19 January 2018

Last post...for now

I am a Psychotherapist and Cultural Worker. I am Fat.

I started this blog in 2008, around the time that I started working on a PhD. I wanted a place where I could work out ideas and talk things through in a community setting. I knew that I couldn't rely on academia to provide me with that space. As an activist I was more interested in what was happening at grassroots level than what was fashionable in the ivory tower.

I am writing this in 2018, nearly ten years later, as I make preparations to take an indefinite pause. I am stopping because I need more breathing space in my life and, over the last six months, I've noticed I have less energy for blogging. Other people can take up the work if they wish, and can do it better than me. Like many people ten years ago, I was naïve about blogging on a corporate platform, and my feelings about internet surveillance, trolling and the institutional and professionalised appropriation of marginal voices online have since sharpened. I no longer want to provide content to Google or to make something that someone can cut and paste, make palatable, and pass off as their own.

Of continuing concern, too, is the shifting nature of what was once known as the Fatosphere, a network of blogs and fat activists. It is now harder to find radical voices talking online about fat than it ever was, despite a roar of background noise and what is called 'body positivity'. I am not alone in being very worried about a creeping conservatism in radical politics. Speaking publicly about complicated subjects can leave you open to terrible attacks. These things have affected what I have published here enormously and have influenced my decision to stop blogging so that I can have these conversations elsewhere.

Sometimes I have made mistakes with this blog. Some of my peers excelled in branding, monetising and generating social capital online through their blogging. I have failed at all of that. This blog has opened no doors for me, but it has given me a space to think and share thoughts publicly. I don't know what people have done with those thoughts but the pleasure for me is working out an idea and developing this over time.

Longevity in the movement is a rare and lovely thing. I can see how my thinking about fat has changed. I'm no longer a compliant student! An important turning point came in 2011 when I started to think seriously about what fat activism could look like, how it didn't have to replicate the mainstream, how it could be a lot weirder and freer. At the same time, I became a lot more engaged in research ethics and their application within activism. Since graduating, I have been less preoccupied with the debates of the day and more orientated towards fat activism as a product of cultural work, and lately what it has felt like to turn my doctoral thesis into a book and to become a dancer. Wave upon wave of interests, all being worked out here, diversions, tangents, space for everything.

There are over 350 posts on this blog which, for now, will exist as an archive suspended in a particular time and place. Have a poke around, I hope you enjoy what you find.

17 January 2018

Social Cleansing and the End of the Obesity Epidemic

I had the pleasure of spending a bit of time with Cat Pausé recently whilst she was in London. She is one of the few fat activists currently engaged with building global networks and understanding what local fat activisms look like around the world.

During our conversation I made the naïve assumption that a developing international discourse around fat activism was the result of the powerful movements of fat feminist discourse. Well, isn't that a fanciful idea! The reality is more depressing. More people are getting into fat activism because it is a necessary survival tactic in the face of global obesity epidemicTM rhetoric established in 2000 by the World Health Organization.

As well as massively exacerbating pre-existing fatphobia, the WHO's take on obesity has been a Western diet industry sponsored project of market expansion and colonisation of places where fat was not regarded as much of a problem until the turn of the millennium. There is evidence aplenty to show that, although viewed as common sense, weight loss brings with it a plethora of health problems. The key word is iatrogenisis: illness caused by treatment. In this respect, the WHO has underwritten a worldwide public health calamity.

This week I had the pleasure of another conversation, this time with Laura Thomas. She told me that the WHO had published a report about 'Weight Bias' and we talked extensively about the gentrification of professional language around fat.

Now, I have been working on other things and have not been keeping on top of fat in the news as I may have done in the past. I may be a little bit late to the party, but I have some things to say.

The WHO has published a paper suggesting that resilience is the appropriate response for fat people suffering from the hatred engendered by the massive political problem created by the WHO themselves. Resilience, now there's a neoliberal buzzword. Let's translate, it means: too bad, suck it up.

I'm assuming that I am supposed to be pleased and grateful that the WHO recognises that fat people are often treated poorly. There is a crumb of comfort that this paper could lead to policy change, it would be nice not to be discriminated against when I am trying to access basic health services. It shows that the WHO obesity policy is in crisis and could herald the end of fat panic, they have published a paper that seems to contradict their earlier position. But where is the apology? Where is the restitution and accountability? It also reads very much like business as usual.

Weight Bias typifies the process in the world of fat where oppressors become pseudo-helpers. They do this through appropriation of fat activist concepts and language, and of renaming ideas so that they are tidier, less raw (an example of this is the pressure from thin academics to rename Fat Studies 'Critical Weight Studies' which has led to academic research that has no connection with canonical Fat Studies literature). This has the effect of making the originators of those concepts invisible, it is an act of social cleansing. Indeed, I'm not surprised to see Rebecca Puhl of Yale's Rudd Center in the WHO report, longstanding readers of this blog will remember this nonsense she pulled back in 2011.

The act of appropriating fat activism is a denial of the essential maxim for the liberation of all beings: nothing about us without us. The WHO has failed to recognise and respect fat expertise. It reproduces the idea that fat people can only ever be passive and grateful service users, not in the driving seat of our own lives. It is patronising, arrogant, about maintaining thin privilege, power and status.

Weight bias and obesity stigma: considerations for the WHO European Region (2017)

Rest in Power, Blunderwoman

Bella Emberg's death last week gave me pause to think about Blunderwoman, one of the few fat characters I encountered on TV when I was growing up in the UK in the 1980s.

Blunderwoman was the sidekick to Russ Abbott's Cooperman. Abbott, terminally unfunny and over-exposed, created an absurd superhero based on actual comic genius Tommy Cooper. Abbott wrote Blunderwoman for Emberg and she upstaged him every time. One of the most important laws of the universe is that an older fat woman in a sequinned superhero outfit will always outshine anything within a significant radius. The comedy was crude and crass, he gave her an insulting character and she made it her own through sheer force of performance talent and charisma.

Blunderwoman is ridiculous, stupid, clumsy and can't do anything right. As a young fat woman I cringed my way through it, dreading the inevitable playground names that followed each broadcast. Back then, Blunderwoman was my nemesis. I wanted to be treated as fully human and the stereotyping she represented made that impossible.

But something has happened in the intervening years because today I think of Blunderwoman fondly. She is an icon in a cultural desert when it comes to depicting fat women, especially those of us who are older. Yes, she follows the tradition of fat people as butts of the joke, but her wrongness is what makes her so right. There are disappointingly predictable comments about political correctness in this hack piece from last year cashing-in on the release of the Wonder Woman reboot, 'The first time I put the costume on my boobs fell out!' Bella Emberg relives her days as comedy superhero Blunderwoman. But let her cheek and irreverence be a lesson for us all. Blunderwoman, there she is, a far superior role model to Wonder Woman herself.