29 June 2016

Fat Activism and Research Justice

I first came across the term 'Research Justice' at the Allied Media Conference in Detroit in 2010. This may have been the first time that the conference scheduled some sessions on the theme. Since then, the AMC has hosted Research Justice network gatherings and the concept has grown. You can find documentation on the AMC website.

As I understand it, Research Justice has grown out of indigenous Participatory Action Research projects and Linda Tuhiwai Smith's foundational text Decolonizing Methodologies. DataCenter, in Oakland, California is an organisational proponent of the term, and has published various toolkits and reports. Research by and about Domestic Workers in Southern California that I have found through DataCenter have made particularly powerful reading. The organisation has a useful YouTube presence too. Last year Andrew J. Jolivette published a Research Justice anthology in Chicago, which looks pretty good but also somewhat academic and focused primarily on work in North America. It is important that Research Justice not become another academic discipline, especially when academia excludes so many, but remains something that anyone can use.

When I was first learning about Research Justice I was also inspired by the Young Women's Empowerment Project in Chicago, who produced a really great piece of research about their Bad Encounter Line. I'm not sure if the project still exists, but you can read about this research on their Media & Free Stuff page. In the UK, Salvage, a recent project about gendered violence in activist communities is similarly brilliant, I am proud to have been a part of it and am looking forwards to seeing where it goes as more people learn about it.

I have produced my own small-scale research projects using this concept, in particular No More Stitch-Ups, from 2014. My book is built on the idea that how knowledge is generated and owned is political, and that obesity discourse does not have to be the only way in which we might understand fat people.

Research Justice enables me to think of research as activism. There is a tradition in fat activism of ripping apart obesity research, about fighting research injustice, but what would it be like to generate and own our own knowledge? It would be amazing if fat people were to undertake their own research, and not only with university support or under the patronage of thin academics. What might we find if we pursued our own research agendas? I am particularly interested in DIY research, using low or no-cost resources to find things out that might benefit communities of people who don't otherwise get a look-in. I am interested in developing research skill-shares around this stuff. It is a myth that research has to be expensive, obscure and highly academic.

I also want to encourage people working in research institutions to consider Research Justice as a form of methodology. There are certainly overlaps with Participatory Action Research, but I think that Research Justice is more than a method or a consideration of ethics inresearch, it is a theoretical orientation that can underpin all kinds of research and places a commitment to social justice at its heart.

In June I made a little graphic with some questions to consider when either looking at or designing research. I made the mind-map as a response to a series of performances and workshops in Bristol called Emergenc(i)es, which was about developing new responses to the crises of the times we are in. It was a prompt to think about how to survive and thrive in difficult times. Emergenc(i)es was affiliated to the AntiUniversity a really fantastic para-academic project in the UK. The graphic is not exhaustive, I expect to come back to it and fill in gaps as I go along, but I hope it gives some idea of the critical nature of Research Justice as I see it, and encourages people to think about how knowledge is created, perhaps to become knowledge producers themselves.

Click on the image to see a larger-sized version. Extra points if you can spot the accidental typo!

Refusing co-option by the weight loss industry

I've been wondering why I had a 1050% increase in traffic to this blog over the past month. My stats tracker is somewhat perfunctory at best, so I wasn't getting much joy until this morning, when I found that this blog had been co-opted by a popular 'health' website as one of its best obesity blogs.

It took me a while to find the listing because this website crashed my computer every time I tried to have a look. Thanks guys! But there I was, amidst all the usual thinspo, unavoidable ads for Atkins crap, and creepy 'health experts'.

Part of me thinks that the author of this list is trying to be subversive by including me. But the whole thing looked as though it was put together by a robot, trying to extract the maximum clickage and monetisation-per-pixel that that fantasy quickly evaporated (also by the author: "Is Cheese Bad for You?"). The kicker is that there is some small print at the top to say that all of the entries had been "medically reviewed" by someone who must surely be a quack. Medically review my middle finger!

Although my traffic is currently very high there is very little increase in engagement with what I am posting. The stats are probably robots too. It's amazing how the killer keyword "obesity" racks up the page-views, and presumably money for other people without any substance. 16 years of fat panic and this remains what it's all about.

