27 April 2016

Roots of fat activism #9: The Fat Underground's Position Papers

The Fat Underground was a fat feminist group that came out of the lesbian feminist and radical therapy scenes of Los Angeles in the late 1960s. They are foundational to fat activism, and I write about them extensively in my book.

Largesse was a project that ran for over a decade and which hosted an online archive of early fat feminist writings. It is no longer live, but you can navigate fragments of it through the Wayback Machine by searching for http://www.eskimo.com/~largesse/.

One of the collections that Largesse curated was a set of Position Papers published by the Fat Underground in 1974. These are titled: Job Discrimination, Eating, Health of Fat Women: The Real Problem, Psychiatry and Sexism.

A Position Paper is an essay, short ones in this case, that clarify and communicate a basic premise. Position Papers are not so common these days, though NAAFA has a set of them that you can download from their website, including an interesting one on Activism. I wonder if NAAFA were directly inspired to create these documents through earlier encounters with the Fat Underground.

I think the idea of a Position Paper implies that things are set in stone. One of the problems with them is that things change, or there may be a great many grey areas, or people may disagree, and a paper might need to be revised or discarded.

Nevertheless, the Fat Underground's Position Papers make great reading if you can get your hands on them. Anti-sexism is at the heart of their analysis, and remains the bedrock of feminist work on bodies, looks and fat to this day. The entire content of that position paper reads as follows:
The Fat Underground sees sexism as a tool of oppression which is particularly injurious to fat people. The essence of sexism is that people may not be individuals. Sexism prescribes that people be assigned roles according to their sex rather than by their interests, talents, abilities or preferences. It further dictates what our bodies must look like, with varying standards for each sex, disenfranchising those who do not fit into the mold. Fat people are prime targets in this sexist society because society's current concept of the ideal body is very thin. Our "defiance" of the national mania for thinness is seen as willful rebellion, and as such is a punishable "crime." Our bodies are arbitrarily designated "not sexy" and we are denied our very sexuality. And since this is a sexist society, those denied their sex have no place - we are discriminated against socially, we experience discrimination in jobs, medical care, clothing, etc., and at the root of this is sexism – the body counts for all.

The Fat Underground repudiates all forms of sexism and announces to all that we are taking back our human rights.

What is more unusual is the strength of the Fat Underground's analysis of health as a political issue and the intersectional connections they draw with other marginalised groups.
Being fat and being healthy are not antithetical. Fat people are subject to the same diseases which victimize other biological minorities. Blacks, Native Americans, Puerto Ricans and Chicanos also suffer in far higher percentages than the majority population from diabetes, high blood pressure, heart attacks, atherosclerosis and mental "disorders" like depression and extreme passivity. We are all subject in varying degrees to the same social, moral and political oppressions. We are also subject to educational, vocational, economic and legal persecutions. Fat people die of the social disease of oppression, not the medical "disease" called obesity.

The Position Paper on Job Discrimination describes how employers use a presumed lack of insurance to deny work to fat people. This insurance excuse continues to this day, in other fields too. Only this week was I not allowed to participate in a leisure activity by an organisation because it claimed it did not have the insurance to cater for people who weigh over 18 stone, which is probably me though it's hard to tell because I don't weigh myself. Rather than get better insurance, or train their staff to work with fat people, I don't get to go white water rafting with my pals. Oh, and this is an organisation that boasts about its accessible sessions!

The Fat Underground's Position Paper on Food also remains timely and should be required reading for all food justice advocates. Check out this electrifying statement:
The Fat Underground opposes this phony asceticism. We call for an attitude toward food and eating that is honest, indulgent and compassionate.

Given its roots in Radical Therapy, it makes sense that there would be a Position Paper on Psychiatry, which develops ideas laid out in the sister paper about fat women and health.
Psychiatrists, with their theories about "over-eating" have ignored the findings of nutritionists that most fat people don't eat any more than most thin people. Their persecution turns some of us into secret compulsive eaters who "need their help".

The Fat Underground add:
Psychiatrists paste the dignity of science onto every-day prejudice. Unless they commit themselves to be advocates of the oppressed and alienated, psychiatrists are very dangerous indeed.

Fat Activism Book Update

I don't know if you've noticed, I've been very quiet about it (joke! joke!) but in January I published a book about fat activism and I have some reflections to share about its first few months out in the world.

Basically, the response has been very positive. I've had a handful of reviews that have all been good enough even when they've been a bit odd, and media encounters that haven't left me wanting to crawl into a hole, as was my experience with my last book about fat.

