21 December 2015

Five things I have learned from writing this book

I think of fat as a life's work. Sometimes it is there strongly, very present in my life, sometimes I get burned out. But the question of what it is to be fat in cultures that hate fat people is on-going. I doubt I will ever find a definitive answer but so what, it's the journey that matters.

My book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is about to be published on 4 January 2016. It represents a period of great intensity for me, about seven years or so, maybe a bit longer, of thinking and working on fat. It's about to have a life beyond me and the many people who have supported the project over the years; it's about to go public.

I've certainly learned a lot about fat as I've done this work, but writing the book has been an education in itself. Here are five big things I've learned and a thing I knew before.

Our invisibility is profound
It remains unbelievable to me how much serious, credible, scholarly, rigorous work ignores fat people. I'm not talking about obesity research, that's a given, but the stuff that gets cited and circulated in other spaces and treated as reliable. It is extremely rare for fat people to be treated as a community, or series of communities, a social group, as people with agency who can speak for ourselves. This, to me, is so basic I can't believe it needs stating, and is emblematic of how dehumanised, patronised and alienated fat people are in general. Where fat community is mentioned, it is invariably white, straight, represented by organisations and based in the US. Want to see your own experiences of being fat in the literature? You will probably have to write it yourself, which might be no bad thing.

This is about revolution
Fat activism is a way of thinking about activism more broadly. It does away with the idea that activism always takes place in organised groups, through campaigns, on the streets with placards. It makes activism more accessible to people. It's what I think of as a meta movement, it has connections to a great many struggles for social justice and can offer useful insights, for example about bodies, marginalisation, absurdity, medicalisation. It's a way of approaching revolutionary politics so that nobody gets left behind.

The medium matters
The work, the thoughts, the people involved, the way a piece is published, this is all activism too. Caring about the subject means doing your best to consider who the work is really for and how they might find it. I have written elsewhere that I did not want this work to disappear into the academy, for example. The way that the work enters the world is very important.

It's lonely work
People expect you to be sort of magical and invulnerable. People you depended on and thought were rock solid will disappear. You are judged by people who don't know you. You share your thoughts where you can but you're basically alone with things. When I say you I mean me. It is very painful and hard work, work that is brutal and invisible a lot of the time. I won't be sad when it's over.

Things shift all the time
Communities fracture and change, people come out of the woodwork, I've found that who I am in relation to the work is constantly changing, I'm always reorientating myself depending on who I'm talking to. People can be very surprising too, over the past few weeks I've had conversations with people who I would never have thought would be interested in this stuff. This makes me feel very hopeful about the future of fat, a conversation can be pivotal and spark delightful changes, even though things are pretty awful a lot of the time.

There are bits of autobiography in the book, I situate it in my life. But I am part of a movement that is bigger than me, there are many who came before and I hope there will be people who come after. The book is a building block, something for other people to use. What I knew before is that this is not really about me, it's about a social movement that won't be stopped.

14 December 2015

Archiving Fat Activism

My book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is built on research. Some of this research involved interviewing people and some involved sifting through archival material.

I went to archives to look for fat activism because there are very few books and papers available that document it so I needed to look at original source material and try and piece things together. I drifted into archival work, it wasn't part of the original plan for the research but I just kept getting pulled further in because the things I found there were very moving and exciting to see. Where I often feel isolated in my present-day fat activism, in the archive I could clearly see myself and others as part of a much bigger movement, it was like visiting my ancestors. I felt a duty to witness the fat feminist activism I found there and to become an agent of its transmission. I'm not a spiritual person but this came close to being like a religious experience for me and was very emotional work. Sometimes I would find things that I had made in the archives I was searching too.

The materials I had the pleasure to read and handle represent evidence that is not in mainstream spaces. I also think that you sort of have to know a bit about what you are looking for when you visit one of these archives looking for fat activism, for example it helps to know about particular women. In addition, you'll soon get very lost if you use dominant culture language like 'obesity epidemic' for example. What I'm saying is this: your years of living in the margins are an asset in an archive when you are looking for fat activists.

I was very lucky to have a period where a lot of my travel was funded by a research institution, namely the Irish Social Sciences Platform. This was a dream come true. But you don't necessarily need cash to look at an archive. The ones I've listed below are free to use, and some are online. If you live in a big city, chances are that there will be archives, perhaps queer or feminist archives, perhaps archives with local newspapers and newsletters and flyers, perhaps archives that have zine libraries and finding aids where you can search for fat stuff. You don't have to be a student or part of a university, these resources are open to the public, ie you. Perhaps, like me, you are interested in setting up fat activist community archives, or are finding out about DIY archiving.

Fat activist histories are so very fragile because fat people are not culturally valued and often we do not value our own lives enough to document or preserve them. The material that does get archived represents the tiniest tip of the iceberg in terms of what constitutes a social movement of fat activists. Where people are further marginalised their legacies are even more fragile. People of colour and trans people's fat activist archives are particularly invisible, even within archives that are already very marginal spaces. One of the most painful experiences of being in an archive whilst looking for fat activism is the knowledge that there are terrible absences.

With this in mind, I urge fat activists to support archives that are open to documenting and preserving the evidence of our lives. Think about donating not just money but material, keep copies of things you make, encourage others to do so, learn how to use archives, try not to be intimidated by them.

Anyway, here are some of the archives that I visited between 2008-2015 to look for fat activism. Some have bigger holdings than others, some are more like libraries than archives, some require many visits and others are worth an afternoon of your time. Check them out if you can.

56A Infoshop
A radical social centre and book shop in London that also has a zine library and is generally a happening place to be. In fact, zine libraries, anarchist info centres and autonomous social spaces can be good places to find fat activism.

A wonderful feminist queer media archive in Hamburg. They have an active interest in supporting fat activism and hold the original copy of A Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline.

Black Rose Library and Info Centre
This anarchist centre in Sydney was evicted from its longstanding home and is now on hiatus. When it flowers again you can find a handful of fat activist zines in their collection.

A really beautiful queer library in Bologna. Some fat holdings.

The Feminist Library
A brilliant community library in London. It has a lot of my stuff in there, and also full collections of 1980s lesbian journals such as Sinister Wisdom, which were hotbeds of fat feminism. Indeed, their periodicals reading room is the place to be if you want to know about early fat feminism in the UK and US.

Gay and Lesbian Historical Society
Based in San Francisco, this archive is a wonderland and its fat holdings include flyers, leaflets and boxes of Judy Freespirit's papers and personal effects. A compelling space.

Glasgow Women's Library
Beautiful, friendly local library and archive that has some fat activist material and, I'm sure, would be interested in collecting more.

Hall Carpenter Archives
Britain's prominent queer archive. It's very formal but don't be put off and don't be afraid to ask for help. They have an excellent collection of LGBT journals.

The Labadie Collection at the University of Michigan
Mind-blowing and massive queer archive, one of several special collections at the University of Michigan that should be of interest to fat activists. I found some holdings but only had a short amount of time there. I'm sure there's a lot more if you dig.

Lesbian and Gay Newsmedia Archives, a fabulous collection hosted by the Bishopsgate Instutute, a centre of working class research and culture in East London. Their queer clippings library is really worth a look.

The place for US fat feminist activism. Maintained by Karen Stimson for many years, this ESSENTIAL resource is now offline, though you can find its pages through the Wayback Machine internet archive. Completely worth your time. Try searching for http://www.eskimo.com/~largesse/ at The Wayback Machine.

Lesbian Herstory Archives
Situated in a house in Brooklyn, the archives have some fat holdings and very helpful volunteers to help you navigate the lovely space and its collections.

The Queer Zine Archive Project is an incredible free resource. It has some fat zines in its collection, and some of my stuff too. zinelibrary.info has also been a useful repository with some fat zines, but it is currently offline. Perhaps try searching snapshots of it through the Wayback Machine.

Spare Rib
The British Library hosts a full digital run of this feminist magazine, which includes important fat activist articles from the late 1980s. There is a keyword search, a bit fiddly and hard to find but great if you can get it to work.