Let me get this straight: the medicalised concept of obesity represents a system of hate that I have spent most of my life trying to destroy. This blog represents some of that work. I called it Obesity Timebomb because I believe that obesity as a system of oppression needs blowing up and that fat people are the ones to push the button. Most people who come to my work have at least some understanding of that. But people in the world of obesity, particularly those who see it as a cash cow, are not smart, they think I want their free content and their patronage. They don't understand irony or punk. They think that fat people are passive and grateful, not dangerous.

I have written to the website to ask them to remove my listing, that it was put there without my knowledge, and to say that I loathe everything they stand for. I expect it will disappear into a black hole. But for the record I want readers of this blog to know that I will never allow myself to be co-opted by weight loss, this is not a diet blog, I am not part of that world, in fact I want to see it end. Co-option is a dirty trick of the weight loss industry to try and de-fang fat activism, I want our fangs to remain ready to bite. If you see my work on such a platform, it was done without my consent.

24 June 2016

Fat 101 for Nurses and Health Professionals

I went to see the nurse to get my blood pressure checked and to book a cholesterol test and I ended up with one of the worst clinical encounters I've had for a very long time. A doctorate in queer fat activism, a publishing track record and nearly thirty years of experience in collectively critiquing fat hatred is a pretty good foundation for getting your blood pressure checked whilst fat, one of the most basic medical interventions around, but it does not protect you entirely from feeling as though the rug has been pulled out from under you when a nurse pulls some fatphobic moves. I ended up with old memories of self-loathing, feeling destabilised and confused, and this from a clinic that says it is passionate about supporting people's health and wellbeing in its mission statement. I worry about the people who don't have my experience and credentials.

I have no intention of ever booking an appointment with that nurse again, but I have some pointers from this experience that may be of use to other medical practitioners.

How nurses and other health practitioners can support people of all sizes to have optimum health


Keep a set of weighing scales in the middle of the room like a monument to BMI. It makes it look as though this is the most important tool of measurement for you and reveals how little you know about body weight and health.

Smirk when a fat person declines to be weighed. Declining is a brave act of self-advocacy in the face of monumental pressure to capitulate to a system that does not have fat people's best health interests at heart.

Judge. Fat people can tell you are doing it, we have had a lot of experience of this.

Be surprised when you ask a fat patient about their life and they reveal themselves not to be the saddest sack of the universe, especially if you find out that they have more going for themselves than you do.

Gloat about your own thin privilege.

Get stressed or blame the patient when you struggle to find a pulse or do a basic check because you are not comfortable touching a fat person.

Treat patients as repositories of data for your poorly designed computerised records systems of questionable security.

Use any fat-sized medical equipment that has the name of a weight loss drug plastered all over it, especially if that drug has been implicated in the sudden deaths of fat people. Buy a large-sized blood pressure cuff, don't use one that is basically a giant advert for Reductil. How can your patients ever trust that you are not in the service of those brands?

"Take control," patronise patients with empty promises that "it will come together" to excuse your inability to listen to a person and support them with their needs that they have plainly stated.

Sneakily schedule blood tests for all the so-called fat diseases, which the patient has had before and for which there is no evidence that these diseases are a problem for them. Don't think your patient won't notice what you have done and know that you have been judging them the whole time. Don't be surprised when this patient does not go along with your great fatphobic plan. You may be tempted to stereotype fat patients like this as wilfully non-compliant and self-sabotaging. Don't do that.

Treat people as automatic fodder for the medical industrial complex. Maybe a medical solution is not appropriate.

Touch someone weirdly. Don't rest your hand on mine as you tell me about your ex-wife who was also a psychotherapist.


Remember that bodies come in all shapes and sizes and that this is human.

Listen to the patient. If they say their problem is stress, or anything else, do not assume that their problem is that they are morbidly obese(sic).

Listen extra hard if you have only just met that patient. Get to know them as a person.

If time is tight or the computer system determines what happens in the clinic, acknowledge that you are working within limitations.

Understand that being weighed is not a neutral act. Don't proffer it. Try and have some compassion and understanding for what scales might mean for a fat patient, even if your own experiences of being weighed are nothing to write home about.

Collaborate. Treat fat patients as people who are invested in their own healthcare, especially if they make an appointment out of the blue to get their blood pressure checked. This is proof that they care about their bodies.

