19 April 2013

Review: Aquaporko

I had the pleasure of attending the European premiere of Kelli Jean Drinkwater's documentary Aquaporko! at the weekend. The short won the Audience Award for Best Documentary at Queer Screen Mardi Gras Film Festival 2013, and should hopefully be doing the festival rounds. Go and see it if you can! I have to say that the opening sequence of underwater beauties gave my loved ones and I the chills.

Aquaporko! is the latest episode in the story of how fat femmes are pioneering fat activism in Australia's metropolitan hubs through synchronised swimming. Fat activism has precedents in synchro: the Padded Lillies were active in The Bay Area in the US, and highly visible for some time, but not so much lately. This and my own history as a synchronised swimmer has led me to follow Aquaporko with interest over the last three years. I first heard of them through Facebook. Kelli Jean was starting out with the idea of doing a queer fat femme synchronised swimming performance at the wonderful Coogee Women's Pool in Sydney. I showed her some basic synchro moves in London via Skype and later took part in an Aquaporko workshop at NOLOSE. Members of the Sydney Aquaporko troupe talked about their experiences at Fat Studies: A Critical Dialogue, a conference at Macquarie University in Sydney in September. Later, a Melbourne chapter got underway and it is this group that forms the focus of the documentary.

The women of Aquaporko look like they're having the time of their lives in the film. We follow them as they practise and perform a series of routines, contextualised with more in-depth interviews with the participants. Aquaporkos describe how the group has helped transform their relationship to their bodies, and how they have found community by swimming together and supporting each other. In performing, we see how Aquaporko is also developing fat space and community beyond the group, involving people of all sizes. Fat representation is usually predicated upon the image of the sad and lonely fatty, but Aquaporko is joyous and shows fat women at the heart of things, supported and loved, and anything but alienated from each other. I was really excited to see swimmer-scholar-activist Jackie Wykes talking about synchro and fat studies, placing Aquaporko in a lineage of queer fat activism (with my own books on display in the shot – proudface!). It was great to see so many people referenced in the film's credits, to acknowledge that it is the product of a movement, as well as the work of a film-maker.

My one reservation about Aquaporko is about the limitations of its cute, kitsch and retro aesthetic. I understand this as central to a particular construction of femme identity, perhaps one that is popular and recognisable to audiences in Sydney and Melbourne. I think cuteness works as an entry point for swimmers who may feel self-conscious, or are new to fat activism, but it also feels quite limiting to me, as if swimmers are trying to protect (themselves? Their audiences?) from the 'ugliness' of fat bodies. I felt that there was a tension in using cuteness, perhaps something about trying to negotiate a space for fat synchro swimmers beyond a poster girl healthism that is common to manifestations of Health At Every Size. I tried to imagine an Aquaporko routine that brought in a more raw, punk or grotesque edge, for example, where the swimmers relinquished their sweetness. Kelli Jean's own body of photographic work is often quite challenging in its representation of fatness, and I wondered if more of her aesthetic could be incorporated into the synchro.

Aquaporko currently swim in roped off lanes at public pools, even when they are performing. This physical marginalisation is perplexing to me. I see no reason why synchronised swimming could not be the new rollerderby, or even bigger: a reclaimed femme-centric community physical activity for all bodies. I think Aquaporko represents a blueprint for public health and 'obesity'. It's screamingly obvious that doing synchro in this way is empowering, health-enhancing and socially-connected, and that swimmers benefit from it enormously. Not only that, but it is inexpensive, and relatively accessible as long as there is a swimming pool nearby. Compared to the cost and risk of anti-obesity policy, and its miserable failure rate, Aquaporko is where health authorities and research institutions should be splashing their cash. But I say this with one important caveat: health promotion professionals without a grounding in community will make a mess of this and endanger it. Aquaporko is gold, but developing it into a broader movement without destroying its central qualities requires sensitivity, and power and autonomy must remain with the fat swimmers themselves.

16 April 2013

Fat photo-activism and captioning

A sweet conversation has been evolving over on Facebook that has elements I'd like to share here.

Amanda Piasecki drew my attention to a vintage photo essay from Life magazine entitled Obesity in 1950s America: Early Days of a National Plague. As Amanda pointed out, the use of 'plague' is somewhat problematic! (though ripe for queer reclaiming). The essay is interesting because it troubles the idea that being fat was 'ok back then,' it shows that fat-shaming is not a post-millennial activity. The photographs are painful to look at because the captions are loaded with the abjection and pity that many of us experience viscerally and daily.

