26 April 2012

How I became a fat activist

Me, 1978 or so, looking into the future.
It's been a little scrappy around here of late and I'm sorry about that. I'm preoccupied with finishing my thesis, organising the Fattylympics, and keeping going amidst some slight burn-out. It could be worse but I haven't been in the mood for writing much.

I've been working on an autoethnography for my PhD. Ethnography is a kind of qualitative research methodology that involves looking at people. With autoethnography you are also looking at yourself.  If you want to know more about autoethnography, you could read Carolyn Ellis and Jacqui Gingras on the subject.

Because I think that context matters, I think that all researchers should reflect on who they are to be doing research, even – especially – the kind of researchers who produce pages of numbers about BMI. So I've been reflecting a lot over the four years in which I've been working on my PhD, and thinking about how I came to be here. With this in mind, I thought I'd share a little about how I got into fat. It goes like this...

I have been fat all my life, meaning that I have always been fatter than most of my peers. My family is pretty fractured and it's hard to tell how fat features there. Certainly three of my immediate family have had what they would think of as 'weight problems' and have 'done something about it,' and I have distant relatives who have been fat at various stages of their lives. I think I might be the fattest but it's hard to tell amidst all this shape-changing and self-regulation. I'm certainly the most self-accepting fat person in my family.

When I was about six or seven years old, my mum decided that something needed to be done about my body. Mum was a nurse, she was working as an administrator at a clinic at that time, and very much part of a culture of medicalisation. I think her decision to monitor the food I ate may have coincided with her own body-projects, it was certainly a part of her work of trying to pass as middle class. My first diet came at a time when we were living in a colonial ex-pat community in Hong Kong that included a lot of upper-middle and upper class people. I think she felt that she had to fit in with them, and that my fat body betrayed what she felt was the shameful truth of our class.

Mum and I dieted on and off for the next few years. Sometimes we'd follow a sheet that she brought home from work but mostly it involved periodic disapproval of what I ate and voiced anxiety about the size of my body, especially when clothes didn't fit me. In spite of all this I was a very active kid, I was a synchronised swimmer, and always running around, riding my bike, doing things. This continues to this day. So whilst I had this idea that my body was a problem, I also had an image of myself as active, someone who could do things.

I had no idea about fat politics as a teenager in the early 1980s in London, though I now know that a fat feminist movement had been active for at least ten years by this stage in other parts of the world. However, I had access to some things that enabled me to develop a critical understanding of my fatness. These things weren't directly about fat but they helped pave the way later on.

The first thing was feminism. I got interested in feminism as a young girl. In my family sex was never spoken about, and I was quite anxious by the time I reached puberty, I wanted information. I didn't know about libraries so I went to bookshops and read the sex education books there. Books on feminism were stacked nearby so when I'd read all the stuff about 'a man and a lady loving each other very much and making a baby' I moved on to much more interesting books about contraception, abortion, being lesbians, self-determination, and so on. I didn't know it but I was learning about speaking up, power, and possibilities for naming and exploring my own experience.

The next thing was a sort of queer punk. Whilst I was at school I got a Saturday job that introduced me to lots of people who were really happy to be freaks and who sneered at the straight world. Queer was not a term that had much currency at the time, but this group of people, including the heterosexuals, were very queer indeed. Some were performers, most were much older than me and everyone had lived exciting lives of one kind or another. People did things, they didn't wait for someone else to do it for them. Although everybody lived on the margins in some way, people lived creatively amidst rich communities of friends. There was always something to do, bands and clubs, I started going out and I never really stopped. At the same time I was reading subcultural literature, writers like Kathy Acker, David Wojnarowicz, William Burroughs, and this too gave me an idea that things could be different and that being different was no bad thing at all.

I left school and did A Levels and got into student politics. At the time this took the form of anti-fascist and anti-racist organising, I remember quite a bit of feminism in the mix too. The National Union of Students was still a radical body back then. We went on demonstrations and took part in discussions and conferences. Alongside this I was travelling on and off with my oldest brother who was what would now be called a new age traveller. So I had experiences of very marginal politics too, living on the road, trying to avoid arrest, a kind of practical anarchism.

Throughout all this my fatness was still seen as a problem, not only by me but by the people around me. I longed to be thin and still made attempts to lose weight, although this never came to much. I think I knew it was bullshit but I didn't have a way of articulating it until I saw members of the London Fat Women's Group talking on Wogan, a very popular early evening television talk show. This would have been in 1989. They were organising a conference, and they also made a short documentary about fat politics that was also shown on TV. I watched it avidly.

It took a while, a couple of years, for the things that the London Fat Women's Group were saying to sink in. I think I was still recovering, not just from growing up in a context of everyday fatphobia, but also other kinds of trauma. The last straw was being dumped by a boyfriend who wanted me to be thinner. I'd really had enough. But the appearance of those British fat feminists in my life showed that there were other ways of being, and my experiences as a girl and as a teenager enabled me to adopt it eventually. Given my context, it made total sense to me that fat could be a social and political identity and that there was incredible potential for the development of fat culture, collective action and intellectual activity.

I started to look out for other things. By my late teens and early 20s I had an experiential and theoretical framework for activism that made Shadow on a Tightrope and Being Fat is Not a Sin irresistible when I first came across them around 1990 or so. I started an ill-fated fat support group, did some postgraduate work about fat activism, started to meet people who were interested in similar things and who supported my fat identity, took part in a proto-fatshion modelling competition(!), wrote a book, and spent the advance on a trip to California to meet the dykes who put FaT GiRL together and attend the Dirty Bird queercore festival. Fat politics interested me initially as a solution to the years in which my body had been a battlefield, a place of restriction, blame, anxiety, but it soon became a much bigger project, something that could play off other life experiences. Fat as feminist, punk, queer, a place to which I could bring my politics, a way of understanding my life. There was no turning back.


Bovey, S. (1989) Being Fat is Not a Sin, London: Pandora.

Ellis, C. (2004) The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel about Autoethnography, Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press.

Gingras, J. R. (2009) Longing for Recognition: The Joys, Complexities, and Contradictions of Practicing Dietetics, York: Raw Nerve.

Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B. (1983) Shadow On A Tightrope: Writings By Women on Fat Oppression, San Francisco: Aunt Lute.


Anonymous said...

I don't have a critical or otherwise interesting reaction to this entry, I just wanted to let you know that I've been reading you for a few years now, and am always grateful to, and that your work means a whole lot to me in terms of both my political and personal orientation.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks, I appreciate your comment.