11 May 2012

Conference Report: Body & Peace Workshop 2012

I got back from the Body & Peace workshop in Berlin a couple of days ago. This was a week long residential event, supported by European funding, with just under 20 participants from a handful of European countries attending. My partner Kay came too.

I was going to write something polite and anodyne about the workshop, and let it go, because I have struggled to articulate an appropriate response to it and would rather not upset anyone if I can help it. I have been ill, which makes things harder to say. But I can't ignore the feeling of being unsettled as I see links related to the workshop being shared around Facebook, because there are some things that those pictures don't show that I think need to be raised. Now that I am feeling better, I have been able to ask myself who my silence serves, and I've concluded that it's better to say these difficult things than to remain quiet.

When I heard about the workshop I thought it would be a good opportunity to meet fat activists from Europe. I am isolated from activists closest to me because I do not have many language skills. I have tended to look west to the US and Canada for activist community, but now I am interested in developing links elsewhere. I've had good experiences in Germany, Italy and Spain, interesting conversations with people who already have politics and are interested in developing their understanding of fat. I want to know more about fat activist histories beyond the US and UK, and to think about fat activism in broad ways, and to do this within a critique of imperialism. The Berlin workshop was financially supported, which meant that I would be able to get and stay there cheaply.

I took some things for granted, based on my experiences of activism: the workshop's aims and objectives would be open for discussion, differences of opinion would be welcomed and explored in a supportive manner, there would be opportunities to share ideas. I did not know until late into the workshop that it was funded as an adult education initiative, and was being produced as a programme by one person. There were specific learning outcomes that the funders required. What this meant was that the programme was not open for discussion, the aims and objectives were unclear, decision-making was not a collective process, and differences of opinion – many of which were likely a result of cultural differences – were regarded as awkward obstacles. This is the context in which a particular set of incidents happened that perhaps could have been addressed in other circumstances.

In addition, devising, funding, delivering and managing a week long residential programme is a lot of work for one person. I think it's too much work for one person. It involves huge pressure and stress, and makes it hard to let go and divert from the script if that script is what's keeping it all together. I don't want to devalue the intense work that the organiser contributed but I believe that this model of organising an international activist get-together was flawed from the beginning, and think that it's no surprise things went awry. The workshop delivery model at Body & Peace would have been fine for a day's training, but was too controlling for a longer workshop. I ended up feeling that I was doing wrong if there were things I did not want to attend, I was confused about the aims and objectives of the workshop, I felt resentment, and a sense that dissent, collaboration and discussion could not really happen. Being led by one person feels disempowering, you lose sight of your own power especially when, like this, it takes place in an isolated, residential, institutionalised setting. This is not what embodied peace looks like to me. Even though the participants came from different countries and did not necessarily speak a common language or have shared activist histories or politics, there was a pressure within the group to overlook differences and 'just agree' with each other.

This was the context in which the events surrounding International No Diet Day (INDD) occurred. INDD became the central event of the workshop, as well as her commitments to producing the workshop, the organiser had invited German press to a banner-making session and to the protest itself, and was therefore run ragged answering phone-calls from journalists whilst trying to hold it all together. I have written elsewhere of my lack of enthusiasm for INDD but there were no opportunities to discuss this in the light of the Body & Peace INDD protest, where compliance was assumed. Similarly, although many fat activists regard courting mainstream media representation as essential, it is not where I wish to put my activist energy. At least three of us did not want to be interviewed or photographed by the press and this made participation difficult. I got the feeling that we were regarded as 'letting the side down,' we were killjoys in the face of exciting (yet inevitably problematic) media attention.

On INDD the group went to Alexanderplatz, an important central meeting place in Berlin. We set up a table, banners, food and leaflets. There was no discussion about what we would do there, other than that it would be a picnic (though, like the original INDD 'picnic' this turned out to be little more than a media photocall). At one point the organiser told everyone to hold banners for photographs and to cheer and look happy. What people were cheering is unclear! But these are the photographs that have since been circulating and which now represent European Fat Activism. I love a good protest but this was not for me, I stood around for a bit, trying to keep out of the way until it was time to go, basically being a body and not much else.

There were some things that you don't see in the pictures. On Alexanderplatz you will find Roma women begging. Two groups of two Roma women and two girls came up to the table and took some food. Other people, all white, had taken food too without picking up leaflets or engaging with INDD. As far as I am concerned it is fine to share food with strangers, and there was a lot of food there, enough for everyone who wanted something. The young Roma girls were polite and well-behaved and, like the white children associated with participants in the completely white Body & Peace workshop, helped themselves to some sweets, including some wafer bars that a workshop participant had brought from her country. The organiser snatched the wafers out of the girls' hands and made them take a not-so-nice sweet from a bowl instead. I took the wafers and gave them to the girls. After this, the organiser unwrapped the wafer bars so that no one could take a whole bar, they could only take a small piece. Later my girlfriend Kay saw the organiser put a lid over the hands of two Roma girls who were taking some sweets from a bowl, she shooed them away and said "No, that's finished now, that's not for you, it's closed". The white people were not policed like this.

