07 August 2013

Revisiting Malta's megalithic fat women

Donkey's years ago, my friend sent me a postcard from Malta. It had a picture of the legs and skirt of a giantly fat figure, carved out of rock between 2500 and 4000 years ago during the island's megalithic period. I kept the postcard. Over the years, the image of this ancient fat figure stayed with me and I hoped that I would see it one day. This year I got the chance.

There are 11 prehistoric temples in Malta, and other ancient relics that you can visit, where there are reproductions of the fat figures. I wanted to see the originals so, two weeks ago, after a morning at the second worst themepark in the world, I paid a visit to The National Museum of Archeology in Valletta, where there is a room dedicated to them.

I thought the giant fat figure would be all there was to see. A while back I was lucky enough to visit the Venus of Willendorf at the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna. She is on display with a handful of other venuses and I thought this would be like that. I was completely unprepared for the scale, range and diversity of the display, there were statues a couple of metres wide, and tiny figures that would sit in the palm of your hand. Some very rough, many damaged, some finely detailed. I didn't count, but there were many, many prehistoric figures of fat people, they dominated the collection.

Many of the figures looked like people I know. Some looked like me. They were sitting, lying, standing. They looked feminine to me, but I didn't think the gender was cut and dried, maybe skirts weren't only for women 4000 years ago. The figure from the postcard was there, I enjoy old school museum labels, and this one did not disappoint:

"This colossal statue which must have originally stood at nearly three metres, occupied a prominent position in the Tarxien temple. Being the largest figure found to date the role of this statue must have been of great importance."

Well, it's certainly of great importance to me in 2013. Some figures were headless, which made me laugh, given my interest in a headless fatty, but there were also heads that could be attached to some of the figures. I also became interested in how these ancient figures were transformed into tourist tat. There's a market for this stuff, you too can have a Venus of Malta fridge magnet, or a plaster model of the colossal statue. The fatness of these figures is not something that turns people off, these fat bodies do not horrify, though the craftsmanship of the tat is something else.

Typically, prehistoric fat figures are described as fertility symbols, based on the assumption that a fat feminine arse makes you good for making babies. Tell that to the fat women who are denied reproductive technologies until they lose weight! I don't buy the idea that fat is inherently nurturing and motherly, I think this is a mythology propagated by fetishists. CM Donald's poem illustrates this nicely:
To those women

      To those women
Who find me cuddly,
Who like fat women
And want to hug them all:

I am not your mother,
Your baby or your shelter
And I am not your blasted teddy bear (Donald, 1986, p.50)

One of the treasures of the collection is called The Sleeping Lady, a very delicately carved figure with heavy arms and thighs. In an esoteric essay about magick, fetishism and the body, Tim O'Neill suggests that The Sleeping Lady is a figurative representation of the idea that fat women's bellies are conduits for spirits. He proposes that these figures are the result of a ritual fattening process for priestess that sends them into a dream trance:

"Their huge bodies became laboratories for neurochemically altered frames of awareness, as well as pleasure palaces of the Goddess." (O'Neill, 1987, p.91)
The original purposes and meanings of these figures is not going to be known, they can only be reinterpreted by contemporary standards. This leaves me free to create meaning out of them for myself. As someone with no innate sense of fertility in my fat, I am happily child-free and hope to remain so, and as an atheist I leave O'Neill's woo well alone (though I'll take the pleasure).

But witnessing these figures is undeniably spiritual, meaning, for me, a profound and almost inexplicable uplifting sense of connection to a historical human bigness rather than a belief that I have a supernatural essence that lives inside my body. I had a similar feeling when I worked on an oral history of older lesbian, gay, bi and trans people about ten years ago: I gained a sense that I am part of the mystery of humanity, something much bigger than me, something that came before me and will continue after I am gone, something to which I contribute in my own way.

I draw strength from those LGBT elders in the way that I also draw comfort and strength through knowing that, regardless of these being representations of actual people, people knew what a fat body looked like 4000 years ago. The rhetoric of obesity epidemiology promotes the idea that fat is recent, a crisis, a sick symbol of late capitalism, a blip that must be removed. But my body, and the bodies of other fat people I know, are as ancient and established as any other kind of body. We are absolutely legitimate and can clearly claim our place in the world because we belong here along with everyone else.


I'm interested in mapping sites of fat culture. I think A Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline did this to a small extent, but I'd like to make a map of places where there are possibilities for rich encounters with fat culture. The National Museum of Archeology in Valletta, and the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna are two such places. The display of the celebrated 18th century fat man Edward Bright in Maldon's local museum is another. I have visited the grave of Lizzie Whitlock, a circus fat lady, buried in Batavia, Michigan. I have rifled through fat activist archives. There must be many other sites, and not restricted to the august institutions of the West either. Where are these places? Let's name them and visit them together.

References

Donald, C. M. (1986) The fat woman measures up, Charlottetown, P.E.I: Ragweed.

O'Neill, T. (1987, 1990) 'Surgeons and Gluttons in the House of Flesh: Notes on the Hidden Unity Between the Additive and Subtractive Fetishes' in Parfrey, A., ed. Apocalypse Culture, Expanded & Revised ed., Port Townsend, WA: Feral House, 89-97.

