28 July 2016

New open access Fattylympics chapter queers public health

I'm delighted to announce that a chapter I co-authored with Bethan Evans is now available to download for free!

Reframing Fatness: Critiquing 'Obesity' is a piece in The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities edited by Anne Whitehead and Angela Woods, which has just been published. In our chapter we talk about fat activism and queering public health through projects such as QUILTBAGG and Homosexual Death Drive.

The book retails at an eye-watering £175. I doubt that many activists would ever have access to this collection at this price. Only the most elite and inaccessible libraries will be able to afford to buy copies. Amazingly, the ePub is also the same price. Nevertheless, the University of Liverpool have paid for the chapter to be open access, for which I am grateful. Their actions mean that you can get it for free.

For the uninitiated, this is how academic publishing works nowadays. You may wish to check out The Para-Academic Handbook for alternative academic strategies.

Evans, B. and Cooper, C. (2016) 'Reframing Fatness: Critiquing 'Obesity'' in Whitehead, A. and Woods, A., eds., The Edinburgh Companion to the Critical Medical Humanities, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Wardrop, A. and Withers, D. M., eds. (2014) The Para-Academic Handbook: A Toolkit for making-learning-creating-acting, Bristol: HammerOn Press.

Roots of fat activism #17: 1980s Fat Feminist photography

By the early 1980s fat feminism was spreading through a number of groups in the West, though fatphobia remained a big problem within the women's movement and society in general. Radical lesbian feminism of the period, including separatism, helped to establish an infrastructure of organisations, venues and businesses where fat feminism could be explored.

One of the ways in which lesbian feminists of that time did this was through photography. During my research travels to the archives for my book, I came across startling and powerful photographs of fat lesbians by Cookie Andrews-Hunt, Cathy Cade, Zoe Mosko, Lynn Levy and Judith Clarke. Vida Gallery in San Francisco hosted Fat Fridays for a period, and showcased images of fat lesbians. I have included blurry me-in-the-archive phonecam images here but would encourage readers to try and find the originals.

Andrews-Hunt, a leather dyke and photo editor, produced Images of Our Flesh in 1983, a calendar featuring pictures of The Fat Avengers, a fat lesbian feminist group from Seattle. Perhaps this influenced later activism such as the calendar produced as a fundraiser for Heather McAllister when she was undergoing cancer treatment, or the annual Adipsitivity calendar.

Cathy Cade's A Lesbian Photo Album from 1987 documented fat feminist community in the Bay Area, including Judy Freespirit. Her photograph of Pandoura, which I think may be from Images of Our Flesh is a rare glimpse of a fat lesbian of colour from that period.

My favourite photograph from Images of Our Flesh is Judith Clarke's portrait of Banshee. She is wearing a Fat Liberator t-shirt (Stop Fat Oppression: Support Fat Dykes) and looks so contemporary, meaning of her time as well as timeless. I can imagine bumping into her in queer community today.

Some of these photographers are now dead, some of this work is sadly obscure and exists only in the archive. But they resonate so strongly for me because they are visual depictions of community, of those who came before, they remind me that I am part of a movement, and they look absolutely fantastic.

Cade, C. (1987) A Lesbian Photo Album: The Lives of Seven Lesbian Feminists, Oakland, CA: Waterwoman Books.

Andrews-Hunt, C. (1983) Images of Our Flesh, Seattle: The Fat Avengers.

22 July 2016

Roots of fat activism #16: The Social Model

In her excellent book, Fat Rights, Anna Kirkland lays out a number of arguments that fat people and their representatives might use to fight discrimination in a US court of law. She draws on anti-discrimination theories that emerged from anti-racist and anti-sexist legal work, and disability law in particular. I first came across the Social Model of Disability in the early 1990s through the work of Mike Oliver, but I am including it here because it has been around for some time and has important overlaps with these earlier attempts to shift the focus around discrimination.

What do I mean by a Social Model? It is an alternative to the belief that the individual should be held responsible for the discrimination directed against them. This belief is directed at fat people in this way:

Fatty: I am discriminated against because I am fat.
Society: You should just lose weight and then you'll be fine.
Fatty: It is almost impossible to lose weight and keep it off forever and it will damage my health and wellbeing if I try and do that. Here's a load of stats and proof.
Society: Too bad! You'll just have to keep trying. Plus it makes quite a lot of money for us and gives us people to scapegoat. Hurrah!

