30 March 2016

Roots of fat activism #7: NAAFA

NAAFA, the National Association to Advance Fat Acceptance, started out on the East Coast of the USA around New York and New Jersey in 1969 as the National Association to Aid Fat Americans.

I can't remember when I first heard about NAAFA, it must have been some time in the 1980s and, like most people back then, I was amazed that an actual organisation of fat people could exist. It is still an amazing thought, evidence that fat is a social and political identity, that fat people have agency, community, ambition. That NAAFA has been in existence for so long also suggests that fat people have histories and cultures too. These remain radical ideas in a present day context where fat people are usually rendered as passive and pathetically grateful recipients of medical magnanimity.

The group has been through many incarnations, there is a newsletter that has been running for many years, on and off, and the annual conventions have been important meeting places for decades. NAAFA has also spawned a number of spin-offs, I'll say more about them in later posts. NAAFA is frequently positioned as the only way that people do fat activism, particularly by researchers and media-makers who have little other contact with the movement. This is a problem because it obscures the many ways in which fat activism manifests and presents the movement as relatively conservative and as a product of middle America. Despite having a constitution, NAAFA has struggled throughout its existence with problems to do with leadership, membership, direction and resources. It is an important organisation, but not one that necessarily reflects the interests of fat activists; and how could it? We are a very varied bunch.

NAAFA was established primarily by William Fabrey supported by Llewellyn Louderback. John Trapani and Eileen Lefebure helped Fabrey write a constitution and a number of people came together on 13 June 1969 to endorse it. I have found it hard to work out who was there, some names are incomplete or obscure on the documents I have been able to dig up, but Joyce Fabrey and Ann Louderback were present, as were a pair possibly called Susan and William Blowers, and two people called, maybe, Gilberto Guandillo and Mary Ellen something. No doubt there are people – Bill, are you reading this? – who can fill in the details and I will edit this post later.

Given the significance of the organisation the obscurity of these details is alarming, don't you think? During my trawl of fat activist archives when I was researching my book, I found little relating to NAAFA, which is extraordinary and worrying. I was hoping for large repositories of newsletters, convention materials, news clippings, internally-produced histories and publications, perhaps oral histories. But I did not find them. Do they exist? If so, where can they be found? If not, this means that important details and histories may well be lost. This would be a tragedy.

For fat people's histories to exist, we have to treasure them, produce them, maintain them. This involves understanding our lives as being important enough to remember and understand, a hard thing for people who experience a lot of social hatred and denigration. As I see it, a vital part of the work of fat activism is about collecting histories and developing intergenerational conversations. People don't live forever and when they are gone, so too are their memories and insights for the most part. Unless we preserve these important scraps of information for ourselves and for others, I truly believe that we are lost and have little to orientate ourselves towards. I also think we are selling out the fat people who will inevitably come after us, who will certainly have questions about the past.

If anyone wants to take on the work, I have to say that a really expansive, critical and well-researched account of NAAFA is something that I would love to read. Imagine a giant oral history! Meanwhile, there are some historical documents online that are worth a look. The NAAFA website has a small archive of more recent newsletters. The Big as Texas gathering in 2001 produced an excellent transcript of Bill Fabrey's recollections of the early days of NAAFA, and there are a couple of videos, which also offer some clues about this remarkable organisation.

60 Minutes Overtime Staff (1978 and 2012) '60 Minutes Rewind: Fat Pride: Obese Women Rally in the '70s', [online], available: http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504803_162-57348478-10391709/fat-pride-obese-women-rally-in-the-70s/

Fabrey, W. J. (2001) 'Thirty-three Years of Size Acceptance in Perspective - How Has it Affected the Lives of Real People?', [online], available: http://members.tripod.com/~bigastexas/2001event/keynote2001.html

23 March 2016

Roots of fat activism #6: Civil Rights

The 1960s Civil Rights movement in the US is what provided a solid political grounding for fat activism, a fact that has been forgotten by many fat activists today and which is particularly troubling given the problems that some areas of fat activism have with racism.

