16 May 2016

The new obesogenic, now with added high heels

I saw this image a couple of weeks ago and spluttered.

It's in the Olympic Park, which is not really a park, more a collection of sites being prepared for corporations and social cleansing with some mega sports complexes and token greenery sprinkled inbetween. I live close to this place but it's really inaccessible unless you ride a bike. I know three people who have been killed whilst riding their bikes in my part of town so I no longer ride a bike. Plus, I have no reason to visit this zone of dead culture, and names like Cheering Lane (for real) give me the creeps.

The image is on a billboard in a new area of the not-park where a load of office towers are being built. I spluttered because, like so many things connected to the Olympics and its sticky residue, bad shit is being presented as progressive, bright, shiny, desirable and good for you. To me, this image looks like the latest iteration of obesogenic environments.

In 2013, geographers Rachel Colls and Bethan Evans published a critical take on the concept of obesogenic, which had spread like wildfire towards the end of the first decade of fat panic aka the global obesity epidemicTM. Within this rhetoric, obesogenic environments are those which make people fat and where there is little opportunity for physical activity. They believe that fat people are fat because we don't move our bodies. One of the ways in which planners and policy-makers hope to reduce the number of fat people in the world is by creating spaces that demand physical activity of its inhabitants. This is regarded by anti-obesity proponents as a soft way of engendering public health because people don't even notice it is happening.

Except they do. Especially if they are pushing pushchairs, are on wheels, have mobility impairments, and so on. The bridge leading into the Olympic Park from Stratford has a giant set of steps and two escalators that are frequently broken. There are two lifts that are hidden round the back of a grim passageway. The planners may well have wanted people to take the steps but the reality is that if you can't take them, or don't want to (refusal is not on the cards) the options are very limited. Now, I may be wrong here, but in my version of a Brave New World, dystopian though it may be, at least there is access for all, but this version can't even come up with a level surface. It is retrograde, controlling and non-consensual. It's not that I don't want to live in a place where I can walk in nature and feel connected to my body. What I don't want is the assumption that enforced exercise is the answer to my problems.

Back to the image, how to deconstruct it? Here's some stream of consciousness: I feel sorry for this poor woman who is being made to climb steps all day in high heels. Are her feet bleeding, do you think? Is she sweating? Will she be able to catch up with the men in her department, especially the inevitably white male dominated upper management structure? The steps run out, which makes it look as though she's about to hit the glass ceiling there. I wonder where workers who use wheelchairs will get into the building, round the back? Maybe workers will find a loophole of some kind, perhaps they still have unions and will campaign for proper access, even though I know that's wishful thinking. What's so great about being agile and mobile anyway? But at least she is lovely and slim, I imagine she has to be, fat people aren't welcome in the kinds of places where she works. "The more active we are, the healthier we are," unless you have chronic fatigue, problems with compulsive exercising or are simply human and need a rest sometimes. Who is this "We" they're talking about? How much did this ad campaign cost?

The kicker is a masterpiece of copy writing: "Just imagine leaving work healthier than when you arrived". Just imagine! Work does not make you healthy, it is what sucks the life out of you, especially the kind of work that is going to take place in this location. Work is a system of exploitation and the sale of labour. This is not healthy. In fact, if this is what passes for healthy, we are all truly fucked.

Splutter! Splutter! Splutter!

Colls, R. and Evans, B. (2013) 'Making space for fat bodies? A critical account of 'the obesogenic environment'', Progress in Human Geography, 1(21).

Roots of fat activism #11: Fat Power

Llewellyn Louderback has already made a couple of appearances in this series, first as the author of More People Should be FAT, which then led to the formation of NAAFA.

In 1970 he published Fat Power through Hawthorne Books. Ann Louderback provided research support and it is to her that the book is dedicated. Putting the book out into the world was a difficult experience, Louderback pulled out of the publicity circus for it because media makers wanted to make fun of him (sound familiar?) and later he withdrew from fat politics altogether. The book was not the hit that he hoped for, a big contrast to the effusive praise that More People Should be FAT attracted.

