07 June 2017

100 Fat Activists #32: Political Shifts in the 1990s

A classic spread from the second Pretty Big catalogue
198?/199? That's Audrey with the trombone
I've written here that 1989 was a big year for fat activism in the UK, with The London Fat Women's Group gaining a lot of visibility and their successful conference. I've heard it said that the values of one decade don't really kick in until much later. Although the 1980s is often associated, in the West at least, with the spread of neoliberalism through Thatcher and Reagan, fat feminism of that period was pretty radical and reflected lesbian feminist ethics, community and culture. It wasn't until the 1990s that that spirit of early fat feminism was pushed aside in fat activism and the movement took a turn towards conservatism.

This turn was, intentional or not, an attempt to appeal to an idea of what mainstream women wanted and needed. Feminism was seen as alienating, so some of the more prominent proponents and interventions at the time distanced themselves from it even as they benefitted directly from the earlier work of fat lesbians.

This went as far as erasure. For example Sue Dyson quoted the fat dykes statement directly in her book. This was a series of statements developed at the Fat Women's Conference, and which may have had roots in earlier fat feminist community activism (I saw a version of it in Judy Freespirit's archives). Yes Dyson never mentions this, the words 'fat dyke' have been removed.

There was also a shift in language at this time. Fat was seen as too abrasive, so euphemisms like 'size,' 'large,' 'big' and so on became commonplace. In my view this pandered to people's fears about fat and marginalised those of us who use the word freely to describe ourselves.

Shelly Bovey's work rightly attacked what sometimes came across as banality in cheerleading fat activism but my feeling is that she ended up universalising her own pain in being fat and foreclosed a possibility of finding power and strength in fatness. She produced a series of books that gradually eroded a message of fat feminist liberation: first shifting her language to a more euphemistic set of terms and then publishing a weight loss book with the feminist publisher who had published my own Fat & Proud. I have found the latter enlightening regarding the labour involved in maintaining weight loss, but I still regard it as a sad conclusion to a trilogy that was so promising when it began. Her books seem to exemplify the petering out of the earlier ideas and energy which, perhaps, could not be sustained by everybody.

Another shift occurred through the rise of consumerism and the emergence of charismatic leadership, which was less collective in its approach to community-building. Pretty Big magazine is a good example of this shift. It was produced independently by Audrey Winkler, a really dynamic community-minded ex-magistrate and entrepreneur from the Yorkshire Dales. She'd been involved with the knitwear industry for a while and was interested in selling large-sized clothes. Captivating and persuasive, with pink hair, she found that her shop was developing a community and so she started publishing the magazine. Oh yes, and it was through this magazine that I found myself in a hotel in Troon one day, having made it to the final of the Pretty Big modelling competition! Ack, what happened to those pictures?!

Pretty Big Aims & Intentions

Pretty Big
...acts as a club for all women who are size 16+
...promotes a positive self-image for all bigger women
...believes being big is not a sin and should not be a handicap
...speaks out on behalf of bigger women everywhere
...concentrates on healthy living
...shows "dieting" the door
...includes profiles of successful big women
...seeks out information on large sizes fashion and who is making them
...conducts shopping surveys and tells you who stocks larger sizes
...presents the PRETTY BIG SHOPS AWARD to shops nominated by readers for outstanding service to bigger women
...acts as a forum where you can air your views, share your thoughts, or ask for help and advice
...responds sympathetically to your problems

Pretty Big was pretty great and reflected the energy and tenacity of its owner, but it was a world away from the earlier fat feminisms and activisms that had laid the groundwork for such an endeavour. What continues to sit uneasily with me is the reinvention that took place in fat activism, one which rather arrogantly assumed that little of value had come before, that the movement's founders could never have been fat feminist lesbians, and that each new intervention was an improvement on the last. There was a troubling amnesia in place which obscured the radical work that had happened previously. This remains a problem today.

Bovey, S. (1989) Being Fat is Not a Sin, London: Pandora

Bovey, S. (1994) The Forbidden Body: why being fat is not a sin, London: Pandora.

Bovey, S. (2001) What Have You Got to Lose? The Great Weight Debate and How to Diet Successfully, London: The Women's Press.

Dyson, S. (1991) A weight off your mind: how to stop worrying about your body size, London: Sheldon Press.

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