Louderback left fat activism almost as soon as he started it, but not without publishing an article and a book that had a big influence on the movement. Over 40 years later, Fat Power is still amazingly relevant. He had a vision and the means to realise it; we should all be so lucky.

The fat feminists. These women, often lesbians, developed a political analysis of fat that included intersectionality, community and culture. Their feminism enabled fat women to locate the sources of oppression and liberation in everyday moments. Their work is often painfully obscure, but they are heroes in my world, the muthas of the movement, I am indebted to them beyond belief for their work, which has enabled me and many others to thrive. Sara Golda Bracha Fishman, also known as Vivian Mayer and Aldebaran, Judy Freespirit and Lynn McAfee are the key people who come to mind. They developed The Fat Underground into an organisation that defined fat activism, and still does to a great extent. Judy and Lynn went on to develop other significant fat activist projects, Sara helped develop fat activism on the East Coast of the USA, and produced this excellent article: Life In The Fat Underground. Elana Dykewomon and Judith Stein were also associated with these women. Elana published the most startling essays and poems documenting early fat feminism; Judith was an important mover and shaker in Boston, pioneering women's health, fat activism, and Jewish lesbian feminist politics.

Heather Smith used fat feminism from the US to develop a fat feminist community in the UK in the late 1980s. Other women were involved with the London Fat Women's Group, but it is Heather's articles and appearances in the British media at that time that turned me onto fat activism. One day I hope we can sit down together over a coffee.

And then there are the queers! Kathleen LeBesco's work championing the queerness of fat bodies and fat activism is visionary. Allyson Mitchell's activism and art blows my mind, the same goes for Scottee's use of fat in performance, and Substantia's abundance of fat photoactivism. The NOLOSE Board have navigated tricky waters around race and gender with imagination and integrity. There's FaT GiRL too.

I have friends and loves whose fat activism moves me very much: hello Amanda, Devra, Kay, and Simon. There are people, too, that I will never know, but whose images spur me onwards: Divine, Fran Fullenwider, Judith Clarke's photograph of Banshee that I found in the GLBT Historical Society archive in San Francisco.

I know there are many names I have missed out, the more I think of people, the more names and faces pop up. But this is where I will leave it for now. Perhaps you might like to share your own giants, perhaps here in comments, or in posts of your own.