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.

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