In previous posts in this series, I have referred to Steve Post's Fat-In, Llewellyn Louderback's journalism and Erving Goffman's influential work on stigma. The collective work of black people organising and resisting oppression is absent from much of this work, or perhaps taken for granted, but it is hard to imagine any of these interventions taking place without the framing that the Civil Rights movement brought to issues of social justice. Aldebaran's books offer some hints of this, and perhaps she had other works that she did not donate to the archive, but again, the acknowledgement is tacit.

The Civil Rights movement prompted the politicisation of fat people. When I interviewed Judy Freespirit in 2010, she told me that her fat feminism had emerged as a result of her involvement with the Civil Rights movement in the United States. As a student in California, she had supported a demonstration against racist housing policy organised by CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality, established as a non-violent Civil Rights organisation in Chicago). Whilst picketing the college's administration, who were responsible for the policy, Freespirit and her fellow protesters were jeered by passers-by. She noticed that the insults were to do with her being fat. She said: "I was picketing and it had nothing to do with fat, it had to do with the administration being wrong in their discrimination, and people would try to get me by making fat jokes." Freespirit went on to add: "So all of a sudden I realised: 'They are so angry about my being fat, why are they so angry? I'm too heavy and big for them.' You know. I mean. But it's like: 'Ah, this is the way we can get her, because this is the thing that nobody's gonna disagree is not ok.'"

Civil Rights offered an analysis of the misuse of power and of potential means of securing justice. In her excellent book about antidiscrimination law and fat rights, Anna Kirkland writes that the 1964 Civil Rights Act in the US is pivotal because it proposes that justice involves addressing systemic discrimination. This is a crucial point, and was later taken up by the early fat feminists who argued that fat is not a case of personal health failings, it is a political issue. They presented fat hatred as a social, political problem that needs political solutions and systemic change, much like the Social Model of Disability, which came later on. Of course this approach has been appropriated and corrupted now through obesity epidemic rhetoric which insists that fat people ourselves are the social problem, a discourse which reproduces hate and discrimination. But the emphasis on rights and non-violence brought to activism through the Civil Rights movement – itself rooted in peace activism – cannot be underestimated and remains at the heart of fat activism today, even though it is obscured and has branched off into debateable rights discourses, such as the right to buy pretty clothes (though perhaps not the rights of developing world sweatshop workers).

Civil Rights and later Black Power also propose a refusal of abjection. Reclaiming beauty, instigating pride, developing cultural aesthetics built on an idea of protesting oppressive norms, well, you can see where I'm going with this. I will make the bold claim that even the most mainstream fat activism today owes acknowledgement to the ground-breaking work that came out of Civil Rights. Indeed, there are many more things that could be said about this, too much for a single blog post.

Having Civil Rights as a fundament of the movement does overlook some of the other forms of activism that I think are as valuable as the methods that emerged during the 1960s. In my book I write about ambiguous fat activism, and micro fat activism, strategies that are queerer and weirder than the political process forms of activism that are generally associated with Civil Rights in the US. I also wonder if the centrality of Civil Rights means that activists struggle against a perfect standard of activism, or rigid ideas about what activism can be. The US-centric nature of this era of Civil Rights also eclipses other Civil Rights struggles that might be of equal value to the movement. British fat activists might look towards the Irish Civil Rights movement, for example, which resisted English occupation and colonialism.

What is most perplexing and upsetting is the absence of fat activism and Civil Rights in the archive. There is no picture to accompany this post because this material is currently invisible to me. Apart from Judy Freespirit's testimony, where is the evidence? I can't accept that she was the only person thinking about these connections. Cathy Cade's photographs of Bay Area lesbian community may offer some material to chew over, she was also a Civil Rights activist who documented fat activism. But where are the black fat activists from those early days? How did the early activism by people of colour become so marginalised in fat activism as it is known today? How can those missing stories and links be found and re-forged?

Cade, C. (1987) A Lesbian Photo Album: The Lives of Seven Lesbian Feminists, Oakland, CA: Waterwoman Books.

Kirkland, A. (2008) Fat Rights: Dilemmas of Difference and Personhood, New York: New York University Press.

16 March 2016

Roots of fat activism #5: Stigma

I'm pretty sure that Erving Goffman was not a fat activist. It's been a while since I picked up a copy of Stigma, and I'm not sure if the book even specifically mentions fat people. Did he ever meet any fat activists? If so I haven't been able to find any documentation, though I love to imagine it. But I'm including this work here because it was a foundational text for early fat activists, and worth a read for anyone interested in the movement.