I have not had a single scrap of hate mail. There may well have been comments on things, but I don't read 'em so I wouldn't know. I'm amazed by the lack of hate and I don't know why I've avoided it, I've even been on Radio 4! Perhaps it's waiting to be unleashed. The Guardian, which frequently trades on anti-obesity sentiment and whose commenters are deeply fatphobic as a result, has not touched the book, perhaps that's why I've been spared.

What I have noticed is that people are open to talking about the book. When I published Fat & Proud in 1998 I was treated like a crank. But this time around it has been different, it is possible now for conversations to take place, despite a war on obesity that has been raging for over 15 years and looks set to continue. Even my dentist wants to talk to me about it. This makes me think that the quiet work of speaking, holding conversations, disagreeing with the dominant viewpoint is having a profound effect. Public health policy around fat remains completely out of touch with this feeling, but perhaps it is inevitable that that too must change. I imagine hell will have to freeze over before weight loss stakeholders relinquish their power, so I suspect there will be a slew of crappy fat activist co-options before too long, or other weird and unhelpful hybrids. The picture isn't completely rosy but I am moved by how much has changed.

The most unsettling thing has been the amount of laughter directed at me. Some of this is because I am funny, but some is not about me being funny. In radical and scholarly spaces I sense a deep need for people to be able to laugh at the fat person, ie me. At one gathering, a pair of thin radical queers laughed loudly through my talk, even though I had stopped making jokes. They hadn't noticed that other people were no longer laughing. At another, a speaker referred to an event that I produced as very jolly, even though I had also spoken about how painful that work had been, they couldn't acknowledge that struggle. I think that fat activism is ludicrous in many ways, that's part of what makes it queer and valuable to me, but meanwhile the funny fat lady stereotype seems to be maintaining its grip on people. In a similar way, I'm still pretty shocked at how many people still find difficulty even saying the word fat. You know this already but fatphobia is deep.

By far the best responses have been from readers. I've been getting to know dance communities in London for a year or so and am really happy that they are supporting my work. It is a lie that fat and normatively sized people have nothing to say to each other or are natural enemies, London's radical dance community are engaging with fat politics and I couldn't be happier.

Other readers have shared photographs of them treasuring the book, being excited about it, being delighted to see it in a shop amongst other political books, not shoved away in the health section. One reader propped the book up in a place that has notoriously fatphobic exhibits and shared a photo of that on social media, as though the ideas in the book has invaded a space where it shouldn't belong. I really love moments like that. Other people, those I wouldn’t expect to be interested, have written to me and told their online networks about the work, saying how important it has been for them. To me this is wonderful and helps put the years of work and worry I have poured into this project into perspective.

I will continue to present talks and discussions about the book over the rest of the year. I post updates on the events page, so please feel free to bookmark it and come to things if you can. Meanwhile, Backdoor Broadcasting recorded a panel discussion that took place this week at Birkbeck University, Fat Activism is Dangerous. You can listen to it for free or download it for later.

08 April 2016

Roots of fat activism #8: Radical Therapy

This eighth post of the series marks the end of the period when the earliest foundations for fat activism as I understand it in my book were put in place.

Radical Therapy was an offshoot of the anti-psychiatry movement as it manifested in the 1960s. This movement had many concerns and approaches, and histories that stretched back to the earlier part of the 20th century. By 1967 theorists and activists were arguing that psychiatry was a suspect science and that mental health services were oppressive. Radical Therapy was a practical critique of the mental health system, which was seen as perpetuating oppression and inequality and acting in the interests of a corrupt dominant culture. Radical Therapy sought to reformulate mental distress as an understandable response to living in oppressive societies. Social justice and social change were understood a means of addressing and healing mental pain. This analysis proposed that people's mental health problems were political and not organic, inevitable, or produced by the individual.

Anti-psychiatry has been heavily criticised but it remains a useful means of understanding the uses of mental health services to profit from, discipline and punish marginalised people. There's still a reluctance in the therapy world to think of therapy as a political act saturated with power. See the excellent documentary And This time its Personal Psychocompulsion & Workfare, for example, a response to the introduction of therapy in British Job Centres to harass people unable to work. Its insistence on acknowledging the diversity of cognitive experience resonates too with the more recent Mad Pride movement which again overlaps with disability politics.

