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.