But vintage fatphobia is not the end of the story.

The Fattening saw the images and decided to re-caption them. In doing so, they have been completely transformed. Instead of abjection, the images reveal the potential for agency, humour, frustration, sisterhood, sexuality, badassery and sheer queer delight. When I read the captions I feel visible, acknowledged, vivid and real, not at all the pitiable object – barely even present as a human – that the original captions engender.

One might argue that these new captions aren't 'real' in the way that the originals are, they don't carry the authority of the original journalism. But in offering an alternative rendering of the photographs, they open up other possibilities for them which may or may not be taken on board by other people, including those who work captioning pictures of 'the obesity plague'.

This amazing and fairly tiny intervention has reminded me that we may be subjected to a thousand instances of fat hatred every day, and more, it runs through us like blood; but within that hatred there are opportunities for radical transformations that are simply done and amazingly effective. With their expansive activist imagination, The Fattening has done a great job in putting fat people into the picture and shown how essential it is that we tell our own stories. I can see this form of activism taking off in other directions.

05 April 2013

Report: Hamburger Queen therapy 2013

Hamburger Queen, formerly Burger Queen, is a really extraordinary and brilliant annual fat and queer performance event by Scottee, assisted by Amy Lamé, now into its third year in London. It's hard to explain, so go and watch Hamburger Queen episodes from the 2013 contest on YouTube to get some sense of it. Last year I was a contestant.

This year I was Hamburger Queen's in-house psychotherapist. What does that mean? In previous years, Scottee entertainingly underwent a series of weight loss challenges. His final diet made him so ill that he decided that another tactic was needed. Instead of focusing on his body, he wanted to think about why he had become fat and made a call-out for psychotherapists to help him answer that question. I'm a qualified, registered, experienced psychotherapist/counsellor and, ahem, have a few ideas about what it is to be fat and queer. I got the gig.

How we did it

In January Scottee, Amy and I did two hour-long sessions in my therapy room in East London. Holly Revell filmed them and Scottee edited them into four little films that were screened each week at Hamburger Queen, and then archived online.

One session with someone can be very transformative but, generally speaking, therapy is about a longer relationship that entails building trust and working things out. Scottee and Amy came to the sessions with pretty clear ideas about what they wanted to say, and I think my role was in facilitating that, having some idea of the contexts that they were talking about, and keeping the discussion tight. For me, it was an odd mix of therapy and performance, with some pedagogy thrown in; we all knew that the work would be made public, and we were somewhat invested in saying certain things.

One of the things that I wanted to show was that psychotherapy can be a really good place to explore this stuff. Few therapists are aware of the complexities of these kinds of issues, certainly not in the UK, where therapy about fat is usually based on an assumption of weight loss and normativity. I also wanted to show what therapy sort of looks like since, in the UK, it's a fairly mystified activity, and often confused with the stigma of mental health treatment. I think psychotherapy is for everyone, whether or not you have problems; it can be bliss to be listened to and understood, to reflect on your life in a supportive place. In addition, I think there is a place for therapy in public, community settings, and Hamburger Queen was an experiment in making that happen. Feedback about the sessions supported this, people who spoke about it said that they found the films very thought-provoking and rich.

Perhaps I barely need to say that this is not usually the way I work. Confidentiality is the bedrock of the service I offer, and cameras or recording devices of any kind, let alone screenings of sessions, or any kind of public discussions, are strictly off-limits. It's been discombobulating to speak so publicly about this work.

Also, I didn't get to see the videos before each week's event, or really prepare anything in advance. I watched them for the first time along with everybody else at the venue. It was difficult to absorb what was going on in a session that had taken place two months previously, say something sound-bitey, not too grim, and coherent about it that made sense to the (somewhat drunk and rowdy) audience, and handle my nerves. My professionalism was at stake too. Talk about pressure!

Broad themes

The presenting issue, and title of the series, was: Why are you fat? Scottee, and presumably Amy, felt that exploring origin stories about their fatness and struggles would lead to further understanding of themselves. For me, the question of why someone is fat is something to question in itself. It's my belief that fat is part of the fabric of humanity and that it doesn't require explaining. Indeed, I suspect that explaining it makes it not normal, or positions it as problematic in relation to thin normativity. Extrapolating this further, problematising fat makes fat people vulnerable to unnecessary normatising interventions. I have written critiques elsewhere of popular feminist accounts of fat origin psychology based on the work of Susie Orbach, Kim Chernin, and others. This is what I think, but I also think that fat people are diverse, and that others will think differently. With this in mind, I was game for exploring this question with Scottee and Amy, I could see that it was important to them.