These actions were racist and I was shocked and angry not just about that but also that these women and girls, who have hard lives, had been denied pleasure where it was offered to others on a day that is presumably about food and largesse, and which is allegedly feminist. I felt that the Roma women and girl's humanity was not recognised, they could not be allowed to be INDD participants, they would certainly not be invited to appear in the newspaper photographs. One of the workshop's activities, re-writing The Fat Liberation Manifesto, involved some reflection on broader anti-oppression work, but an understanding of that was absent here. I don't know if anyone else noticed the actions against the Roma women and girls, if they did no one said anything.

We decided to leave but before we went Kay spoke about what had happened to the organiser, who did not see her racist food policing as a problem. She was worried that if beggars were allowed to take food as they pleased then more would come and the food would be gone before the media came. There hadn't been lots of beggars, just a few people. It turned out that the press didn't take any pictures of the food at all, and even if the food had gone, it would still make a good story (I'd read 'Beggars Scoff Food – Organisers Say INDD Is For Everyone' wouldn't you?). Kay offered to buy more food if it ran out but the organiser said no. She said that they could or would give out the food after the press had been, but this turned out not to be true because she brought the leftovers to the farewell party the next day where, instead of lining the tummies of sweets-loving people, Roma or otherwise, they remained uneaten.

The Berlin workshop has given me a lot to reflect on in terms of my own activism within a broader context of anti-oppression and, yet again, the efforts that some people are making to address the problem of racism in fat activism have been useful to keep in mind. No doubt there is another discussion of European attitudes to Roma beggars that I am not addressing in any detail here, I'm not sure how helpful it would be to go there, I suspect it would derail the conversation here which is more about racism and activism. What would have made the workshop stronger? Perhaps a greater commitment to working collectively and sharing work; open discussions and opportunities to speak; freedom to come and go without fear of sanction; space to consider what anti-oppression means in practise, if you're going to organise behind that; reminders that differences can be good and productive if respectful dialogue is allowed to flourish; a workshop location steeped in community rather than institution. Could this happen under the terms of the funding for this workshop? I don't know. The problems that I have described are easier to see in retrospect, and may have arisen because people didn't have the capacity to act differently. An international workshop for fat activists is a rare thing, how would anyone know better? Mistakes are a part of learning and that is what I hope for here. Although my account is hard and I am anticipating being positioned as disloyal and ungrateful, I am hoping that it will contribute to a consideration of how things could be for fat activists; perhaps less painful and more peaceful.

Grateful thanks to Kay, Tünya, Kori, Simon, and Charlotte for talking about this and helping me think it through. Thanks also to Emma and everyone at Rebel Bellies.


Alexie said...

Welcome to Germany! I got a big shock when I moved here, believing in Germany as one of the more progressive European countries. It is - on some issues. Not on feminism. It made me realise that the feminist ideals I hold are not, as I thought, universal at all, but are specifically Anglophone. (e.g. I have heard German feminists tell me with a straight face that women are "closer to nature" or more empathetic and less logical by nature etc etc) The style of communicating that we cherish in the English speaking world, such as being clear about objectives and consensus building, are equally not universal values at all. What I find most interesting is that a lot of the modes of critique used in Anglophone activism of all stripes emerged from the work of French writers like Barthe and Kristeva. Turns out we value them much more in the English speaking world - a friend who is an anthropologist was shocked to her core at how old fashioned and racist anthropology was in French universities.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Alexie.

I'm wary of universalising nationalities, and don't have much to add, but your comments are interesting and I need to think about this a bit more. I think I was unprepared by how big the cultural differences were going to be, and not just in terms of nationality but also my queerness.

Anonymous said...

I am glad you wrote this but I just want to amend something to be fair to the organiser. When I challenged her on her racist actions she did not use the emotive phrase 'waves of beggars' but did express concerns that if such people were allowed to freely take food word would get round and more beggars would come to take the food.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Kay, I will amend this.

RoterRubin said...

Thanks so much for sharing this, Charlotte! Your report confirmed my decision not to participate in this workshop was the right one.

I don't think this has anything to do with nationality, rather with political background and one's view of life in general. Dicke e.V. doesn't perceive itself as feminist or as grass-roots democratic (anti-hierarchic).

ARGE Dicke Weiber in Vienna are still kind of lone fighters in the german speaking feminist and lesbian scene and we are still very few women - due to our radical approach I am afraid.

in sisterhood

Sharon said...

Comment: Part 1

I feel that I should say a few things too.

