11 February 2013

Anti-obesity campaigns: fatphobia in radical communities

Back in August last year, I had a testy interaction with someone on Facebook about something they did that I thought reeked of fat hate.

The Real Art of Protest (TRAP) is a Facebook group dedicated to reposting protest images. Their About page states that they will ban users for racism, sexism, comments offensive to those who are LGBT, disableism, trolling, using personal insults and justifying the existence of fascist organisations. Very honourable. They're a popular page.

But in August I started to see them reposting an image. Of course now I can't find it! Perhaps they quietly took it down when no one was looking. Hmm, an apology would have gone a long way too. Anyway, the image included a fat kid, junk food, and the Olympic stadium. It was a visual comment trying to make a point about McDonald's corporate sponsorship of the Olympics, implying that one of the Games' legacies would be the production of more fat kids. I haven't been able to find the originator of this image, and TRAP doesn't always give out that information. I left a comment immediately saying why I thought this image was a mistake, and then I sent TRAP a message about it inviting dialogue about the picture. I also wanted to talk to them about their use of imagery relating to fat capitalists, but we never got that far. The full transcript of the exchange is below.

I've been wanting to make a blog post out of this exchange for a while but I couldn't get a handle on it. Mostly I was angry about having my careful comments dismissed in such a patronising and cavalier way. But there were other themes that bothered me, and which couldn't be contained in a neat narrative for a blog post. Instead of waiting for inspiration to strike, I thought I'd just go ahead and write a messy post all about it. Not everything can be neatly storyfied after all, life is messy.

One of the themes is about the continuing failure of the radical Left to consider other forms of liberation politics, especially things that could be thought of as fringe, including fat stuff. The use of headless fatties and the language of fat hate was not confined to the mainstream, particularly during the Olympics in London, where I live. It was also included in radical spaces. The Olympics brought with it a giant, overwhelming rhetoric of patriotic groupthink, it was like an invasion of the pod people. Critics of this moment were few and far between, or at least their voices were barely represented anywhere. To be a critic of the Olympics was to be politically radical, yet here were radicals capitalising on fatphobia.

It would be churlish to expect everyone to know about fat politics, but what shocked me was how I was shut down when I called them on their depiction of fatness. This was in a context where they had posted other images that supposedly supported embodied liberation, and where their About page specifically mentioned ableism, which has a lot to do with how embodied difference is culturally positioned in negative ways. It felt really hypocritical to me, that some forms of resistance are acceptable, and others not, and that TRAP were unwilling to adopt a critical view of this stuff.

Another theme was the insistence that fat has nothing to do with politics, it just is, and it should be eliminated. I'm still staggered by this! The denial that fat has a political dimension, by people interested in politics, just amazes me.

This makes me think about other fatphobes who have some radical politics and know that they can’t talk shit about fat. What they do is dismiss fat politics in other ways. X implies that fat activism isn’t queer or feminist. Y implies that it is a white person’s thing. Z describes it as a hipster fad that's out of touch with real people's experiences of health or embodiment. None of them have done their homework but they arrogantly assume that they don’t have to. Their voices are influential within their subcultures and the lie continues that fat activism is conservative, rigid, limited, not worth bothering with. Fat is always trivial, secondary, not real.

The exchange brought into light the difficulty of speaking about fat. I'm lucky in that people often want me to talk about this stuff, but it reminded me of what it's like to speak into a vacuum, to people who have no concept of your framework. Sometimes this can bring up funny and even fruitful mismatches in discourse; for example, I enjoy listening to the fatphobe who's really interested in what I'm saying but is bound to a way of thinking about fat that can't really encompass my perspective. How they struggle! But then there are exchanges like this, where I might as well be speaking Martian, and where what I am saying cannot be at all tolerated. The silencing is really chilling, as is the automatic assumption in the exchange by the other person that they must be right.

