06 January 2016

Fat Feminism, missing women and conversations unspoken

A little while back, my girlfriend's neighbour got married to a man and had a clear-out of a load of lesbian feminist books from the late 1980s. She offered them to my girlfriend and said that a friend had left them. There was a great collection of about 30 books, popular genres like humour, detective fiction, romance. A real throwback to a different time, when lesbian feminist book publishing was in full swing.

I've been stressed about getting my own book together, which has manifested as insomnia, so my girlfriend has been reading these books to me to help me nod off at night. We may be postmodern queers but Lesbian Bedside Stories 2 has given us a lot of pleasure!

The other night she read a short story from that collection by Amanda Hayman called The Gift. It's about a fat Western woman working in Tokyo who gets picked up by a smooth operator and has an exciting fling with her. The story explores the protagonist's internalised fatphobia, and how the love of a normatively sized and rather glamorous lover helps her to heal.

I was pretty sure that I recognised the author's name and, the next day, when I checked my fat activism bibliographic database (yes, nerd alert, I have built one of these) I found her as the author of an article about fat oppression from 1986. Her article had led to quite a discussion in the journal in which it was published, including a fatphobic backlash piece! I did a quick internet search for her, bought a copy of the first Lesbian Bedtime Stories collection, and found that Hayman had a story there too and had published a few things about fat around that period.

1986 was pretty early to be writing about fat oppression in the UK. As I understand it, things didn't get rolling until a couple of years later, in the preamble to the Fat Women's Conference in 1989. It strikes me that Hayman is an important figure in British fat feminist activism. I'm currently feeling a really strong yearning to know more about her, to sit and have a coffee together, if she's up for it. There is so much I want to ask her. But I can't find her.

There are others whose work was instrumental in developing fat feminism in the UK. Heather Smith and Tina Jenkins spring to mind but I've never been able to get in contact with them. Their work is central to me. I've had brief exchanges with Angela English and Rita Keegan, who were also part of the London Fat Women's Group. It is too late to find Barbara Burford, she died in 2010, and Mandy Mudd too. I feel these absences very strongly. Conversations never had, continuity broken, transgenerational fat feminist activism thwarted; I miss these women. There is so much we could tell each other. I dream of them finding me, or of someone knowing them and putting us in touch with each other.

My own book is now out, but I wonder if I will ever stop trying to understand fat activism. The historicising of the movement is so underdeveloped, especially the older fat feminisms upon which so much of fat activism is built. It bothers me so much that their work is barely known whereas other stuff, often mediocre, gets trumpeted as the next big thing. I imagine I will always keep an eye open for the odd random name or connection that pops up, even when my girlfriend is reading me to sleep. I can't let it go, there are so many dots that need joining up, it's a monumental puzzle. No wonder I have a hard time dropping off at night.

Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement is now available through HammerOn Press and all good booksellers.

Bean, L., Duguid, B. and Burford, B. (1987) 'Body Consciousness', Spare Rib, 182, 20-21.

Hayman, A. (1986) 'Fat Oppression', Gossip: A Journal of Lesbian Feminist Ethics, 3, 66-72.

Hayman, A. (1989 and 1990) in Woodrow, T. (ed) Lesbian Bedtime Stories vols 1 and 2. Willits, CA: Tough Dove Books.

Jenkins, T. and Farnham, M. (1988) 'As I Am', Trouble + Strife, 13.

Jenkins, T. and Smith, H. (1987) 'Fat Liberation', Spare Rib, 182, 14-18.

Mitchell, L. (1986) 'Skinny Lizzie Strikes Back: an apologia for thin women's liberation', Gossip: A Journal of Lesbian Feminist Ethics, 3, 40-44.

Smith, H. (1989) 'Creating a Politics of Appearance', Trouble + Strife, 16 (Summer), 36-41.

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