Despite the strength of its critique, in an article published in State and Mind in 1977, Aldebaran disclosed that Radical Therapy, like mainstream therapy, remained hostile to fat people, and that fat liberation was regarded as a dangerous luxury. Writing to the fictional composite Dr Hurvitz, she says, presciently:
"You said, 'Fat liberation may be fine for you, but I have a client in therapy who has to lose 50 pounds or she'll die of diabetes.' You also said the real issue in fat liberation ought to be the 'right to be fat,' and that I should put more emphasis on 'Fat is Beautiful.' I've tried to figure out why those comments make me feel so queasy. Certainly we must come to love ourselves and assert our right, as fat people, to be. But what I come up with is that you want a nice liberal discussion about freedom and beauty, while you and I both know that the most urgent issue is death – the pain and death of fat people. You see fat as suicide, I see weight loss as murder – genocide, to be precise – the systematic murder of a biological minority by organised medicine, acting on behalf of the law- and custom-makers of this society. We differ only in our opinion of what causes fat people's early deaths."
Nevertheless, Los Angeles Radical Feminist Therapy Collective was where Aldebaran presented her preliminary findings about why people might be fat. It was through this work that an early social model of fat was developed: the idea that the real problem is not the fat person, but the society that hates us. In 1973, she published a piece in Sister explaining the theoretical connections between Radical Therapy and fat liberation and announcing the formation of a group to explore this. Feminist Radical Therapy is what helped incubate Aldebaran's ideas and provide the spark that later became fat feminism through community knowledge-sharing, consciousness-raising and understanding social contexts in which problems are located.

Daily aggressions, self-blame and self-hatred continue to contribute to fat people's mental distress. We know as activists that challenging oppression improves fat people's lives. But there is little impetus at the moment to generate the empirical evidence demanded by mental health services to include activism as part of a no-risk, cost-effective repertoire of treatment and support. Fat people's mental health needs remain underserved in a context where normalisation through (profitable) weight loss remains the ultimate therapeutic goal. And of course this is rarely seen as a political issue.

Aldebaran (1973) 'we are not our enemies', Sister, December, 6.

Aldebaran (1977) 'Fat Liberation - A Luxury? An Open Letter to Radical (and Other) Therapists', State and Mind, 6, 34-38.

06 April 2016

Activism, engineering, satire in Tim Hunkin's subversive universe

Me giggling whilst being brainwashed
by one of Tim Hunkin's machines. It tickles!

Tim Hunkin is an artist who makes subversive and humourous arcade machines, automata, ride simulators and all kinds of brilliant stuff. I had the pleasure of visiting his Under the Pier Show in Southwold at the weekend, and not for the first time. If you are ever in the vicinity of his work, make sure you have a supply of 20ps to pop in the slot, you won't regret it. If you have several hours to kill, I sincerely advise you to spend them knocking around his extensive website.

I've been wanting to mention Hunkin on the blog for a while because of three of his pieces: The Doctor, QuickFit and Instant Weightloss. They gently puncture medical pomposity, quackery and the bullshit of weight loss with amazing style and joy.

The Doctor is one of the older machines, made in 1987. You stand in front of the wooden doctor, hold a stethoscope to your chest and he slowly writes you an illegible prescription. The Doctor is old school, to say the least, and oh so recognisable to anyone who has ever had an awkward or horrible encounter in a clinic. I really love the way that Hunkin presents clinical encounters as bewildering and not particularly helpful. Regardless of your ailment, you get the same conveyer-belt style prescription as everyone else. Just like real life!

QuickFit is a ride built from an old toning table. Remember them? A fad that lay at the intersections of weight loss, femininity, beauty and pseudo-exercise. You lie on the table, it moves your body around whilst you watch a strange animated exercise video based on Jane Fonda's iconic workout. Hunkin and his collaborators brilliantly skewer prancing weight loss guru-dom through lo-fi animation and bare-faced cheek. You don't even have to lift a finger.

Instant Weightloss is a stunning piece of work and one of my favourite Hunkin machines of all. You put 40p into the machine and a little suction pipe drops a single piece of popcorn onto a little pedestal. A heat gun then pops the single piece of corn right in front of your eyes, and then delivers it to you via a chute. As this is happening, a mirror bends and gives the optical illusion of making you appear thinner. As with all the machines, the explanatory text is really witty, Hunkin's parody of diet company product claims ("precision-engineed weight-free nutrients") is so spot on.

There are many other machines, Hunkin's website tells you where to find them. I think it's great that the supposedly enlightened and scientific worlds of weight loss and medicalisation are presented here as part of a broader landscape of subjects worthy of satire. Some of his other works are just silly but most have a political edge to them, poking fun at self-importance, scientific arrogance and stupidity. They are activist machines as well as beautiful oddball pieces of art.

05 April 2016

Fat activism by the algorithms

I kind of agree with this, but probably not in the way that these algorithms have been generated. I love wrongness, there's certainly a lot of bullshit flying around at times, and is it dangerous? Yes it is.