Anyway, here is the transcript from the exchange, for your reading pleasure. I think of it as a little example of fatphobic micro-aggression. If you're fat and you want to talk about it it's likely that you've experienced many occasions like these. It's also a reminder of how profoundly fat politics threatens people.

1 August 2012
Charlotte Cooper

Dear TRAP,

Stop using images of fat people to promote ideas of greed, laziness, ill-health, capitalism. This is fatphobia. Your About page says that you will not tolerate ableism, so why bash a demographic that is closely associated with the most impoverished people around (want stats about how fat people in the West are more likely to be poor, older women of colour? I can send them). Not only impoverished, but a group of people that are subjected to the most egregious daily discrimination and stigma (again, I can send you data if you want it), that images like the ones you have produced do nothing to address.

The left, including the revolutionary left, has a dismal history of using the imagery of fat to denote corporate greed and the downfall of the world, and this has to change.

Here are some links that might help you understand a bit more why your headless fatty McDonalds picture is bullshit, and why you should apologise for it and get on board with radical fat activism.


You want radical images of fat that relate to the Olympics? I live in E15, in the shadow of the beast. Check out our community project, the Fattylympics:



TRAP - The Real Art of Protest

the imagery is a dig at corporations and not people as is the only interpretation of that image taken as a whole with the text and the corporate logos of the olympics largest sponsors. The lead off from unhealthy food is obesity and therefore the image will not be removed or rendered. Sorry, but you are being hypersensitive.

Charlotte Cooper

Did you read the links?

TRAP - The Real Art of Protest

If you knew anything about the page you would know we have CONSISTENTLY attacked corporations with regard to the olympics. The only individuals who we attack are politicians, corporate spokespersons and royalty i.e. the enemy.

Charlotte Cooper

Yes, I get that, and I applaud it, I am no supporter of the Olympics, I live close to the Olympic Park and am disgusted by it, the corporate intrusion into East London is deplorable. But did you read the links I posted? Perhaps we could have a discussion about the use of headless fatty imagery, for example.

Also, "The lead off from unhealthy food is obesity" actually, this is not necessarily true. Would you like to talk about this?

TRAP - The Real Art of Protest

Not really, we are already very mindful of the nuances of our posts and do not need educating on sensitive activism. We take your input seriously and can assure you we will access your links and review our own processes. Thanks for the links and thanks for your input - it is appreciated.

Charlotte Cooper

Actually, you have been anything but sensitive on this issue. You are out of touch on the fat stuff, and your use of fat bodies is insulting and problematic. This is not just me being 'hypersensitive'. I am offering you an opportunity to develop your understanding of fat politics, and to understand how it intersects with disability rights, queer politics, anti-capitalism, and to develop shit hot activism that takes this stuff into account. I am a world expert on this stuff, widely published and respected around the world. I'm not talking out of my arse. But you are giving me the brush-off. This does not look like appreciation to me, it looks like arrogance. You don't want free knowledge? Your loss. Continue producing images that crap all over a demographic of people who don't need your shit, continue alienating people who could otherwise be supporting you.


Laura (dusty_rose) said...

Ugh. I hate the hypocrisy of people who want to end all kinds of oppression...except when it comes to fat.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Yeah, and I don't think it's just fat people either. I think that many marginalised people get crapped on in allegedly radical spaces.

Adam Everhard said...

I was going to say there were two groups that it seems to be socially acceptable to pick on, but I rethought this. There are three. Fat people, the mentally ill, and poor people. These are the targets at which society says "fire away," and if you call those firing away out, well, then you are clearly being overly sensitive.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Adam. These groups have a hard time, it's true, but I don't think that they're the only ones.

Kirsty said...

Totally agree with you Charlotte. It's truly amazing how the radical chic (so called here in Italy) can be casually oppressive to marginalised groups and still feel comfortably left -wing and smug. Love your blog and words of wisdom btw- like eating cherries.Congratulations on your doctorate.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks very much Kirsty.