20 February 2012

What it's like getting medical treatment if you're fat

I have a touch of osteo-arthritis (OA) in my right knee. Sometimes I get a small amount of pain. I understand OA as a degenerative condition and that I will likely become increasingly disabled as times goes on. My doctor referred me to physiotherapy where I learned some tricks for strengthening my knee to hold off the degeneration, and for pain management, and I've been going to the OA gym, organised by the physiotherapy clinic near where I live, which runs a course for people coming to terms with the condition.

I'm writing about this here because I had been unaware that knee OA is one of those things that inspires a lot of fatphobia from health professionals. Whether or not being of a heavy weight exacerbates knee OA is up for debate, I think, because OA also occurs in non-weight-bearing joints, and weight loss, which is next to impossible to sustain in the long-term, does not necessarily ameliorate the pain. The other thing is that thin people get OA too. But 'lose weight' or 'maintain a healthy weight' are part of the mantra of knee OA. My doctor and physiotherapist have been fine and respectful, but the OA gym, also managed by the National Health Service, has been another story altogether.

There are general problems in the space that relate to a kind of clinical arrogance. We 'patients', there are seven of us, are older, don't necessarily speak English fluently, look poor, struggle to communicate, have other health issues, and look like the bottom rungs of a social status chart. The two people teaching us are limber young jocks who appear to have no empathy, don't understand people who aren't jocks, and perhaps have never had an injury. They use their own bodies as models for what we should do, but their bodies are nothing like ours. They say things like: "I'm going to show you these exercises and if you don't do them at home every day you are wasting my time." One of them has made not-funny jokes about people who try and cheat the exercises, as a kind of warning for us not to cheat, the assumption being that we would cheat, and that cheating – or finding other ways to do things – when you are in pain is a bad thing.

It's the fat stuff that interests me. I am the fattest in the group and a lot of the fat talk is directed at me. For example, the physiotherapist asked the group if anyone had ever heard of BMI (Body Mass Index), and fixed me with a long stare as she asked it. I thought the question was ludicrous and stared back, gaining me the unspoken label of uppity fatty in the process. The same person complained about doctors who "are too frightened to tell their patients that they are obese. I'm not like that, I'll tell people when they need to lose weight." I wondered if she would ever tell me directly to lose weight, and what that conversation might look like. The other women in the class concede to the fatphobia, all agreeing that they should lose weight, regardless of how much they weigh, the men seem to ignore it all. One woman said that she had lost a lot of weight and that she still gets pain, but this was not explored.

There's ageism and disablism in the room too, with uproar when one of the physios suggested that a way of managing knee pain could be to get a walking stick. No! No! No! We are too young for that! We don't want to look like cripples! Me, I'll take the stick, I'm old enough, crip power.

It is hard to know what to do. Speaking up in a group where people are generally hostile to the idea of fat and where I may as well be speaking Martian is too risky, especially as I have already felt labelled as a troublemaker for not being compliant and self-hating. I have a packet of readings that I'm thinking of offering to the Physios, though I think this will be read as an aggressive action. I suppose I'm holding out for the opportunity for feedback. But even then my identity as an activist, or as a person with any intelligence or agency is invisible in the OA gym, the institutionalised fatphobia means that I am interpreted as a problem, no matter what I do. The others may be extraordinary people with fabulous skills, but you would never know it, we are collectively patronised and treated as people with nothing to offer. I don't know if my knee is benefiting in any way from this experience, but for me it has greatly illuminated some of the ways in which clinical power operates, and the misuses of that power.

14 February 2012

Revisiting Herbie Popnecker aka the Fat Fury

A while back Simon Murphy, brought home a comic for us to look at. I can't remember who did it or what it was about, possibly it was something by Art Spiegelman. But I do remember a little row of drawings of fat cartoon characters at the top of the page. One of them stood out: Fat Fury! I wanted to know more about him. Simon did some research and ordered some copies of the comics featuring Fat Fury, and he wrote a little piece about it for a zine that never came to be published. I liked the piece a lot, Simon agreed to me publishing it here, so have a read. PS. I'm wearing my Fat Fury t-shirt as I write this.

Herbie Popnecker: the Little Fat Nothing that saved the world (regularly)
by Simon Murphy

The comic character Herbie Popnecker first saw the light in 1958, and after several well-received appearances in the mystery comic Forbidden Worlds, he got his own title in 1962. Written by Richard Hughes under a variety of pseudonyms, and drawn by Ogden Whitney, he was very popular for a few years as the flagship title of the American Comics Group.

Herbie is not your typical comics protagonist. He is a dorky-looking boy of about 13, short and fat with glasses and apparently no friends. He seems bored most of the time, almost sleepy, and doesn’t talk much. And yet he lives a secret parallel life as one of the most famous and powerful beings in the universe, known and loved by all. He’s everybody’s favourite fatty, popular with the ladies (in whom he has no interest), but doesn’t let it go to his head.