Peaceful feminist archive in Berlin. Some fat activist material, they are interested in collecting more.

Stuart Hall Library
A small, well-curated library in London mostly dedicated to art and design but with more political and sociological works and material on fat by women of colour.

Sinister Wisdom
This journal of lesbian feminist arts and culture was founded in 1976. It has been sympathetic to fat feminism over the years and is a rich source of material by and about fat activists. Issues 1-57, more or less, are archived online and are available to download for free.

Trouble and Strife
The whole run of this British feminist journal has been digitised and is available online. Includes essential pieces from the 80s-90s by Heather Smith, Tina Jenkins, Karis Otobong, Cath Jackson and Margot Farnham.

The Women's Library
Important national collection now buried in the London School of Economics. Their collection is excellent, they have a full run of Fat News, but access leaves a lot to be desired.

I was thwarted in my visit to the Mayer Collection at the University of Connecticut by a blizzard and an ice storm. I tried! Very sad to have missed it but their finding aid is illuminating in itself.

Meanwhile, there are many more archives that I would like to visit. Two in particular are The Schlesinger Library at Harvard University which has the holdings of a number of fat feminists involved in the early part of the movement. The other is June Mazer Lesbian Archives in Los Angeles, which has more West Coast early fat activism holdings.

There is also work underway on a major disability archive in the UK, which I hope will have at least some material on fat in its collection. The People's History Museum in Manchester is also a useful resource, though at present underdeveloped as far as fat activism goes.

Also, you know, The British Library, The Wellcome Library, the big institutions are also there and worth a look, though the places I've listed above have better fat activist material, in my opinion.

Are there other important archival sites for fat activism that I have overlooked? Add them in the comments please.

07 December 2015

DIY Publishing and Fat Activism

When I finished my PhD someone asked me about my plans for publishing it. I said that I might publish it myself and they looked at me aghast, this would clearly have been academic suicide. A book published by an academic press would most likely be expensive and would have to conform to an idea of what an academic book is. In my experience, academic books may be full of useful knowledge but are generally very boring to read. I didn't want to produce something that sends people to sleep. I want my writing to help people feel alive and full of possibility.

Somebody else said that the thesis contained some work that would be REF-able papers. REF refers to the Research Excellence Framework, a model for quality research in the UK that many of the academics I know feel is somewhat shonky. A REF-able paper would most likely be published by a journal that would cost ordinary people without access to university libraries quite a bit of money to read. That's if they knew how to use an academic database. It would be quite likely that the paper would not be read by many people, and certainly not the people who could most benefit from the work, or the people on whose lives the work was built.

In both cases, readers would have to know how to read an academic book or paper, to feel that they could handle dense language and lots of jargon. I thought but didn't say: "I have other hopes for this."

These two comments have stuck with me over the last year as I have prepared the book of my thesis for publication. Is my research excellent? I think it is! Early readers of the book also agree. I may be committing academic career suicide but I'm not pursuing an academic career right now and none of this has stopped me engaging with universities, doing research projects, continuing to have a rich intellectual life inside and beyond the academy and getting paid for it.

REF-able papers and academic status would be lovely, but I think of them as gravy, not a publishing rationale. What really matters to me is that people who are interested in fat activism, any kind of people, should be able to read a sophisticated book about it and not need a PhD or a lot of money to do so. I want as wide as possible a readership for this work because I think it has exciting applications for how people do and think about activism. In these conservative times activism is an important survival tactic. I want to be able to say what I need to say in a book that has my name on it. This didn't happen with my first book, the editors had political ideas they wanted to promote at my expense. So having editorial control over my own work is important to me, never again do I want to be pushed around by a publisher. I want to be able to learn new skills and meet new people in the process of publishing a book. I want to continue working collaboratively with other creative thinkers, writers and artists. Lastly, I want a good deal that doesn't rip me off or line the pockets of a corporate owner.

The publishing world is changing and so is academia. They would like to be closed worlds for an elite, especially under this government which wants to deny poorer people the cultural wealth that they enjoy. But people who have been pushed out are finding other ways to disseminate and benefit from ideas. This is why Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is being published by a small independent press. HammerOn has been instrumental in developing ideas about the para-academy in the UK, and is also rooted in DIY values. We both come from punk and are not afraid of experimenting and doing things in unorthodox ways.

From the initial PhD proposal to publication, this piece of work has often been unruly. It resists conventional narratives about fat, about fat activism; it's the product of an irreverent style of research and it challenges academic publishing strategies. It's a disruptive book and I hope it finds readers who enjoy misbehaving. The subject matter is about fat activism but the research and the book itself is also fat activism. So that's why I'm doing it this way and, I have to say, it is very satisfying.

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement will be published on 4 January 2016.

30 November 2015

Good citizenship and fat hate cards

In 2005 I was invited to give the keynote at NOLOSE, a great honour. I said that a storm was coming and that although fat hatred was bad enough now, it was going to get a lot worse. I was talking about and getting my head around the global obesity epidemic. This is a moral panic about fat people instigated by the World Health Organisation through its 2000 report on obesity, authored by people with interests in the weight loss industry, which, unsurprisingly became the textbook for global interventions. Where fat hate had previously been a matter for people and their health practitioners, their families and random strangers in the street, it was now enshrined in policy, a major coup for the weight loss industry.

What has happened in the 15 years since the report was published is that concepts relating to the global obesity epidemic have become normalised and the weight loss industry has become legitimised through policy aiming (and always failing, of course) to "tackle the obesity crisis." Concepts surrounding these policies – obesogenic, sugar tax, fat people heralding the end of the NHS, fat people causing climate change, and so on – have also become normalised. In 2005 I could not have anticipated how hating fat people could be seen as a form of good citizenship through global obesity epidemic rhetoric. But now I see that this is what has happened.

At the weekend I saw a post on Facebook by a friend of a friend who said that she had been handed a card by a stranger on the underground in London. He had put it on her lap and then run away. On one side the card said "Fat" and on the other it had about eight lines saying that fat people are fat because we are greedy, that we consume too much, are responsible for world poverty and starvation, are responsible for a struggling NHS, and would be better off if we ate less because we would be healthier and have partners who are not perverted. It ended by saying that fat people are fat and ugly. The card was credited to Overweight Haters Ltd, "our organisation hates and resents fat people". It was crappily produced and misspelled.

The woman who was handed the card has now found herself at the centre of a storm of hungry journalists wanting a nasty story, and Twitter trolls, not to mention friends who keep telling her what she should have done. This through no fault of her own. She was just going about her business and then this happened. This is what it is like to deal with hate, it blows up in your face, it comes from nowhere and it can ruin your day, or life. My heart goes out to this person and anyone else who is handed a card like this.

At the weekend there was no search result for Overweight Haters Ltd but now there is a thread on, surprise surprise, Fat People Hate. The friend of a friend's post and images were taken down, but not before someone screen-shotted them and put them online, I'm sure without her permission. It looks like the guy who dumped the card and then ran away can't resist boasting about it. I suspect it won't be long until someone finds out who he is, someone quite pathetic no doubt. The "Ltd" is a pose of course, if this was a limited company you could look up the owner's address and financial details. More evidence that this is someone's clever hate-prank.

I have noticed a shift within Fat Studies towards talking about stigma rather than hate. I think this is a shame. Stigma feels a lot more rational, de-stigmatising fat is a respectable project of debate, listening, discussion and understanding. But this card and the discourses that have helped to produce it are not stigma, they are hate. Within the logic of fat panic being a good citizen has become confused with hate. What happened to that woman is hate. It is not hard to understand where that hate comes from, the arguments are similar to anything you might read in the BBC or Guardian's reporting on obesity, for example, it is only the language that is more direct and raw. I would like to see a re-instatement of fat hate as a subject for analysis, because to me this is the crisis and it has arisen through every bit of shit policy and every well-meaning but misguided think piece about fat people that refuses to engage with us directly.

