02 April 2012

Report: Burger Queen 2012 Final

My fat activist cake topper
Burger Queen is over for another year. It has been a totally overwhelming experience that will take me a long time to process, but here are some scraps for the meantime.

I took part in the competition this year because I loved it as a punter in 2011 and wanted to see it close-up and to immerse myself in the various fat discourses that circulate through it. I got to show off, got some applause, got to meet folks and, best of all, got to introduce the idea that a long-standing and diverse social movement of fat people exists. I didn't win the crown, and this didn't matter; although Burger Queen is framed as a competition, it is also a feast of fat embodiment and performance, it's a funny kind of competition, in a way, and it was a pleasure to see a superfat drag queen who really really wanted to win take the title. I know she will do it justice.

This is what I did for the final: for Trend I wore an outfit inspired by the Global Obesity EpidemicTM involving high-heeled trainers, hot-pants, lots of tits, arse and belly, wreaths of rainbow fat paper doll cut-outs, a light-up tiara spelling EPIDEMIC in blobby fat letters, and a multi-coloured staff topped with a model of a Big Boy. For Talent I introduced my film Lovely and Slim, showed it, and led a singalong. For Taste I made a triple-decker fat activist cake filled with cream, roasted strawberries and topped with a tiny scene of model fat activists protesting and being kettled by a fat policeman. People, I did my work. Although it was fun to take part and generally I feel very strong in myself, there were times when I felt quite vulnerable. It brought home that it’s a big deal for people who have marginalised bodies to put yourself out there and allow yourself to be judged in front of an audience. Fat or unfat, this is some people's worst nightmare, so it's pretty amazing that Burger Queen creates a place where this can happen relatively safely.

Back in work mode, Burger Queen was a rich experience for me as a sociology researcher interested in fat activism. I see the event as a great example of fat activism because it presents multiple and queer ways of experiencing fatness; although Scottee is the main performer, it is produced by a team of people some of whom are fat and some of whom are not, for a fairly diverse audience. I love how this is mixed, and how it shows that fat is a concept relevant to people of all sizes and backgrounds. It demonstrates that there isn't one single way of doing or being fat.

It also follows the relatively undocumented fat activist tradition of cultural production and community-building. Burger Queen is truly eye-popping and immersive: from the glitter curtains, the design, to the team's uniforms, from the badges to the burgers themselves, you feel as though you've entered a different and better world when you're there. I find it very freeing to see such a great array of fat bodies in performance; sometimes this is in a big in-your-face way, such as when Scottee does his show, but it is also there in the supporting cast, from Sami behind the desk, to Rebecca at the door. To talk about shared identity might be a step too far because it's a diverse group, but what Burger Queen does is make fat visible and both extraordinary and normal.

Burger Queen is fat activism because it addresses the easy as well as the difficult. It presents basic ideas such as self-love but doesn't stop there. Here are three things I have found particularly thought-provoking:

a) In the final, Scottee asked if it's possible to be a fat activist and also be engaged with controlled eating. The answer is, of course you can, but these ambiguities tend to be sidelined in fat activist rhetoric, and have historical connections to the essentialism of Second Wave feminism from which this form of fat activism has developed. It's great to question fat activist orthodoxies and to do so in a playful and thoughtful way.

b) This year has seen Burger Queen overlap with mainstream media as Scottee and Amy Lamé have made various appearances. This has resulted in a lot of fatphobic hate towards them, from the comments from this Guardian article, to hate-filled Tweets about Amy's appearance on TV. What to do with this stuff? Perform live deconstructions to your audience is what you do, which strips them of their power to hurt. Fucking amazing. Similarly, the public performance and ridicule of Rebecca's syrupy-yet-controlling Tweets from her former Weight Watchers's leader have had me howling with laughter. Sublime is the word I'm looking for.

c) At Burger Queen people play with fat identity without much previous engagement with fat activism. There have been fatsuits. In fat lib there's a general consensus that fatsuits are a bad idea and to a large extent I agree with this. Watching people who have made fortunes on the back of their ability to conform to beauty ideals fatting up in a suit to show what life is really like for fat people is nauseating. It demeans the authenticity of fat people's voices, and adds to the stereotypes about fat bodies. But I wasn't offended by the fatsuits at Burger Queen because they were performed without malice. I really love it when people do things that are rude and irreverent, when they say the unspeakable. I imagined that fatsuit performances would be an absolute no-no in some fat activist spaces, many of them actually. But one of the things I love about Burger Queen is that nobody knows the rules, nobody's stuck, there are no party lines to toe. Everyone's having a go at articulating fat, sexuality and gender in their own way. I don't agree with everything that people present at Burger Queen but it's a wild queer ride on fat, it's breaking new ground.

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