I think it's pretty much inevitable that when you have an organised event that is a "first", there are going to be all sorts of aspects that aren't ideal, which will vary for different participants. Miscommunication is also pretty frustrating: one participant grumbles to another that this was an issue, but actually there was that issue preventing the organiser doing anything about it. I saw/heard rather a lot of that at the workshop; it was frustrating. What I take a note of, is whether/how the organiser(s) handle problems, and solicit and receive and act upon feedback. There were specific opportunities she had for feedback, including discussion and questionnaires (not just standard EU forms) and I did generally find the organiser seemed to be listening and seemed prepared to act on people's concerns for any future occasions.

Here's one of the major misconceptions. According to the organiser, the workshop was never intended as "an international workshop for fat activists", or "an international activist get-together", it was not intended for people who had already travelled far in their size-acceptance journeys, but for those who were wanting to learn more about size acceptance. Hence the adult education angle. I'm not sure how much the advertising bumph for the workshop did or didn't convey that, maybe because it got advertised in fat-acceptance circles we assumed/wanted it to be a fat activism workshop, maybe it was misleading. Anyway, I do think that puts a different complexion on things at the workshop. I think also it does illustrate the importance of not having a big mismatch between what people expect and what actually happens.

With regards to the media activism, I also heard from the organiser that the original plan was that she wasn't going to have any, but then one of the participants expressed enthusiasm for doing some kind of media work around INDD, and that's how that all happened. The press in the papers seemed reasonably kind, so that was positive, but all the media stuff did lead to a split in the participants, which didn't help us as a group. Some of us participating in the media activities did understand very well why many of the more experienced size activists might not want to be anywhere near the media and their cameras, but it was disheartening to hear a lack of understanding to that effect coming from one of the participants who was there at the media activity. I did hear the organiser explicitly say that she wouldn't do the media activity again, that she wouldn't have done it in the first place, had she known the hindsight she'd get.

As far as the Roma group were concerned (actually it never entered my head that they could be Roma, I had formed a vague impression that they might be Muslim, what with the headscarves), I did see some oppression, but I saw different things from what you got reported to you. I wasn't aware of any difference between how they were treated when they *first* approached the table compared to any other group of people who weren't engaging with the topic, but I did see resistance when they approached the table again shortly afterwards, and again a 3rd and a 4th time, and this took the form of people warning me that they had already got food from earlier visits. I think it was reasonable to want some food left for when the press were there (scenes of "look, the fat people ate all the food" wouldn't have been what we wanted to see on the front pages), but I think a much better non-oppressive way would have been to approach them when they returned and suggest that they would be welcome to eat more after the press opportunity.

Sharon said...

Comment: Part 2

I also find it very disappointing that we've finally managed to have a moment of contact for size activists in Europe, and already, we're somewhere in controversy/complaint/split land. *sigh*. Let's not leave the impression of this workshop as a multi-faceted grumble, but let's use any noticing of problems to be constructive and looking to better things in the future, working with each other with good communication.

Whilst yes, there were problems at the workshop, including content and length and language, I just want to emphasise that in general, I did enjoy it, and I was very happy indeed to meet some other activists within Europe. There were some really fantastic people there, many of whom I would have liked to hear a lot more from. I'm happy that we produced a European Size Liberation Manifesto, which we didn't have before, but we can now refer to if it helps. I like also that we have a document that is up-to-date and has more general language than the US-specific aspects of the fat liberation manifesto.

I hope that we do have a first Europe-wide fat activist meeting some time soon. I hope that we figure out some way to get a lot more inclusive on the language issue, and hear from some of the people we didn't get to hear much from in Berlin.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks for your comments Sharon, I appreciate the time and effort you have taken in writing. I'm glad you enjoyed the workshop.

I felt that the organiser took feedback on board in some ways, but not others. Talking about the racism around INDD was a problem, for example. The discrepancy between what the workshop set out to be and what it was was also problematic, which the intrusion of the media did not help. I think the workshop was a missed opportunity in many ways, but I also recognise the phenomenal work that went into making it happen, which I respect. It was one person's vision, just not a vision for activism that I share.

I imagine that the work of putting on the event was really overwhelming, massive, and I have a lot of sympathy for that. Despite my criticism, I do feel protective towards anyone that sticks out their neck and takes on the responsibility to make space for enaging with fat.

I think it's ok to be in "controversy/complaint/split land". The idea that everybody has to be on the same page is not very helpful. We all come from different places in relation to fat, my preference is to work with those differences and manage the tensions creatively rather than try to make everybody be the same.

Sharon said...

You said "I think it's ok to be in "controversy/complaint/split land". The idea that everybody has to be on the same page is not very helpful. We all come from different places in relation to fat, my preference is to work with those differences and manage the tensions creatively rather than try to make everybody be the same."

I agree with you here. My concern, which I didn't make clearly enough, is that it is disappointing to be in a place where the focus is on people's differences, rather than as you say, working with the differences and managing tensions. The diversity of people is a good thing: we need to use it effectively and not let our differences get in the way.

Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks for the clarification.