Fat Power book is of its time. The name resonates through Black Power and Gay Power and, even though Louderback described himself to me as a hack writer, he understood that fat had important overlaps with other political movements and struggles. The book treats fat people as a minority that is subjected to oppression, though is at times anti-feminist and politically naive. Yet much of what he writes remains current because fat activism still needs to develop richer theories and approaches, and because fat hatred is still a thing.

A year after Fat Power appeared, Marvin Grosswirth published Fat Pride, again riffing off the spirit of the times, through Black Pride and Gay Pride. By 1974, Abraham I. Friedman MD had jumped on the bandwagon with Fat Can Be Beautiful, a title that hedges its bets if ever there was one and a book that is, frankly, weak. The cycle of grassroots innovation and appropriation by professionals that I write about in my book was taking place even back then.

Fat activism is a social movement formed by feminism and greatly concerned with women's experience. It's vexing that whilst the early fat feminists were mimeographing pamphlets, it was these three guys who had access to book publishing. It would take over ten years before Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression made an appearance, even Marcia Millman's Such A Pretty Face: Being Fat in America didn't roll out until 1980.

Nevertheless, as with Stigma, the early fat feminists are generous with their appraisal of Fat Power; though obscure it remained influential and is an important contribution to the development of the movement. Try and get your hands on a copy if you can, it's still worth a look.

Friedman, A. I. (1974) Fat Can Be Beautiful: Stop Dieting, Start Living, Berkeley, CA: Berekeley Publishing Corporation.

Grosswirth, M. (1971) Fat Pride: A Survival Handbook, New York: Jarrow Press Inc.

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

Louderback, L. (1970) Fat Power, New York: Hawthorn Books.

Millman, M. (1980) Such A Pretty Face: Being Fat in America, Toronto: Norton.

Schoenfielder, L. and Wieser, B. (1983) Shadow On A Tightrope: Writings By Women on Fat Oppression, San Francisco: Aunt Lute.

09 May 2016

Fat Activism, Class and The Left

When I talk about class I mean the stratification of human beings based on money, background, work, access to power and certain types of cultural knowledge. This stratification favours some at the cost of others. Fat and class go together because many fat people are also of low socio-economic status. But this information is usually used to rationalise a cure for fatness, not as a call for political action, or to understand the interrelationships between fat and class, perhaps as a source of identity, pride, or even as a resource for self-knowledge.

On 4 May 2016 I delivered a talk at Housmans book shop in London. Housmans is one of London's few remaining radical booksellers and I took the opportunity to talk about fat, class and how I feel the Left has failed to get on-board with fat activism. When I refer to the Left, I mean a large number of political groups and ideas that are based on ending class inequality. I hoped that by saying this at Housmans, I might encourage more Left-leaning people to think about fat activism as a viable form of politics

I have written up my notes so that they are more readable. This is my first attempt to write something coherent about fat activism and class, but it is still tentative. Class seems to get left behind in intersectional analyses of fat and fat activism, even though it is so central. I speculate as to why this is later, but for now I would like to say that I would love to see class given the weight it deserves.

In my family fat, class and shame were intertwined. My parents dis-identified with being working class, even though their backgrounds are undeniably so, and this manifested through a disdain for fatness, which was seen as a signifier of poverty, a throwback. Class awakening came late for me, but I grew up with my mum and dad's values and experiences and gradually I pieced things together to understood who I am and where I come from. I began to be interested in fat and class after looking at how the left was stereotyping fat people in 2011. I wrote about this in these posts:

Representing fat and class

Demonstrating as the Fat Bloc
How the Left failed fat
Riots in the UK and convenient scapegoats
Fatphobia in the visual language of the Left
Anti-obesity campaigns: fatphobia in the radical left
Fat, austerity, class and benefit sanctions

Fatphobia in the Left is driven by stereotyping

As I came to explore fat and class, I was struck by the amount of stereotyping that went on in the Left in the UK.