Get consent. Share data with your patients without them having to drag it out of you.

Try and laugh when your patient makes a joke about being a zombie when you are unable to find their pulse because you are uncomfortable with handling a fat body. They are being generous and are trying to help you.

How to recover from a bad interaction with a medic

Remember it's more likely to be them and their system that is the problem than your fat body.

Talk to someone you can trust with your feelings, don't be alone with it. Perhaps resist posting on social media even if you feel alienated and upset, you may find that people's responses there are far from soothing.

Write down what happened, get it out of your head.

Make another plan for looking after your health.

Send the clinic some feedback if you feel up to it.

Make some tea.


Roots of fat activism #14: Fat Feminist Activist Working Meeting

Image from the proceedings of the
First Feminist Fat Activists' Working Meeting
Edited, thanks to Karen Stimson's invaluable comments and clarifications.

During 18-20 April 1980 the First Fat Feminist Activist Working Meeting took place in New Haven, Connecticut. This was the first ever fat feminist conference.

It attracted 17 participants. A number of fat feminists lived fairly locally including Karen Stimson, Judith Stein and Aldebaran. Some had set themselves up as the New Haven Fat Liberation Front. There was fat community forming in the Boston area. Others came to visit, including Judy Freespirit. There were workshops, talks and fat women's cultural entertainment in the evening.

The event piggybacked on a women's health conference that was also taking place concurrently. The following day there was a keynote panel about fat feminism with the title F.A.T. (Fat Activists Together). It was another first, the first time a feminist gathering had placed fat politics at its centre. From this gathering F.A.T. (Fat Activists Together) became the first national US coalition of fat feminist activists. Their work helped to establish a constituency for fat feminism and was pivotal in getting Shadow on a Tightrope published.

Stimson made audio recordings of the conference and another woman, active in feminist radio, recorded the keynote panel. Stimson used the recordings to make a radio documentary called Nothing to Lose, which was broadcast locally. Material from the proceedings was collated and disseminated. In the comments below Stimson says that the recordings and the papers formed part of an evidence base to persuade the collective who produced the women's health book Our Bodies, Ourselves to include fat feminism. I have seen copies of this work in various archives. I have a digital copy of it but I can't remember where it came from!

The Largesse online archive is invaluable here, Stimson's archival gifts to fat feminist activism are visionary. She offers a full personal account of the gathering and uploaded Stein's recordings as digital audio files. There are also sound files of the evening's entertainment. I defy you to listen without feeling delighted and moved.

Largesse is no longer live, but you can still listen to and download the talks via the WayBack Machine. Remixers, here is where you come in: these talks need to be sampled, set to a deep bass and danced to by fat feminists everywhere.

WayBack Machine: From the Largesse Archives: Voices of Fat Liberation MP3 Audio Files

WayBack Machine: Fat Feminist Herstory, 1969-1993: A Personal Memoir by Karen W. Stimson

New Haven Fat Liberation Front 1978

Fat activism goes to the opera

On Wednesday I spent about five hours in a too small seat watching a pair of fat people command a very large stage. I've been to the opera before but not often, I'm not a buff. I like different kinds of music and performance, including, sometimes, that which is ostentatious, epic and expensive.

Tristan and Isolde is an opera by Richard Wagner. There are many things to be said about the problematic genre of grand opera, and the problematic composer Wagner in particular. There are probably many things to be said about the problematic opera Tristan and Isolde, I know the reviews for this production were not that gushing either. Other people can say those things, I don't have the knowledge or the articulacy to say them here. This is not a blog about opera.

But it is a blog about fat and this is what I do want to say: if you can pick your way through the things that are problematic, it is fantastic to see romantic, heroic, dramatic fat leads singing their faces off in front of several hundred mostly thin people who have paid a lot of money to witness this extraordinary sight.

It would be nice if the seats were accessible, and if opera singers weren't pressured to lose weight. I am aware that fat opera singers are also a comic stereotype. But whilst many fat activists lobby for non-stigmatising media representation of fat people, and rightly so, there is a genre of opera and singer that takes for granted fat people's compelling presence on a stage. I wouldn't exactly call it mainstream entertainment, but it is entrenched in the establishment. It's right there.

