14 September 2016

I'm still fat, I'm still dancing, things are happening

It's nearly three years since I went to see Project O dance a piece called O. This sparked a chain of events that has included me becoming a dancer. I always did dance, at clubs and around my flat, but things are different now. I have worked with choreographers and I've been part of a show, I have been welcomed into dance community in London, I have been in a film, I have been commissioned to make pieces, I've been to classes, I've been reviewed in the blimmin' Guardian.

Dance is now a big part of my life. By this I mean that at nearly 48 I am really getting to know my body and understand more about how it is a means of expression and feeling. I'm making space for this through thought and action. I'm annoyed that it has taken so long! Hopefully I have plenty of time left to refine what I'm learning.

I go to the studio regularly and it's exciting every time. Fat people are so used to being surveilled that being in a space where you can experiment with movement without being overlooked or judged, in complete privacy, feels like absolute freedom.

I've been making little digital timelapse films of some of these sessions, they condense a three hour stretch into 20 seconds or so. I edited some of them together into a short film. Even though it verges on comedy and I'm trying to challenge the idea that fat people dancing must always be the joke of the century, I really love seeing us zip around so quickly. The short film gives you some idea of what might happen when I spend time in a dance studio. It is fun, funny, and there's a lot of other stuff going on too.

By the way, I always come away from a session thinking that I hardly moved, but then I see the timelapse and recognise that there is a great deal of movement. I suspect this is one of the ways in which I have internalised fatphobia: the erroneous belief that thin dancers move dynamically and constantly, fat dancers do not.

One of the pieces that my partner and I have been developing is a dance called But Is It Healthy? This is the question that people always ask whenever I talk about fat stuff in public. Sometimes I place bets with friends and colleagues about whether it will be the first question.

When people ask me if fat is healthy or not, they are looking for a yes or no answer, and they expect someone to have that answer, which they believe is based in expert scientific research. But it is an impossible question to answer, not least because fat people are a diverse group, health is constructed in myriad ways, and expert science is not incontrovertible.

I have become sick of this question. Whilst I cannot control who asks it, I can make choices in how I answer. So now I have a dance that I can do whenever it arises, and this feels a lot more satisfying.

I will be dancing a longer version of But Is It Healthy? at The Wellcome Collection's Obesity gallery, part of their permanent display. I have many things to say about this space, but more about that some other time. The dance will be supported by a lecture, original music and a zine. More details coming soon.

Wellcome Collection Friday Late Spectacular: Body Language
Friday 4 November 2016

07 September 2016

Roots of fat activism #19: Stein and Freespirit

During the research process for my book I would occasionally find something in the archive that looked unassuming but said so much more. This poster for a reading by Judith Stein and Judy Freespirit, that I found in Freespirit's holdings at the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco, is one such example.

The typography and the images are very straightforward and the yellow paper is eye-catching. I'm not sure of the year, I'm assuming it's the early 1980s, given the Bobbeh Meisehs reference.

What this poster confirms to me is that Jewish lesbian feminists were important in the development of fat feminism. Radical Jewish feminist community was strong and active at that time in the US, I remember anthologies and conferences taking place. Many prominent early fat feminists were Jewish women. What this means in terms of politics and identity is hard for me to say as someone who is not of that identity, time and place. But I am assuming that better placed people might have insights as to how this affected the politics and range of fat feminism in the early days, for example through radical Jewish traditions of social justice. I imagine that it was important and that there are still many resonances that have not yet been fully acknowledged.

There were events by and about fat lesbian feminists which also encompassed other subjects. So here fat lesbian, Jewish, Yiddish and survivor identity was brought to the event as a kind of intersectional lens, in today's social justice parlance. I think this is important because it's a reminder that as activists we don't have to be positioned solely as fat, we can bring many things to the conversation.

Fat feminists were creating cross-country alliances at that time and maintaining earlier networks even as they migrated and fractured. I know Freespirit had spent time on the East Coast and was part of fat activist organising there for a while. It's amazing to me that geography and minimal resources did not stop people doing things.

Stein's work through Bobbeh Meisehs Press is now super rare and I have seen dealers online trying to sell it for hundreds of dollars. I understand that she created the Press to publish Jewish lesbian feminist material, and that her New Haggadah: A Jewish Lesbian Seder went through a couple of pressings and is held in high esteem by cultural historians. I don't know what happened to Freespirit's Daddy's Girl. I would love to see these documents.

It's really good to see access being advocated, not just wheelchair access but signing, and a sliding scale donation suggested. Accessible events often remain an afterthought here in the 21st century. On the other hand, it's women-only, a more contested proposal in terms of who is and who is not granted access, but consistent with the politics of the times. Today one would hope that there would be more sensitivity around gender and access in radical fat feminist community.

I get pangs when I see this poster, though I know that this is my nostalgia and that this does not necessarily illuminate much for those who were there. Nevertheless, Stein and Freespirit look full of life and power, as though they have so much to say. I can't help wishing that I could travel back in time and sit in on that reading. I would love to hear these old wives spin a few tales.

Edited: 15 December 2016

Since I first wrote this post Judith Stein has generously scanned and given permission for me to put her Bobbeh Meisehs online for people to download, read and share. All material is her copyright. Please enjoy them!

Stein, Judith (1980, revised 1982). A Jewish Lesbian Chanukah. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press. (.pdf, 2mb)

Stein, Judith (1981, revised 1987). A New Haggedah: A Jewish Lesbian Seder. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press. (.pdf, 18mb)

Stein, Judith (1980, revised 1986). The Purim Megillah: A Feminist Retelling. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press. (.pdf, 18mb)

Stein, Judith (1982). Telling Bobbeh Meisehs: Some Notes on Identity and the Creation of Jewish Lesbian Culture. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press. (.pdf, 4mb)

Stein, Judith (1980, revised 1986). On Lesbian Invisibility: A Midrash for Shavuos. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press. (.pdf, 2mb)

Stein, Judith (n.d.). Why the Moon is Small and Dark When the Sun is Big and Shiny: a Midrash for Rosh Chodesh. Cambridge MA: Bobbeh Meisehs Press. (.pdf, 1mb)

Stein, Judith (1993). How to have a Satisfying Jewish Lesbian Seder (in three easy steps) in Zahava, Irene ed., How To...Short Stories by Women. Ithaca NY: Violet Ink, 39-41. (.pdf, 3mb)