22 March 2012

Using anti-colonial theory to call out obesity science

I'm noticing a wave of TV programmes and articles about the scientific truth of why people are fat, and what should be done about it. I know this is a pretty constant part of the media in the UK, but I'm noticing it more than usual, and it's high profile too. Perhaps its greater visibility is something to do with the forthcoming bikini season, or the devil's Olympics, or the Conservative-Lib Dem destruction of the NHS. Anyway, there it is.

Fat people are not present in this work, unless you count the headless fatties. Even though this is the kind of work that underpins how I am understood by the world, I do my best to take no notice of it because it takes no notice of people like me. There are plenty of articulate fat people who have a good grip on why obesity discourse is corrupt, including very gentle and moderate people who would be polite and constructive with their criticism, but you will never see them in work like this. I have written many times of the ways that obesity discourse makes fat people anonymous, abject and abstract, and this work continues to employ these strategies to reproduce and capitalise on anti-fat stereotypes. If it was truly helpful then it would engage closely with fat people. If fat people who have agency, community and culture to showed up in this work, it would expose the lie that obesity is a medical scourge about which something – surgery, hormones, drugs, genetic engineering, policy, shaming, hand-wringing – must be done.

Instead, this rash of TV programmes and articles about the scientific truth of obesity, and its inevitable solutions, present a world of experts who have no connection to the people about whom they are expert. What kind of expertise is that? This is why I think of this stuff as being more about the people who produce it than the people they think they're helping. Once again I thank the gods for disability activists who, over past decades, produced similar critiques of charity and medicalisation, showing how these concepts are generally less than helpful to disabled people themselves; these debates are directly applicable to fat people and obesity interventions, as I have discussed in my book Fat & Proud, and my ancient article for Disability & Society.

More recently, excellent critiques of problematic imperialist activist interventions are hot off the press, a response to white fat activism from People of Colour in the fat justice movement springs to mind, as does Teju Cole's The White Saviour Industrial Complex, I think these critiques, as well as anti-imperialism work more generally, can also help people call out obesity science and create space where more diverse voices can be heard within and beyond the dominant discourse. As disability activists say: nothing about us without us.

Meanwhile, obesity scientists keep gaining column inches for their neutral, helpful work. They clearly see themselves as the good guys, no-one could conceive that their work was problematic in any way. They're just helping to rid the world of people like me and you, you know, the useless ones, the social burdens. They're doing it for our own good.

15 March 2012

Reflecting on NOLOSE and anti-racism in fat activism

A group of people of colour (POC) in the US affiliated with NOLOSE released a statement this week demanding that white people in fat activism take responsibility to make the movement more inclusive and diverse. Their comments are made in the light of problems with the activist response in the US to the Georgia billboard anti-obesity campaign. It includes the following section, but please go and read the whole thing.

a response to white fat activism from People of Color in the fat justice movement

Flying by the seat of your pants, when it comes to addressing the real concerns and questions around diversity and inclusion of POC in fat activist spaces or campaigns, will no longer be good enough.

  • POC in the fat justice movement deserve thoughtful and clear discussions around not just the intention of diversity and inclusion in the work you wish to do, but also the actual impact of the work within communities of color.
  • POC in the fat justice movement demand and deserve that white fat activists build authentic collaborations with communities of color and work as allies.
  • POC in the fat justice movement demand and deserve allies showing up to the table of our campaigns and work, rather than constantly being told they have made a place for us at theirs.
  • POC in the fat justice movement clarify that our allies will practice doing the work of learning about the histories and impacts of colonization and oppression on POC, seek other allies to learn from and with, be open to dialogue, taking feedback, and allowing people's firsthand experiences of racism to be the final and authoritative voice on the subject of impact to communities of color.
  • POC in the fat justice movement offer that through the work of authentic inclusivity, singular vision will become shared vision. Coalition will happen. Bridges will be mended and built.
We are looking forward to a stronger, more representational expression of fat community in which POC and poor people's voices are heard, their experiences are respected, and their work to strengthen their individual communities is supported just as they work to support others.

I support wholeheartedly the baseline value of not being a racist arse, and of working fat activism through inclusively, critically, reflexively, consciously and ethically. I appreciate that this statement has been produced constructively and with hope that this can happen.

