22 March 2017

100 Fat Activists #24: Fat Lip Reader's Theater

Still from Throwing Our Weight Around
When I started writing this post I was annoyed with myself for not knowing more about Fat Lip than I do. I found out about Fat Lip through Radiance magazine, more about that later. I rationalised that this group was active largely pre-internet, that knowing more about them at the time would have meant sending off for a video from the US and having the equipment to view it in the UK. At the time these resources were beyond me.

Then I found some notes for my PhD, later my book, hidden in a folder on my computer. Apparently I know more than I think I do! This knowledge came from a series of visits to the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco in 2010, where I sifted through Judy Freespirit's collection, which is held there. During these visits I also sat and watched the Fat Lip video, Throwing Our Weight Around, a series of skits, monologues and poems.

A Reader's Theatre is a means of making theatre with few resources. Fat Lip Readers Theater was a theatre by and for fat women that used fat feminism to discuss everyday joys and hassles. Fat Lip is important because it shows how culture-building is essential to political activism, it is activism.

As I understand it, Fat Lip Reader's Theater had a relationship to a show or a dance group called Fat Chance, made or performed by Judy Freespirit, perhaps others too. Yes, my details are sketchy. They were active in Oakland around 1981 or 85, had a ten year anniversary show in 1991, and reformed in 2004 for a reunion show "after a seven year hiatus", according to Big Moves, with additional performances by some Big Moves dancers. Freespirit's papers state that Fat Lip was part of the Mothertongue Feminist Theater Collective based at The San Francisco Women's Building. As well as Throwing Our Weight Around, they also released Nothing To Lose through Wolfe Video in 1989.
"Our 30 minute video includes the words and experiences of 16 fat, feisty women, speaking, acting and singing about being fat in America in the 80s. Scenes, dialogues, snappy answers to street taunts, poetry, song and more will provoke you to laughter, tears, and anger. Our message is fat positive and challenges the diet-obsessed, fat-hating culture we live in. We present it as an entertaining antidote to everyday life in America."

An early-internet listserv from 1995 describes Fat Lip as a group that toured the US and performed at lesbian and feminist gatherings. By this time they had a mission statement:

Questions from Fat Lip Workshop 1987
"Our mission is to end fat oppression and promote size acceptance through education and theatrical performance. We are a collective of fat women who present exciting, dynamic, theatrical performances about what it's really like to be a fat woman in today's society. We also offer educational workshops and in-service trainings for organization and community groups."

Other flyers and papers stated:

Fat Lip is "a collective of fourteen fat feisty women from the San Francisco Bay Area. We come together from varied backgrounds and are not afraid or ashamed of the way that we look or what we need to say."

"Our task is to say: 'Here we are. Deal with us. We are not going to hate ourselves if we get bigger and we're not going to like ourselves more if we get smaller. We like ourselves now. We are not going to put our lives on hold one minute longer.'"

The most significant documentation of Fat Lip in Freespirit's collection relates to Still Fat After All These Years!, their tenth anniversary show, performed at the Women's Building on 18 May 1991. A flyer gives some idea of what the night was like: there was non-alcoholic bar to benefit Making Waves (the fat swim); a dance after show; you could buy Fat Lip t-shirts; child care was available and the event was sign language interpreted, wheelchair accessible, with no scents or perfumes. There was a sliding scale for entrance and no one was turned away for lack of funds. The programme notes attest to a marathon evening of 54 acts and skits with an intermission and an MC! Nancy Thomas wrote this for the event:

F is For... by Nancy Thomas

F is for the fine, fat friends it gave me
A is for the audience applause
T is for the theatres we've played in
L is for loving women, which we are
I is for the images we're changing
P is for the politics we hold
Put them all together they spell FAT LIP
A group that's worth its weight in gold
And this year we are ten years old

Sadly Freespirit could not attend, she sent love and support in a note and added that because the Women's Building had been recently repainted "Some of us with environmental sensitivities will be here tonight in spirit only."

Photo by Cathy Cade
I don't know what happened to Fat Lip. There were attempts to expand and recruit new members, they were looking for "women who are somewhat familiar with the fat liberation concept, have a bit of ham in you, or want to develop new skills and confidence". They worked with a collective structure and decision-making by consensus. But the last paper in the box is a call for donations: "To put it bluntly, it has been a hand to mouth proposition". I suspect that behind the applause was a lot of hard graft and that as lives carried on something had to give. But the shows and videos were only part of what the group achieved, the women met without fail every week for over a decade, which suggests that Fat Lip was critical in establishing a fat feminist community and developing feminist analyses of fat oppression.

15 March 2017

100 Fat Activists #23: Rotunda Press

I've written a little about Rotunda elsewhere, but want to reiterate it here because it fits nicely in this recent flurry of posts about fat feminism in the UK in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Of course I can't talk about Rotunda without also mentioning Shadow on a Tightrope.

Shadow on a Tightrope, the book that made me fat

Though it came and went, the idea of a fat feminist publishing house remains tantalising. Could it happen again?

