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.