In addition, I have two small reservations about the statement. There appears to be a universalising of identity by people who are diverse in some ways but not others, for example in terms of nationality, it is common for people in the US to speak for the whole world, and this is problematic. Perhaps a stronger statement would include alliances with people in other places. I also think that it would be helpful to bear in mind that the 'fat justice movement' is multiple and often ambiguous, rather than a fixed entity; there are many movements, and broad demands will need to be contextualised each time. For example, bringing a critical and anti-racist consciousness to the activism that involves a conversation with a friend in one time and place is going to be different to that which entails mobilising communities for a specific goal in another.

The NOLOSE statement isn't the first time that fat and queer people of colour have offered critiques of the movement, Tara Shuai's A Different Kind of Fat Rant: People of Color and the Fat Acceptance Movement from 2008 named areas of fat activism where there is endemic racism. I hope that in speaking up, NOLOSE and Shuai will encourage people to adopt more critical and conscious approaches to fat activism. I fear that it might be a long time until many fat activists, especially white people, are able to do that. I am afraid that people of colour will be forced to continue to do the hard work of consciousness raising, which is clearly unacceptable.

Meanwhile, I am grateful for Shuai's rant, and the NOLOSE statement, I think they are brave things to do in a context where critical viewpoints within the movement are not always welcome or forthcoming. I don't know why so many fat activists seem resistant or unable to engage critically and reflexively with what they do, but I see this happening a lot. Why is anti-racist practice and critical reflexivity treated like an afterthought, if at all? Do people leave their brains and consciences behind when they do fat activism? It seems that way. How could it be different? Perhaps through disseminating work that demonstrates there are many different ways of doing fat activism, including methods that foreground self-reflexivity and anti-racism? Through engaging with critical awareness more generally? Let's talk about this.

12 March 2012

Report: Burger Queen 2012

Burger Queen photo by Holly Revell
I think of Burger Queen as a platform for queered fat performance framed as a beauty pageant that is currently taking place in London. This year there are four heats and a final adjudicated by an ever-changing line-up of subcultural celebrity judges. The finalists will compete for a chance to win some tasty prizes, including a heavily glittered Unhappy Meal. There are many things that I love about Burger Queen, not least that it's really tongue-in-cheek and also deadly serious.

Last Thursday I took part in the second heat of this year's Burger Queen. I entered because I really enjoyed being a spectator last year, wanted to support it, and basically had a moment of madness when I clicked 'submit' on the application. I think it takes a lot of guts to put on the event, I know it's hard to find people to take part because, sadly, there's a world of non-show-off self-hating fat people out there. It's also telling that a sponsor pulled out at the last minute because they did not want to be seen to be promoting obesity. So I support what Burger Queen is doing and I want to see it thrive because, as well as love sweet love, what the world needs now is a full-on parade of shameless fatties.

On Thursday I was one of three contestants, the other two being Ginger Johnson and Bella Fata, who brought style, action and sass in spades. We holed up in a tiny room above the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, put on our outfits and hung out, waiting to be called to the stage for the three rounds: Trend, Talent and Taste.

For Trend I decided to bring some fat feminist realness to the room, it being International Women's Day and all. I wore a lurid tie-dye kaftan, shortened to show my legs; a knitted garter that spells F-A-T; some home-made bangles; a copy of Shadow On A Tightrope around my neck; and a giant fat feminism symbol on my head. This is the symbol designed by Karen Stimson for the Largesse Fat Liberation Archive. I also carried my Fat Bloc sign. For Talent, I showed some pictures and told some stories about fat activism, and ranted the Fat Liberation Manifesto. For Taste I made an Obesity Timebomb: a lemon cake topped with whipped cream, little hand-drawn toppers of the Burger Queen team, and a sparkler. There were three sparklers but I lit them too early backstage and they burned out – whoops!

I had completely underestimated how much work and nerves would be a part of my Burger Queen experience. This stuff takes a lot of effort! I don't know how the Burger Queeners pull it out of the bag every week, it took me a day and a half to recover. Luckily for me the work paid off, the gods and the judges smiled kindly on me, I won the heat and will be part of the final on 29 March.

I think I'm going to need a bit of time to process this experience. I still feel as though I'm in the middle of it, which I am because I need to prepare for the final. It's hard to have perspective. I suppose one of the big things for me is about how Burger Queen has affected how I think about and do fat activism. I love playing with the symbols that have become a part of my research, and it feels really exciting to bring the ideas I've been working with away from the academy and into different kinds of places, I think it's great that people have been so receptive to that. Mainly though, it's been a lot of fun, a hoot in fact.