In this production of Tristan and Isolde, Heidi Melton and Stuart Skelton were dressed in giant armour and farthingale respectively, they were really big. Tall hair too. Melton flanked by Karen Cargill as Brangäne, also fat. It's possible none of these performers would want to see themselves as I saw them, you're probably not allowed to say the unsayable, and I notice that reviews are coy in their descriptions of the singers. But what I saw was fat people taking up space and deservedly so. I love fat people who are no shrinking violets. The opera, the music, the scenery, the orchestra, the whole extravaganza was one thing, but to me the fat was far out. There should be fat activist opera groups if they don't already exist.

About ten years ago I went to see one of the Grand Sumo Tournaments in Tokyo. I had similar feelings, only this was a different kind of fat physicality and athleticism, enshrined in national pride. Massively fat wrestlers throwing each other into the air. The most expensive seats are at the very front, where you might find a Rikishi crashing down upon you.

Fat is so weird, hated and also adored. How can it be so?


15 June 2016

Roots of fat activism #13: Fat Liberator Publications

One of the central arguments of my book is that activism does not have to be all about the large-scale actions or the grand gestures. Most fat activism takes place in small ways, a conversation perhaps, or a tiny act. Fat Liberator Publications is a fantastic example of a small-scale intervention that had widespread effects.

Established towards the end of the 1970s in the US by Aldebaran, it mostly consisted of a packet of fat feminist activist articles and papers copied and sent out for a small fee. The packet was advertised in lesbian and feminist journals of the time. Several participants in my research mentioned sending off for these papers by post. At a time when it was quite difficult to find fat feminist information, and when publishers had no interest in the subject, these packets were life-changing. So, for example, Liat recollects:
"I was living in [Michigan] in a group house, and there was a woman there [...] and we were living in this house together and she pulled out this bunch–, and it was I remember they, I think I still have it actually, it was all different colours, stapled, and she was like: 'I think you might be interested in this,' I read it and I was like, SNAP, I mean it was just like a massive connection, light-bulbs going off, you know, and there I was. And I was, like, no turning back."
This packet of papers took on a new life in 1983 when it formed the backbone of Shadow on a Tightrope: Writings by Women on Fat Oppression, an anthology that remains foundational to fat feminism.

The book had a similar effect on readers but it was able to travel further than the packet of papers. One of the most amazing findings in my research was when one participant recalled finding a copy of Shadow on a Tightrope in a Bradford charity shop probably around 20 years after it was published. It's mind-blowing how a modest act – posting out copies of articles – can travel so far in time and space.

I don't have a good photograph of any of the Fat Liberator documents. I was so excited when I found them in the archive that my hands were shaking as I took a snap! What is especially thrilling to me are the t-shirt designs featuring a raised fat fist and a group of fat dykes: Stop Fat Oppression - Support Fat Dykes. Now there's a slogan to get behind.

You can find a set of Fat Liberator Publications at the Mayer Collection in the University of Connecticut's archives. The GLBT Historical Center in San Francisco also has documents relating to Fat Liberator amongst Judy Freespirit's papers. See my post Archiving Fat Activism for more.

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

10 June 2016

No fatphobia, no hate and commodifying anti-oppression

I was on the bus through Shoreditch* yesterday and this fly-poster caught my eye. It's for Afro Punk, which is hosting a festival in London. This is the first time I've heard of this organisation.

It gave me feelings!

Firstly the tag-line "soon come" made me long for a time of no hatefulness and reflect on how far away that seems.

Secondly, I was amazed to see "No fatphobia" included with other forms of hate. I always look for it but I'm used to seeing it left out. My dream from early on in my fat activist life has been for the hatred of fat people to be widely understood as a decimating force, as something that kills and ruins people. My fat politics are rooted in intersectional feminism and queer values. For most of my life as a fat activist, fat politics have been regarded as a joke, an attempt to bandwagon-jump; people I've reached out to in similar liberation struggles have turned away and invested instead in obesity discourse. So it is fantastic to see an organisation that has emerged from a US Black punk movement recognising fat in a matrix of hate targets. Thank you Afro Punk for that vision of inclusion. When I saw "No fatphobia" I felt a lot less alone, I felt hopeful and reminded of my solidarity with all people pushed to the margins and fighting for personhood. I felt the warmth of unity and the resolve to keep fighting for it.