By the way, in the UK there is no law protecting fat people from hate crimes, though there is disability law that might be invoked. If you are handed one of these cards you might want to think about getting legal advice.

Edited to add:

Not long after I posted this, the story was broken in the mainstream press and has become huge. If Overweight Haters Ltd wanted attention, they surely got it in spades. I expect it will blow over just as quickly too, but what struck me were the responses to the event. Here are some notes:

I don't know if the press spoke to the woman. Articles seemed to be made up from her Facebook post and Tweets. This is pretty scary. A story can take hold without your involvement or right to reply.

Further Tweets were published from a man who saw another woman being handed a card and crying. Was this even real? How could this ever be corroborated? There was something in the crying woman that was more lurid and newsworthy than the original woman, whose concern was for others who might be hurt, not for her own feelings. It makes me suspect that what the public wants is a shamed fat woman crying in public; someone to pity.

Predictably, there was a lot of outrage. I don't know if this would have been different five years ago. Many people bragged about what they would have done instead, but they weren't there and a fantasy of petty revenge versus the reality of being suddenly hated are quite different, in my opinion. I saw some jokes about getting organised but sadly would be very surprised if anything came to fruition. There was also a lot of trolling. Commenters typically said that what the man did wasn't very nice but 'these people' need to learn that it's not ok to be fat and that shaming fat people (ie hating us) is an acceptable tactic.

I was surprised by the amount of disbelief. People couldn't believe that someone could hate fat people that much. Derailers said that the act of handing cards must have been a PR stunt, and a number of Tweets were about the Ltd part of the name not being real and possibly being illegal. One site called the act "real life trolling" as though this was a novel phenomenon. No pal, fat people deal with real life hate all the fucking time.

Through conversations online with people concerned about the attack, I found that I was being asked to debate the fact that it was a woman and not a man who was the subject of the story, and to express my opinions on food taxation. I thought that the story opened a can of worms about things to do with the treatment of fat people that people are generally too inhibited to talk about. I don't mind this, but it was exhausting and a lot of emotional labour. I imagine other fat people also had to field this stuff. On the other hand I also felt that I was being asked to justify my existence as a fat person.

Amazingly a plus-size shop Tweeted an offer of a £500 outfit to the crying woman. They urged her to "be positive," useless advice to someone who has in effect been assaulted, as far as I can see. I do think that using this attack as a marketing opportunity is somewhat shady but then who am I to talk, I Tweeted that my forthcoming book is a weapon against hate of this kind. Hypocrite.

Will there be copycat attacks? What has this story opened up? It's hard to tell now. According to the Guardian, the police are now involved, which I'm sure will be a wonderful experience for everyone. More hearteningly, they reported this from Steve Burton, director of enforcement and on-street operations at London Transport: “All of our customers have the right to travel with confidence, and this sad and unpleasant form of antisocial behaviour will not be tolerated.” I think this is pretty extraordinary, that they are taking the event seriously and are framing it as harassment that no one should suffer. I think this at least is a development.

I had to step away from my computer a number of times during the day. The whole experience of witnessing this story and its explosion took a lot out of me. I was shaking, very tense, wound-up. Overweight Haters Ltd really are the gift that keeps on giving.

23 November 2015

Pre-Order my book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement!

My book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is going to be published on 4 January 2016. I picked this date because it is the beginning of the new year weight loss season and the first day back to work for people who have to hustle for a living. I thought that this would be when readers would need something really encouraging about hope and social change at this bleak time of year.

But then there is the holiday season and there are people out there who might want to get a copy for themselves or for those they love, or their enemies, or as a philanthropic gesture because they've seen A Muppet Christmas Carol and now understand the error of their ways. What about them? They can't wait until January.

In light of this, PRE-ORDERS ARE NOW OPEN (Edited to add: the book is now out! Get it here). This means you can order the book now and get a little card to give to whoever, and you will be first in the queue when it drops on 4 January. People in the UK who pre-order will get an exclusive badge too.

HammerOn and I thought that we should make a seasonal video to publicise this fact. So on a bright Halloween we gussied up my front room to look like a winter wonderland, complete with fake snow. Have a peep.

The video was made by Emma Thatcher assisted by Ansis Kirmuzs. Didn't they do a great job! Here they are in action:

The soundtrack is by the brilliant Verity Susman. It's actually the Fattylympics Anthem but it sounded quite xmassy too.

I wrote the words for the Anthem, here they are. Sing along as you click 'Buy'!

The Fattylympics Anthem 2012
Words by Charlotte Cooper, music by Verity Susman

When you're looking in the mirror and you don't like what you see
Try to dream of social justice
Try to dream of being free

Trapped in the shadow of a corporate beast
You don't have to fuck people over to survive

You can try a different way
Maybe today we'll learn a new way to be alive

Let's try to dream it together
Let's dream it together today

It won't be perfect because things never are
But when times are hard we'll remember messing around in the park

Doo doo doo doo doo doo...

09 November 2015

How to support Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement

I am publishing a book about fat activism (edited to add, it's out now! Get it here) that I think is original and powerful. People who have read it agree so far, you can see some of their comments on the publisher's website. The book is due out in January, aka diet season.

HammerOn Press is a small affair. There is no publicity department or generous expenses allowance. It is me and another person. We need your help in getting this book out into the world. If you've ever felt indebted to me, now's your chance for payback!

You don't have to have masses of time or money, you don't need to know loads of people, small actions make a difference. Does this need to be said? I'll say it anyway: you don't have to be fat to do any of this. The main thing is that you would like to support a book about fat activism so that it can do its work.

Please let me know if you have other ideas and contacts. DO NOT BE SHY ABOUT CONTACTING ME.

No money, no time

Tweet about the book, Instagram the cover, take and post a selfie.

Add me to your Facebook and Twitter and share stuff I post about the book.

No money, some time

Contact all the libraries you know and ask them to order a copy. Read the book. Borrow the book as many times as you like.

Blog the book.

Give me testimonials that I can use in book publicity.

Make art about the book and show it to people.

Nominate my book for an award.

Review my book for a website, magazine, newspaper, podcast, radio show, TV show, YouTube channel, book-selling website, cereal box, in fact anywhere that does reviews.

Write a better book and cite my book.

Write a paper and cite my book.

Write and tell me what you thought about the book.

Research how to promote a book about fat people with no money and few people and tell me what you find out.

Some money, no time

Buy copies of the book for all your friends.

Buy copies of the book to donate to organisations you care about. This could include prisoners' reading schemes, queer and feminist archives, fat activist groups, whatever floats your boat.

Tweet and social media the shit out of the book.

Some money, some time

Buy and read the book.

Invite me to speak about the book. I am a really good public speaker.

Organise an event supporting the book.

I will come to speak at any gathering or location, including bookshops, libraries, groups, Ladyfests, Anarchist Bookfairs, community researchers, classes, whatever! I will need travel and accommodation covered if it is far from London. I will need a place where I can sell books. NB. Act now, my calendar gets full pretty quickly.

Loads of money, loads of time

Let's charter a yacht with a helipad and do a world tour. 

Don't know anyone

Get a copy of the book, read it in public and strike up a conversation with someone. Use the book as a cruising aid.

Know a few people

Buy and read the book and talk to your friends about it.

Invite your friends round to talk about the book, have a Fat Activist afternoon, make a zine together.

Know lots of people

Buy and read the book and tell everyone you know.

Tell me about people, events, places that would love to support this book.

Have a professional interest

Buy and read the book.

Invite me to speak. I will need travel and accommodation covered if you are far from London. If you are part of an institution that has funding, an endowment, resources, I would need you to pay for my labour, for which I have a sliding scale.

Get in touch if you are or know:
  • A fat-friendly journalist interested in writing or broadcasting about fat activism
  • An editor who wants to commission me to write about the book
  • Organisations that support work by small presses, that provide travel money for writers and activists, that support and disseminate research justice studies.
  • A health professional, an occupational therapist, a social worker who would like me to talk at their workplace
  • A teacher of any kind looking to teach the book, I can supply study questions
  • The hand-wringing boss of an obesity prevention NGO, a bariatric surgeon, the franchise holder of a diet company, or any other kind of tool of The Man. I am happy to show you what's what. It may sting a little but you could grow to like it.
To be continued!