Old stereotypes are still invoked. Fat capitalists, fat cats, fat as a signifier of the greedy, lazy, selfish, corrupt bourgeoisie and ruling classes. It's a stereotype that links fat people with overconsumption and oafishness and which contradicts evidence that fat people tend to be of lower socioeconomic status. Martin Rowson's Observer cartoons draw heavily on this stereotype, with added disgustingness, and are seen as perfectly acceptable.

But most of the stereotyping of fat people in the Left is considered more progressive, as caring even! It is popular to think of fat people as pathological, as disordered, as diseased, addicted. Fat means eating disordered. This reflects an obsession with energy balance (fat is a product of too many calories and too little activity, a contested model) as the only means of understanding fat people. This stereotype depicts fat people as pitiful, which is not a progressive stance but an oppressive one, as many disability activists have shown.

In the Left, fat is produced by the overconsumption of the wrong food, the wrong activity. This stereotype plays out through discussions of food deserts, the worry that people are unable to feed themselves, through food justice proponents using fatphobia to leverage themselves. Here, fat is a product of bad food choices, it is fast food, McDonalds. Cue Jamie Oliver and a legion of food snobs to sort us all out! Environmental activists also uses fatphobia and healthism to legitimise themselves in a similar way, for example through cycling campaigns, and other forms of active living.

Fat people are tragic and helpless, but also their own worst enemies. We are wilfully non-compliant (especially parents, especially children) when interventions are made into our alleged overconsumption and inactivity. It is always we who fail, not the intervention. The stereotyping of working class fat people like this in class-based television shockumentaries, for example,  is also a denial of our resourcefulness, intelligence and personhood. It is pitying, dehumanising and often racist and sexist. Depicting people as fat and stupid is part of the demonisation of the working class.

This stereotype is further refined by positioning fat people as a symbol of Western overconsumption. It is not colonialism but fat people who are responsible for exploiting the developing world. This stereotype is used in conjunction with racist 'starving African' imagery, depicting fat and thin as opposites, as enemies. Whilst it is important to critique globalisation, it is wrong to leverage this by abjecting and reinscribing stereotypes onto people's bodies.

Newer stereotypes that have emerged through Austerity, for example the truism that fat people are killing the NHS. Elaine Graham-Leigh's work on his subject is invaluable.

Here's a condensed example of some of this stereotyping rhetoric from an article in The Guardian last year. It's by George Monbiot, darling of the Left, environmental activist, educated at Stowe and Oxford, whose dress size is likely a perfect 10. Amazingly, he has managed to synthesise all of the stereotyping, hand-wringing and pity that I have mentioned above. He even criticises fat-shaming whilst reproducing it in this tour de force of kindly oppression.

Reformulating the problem as a class issue

Long term, safe weight loss is unattainable for most people. Some of us think that even if it were, we would not choose it because we see value in fatness. Nevertheless, current enlightened thinking in the Left, as elsewhere, is that fat people are a social problem that needs to be cured, or "tackled" by making us all normatively-sized, and therefore healthy. This is a middle class appropriation of scientific rationalism. But other considerations emerge when the problem of fat people is reformulated as a class issue.

It reveals that working class fat people are very vulnerable to fatphobia. We are a group of people who are less likely to have access to information, time, resources that will enable us to navigate, for example, adequate healthcare. We are vulnerable to employment discrimination. We tend not to have the sense of entitlement or confidence required to create a smooth path through life for ourselves. When we fall, we are less likely to have safety nets.

Working class people are especially vulnerable to being eaten up by the predatory weight loss industry. This is made up of highly capitalist companies that create dependent customers who blame themselves when the product inevitably fails. It is working class women who are fodder for this industry, and it is this group who are dying or suffering as a result of popular Very Low Calorie Diets advertised on TV in the New Year and during swimsuit season. We are pulled in by ideas of respectability, personal responsibility, good citizenship, class mobility.