08 March 2017

100 Fat Activists #22: London Fat Women's Group

The London Fat Women's Group went through two phases. The first took place around 1987-1989, the second from 1992-1994 or so. Both groups were either based or made use of the resources at The Women's Centre, at 4 Wild Court in Holborn. Sadly this no longer exists, though it should (have a peek at Wild Court now in the video A Walk Around Fat Activist London). Both phases of the group were explicitly feminist and intersectional, which is to say that participants had fat in common but their experiences of it varied according to other identities.

I'm not sure how the first group came into existence. From researching my book it would appear that somebody got hold of Shadow On A Tightrope and initiated some conversations amongst feminists in the UK. They published articles in Spare Rib and Trouble and Strife, created a BBC documentary (see my post Revisiting BBC Open Space: Fat Women Here To Stay) and organised a national conference at Wild Court in 1989. The latter involved generating national media exposure, which is how I got to hear from them. The conference created sparks, a publishing house, books, short-lived groups. The main group ended, I believe, because of burn-out and internal conflicts, but it has not been possible to corroborate this. I don't know much about who was in the group or what happened to those women.

In April 1992, Spare Rib published a small ad, placed by me:
I am a fat woman living in London and trying to organise a political and social group for other Fat women who may be feeling isolated. I am hoping that the group will be primarily celebratory and consciousness-raising (both for ourselves and the general public) but at this point the options are open! If you're interested, contact Charlotte at [address].

People did contact me and we started to meet. A group formed with some core members and others who came and went. We met monthly in the Rotunda at Wild Court and produced a newsletter called Fat News. I left in 1994 and the group folded but also created other sparks: an exhibition and a magazine.

Both groups experienced difficulties and are now really obscure. The generational divide is vast between these earlier fat feminisms and a discourse around fat activism that has moved towards consumerism and 'body positivity'. In scholarly literature, dominated by the US, the only historical fat activist organisations that matter enough to be documented usually reflect a North American cultural bias. It's as though these activists never existed. Not only that, but in the late 1980s and early 1990s there were other international, non-Anglophone, fat feminist groups that sprouted and then ended. Information about them is currently sketchy, but there must be people still alive who know and who have stories and material to share for the benefit of the movement.

See also: Fat Feminism, missing women and conversations unspoken

06 March 2017

100 Fat Activists #21: Spare Rib's Classifieds

There are few things I like more than a free online repository of independent radical feminist journals of yesteryear. I have been that woman crouched in a corner of a specialist library, going through the dusty box files. It's lovely to touch and hold these artefacts in real life, but it's also a delight to browse them from home with a cuppa at your elbow, no opening hours or obscure rules to observe, and no dodgy photocopier.

The first 50 issues of Sinister Wisdom are available online, as are copies of Dyke, A Quarterly. Rainbow History Project has downloads of The Furies and I recall seeing a page of .pdfs for The Lesbian Tide recently but now, typically, can't find the link.

The more obscure and lesbian the journals the better as far as I am concerned because this is where you will find roots of fat feminism and activism that are not really documented elsewhere. There is plenty that is problematic about some of these feminisms and navigating these spaces is a complex undertaking but still worthwhile, in my opinion.

There are many radical queer, feminist and lesbian journals that I have not seen digitised or made available online, and their absence is a giant cultural loss. Square Peg, Quim, Gossip to name a few. There are so many more (check out this amazing wiki of lesbian periodicals to get a taste of bygone media). So it's great when collections are made available, as long as their makers consent, and I am fond of resources that are accessible in thought and ideas and which don't demand institutional log-ins or a knowledge of academic language and conventions.

In the UK there are online repositories of Trouble and Strife and Shocking Pink that are particularly great. Of course the muthalode is Spare Rib, which is archived by the British Library. Does an equivalent free online archive of Ms Magazine exist? If not, it should do.

Spare Rib is especially important for people who want to know more about fat feminist activist histories in the UK. Volume 182 from 1987 has a cluster of articles about fat feminism that marks a break from previous discourse that was very much centred on eating disorders. Here fat women finally get to speak for themselves. As I write this, I have gone to download those pieces and am shocked to see that the content has been redacted. What a bummer! A note on the British Library website explains that that material is being investigated for copyright permissions. Hopefully this will be released soon. Meanwhile, The Feminist Library has a full set if you fancy a trip out.

But it is in the margins that things hot up. In issue 184 Susie Orbach refutes the criticisms made of her by fat feminists, which she also did in the Feminist Review two years previously and then 22 years later in Washington DC at the Association of Size Diversity and Health conference. I would love to see more work in Fat Studies and beyond about how particular feminist discourses around fat have persisted, and been seen as progressive, even though fat people consistently say that they are damaging and are ignored! How come those arguments remain obscure? Does this illustrate how talking about fat is usually controlled by thin people?

I also love the Classified adverts in Spare Rib. They give you a fantastic picture of everyday feminist organising and concerns in the period, whaich was, need I even say it, pre-internet. It is here that the National Fat Women's Conference was publicised in 1989, after which there were a spattering of fat feminist groups and resources proposed. I don't know what happened to them but it's encouraging to see how the work touched and encouraged people to have a go, even if they weren't ready to see things through. Later, in 1992, in issue 233, you will also see an ad that I placed, calling for a social and political group for fat women. I'll save that story for next time.