Sometimes fat is bliss

I've been re-visiting Hillel Schwartz' columns for Dimensions, published 1997-1999. That magazine always struck me as the budget Playboy-wannabe for fat admirers, rooted in the anti-feminism that has cramped fat activism since the early days. I can't say that I was ever much of a fan of it, but I like Schwartz' work on fat very much and his Never Satisfied was a revelation to me when I first read it in the early 1990s. To say the author and historian is eclectic is an understatement. I am currently reading his self-published work about caring for people when they are dying. But I regard him as a founder of Fat Studies, as someone who took fat seriously as a subject when few others did so.

Schwartz is notable for claiming that obesity is bliss. Even after 40+ years of fat feminism, it is still hard to imagine a woman of any stripe saying this and meaning it. The pleasure that fat people, especially those who identify as women, might take in our embodiment is always tempered by hatred. The entrenchment of obesity epidemic rhetoric means that men, all genders, now suffer and Schwartz' original statement seems more unlikely than ever.

I'm usually pretty critical when fat activists invoke an idea that to be fat was acceptable "back then, in history" because this overlooks lots of variables. A painting by Reubens doesn't convince me that once upon a time fat people frolicked gaily amongst the flowers and nobody gave a shit. But I understand why this argument is thrown in, it's to challenge the idea that fat hatred is universal. This is a good argument, there are lots of variables in how fatphobia plays out, there just needs to be better historicising.

It's with this in mind that I watched an animated interview with Jim Morrison talking about how he felt when he put on weight whilst at university.

I really enjoyed listening to Morrison, a man whose weight went up and down at various points in his life. I'd heard him denigrated as "bloated" many times as he got older, but I'd always thought this was about his drug and alcohol problems and that beard rather than to do with his being fat. Now I see things differently. Even Jim Morrison is not immune to fatphobia.

But this interview took place in happier times and what I loved about it was the juxtaposition of his familiar, arrogant voice with his apparent surprise that being fat was pleasurable and fun. Dead white guys are not my usual port of call for insight into being fat. This proud, confident rock star is the last person I would ever have pegged as a fat activist. I don't buy his attack on thin people or the assumption that all fat people are fat because we are constantly eating, but it was fabulous to hear him say that he wouldn’t hear a word said against fat, his ribbing of the interviewer, his delight in his own physicality.

It struck me that you rarely hear sentiments like this made in public by cool people. "I felt like a tank, you know. I felt like a large mammal. A big beast." I relate! I want to hear more like this, not about how hot it is to be fat, but about anti-social joy, our amusement at our own bodies, the power we feel in being fat, the stuff that emerges through living our lives. I can't be the only woman who feels this, or who expresses it in private. Fat is indeed bliss.

Schwartz, H. (1986) Never Satisfied: A Cultural History of Diets, Fantasies and Fat, New York: The Free Press.

22 October 2015

Anti-obesity campaigns: 10 Passing thoughts about a Sugar Tax

Today's headlines are all about a possible implementation of a sugar tax in the UK to 'help fight obesity'. Here are some thoughts on the matter that have been passing through my idle fat brain.

1. I want good quality food to eat, I don't want to be marketed to by food companies, I want to be able to make my own choices about what I eat based on my needs and desires. If this was about health, I wouldn't care what they do. It's the use of Obesity/Fat Panic to leverage this proposal that is wrong because it positions fat people as passive political pawns, as socially problematic, as ignorant ruiners, as pitiful. Why the scapegoating?

2. Do they think that people like me eat more sugar than people like them? That's why we're fat? Doughnuts?

3. Fat people are so absent in this discussion to the extent that there's a sense of denial that it's about us, it's some abstract phenomenon called Obesity that is being "tackled". So there's no need to talk to fat people about how we might feel about being "tackled" or how we might want things to be different.

4. Important experts making important decisions. Good work! Keep it up!

5. Jamie Oliver King of The Concern Trolls...again. Jamie Oliver in a fat suit. Jamie Oliver is very disappointed with the mums who don't play ball with him. Jamie Oliver's restaurant empire with the shitty tipping policy. Jamie Oliver everywhere.

6. Why is this being invoked now? What are the politics of this? Why would a Tory government support a sugar tax? Why is sugar being demonised now? What are the politics of this? Why would a Tory government attack sugar?

7. How come they've never heard of Health At Every Size? Why don't they want to hear it? What are the political reasons why HAES is not regarded as viable?

8. Why is fat a political story again?

9. Have food taxes ever reduced the number of fat people in a country? Does it improve people's health? Why is improving health about reducing th number of fat people around and about? How much does it cost to implement?

10. Can we talk about social engineering?

05 October 2015

Fat books and homemade badges

I can't find my copy of Macho Sluts by Pat, now Patrick, Califia but I often wear the badge that was cling-filmed to the cover when I bought it. It's pretty speckled with age now, it might have been through the washing machine a couple of times, but I am very attached to it. Queer books and badges are good companions, in my opinion.

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is being published in January and this is not an accident. January is the time of the year when weight loss companies capitalise on people's internalised fatphobia. I wanted to put something in the world that encourages people to think differently about fat during that dismal month.

However, it's likely that people might want copies of the book to give or receive as presents during the holiday season (or to read as a means of avoiding the holiday season!). So pre-orders will be available in December. As an incentive to pre-order Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, you get a very limited edition badge lovingly made by two pairs of fat hands around the kitchen table.

Want one? Details coming soon.

28 September 2015

Feeling the Fear with Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement

I have the typeset files for my book on my computer. They're uncorrected, so I'm going through them, looking for typos and bits of text that need polishing. There's more every time I look. It's been about seven years since I embarked on this project, so by now I am word-blind. I move a comma here, swap a word there, really, does it make any difference? I can't believe I use the word "trump" so many times, god I'm so flatulent, better fix that. There's nothing like having your own verbal tics rubbed in your face to bring you down to earth.

I've been published all over the place but Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement will be my third solo-authored book. The other two were hardly easy to do, but what I'm noticing with this one is that it is difficult to write a book and this is why most people don't do it. It's difficult because writing is difficult, getting a publisher is usually difficult (though I've been lucky), producing the blimmin' thing is difficult and being in the public eye is difficult. People treat you as though you can just pop out a book at will; well, maybe that worked for Barbara Cartland but it's not my experience. They don't see the labour or the risk.

Third time around I feel a lot more sensitive to the risk. Maybe it's because Twitter exists. I get more hate mail now than I ever used to get when things were more analogue. It's so easy for someone to hate you and well-documented how women, queers, fat people and people on the margins get a lot more trolled than the cis white guy population. I'm girding myself for that. Having any kind of progressive opinion about fat puts you in a firing line, no matter how comparatively anodyne. The agents of obesity discourse want you to shut up because your voice threatens their power.

But the risk is also in speaking to people whose opinions I care about. Have I created something that fat activists will find useful? Is this work of any value? I hope that it is, that's been the guiding principle for the project. I've shared the work where I can over the years, and invited a lot of feedback. But I will only really know the book's value when people start to read it and talk about it and contribute their own thoughts to the thing.

So this is a scary time for me. Will my work have been wasted? A couple of readers have gone through the uncorrected proofs and, so far, the response has been positive. There are more to come. I'm on tenterhooks though, and probably will remain so for some time.

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is going to be published in the UK by HammerOn Press in January 2016.

21 September 2015

Indexing Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement

I've been a hermit for most of the year and that's because I've been building my psychotherapy practice, developing a dance piece called SWAGGA and writing a book called Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement.

The book is based on my PhD thesis, but it's been largely rewritten, made accessible and some of the ideas have been developed. It's been three years since I graduated and I've had time to reflect on things. Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is going to be published in the UK by HammerOn Press in January 2016, and right now I am finishing up the editorial work before it goes into production.