Herbie manages this without his parents even showing the slightest glint of curiosity or suspicion. His eternally disappointed and resentful Dad sees only a "little fat nothing," even when faced with concrete evidence of his super strength or time-travelling abilities. But Herbie doesn’t suffer any of the angst of characters like Spiderman or The Thing, he just ignores his stupid parents and gets on with it. They think he is an ignorant fat lump, and their lack of interest and low expectations would be tragic in real life, but in Herbie’s world it just means he can do whatever he wants without them noticing. If they don’t love him at least they don’t cramp his style: ideal parents. Teachers and other authority figures are equally stupid, yet when transformed into costumed superhero Fat Fury he is required to put the world that rejects him in order, which he does pretty much effortlessly, with no reward or recognition. He exposes the absurdities of that world and invites you to identify with him, join him on the cool side of the generation gap and be in on the joke. In a world of nagging, pushy but out-of-touch adults, Herbie is a role model for thrill-seeking misfit kids and under-the-radar fat freaks – one of the first.

In a range of truly bizarre stories he fights crazy monsters and criminals of the past present and future, dropping worms into Chairman Mao’s mouth in one story and leading a strike of Satan’s imps in another, as well as hanging out with The Beatles, Liz Taylor, the Queen, President Johnson, Nikita Khrushchev and other real-world people. Ironically, he is less successful at fighting criminals like Hattaman, Pizzaman and Roderick Dump when disguised as Fat Fury, because Herbie is more famous than his superhero alter-ego, and he isn’t very good at the traditional hero stuff. It’s only really as Fat Fury that he is the butt of any jokes. His powers are many and varied but never really explained. Some, like walking in the sky and talking to animals, seem innate and possibly genetic. His fatness is itself the source of these powers (he loses them when a bite from a snake-beast makes him temporarily thin), while other powers are the result of sucking on a particular lollipop. He is never without a lollipop in his mouth, but his special secret power lollies are usually kept in a locked and labelled chest of drawers in his room, and occasionally on a kind of utility belt. There is one for every situation: time travel, invisibility, digging holes, super strength etc. He also has a knack for having just the right random object on him to foil the baddies and save the day.

In retrospect you can place him somewhere in the camp pop culture melting pot of the 1960s that produced the Batman and Monkees TV series, but the fact that readers identified so closely with him sets him aside I think; he is a ridiculous character, but powerful, with a message of quiet defiance for the geeks misfits and fatties who read him. He’s not exactly subversive, the comic has its fair share of the racism and sexism of the period, but 45 years after his disappearance you can still get Fat Fury t-shirts on eBay.

Simon Murphy's excellent zine about fuzz history and culture, Good Fuzzy Sounds, can be ordered via thesimonmurphy@yahoo.com Check out his occasional blog http://www.musical-den.blogspot.com

06 February 2012

Introducing Homosexual Death Drive

I'm in a band and, even though this is a little self-referential, I want to write about it, so I will.

My band is called Homosexual Death Drive and it consists of me, Kay, and occasional collaborators. Although we have both performed in bands before, neither Kay nor I would think of ourselves as musicians; we make songs with the barest minimum of skill, often just singing, or making a song using instruments, pedals and home-made gadgets that are easy to play. We have a small repertoire, did our first performance in December 2010, and hope to release a 7-inch EP on vinyl some time this year. We've played a handful of shows and no one has booed us off yet. Soon there will be some videos and digital downloads. We don't have a website, just a little corner of Facebook for now.

I don't know about Kay but I think of Homosexual Death Drive as part of a queercore tradition in punk. Our name comes from a branch of queer theory that's preoccupied with anti-social sensibilities and is somewhat nihilistic – just like us! I use Homosexual Death Drive as a place where I can express unspeakable things. We try and make our performances energetic and memorable, this sounds high-minded but I try to pass on the same feelings of freedom and openness that I've felt when seeing and being inspired by other people performing. It doesn't always work, performing can often feel quite humiliating but I still feel compelled to do it because there's something good about falling on your arse in public, being okay with being the buffoon, letting people take from that what they will.

Since I was a teenager punk has been this amazing force in my life. Punk means many things to different people but for me it has to do with queerness, belligerence, impertinence, politics, rawness, immediacy, anti-authoritarianism. These are great sensibilities for girls and women to draw on. But punk can be very conformist. When I was a girl I thought punks were always thin, I never saw a fat punk anywhere, I still struggle to name many, let alone fat queer punks beyond Nomy or Beth, certainly no one like me then or now. Being a real punk was the main thing that motivated me to want to be thin. Aged 15, 16, 17 I wanted to look like Iggy Pop on the cover of Raw Power, I thought that's how it would have to be if I wanted to be recognised as a punk (this would also have meant being a man and being a drooling drug addict). I never got thin, and always looked chubby and wholesome, even when I behaved otherwise.

With Homosexual Death Drive I feel like I'm carrying on the lifetime's work of reclaiming punk for myself. Fat used to be the thing that I thought was incompatible with being punk, but it turns out that it's central, it's an asset. Often people will never have met anyone like us, they have no idea about fat activism, they see us and perhaps expect us to be comic, or fulfil a stereotype. Then we turn out to be something else, something they never expected from a pair of fat old dykes. Our bodies are a rare spectacle of public fatness unmediated by hatred, fear or prurience. We invite people to look and listen and relate. The people we play to seem hungry for people like us, they are desperate for evidence, that until now has always been slightly out of reach, that disproves the inevitability of fatphobia. It feels good to be able to deliver this in some way.

The band is still new and tentative and I don't know how it will develop. I'm happy with the way it's going and the way we mix fat, queer and punk together. That's all I'm going to say for now.