06 August 2013

Fat activism is not always about being skinny

There's been a little burst of articles recently, blog posts, pieces for independent websites as well as big media, about how thin women have it hard too, and that 'skinny-shaming' is as bad as 'fat-shaming'.

(First, a slight digression. Although I think that shame is fairly central to these concepts, I think the term 'shaming' is a bit limited here because of its individualism. I think that the interactions between people that happen at the sharp end of fat hatred are not only about that moment or the people involved, but that they are underscored by broader social values. The guy on the escalator looking at me and berating his kid for not taking the stairs because they don't want to get fat may be a fatphobe, but he's acting within a context where concepts such as 'obesogenic', 'childhood obesity,' the National Child Measurement Programme, and 'the global obesity epidemic' are in full swing, for example, and have real, material effects on people. These concepts haven't come from nowhere, either. I use fat hatred and fatphobia too, though these are also limited terms for the phenomenon. We need more language.)

I think of these articles as a kind of backlash that illustrates how arguments central to fat activism, once extremely marginal, are becoming part of the mainstream. They're by women who are disgruntled that fat activism has not stopped them bearing the brunt of hateful comments about their bodies.

I am sorry that anyone has to defend their bodies against socially-sanctioned hate. Sometimes, as these writers explain, hateful comments come from fat people who use hate to refute the hate directed at them. Clich├ęs about 'real women' being 'curvy' for example (if ever there was a word saturated with self-hatred it is the substitution of the euphemism 'curvy' for 'fat'), and the use of 'skinny bitch' or 'stick insect' as insults are part of this strategy of bolstering up oneself at the expense of others. This is certainly a problem within the movement. Creating a counter-attack that demeans thinner people is not a viable route to liberation. I don't think that thin people are the enemy. Upholders of institutional fat hatred are usually normatively-sized, but that doesn’t mean that every thin person has it in for fat people.

But it is also a mistake to think of thin as the opposite of fat, and therefore essential to fat activism. This is an easy mistake to make because of the popular assumption that anorexia/starvation and obesity are mirror images of each other, as well as the argument that the social hatred of fat people's bodies affects people of all sizes. Nicky Diamond, a feminist academic writing in the 1980s, argued that fat and thin are in an unavoidable relationship with each other, they define each other and are meaningless alone. But I think that this is becoming less so as fat community and culture become established; I see this as being about acknowledging and communicating the particular qualities and experiences of being fat. Mostly the fat in fat activism is really just about fat.

Thin is not fat. Just as my experiences of fatness will differ from others', especially those who are much fatter than me, or relatively normative, so thin people's experiencing of their bodies is different to fat. In addition, sure, most of us live in circumstances where it is difficult to feel free in our bodies, but fat people experience this in particular ways that thinner or normatively-sized people don't. Access to healthcare is different, for example, so is representation, and so on.

Perhaps it is unrealistic for thin and/or normatively-sized women, including those recovering from eating disorders where they have become very thin, to expect to find all the answers they are looking for within this movement. Fat activism may have the indirect outcome of enabling thinner women to live more freely, but that is not its primary purpose. There are a rash of, rather weak in my opinion, 'body-image' activist interventions, which thinness is much more central, and which tend to have the usual problems associated with corporate sponsorship of activism, a conservative agenda and the like. Perhaps the task here is for thinner people, including women, who want social change, to reinvigorate a body-related activism with some radical politics.

To me, there is quite a bit of irony in the idea of thin people being disappointed with fat feminist activism because fat people have been locked out of the conversation about our bodies for a long time. This is especially true in medicine and health, but also happens where you'd think there would be a more nuanced and liberatory approach. Normatively-sized feminists continue to dominate discourse about fat in academia, for example. Susan Bordo's Unbearable Weight is still required reading on curricula about the body, and Lauren Berlant and Elspeth Probyn have published articles groaning with fatphobia, yet maintain their status within the canon. Even the successful academics who are more sympathetic to Fat Studies tend to be thin.

This post is not an argument for separatism. I do think there is potential for fat activism that includes people of all sizes, and not as fat people/allies, but as equals. I started The Chubsters as a mixed intervention, for example, and it's been great to see normatively-sized people get on board with that and realise that they can contribute to things too. I guess I'm asking thinner people, the kinds of women who have been writing these gripey articles, to wake up a bit and stop blaming fat activism for not fixing their lives, perhaps not to assume that it's always all about them, to notice that this might be a different way of seeing, understanding and acting in relation to our bodies.

References

Berlant, Lauren. (2007) 'Slow Death (Sovereignty, Obesity, Lateral Agency)', Critical Inquiry, 33, 754-780.

Bordo, Susan. (2003) Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and The Body, 10th anniversary ed., Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Diamond, Nicky. (1985) 'Thin is the Feminist Issue', Feminist Review, 19, 45-64.

Probyn, Elspeth. (2008) 'Silences behind the Mantra: Critiquing Feminist Fat', Feminism & Psychology, 18(3), 401-404.