One of these jobs involves building an index. One of my biggest regrets about my first book, Fat & Proud: The Politics of Size, is that it didn't have an index. This meant that the content of that book is buried in its pages, you have to read the whole thing to find information, you can't just look up the bits that interest you in the back, or get a feel for the book by skimming the index. The only reason it didn't have an index is because the publishers of that book wanted to charge me £150 to include one but I was on the dole at the time and didn't have it. So no index. It's amazing what comes down to money.

HammerOn is a small press built on DIY ethics. This means that if I want an index, I am going to have to do some work on it myself and learn how to construct one. You can probably get an algorithm to have a stab at it, but the best ones are those done by the people who know the text very well. At the moment that's me, though soon other people will be able to join in. So I've been trawling the text, which is about 70,000 words, looking for key words, key concepts, key people and things that I think should go in an index.

As I look for stuff for the index I can't help thinking about the hundreds of books that I consulted for my PhD. I think about the countless times I looked for 'fat activism' in an index, or even just 'fat' and was disappointed. Some of this disappointment prompted me to develop ideas in the process of writing the thesis and the book: how come it was rare to find an entry for fat activism in books about fat people? How come fat activism, when it was mentioned, usually meant something quite limited? Why would there be entries for body image, weight loss, dieting, but not fat?

Doing the ground work for building an index is both boring and exciting. Trawling the text takes time and focus, it's hard work, but the pleasure is in thinking about what this index might look like. Here are some potential entries: Archives, Emotions, Grassroots, Killjoy, London Fat Women's Group, Mama Cass, Power, A Queer and Trans Fat Activist Timeline, Radical Lesbian Feminism, Research Justice, Spud Guns, Standpoint, Venus of Willendorf, White Supremacy. How might my understanding of fat have been different if I'd come across an index like this when I was researching fat activism? I feel some grief that nothing like this was out there, and now some hope that it's going to exist. Maybe other fat activism indices will exist in the future too.

31 August 2015

SWAGGA film trailer and screening

SWAGGA is a dance that I danced and might dance again. It is also a group of people who enabled that dance to happen. Katarzyna Perlak is one of those people. She has been documenting SWAGGA's process through development and performance with her camera since the early days.

The material that Katarzyna has generated is forming the basis of a film, also called SWAGGA. There will be a screening of this film in London in a couple of weeks, details below. Please come.

Here is the trailer, feast your eyes!

SWAGGA - trailer. from Katarzyna Perlak on Vimeo.

Dancing for an audience is an intense experience. When I am performing I don't have much of an idea of how I look, I can't dance and be in the audience at the same time. I come from a culture where fat people are supposed to disown our bodies, this creates a lot of dissociation and so coming back into my own body is a regular thing for me. I feel very lucky to be able to see myself through Katarzyna's lens. Her images are reassuring, encouraging, exciting. Do I really look like that? Apparently so.

30 July 2015

Fat, austerity, class and benefit sanctions

I've been looking for an excuse to write about Elaine Graham-Leigh's book, A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change and this week's headlines about the government's plans to force fat people claiming benefits to "get treatment" have done the trick. The book is very good, by the way, you should get a copy. Full disclosure: I'm in it a bit.

Plans to create various sanctions against fat people and our activities, presumed or real, have emerged as a product of the obe$ity epidemicTM aka fat panic and appear to be a convergence with other moral panics including those relating to the future of the NHS, the planet and what a body is supposed to be or do. The remedy is generally couched in pseudo-friendly coercion: taxing certain kinds of food; making fat people pay more for things such as plane seats; gatekeeping services like fertility treatment, for example.

Now Professor Dame Carol Black is writing a report for the Department of Health about the viability of threatening to take away people's benefits if they don't comply with some kind of unspecified treatment which is likely to involve weight loss. She is unhelpfully conflating fat with addiction as an anti-social and treatable condition. It's offered in friendlier language than that, of course. In newspaper reports, Prime Minister David Cameron talks about people being "unwilling to accept help". As for being "unwilling," well that assumes that the "help" will actually help but quite what the help looks like is anyone's guess. Perhaps this will be another opportunity to syphon public money into private weight loss corporations. You know, those places where they don't reveal their long-term success rates and sign you up for a lifetime's membership of yo-yo-ing and self-hatred. Maybe some of the team making these benefits sanction proposals are shareholders or on the payroll.

These proposals are a load of rubbish, they are nothing to do with encouraging well-being and everything to do with using Austerity to bully and scapegoat vulnerable people whilst the Tories continue to destroy the welfare state and transform health into a subcategory of productivity, efficiency and flexible/disposable/powerless workers just as it is with those pernicious workplace weight loss drives too. It masks the fact that fat people, especially those of us who are working class, face a lot of discrimination in trying to find work (and it helps the agents of Austerity that fat people will generally blame themselves for this instead of trying to change the system).

This brings me to A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change, in which Graham-Leigh shows how working class people, especially fat people, are being blamed for climate change within a politics of Austerity. She argues that by focussing on classist and fatphobic stereotypes of working class people, consumption and a rhetoric of personal responsibility, attention is drawn away from the real causes of climate change, which are to do with policy, politics, capitalism and neoliberalism and which can only be resolved through system change. You could easily substitute climate change with "killing the NHS" or "destroying the economy" and you would end up with the same explanation for Prime Minister David Cameron's latest pile of crap.

The left has gone along with this, it has failed to challenge its own fatphobia and classism, and seems to treat fat and health as something removed from politics. The Guardian, the country's biggest left-leaning media group, is at the heart of this failure. Where it should be interrogating the political use of fat people needing benefits as scapegoats, it reproduces our abjection as a motherlode of headless fatties, shoddy reporting on fat, and a mass of concern-trolling whenever a fat journalist dares to offer an opinion about the most benign of things.

I have relied on benefits at various times in my life and would not have survived without them. In my twenties I was unemployed for a long period and would qualify today as one of the people Cameron is referring to in this proposed policy. The support that helped me to find my way in life (low cost and relatively accessible higher education, housing benefit for students and young people, high quality training) is no longer available. If I was in that same situation now I would be in real trouble. My heart goes out to those who have been or will be caught up in this new nightmare. It has taken me a day to be able to write about these proposals because I find them so appalling, so wrong.

Elaine Graham-Leigh (2015) A Diet of Austerity: Class, Food and Climate Change, London: Zero Books.

21 June 2015

SWAGGA: after the run

Before the show
This run is over and I realised on Saturday that I must have performed SWAGGA in its various incarnations to several hundred people by now. I'm in a state of overwhelm about this. I know that I have been part of something big but it will be a while until I have time to reflect on it properly and to understand what it is that happened. For now, these are my thoughts:

Doing a run of dance shows is exhausting. Every night I would go to bed feeling happy and satisfied, I'd wake in the small hours with some kind of mental niggle about something and then in the morning I'd feel the dread again which built until the second I got onstage. God knows how performers in long-term shows manage, the performance is omnipresent, I was unable to shut it out of my mind as I went about my business in the daytime. I spent most of the week feeling sick with nerves.

My body held up ok. We did long warm-ups each day, I worked on loosening my stiff knees, talking through the fear of performing, settling my mind, singing along to silly music. The show starts with a lot of noise and bad attitude and it wasn't hard to get into that state of mind! By the end of the run I had aches and was covered in bruises, my voice became hoarse. Even though we were dancing for shorter periods that we dance in rehearsals, the adrenaline and pressure of performing was knackering. I felt as though I'd been through a storm.

