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.

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