22 May 2013

Talk: Weight Stigma 2013

I was invited to give a presentation at the first Weight Stigma conference last week. The conference was organised by Angela Meadows, a PhD student at Birmingham University. I spoke about Research Justice.

Research Justice is a concept emerging from activist communities in the US, and has roots in disability activism. It proposes that research subjects should have a voice in the research undertaken about them; it also treats research as a tool to support social change.

Research Justice really excites me because it adds a practical dimension to the discussion about the failings of obesity research, and proposes measures for building research projects that have more direct benefit to fat people.

In the presentation I explained what is meant by Research Justice; why it's important that people get on board with it in relation to fat and stigma; and I showed what it might look like in real-life settings by making some mock-ups of a series of web pages.

I recorded my talk and have added it to my slides. You can watch and listen to it here on YouTube. There were some questions afterwards but, since I do not have people's consent to include them, I have cut them out.

When Angela invited me to talk, some months ago, I knew that I wanted to present something about Research Justice, because this had a powerful effect on the way I approached my own research. I didn't realise how prescient the subject would be on the day.

I appreciate the work undertaken by Angela and the other organisers and volunteers, it was very clear that people worked extremely hard to get the conference off the ground and are deeply committed to the work. I also mourn the fact that there are so few spaces that engage with any critical voices on obesity at all. Our ESRC Fat Studies seminars ended in 2011, and since then Fat Studies in the UK has become fairly quiet, and has also become subsumed into the rhetoric of Health At Every Size. Not that anyone has gone away; there were many speakers at the Weight Stigma conference, and opportunities for debate across fat and obesity frameworks. There's still so much to say, and a lot of work to be done. Another Weight Stigma conference has been set for next year, and I hope that other gatherings spin off from it too.

The conference raised many questions for me about who gets to talk about fat. I think, but I'm not sure, that I was the only speaker out of 17 who identified explicitly as fat and brought that identity to the work I was presenting. I wonder whether or not this will continue in subsequent conferences. I don't think that fat people are the only people allowed to talk about fat, fat stuff is a subject for everybody, but I think it's perplexing that the people who research and theorise fat, or at least those academics who are visible in that work, are generally normatively-sized. This is not necessarily to criticise their work (some of it's great, some not) but there are conversations about thin privilege and its effects on the work that are not yet happening within this milieu and which, I think, need to be expressed. Additionally, there are plenty of Fat Studies scholars, and activists too, who are fat, who include the knowledge they have as fat people into their work, and who would be great speakers at conferences about fat and stigma.

(By the way, during one of the breaks I asked a couple of people who enjoyed my talk, who wanted to know more, and who work for a fairly trad anti-obesity organisation why they thought people like me never get invited to speak at those £500-a-ticket obesity conferences. Answer: because my presence would completely undermine everything! I think I may have blown their minds with that one, whoops).

Where fat people are in the minority at an event about fatness, debate may be possible but this does not take place on a level playing field. Instead of an environment where open sharing of ideas is possible, only the very bravest and articulate – or furious! – are able to speak because the setting is risky. Few people have the security of a PhD in contributing to debate and it's easy for academics to shoot down comments made by people who don't share their privilege. It means that people with lived experience of fatness, or activists and allies, become marginalised where academic discourse is regarded as the gold standard. For example, one woman I spoke to at the conference, a fat woman new to activism, was talking to a thin academic, a presenter, and when he asked who she was and what she did – she's not an academic – patronised her by saying: "Oh! You're the general public!"

Another incident intrigued me on the day. An academic said some fatphobic things and this was down-played by two others. He'd dropped a bomb, stating that even if fat people present to him with 'healthy' (whatever that means) behaviours, he will remind them that their fat bodies are not acceptable and that they need to lose weight. When questioned on this, he shrugged and remarked: "It's just the truth." A fat woman tried to tear him a new one, and during the course of the day he was on the receiving end of some stink-eye from others. Stink-eye is what maligned people resort to when all else fails and they know they're not going to be heard. Yet another academic tried to force some kind of agreement and common ground with him, appealing to appealing to manners and polite debate. The fatphobic speaker was later praised as "brave" for having spoken; never mind that he's a privileged academic who does this kind of thing for a living and whose work is deeply embedded within a dominant discourse from which he benefits in terms of money and status. Later the audience was chastised by another speaker for being "mean" to him because, presumably, fat people and our allies are not allowed to be extremely angry when someone pulls this crap in a setting where we may have assumed folks will be advocating for us.

The day was pretty exhausting and I was left wondering where Weight Stigma might go, whether it will become another kind of obesity conference, whether it will build capacity in fat people within and beyond the academy to articulate our own lives, and about the role of the academy and the professionalisation of fat and obesity discourse within the conference.

I am really glad that I was invited to speak at Weight Stigma, and very happy that the conference offered financial assistance to people who could not otherwise afford to attend. Great, too, that they offered Continuing Professional Development accreditation to people. I'm thinking how capacity in non-academic participants could be extended, perhaps through pre-conference workshops, or some kind of orientation event. I hope very much that the people who continue Weight Stigma undertake the vital work of developing fat community links, and I am available to help facilitate that if they are interested.


Sharon said...

Thanks for posting this - a great topic for a talk. Love the examples of re-imagined webpages!

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks Sharon.

Jacqui Gingras said...

Charlotte, this is just brilliant. Thank you for sharing this. I am working on an online resource for health care professionals in BC to reduce weight bias and stigma. We can maybe share where possible to enhance respective projects. It is truly ground-breaking work to reduce weight bias among HCPs, but sorely needed. Your work, as always, makes a dynamic and immediate contribution.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Thanks for the support Jacqui. Yes, let's share resources.

Vron McIntyre said...

Great talk!

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

Cheers Vron.