01 May 2013

What is a Fat Activist?

A fat activist is a person who thinks about fat in ways that challenge, question and critique most mainstream thinking about fat. Fat activists seek social change and consider fatness a factor within already existing matrices of oppression and liberation. Fat activists generally regard fatness as valuable, and fat people as valuable people (also legitimate, agentic, cherished, worth as much human respect as anybody else). There are many debates within fat activism about choice, weight loss, culpability, and there is immense pressure on fat people to 'become normal,' but I think a general feeling in fat activism is that the world would be a poorer place without fat people. This is a key distinction between fat activism and a discourse upholding 'obesity' which is more likely to be concerned with eradicating fat, or failing to respect the humanity of fat people.

Fat activists come from every background and have diverse ideas about what constitutes 'challenging most mainstream thinking about fat'. Often fat activists disagree with each other about what that means, often we have incompatible ideas about social change, often these ideas are rooted in our social identities. Sometimes fat activists find allies in places beyond fat activism, but it's common for broader social movements to marginalise discussions about fat; this is particularly true in the radical Left.

Fat activists act on their thoughts about challenging mainstream thinking about fat in many different ways. Sometimes acting on those thoughts means having other thoughts, other times it means speaking with other people, putting things out in the world (a blog post, a book, a letter, something tangible or consumable), making a gesture. Sometimes these actions will be easily understood as 'activism' (a demonstration, a campaign); other times they will be very small and interpersonal (a conversation, a decision to wear one kind of thing and not another); and sometimes these actions are very ambiguous (an action that tries to show the value of fat people but relies on oppressive clich├ęs, for example, or a company that uses fat activism purely to make money). Fat activism is not only a challenge, it is also a generative movement that is concerned with creating fat culture and community. Fat activists act by themselves and with other people, they use whatever resources they have to hand: 20,000 Twitter followers, crochet, imagination, a trust fund, etc.

Fat activists are not always fat, though who and what constitutes fat is complicated and should be the subject of a different post.

Fat activism is a social movement that emerged out of civil rights discourse in the US in the late 1960s, and has strong ideological links with feminism, queerness, and disability rights activism, though few fat activists are aware of its relatively long history, or theoretical underpinnings. This is because it is sketchily documented, and also because to most people the idea of fat activism, or a social movement concerned with fat, is little more than a joke. Meanwhile, the ramping-up of anti-obesity rhetoric in the West around the turn of the millennium, combined with accessible technology and social media has accelerated fat activism into a critical discourse with many supporters.

I have offered some ideas here about what constitutes a fat activist. These ideas are based on my own experience and perspectives, and research, and should not be assumed to be carved in stone. There are countless other definitions out there. I think fat activists should continue to offer their own ideas about what fat activism is or means. Let's forget about creating a universal or monodimensional definition, which will always leave someone out in the cold, and instead keep on making a movement of wild and beautiful diversity.

PS This is what a fat activist looks like.


Holly Gray said...

Fat activism via crochet?! This is how I know I've joined an amazing social, political, and cultural movement! :)

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Right! And you are at the heart of it.