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.


Mich said...

I didn't know about this until Richard posted about it. Truly terrible that it has come to this where they give us cards.

Dr Charlotte Cooper said...

It is.