Thirdly, I had feelings that are harder to unpick. No hate is reproduced on Afro Punk merch, including t-shirts and sweatshirts. The t-shirts come in 3xl but no bigger. Does that mean that "no fatphobia" is being reproduced on something that excludes fat people?

The contradictions of politics and commerce do not escape me. Afro Punk in London is a festival where you need a ticket to get in. It's being advertised in a part of town that is a gentrified area of social cleansing. No hate is being mobilised to market things. Is No hate a brand? Are these political sensibilities being commodified? Other anti-oppression politics have been commodified over the years, but this could be a first for fat activism. I don't understand the long-term implications of branding political feelings like these. Making anti-oppression politics hip is certainly a strategy, but what happens when it is no longer fashionable?

I would really like one of those t-shirts though...

*One of London's hipster zones.

08 June 2016

Roots of fat activism #12: whoever i am, i'm a fat womon

I find it thrilling to see film and video of fat activism from the early years. I've read plenty about this work, but seeing the people involved reinforces that this is real, it really happened, I'm not making it up. Why I have a persistent fear of having made any of this up is perhaps testament to the gaslighting of obesity epidemic discourse: fat people are worthless, the idea that we might have cultures, histories, even community or identity is beyond belief.

Sharon Lia Robinson is a poet who has long been a part of fat activism. In this video she reads her poem whoever i am, i'm a fat womon. This poem includes the line that became the title of the ground-breaking fat feminist anthology Shadow on a Tightrope. It comes from her chapbook, published in 1978, fat womon/renaissance, written under the pen-name of Sharon Bas Hannah. Here is the full text.

whoever i am, i'm a fat womon was written in 1976, and the main part of this film, framed by more recent edits, was recorded by Lynne Conroy in 1979 at a rehearsal for the Radcliffe College Women's Theatre Festival, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The poem itself is lovely, but what strikes me when I watch this video is knowing how young and radical fat politics were at the time, and that they were embedded within feminism. That's changed a lot since then. I'm also moved by the use of poetry to explore fat feminist embodiment and experience. Making culture is a means of surviving and thriving, as my research and my own practice has shown over the years.

But what I like most is that this video is not a fat woman on a news report or a TV talkshow, it's not somebody debating their right to exist. The video shows a fat feminist reading her poetry on her own terms.

You can find out more about Sharon through her website.

03 June 2016

Watching an anti-obesity NGO crash and burn

It's been a tough old couple of weeks here at Timebomb Towers but my gloom has been lifted by schadenfreude-tastic reports of bickering and in-fighting at one of the UK's leading anti-obesity NGOs. In general I don't take much pleasure from seeing people in conflict, but I make an exception for fat-hating eugenicists.

The row has arisen because the boss of an anti-obesity charity decided to endorse some dietary advice against the wishes of his colleagues. Now, one set of anti-obesity dietary solutions is as pointless as another, as far as I can see. If dietary advice made fat people go away we would have gone by now. But advice is what these people live for. They see themselves as the answer to the problem of people like me. But they don't consult people like me, they treat us as though we are stupid children. Fat people are so absent from these organisations that we are barely seen to exist at all apart from as an abstracted blob or numbers on a chart. It is inconsequential to them that anti-obesity NGOs speak for us, it's beyond imagining that people like me might want to have a stake in our own lives. As far as this lot is concerned, what they say goes.

Let me twist the knife some more. These are self-important, entitled, ludicrous people riding the gravy train. They are puffed up by weight loss industry patronage with all the trappings of corporate PowerPoints, jargon, high-powered meetings, lunches, keynote speeches and branded promotional knick-knacks. Somebody could make a mint satirising them, they are so ripe for it. Their work is worse than useless, they reproduce stigma at an alarming rate, they have to because this is what delivers funding to their door and rationalises their existence.

It is astonishing to me that anyone gives them the time of day, they truly have no idea of what it is like to be fat or what might support fat people to live good lives. But they are treated like experts of the universe by toadying journalists and policymakers who behave as if they are in the presence of the Great Oz himself.

Anyway, crash and burn, hate-mongering shits. Fight each other until the last one standing is in my crosshairs. Let this be the beginning of the end. I'll toast marshmallows on the blaze and dance on the ashes.