11 August 2016

Watch the 1979 Fat Underground video

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about what it was like seeing the Fat Underground video.

A generous reader of this blog, who may or may not wish to be named, shared a digitised copy of the video with me. With her consent I have uploaded it to YouTube for others to see. Watch the Fat Underground video from 1979.

Edited to add: I watched the video at the weekend and realised that it is different to the video that I referred to in the other post. I suspect the other video that I saw at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco in 2010 is Shirl Buss' original 1975 footage, edited and embellished here by Marge Dean. This begs the question: could there be other Fat Underground videos out there?! Meanwhile, it would be great to see the 1975 video digitised and made available too.

By the way, I am thrilled to notice in the credits that Kathy Fire is one of the chorus. Her album, Songs of Fire, is a classic of protest music, a favourite of Homosexual Death Drive, and still available through the Smithsonian Institution. It makes sense that she was also a part of early fat feminism.

There are some things to bear in mind:

  • The video might not stay there for very long. I have done a brief search for Marge Dean, the copyright holder, and will continue to look for her. I haven't been able to find her yet, but she may get in touch and she may want the video taken down, which I will do.
  • YouTube identified some copyrighted material in the film in the form of a song. I don't know if the film-makers cleared the right to use that song. The song owners have allowed its use on YouTube but it does mean that there may be ads, and also that other people can't embed the video on their websites. This is beyond my control. If the ads turn out to be weight-loss related or in any way fatphobic or offensive, I will remove the song and therefore the restrictions, and add some notes about that to the video's page.
  • I have turned off comments on the video because they are usually crap.
  • I have set it to unlisted to try and avoid random fatphobes.
  • It's a little glitchy because it was made from an old VHS tape.

I can't believe other fat activists are going to get to see this video now, after all these years. What will it spark?

Dean, M. and Buss, S. (1979). Fat Underground [video]. Available https://youtu.be/UPYRZCXjoRo

04 August 2016

Roots of fat activism #18: Off Our Backs letters page

Off Our Backs was a radical feminist newspaper from the US that ran from 1970-2008 in various forms and was collectively produced. Some people get Off Our Backs mixed up with On Our Backs, a queer sex magazine that is also now sadly defunct. On Our Backs' name satirised Off Our Backs' problematic relationship to sex and readers who are ignorant of the lesbian sex wars might want to go off and find out what that was about in order to understand why these names are significant.

A digital archive of On Our Backs is available for free online – hurray! I have yet to do a full one-handed sift through the back issues but I am pretty sure there is plenty of fat stuff in there. These pornographers were good feminists after all. You will also find some things that I wrote, I was a columnist for the rag towards the end.

Alas, you will need university or institutional access to look at digitised editions of Off Our Backs. There must surely be sociological observations to be made here about access, respectability, feminism, class and the like between the availability of both journals, but I'll save that for another day. For copyright reasons I can't share the articles, but I have referenced them below if you would like to go digging for them.

I'm mentioning Off Our Backs here because I wanted to share some of the material I found on the letters pages during the period I was researching my book. The editorial collective ran a lively letters page, with discussions stretching across several issues or more if it was one of those intractable subjects that radical feminism could not figure out adequately, like SM. Through reading the letters page you get to see threads appear.

The main one concerns the paper's, and presumably feminism's, struggle to comprehend fat feminist politics. From 1976-1991 they get it wrong again and again! Readers are furious about Off Our Backs' editorial stereotyping fat people as capitalists, about references to 'overweight' and poor health, about an advert for a diet product that is later pulled, about the decision to publish a violently fatphobic letter from a reader. A thread in which Aldebaran pulls Off Our Backs on their fatphobia results in a weedy and defensive response by the collective, although that doesn't stop them publishing her eviscerating reply to their denial. It is electrifying to read.