Each performance had a different feel to it depending on the audience, how I felt about the technical aspects of what I was doing, the presence or not of Trash Kit, whether or not I recognised people in the crowd. We sold out a couple of the shows and the others were almost full. There was so much sweat and intensity as I found my way through the score each time. But what they all had in common was that the response was extremely positive. It will take a long time to forget the applause. Here are some of the things that people said online:
  • the best thing I've seen in a long, long time.
  • SWAGGA is staggering stuff.
  • still replaying it
  • astonishing
  • music just so perfect.
  • a beautiful dancing reassessment. Something got done. Thank you
  • very moving, u crafted a mesmerising thing together
  • It's not like anything I've seen on stage before; funny, moving, sexy, scary and really, really watchable. I mean you can't take your eyes off them.
  • SWAGGA is just the most angry, beautiful, smart, funny, scary, joyful, thing I have seen in a long long time. If I was some kind of theatre producer I would give Kay, Charlotte & Project O my annual budget and cancel everything else.
  • I've just been to see the most inspiring show of recent times.
  • fierce and powerful and sexy and entertaining
  • It was so, so wonderful
  • Wow, once again moved, tearful, grinning.
  • What a storm of emotions and raw power.
  • detailed, exciting, uncompromising work woooo. Feeling love for SWAGGA
  • I can't remember the last time I loved a piece of theatre as much as I loved SWAGGA tonight. Perfection
  • absolutely fantastic!
  • Anyone and everyone who's wanted to dance should catch SWAGGA. Empowering and invigorating and I could just go on and on.
  • a must-see show. Congrats to all concerned, enduring images that stay with me & a band to break your heart.
  • Oh no. #SWAGGA is sold out tonight. Should have booked quicker :(
Many people said that the show moved them to tears. On the last night a woman stood crying by me, all she could say was "thank you!" Others stood to applaud us. It is almost too much for me to take in. It's fabulous to think that this means something to people.

Thinking about what audiences see when they see people like me or Kay, Alex or Jamila dancing on a stage is something that we talked about quite a bit in the rehearsal period. Would we be seen, really seen? That was part of the intention for doing SWAGGA, to be seen for who we are. Would people be able to see us? I feel culturally hyper-visible as an agent of deathfat and also queer and invisible. There is so much bullshit in the way of people being able to see people like me. It is very risky to put yourself in someone's line of fire.

After the show
The answer is that some people were able to see us and some people were not. It was a relief not to have to deal with the usual crap in instances where I was visible to people. I feel like a valuable person and now I know what it is like to be treated as one. I want more of it and I think that everybody should be treated in this way. But others were not able to see us. In one case a man did not have the language to talk about us, so it was all a bit clumsy; in another, a critic's view was ruined by his homophobia.

Being misrecognised, especially by someone who has access to a large readership, is a violent experience and one that can make a person feel painfully vulnerable. But these are not the people I dance for. There's a line in a song we sing: It's not for you. It's complicated because the dance has different functions at different times for the people making SWAGGA. I'm responsible to other people who are building their careers and repertoires on my movement, I love them and want to do a really good job of it. But in my heart I am not dancing for the papers or emissaries from the land of respectability. I'm still not sure why I perform, perhaps I will never know, but this week I was able to connect with people watching me and recognise acknowledgment and excitement in their eyes. I felt that we were able to encourage each other to imagine something different for ourselves, to be less alone in these stinking times.

None of us know where this will go.

Thanks to everyone who came and supported SWAGGA. Giant love to Project O aka Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small, Trash Kit, Verity Susman, Katarzyna Perlak, Jo Palmer, Maeve Bolger and Lorna Campbell.

SWAGGA is supported by Arts Council Grants for The Arts, The Junction, The Yard Theatre, Siobhan Davies Dance, State of Emergency, Artsadmin and Dance Research Studio.

15 June 2015

SWAGGA: our residency begins

I have butterflies in my belly today and it's been hard to get off to sleep recently because my mind is full of dancing and things I need to remember. Tonight I will go over to The Yard Theatre for the technical rehearsal and tomorrow we'll have a dress rehearsal and opening night for our week's residency. This is what the work we've done so far has been building up to.

The show has changed since the previews and sharing sessions. We've been doing some publicity for it and the question always comes up: what is it about? This is an impossible question to answer. I used to think I knew, but it's different for everyone involved and its meanings shift in each performance. There isn't a meaning, it's loaded with meaning. I'm coming to understand how dance is something that people interpret, it creates a feeling, it's co-created with whoever's watching. The short answer is that SWAGGA is about us and about what it's like to claim space on a stage and be looked at. Sort of. But there are layers of emotion and experience in there that can't really be said, hence we dance it and invite people to have a look and see what they make of it. Perhaps it's a provocation, as my love described it last night.

Here are some of places where we've talked about SWAGGA:

Out in South London

Hackney Gazette Yard Theatre’s SWAGGA hopes to prove any age, shape or size can pull off a dance show

The Most Cake TMC interview the team behind SWAGGA, a dance piece for anyone who’s been "pushed aside, spoken over, ignored, mis-recognised and snubbed"

London Dance SWAGGA - disrupting conventions in dance aesthetics


Dotun Adebayo at 1:45-ish.

Friend of Marilyn Episode 140, available via iTunes

The Voice Project O: The dance industry is racist too

Exeunt SWAGGA: Dance, Dissent, Diversity

I feel embarrassed to admit that the reason I have butterflies is because I've pushed aside the idea that we have been working towards performances. I've been all about the work and the process as being SWAGGA, and it is, but – guess what? – there's also showtime. It's a bit strange thinking of myself as a performer. I think of them as people who are always On, who are gagging to get on a stage at any time, who live to perform, who need the validation of an audience. That is not me, though I'm a bit of a show-off sometimes. So I've been thinking about why I perform and what I hope this run will bring. Mostly I want to have fun, but it's also about sharing things with people, letting them into our SWAGGA world, hoping that this is something people can build on.

This week I was reading a 20 year old interview with Mick Jagger. The man is repulsive, let me get that clear from the start. But he said something that resonated about performance and humiliation. This has been my experience of performing on many occasions. It risks humiliation and it is humiliating. If you are fat, your life is full of humiliations too, it's part of the everyday. Dancing on a stage in a body like mine, and maybe in other bodies too, usually has some layer of shame and humiliation about it and moving in spite of all that, or with it, is part of the work of dance. Anyway, Mick Jagger said that it feels great to make a fool of yourself in front of people, even if it's a small group. As long as no one's throwing rotten tomatoes at you, you're onto something. You have to keep going, learn to ride the humiliation and enjoy the surprise in people's faces. It feels great! Fancy that!

Ok, so now it begins again.

02 June 2015

Fat and the massage table

I'm lying on a table on my front with my face poking through a hole. There's some plingy-plongy music that I drift in and out of. I feel warm and secure. Sabrina is pressing an area in my upper back that makes me feel a) like a moth being pinned to a board and b) as though she is releasing every ounce of tension in my body through that one point. She does the same with a point on my arse. In a moment she will appear to put her fingers inside the bottom of my skull and I will think "Ah, being decapitated is not so bad after all, it's a bit weird but it actually feels really nice." She will rest her hand on my breastbone and somehow I will have remembered my sense of courage and strength. When I feel unsure I will come back to the memory of that touch.

At times I flash on my mum and dad and wonder if they ever had a massage. I think about people who haven't experienced touch, maybe for a long time, and what it might be like for them to be lying where I am. I think about the layers of embarrassment, fear, shame, class identity and lack of entitlement, lack of access that stops people from getting mostly naked and allowing a stranger to touch them. I reflect on how getting massages has been one of the ways in which I have been able to make sense of and make room for my own body. I think of my friend Deb.

I can't remember the number of times I've climbed on the table. It's different every time. I used to get scrubbed down by a burly woman at Ironmonger Row. I've been scoured with chocolate-smelling goo at the spa at Hershey, and prodded around in the kinds of places where ladies lunch and hairy legs like mine are a rarity indeed. A man in Budapest blasted me underwater with a high-pressure hose. I don't discriminate, I like the variety.

I remember having a massage at Therme Vals, the most beautiful bathhouse I've ever visited. It was over ten years ago. A muscular guy in shorts and vest gave me a going over with hard bristly brushes. It was all I could afford! He had no truck with clothing of any kind and he insisted in a brusque way of doing my front and back. I got the giggles as he brushed my belly and wobbled me around the table. I was so naked and the scene so strange.

