11 March 2013

Report: Fat Talks Back at WOW2013

WOW Fat Talks Back minutes
Women of the World (aka WOW) is an annual festival at the South Bank in London. It's a mainstream feminist event and visiting it feels a bit like listening to an extended episode of Woman's Hour – not everyone's idea of heaven! But WOW is a big deal, it's hosted at the Royal Festival Hall, one of the jewels of London, and many people come. There are panels and presentations, activities and performances.

This year, WOW bit the bullet and invited a bunch of us to do a panel on fat. Corinna Tomrley chaired, and I participated, alongside Isha Reid and Caroline Walters. We called the panel Fat Talks Back because of the history in mainstream feminism of marginalising fat within broader discussions of 'body image,' 'beauty,' 'dieting' and so on. We thought of the space as an opportunity to speak for ourselves.

I know the hard-working organisers had no intention of pushing us to the back, and they made every effort to make space for us, but I also had a sneaky giggle to myself because the room was in quite an obscure place in the building, and I was reminded of how the fat clothes are always pushed to the back of the shop. This made it especially delightful that we packed out the room. I don't know the exact figures but I think over 100 came, and it was standing/squatting room only.

Corinna organised the panel so that the three of us gave prepared answers to three questions:

  • What is fat activism for you or, how does your fat activism manifest itself for you?
  • Mainstream discussions about fat and size tend to focus on the concept of ‘skinny’ vs the ‘average-sized UK woman’ (apparently size 14-16): what does this mean for fat activism? And women who are bigger than a size 16?
  • How/does fatness and feminism intersect for you?

Our answers were pretty diverse and reflected our interests: Isha in fatshion and blogging; Caroline in teaching and academic life; me in fat feminism and activism, and psychotherapy. I was glad of this because I think there's a temptation to try and simplify the experience of being fat, or an activist, to single narratives, when actually there are many different ways of expressing this stuff.

After this, we answered some questions from the floor. If I had a penny for every time questions from the floor start with "Yes, but is it healthy?" I would be richer than Croesus. It's especially bewildering when health has not been a part of the previous discussion. It's as though talking about fat can only ever be a discussion about health and, even then, a discussion of how fat can't really be healthy, with the subtext that we must be deluding ourselves. Am I frustrated about this? Yes. There is a lot more to be said about fat and feminism than "Yes, but is it healthy?"

My favourite question came at the end; someone asked about the emphasis being put on thin privilege within fat activism. I answered that I thought this was a shame, that you often come across fat activism that focuses on how terrible it is being fat. I think being fat is often terrible, but that activism is about joy, power, strength, making lives liveable.

The session lasted an hour, and there was so much more that could have been said. From the quiet and respectful audience, the packed room, the comments and discussion afterwards, I really got a sense that people were hungry for this stuff and wanted to talk more, but perhaps didn't know where to start, such has been the overwhelming silencing effect of obesity epidemic rhetoric in the last ten years or so.

Meanwhile, check out some pics on the Fat Talks Back event page and visit the Storify. By the way, the image comes from the gorgeous drawn minutes of the festival, but I can't find any more information about this project.


Marsha Coupé said...

(snip) If I had a penny for every time questions from the floor start with "Yes, but is it healthy?" I would be richer than Croesus. (snip)

So true. It's a maddening how this is the only question most people can come up with when discussing fat.

I think I read somewhere that you refuse most media because there's no room for intelligent dialog on breakfast television. True?

I'm very glad you were there doing what you do, Charlotte. Thank you for being so smart and feisty, my friend.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Marsha.

I don't refuse media, but I try not to be used as a cheap shot by journalists, as far as I can.

Rebecca Harris said...

thanks for posting this Charlotte, I was so disappointed I couldn't make despite being in London from Cornwall that day, the travel on the tube was a nightmare with their line closures which set me back not being London travel savvy!

Anyway, great to read this post at least! I wanted to thank you for breaking my fat activism cherry and I particularly like your comment on making life more liveable as I really am feeling that now, I don't disavow my own physical existence any longer and have stopped living from the neck up!

I think what you, and others, are doing is truly powerful and life changing for those affected by fat hatred. I feel this is not just about making us fat people feel better about ourselves but educating those who explicitly and subtly discriminate, bully, etc to make a much more inclusive and loving society.

I can only hope that through sharing my own research and arts practice I can also help out in some way one day.


Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Sorry to have missed you. Thanks for all of these comments.

It wasn't just me speaking, Corinna, Isha, Caroline and the team at WOW, not to mention those who came, are also a part of it.

Lily Strange said...

Fatness and feminism intersect for me in that feminism ideally means that ALL women have worth, not just women who are considered pretty by society.