Around 1978 there is also an illuminating discussion about Fat Is A Feminist Issue. Off Our Backs predictably takes the line that this is a good and useful book, though hedges its bets by inviting two women with opposing views to offer their thoughts. They shouldn't have bothered, Aldebaran is once again on the case, supported by Elly Janesdaughter, and people called Lizard, Helen, Shan and KR. Despite this awesome resistance to the problematic psychoanalytic views of fat women's bodies reflected in that book, Off Our Backs appear to have learned very little and five years later are publishing more about fat and compulsive eating, this time refuted in the letters page by Marjory Nelson. By 1985 they are being taken to task for implying that weight loss surgery is no big deal. The subsequent editorial amnesia to these critical accounts suggest to me that this is one of the ways in which these pernicious and unhelpful ideas about fat women and weight loss have persisted over the years. Time and again in the letters page I witness arguments in beautifully crafted dispatches by fat feminists being pushed aside in favour of feminist fatphobia.

There are also some curiosities. A correspondent called Moral offers some feminist evolutionary theory for the existence of fat women in 1980 and invokes some dubious racialised arguments to prove her point. But best of all is a 1978 communiqué from The Glacial Acetic Acid Liberation Front about their plans to vandalise a fatphobic poster. Wow!

Off Our Backs published a handful of articles about fat over its lifetime, separate to the discussions that went on via the letters page. The tone and range of these articles diminished, in my opinion, as time went on. They became a lot blander, more concerned with 'body image' and 'dieting' than fat, presumably because this is seen to be less contentious and is relatable to more women. Indeed, this shift was orchestrated by fat activists. I could be wrong but I understand that The Body Image Task Force (sounds really militaristic on reflection!) was a NAAFA and National Organisation of Women strategy to broaden interest. In my opinion it ended up backfiring because it had the effect of erasing the radical fat feminist voices that came before, instead of building on their analyses of oppression. To my mind this reflects the growth of conservatism in fat feminism, contextualised in a Western political shift to the right more generally, which continues through 'body positivity' and its ilk. You can see this play out through Off Our Backs, the paper is like a microcosm for this process, which I write about in more detail in my book.


Aldebaran (1979) 'Letter: oob perpetuating stereotypes', Off Our Backs, 9(11), 31.
Aldebaran (1980) 'Letter: liberal on fat', Off Our Backs, 10(3), 31.
Aldebaran (Vivian Mayer) (1979) 'Letter: compulsive eating myth', Off Our Backs, 9(7), 28.
Earthdaughter, d. (1991) 'Letter: diet pills next?', Off Our Backs, 21(3), 35.
Edwards, E. A. (1989) 'Letter: weight oppression', Off Our Backs, 19(8), 26.
Elg, T. (1991) 'Letter: weight ad unacceptable', Off Our Backs, 21(5), 34.
Freepers♀n, K. (1983) 'Letter: heavy punishment', Off Our Backs, 13(5), 30.
Hutchins, L. (1985) 'Letter: and response', Off Our Backs, 15(8), 34.
Janesdaughter, E. (1979) 'Letter: fatophobic feminists', Off Our Backs, 9(7), 28.
KR (1979) 'Letter: free to be fat', Off Our Backs, 9(5), 28.
Lizard, Helen and Shan (1979) 'Letter: thin thinking', Off Our Backs, 9(5), 28.
Moral (1980) 'Letter: fat save species', Off Our Backs, 10(3), 31.
Nelson, M. (1983) 'Letter: thinly veiled insult', Off Our Backs, 13(5), 30.
Roark, D. (1976) 'Letter: sized up &boxed in', Off Our Backs, 6(5), 30.
Stockwell, R. (1985) 'Letter: shadow-boxing', Off Our Backs, 15(8), 34.
Unsigned for obvious reasons (1979) 'Letter: fat kills', Off Our Backs, 9(7), 28.
Wiesner(sic), B. (1985) 'Letter: stomach stapling', Off Our Backs, 15(8), 34.
WildSister, K. (1990) 'Letter: not buying it', Off Our Backs, 20(8), 34.
zana (1990) 'Letter: stress of dieting', Off Our Backs, 20(8), 34.