For a while I worked at the kind of places that offered workplace massage. A woman would come round with a chair and do you by your desk for ten minutes. It didn't make up for capitalism and the exploitation of labour and it was hard to relax with my boss nearby. At another office a woman set up in the sub-basement. I'd go and see her every few weeks. The ambiance down there was like Eraserhead. I often think about the working conditions of people who do body-work, how they put their bodies on the line too. It's hard work and there's often a big gap between the worker and the punter. I suspect it is hard to unionise. It's work that takes place in these edge spaces and, surprise surprise, it is a kind of work dominated by women.

These most recent series of massages have been part of the dancing I've been doing lately and they also feel connected to therapy. I feel more conscious that they are a means of putting me in touch with my body, noticing things. I've been explicit about this with Sabrina, the practitioner, and she has responded with a wide repertoire of touch, working with my body in a really great and respectful manner.

I go though different states when I'm being worked on. I'm aware of fat, muscle, bone, tightness, warmth, my body becoming extremely relaxed. Sometimes I feel as though I am meat or a corpse, but not in an alarming way, more like an acceptance of my physical self. I often want to say: "Wow! That feels fantastic! Thank you!" but I'm deep in the moment, allowing myself to experience it. Sometimes the touch feels as though it is pushing my limits of tolerance but this is always immediately soothed. It makes me feel brave. I lie there appreciating what I have, enjoying my embodiment, feeling resilient. When I'm on the table I feel as though I am bringing the history of my body with me. I'm glad I can be there at all.

29 May 2015

SWAGGA: highs and more highs

We're coming to the last couple of weeks of rehearsals for SWAGGA before our week's run at The Yard. Come and see us!

What a ride it's been so far. Here are some highlights:

The biggest thing that has changed over this development period is that we are working to music that has been specially made for the piece. The composer Verity Susman, also of Electrelane, has created a score for us and the band Trash Kit will be performing live onstage with us during the show. I'm saying this in a matter-of-fact style, but the reality is that we are dancing to our favourite musicians, to music they have made with us in mind, with people who are very important to us as artists and community. It is thrilling beyond belief to be working in this dynamic, mixed, interdisciplinary way. Just the other week we were practising with Trash Kit at Chisenhale Dance Space, improvising movement whilst they freestyled around us. The interplay felt incredible. I am so excited for audiences to witness this.

Trash Kit get ready

Last Saturday we previewed SWAGGA in at Watch Out, a festival of dangerous new performance at Cambridge Junction. We are dangerous! We performed at an odd time in the afternoon but managed to attract a lovely audience. The space was really good to dance in. It's funny, when I'm dancing I am aware of the audience and they certainly feed the piece and give it energy, but it's also a very internal feeling. I am closing in on feelings and thoughts that drive the movement, I'm very focused, in a kind of flow of body and mind. I no longer worry about my body not being able to do things because I know it can. I'm aware of being seen, and also in quite a private state. It's hard to tell what it feels like, it's enjoyable and also work, effort. Whilst I was in this flow state in Cambridge, I was aware of a sequence dancing with Kay through millions of tiny dust motes lit up by the side lights. It was as though we were dancing in a giant, golden sno-globe.

Verity nabs the best seat to watch our dress rehearsal

A few weeks ago we did a run for a group of people in order to solicit some feedback from them. It's useful to listen to the things that people say when you are deeply embroiled in something because you can get a bit snowblind. One person turned up to the sharing, he knew nothing about the piece, his dance practise was different to ours. He said some things that stung and I don't think he realised this, he was just saying what he thought. The sting was the first time in the project that I felt diminished as a dancer and it caused some past insecurities to surface for a while: I'm too fat, I'm too old, I can't move, who am I kidding that I could do this? Re-entering the work put those voices in their place but what I have been left with is the astonishing realisation that in over a year of making SWAGGA this is the first time I have encountered views such as that man held. I thought dancing would entail fighting people that didn't want someone like me to be dancing but my experience has been the opposite. I'm sure this is because of the communities of dance that I have started to be a part of, their values and aesthetics. But what I have found is a hunger and eagerness for people with bodies like mine to be part of things, and a lot of support along the way. It is extremely humbling.

Studio view from Arts Admin

One of the ways in which I have been encountering different forms of dance and community has been through The New Empowering School, a series of workshops allied to SWAGGA. Every week about twelve of us meet and have a go at something under the stewardship of a performance practitioner. So far, Florence Peake, Matthias Sperling and Vicki Igbokwe have taken us on a journey of release work, collective movement and club dancing. Charlie Lee George has been blogging about her experiences over at Fishing for Dragons.

We are about halfway through the School and it has indeed been an empowering thing. We have been working in a beautiful studio at Arts Admin. It's actually a space where the choreographer who introduced me to dance in the 1980s works with his company. We work amongst their belongings: a baby seat, biscuits, boxes of clothes, equipment. It feels as though I've moved from being in the audience to seeing what goes on behind the curtain. I can't believe I now know what a studio is like, what a dance class is like, how it feels to enter a dance space feeling limited and being able to contribute and take things from it regardless. I've had a life thinking that these things are not for the likes of me. I am starting to think about how my life as a dancer will develop beyond SWAGGA, which is a great gift that Alexandrina Hemsley and Jamila Johnson-Small of Project O, the initiators of all this, have given me, and one that I hope to pass on in my own way.

14 May 2015

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement

I'm extremely happy to announce that I have a new book coming out in January 2016.

It's called Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement.

The book is based on my PhD research, expanded and made accessible for a broad readership. I hope you'll want to read it

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement will be published by HammerOn, a fantastic small press specialising in books for and by feminists, queers, nerds and weirdos.

More here: http://hammeronpress.net/shop/coming-soon/

24 April 2015

SWAGGA: Slowly Without Angst Giant Goddess Attack

It's been about a year since I started dancing with Project O. I am now well-acquainted with five dance studios, a rehearsal basement and a couple of stages. I feel as though I have infiltrated spaces that were previously excluded to me. I have come to know Jamila Johnson-Small and Alexandrina Hemsley, which has brought me nothing but pleasure. I'm getting an idea of how people work in dance and performance (yes, it's not easy). I am meeting other dancers and makers, witnessing and participating in different kinds of work. I am being paid to rehearse, dance and perform for this period and there is a small budget for other things relating to my life as a dancer, like physio. Not surprisingly, my relationship with my body has changed quite a bit over the past months.

Dancing with Project O has been a major life experience for me as a fat person invested in decolonising my body and developing a radical embodied practice/activism based on the liberation of all people. I now see my body as a resource I can trust and through which I can express myself. I have learned to move with a little more depth, strength, imagination. I enjoy the way I am able to move, I'm not afraid of being puffed out, of sweating, of getting tired, I see this as part of my aesthetic. I am more curious about shame when it arises and less fearful of it. I have been given wonderful opportunities and encouraged to experience my body as it is and not within a framework where gracefulness, prettiness, a kind of dancerly expertise must play out in order for my movement to be legitimate. The work of rehearsing is hard and also a joy. I feel both at peace with my body and ready to rock it. I'm very powerful, our choreographers have said this from the start and now I see it too. No wonder dance schools and spaces try to keep people like me out, they really can't handle it.

Because my introduction to dance has been grounded in black feminist class-conscious cripped queerness I am more convinced than ever that fat politics cannot be separate from all forms of anti-oppressive work. That this has been experienced through our bodies and lives colliding and not as abstraction or theory is really thrilling. There is so much potential for richness to come out of these crossover spaces. I'm really aware of this in a week where a black woman has become the focal point for the rage of a fat activist community largely represented by white people, whilst her equally if not more fatphobic white colleagues have managed to slip by, including a powerful media maker who is well-known for her fat hatred.

I am still a fat dancer and fat will likely always be a part of how I perform and am in the world. Unless I get very ill I don't see myself getting thinner any time soon and, if I did, I would have a formerly fat middle-aged body, I would not be reborn as any kind of youthful thin ideal. But the dancer part has become more prominent, I am now interested in what it is to be a dancer, what I can bring to dance with my body and experience. It's still about fat but it's not all just about fat.