Fat people are excluded from policymaking and decision-making about "tackling" fat, working class fat people especially so. This work happens through mystified and exclusive knowledge and spaces. Our lived experience of our own bodies, our own expertise as scholars and activists, is not regarded as a vital resource. This exclusion is built on class. Policy-makers are more likely to be upper and middle class beneficiaries of funding, influence and status. They are the same strata of people pushing neoliberalism. They may be people with financial interests in weight loss, eg advisors/shareholders in Big Pharma or diet multinationals. They represent an industry that is currently benefitting from lucrative public-private partnerships with public services. They also represent a class of people who see themselves as philanthropists whereas fat working class people are a group in need of paternalistic intervention.

Working class fat people are also scapegoats within this curebie/tackling rhetoric. Food taxes generate revenue for the exchequer, but disproportionately affect working class people. Dame Carol Black is proposing benefits sanctions if fat people refuse treatment and this is likely to create new underclass populations of non-compliant fat people to blame, and who probably blame themselves too.

Fat activism in the Left

It is my experience that fat activism is not considered real politics by the Left, and that this reflects how fat is seen elsewhere: a personal choice, something people should change about themselves, not a political issue. Many fat activists themselves who carry a perfect (false and usually unattainable) standard of what constitutes activism. In a similar vein, queer politics and the feminism of fat activism not regarded as real political action either.

This avoidance of fat has led to a muddled and weak relationship to it. There are no widespread critiques as far as I know of class and fat, or the predatory weight loss industry. There is little support for fat people facing discrimination in the workplace, to my mind it is a scandal that this is not a focus of trade union activism. The Guardian, the UK's national newspaper of the Left, remains a major proponent of anti-obesity policy, and this is reflected in their vile fatphobic commenters.

Class in fat activism

But fat activism has not managed to generate much in the way of a class analysis of fat either.

Some of the most prominent fat activists are also people of means, people with private incomes, people who identify as upper middle and upper class, and whose worldviews are normalised even if they don't reflect the experience of being fat for the majority of people. This might be one reason why fat and class is not discussed much. I am not proposing that there should be a politics of purity around class, where some people are positioned as more legitimate than others because of their spotless class backgrounds. But I do suspect that community leaders who have trust funds have not acquired their status purely on merit, and it would be good for this to be more open so that others feel less like failures if they lack class-based access to power.

Meanwhile, the US is the dominant voice in fat activism and the movement reflects national concerns which may be less engaged with class than, say, the UK, where people have suffered through several thousand years of being told to know our places. My understanding of intersectional analyses of fat activism in the US is that it seems to refer to people of colour and to queer people, class is generally left out despite early fat feminist activists coming from socialist backgrounds.

In my book I argue that fat activism is becoming gentrified and that some of the ways in which this takes place are through professionalisation and assimilation. Professionalisation is the process by which community-generated knowledge becomes the domain of professionals, educational institutions and other gate-keepers. This is one way in which working class fat people are excluded from participating. The focus on assimilation – becoming like the dominant culture – also means that there is an emphasis on good citizenship, normativity, respectability, which also keeps out those of us who will never be good, normal, respectable folk.

Dreaming of something better

Before I die I would love to see richer work around fat, activism and class, and for the silence to be broken about privilege, trust funds and what this means for the movement. It would be wonderful to see different kinds of class-conscious activism develop, incorporating anti-colonial analyses when thinking about fat and global power. It is my belief that class must be included in intersectional analyses of fat and fat activism.

I would like people in the Left to understand that the current moral panic around fat is an attack on marginalised people and that it requires a political solution. But mainly I would like to see all of the fat stereotypes I have listed above die out, and for a proper engagement with fat people. Many of us too are of the Left.

