26 February 2013

Documenting anti-fat street harassment

When I talk to people who have no idea about fat politics, the thing that they most fixate on, after "but is it healthy?" is the fact of street harassment. They usually express a great deal of shock that fat people get stared at, spat at, shouted at, touched, followed, photographed, attacked, and laughed at by strangers in the street. This isn't some abstract fatty I'm conjuring here, these things have happened, and continue to happen, to me too.

Street harassment really touches a nerve. Never mind that many of us also experience harassment from our partners, families, friends, colleagues, people serving us in shops or restaurants – and that we also harass ourselves! You can almost see people's brain cogs whirring into action when you tell them about it: "Must.. not… get… fat… not just ugly and unhealthy… but… street… harassment… too."

Sometimes I get the feeling that the shock is a little overdone, it's hard to believe that they have so little clue about what it is to be hated, but there it is. The converation ususally ends with me being pitied. This is the point at which I realise that we have little left to discuss because, as disabled activists have shown, pity is not much better than hate, if you're trying to get someone to treat you as a proper living person.

Accounts of harassment in fat activism are as old as the movement itself but, apparently, they have made little impact on the world in general. NAAFA (National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance) was founded with a remit against harassment, and there are numerous accounts of it by the fat feminists of the 1970s and 1980s. My book, Fat & Proud, published 15 years ago, also documents the phenomenon extensively. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many fat people suffer with agoraphobia, which isn't much of a surprise in this context. It's not as if fat people are keeping this stuff to themselves, we are outraged about it.

Now a new wave of activists and artists are trying to show what it's like to be a fat person who leaves the house. Haley Morris-Cafiero is a photographer whose project Wait Watchers documents those oh-so-familiar stares that pass in a fleeting moment and are tricky to explain to people who are not on the receiving end of them. Kath from Fat Heffalump produced her own version of these photographs, demonstrating that Haley's experience is not unique. Substantia Jones, whose fat photo-activism with The Adipositivity Project is legendary, has recently launched Smile, Sizeist! The tagline goes: "Next time someone's a dick to you about your size, raise your most powerful weapons. Your voice and your camera." She presents sometimes harrowing photographic evidence of the violent effect of anti-obesity rhetoric in everyday lives.

These fat art and activism interventions bring to mind other projects concerned with transforming power in street harassment. The appalling case of the woman killed after being raped on a bus in Delhi has further mobilised groups of activists against the continuing assault of women and girls in public spaces, for example. Elsewhere, Hollaback! was founded in 2005 and now has numerous chapters around the world. It's mission is simple, to end street harassment. Originally a project about sexist harassment, Hollaback! now addresses other forms of harassment and is a ripe contender for collaborative work around anti-fat street abuse in the West, in my humble opinion.

When fat people seize the power inherent to our own gaze and turn it outwards, we repudiate the cruelty directed towards us, we refuse to be transformed into passive objects and we claim our humanity. Whether or not the normals will take any notice of this and move beyond a patronising pity of us into action that helps prevent harassment remains to be seen. I am concerned that those documenting harassment should tread carefully around revenge. I have written elsewhere of my reticence about Bash Back, for example, and I think fighting violence with violence only escalates matters. But it is crucial that we record and witness these incidents for ourselves at least, and remind each other that we are not alone. If we can do it collectively, with style, across intersections, then all the better.


nsv said...

Thanks for this very thorough post. Women are often harassed sexually on the street, of course, and one of the more damaging ways we experience it is that we're told it's a compliment that someone finds us attractive enough to single us out on the street. With fat women, there's an extra layer of hatred woven in, because we're told to be GRATEFUL that there's someone who finds us attractive enough, even though we're fat, to single us out on the street. Hard to believe that someone can interpret comments like "I want to f* your fat ____" or "Lose some weight and maybe I'll f* you" as compliments. It's equally challenging to imagine comments like "I hope you die, you fat ____" as strangers being concerned for our health. Let's take a leaf from anti-rape and anti-domestic violence movements and call this behavior what it really is: violence, hatred, and a cowardly abuse of power.

Sleepydumpling said...

Firstly, thank you kindly for the linkage, most appreciated.

Secondly, you have hit on something that REALLY sticks in my craw - pity. I don't talk about street harassment to garner pity, I do it to expose just how vile society's attitudes to fat are, and how injust it is that anyone has to suffer street harassment. I don't want people to pity me, I want them to get angry for any and all fat people who have to deal with street harassment. And I want other fatties to know that they are not alone.

Excellent post Charlotte, I shall be sharing around the traps.

Passion Contagion said...

Hi Charlotte, this is Mandy (& Marty), your old friend from London. I often think about areas where I've been street harassed and thought of a powerful project that would document this. In google maps, have fat street harassment noted within the regions of harassment, this would be a powerful testament to the level of abuse, which would blow the sceptics minds in terms of the enormity of it. I still remember being at an ATM near Holborn where I lived and 3 people across the street were laughing, pointing at me. An abuse fest ensued, it still hurts and is as clear as day, even though it happened 21 years ago. Anyway I hope you are well, and congratulations on all your achievements in your contribution to fat acceptance. Mandy xx

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

nsv: yeah, we're so grateful for the attention.

Sleepydumpling: some disability activists in the UK in the 90s had a slogan, I may still have a badge, it read: Piss on Pity. The pity is horrendous, I hate it too.

Passion Contagion: Mandy! I miss you! email me! mail@charlottecooper.net

Tempest Nightingale LeTrope said...

My father, Deity rest him, could never understand why young me was offended when fellows would whistle and holler at me rather than being complimented by it. I said that I was not their dog and was disgusted at being whistled at like one.
I've not experienced much fat harassment from men. I've gotten the type that objectify fat women coming on to me, and that too disgusts me. Most of the fat harassment I've experienced has come from young females in a gym setting. At this point I work in a place that has a therapy pool, and I work out there at night--alone. I think it's sad that I feel I have to do this, but as I live with mental illness, there is only so much I can stand up to in any given day.