I think one of the most productive themes in Hamburger Queen is about the messiness of fat identity, and of rejecting orthodoxies around being 'good fatties'. By good fatty I mean the pressure that fat people often feel to refute stereotypes about fatness and to present ourselves as idealised citizens. Some fat activism perpetuates this, and many feel that they cannot live up to such standards and become disillusioned by the movement. So here, in these sessions, the aim was to be authentic to ourselves, to acknowledge both the things that are great about being queer-fat and the more complicated and difficult aspects of it.

Why Are You Fat #1

The first video focussed on childhood, about food, early experiences around dieting, and families. These will be familiar narratives to many of us. Class, sexuality, and gender are part of Scottee and Amy's stories too. Thinking about them as kids in these milieus, I felt that there was quite a bit of confusion and distress at that time, but I was also listening out for evidence of their resilience because I thought that that would offer clues to link the past and the present, and help them find strength in their experiences.

Why Are You Fat #2

Two very different traumatic events were presented in the second video, and together we explored their impact. Both stories are upsetting and there was quite a bit of risk in sharing them publicly, I admire Scottee and Amy for their strength in doing that. I felt that my role was to listen and reflect, and to try and make sense of the underlying feelings around the trauma. When this film was screened at Hamburger Queen, a small number of people laughed, as though it was funny. I called them out on it afterwards, and wrote about that experience: Why do you laugh at the fat people?

Why Are You Fat #3

The themes in this film feel slightly more nebulous but I think they are about Scottee and Amy's resources. Both use the resources that are available to them, for Scottee this is in a sacred self-belief that he is beautiful (he is!), and Amy's resources for feeling more fully embodied came via her celebrity. They talk about on-going struggles with eating and well-being, and had we had more sessions I would have explored some cognitive techniques for helping to manage that stuff, though it's possible that it might always be hard to handle because it is deep set and socially sanctioned in many ways.

My favourite part of this video is when I suggest that Scottee could address his eating problems and let his fatness take care of itself, rather than think about his fat body, which he loves, as problematic evidence of his pathology. In response to this, Scottee asks me "Is it ok for them to be separate?" to which I reply: "I dunno! I'm not the boss of it! I presume so!" This exchange reminds me of the trust and authority that people invest in therapists, which is not necessarily a good thing. I hope my response reminded Scottee that he is the authority of his body, even though that authority is frequently undermined in society in general.

Why Are You Fat #4

I think of this as the fuck you film, the culmination of struggling and questioning and valuing authenticity. The through line has to be "I don't want it to be plus size, I want it to be morbidly obese," which I take to be a very queer rendering of fat, ie one that is anti-social, ambiguous, punk, fucked-up, non-normative, messy, lawless, real and free. Amen!

By the way, can I just say how well these films are edited?! We only had a session each, yet Scottee has created a psychological journey in the four short films. At the screening I tried to bring the session threads together, acknowledging how the past influences the present, how there are tips and tricks you can do to make life easier, but that fat and queer people live in difficult social contexts that have a significant psychological impact. Coming full circle, I urged Scottee and Amy to reflect on their resilience and power again, to look at what they had made. The word 'magnificent' kept coming back to me when I thought about how they put themselves out in the world, about their art, the dialogue they create through their thoughtful, powerful work. I invited them to look around at the sold out house, packed with supporters, and to see that their work is transformative.

Final reflections

These two sessions, the short videos and the screenings at Hamburger Queen were fairly fleeting moments, but they represent a lot of work. It was an amazing privilege to be able to witness Scottee and Amy's journeys, and to facilitate moments of illumination and disclosure. It is incredible to me that we are able to talk about fat and queer life together in this way, that we even have language for these profound life experiences, and that we're able to share them and understand each other, and care for each other too. This didn't happen magically, it's the result of our work. We matter. On top of this, it's not just something that took place in the therapy room triad of Scottee, Amy and I (and Holly, who filmed it) but was an experience we brought to a packed venue over the course of a month, and to broader audiences online. The depth of discussion that these films represent is intense and I found the work very powerful and rewarding. I feel some grief that it's over! This is the work I want to do.

Do you like the look of this? Please get in touch if you are interested in working with me around fat stuff in a therapeutic way, or for more generic counselling/psychotherapy. Likewise, if you would like to explore with me how psychotherapy might enhance your community event or performance, drop me a line.