04 May 2016

Roots of fat activism #10: Mama Cass Elliot

Cass Elliot was a singer, a scenester and an icon of 1960s sunshine pop. She was a Jewish woman, born Ellen Naomi Cohen. She was also fat in a time and place, not to mention industry, where this was a no-no. For all the rhetoric of the Summer of Love, Elliot suffered from fatphobic discrimination throughout her career, and in her personal life.

She responded to this in a variety of ways: by performing songs that celebrated individuality and difference, through crash dieting and substance abuse. She died in London in 1974 at 32, but had collapsed three months before then, and endured a string of humiliations in the meantime.

A post-mortem examination found that she had died of a heart attack. One can speculate that her substance abuse and crash dieting played a part in this. Predictably her death was reported as a result of her being fat, a way that diet industry mortality is obscured which still continues.

During the post-mortem, no food was found in her windpipe. Yet Elliot became the subject of a vicious fatphobic urban myth – that she had choked to death on a ham sandwich. This myth persists and is usually delivered with a smirk. Mike Myers, wanker extraordinaire, jokes about it in his Austin Powers film inbetween fat-suiting up.

The lie that she died in this way emerged during initial speculation after her body was found. Police told reporters that a half-eaten sandwich was in her room and may have been the cause of her death. This speculation is built on the stereotyping of fat people as voracious and reckless eaters. Elliot was subjected to fatphobic abuse even in death, decades after her passing. We are the butt of jokes when we die tragically young.

Elliot's life and death are significant to fat activists. Living in Los Angeles in the late 1960s, it is possible that she knew of the activities of early fat feminists in that city.

In August 1974, a month after Elliot's death, a group of fat feminists memorialised Elliot at a Women's Equality Day celebration, which took place in a local park and where the Fat Underground had a booth. Sara Fishman recalls:

The Women's Equality Day celebration included an open microphone and stage. When our turn came, members of the Fat Underground, members of the Fat Women's Problem-Solving Group, and some of our friends moved onto the stage. We carried candles and wore black arm bands, in a symbolic funeral procession. Lynn spoke. She began by describing the inspiration Cass Elliot had represented to us, as a fat woman who had refused to hide her beauty. She ended by accusing the medical establishment of murdering Cass, and (because they promote weight loss despite its known dangers) of committing genocide against fat women.

For the next few weeks, we were local heroines. The Los Angeles feminist news paper Sister devoted a full page in its next issue to Fat Liberation, with a photo of our Women's Equality Day demonstration on the cover. Publicly, at least, local radical feminists began to acknowledge fat women's oppression as a problem they would have to take seriously.

Sharon Bas Hannah, writing in Sister in September 1974, said:

Certainly fat people don't benefit from being insulted. Once someone tried to make fun of me on the street by calling out, "Hey, Mama Cass!" The social order functions by keeping certain elements in their place, the people divided and factionalized, so that those who are in power remain there. New scapegoats are always being harnessed. […] One of the earliest reports about her death said that she choked on a ham sandwich. That's not how she died though: Naomi Cohen choked on the culture, on the stale empty air and worthless standards of our conditioning.

Mabel-Lois' eulogy remains a pivotal moment for fat activists. In 2006 Amy Lamé produced a show about her own relationship to Elliot's music and memory. Allyson Mitchell mentioned to me a while back that there would be a performance of the event in Toronto in 2010, a historical re-enactment of it, but I have not been able to find documentation of that.

However, during the research for my book Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, I discovered a tantalising piece of information, which is that the protest was filmed and that the Getty Research Institute may have some video of this event. This may be false information, there is a Fat Underground video, which I have seen, but it does not include events from the protest. Perhaps fat activists in Los Angeles could chase this up.

Bas Hannah, S. (1974) 'Naomi Cohen Choked on the Culture', Sister, September, 1.

Fishman, S. G. B. (1998) 'Life In The Fat Underground', [online], available: http://www.radiancemagazine.com/issues/1998/winter_98/fat_underground.html