Goffman is one of the big names of sociology and, yes, he is another dead white guy, so there are a few strikes against him already. But Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity, first published in 1963 towards the middle of his career, is surprisingly readable and relatable in a field often noted for its impenetrability.

In this book Goffman explores what it is like to be a stigmatised person. He identifies different kinds of stigma based on character traits, physical difference and group identity. He writes about how stigmatised people manage their stigma, for example through compensation, passing, or through hypervigilance. To Goffman, stigma is a means of social control; by creating a group of shameful outcasts, societies use stigma to keep people in line. He writes about people, he talks to people and reflects their experiences, although he theorises his work, it is built on the people's lived experiences and that's partly why the book is so accessible.

It's not hard to see how fat activists looking for theory and evidence to support their experiences would find this book very powerful. Judy Freespirit mentioned Goffman as an influence on the Fat Underground when I interviewed her in 2010, and there are a great many Fat Studies texts that refer to Stigma. The book is also one of those texts that bridges fat and disability, Goffman writes about impairment quite a bit in Stigma, and it is easy to see that there are many overlaps.

There is an emphasis on reducing stigma in quite a bit of the more progressive scholarly literature on fat and health but I think that this sometimes misses the point by making stigma too much of an individual experience, possibly confusing it with shame. The literature on fat activism is quite patchy as well, and scholars often argue that stigma is the primary concern of the movement. Stigma is important, but there is more to fat activism than that, as I explain and sometimes, unfortunately, the movement has a hand in reproducing stigma.

Stigma remains relevant today as a way of understanding the scapegoating of fat people, or anyone really, as a social mechanism that keeps power in place. No wonder the normals (Goffman's term, a beauty!) get so upset when stigmatised people refuse the mark they have been handed. Stigma is a book of its time (it pre-dates punk, for example, which has been a useful touchstone for me in transforming stigma), its more scholarly than activist though there is a concern with the unfairness of stigma, but one of its enduring effects for me is that powerful though stigmatising may be, it is not inevitable. There's an unrealness about stigma, even though it is often deeply felt, that means that there are possibilities for relinquishing it and of taking back power. This is a point that I try to make in my own book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement.

09 March 2016

Roots of fat activism #4: More people should be FAT

Llewellyn Louderback was a jobbing writer from New York who published an article in the Saturday Evening Post in November 1967, four months after Steve Post's Central Park Fat-In. He may have written the piece earlier, magazine lead-in times can be quite lengthy. I don't know if Louderback went to the Fat-In, I think at that time he may have been more straight-laced than Post, but he was certainly impressed by it. It strikes me that 1967 was when fat activism had a moment of convergence with civil rights, pranksterdom and popular journalism. That late 60s feeling that anything could happen.

In his article, Louderback calls for many of the rights and recognitions that remain preoccupations of fat activists today. He talks about fatphobia, discrimination, thin privilege and draws on his personal experience of being fat and stopping dieting. Like many current activists he cites medical evidence to make his case, and is concerned about the representation of fat people in fashion media. It's amazing how far back these preoccupations go, and interesting that he is a guy writing this when so much of the discourse has been developed by women.

The piece is dated: he refers to his wife but doesn't name her (she was called Ann); he reproduces the now well-debunked myth that Americans are more likely to protest racism than fatphobia; he invokes the Nazis and quotes a somewhat colonial doctor who says that if fat people want to feel alright then they should go to a society "where obesity is worshiped".

Some of what More people should be FAT proposes remains contentious. The idea that fat people are fat because we eat junk food, for example. What fat people eat, the idea of fat people being ignorant about food, the causes of fat, the celebration of junk, and also counter-claims that deny these things are still being hashed out, and vulnerable to appropriation by anti-obesity policymakers.

Louderback makes some curious claims too: that fat hatred is rooted in US puritanism (recent Fat Studies scholars have also argued a case about religiosity and fatphobia), that the American Civil Liberties Union should get on the case (did that ever happen?) and that fat hate represents "the growing power of the group over the individual" (what were his politics at that time, I wonder?).