Photo: Guido Mencari

21 April 2015

Headless fatty: is this the most overused?

This is an image that is often used in news media to accompany stories of fat abjection. A famous headless fatty.

I find the person in this picture compelling. Who are they? They look as though they are just going about their business and yet this image recurs over and over again in the news. A small moment in time repeated seemingly forever to remind readers and viewers how disgusting it is to be like them. How might they feel about their image being sold in this way time and time again? How much profit has been made off this image? What might the person in this image say if their power to speak had not been stripped from them? I would like to read a novel or a poem, or see a film or a play or a dance piece about and by someone like this.

Wiki: Headless Fatty

18 April 2015

Research: the six types of obesity researcher

Warning: bile ahead.

Obesity reporting is cranking up again following a relative post-new year lull. The papers seem to be full of this stupid crap. It's too early for swimsuit season, so could it be something to do with the election? Drive people into a frenzy, like panicked sheep? Or maybe it's academic conference season and researchers are vying for attention. Either way, there's a strong whiff of bullshit in the air.

Today The Guardian published a story based on research by Sheffield University and presented in the august Journal of Public Health. The research team has made the AMAZING DISCOVERY that all fat people aren't the same. That's right folks, you heard it, we are not all one homogenous blob of couch potatoes needing rescuing by the weight loss evangelists. Way!

The research identifies six types of fat person and argues that this stereotyping is important because it will help NHS managers distribute resources more effectively. The idea that the good healthy fatties will be harassed less by medics is being presented here as progressive and ethical. One wonders what will happen to the bad fatties.

The context in which these GROUND-BREAKING findings are being set reminds me of how fat panic produces its own set of rhetoric and that, when repeated often enough, this hot air is made real, it becomes a truth. The Obesity Epidemic is one such example but this is old news now. Instead it has spawned new, exciting ways of hating fat people though concepts such as 'obesogenic,' 'the burden on the NHS,' 'tackling obesity' and, another one from The Guardian last weekend, 'obesity of the mind.' For a discourse completely obsessed with eliminating junk food, it sure supports a lot of junk concepts.

If the tables were turned, what would things look like? What happens when the gaze is reversed? I love a listicle and so here I present to you, with great fanfare:

The six types of obesity researcher

NB. None of these people know any actual fat people other than as their grateful research fodder.

The government jerk
Imagine every episode of Yes Minister, The Thick of It, The West Wing and so on with added posturing about obesity. These researchers are blowhard masters of spin and pomposity. Found in every department, they haunt the NHS and all public health organisations. They are hard to pin down because they're always rushing from one place to another and live in some weird realm of unaccountability.

The early career opportunist
They have just spent the best years of their youth trying to get a toehold in an academy where good solid jobs are becoming very rare indeed. By making obesity their special area of interest they can claim to be doing social good and get their hands on second-to-none funding opportunities. Result: they score complementary articles in Times Higher Education and can finally afford to move out of their parents' place.

The mid-career switcheroo
This irrelevant scrote is to be found in a completely unrelated field where the research funding has virtually dried up. He (it's always he) is not quite ready to retire yet, but must justify his tenure and has seen that the grass is greener in the world of obesity. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

The obesity NGO bumbler
Research is a tool to legitimise the untenable and make yourself indispensible to the people with money. Usually rides a Brompton and has a very nice wife and kids at home. Beloved by journalists.

The weight loss industry creep
Research is a tool to legitimise the untenable and sell more product. Basically a robot.

The media chancer
Research is a tool to legitimise the untenable and sell more product in the form of exploitative TV shows, newspaper and website articles. They may also become a celebrity and win an award.

Missing from this list, as ever: fat researchers, especially those using a research justice frame.

I could make Freedom of Information requests to find out how much the public research on this list costs, but life is too short. Let's just assume it isn't cheap. As for the others, I can only guess at the amount of time and money these people waste. They are truly a burden and need to be stopped now before they do any more damage.

11 February 2015

SWAGGA: dancing and inspiration porn

Photo by Katarzyna Perlak
I wrote a short article for Open Democracy about SWAGGA and what Stella Young called inspiration porn.

I am a fat dancer, but I am not your inspiration porn.

09 February 2015

Fat people should speak for fat people!

Like many of us* who use the internet to say what we think, I get hate mail from time to time. The flavour of it varies – sometimes it's really vitriolic, other times it has this hurt and surprised quality – but the bottom line is always: SHUT UP! YOU HAVE NO RIGHT TO SPEAK!

I found this little comment in my spam folder:
"surely if you want to blog about obesity you should not be fat yourself sorry but it dont make sence"
I usually delete this kind of thing because I think it's stupid. But this one was accompanied by the author's email address, which I Googled. This person is a bit of a troll and I was amused by two of their comments elsewhere: "i agree i am a real asshole and love to piss off people," and "i am a liar i find it helps me get my way and get attenshun". So true!

Anyway, enough about them. I was interested in the gist of what they said, which I think is something like: if you are fat you have no right to talk about it, you are a failed person and can never be considered an expert of your own life, it's nonsensical to think otherwise. The only people who should talk about fat are thin people, preferably anti-obesity professionals of some kind. I might be reading more into this than the commenter offered, but this is where it took me regardless.

I've come across this conviction in lots of places, not just mean commenters. It's a fundament of fatphobia, about reminding you of your place as a fat person and reinforcing the rights and entitlements of the medical industrial complex to your body and your life. It silences and diminishes fat people through fear. I've met many fat people who are waiting for their lives to begin and Fat Studies scholars, like Hannele Harjunen, have written about this process, it's a recognised thing. People are waiting for romantic rescuers, medical miracles, an elusive feeling of self-confidence, whatever, and they'll be waiting forever as far as I can see.

I'm giving the mean commenter special attention here because I disagree with them completely and I want people to know it. As a fat person it is vital that I write about fat and obesity (yeah, they're different) and don't leave this to the others, whoever they may be. Claiming my own life, connecting with others, that's where the power is. It does make sense.

*people who are not entitled and privileged white guys

05 February 2015

The jolly fat person makes the normals feel better

Not so long ago I gave a talk at a conference where I described an event that I had co-produced. The subject matter was serious, but I like to throw in a laugh or two when I talk, especially if I'm presenting to a bunch of chin-stroking academics. This lot must have been starved for humour because they really went for it. I was pleased. Later, in the Q&A part of the talk, someone asked me a question that prompted me to reveal some slightly less jolly facts about the thing I had been talking about. People seemed quite shocked by my disclosure, but I felt that it was important they see the reality of what I work with.

The conference organisers and speakers went to a dinner that evening and the person in charge came and sat and talked with me. She was a senior academic, a little bit drunk and braggy, exuberant, thin, kind of posh, straight. She said that she enjoyed my talk but thought it was a real shame that I had disclosed the hard stuff. It had ruined the moment. I felt angry but I smiled and nodded because I didn't want to be blamed for destroying this moment too whilst eating fancy food that her department had paid for.

I thought: this is what oppression looks like. She wants to hear the funny stuff, the joy, which is an undeniable part of my life, but not the struggle. I suspected that she'd rather I hadn't mentioned that part so that she could carry on thinking that everything is fine. She didn't want to engage with my reality, even though she was pretending to do just that.

It's taken me a while to write about this incident because I realise that, up until now, I felt that I had to protect other people. I was worried that if I said what I actually thought, it would make life difficult for people I actually do care about who sometimes have dealings with her. Maybe there would be some knock-on effect on me too, that has certainly happened in the past. This is also oppressive.

This is a small interlude. I don't have much more to add, just wanted to get it off my chest. I suppose I'm offering it as an illustration of a micro-aggression, dressed up as something else. Maybe she thought she was on my side or something, enlightened and enlightening me. It's like a sibling behaviour to concern trolling, or a kind of concern trolling, hatred that is kind: I need you to be happy so that I can feel ok about your oppression.