13 September 2012

Fat, diversity, inclusion and underwear

I just read Cora Harrington's post, Diversity Is More Than a Bra Size: What It’s Like to Be a Woman of Color in the Lingerie Industry and I thought it was really great.

This is where I start in relation to the post: I don't know how representative of my life the lingerie industry is, or that I care about it very much. Some people care a lot, and that's fine by me. Ditto representation debates, which don't excite me very much in general and come back to these questions again and again: Do I need to see more mainstream representations of people like me in order to feel like a valid person? No. Do I want my image to be used to sell things? No. Do I think capitalism and mass media are a scourge? Yep. Do I want to see more fat people out in the world, living their lives? Yes. Do I love images of rad fat people? Yeah! It's mixed for me, but again, many people are really invested in mainstream representation and I'm happy for them to get on with it.

What I like a lot about this post is the questions Harrington raises about how she thinks fat is coming to represent diversity in her milieu. Her argument, as I see it, is that this means that other underrepresented groups, especially women of colour, older and disabled women, are not part of this rhetoric.

I think Harrington handles this issue with great sensitivity, generosity and no shaming or competitiveness. She just wants a greater conceptualisation of diversity to include, well, diverse people. I want that too.

My two thoughts:

1. It's amazing that fat has come to occupy a prominent position in Harrington's industry. (I know 'size' in a discussion about lingerie also refers to cup size, which doesn't necessarily correlate with fat, but I'm going to conveniently ignore that because it's the fat stuff that interests me). I suspect this is an effect of the pressure that fatshion activists and bloggers have been putting on manufacturers for some time now. I have mixed feelings about this again, fatshion as free market research for corporations strikes me as sadly conservative, I can't get excited about consumer citizenship. At the same time, fat is being positioned as something powerful, something that people want to get on board with, something valuable. Talk about resisting stigma and abjection.

2. It's clearly no good that fat should represent diversity when diverse people are excluded from the conversation. On reading Harrington's post I kept thinking about recent fights about racism in fat activism. I can't help feeling that she has been let down by a fat activism that has not always actively lobbied for the inclusion of every kind of person. The fat people that have achieved some recognition, in the lingerie industry for example, are white and not so diverse, and this is not ok. This is especially relevant given that fat activism is a social movement that has benefitted greatly from wider anti-oppressive struggles - without always examining its own shit in relation to race, disability, gender and so on. Although a large part of the fat activism around today has origins in civil rights protests and radical politics, the movement often suffers from a lack of political engagement with wider anti-oppressive practice.

Harrington has been extremely gracious in her approach to building inclusivity within the world of her blog. I now have some Words of Wisdom for everyone else. You may know this already but I'm going to reiterate it because I am a pompous windbag and it needs restating often: fat white bloggers, and people in general, please take note of Harrington's post. You don't have to care about lingerie but this is how it is done, this is how you engage with diverse people. As you work for power, access and representation you need to make sure that nobody else is left behind.