This article was published 48 years ago though was massively influential, as I explain in my book. It went on to spawn many things but was a relatively short and humble piece of journalism tucked away in a magazine. Louderback was a man who had had enough and couldn't take it any more.

By the way, I've no idea why FAT is capitalised, but I like it.

Louderback, L. (1967) 'More People Should Be FAT', Saturday Evening Post, 4 November, 10-12.

02 March 2016

Roots of fat activism #3: Aldebaran's Books

One of the papers archived in the collection
Do you like to read? Do you own books? What does your bookshelf say about you? Do you take bookshelfies? Looking at people's reading collections can provide some insight as to what they are thinking about, what inspires them, or about the scope of their interior landscape. It can give context to a person.

The Mayer Collection of Fat Liberation is housed at the Archives & Special Collections at the Thomas J. Dodd Research Centre, part of the University of Connecticut Libraries in Storrs. This is a collection of personal papers and reading donated by Vivian Mayer, who was also known as Aldebaran, and now goes by Sara Fishman. Mayer wrote the forward to Shadow on a Tightrope, Aldebaran was one of the founders of The Fat Underground and Fat Liberator Publications, and although Sara left the movement, she is still in contact with some fat activists. She is a pivotal figure in fat feminist activism. Without her, there would be no me, and you would not be reading this blog post.

Aldebaran/Mayer and Sara to a lesser extent appear extensively in my book, Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, though always through secondary sources. She is someone I encountered as an archival presence and her papers mean a lot to me. I tried to go to the Mayer Collection in 2011, it is open to the public though you need to make an appointment. I wanted more insight into her activism but I was thwarted by snow and ice storms and ended up stranded in Hartford for a few days, a great disappointment!

However, all was not lost. Although I never got to read archived correspondence, the finding aid for the archive is pretty extensive and gives you plenty of insight into the material that Mayer was drawing on between 1967 and the mid-1980s. By looking at her books, the periodicals and journals that she lodged with the archive, you can hazard some guesses about the broader contexts through which her style of fat feminism emerged.

It's clear that she was reading material from the radical left of the 1960s, including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and all the usual suspects. There's also a copy of the Catholic Agitator in there, books on communes and radical pedagogy. Rex Weiner, who began his career in the underground, has a presence, it looks as though he collaborated on a piece with NAAFA in the 1970s. This emphasis on the radical reinforces my belief that fat feminist activism is a force for social change, you could call it a revolutionary movement although, as I argue in my book, it is vulnerable to gentrification and neoconservatism.

Of similar interest, there are books about environmental activism, mostly dating from the 1970s. This brings Elaine Graham-Leigh's work to mind, how fat people are currently being blamed for climate change. But Mayer's collection shows that fat feminist activists were probably engaged with early environmental activism too. It's amazing and depressing what can get overlooked in contemporary fatphobic rhetoric.

Works by the author Ann ForFreedom dominate the feminist materials in the collection. I have gleaned some scraps of information about her online, which may be way off the mark, but the gist of it is that she's a mover and shaker in the Californian pagan feminist witchcraft scene. What this means for fat feminist activism I have no idea, but I would like to know! Is this also a social movement of witches?! Mayer's collection also includes underground feminist comics by Roberta Gregory, Aline Kominsky and Diane Noomin – some of my favourites too.

A small group of books are concerned with medical self-advocacy, and navigating healthcare. There is one copy of a Radical Therapy journal, I would have expected to have seen more because this was a movement that incubated The Fat Underground. Perhaps Mayer couldn't bear to part with her own copies and they were never archived.

There are a few publications that I struggled to make sense of. Last Gasp published The Further Fattening Adventures of Pudge, Girl Blimp by Lee Marrs, which may have been an underground comic and certainly sounds intriguing. There's also a publication called Slim News, published in Brooklyn at some point, is this an ironic title, I wonder, or some sort of backlash against fat activism?

The Mayer Collection is located within a bigger archival collection of activism and civil rights materials. It still excites me to see this. Where fat people are usually categorised as medical problems, this archive demonstrates that there are other important ways of looking at fat, and that fat people have been at the heart of social change for some time and, hopefully, will remain there.

PS. There's more about fat activism and archiving in this post.