With a Social Model the burden of responsibility for dealing with discrimination is shifted towards society in general:

Fatty: I am discriminated against because I am fat.
Society: We recognise that losing weight is not a solution to this problem and we should change our systems, values, institutions etc so that no one is discriminated against for being fat (plus points: no one is discriminated against for a host of other reasons too).
Fatty: Yippee! Let's get this shit going!

It is my belief that a Social Model is crucial to fat activists. Operating under the assumption that social attitudes are the problem, and not the individual, enables fat activists to identify those places where discrimination surfaces and do something about it. It is much harder to get organised if we are to believe that discrimination is our own fault. Perhaps this is one reason why anti-obesity people continue to promote the idea that weight loss is the only way forward, they want to keep us in our place, invested in a losing game, to stop us from becoming disruptive.

I wrote primarily about the Social Model of Disability and fat identity in my first book, Fat and Proud and I say a bit more about it in my recent book. But although others have built on that work, it's quite rare to find the Social Model spelled out in the archive and in fat activist communities. I think this is because it is most associated with disability activism and reflects the infuriating divisions between fat and disability activists, which are only now being eroded. But it remains an important way of thinking about fat activism, it is an activist-based theory that has foundations in anti-racism and anti-sexism. It is a key tool for the liberation of all people, in my humble opinion. I'm perplexed why it isn't invoked more often and would encourage readers to find out more about it.

Cooper, C. (1998) Fat & Proud: The Politics of Size, London: The Women's Press.

Cooper, C. (2016) Fat Activism: A Radical Social Movement, Bristol: HammerOn Press.

Kirkland, A. (2008) Fat Rights: Dilemmas of Difference and Personhood, New York: New York University Press.

Oliver, M. (1990) The Politics of Disablement, London: Macmillan.

15 July 2016

Roots of fat activism #15: The Fat Underground video

In 2010 I had a very startling moment. I was visiting the GLBT Historical Society archives in San Francisco, looking at Judy Freespirit's papers. I was researching my doctorate, a version of which has been published as a book. I can't remember if I had met Judy at this point, or was yet to meet her.

I found a lot of interesting stuff in her boxes. If I've said it once, I'll say it a thousand times more: fat activists, please make plans to archive your stuff, our stories are fragile and in danger of becoming lost.

The startling moment was the discovery of a VHS cassette with the words Fat Underground on its spine. No other information. No information in the content of the tape about who made it and when, either. A mystery tape.

The facilities for screening VHS tapes at the GLBT Historical Society at that time were basic to say the least. I sat in a windowless cupboard-cum-kitchen, piled with detritus and watched the tape on an old monitor.

Suddenly here I was, seeing the Fat Underground spell out their manifesto, producing skits, talking directly to camera. The video looked old, blurry and washed out. I was excited that the FU used technology in this way, perhaps in the mid to late 1970s. It was great to see them sitting together in some kind of underground room, looking like a group of revolutionaries. Lynn Mabel-Lois, now Lynn McAfee, made my hair stand on end with her address to the viewer: she grabs her fat arm and says "I feel like a freak and I'm getting PROUD!"

I was too dumbfounded to ask the archivists about the tape, if I could make a copy, what the deal was in terms of taking stills, anything like that. I just sat and watched it, and made notes with my pencil in my notebook. I also took some terrible photos of the screen with my phone because I couldn't believe what I was watching and I wanted proof later on that I had seen what I had seen.

Up until this point I had never seen pictures of the Fat Underground, let alone moving images. In many ways this group is mythical to me, even though I know people who were involved. They existed to me through obscure documents and a kind of echo chamber of rumour, hearsay, half-remembered detail and so on. They were a foundational moment in fat feminist activism, but always somewhat removed. Because of the mythology surrounding the group, sometimes I wonder if I'm making things up. In the face of obesity discourse, fat people are usually positioned as unreliable narrators (the opposite is more likely to be true, of course, obesity discourse is a gaslighter par excellence). But here was evidence: they are real!

I suspect other copies of this tape exist in other archives. I would encourage fat activists with better access than me to investigate making this recording public, or developing it further. It is an amazingly rich resource.

Edited to add: you can now watch this video online.